Interview: Leon Ford, writer/director of Griff the Invisible

Interview: Leon Ford, writer/director of Griff the Invisible. By Simon Miraudo.

Back in the 1990s, audiences were spoiled for choice when it came to offbeat DIY superhero movies (Blankman, Mystery Men, Orgazmo, Three Ninjas, kinda). Then Bryan Singer went and ruined it for everyone with his mopey X-Men films, and suddenly “gritty” superheroes were the go, culminating in the 2008 megahit The Dark Knight (an appropriate title in terms of the film’s mood, content and colour palette). Of course, those pictures are great in their own way. But a little part of us died when superheroes flicks stopped being unapologetically freaky and fun.

But fear not superfans! It seems as if the subgenre will make a welcome return in the new decade. Last year we saw the candy coloured carnage of Kick Ass, and in 2011 we can look forward to the nutty comedy Super, as well as Australia’s own entry Griff the Invisible (in cinemas March 17th). I spoke to writer/director Leon Ford about his debut feature film, which stars Ryan Kwanten as a delusional young man who tries his hand at some late-night vigilantism, and Maeve Dermody as the equally odd woman who falls in love with him.

SM: I like starting at the very beginning, so I’d like to ask if you remember seeing a film when you were younger that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

LF: I’ve got a new little daughter, and I’ve been reading her Golden Books and stuff like that. And it’s not a movie but I can’t stop thinking about this Golden Book she’s got, because I remember when I saw it. It was [Sesame Street’s] Grover talking to the camera, to you, saying ‘Please don’t turn over the page, please don’t turn over the page’. And when you did, he’d say ‘I’m asking you, please please don’t turn over the page’. Does that ring a bell to you?

SM: Not to me. It sounds very postmodern for a Golden Book.

LF: Yeah absolutely. Because of the interactive nature and that these characters weren’t acting out a story, and they were actually talking to me/the reader, I remember thinking – recently – that sort of sparked my thirst for the whole façade of theatre and film. I think it was more than one particular film that taught me about worlds within worlds, or even the façade of that. Because I also love backstage; I started in theatre. I’m sorry I can’t think of a movie.

SM: No, that’s OK. The Golden Book is certainly the first time I’ve heard that as an influence. Over the past decade you’ve teetered between acting, writing and directing. Do you have a preference when it comes to them?

LF: No, I don’t know if I see the difference anymore. Obviously there’s a difference in what you do, and in the job description. But in a way, it’s all just storytelling jobs. I just like the whole industry; I think it’s so interesting and so much fun and so important, so I don’t have any preference.

SM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but about ten years ago you played a schizophrenic on All Saints.

LF: Yeah!

SM: And a few years later, you starred as Hamlet on stage, and he certainly has his psychological issues that he’s working through. Griff is not at these extremes, but he’s suffering from his own delusions. I’m interested in what fascinates you about these types of characters.

LF: Well, I just don’t think they’re that far from any of us. Paranoid schizophrenia is probably one of the most tragic diseases you can have, and not something I’d wish on anyone. The sort-of lesser extremes – delusions, whether by choice or involuntary – the playful side of us is suppressed too much or hidden away. We’ve all got something inside of us that is playful that we suppress because it’s considered immature or silly. We get used to conforming and appearing we’re all normal, but I don’t think anyone is. I think everyone is an eccentric, and I hope a film like Griff celebrates that, rather than makes people feel ashamed of it. Obviously there is a dark side to the spectrum and a light side; and I seem to get a lot of those characters [like Hamlet] but I think there’s nothing wrong with it.

SM: Griff is definitely on the lighter side of the spectrum, but was there an earlier iteration of the script that went down a darker path or further explored the mental illness?

LF: There were many, many, many versions of this story that we’ve gone through over the years, developing it. I think it very briefly turned down dark streets, only because he spies on people, or because he’s a creature of the night, so as a writer you get tempted to see where that can take you in a dark way. But that’s not what I wanted to say; I turned around very quickly after that.

SM: I’d like to ask about how Griff the Invisible came together. Do you recall the first seed of inspiration for the story?

LF: Yeah, I definitely do. I was sitting in a café, and I saw this little kid just playing by himself. His parents were having a coffee or something, and this little kid was just in his own world having a ball, fighting demons or doing whatever he did, and it really reminded me – or probably we all have done that – but when I was a kid I used to be Monkey Magic, fighting demons and dressing up in a red dressing gown. For this kid it was very real. I was watching, and it was so much more exciting or interesting than what I was doing, or what any of the adults were doing. At the time I thought ‘That’s such a shame, that if I did that I’d be arrested’. And that led me to the character, and I thought ‘Well, what if I did have a character that is my age that didn’t give it up when the rest of us gave it up? That sort of playfulness became so important in his head it sort of took over reality and became the dominant reality; and what would that do to his life? What would be the consequences? What would make you do something like that?’ That’s where it sort of started, from the character really. And he had to have a partner who not only loved that in him, but celebrated it and encouraged it, and it very quickly became a love story.

