Devin Brochu and Natalie Portman in HESHER, a film by Spencer Susser. Photo credit: Merrick Morton. Picture courtesy Wrekin Hill Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Hesher (2010/2011)

Opened: 05/13/2011 Limited

Laemmle's Play...05/13/2011 - 06/02/201121 days
Angelika/NYC05/13/2011 - 06/02/201121 days
Kendall Square...05/13/2011 - 05/26/201114 days
Arclight/Holly...05/13/2011 - 05/26/201114 days
AMC Empire 2505/13/2011 - 05/25/201113 days
Embassy Cinema05/13/2011 - 05/25/201113 days
Village East06/03/2011 - 06/09/20117 days
Cinema Village...06/10/2011 - 06/23/201114 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

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Genre: Drama

Rated: R for disturbing violent behavior, sexual content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language, and drug content - some in the presence of a child.


Loud music. Pornography. Burning stuff to the ground. These are a few of Hesher's favorite things. And they are what Hesher (Joseph Gordon--Levitt) brings into the lives of 13--year--old TJ (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson) when he unexpectedly takes up residence in their garage uninvited.

Told through the eyes of TJ, HESHER is a dark fairy tale about an eccentric unhinged drifter who appears out of nowhere to help a struggling family deal with loss in the most unconventional of ways. TJ is simply going through the motions of his daily life, quietly grieving each day, until Hesher arrives like a force of nature, not stopping for anything in his path.

Paul is so grief-stricken the he can't muster the strength to evict the strange squatter, and soon the long--haired, tattooed Hesher becomes a fixture in the household. Hesher also befriends TJ's grandmother (Piper Laurie), who lives with them. She's extremely lonely as her son and grandson are unable to snap out of their fog. When Hesher arrives and appreciates her cooking and listens to her stories, it's as though she found a new friend, under very odd circumstances.

The only friend TJ really has is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a supermarket cashier who comes to TJ's rescue during an encounter with a bully. They have an odd relationship that's based, in part, on TJ's infatuation with Nicole.

Although initially a rather terrifying character, over time Hesher's anarchy shakes the family out of their grief and helps them embrace life once more.

About the Production

Told through the eyes of 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu), HESHER is a dark fairy tale about an eccentric unhinged drifter who appears out of nowhere to help a struggling family deal with loss in the most unconventional of ways. Susser brought the story idea to co-writer David Michod after spending several years working on it himself. "It was like a big therapy session," Susser recalls. "I wanted to make a film that was honest and not afraid to explore loss and how people deal with it. We'd stay up all night and talk things through. It was a fun process because when you're writing with someone you have to convince them of your ideas, to really be able to defend them. I think you come up with stronger ideas than when writing alone."

Susser and Michod are part of Blue Tongue Films, along with Nash Edgerton, Joel Edgerton, and Luke Dollan. The informal film collective started organically when a group of award-winning Australian filmmakers who Susser met while shooting a behind the scenes featurette for STAR WARS: EPISODE II -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES, began working on each other's films as co-writers, editors, stunt coordinators, etc. There isn't necessarily a shared aesthetic or goal beyond getting their films made. "We're just a group of friends that all make movies and have stuck together over the years. We talk about each other's films, support each other and now word is starting to get out about what we do," says Susser. "We're all connected. We share similar sensibilities but are very different stylistically. This makes it seem like we're coming from the same world but we make very different movies. Blue Tongue Films is mostly about the creative. We get dirty and make stuff."

With HESHER, the most important element for Susser was to make a film that was emotionally real and honest. "I didn't want to make a movie just about loss so I invented this character that's crazy," Susser says. "Life isn't funny or sad. It's both, all the time. I like watching the film with audiences because they're laughing one minute and a second later you can hear a pin drop they're being so attentive."

"We all deal with grief at some point in our lives," Natalie Portman says. "To see it in such a personal and unique expression that's also funny in ways -- that's what the most difficult times in life are like. You find the dark humor in it."

Rainn Wilson adds, "This is a one of those rare scripts. I was astonished at how heartbreaking it is and how absurdly funny it is at exactly the same time."

Susser knew the term "hesher," which is basically a diehard heavy metal enthusiast, and he was intrigued by the idea of a mysterious "hesher" character, lurking in the shadows, smoking cigarettes. "I always wondered what heshers were up to but I didn't want my Hesher to be a cliche or a caricature. Hesher is, in part, based on someone that I knew growing up," Susser continues. "He was a troubled kid whose parents didn't look after him. He would get sent home from school and his parents didn't care. Eventually he wasn't able to live at home and was shipped off to his grandmother's."

Intrigued by the idea of what happens to someone who doesn't experience the unconditional love that a parent gives, Susser began to bring Hesher to life. "I based his character on a loner that puts up walls to protect himself because he never wants to be hurt that badly again. I wanted to make him very human and to explore what happens to a kid abandoned by his parents, to try to understand how he would go about being in the world."

"Everyone has a different definition of Hesher," explains Joseph Gordon-Levitt. "His character doesn't fit into any definition. He's a mystic fool. Somewhere between punk and heavy metal lies Hesher."

