‘Come to Daddy’ Director Ant Timpson on Making One of the Year’s Most Gonzo Horror Movies [Interview]

Life doesn’t include an instruction manual when it comes to handling grief. We all process loss and cope in our own ways. For me? I’ve taken to expression through written words, most recently about how The Farewell helped me say goodbye to a loved one. For the prolific indie producer Ant Timpson? He conceptualized and directed a violent, offbeat, absolutely gonzo in memoriam starring Elijah Wood titled Come To Daddy.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Timpson last year at Fantastic Fest, having viewed Come To Daddy at its Tribeca premiere (the first of 25 festival appearances). Visions of criminal brutality and Wood’s hipster haircut were still vivid months later, if that’s any indication of the film’s more memorable attributes. We chatted about an array of topics, from hopping into the director’s chair to actor Michael Smiley’s self-provided fake teeth. You’d never assume such an off-kilter narrative to emerge from such a personal place, but then again, what did you expect from the man who backed such films as Deathgasm and The Greasy Strangler?

You’ve produced multiple indie genre titles and, sure, Come To Daddy is technically your filmmaking debut, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m wondering and curious, did you feel like a first-timer when filming?

Absolutely. You can be associated with other films, but there is a huge distance even though it’s nice when people say, “Oh, your film, Housebound, and your film, Turbo Kid.” It’s not your film. It’s someone else’s passion and dream. Their blood, sweat, and tears, even though you also put a lot of that in. It’s disingenuous to claim that it’s your film and it’s not.

[Come To Daddy] feels like my first. It feels like me. It feels like exactly the type of shit that I should make. Initially, in the dark, early, scary days before connecting with everyone, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to make a piece of shit that’s going to be unwatchable. Will my friends even bend the rules to program it at one festival?” You go through those dreary hours of self-belief – can I pull it off? 

Then, as I got closer and closer, I felt like I needed to go back to being that guy who used to go out and have fun making shit. It started forming and becoming a very real thing. Once it’s real, you can’t stop it. The train has left.

So as Ant Timpson the director, is there anything that took you by surprise? Maybe something that, as a producer, you’re watching filmmakers achieve, but stepping into the role of a filmmaker gives a whole different perspective?

Knowing if you’re getting the right performance and whether it’s all going to come together at the end because the entire process is so fragmented. You don’t have that panic as a producer. You’re stepping back and relying on everyone to execute what they need to do. You don’t have that instantaneous connection of, like, “Maybe I’m not getting it,” or anything that’s probably going through the director’s head, not yours [as a producer]. [Directors] hide everything from you because I hid things. I hid the weird shit from everyone as well. You never understand what’s truly going on in the head of the director. They can put on a pretty good facade.

A poker face?

Exactly. You’re hoping like hell everything will piece together. That’s why great directors can still make misfires because it’s like alchemy half the time. You can’t control every single element but there’s a lot of magic that happens throughout the entire process, especially in post where you get to readdress everything. I felt confident in post that I had the ability to correct things that I maybe had fucked up, I could actually…

Put Humpty Dumpty back together again, in a way?

Yeah, and shape. I felt like I had a second chance, so that helped a lot of the time. You get overwhelmed and you realize, take a breath. It’s moment by moment. It’s keeping your eye on the bigger picture because it’s all out of sequence and fragmented. Make sure things are touching base and that’s where you have a lot of luck with talented performers like Elijah Wood, who understand exactly where they need to be in every single sequence and frame that you’re shooting. That ability is lifesaving for first-timers, greenhorns.

I can imagine because the performances are so finely tuned. Sticking with that thought, we hear a lot of quick dialogue and speedy wit, and I’m wondering if that was all on the page or was there improv on set?

Michael Smiley brought a lot of improv for sure. His background is stand-up, so he had a lot of fun. In the first minute I met him, he pulled out the false teeth that he brought with him, and was like, “Okay, this is going to be awesome.” Michael was fully committed to playing around and came up with lots of stuff he blurted that stayed in the film. Then the ADR, there’s a lot of off-camera dialogue he did that is really funny to me. We’d spend an hour doing a lot of wackiness and he just had fun, man. He’s got such a playful sense of humor.

I love everything he does.

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The idea of [Michael Smiley’s character] Jethro is a guy who’s obsessed with film villains and so he’s very self-aware that he is playing a villain. It’s not a meta take on it, but as much as the audience is aware that he’s a little bit theatrical, he’s very much in that moment and realizing that he is embodying that bigger than life villain. It was just a really cool, fun experience to work with an actor like that.

Do you have a favorite Michael Smiley addition? One instance you remember where you were like, “Oh, wait, this has to stay in?”

That whole song he does in the car is off the cuff.

Of course it is.

