Adapting the screenplay of his acclaimed graphic novel I Kill Giants with co-creator J. M. Ken Niimura, (Illustrator) American writer Joe Kelly remains close to the illustrated page for his first producing credit. Known also for his work on Marvel’s X-Men, Daredevil and Ultimate Spiderman, and DC’s Action Comics, Justice League of America and Infinite Crisis, Kelly has collaborated with notable figures in the comic book world, including writer Jeph Loeb, writer and artist Dan Jurgens, and artist Ed McGuinness. He has also executive produced animated series’ of Ultimate Spiderman (2012-2017), Avengers Assemble (2013-) and Big 10 (2005-) as one of the founders of Man of Action Entertainment.
I Kill Giants follows teenage girl Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) into a magical realm, one in which she fights evil giants and monsters. It’s an alternative world to the everyday reality of her troubled school and family life, and with the help of new friend Sophia (Sydney Wade) and her school counsellor (Zoe Saldana), Barbara learns to face the school bullies and her difficult home life.
In conversation with PopMatters, Kelly reflects on his long and winding creative journey and an early philosophical diversion. He also discusses the openness of the collaboration with director Anders Walter, the sensory and unspeakable magic of the cast, and his ongoing cathartic experience with storytelling.
Why a creative career? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I was always a creative kid and I liked science and stuff as well, but I was really drawn to art. I actually thought I was going to be a visual artist for a long time, and going to college I studied art and theatre. I was a bit of a knucklehead in college and wound up with a philosophy degree through a long set of circumstances, but never lost sight of creativity as my outlet.
I loved comic books growing up and I always loved movies, so after going to work for a little while in the production business, and carrying a lot of things, I thought I should go back to school and try my hand at writing. So I went to the New York University department of dramatic writing, and that really blew the lid off my creativity.
I already had a love affair with movies, how they were built from the inside and knew this was how I wanted to express myself, so I pursued screenwriting. At the same time Marvel Comics came to NYU to start a programme for new talent and I helped run that. This got me in the door with comics and it was a perfect parallel because any kind of a visual storytelling ticks all my needs. I love the way the audience or the reader has to interact with the material, and I love prose. I’d love to try and write a novel one day, but the collaborative aspect of working in film, animation or comics really sings to me. To get to write a script, to pour your heart into it and then hand it over to someone who is creative, and watch them elevate it to something really special that an audience can enjoy is pretty magical.
This is the first film I have produced, but I have been doing comics and animation for a very long time with the Man of Action company. So yeah, I have been living the dream since, but it took a long time to get there [laughs].
Visual mediums, graphic novels, and comics are intersecting with film, yet there are distinctive characteristics to the experience of a film compared to a graphic novel or comic book. How do you perceive this juxtaposition of similarity and difference?
One of the ways I think they intersect is that the relationship to the reader or the watcher is very intimate in opposite ways. My favourite image of the person reading a graphic novel or the comic is the one in which I always picture myself as a kid under the blanket with a flashlight. It’s your own little personal thing and you dive into this world reading X-Men or Spiderman, or whatever it is, and I would just be lost in the comic.
I saw Annihilation this weekend. I was sitting there in the theatre watching this incredibly beautiful scary movie on this giant screen, and I was completely enveloped in the experience. Both of those experiences pull you in, and especially when they are done well, you can become lost in it. That kind of intimacy is really fascinating to me and it’s different than live theatre, which I love the energy of. But there is something about watching a film or reading a book that is really personal and intimate, and that’s where they intersect.
How they split apart for me is a little bit more in the creation. I sit down to do a comic and it’s with a handful of people that you are able to tell a story with, visually and beautifully, and then get it out into the world. That level of control and collaboration is wonderful because it’s so direct, it’s a mainline to your reader and the closest way of doing it just short of writing a novel.
For a film there are so many talented people, and even on a smaller film there are hundreds of people working to bring that vision to life that it can leave you feeling a little bit distanced from the process as a screenwriter, although that’s not my particular experience on Giants. I was very lucky from the beginning because I was treated with a lot of respect by everyone and was involved in the process from day one with casting and locations, everything. It was a wonderful experience all round.
Photo of Joe Kelly courtesy of Man of Action Entertainment
Having written both the graphic novel and the script, you’d have had a good understanding of these characters. When you saw Madison Wolfe, Imogen Poots, Zoe Saldana and Jennifer Ehle performing on set, did you have the experience that you were seeing the characters anew?