Portman agrees, stating, "Hesher doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. He is vulgar and violent and rude. He embodies all of the feelings that TJ is going through. The film is very emotional without being sentimental, which is really rare."

Hesher isn't the best role model for a growing boy, but he alone is able to penetrate TJ's newly formed shell. He scares TJ until he can't be scared anymore. He speaks so bluntly that TJ can't hide from the truth. He is at times so violent that TJ is forced to feel something, even if it's pain. Hesher is the physical manifestation of all the emotions TJ is experiencing. Slowly, Hesher enables TJ to overcome the numbness that has taken over his life.

Susser agrees that there are many ways to define Hesher. "On the one hand, he represents death. Here's this very terrible thing that shows up at TJ's family's door and moves in and there's nothing they can do about it. He isn't going anywhere. Once they learn to live and function with him around, he kind of goes away," Susser explains. "Another way to look at him is that he represents life. He brings life to this family. He shakes them out of their misery in a way. He slaps them in the face and reminds them that they're still alive, to live their lives and see what they're missing by not doing so. He's the grim reaper as much as he's an angel. I tried to design him in a way that can be whatever you want him to be. He's going to be different for everyone."

Wilson calls Hesher, "The ultimate bad ass." Brochu says, "Hesher is a crazy guy messing with a lot of people and getting into trouble."

Susser also draws comparison of Hesher to Mr. Miyagi in THE KARATE KID. In the beginning, Hesher comes off being extremely mean to TJ, but in the end he has helped transform the boy's life. "Mr. Miyagi isn't nice to Daniel when he comes to learn fighting. He makes him paint fences, wax cars and sand the floor. Daniel gets mad and feels exploited, until Mr. Miyagi shows him that all of those tasks taught him to fight without him even realizing it."

Gordon-Levitt says, "Hesher is a bizarre clown of a caretaker that we even compared to Mary Poppins. It's tough love for him with TJ, but with a heart of gold at the bottom of it."

Susser continues, "Hesher can also be looked at as a heavy metal Mary Poppins. Like Hesher, Mary shows up out of nowhere and is just accepted. Granted she's a lot less threatening than Hesher, but she still arrives as a nanny via umbrella from the sky. He's as fantastical as she is."

"Despite his appearance and wild behavior, Hesher is always the smartest person in the room," Susser says. "He listens to and observes everything. He likes people to think he's a stoned idiot. Although he doesn't say much, he manages to get what he wants out of every situation, almost like a con artist. But if you look past the way Hesher is saying things and listen to what he's saying, he's actually an angel. The second he arrives at TJ's house he assesses the father (Rainn Wilson) and realizes he can push and push a little more."

All TJ's father needs to hear is that Hesher is TJ's friend. He knows he's not being a good dad and is so numb that he isn't able to register what's really going on. TJ in the beginning is just terrified until pushed to the point where he feels that he has nothing to lose. "Hesher and TJ have an antagonistic relationship, but he helps TJ grow up and become a man in a way that his father can't," says Wilson. TJ's grandmother (Piper Laurie) is a lonely old lady who loves the idea of having company. "Because her son and grandson are in such a bad way, she probably feels more lonely than she has in a long time," Susser comments. "Grandma is in a house full of people that are so out of it and there's nothing she can say or do to change it. Then Hesher comes along and enjoys the free food and doesn't mind listening to her stories so she has some companionship. She's very accepting of him and he just kind of fits right into this household when normally it wouldn't make any sense."

Hesher loves to walk around with no shirt, showing off his massive middle finger tattoo that covers most of his back. "I thought that's what he has to say to everyone," explains Susser. "Hesher is a bit of a monk. He just doesn't care what you think of him. He lives in the moment and is very comfortable in his own skin -- more so than most people. He's very peaceful in his own head, has nothing to prove and isn't interested in what anyone thinks. He's like 'fuck you.' Hesher likes to cause trouble and stir things up largely just for his entertainment. To him, it's more fun watching people scramble. He traded a guy a 6-pack and got this tattoo in the back of a van."

Hesher has some unique tattoos and Susser had to figure out what Hesher wanted to say to the world in a tattoo. "I sat down with someone from the art department that does tattoos on the side and I suggested he draw a middle finger. The artist was actually too technically talented and couldn't draw it in the raw way that would best represent Hesher. I had him draw it with his left hand and that worked," Susser explains.

"I think Hesher went through times when he didn't want to live so he has a stick figure blowing his brains out with a gun tattooed on his chest. He also has a piece of poop on the back of his neck. I think at one point in his life when no one wanted him he felt like a piece of shit so he got it tattooed on his neck without thinking about it. All of his tattoos show how he felt at one stage in his life. 'Fuck you' -- what does that mean and why is it so offensive? I think it's iconic and kind of cool."

The only actor that Susser had loosely in mind when writing was Natalie Portman for the role of Nicole, a cashier who comes to TJ's rescue during an encounter with a bully. Susser had met Portman in Australia while she was shooting STAR WARS: EPISODE II -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES. He sent her the script and a short he had directed and she immediately signed on as both an actor and producer. "Natalie is incredible. She can do anything. She had faith in me and I think because of that it helped me with everyone else," Susser states. "She was so supportive of me and my vision, and really trusting. She kept encouraging the other cast members to go with me on this crazy adventure -- which is normally hard when people know you're a first time director. Although I hadn't done a feature, I have made hundreds of commercials and music videos over the years I did have a good amount of experience."

