We have to admit we were intrigued when it was announced last year that “Glee” star and out and proud gay poster child Chris Colfer was writing and starring in his first feature length motion picture. It raised a lot of questions. Would the young actor make the transition from breakout television star to the big screen? Can Chris Colfer play anyone other than Kurt Hummel? For that matter, can Chris Colfer write a screenplay?
Some of those questions have been partly answered with this week’s release of the teaser trailer for that film, “Struck by Lightning”. The film stars Mr. Colfer with support from a cast that includes Allison Janney as his mother; “Modern Family” actress Sarah Hyland; “Mad Men” star and SGS female crush object, Christina Hendricks; “The Office’s” Angela Kinsey and heart throbby actor Dermot Mulroney. The plot concerns a smart and ambitious high school student named Carson Phillips who is so determined to get his high school literary magazine off the ground, he blackmails students in the school to contribute. AND, to make matters more fun, the film is told in flashback; Carson Phillips is dead when the film begins because he was…wait for it…STRUCK BY LIGHTNING! (No, that’s not a spoiler; it’s how the film is being marketed. ) Mr. Colfer had this to say to Entertainment Weekly about the film:
“It’s about all the kids in high school who are overachieving in their own right and underappreciated for it just like I was. I think it’s very sarcastic and very real. I hope it goes to show that there still lots and lots of smart kids out in the world. It’s about smart kids and not about stupid kids who wanna get laid and that’s their biggest goal in life. “
The plot has great potential and we liked the teaser trailer for this film as well, especially Rebel Wilson as Carson’s wisecracking sidekick. (She has the best line in the trailer: “They will believe ’cause we’ll spread that shit like Nutella.”)
In fact, we were so intrigued by this trailer/film that we did some digging and discovered it’s directed by Brian Dannelly who helmed “Saved!” the 2004 film about teens in a religious high school dealing with homophobia, teen pregnancy and religious intolerance that was a hit with LGBT audiences at film festivals and home video. Using our crack journalistic skills, (uh, we tracked him down via Facebook) we contacted Brian Dannelly and asked him to spill the beans on “Struck by Lighnting” and working with our favorite “Gleekster” Chris Colfer…check it out:
Michael Strangeways: How did you get involved with this film? What drew you to the material? Obviously there are some similarities to your debut film, Saved!, if only in the sense it deals with teenagers and their interactions with each other and adult society.
Brian Dannelly: David Permut sent me the script and I read the material and really liked it. Most high school movies are written by people who have long since graduated and Chris’ take felt honest and relevant. I was also very attracted to the theme of “It’s the journey not the destination.” I had never seen that in a high school script. That was really exciting to me. Another thing that was really intriguing to me was the fact that ALL the characters were so obviously flawed yet it still managed to have “heart.” I loved how Chris’ character, “Carson,” never backed down in spite of all the obstacles standing in his way. Carson isn’t a victim, he’s a fighter.
I avoided teen films after I made SAVED because I didn’t want to only be known for making teen movies. I think that’s what drew me to network and cable because I was able to explore different, more adult worlds and the material I was being sent was so much more interesting than the scripts I was being sent at the time. However, STRUCK BY LIGHTNING struck a cord. I know how very important teen movies are to people coming of age and here was a story I hadn’t seen and would have like to have seen when I was in high school. Because Chris’ character isn’t your standard teen archetype, I knew it would be a tough film to get made and I honestly thought I could do right by Chris and the material and help get his vision on screen. High school is a really interesting time because, for many people, it’s the first time they start seeing the world for what it really is so, it’s important to me that each generation has a high school film they can relate to. These films also serve as a touchstone for older audiences- where were they in high school? Where are they now?
MS: The trailer is charming but what is “Struck by Lightning”? A comedy? A Black Comedy? The lead character (played by Chris Colfer) is dead, something not spelled out in the trailer, but it has been openly mentioned in all the press for the film. Is that going to be tough to market?
BD: That trailer really isn’t the “official” trailer. It was a tool to get distributers interested in the film. It wasn’t color-corrected and the sound wasn’t mixed– the title cards are horrible but, when you’re making a low budget film, you have to do what you have to do. We had a recruited audience test screening a few months ago and we tested through the roof. The audience laughed and cried and I think they were surprised by the journey they went on. It was very rewarding as it was the first time we had screened it for anyone let alone an auditorium filled with people we didn’t know. I don’t want to give too much away but the character’s death is handled in a really interesting way and, surprisingly enough, you leave the audience feeling good. I think the overwhelming sentiment is “life is short, make each day count.”
MS: Chris Colfer wrote this film. It’s his first major film work as not only an actor, but as writer and producer as well. (And, considering the demands of “Glee” we’re not sure where he finds the time to get so much accomplished. He’s obviously good at multi-tasking!) Was that a challenge for you, as a writer/director who’s already been through this process with Saved! to work with someone who’s doing it all for the first time, and at such a young age?
