Originally, it seemed like any film adaptation of Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura’s 2009 graphic novel I Kill Giants would have to be animated. The book follows a troubled fifth-grader named Barbara who wears animal ears, engages in strange rituals, and dubs herself a giant-hunter. Her strange behavior makes her a pariah at her school, and especially draws the attention of some vicious bullies. But readers can see what the bullies can’t: that Barbara is surrounded by fairies and strange creatures, and that there’s a weird and threatening magic to her world. When she forges an awkward friendship with another young girl, Sophia, she slowly starts to drop her guard. But that proves dangerous to her equilibrium, given what she’s fighting.
Danish filmmaker Anders Walter may not have been the most obvious person to shepherd the book onto the screen — he’s a first-time feature director, coming out of an illustration background — but his short movies caught the producers’ attention, particularly Helium, an Oscar-winning short about a dying boy who periodically slips away into a fantasy world through the stories told to him by a hospital janitor. The short’s blend of fairy-tale and grim reality suggested Walter was the right person for the film. And he was — his live-action take on I Kill Giants is a vivid, beautiful movie, centering on a strong performance by child actor Madison Wolfe, with supporting roles from Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana as Barbara’s school counselor, and Imogen Poots as her mother. After the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, I sat down with Walter to talk about how he navigated getting such a weird, troubled character to the screen, why respecting the source material was so important, and how his shoot was perversely troubled by sunny, pleasant weather.
Who is I Kill Giants for, ultimately? Do you mean for it to be accessible for kids, or families?
I don’t know! Obviously I’ve been in meetings for three years trying to finance this, and sometimes I found myself lying about it, just to try to get the money out of people. [Laughs] It is a weird hybrid. I always ask people this question, and people have very different answers. Obviously, as a storyteller, I think it’s for everyone. Why not? People make distinctions between grown-ups’ films and kids’ films, but I think the emotional impact is so universal, it’s for everyone. But you can’t say that! You’re supposed to pick one thing.
The film version closely respects the graphic novel, even in places where it becomes pretty unconventional for a film story.
It was obviously a difficult thing. Barbara is quite a character, and you can see how some people trying to finance this wanted to do certain things with the way she was acting out, and make it more sweet. But I was lucky with having producers who really understood that either you do it and stay truthful to the graphic novel — because that’s the charm of the story — or you do something entirely different and you fuck it up.
Who came to who? How did you find this book?
I won that Oscar for Helium in 2014, and obviously because of that, I got myself an agent in Hollywood. And I said to him, “I’m going to go back to Denmark and do my own Danish feature, and speak with my own strong Danish voice, because this Hollywood thing is not going to work out, I’m sure.” Too many Danes try to translate their director’s voice into Hollywood productions, and it didn’t work out for a lot of them. My agent’s like, “What are you talking about? You just won an Academy Award. You have to stay here and do a feature!” Then he kept sending me scripts back in Copenhagen. And I’d say, “These are good scripts, I can definitely see why you would send those to me. But no.”
Then I Kill Giants came to me, and I fell deeply, madly in love with the script. I learned that it was based on a graphic novel, and I went down to my local comic-book pusher and I got a copy and read it, and I was like, “Wow, what a story. Oh fuck. Now I have to come back to LA.” I had a first Skype meeting with the producers, and we hit it off. At the time, it was with 1492, Chris Columbus’ production company. So I talked to Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus’ producing partner. He produced Harry Potter for Chris Columbus. We really hit it off, and we kept talking. I finally said, “Look, instead of all of this talk, I want to do a sizzle reel, a trailer of some kind.”
At that point, they hadn’t really given me the job. I felt like we had good energy, but obviously I was a first-timer, and they really had to trust me to give me the job. And then we’d have to start to find the money — it wasn’t like there was money just waiting for this to be greenlit. I shot original footage with a Danish girl back in Denmark, with shots of specific scenes from the comic book. And we cut that together with all kinds of material from previous, existing films, and that turned out really nice. People totally loved that version of the film. So then I was officially offered the film, and we went on a very long journey with it.
How did you end up working with Joe Kelly?
