By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Having produced such no-holds barred horror films as HOUSEBOUND, DEATHGASM and THE GREASY STRANGLER, Ant Timpson goes equally extreme in his directorial debut, COME TO DADDY. He cast a perfect pair of leads in Elijah Wood and Stephen McHattie, and RUE MORGUE got the chance to sit down with all three.
Opening in select theaters nationwide and hitting VOD/digital platforms tomorrow from Saban Films, COME TO DADDY was scripted by GREASY STRANGLER’s Toby Harvard. It stars Wood as Norval Greenwood, a grown-up rich kid with emotional issues—and a bizarre haircut—who reunites with his father Gordon (McHattie), whom he hasn’t seen since he was 5, at a remote lakeside house. Gordon proves to be a complete bastard, emotionally abusing and deriding Norval, who discovers his dad has very unpleasant secrets that lead to violent, grisly situations. Consistently surprising and shot through with laugh-while-you-gasp black humor, COME TO DADDY (reviewed here from the Tribeca Film Festival, where this interview took place) is quite an achievement as Timpson’s maiden directing voyage—and surprisingly, this gleefully gruesome outing had very personal origins.
After so many films as a producer, how did you settle on COME TO DADDY as your directorial debut?
ANT TIMPSON: Well, the propulsion to shift from producer to director was purely due to my father dying, so it wasn’t like I was looking for scripts at that time. As a producer I was, but it was really about the catharsis of his death, going through the weirdness of living with his body for five days, going crazy, but also creating something permanent that would act as a tribute to my relationship with my dad—a film that would be like the type of cinema we watched together when I was younger. It was a haunting, sad time, but something beautiful came out of it—even though when you watch the movie, it’s not the type where someone says, “I made a film because my parent died” and it’s this maudlin drama and all about them emoting through it. That’s not me; I had to house that tribute inside a genre structure.
So I wrote to Toby, whom I’d worked with on THE GREASY STRANGLER, and he was completely into the idea, and took it and ran. It wasn’t like I was reading scripts thinking, “Which one could I make?” That’s why when someone says, “What are you doing next?”, I have no idea. I have no interest in making another one until something hits me deep like that, that I connect to. I’m too old to mess around with something that doesn’t drive me, that I don’t feel a real need to do.
Was there any particular film that was a favorite of yours and your father’s, or that inspired your approach to COME TO DADDY?
AT: Oh man, so many. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, even though it doesn’t fit within the genre, was the sort of film I watched with him. THE IPCRESS FILE, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, SLEUTH was a big one, and fits really well with the film we made—that sort of two-hander, a very isolated chamber piece. Anything with Oliver Reed, basically, was a go-to movie.
Out of the writers you’ve worked with, what was it about Harvard’s stuff that spoke to you and made you feel he was the right guy for this project?
AT: Toby and I were both raised through the same period—not the same age, but in that same generation. So we had the same go-to points in terms of our discussions on everything. We grew up watching the same types of television, the BBC dramas and everything, and we were big Roald Dahl fans, so we had a language we knew. So when we were talking about doing something, we said, “Let’s make it a completely unexpected journey.” Because we’re encyclopedic in our knowledge of these types of films, whenever ours was going one way, Toby knew he had to take it somewhere unexpected each time. We wanted to make sure we did that all the way through without losing the tone. You can make those huge shifts, but if your tone is too extreme, you can really fail the audience. If you don’t bring in a little bit of the prior behavior of everyone involved, if it feels like a different movie, it’s going to derail.
Elijah and Stephen, how did the two of you work together to create that great dynamic you have in the film?
ELIJAH WOOD: The difficulty of that dynamic was very apparent in the script, because Norval and Gordon are not connecting. It was fun for both of us in those scenes; it’s a son desperately trying to get some sort of approval from his father, and not quite understanding why his father is not responding the way he expected. The classic example of that is the scene around the fire, where Norval tries to impress him and it goes horribly wrong [laughs]. We didn’t have to play father and son, we had to play this very complicated dynamic of people who aren’t connecting. There’s also a hidden truth to those scenes that he’s playing that I’m not aware of, which is always a blast. Norval is trying to understand what he’s reading or misreading from his father, who’s got an entirely different thing he’s playing, and therein lies the truth of those scenes.