BD: That was really the most surprising part of the process. Chris was extremely generous and open during the entire process. He genuinely trusted me as a director and it was a very humbling experience. I can tell you, I was way to insecure at his age to be as kind and gracious as he was to me and everyone else involved. I felt a lot of pressure to deliver a film Chris could be proud of and I knew how important this entire project was to him, his future and his fans. He really is a good human being and incredibly grounded and focused. I learned a lot from him.
MS: What was the budget for this film? And, how demanding were the time constraints for filming? You only had Chris Colfer for a few weeks last summer between the end of the Glee tour and filming for season 3.
BD: I can’t talk about the budget as we haven’t sold the film yet. Our first screening for distributers is next week. However, I can tell you it was incredibly low and we had a little over two weeks to shoot it. That meant we had to be incredibly prepared, practical, focused and smart about the process. Thankfully, I was able to get people onboard who had a lot of experience and with whom I had worked with in the past (Cinematographer- Bobby Bukowski, Wardrobe Designer- Wendy Chuck). I’m also extremely prepared and I know exactly what I need each day so, that helps. Everyone from the producers to the crew to the editor really gave everything they had to make this film happen. It was kind of a miracle that it all came together as well as it did. We also had an amazing cast of talented actors who made every day a real joy.
MS: This is definitely an “indie film” which was a bit surprising to me. Chris Colfer is the breakout star on a hugely successful television series. In the old days, the studios would have lined up to grab the “It Kid” for a project, even if it was a low budget genre picture. Is that era of studio film making gone, or is it a question of the studios being afraid to make and market a film with an out actor so identified with queer culture?
BD: I think everyone is scrambling to try and figure out this new age of media we’re living in. I actually think this is good for getting films made because a project doesn’t necessarily need a studio behind it to get made and there are so many alternative outlets for releasing a project. I’m not sure but I suspect Chris wanted to take matters into his own hands and wanted to tell the story he wanted to tell without a lot of other hands in the mix. It’s a pretty bold move but I think it will ultimately turn out to be a smart one on his part. What’s interesting about the film to me is, while Carson says, ” I know what it’s like to be an outed, outsider.” That’s about as far as the film goes regarding his sexuality. It’s not about his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and his sexuality has nothing to do with the reason why he struggles in school. It’s about a teenager who has problems like any other teenager so, the fact that his sexuality is never an issue is really something I’ve never seen before. It’s kind of unheard of.
MS: The trailer is a bit of a revelation as to Chris Colfer’s talents as an actor. He’s playing a teenager in a high school but Carson Phillips is obviously not Kurt Hummel…it’s a different character and a vastly different performance. I think there’s a perception that he’s a charming and talented young man, but essentially Chris and Kurt are the same person. But, Mr. Colfer is very definitely a “leading man” in this film and displays the necessary “Star Charisma” to be a lead in a film. Was that a surprise for you and do you think the audience will be surprised: “Chris Colfer ISN’T just Kurt Hummel”
BD: It’s the one comment I hear over and over- “Carson is nothing like Kurt.” And, Chris really isn’t like either of those characters. He truly is acting when he plays these roles. Chris was very sure of his performance as Carson and very conscious of this character being very different from Kurt. He was even into not hiding his pimples- which is very rare for an actor. It was always exciting to work with him on set.
MS: There’s some big name actors in this film: Allison Janney as Carson’s mom; Dermot Mulroney; Christina Hendricks; “Modern Family’s” Sarah Hyland. What was the casting process like? It’s not a large budget film…what attracted the actors to the project?
BD: I think actors have a real love for Chris Colfer and really wanted to support him on his first film. They were excited to be a part of it so the casting process was relatively easy. Chris wanted Allison Janney to play his mother right from the beginning. We had lunch with her in the valley and I think we were both in love with her after the meeting. Allison was just amazing to work with- astonishing. We had a lot of group casting calls for the high school roles and we really just cast the actors who seemed to have the best chemistry together. We had a hard time finding an actor to play the part of Carson’s best friend, Malerie. Some amazing young actors came in but it wasn’t until the last minute that we cast Rebel Wilson. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a funnier, smarter actor and she’s gone on to do such big things now. There was a real sense of camaraderie on set and I think the actors genuinely had a good time making the film.
MS: There isn’t an announced premiere date or distributor for the film. What’s the status of that? Are you looking to do the film festivals or a bigger, national multi-screen release?
BD: Like I said, there will be a distributor screening next week so we’ll see how that goes. It’s always a scary process. We have avoided film festivals because most of them don’t cater to this film’s audience but there are a few we are considering. A lot will depend on what happens next week.
MS: In talking to gay film makers, it seems there’s definitely some sense of “fraternity”…directors seem to WANT their fellow film makers to do well, if only because it helps all gay filmmakers to some degree if queer themed films do well commercially and critically. Did you find that to be the case when you were working on Saved! ? Is there a sense of community for queer film?
BD: I’m kinda’ outside the bubble but I definitely route for my fellow gay filmmakers. We are always supporting each other via Facebook and trying to help each other out where we can. The fact that anyone, gay or not, gets a film made and seen is a miracle, really.