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Elijah Wood and Ant Timpson weren't strangers when they decided to work on an offbeat comedy thriller called Come to Daddy. They began their friendship as fellow cinephiles, delighting in the most bonkers genre movies, and both are alums of the festival devoted to those movies, Austin's Fantastic Fest. They have both spent more than a little time in New Zealand. Timpson's a native Kiwi and Wood, of course, spent some time in the country shooting a little series of movies about short people and some jewelry.
As filmmakers, Ant and Elijah have taken similar career tracks, as each produce their own low budget genre fare. Timpson produced some great, fun stuff like Housebound and Deathgasm and Wood's SpectreVision production company is constantly making big swings, most recently with the insane Nicolas Cage film, Mandy. Eventually, their sensibilities lined up enough that they co-produced 2016's The Greasy Strangler, a truly bizarre movie that has developed a cult audience.
They re-teamed for this weekend's new twisted film, Come to Daddy, which Timpson developed for himself to direct. He always wanted Wood to play the central character, a weirdo named Norval who receives a letter from a father he's never met beckoning him to come to visit his beach-front house. When Norval arrives he's faced with a stern-looking man (played perfectly by Stephen McHattie) who doesn't seem all that hot to reconnect with his son.
In fact, he's openly hostile to Norval — so much so that the audience quickly begins to wonder if Norval is in danger. What begins as a cat and mouse game of two men trying to figure each other out evolves into something very different, as the movie balances an odd tone that keeps you on your toes, but also makes sure to put the characters front and center.
In an interview with SYFY WIRE, Wood and Timpson talked a bit about that tone as well as Wood's working relationship with Timpson, their very "real" fear of McHattie, and some of the challenges of making a movie like this on a small budget.
When we talked at Fantastic Fest, Ant, you told me that you felt the key to Norval is that, underneath the bravado and weird haircut, he had a deep longing for a relationship with his father. Is that something that was crucial for you as well, Elijah?
Elijah Wood: Definitely. At the end of the day, he has to be human and there has to be something at his core that's driving a lot of that behavior. Even the most obnoxious scene that Norval has, which is with his father, trying to impress him by saying "I'm pretty big in the music industry. I'm actually friends with Elton John," which is him posturing and shows us there's a slightly pretentious side to him — but even that behavior is him just wanting to be loved. He wants to impress his dad and he thinks that will work because nothing else is working! This guy doesn't seem to be excited to have him there despite sending a letter asking him to come to visit.
That was the core of him. Everything else is sort of on the page. The real collaboration, in terms of finalizing who he was, came in the artifice of his wardrobe, what he wears, what his hair's like. These sorts of things establish very quickly for the audience "Oh, it's that guy."
Ant Timpson: His look is super important to him. Everyone wants to be liked, you want to connect. I find it very understandable and hopefully you're with him when he tries to reconnect.
Wood: In the early part of the film it's almost a one-man play. He spends a lot of time by himself and during that time there's kind of an emotional rollercoaster that he goes on. For me, the biggest challenge was making that come to life in an authentic way. We didn't have a lot of time, so we didn't have a lot of takes. The biggest challenge was making that emotional journey that Norval goes on in solitude authentic and real because it sort of sets up the rest of the film and the believability of the story we're telling.
It's crucial because the movie gets pretty weird, and if you don't give care about the lead character, then you're going to have a whole lot of trouble balancing the tone.
Timpson: There are so many ways to tell the same joke. It all comes down to delivery and people are either going to enjoy it or they won't. It's going to play differently to different audiences, which I think is very interesting. At the moment it's playing with a lot of genre crowds at these festivals so I'm very curious to see it when it goes in front of a wider audience and see how the high wire act we do with the tone that we had so much fun with plays to a bigger audience. That'll be interesting to see if it plays for them as it does for me.
As a fan of this type of cinema, I didn't really want to go down the path that felt like it had been trodden to death. It was also how to keep things interesting for us. Each time we felt like we were going to veer off into something some other film had done we talked it out. We had a lot of mandates. Like, there are no guns involved. There were a lot of rules that I wanted to adhere to.
One of the X factors that I think keeps the movie playing differently than your typical film is Stephen McHattie. The movie becomes a kind of battle of wills between two very odd people at a certain point and it's so much fun to watch. Was there a sense while you guys were making the movie that you could feel there was something special about that chemistry?
Timpson: Yeah, there was real fear on and off-screen.
Timpson: He's an awesome guy. He's exactly what I expected and what I kind of wanted. Because I'd seen red carpet interviews with the guy burning down journalists, there was so much pre-intimidation leading up to meeting with him. We had a staring contest straight out of the gate. I knew if I was feeling that then Elijah was probably going to feel that and then the audience would feel it.
Physically, McHattie is a lean, cut dude. He looks like he could f**k you up. He was like Jack Palance, man. He'd drop down and do fifty press-ups in a few minutes in front of us. That guy's legit. Having that physicality and the way he'd use language as a weapon, he hit all the right notes.
Wood: It was a joy to work with him, for me. That sort of cat and mouse dynamic, two people trying to best each other and trying to figure the other out, he made that so delicious because he embodied that character so well and was so intimidating.
We didn't have any rehearsal. I think we did one read-through of the script the Saturday before we started shooting. That was the first time any of us had heard the words out loud, or even expressed the words out loud. That was it and then we were off and running.
That first act does a lot of work laying the foundation for what's to come. There are a lot of layers going on that you don't realize are there until things get revealed later in the story. That must have been super fun to mine as a performer and also as a director.
Wood: That's really astute. How do you play two things at once? And you can see it! When you watch the movie a second time it's all there. It's really fun for me and for all of us to see those extra layers. There are hidden truths that get revealed over the course of the film and when you go back and watch the movie all those things are present.
Timpson: There are a lot that people don't get the first time, for sure. That was intentional. We didn't want (the twists) to be sign-posted.
I'd like to talk a little bit about the working relationship between you two. It's interesting to me that you've both made names for yourselves producing cool, weird stuff, and you've even produced together for The Greasy Strangler.
Wood: We've known each other for a long time. When Ant sent me the script, which had been written by Toby [who also wrote The Greasy Strangler], the confluence of elements that came together was really attractive for me. The idea of working with Ant in that capacity was really exciting and reading the script and loving it, being completely surprised at every turn, was a thrill. It was a no-brainer that I wanted to be a part of it. There was an ease to jumping onto something that Ant was making because we were friends and not only that, the material was great. We felt like we could make something really good and exciting.
I was nervous, to be honest. I was nervous about the degree of emotion Norval has to express. There was an early draft of the script, the first draft I read, where he cried a lot. I was like, "F**k, man. This is going to be intense."
Right before we started filming we talked a little about that. "Maybe we don't need so much of this crying…" He was a blubbering mess in that first draft.
Timpson: There was a lot of tweaking done at that stage. We had to change things because of the location, some scenes dropped out completely. It's the red-lining you have to do when you realize how much time you've got.
Wood: To answer your question, it was immediately exciting to get to work with Ant in that capacity. We already had a shorthand. Communication was easy because we've known each other for a long time. It ended up being there were other folks from New Zealand who came to work on the film who I had already worked with! It was wonderful. We had a mixed New Zealand and Canadian crew.
Come to Daddy is now in theaters.