“Look, I always say with theater, pick a show, put it on a calendar and get twenty people to invest and I guarantee you, that show’s gonna happen on that day. But you know, you need someone to leap into the fray for the first time and say ‘Let’s do this. We’re going to do this.’”
Matthew Lillard is getting excited now. Casual filmgoers who think about him merely as “Shaggy from Scooby Doo” couldn’t have it more wrong. He’s one of the most thoughtful guys in the business. He teaches acting at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. He hosts biweekly play readings with fellow actors in his living room. And although many know him best from his devastatingly effective turn opposite George Clooney in last year’s The Descendants, for some of us he’ll always be the awesome teen rocker from SLC Punk!. To put it lightly, he’s someone you should listen to.
And he’s telling you to make a movie.
“You know, because of technology you can do it,” he exhorts everyone in the room. “And the thing I learned is that, look, you can tell great stories. Great stories don’t need money. You need great performers, and you need a great script. You don’t need special effects, you don’t need make-up. What are the things that take money? Time. They give you time. Money gives you time. It gives you perks. But the reality is that great stories have nothing to do with the dollar amount spent on a film.”
It’s a chorus that many actors have joined recently. As film-quality cameras, semi-pro editing packages, and electronic distribution options have opened up to a much wider audience than ever before, making a legitimate film is within more people’s grasp than ever. “I keep calling it the golden era of filmmaking 2.0 because anyone, anywhere can make a movie,” Lillard says. “You know, that’s good and that’s bad. Lots of bad that comes out of that. But the reality is that, you know, Drake Doremus…I love him as a filmmaker. Ten, twenty, ten years ago, he would have needed to find three million dollars to make his first film. And it’s really, really hard to find three million dollars to shoot on film, to edit on film. I mean, all those things are so cost-prohibitive. There’s a huge barrier to entry into our industry.”
In fact, it was his experience with Doremus that prompted him to stop talking about the revolution in filmmaking and to actually pick up arms and join it. “Just saying you can do it is half the battle,” he says. “With Drake, we were trying to get a movie made for a million bucks. He and Sarah Silverman and I were trying to make a movie for a million dollars, and no one would give us a million dollars. And he and his writing partner just said ‘We’re making a movie this year come hell or high water. Do you want to be in it?’ And I said ‘Dude, anything you do, I’ll be in it. I’m in.’ And the next thing I know, three weeks later, I got a first version of a script that was 48 pages long. And from that point on, they gave me a different version of the script every week. Until you get to a 92-page, tight, little script. They found someone to give us less than a hundred grand, like $75,000. And the idea and the notion that you can just go do it was so powerful to me in that moment that it inspired me basically to do a movie myself.”
Not long after, he read a young adult novel by K.L. Going called Fat Kid Rules The World, and he knew he had his story. “I picked up the phone, and I called my manager and I said ‘I have to set up a phone call with this woman.’ I distinctly remember being on the phone on the way back from Memorial Day weekend, and I was with my new wife, and we had no kids at the time. I was driving home from Palm Springs and I had this whole conversation with the author, Kelly, for about an hour. She kept dropping in, dropping out, dropping in, dropping out—I just remember this whole hour having to call her back again and again and again. And the entire time, I was just telling her about my experiences as a kid, who I was as a man, how I got into acting, you know, all of these things, trying to illustrate to her this kind of recurring theme in my life of perseverance and endurance, and being a good guy. You’re kind of, in that moment, begging in a way. I had never directed. I was just so passionate about trying to tell that movie and make this into a film that I remember spending that hour on this phone call with her basically begging her for the chance.”
Lillard convinced her. But that was just the beginning of his struggle. Writing, fundraising and the hundred other steps in making an independent film threatened to sink the production. “I had the rights for seven years, I think,” he remembers, “and I finally said to her ‘I can’t do it. I’m giving up. I quit.’ I lost the rights and it wasn’t until I figured out that I could put the movie on the Vans Warped Tour—that we should making movies for those kids on that tour—that I figured out that I could make the movie. I just did Drake Doremus’ Spooner and I figured out you can make a really great movie for no money, and so those two epiphanies in my life made me go back to get the rights. Somebody else actually had the rights and I had to basically cut these guys into the deal to get the rights back.”
Lillard has worked with some great directors in his career, but he was especially inspired by Alexander Payne’s approach to casting. “I mean, you learn something from everyone you work with,” he muses, “but you know, specifically with him, he takes a long time to cast. He admits that he basically takes longer than everyone in the world to cast. I think that’s relevant for us. I mean, we didn’t take a long time, but we cast right. And you know, if you cast right, you can avoid a lot of the problems. You cast wrong and you’re in the middle of all of the problems.”
Like Payne, he also has a light directing touch. “I knew that I’d be able to help those guys find a performance that they would be proud of. It wasn’t really that fact that we had to sit down and tear it apart. We made some decisions together, but how it really started and how we worked together was, Jake [Wysocki] would do something and I was like, ‘I love that. Let’s do that again. Let’s find another place for that.’ I mean, it’s those idiosyncratic moments, like, at some point, he opens his mouth to breathe and it was like, ‘That’s the character.’ And so, you know, in between takes or whenever we went out to lunch, I’d bring him back and I’d just kind of put him in the corner and just say ‘Mouth breathe.’ And I’d remove him from people because he’s so gregarious and people love him. And he would just go and do these little tidbits of things to hold onto that and get himself into character. We kind of built the character around these tiny gems of persona.”
Once the film was completed, Lillard continued the punky DIY aesthetic of both the project and its characters, deciding on quite an iconoclastic distribution model. After winning acclaim and awards on the festival circuit, he toured the movie around the country with the Vans Warped tour. He also made the film available on tugg.com, a site that allows fans to screen the movie at a real theater in their own town, provided enough tickets are sold.
Lillard plans to continue both sides of his career, but he admits that “if somebody had a gun to my head, ‘You wanna act or direct?’ I would direct. I get a lot more joy and satisfaction out of telling a story and also having other people be amazing. Acting’s completely myopic, but to me, the idea of being in front of people, the idea of being in class, the fellowship and sharing energy with people on stage—that is what gives me happiness. I don’t know how else to explain it other than that satisfies a part of my soul like nothing else does. “
And he’s adamant that the work will continue, regardless of how people see him. “I’m going to continue no matter where I am on the Hollywood star meter. I don’t really give a shit. I mean, yes, it’d be great to be Top 10 in terms of like, box office guys, but the truth is that—if that kind of success defined my journey, my journey would have ended 10 years ago. You know, the thing is, if you’re working in this industry to find success, financially or to find fame, there’s such an emptiness at the end of that that you don’t ever really get to have a chance to get to a lifetime of work, and my goal is really to be an artist for a lifetime.”
“An artist for a lifetime” is about as far away as “the guy who plays Shaggy” as you can get.