I liked the script as it was. Joe had done tremendous work on it already. It was fantastic. It felt like a bigger thing, like a feature film, and not so much like a graphic novel. Chris Columbus, for a couple of years before I joined, wanted to direct this himself. But he was doing all kinds of other things, and he had a hard time finding the amount of money he’s normally working with for a budget, because this is a strange hybrid of a film. So at one point he just said, “This thing is not for me, but I want to stay on as a producer.” Joe Kelly was very impatient about it, because this had been going on for years.
So in me, I think he found a soulmate, and I definitely found my soulmate in Joe Kelly. We worked very closely on the screenplay, and I think I stayed respectful in terms of what he did, and I didn’t come in and do my own thing on top of his. I had my ideas, but I wanted him to do the writing, so he stayed on the whole time. And also for Joe, he was like, “I don’t need the film.” All of this was done on handshake deals. There was no contract. Joe didn’t want to sign anything. So basically, at any time, he could have said, “Fuck off, Anders,” or taken 1492 off the project. But he’s been a gentleman through the whole thing. He said, “I love the graphic novel. It’s a very special thing for me. And it’s already out there. So I don’t need this film, unless I write it myself, and work with somebody who’ll understand what I want to happen with it.”
So we hit it off, and he trusted me with his precious work, which was obviously very nice. And I think I delivered the film I promised to deliver, which pleases me tremendously. Because even when you think you’re on the same page with a screenwriter, with the producers, with everybody, so many things can happen, because people also want to make their money back. Barbara is quite a difficult character, and she doesn’t come across as warm. It takes some time to get into her world, and she’s very sassy. She’s not a Tom Hanks character you’ll fall in love with right from the beginning. So I was always a little concerned that at one point, somebody would come tap me on my shoulder and go, “Anders, we have to dial up the warmth in this film. We have to tone down the darkness.” But it never happened.
And I think people understood, because I went into the first meeting saying, “We can’t do this for $35 million. We can’t we can’t do this as a studio film. We have to try to do this as an independent film, and stay true to the source material, or it won’t be the film we want to end up with.”
So the producers understood why Barbara needed to be prickly and difficult, but were you worried about audiences getting her as well?
A little bit. When we got into the editing room, there were definitely things that I tweaked in a direction of maybe letting the audience like her a little earlier. Obviously, you don’t want to keep the audience out for the entire film. The first time I read the screenplay, it took me some 20 to 25 pages to get into her. I was a little irritated by her in the beginning. I almost put the screenplay down after 50 pages. [Laughs] But then slowly you start to understand, and you kind of fall in love with her attitude. The first cut of the film, it actually took 40 or 45 minutes to get that to that point. That was maybe a little too long. So there were definitely tweaks to make it a bit easier for people to like her.
It feels like one of the biggest changes there, in terms of appreciating her point of view, was showing the giants early on. It changes the tone of the film, and pulls you into the reality of her world.
I wanted the audience to believe in what Barbara was believing. In the graphic novel, we have all these fairies as well. And I think it’s very obvious to the audience that those are a fantasy thing. So if you have something that’s so obviously a fantasy, of course you’re going to dismiss the giants as a fantasy too. So my concept was to take away the fairies and create a world where you make a contract with the audience that these guys exist. So instead of thinking, “Ah, this girl is a lunatic,” I want to create a ride for the audience of, “What is the truth here?”
It’s a hard film to do, because you only get one shot at understanding what’s going on. Once you’ve read the book, or the screenplay just one time, you can’t come back and have that experience anymore. I had to test it so many times on people who didn’t know about the graphic novel, asking when they started to guess the story. You can guess and be irritated, which is not a good thing, or you can guess and be curious, which is a nice thing for the audience.
A fair bit of this film’s story is told through the use of intense colors. How did you approach designing I Kill Giants?
I think we approached it in a very Danish way! [Laughs] The DP I worked with here, and on all my shorts, is Danish. And like me, he likes very much to do natural lighting. For most films with kids, or if you’re going for a family-orientated audience, you work with a lot of light. You make sure the characters have a big hot light-ball right in the face. You don’t want to lose anything in the dark. For me and for Rasmus [Heise], the DP, we wanted to use as much natural light as we could, since we were out in nature. And that definitely makes for a certain palette that feels very real.