SM: You mentioned that it took quite a while to work out the complete story. Once you had the finished script, what steps did you take to get that into the right hands?

LF: Nicole O’Donohue – my producer – and I had made a few short films together. So over the years we’ve gathered a team of heads of department, particularly a production designer and a DOP, so we had our team ready to go. We had this natural progression. We just finished this half hour film, and that did reasonably well. From that point it was all a matter of getting interest from the various funding bodies and the private area of distribution and sales agents. And then it was a real case of, as soon as we had these amazing executive producers come on board – Scott Meek and Jan Chapman – it gained this new momentum. And I think that makes sense. People don’t know who you are, and you’ve got this script that you’re saying is great, but you’ve heard everyone say they’ve got a great script. And then someone like Jan comes on, as an industry professional – whether you’re a distributor or actor – that immediately puts the film in another realm, because that’s a kind of tick of approval. Not saying it couldn’t have got past funding without that, but it certainly couldn’t have been as successful as it has been so far. It certainly wouldn’t be the film it is without those two EPs, so I think that was a crucial moment. Then of course getting the cast together. It’s a funny thing casting, because you’ve kind of got to give up the picture you have in your head and let the actors come in and do what they would do with it, and if it comes close to what you thought, or if its better, than those actors are right.

SM: That’s an interesting point you raise, because Ryan Kwanten is best known now for True Blood, and his character there is very different to Griff. His character here is very reserved and shy. What changes did you see to the character that you two worked out together?

LF: Well, Ryan’s very close to Griff. He feels very close to him; he feels very passionate about the character. But he is very close to Griff. He’s nothing like Jason Stackhouse. The only similarity that I can see in all of Ryan’s characters is that he has that playful energy in his eyes; he’s got a real childlike quality. But the thing about Ryan is that he’s so intelligent he kind of suppresses that side for Jason Stackhouse. What he did was send some tapes of himself doing some scenes and immediately started teaching me about the character in a way, because even though I’d created him on paper, Ryan was creating him for real. So I found it very easy to hand the reins over to him at that point.

SM: Going back to the shoot, what was your schedule like?

LF: A nightmare. It was 27 days, which for a feature length is a very short amount of time to shoot. Because there were some quite ambitious scenes, like the opening sequence at night-time shot all at night for 30 seconds of screen time, that fight scene, we spent a whole night on that, but then shot about five minutes a day of the office. We weighted the schedule in terms of what we needed, and what we had in terms of time and money. With the office scenes, I knew the dialogue was working reasonably well and the actors were incredible and very experienced, so I knew that would run quite smoothly.

SM: Further to that point, were there any days on set, or any particular shots where you couldn’t quite knock it out, and it was getting really frustrating. How did you move past that?

LF: Yeah, there’s a scene that’s not in the film that was incredibly frustrating to shoot. That’s not why it didn’t make it though. We eventually got it together. It was actually one of the simpler scenes; it was just Griff and Melody walking through the park and talking. We had a Steadicam, which should make it extremely easy, because all you have to say is ‘Point the camera at them and walk with them’. I’m sure that’s not what a Steadicam operator would say. It seemed really easy, and when I looked at the shot list I thought, ‘That’s done; easy’. But I just couldn’t get the right shots, it was really frustrating. Whereas we’d done so much homework on the really technical scenes, and so much pre-visualisation, they ran incredibly smoothly. The only thing we were fighting really was the sun coming up. It’s funny really, you get in this mode in a film set that you can control everything: you can block out the sun and you can stop traffic – well, not block out the sun, but you can shade the harshness – you can call for quiet, and all these sort of things, but you can’t stop the earth from turning.

SM: It’s no different on a small film, or Transformers.

LF: That’s right. I remember feeling that once as an actor. I had to lie there having been shot and the first AD and a few people were over me trying to shoot me as a dead body, and they were looking at my neck and whispering. I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ They said, ‘Your pulse. Your veins are going’. And I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything about that’. And they had this look in their eyes, and I just thought, ‘It’s my heart guys’.

SM: They wanted you to go really method for the role. I noticed on the official Griff website there is some comic book art. Is that intended as a companion piece, or was it part of your story-boarding process?

LF: That was my storyboard, turned into a comic book. I didn’t do those; that was a guy – Ross Perkin – who was fabulous; he does those in record time. You just talk to him and he draws. I did have this dream of getting him to do the whole film as a comic book, but it just became too expensive unfortunately. I put those up as a teaser as to what might come if the completely unexpected happens and people start wanting a comic book or graphic novel or something. It’s really quite enticing that idea, so I’d love to have the opportunity at some point.

SM: I know the film is literally on the cusp of release, so maybe you’re not thinking this far ahead, but what’s next after Griff?

LF: We’ve definitely got something lined up next. I’ve been in Amsterdam for the last six months developing this film script at a script lab there that we’re hoping to go into financing pretty soon. Early stages, so back to square one. The script is certainly ready to go out there. It’s called The Mechanicals, and it’s sort of based on a short film we made, about five years ago, Nicole and I. A feature length version of that.

Griff the Invisible arrives in cinemas across Australia March 17, 2011.

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