At its core, Come to Daddy is an oddly sweet film, even if it's kind of about jerks.
Elijah Wood plays Norval, a spoiled L.A. brat with a questionable mustache and an even more questionable haircut who journeys to an isolated seaside house to visit his estranged father who ran off when he was a toddler. Whatever he imagined when he knocked on the door doesn't come close to the cold stare that greets him when it opens, as Stephen McHattie's Gordon is not the father figure Norval hoped for. He's distracted, he's drunk as a skunk, and meaner than a pack of wild dogs. In fact, he may even be trying to kill Norval. Possibly.
Come to Daddy's director, Ant Timpson, has long been a figure in the cult film scene, working as a festival programmer, first in his home country of New Zealand and then later contributing his programming talents to festivals all over the world. Then he started producing films and racked up a dozen credits, including two delightful Kiwi oddities, Housebound and Deathgasm, before he was inspired to fulfill his original goal of directing.
The inspiration came from an unusual place. His father died suddenly (in front of him, no less) and that triggered a series of events that ended up putting a fire under Timpson to achieve his life's dream with a project that just happens to be filled to the brim with daddy issues.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Timpson about his transition from producer to director, balancing the film's tricky tone, and Elijah Wood's "doe eyes."
You've been in the film scene for decades, working as everything from a festival programmer to a producer. You've made many movies as a producer, so you're not a first time filmmaker who wasn't at least aware of the process. You've been through the nitty-gritty of production, so you at least knew what you were in for...
I disagree. They're worlds apart. You can feel super confident about the mechanics of the whole filmmaking machine, but I kinda knew that before I produced as well, just from being obsessed about the industry. You can feel like you know things, but when it comes to the crunch it's an overwhelming, exhilarating full-on mindf***. It's very different from the projected distance that a producer has. A producer has a sort of omnipresent overview of the entire production and its nuts and bolts. It's a different type of stress whereas filmmaking is a redemptive, rewarding exhaustion.
I slept well. That type of exhaustion. But as a producer, you just crash and you're constantly stressing about shit. [As a director] I was just depleted every night and fell into a total coma.
Then it sounds to me like you had good producers!
We had a great team. Daddy is a very linear film, so we couldn't get too lost. I knew that going in so it gave me the confidence that I wouldn't get lost in the process because it was very defined and simplistic when it comes to the structure of it. It goes to some absurd levels, but in terms of narrative I knew it would hold together and I could really craft things a lot in post in terms of refinement and getting what I wanted out of it.
The overwhelming nature when the shooting initially started was more shaking off the rust. The last time I was behind the camera was 25 years ago directing a short. It took me a while to focus. I didn't understand just how many things in the frame you have to constantly think about without losing the performance. Even though you've got everyone assisting and contributing, at the end of the day it's still your call.
I remember the DP, who I relied on a lot, he said at the end of the day everything is going on your tombstone. If it works or not it's on you, so fight for everything you want and get it in the frame and be happy with it. It took a long time to manage all those micro-details while also getting what you had to get as well.
Everyone said I looked very confident and capable on set, but inside I was a complete whirlwind of emotion, trying to hold it all together.
From what I understand, that's the secret for everybody. Maybe Scorsese doesn't feel that way anymore, but you always hear some of the most genius directors were always filled with doubt, screaming in their own heads.
Absolutely. There are just so many things to think about, you can literally lose yourself. It's crazy how much you twist and turn throughout the whole thing, but then you get down to the simple rhythms of what you need to achieve with each setup. It was also a relief to realize it's not all non-stop. You actually have time to focus on the small moments and that's what movies are. They're small moments put together. You just have to capture enough of those moments that are honest and work.
When you cast Elijah Wood and Stephen McHattie in those two parts you know you're at least covered when it comes to their performances. I imagine you knew you had something, that it was working, when you shot the scene between them where they're talking about Elton John. They're both so playful and vulnerable and intense in that moment. You had to have felt like "Okay, we've got something here. No matter what, this works."
I felt like that when I was watching everything! [Laughs.] I was in love it! I was like, "Elijah Wood's acting in this movie that I'm doing!" I was so pleased seeing everything come to life and it really was so close to what I visualized it looking like. There were many moments where I was like, "That's the image I've had in my head for years. This is exactly what I want." To tick all that off was so cool and it was very encouraging.
If it's working in that raw state it's only going to get better and better and better as the process goes on.
Was there any moment where you realized you were getting something even better than you imagined you'd get?
When I saw McHattie and Elijah together, the first scene when they're talking with the sea in the background. Just the way Elijah was trying to connect to McHattie and McHattie just being so awkward worked so well. Elijah looked very intimidated by him and he was intimidating. I was super intimidated by him at the start, but underneath his gruff exterior, he's a sweetheart. He's not a Hollywood dude at all. He's much happier on his ranch.
I really dug the tone here. It's not an unrecognizable world you set up, but it is a little removed from our reality and you choose some really interesting moments to underline that. There are moments of hyperviolence, but I noticed you very rarely showed it onscreen. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I didn't want to do anything that felt traditional. I wanted to veer away from any armaments or gun fetishization completely and do clumsy, awkward violence that could be really ugly, but I always undercut with gallows humor. That could go off the rails, but I felt like it worked really well.
[Toby Harvard, the co-writer] and I bounced around every scene and there were moments that were way too graphic in the original draft. Those are the things that are so ugly and over the top that you could instantly lose a lot of people. They could just switch off because it was too extreme. How do you keep that demo who turn off from violence and keep them in there? It was really about using that first half to lull them into a different type of film and then they don't have a chance to leave once the shit hits the fan.
I remember saying at a Q&A that I felt like the audience that would really like this film are those people who would see someone at a shopping mall run into a sliding door and laugh at it. It's a moment of slapstick. I feel like that line is so close to being grotesque as well. I always thought those dark, dark humor moments would really work for a certain set of audience.
There's also some mileage you get from what you choose to do off-camera and only hear. What's in your mind is often worse than what you see on screen.
Absolutely, and the performers can come up with stuff as well. You should have the ability to be open to the playful nature of the characters wanting to get into it and bring something to the moment. You just have to remember the tonal balance you're trying to pull off.
It's funny, I can tell the movie doesn't work for some people. "You can't do that. It's silly." This is a movie, we're in a movie world...
"Did you not see Elijah's haircut?"
Yeah! This is not a documentary. I always find it funny that people have such rigid lanes that they think people should stick to. I wanted it to be like we were jumping lanes. That's the whole point of it.
That feeling comes across, for sure. It's firmly established at the very beginning that both of your leads are kind of assholes. McHattie is just plain old mean and Elijah's character is rich-boy douchey, but at the same time, they're both longing for a relationship they didn't have.
There's a desperate longing going both ways, but more from Elijah. He has this deep need to connect with someone and he uses pretentious puffery to try to impress the person he really deeply wants to connect with. Everyone can understand that human need. That's what's so great about Elijah; he brings that empathy, even if it's surrounded by a douchey quality. It's really impressive how he can pull it off.
It's the big eyes.
Yeah, it's the doe eyes. I feel like we had really good alchemy with who we ended up with. Everyone's really great and every time a new character pops up it felt like a breath of fresh air. I like that about the film.