Also, I made some precise decisions on the wardrobe, and turned the costumes into something I felt was very iconic. The bright yellow for Sophia, the blue jacket for Barbara — they pop out among all that nature, in the forest. I come from a graphic-novel background — I did illustrations myself for 15 years and did my own graphic novels — so I’m used to composing still images, and I tried to translate some of that into the film. Also, we shot this film in Ireland in October. I was expecting it to be a flat, grey-looking film. But we had the most beautiful month, with beautiful sunsets and sunrises. That isn’t something you can plan for. It ended up having a quality to it. There were things in there that looked like paintings, because of the light. But that, you can’t plan.
How did you create the big storm sequence at the end? How much of that is special effects?
We had to create a 100 percent replica of the beach on a sound stage. So we shot everything leading up to them standing on the beach, and then the whole thing moves indoors, and to green screen. There, we could control the wind. I remember shooting some of the stuff with the rain at the beginning part of the storm sequence, and that was shot in full-on sunshine. That was weird, because we thought that would be the easy part to shoot in Ireland — “It’s gonna be raining all day long, and it’s gonna look grey, that’s gonna be the easy-peasy part.” And then the sun was shining for the whole week. So that was a bit problematic.
Shooting that sequence was tough for the girls, because shooting them in the environment with big wind-fans and a lot of rain — they had to wear dry suits, and they were freezing their ass off, really. But they were brave.
What else did you struggle with?
For me, this is a character piece. It has a fantastic backdrop in the giants, which interests me because of my illustration background. I love that part of it. But really, I fell in love with the character. I thought Barbara was so unique. So for me, the hardest part was to cast a Barbara, and get her to perform so she could hold the whole film. You could do fantastic design, you could do all kinds of crazy things with this film, but without a fantastic Barbara, you wouldn’t have a film. So for me, the challenge was to guide Madison Wolfe in the right direction.
But she was just fantastic. She showed up and basically prepared this part for three or four months, and she knew exactly how she wanted to go from A to B, from where the film starts to where it ends. And that’s just amazing, that a 13-year-old girl turns up and is so prepared.
We looked at 800 girls, and Madison was the one who stood out. By casting the right one, you’re halfway there. With my shorts, I’ve worked with so many kids and teenagers, and I think a lot of the way they approach acting is based on feeling and instincts. So you have to allow for those things, and let them know you trust their gut reactions. With kids, you don’t want to talk too much. You don’t want to fill up their heads with too many words and directions, unless they’re totally going in the wrong direction. Most of the time, it’s just about creating a space where they feel allowed to fail, and they feel secure, and they can boost their self-confidence, feeling that what they came with is what I want. You avoid doing things that would make them feel insecure.
With grown-up actors, you might sometimes do that on purpose — make them feel a little insecure. Not that much, but you can manipulate the situation a little bit more, because they can take it. With kids, it’s about creating a warm atmosphere where they can take chances and feel confident about what they have prepared.
So a lot of times, I would direct and direct and direct, and say all kinds of things. And then I’d just say, “Okay, Madison, forget everything I just said, and just kind of erase the board and go with your gut feeling.” And most of the time, that would be the take I would use. That’s why casting is so important. With kids, I really think directing is about becoming their friends. I think a good kids’ director is someone who can understand them, not only as actors, but as kids and teenagers. I try to meet them in their own environment, at their eye level, and just have fun with them. Kids are fun to be around, and they’re so inspiring. They have a very honest way of acting. When you grow up, you tend to analyze things more. And sometimes that can stand in the way of just having that strong presence, because you’ve become maybe too afraid to trust your instincts, or you start to second-guess certain things. Some actors don’t like you to talk to them a lot, and some like to talk for hours. It’s various. But kids never demand anything. They accept whatever you throw at them.
I Kill Giants is currently in a limited theatrical run, and it was simultaneously released to streaming platforms like Amazon, iTunes, and others.