STEPHEN McHATTIE: Yeah, that was the tricky thing for me about it, because it was about referring ahead in the script so it made sense later on. It was kind of split between anticipating what was going to happen in the character’s head, and trying to be who Norval wants me to be. When I read the title…you know, I had kids rather late, and they had just moved out and gone to college, so all the psychosis of being a father, that I’d managed to keep a lid on, I could kind of let loose, you know [laughs]?
Norval has quite an extreme arc, from passive to being involved in some incredibly violent situations.
EW: Yeah, he comes from a life of privilege, from what we can tell—a cushy existence in Beverly Hills, a musician of some stature, concerned about artifice and fashion and so forth. He comes to meet his father and is faced with a great deal of complication right away, and then things take the turn they take, and he’s put through the wringer and has to rise to occasions that most never have to. Everything he’s built up around himself in terms of his identity is stripped away, and the baser instincts come alive and he’s challenged in ways he’s never imagined. In a way, he goes through a journey to become a bit like his dad in the end, in ways he never imagined would be possible, from someone he hasn’t known for 30 years. It’s a fun journey, because as it’s happening to Norval, it’s happening to the audience as well. He’s as much in the dark as they are, so with each twist and turn, his reaction is the same: “Oh fuck, this is my reality now, and these are the actions I have to take based on these circumstances that are before me.”
As director, how did you maintain that element of surprise, and avoid telegraphing anything before it happens?
AT: Well, I think audiences are so savvy now, and have seen so many clever genre films, and everyone tries to be two steps ahead because it’s natural to try to out-think where the script’s going to go. So I was surprised that things didn’t occur to people [at the Tribeca premiere] faster than they did, and I’m thrilled that the twists work where they should. I’m also very happy that we’ve got one of the most hated personas on Earth at the moment—a white, privileged, entitled man-child—whom the audience has empathy for, and goes along with this journey. That’s hard, and that’s the power Elijah has, to create a character who’s living and breathing, and not a two-dimensional caricature of that LA persona. People believe in that and want him to succeed, so they’re in his headspace, and he doesn’t know what’s going on. So they’re not trying to be ahead of the film because they’re not engaged enough with the lead; that’s when they can start thinking about other things too much. If you’re focused on the character’s dilemma in the moment, you shouldn’t be five steps ahead. As a filmmaker, I’m not doing my job well enough if you’re spending time thinking about all these other deviations.
Can you talk about staging the violent scenes, which get really outrageous and over-the-top?
AT: I used to love shooting crazy fight scenes for home movies, and I knew what these had to look like. So it was great to work with the stunt team on how impactful they should feel, as well as the sound design on how to go big but not too extreme, because it got really cartoonish at one point. It was a nice process to go through, but I do remember moments when I kept asking for more and more violence to happen to one character, and I could feel a lot of the crew starting to turn against how long I was letting the takes keep going and going and going. It became really ugly, and when I knew that was happening, I was like, OK, this is the sweet spot; it’s got to where it needs to be.
The last question has to be about Norval’s hair. [Wood cracks up] That got a great reaction when you first appear on screen. What was the idea behind that?
EW: That was very much a collaboration. When Ant sent me the script, he included a picture of Skrillex as a sort of caricature version of what Norval could look like. He has a very particular look—nothing against him, he’s dope and a nice guy, but it’s a very specific thing.
AT: We looked at all these photos of extreme male fashion models, and types of haircuts, and there were a few examples where we were like, yeah, this is near the zone of what we could do. We also didn’t want to fake it or use a wig, so we knew we had to use what Elijah had, and how much we could play with, and the hair and makeup team were great.
EW: It was a collaboration, trying to find something that looked like an obvious fashion choice he’d made that was a little extreme, while still feeling somewhat realistic, that someone would have a haircut like that.
AT: I’ve seen that cut so many times since in films.
EW: I’ve seen it on baristas and shit.
AT: So it’s super-common, but it felt right the minute I saw it, because I wanted to work against all the baggage that Elijah brings of being such a likable person, since he’s so visible off screen as well. I wanted it to be kind of shocking when you first see it; it just looks like the top of his skull is lifting off!