If you watch it, it’s just lucky that the framing cut off his lip so you don’t actually see the sync doesn’t match up at all. It worked out really beautifully. That’s completely him, in addition to heaps of one-liners he throws in there on the spot.

I wish I could watch Michael Smiley perform from behind the camera, see what content makes it and what doesn’t, because I would love to witness him do just that.

The outtakes of Michael trying to nail one single line are hysterical because there’s one where it’s alliteration. Like, “You sad sack…fucking sad sack situation” or something. He couldn’t spit it out. He was getting more frustrated and that was the scene where you [the viewer] enter when he goes berserk. It really worked because he was so frustrated by the scene before that. The energy in the room was really great and, yeah, it was really entertaining watching him lose his mind.

Come To Daddy is a personal project for you, which you’ve opened up about in other interviews – where it started and how the film came about. Is there ever fear as a filmmaker that you’re creating something too personal, like, “I’m putting my heart into this and I really hope it’s received the same way.”

Oh, I would have called that all back if I felt like the film was a bit of a turd. [Laughs] I would not have let it be my dad’s legacy of, “You totally influenced this piece of shit.” I don’t think I started realizing that I was quite comfortable in getting that out there until I felt like, “Yeah, I really am happy with [Come To Daddy].” I felt like he would really dig the film, like he would be totally laughing his ass off at all this stuff. It was a big step to actually do that and as a final, cathartic move, to talk about the whole origin of it all and be honest. I had no interest in making any other sort of normal, commercial film. I feel like even though it’s an absurd comedy with really extreme moments, all that personal stuff still works and hopefully maybe it does connect with some people. I’m happy if it doesn’t and, if it does, that’s even better.

Did you have to think hard about the cultural specifics, too? As a New Zealander, the corpse laying on the bed being tradition and details like that, it’s something I didn’t even know was common practice.

Well, it’s not common at all.

Oh, really? In conversation after my screening, someone mentioned it was commonplace. They were like, “No, no, it’s a natural thing. They leave the body and let people grieve.” I was like, “Wait, what?”

For Europeans, no, this is completely not normal at all, but for the indigenous, like the Maori of New Zealand, it happens for sure. They do Tangis and long wakes, so that’s a natural thing. It was suggested by my father’s partner to do it, and then she skedaddled and left us kids with the corpse – but yeah, it did not feel natural at fucking all. It felt totally bizarre and wackadoodle. Yet, because of it, it’s become this really crazy experience. [My father would] love the absurdity of the entire thing, that I’m talking about him and his death and that it’s become this bizarre movie as well.

It’s perfect alongside your entire professional catalog. Not a bad thing, obviously. Come To Daddy fits right into place with all the movies you’ve been producing. It seems so obvious, down to Elijah’s casting. When you were writing the film, was Elijah always in your mind to lead?

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Well, that was the dream. He wasn’t from day one in the script, but as we were getting close to polishing the final draft, I realized it would be amazing if we could snag Elijah. I didn’t think he would accept because he must get asked by friends all the time like, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” It was really producer Mette-Marie Kongsved, she…I can’t remember if I sent [the script] to Elijah or if she sent it. I can’t remember. No! I sent it to him because I got texts back from him straight away! “Yeah, I fucking love it.” Then they both rang back and said, “We’re going to do it.” I was like, “Okay, it’s all on.” Then it’s like, “Shit. It’s a real thing now.”

Now this has to happen.

Now that Elijah’s in it, then it might actually happen. Up until that point, it was just, “Oh, yeah. Maybe.” I’ve been down that path on other people’s projects for a long time and I know how that goes, but once he signed on, it was like, “Shit. Okay.”

Can you speak to what Elijah brings as an actor? As you stated, that was the dream, getting Elijah. What immediately makes you think he had to play this role? What was the drawing factor?

Well, I feel like it’s weird because [Elijah’s] done three films now where he’s been this isolated character who has to carry the entire story, but they also, Open Windows and Grand Piano, are similar structures in terms of him carrying the film. I felt like his emotional range in Come To Daddy was a challenge because, first of all, in those other films, he’s a likable guy. He’s playing a different sort of Elijah and they all have their quirks, but it’s very much a different type of character that I feel like he pulls off really, really well. [In Come To Daddy] he hones douchery to a beautiful, fine note that’s understandable because beneath perceptions is a real human quality that grounds it all. There’s inherent likability that he brings with him. It’s who he is.

We wanted to put on a bit of puffery around him, so it was not alienating to the audience – but I didn’t want them to completely connect with the dude from the word “Go.” Here’s an alien in a foreign land and you want to see this guy desperately out of his depth and feeling that awkwardness straight away and not being able to relate to him.

Douchery is the best word to use. He flaunts that pretentious unease so well.