Portman was eager to work with Susser, stating, "I'm excited that HESHER is the first thing my production company is making. I've known Spencer for a long time so it's really great to not only do something that I believe in artistically, but also to work with my close friends."

Casting TJ was a big challenge because finding someone that young to carry a film was going to be tricky. Susser saw as many kids in that age group as possible, and then he found Devin Brochu. "Devin didn't have a lot of experience but he had a real honesty about him. I knew if I could capture that on film I'd be fine," Susser says. "Kids are sometimes the best actors. While they don't necessarily know how to act, their emotions are much more accessible and close to the surface than older actors who over the years tend to suppress emotions deeper. Kids haven't yet learned to protect themselves that much."

"With Devin I knew if I could guide him to places he could relate to, that he could feel it. A lot of the time he wasn't acting, he was just feeling, and so it comes across authentically. He was very brave and willing to go to these places and imagine what it felt like. He had never experienced loss so I always made sure that he was safe and felt good before going home at the end of the day. I wanted him to leave all of the emotional stuff on set."

To cast Hesher was harder because the character was so specific. Susser wasn't sure who could pull it off but knew it had to be someone that was a chameleon -- who could completely transform into someone else. "When I met Joe he was such a nice guy that I thought there was no way he could be Hesher."

Susser's casting process was unique. He would go into a room with the actor letting them know that they were also there to audition him. He wanted the actors to feel safe and to trust him 100%. "It was a great process where I'd be one-on-one in a room with an actor and we'd just work on it for hours. When I was in the room with Joe, despite my initial concerns that he was too nice, I saw immediately that he was a chameleon. He became a different person. Only a handful of actors can do what he does. Once we began working on it, we were able to push each other creatively and ended up having such a great working relationship where we really trusted each other," Susser states.

Gordon-Levitt adds, "As soon as I was reading the script I was up on my feet, pacing, saying the words to myself. That was a good sign and happens very rarely."

Producer Matt Weaver knew that Susser was the right director. He states, "We're a director-driven company, and we wanted to be in business with Spencer. He's so talented and is going to do huge things in the film world. HESHER is a film with big stars and a visionary script -- it was everything we could have hoped for. Spencer is great, the script is fantastic, and it's a really compelling story. It walks the tightrope between drama and comedy perfectly."

HESHER was shot in and around Los Angeles. Susser wanted it to feel like it could be anywhere, anytime. It's a universal story that could happen now, 10 years ago or in the '90s. He intentionally stayed away from having cells phones or anything that could be considered modern in the film. "I didn't want anything to get in the way of the emotional journey of these characters," he says.

This is also true for the soundtrack. Susser didn't want to rely on music to guide the audience through the emotional experience. He says that music is a great tool but in a way it's like cheating. "I didn't want to rely on music to make the emotions work. It had to work emotionally without music. If I was able to do that then the music could be minimal because I wanted the emotions to feel honest and real."

"Hesher doesn't really look up to anybody but there's one person that he has a lot of respect for -- Cliff Burton, who was the bassist for Metallica. He died young in a bus accident. He was the kind of guy that did whatever he wanted, didn't have a lot to say but when he did it was really poignant in some weird 'hesher' way. I felt like Hesher looked up to him, and only him. In the script I wrote that the music would be from Metallica, in my mind's eye I saw it and never imagined it being anything else. I also never believed they'd let us have the music," Susser says.

Not only did Metallica let them use their music, but they granted the use of 4 songs which they've never done before. Susser sent them the film with a letter explaining why it was so important. Their response was that Hesher reminded them of Cliff Burton. "That was pretty great to hear," Susser says.

The soundtrack also includes one Motorhead song. "Lemmy is a lot like Hesher -- a guy that does whatever he wants to do. A sort of rock 'n roll Jesus, a pirate. These are who Hesher looked up to. The rest of the soundtrack is very minimal, with a simple score."

For the look of the film, Susser also wanted to keep it very natural, like you were right there with the characters. "At the end of the day, the film is about TJ, a boy dealing with loss. We shot almost the whole film from his point of view and used a special camera rig that allowed us to keep the camera at his height. It's really a story told through his eyes in every way."

In the end, Hesher reminds us of very basic things that we forget every day, but he does it in his own way. "Hesher takes this family that is really lost and shakes them up. All he does is put them on the right road and points them in the right direction. He doesn't walk that road with them or fix everything. He just points them in the right direction which they needed more than anything. It's simple. All he's doing is getting them out of their rut and reminding them of some very basic things. I hope audiences find the film honest and grounded, no matter how crazy it may seem. That's what I was trying to do," Susser concludes.

"Spencer is the genuine article. He's a real director, a real writer, the real deal filmmaker," Gordon-Levitt says.

"It was so much fun working with Spencer and seeing him expressing his own voice. His filmmaking style is very much like he is as a person -- really straightforward, honest, and emotional in an incredibly true way," Portman adds.