With Death of a Superhero opening nationwide in cinemas today we revisit our interview with its producer Michael Garland and its director Ian FitzGibbon from Film Ireland Issue 140 Spring 2012 published 6th February 2012.
Life of a Superhero
Paul Webster talks to Michael Garland, one of the producers of a new German-Irish co-produced feature and Ian FitzGibbon, its director.
Death of a Superhero tells the story of Donald, a teenager from South Dublin who is dying of cancer, and is a beautifully realised depiction of a young man facing his own demise. Although that might not sound like the cheeriest of subjects, the filmmakers have succeeded in making a film that is as entertaining as it is heartbreaking. At the centre of the film is a truly remarkable performance from lead actor, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I caught up with producer Michael Garland and director Ian Fitzgibbon, to discuss their new film.
How did the project come to fruition?
MG: I was contacted by a man called Philip Kreuzer, an executive for Bavaria Pictures in Germany. He was having problems with producing a project on his slate. Originally, it was planned as a co-production with New Zealand but it wasn’t happening. The script was based on a novel by New Zealand writer Anthony McCarten. The book was a huge hit in Germany; I believe there was even talk of putting it on the syllabus in German schools. Kreuzer asked me to have a look at it and see if I could do anything with it. I read it and I just thought it was a real cracker, so we decided to do it as an Irish-German co-Production. I know Ian for 20 years and we’d worked together a lot before. I just thought that he’d be perfect for it, so I sent it to him and he loved it. We then had to set about re-drafting the script, to set it in Ireland. Ian brought in Mark Doherty, whom he had worked with on such projects as A Film with Me in It, and they re-wrote it with the Dublin setting.
Can you tell me a little more about the funding?
MG: The total budget was 3.8 million. There were four elements that made this up; the money came from the Irish Film Board, Section 481, Bavaria Pictures and German Funds (which are made up from the German equivalent of Section 481.) My company, Grand Pictures, co-produce all the time; it’s almost impossible to make a feature film in Ireland now without co-producing. For me the most fruitful partnerships have come from Germany and this is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, It’s very easy to mix our incentive tax funding with theirs, they have no problem with the English language, it’s still quite a rich country and technically, they’re brilliant, so they’re very easy to work with.
So this project has really helped you cultivate a good partnership with a very successful German company?
MG: Yes, they were very happy with what we did on this film and there’s definitely a hunger to do something again, but you really need to have the right project. I think the mistake people make is to try to force things to happen, but it has to be a natural thing, as opposed to casting a German, for example, just to make up the point system that they might have, it just doesn’t work like that.
Were there certain criteria you had to meet with regard the German element?
MG: Not really for us, we were shooting here in Ireland and so could access 481, but for the Germans it was more complex, they have to tick certain boxes, like having some German crew and talent. So we had one German actress and also shot certain scenes in Germany, as well as post-producing in Germany. It was a genuine, physical co-production as well as financial. These things have to go hand in hand for it to work properly. It really worked well for all involved and I’d love to do it again.
What drew you to this film when you were first approached to direct?
IF: I really liked the central idea of this kid confronting the ultimate challenge, which was his own death, but what particularly drew me to it was the idea that he was much more capable of dealing with it than the adults around him, who were dancing around the issue with euphemisms and not prepared to confront what was going on.
How did the project change when you came to it?
IF: I decided to put the world of the story in South Dublin, essentially, about 6 square miles around my house, along the Dart line. It’s an area myself and Mark [Doherty] know very well. As well as that, it was important to me that this was not going to be a cancer film, I wanted it to be about a kid whose courage and appetite for life was extreme, but made more extreme by the fact that he knew his time was limited. That’s what really interested me.
You were working with very young characters and also a large element of the film involves illustration and animation. Can you tell me about some of the challenges involved?
IF: Dealing with young actors is always potentially difficult, so to cast the 15-year-old boy, we were very lucky to get Thomas Brodie-Sangster, because although he’s in his early twenties, he’s going on 80. He’s very wise, and is used to being on set, he knows how to conserve his energy and also when to have fun. He was a fantastic lead actor for us. His relationship with Andy Serkis’ character in the film is very strong, the two actors already knew each other and got on very well which really helped us, especially for those more intense scenes between the boy and his psychiatrist. When it came to the animation, I only wanted to use it as a storytelling tool; unless it was involved in telling the story, I wasn’t interested. The German animators had a lot of work done already as the film had been in development for a number of years. However, it was incredibly photo-realistic 3D imagery that was very advanced. It was amazing stuff, but my issue was that I couldn’t relate it to a 15-year-old kid. He was meant to have drawn this. So I had to get them to re-imagine it not as a gifted artist but as a very gifted teenager, and it was a bit of a battle as I was asking very accomplished artists to strip back their talent.
And how did the animation element affect your shooting?
IF: In some parts we were mixing animation with live-action, so you really have to plan those scenes. You need to have an effects supervisor and an animation supervisor on set, and we all have to be happy that we have everything we need in order to integrate it later. But with the pure animation sequences, we were able to hold off and look at the cut and see how it would work with what we had. We actually ended up needing less animation than we had thought before shooting.
What’s next for the film?
MG: Well, we started the festival run in Toronto and then took it to Rome. It was very well received at both festivals. It also won the audience award at the Des Arc festival, which is a really cool, trendy festival in France. Next it will be in the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and Dingle, and then we’re hoping for Irish and UK distribution towards the latter end of the year, and possibly North America.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Issue 140 Spring 2012 published 6th February 2012.