Yeah, especially in that one sequence where he’s trying to really impress his dad. You can feel the pathetic longing to do so and that’s when I felt, “Okay, we’ve got something here. It’s definitely like he’s an alien.”

Elijah’s intuition of how everything needs to be throughout [Come To Daddy] holds it together and I was really lucky. Plus, I also like the guy. I like hanging out with him and he’s a friend, so that helps a lot if you have that sort of really easygoing connection. There’s no one more pro and easy on a set than Elijah. There’s nothing Hollywood about that dude. He is bootstrapping it and guerrilla style, whatever’s needed, throws himself in it 100%. Yeah, superhuman.

That’s pretty cool. He exudes that energy anyway, so it makes sense.

Yeah, I’ve never heard one story about that guy unless it’s just like the best human on earth. Everyone fucking loves working with him.

Let’s revisit your producer/director dual lives. Did you ever feel, while you were directing, that your producer brain was getting in the way or whatnot?

Hell yeah. What am I going to tell Stephen McHattie about acting? He’s been doing it for 60 years or whatever. If anything, I had an idea of what I needed to get but how to communicate with actors was all new to me. I’ve worked with people before, but these are people who are the most experienced on the set, right? So it’s how to always keep within my focal range and not be distracted by everything else going on in the mechanics of what my producer brain would be trying to comprehend at the same time. To look in the frame of what do I need to get in this sequence and being able to communicate really simplistically. That was what it came down. It’s all about tonal levels and making sure we weren’t getting too lost in the narrative. It was so lean and tight that it was kind of just make the days because everyone else is performing at their “A” game.

You could just step back and go, “Just do it.”

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Yeah, just don’t get in the way. Most of the time it was like, “Capture what you need.” I feel like I got more confident as it went on, but it sounds like it’s the same for any director their first day. It’s a mess. It’s a madhouse, and it takes a while for all sets to get up to speed. That’s why you definitely don’t want to start off with anything too complicated on the opening shot.

Yeah, right. Let’s start with the hardest thing.

It’s everyone’s gain. You take time to warm up and then once its rhythms are going really well, then you can start experimenting a little bit and have more fun.

I’m happy you mentioned the tone because you’re going to push a lot of boundaries here. You’re definitely going to push some audiences in all the best ways. Was there any time on set a scene felt too much that didn’t make the final cut because you had to reassess?

We took out stuff from the script beforehand that was too much, so we didn’t waste any time shooting scenes that I felt were going to polarize too vastly. When you’re making a film like this, you’re always going to risk losing people because they don’t want it to go into extremes. They want that grounded thriller and whatever supernatural film that’s going to stick to those lanes. It was never going to be that type of film, so that risk was worth taking.

I didn’t want moments of extreme violence to alienate and become mean-spirited. There’s hopefully a wicked sense of childhood glee about the violence and that it’s kind of like Looney Tunes. Not to use that cartoon analogy, but it’s generally the humor there, the gallows humor, keeps it down a little bit and doesn’t relish too much. Every moment of violence, there’s humor attached so that was part of the plan throughout the whole thing – but there was a moment where I wanted the audience to be laughing at something that suddenly made them implicit and felt like maybe you shouldn’t be laughing at this point. When Elijah’s character goes through a transformative moment through the violence. I wanted that to be full-on. The analogy was, when you see someone run into a sliding glass door and laugh, then they turn around and they’re bleeding, but you still laugh because it is still funny. I know that not everyone does that. Some people might be shocked. That was the balance we were running, which is a high-wire act so you can lose people really easily.

It was fun, though. We just wanted the violence to be different. Shit that I hadn’t seen before and wouldn’t get bored with. I just feel like you know all the mechanics and beats of most cinematic violence, so it was like, “Let’s try and do some unusual stuff.”

So then, really quickly, two last questions. Number one, any Deathgasm sequel updates here?

[Deathgasm writer/director Jason Lei Howden] and I, we’ve been discussing stuff and he’s super keen. He’s got it all ready to roll, so it’s really just if the money comes together. I don’t know if I’m going to be involved, but he’d reached out and maybe I will be.

Second, is the American Housebound remake that was previously teased still a thing?

Yeah, nothing’s moved forward to that. I talked to [Luke Sharpe], the producer, ages ago and haven’t heard more. There was something bubbling away, but it feels kind of pointless at this stage. Whether it’s going to happen or not.

I agree with you because it’s an English language film. It’s like why do we need to remake this again in the US when Housebound already exists and rules hard?

Hey, it’s more money for those dudes if it happens.

For them, I hope they get it.

The post ‘Come to Daddy’ Director Ant Timpson on Making One of the Year’s Most Gonzo Horror Movies [Interview] appeared first on /Film.

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