We had such a wonderful cast and each of them are incredibly talented and fascinating to watch. I would see these performances while they were happening and think: Oh wow, that was great. Then you’d go back and see what Anders and Rasmus [Heise] our DP actually captured, and I’m just thinking about something specifically with Imogen. There’s a scene where they are in the basement and Barbara has done this little puppet thing to try to make a joke for Karen (Imogen Poots), which ends up imploding, like most of their conversations do. Imogen says nothing and yet conveys so much, like exhaustion and sadness, and seconds before hope and joy. It was incredible to watch that and you are obviously not going to get that out of a still image in a comic.
Zoe just bought an energy that was so different from the image in my head, a tenderness, and as a new mom she had a different way into the character than I had expected. It’s hard to express because what they all do, including the younger actors who are all so skilled, is magic.
I have done a little bit of directing myself and I find it creatively stimulating to have these conversations with actors, to see what they do and how they internalise the script and the scene — the intention of the director reflected back to you in their own way. It’s a special kind of alchemy and our cast does an amazing job from top to bottom of bringing that out.
You mention Jennifer. I wasn’t there for her scenes, but I think I would have been utterly shattered if I had been. She literally showed up on the day and she instantly forged an incredible connection with Madison. It’s amazing and all of them exceeded my wildest dreams.
In The Hero (2017), Sam Elliott describes a film as another person’s dream. Would you describe a film as such or is this a romanticised notion of cinema? And whilst as humans we may share common dreams, they are singularly personal to the point that we cannot necessarily express or even recall them upon waking. The story of I Kill Giants taps into something that is so human, whilst capturing the essence of the spectatorial experience of storytelling.
Expressing it as a shared dream makes a lot of sense because in the best movies people walk out of the theatre talking and comparing notes. Anders and I were just talking today about how critical that moment is for a different project, and that’s a sort of electricity he wanted an audience to leave with for I Kill Giants.
If it’s super by the numbers you could have a great thrill ride, and I mean we all go on a roller coaster and have fun, and I’d never say anything to disparage that. When you have something that taps into the emotional core of the audience that will be different for every single person, and the end result is kind of greater than the sum of its parts, that’s hard to articulate. But it’s a beautiful challenge and it’s what you hope will happen when you put something like this out there.
Having had the graphic novel out in the world for ten years, longer than that at this point, I’ve had the experience of people coming up to the booth at Comic Con and telling me their experience, and everybody is a little bit different. There are certain commonalities, personal stories and things that they overcame, and the things they related to in Barbara’s journey are very specific. It’s wonderful to get that put back at me and to get to share in it because it’s like stepping through someone else’s life, or stepping through someone else’s dreams. So yeah, I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for what I like to achieve in films.
I’m perfectly okay with very realistic dramas, and some of the greatest movies are the most grounded and the most real. But I like my cinema with at least a little dash of that fantastic, that dreamlike quality that sort of carries you through… I think it’s really important.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there’s a transfer in ownership?
I one-hundred percent believe that the audience is the final collaborator and without a doubt folks bring their experiences… right before they come to see the movie. It’s something from that Tilly to some greater deep psychological monster that they are wrestling with, whether it’s a film, graphic novel, or anything.
As far as the literal transference, I like to think it really becomes more of a shared journey, where the filmmaker has created a boat and the audience become its captain, because once we’ve let it out of our hands, we really don’t have any control right!? I can’t sit next to you and whisper in your ear: “This is what I meant in this scene.” It’s up to you to take it wherever you want or to follow your heart, or let it into you in whatever way a film tries to do so. But I like to think it’s a sort of partnership.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Yeah. Absolutely. Writing I Kill Giants was very cathartic for me, and then actually getting to produce the film is its own kind of catharsis. My next project that I’m working on with Ken Niimura, is a graphic novel. [Graphic novels are] semi-autobiographical, but even when they’re not, and I write all sorts of fantasy stuff and really wild characters, there’s always a part of me in those characters and stories that I’m trying to express. For me it is a way to work through some demons and troubles, and so it can be transformative. If it isn’t, I feel I’m not paying that much attention.
I’m lucky enough to not just be making widgets for a living and so if I’m putting my all into a story, or I’m trying to get that emotional truth, even if it is in a big fantastic setting, I think I am going to learn from that, as well. Or that’s my hope, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. So yeah, I’m very lucky to get to have this job, and coming full circle to how I got into it, I’m really glad that I’m here.