Interview: Joe Kelly

My conversation with the screenwriter of the new movie I Kill Giants.

Joe Kelly began writing comics in 1995 when he “graduated” from the Stan-Hattan Project, a writing workshop conducted as a joint venture between Marvel Comics and NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing. He soon thereafter wrote fan favorite Deadpool, and later worked for DC Comics’s Action Comics for almost five years. Joe helped found the Man of Action production company along with Duncan Rouleau, Steven T. Seagle, and Joe Casey. Joe Kelly’s long list of comic book writing credits include JLA, Steampunk, Daredevil, Space Ghost, Superboy, X-Men, and more than 50 issues of Action Comics. Along with Man of Action, Joe also wrote several episodes of the animated television show Ben 10.

His most recent project I Kill Giants is one which began as a series of comic books in 2008. Joe adapted the story into the screenplay for movie which debuts today in theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD. Directed by Academy Award winner Andres Walter, the movie stars Zoe Saldana and Imogen Poots, and features a wonderful performance by its lead Madison Wolfe.

Last week, I grabbed a few minutes with Joe Kelly for this interview.

Scott Myers: You adapted the movie I Kill Giants from a limited comic book series you wrote published in 2008. What was the very first idea you had which spawned the story? Was it giants? A young girl struggling with turbulent life circumstances? What was the spark which led to the comic book series and eventually the movie?

Joe Kelly: I was a young parent. My daughter was a fun, precocious kid about five or six at the time, and I also have a son. I was trying to get her into all the geeky stuff I like and at the same time, I was confronted with one of those big life moments that pop up as an adult. It was the first time I had to think about that stuff. I started wondering, “What would it be like for my daughter if she were a little bit older and was still a kind of salty, sassy, imaginative kid confronted with the same issues?” That was the genesis for the story I Kill Giants.

(L-R) Zoe Saldana as Mrs. Mollé and Madison Wolfe as Barbara in the adventure fantasy film “I KILL GIANTS” a RLJE Films release. Photo Courtesy of RJLE Films.

Scott: Why giants? Why not monsters or aliens?

Joe: For me, it was how this emotional part of life is so big, it felt like I had to go for this very on-the-nose giant metaphor. It just felt right to me, especially with her being so little, even though Barbara (the story’s Protagonist) is not as young as my daughter was at that time. The biggest thing I could picture looming over her was this giant. Then the fun of the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ of it all, my childhood stuff being applied to that character. I had just done a lot of work at Marvel and DC (Comics), so to stay away from superheroes and aliens felt right, to go into that fantasy D&D type of world. That gave me elements like the war hammer and the naming conventions, all the world-building stuff you do started to flow once the giant thing clicked in.

Scott: I wanted to talk about that because there’s a wonderfully complex mythology Barbara has about giants. Frost Giants, Swamp Giants, Mountain Giants, Titan. Where did you draw inspiration for the story’s giants? Was that taken from your childhood imagination or did you do much in the way of research?

Joe: That was really just the fun of messing around like you would if you would come up with different kinds of giants. The hope was that whoever was going to draw it — at the time, I didn’t have an artist — we wouldn’t be giving them a giant Mickey Mouse version of “Here’s just a big dude in clothes.” I wanted to go for something more abstract and ultimately scarier. So digging deeper into the world build of, “What might a Frost Giant actually do?” It was really that kind of thing. Like every writer, I have a ton of mythology books, but it was mostly, “Okay, you’re a kid making stuff up, how would you tell the story?”

Madison Wolfe as Barbara in the adventure fantasy film “I KILL GIANTS” a RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Scott: It feels very much like a Hero’s Journey with the giants equivalent to the dragon Joseph Campbell talks about as the physicalization of the hero’s greatest fear. Indeed, at one point, Barbara says to her new friend Sophia, “There are times where you have to ask yourself, do I want to live my life as a coward or a warrior.” And that’s a Call To Adventure. Did the Hero’s Journey come into your thought process as you were writing I Kill Giants or was this more intuitive?

Joe: Giants came to me like lightning bolt, I wrote the whole thing out on a legal pad like in an hour and then proceeded to go write the script off this little nine page document, but it always goes back to structure for me. I went to NYU for dramatic writer and I’m a structure guy. If you’re indoctrinated into structure, the Hero’s Journey is so incorporated into your DNA, you can’t avoid it. I think it’s an exceptional tool. It works for a reason. But I don’t sit down and go, “Well, this is this step like the Call to Adventure.” I don’t really think about those components while I’m working on it. Maybe after the fact if I feel like something’s missing in terms of the plot, but mostly it’s intuitive.

Scott: You mention structure and it struck me as I was tracking Barbara’s arc that it aligns with Elizabeth’s Kubler Ross’s take on the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger — which is where we meet Barbara — Bargaining — which is Barbara trying to stop the giants and navigating her way through hardships with family, friends, school — Depression, Barbara’s All Is Lost moment, then Acceptance. Does that take resonate with you?

Joe: Yeah, a hundred percent. Because what the giant represents for me — and for Barbara, whether you look at the giants as magical realism, which I tend toward, I love the idea the universe can crack open and gives you a gift — what she’s facing down is more the fear of the thing than the thing itself. Once you get to accepting that it’s going to happen, the fear dissipates. When the Titan says, “I came for you” (to Barbara), that’s the moment, that’s where it all comes together, that’s where she makes a choice: Is she going to move on or collapse?

Imogen Poots as Karen in the adventure fantasy film “I KILL GIANTS” a RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Scott: At one point, Barbara says her friend Sophia, “I’m here because people fear what they don’t understand.” And that becomes something Barbara comes to realize about herself and her own situation.

Joe: Yes. There’s a lot of things she’s talking about and talking around, partly because of her age and partly because she’s trying to navigate this giant in her life, she doesn’t realize that she’s got the tools all along to deal with the problem. Which is why “We’re stronger than we think” becomes the heart of the thing.

Scott: It’s a lovely film. I appreciate the space it gives the audience to think and feel, it’s not inundated with noise and soundtrack music playing every second. It’s a giant movie to be sure, but it’s also a quiet, meditative film.

Joe: Thank you. The score is the part I’m least used to as, obviously, it’s one of the last elements added to the film, but you’re right. Those moments of quiet and calm in between all of it really highlights Barbara’s anxieties. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it.

Madison Wolfe as Barbara in the adventure fantasy film “I KILL GIANTS” a RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Scott: The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to strong reviews and is set to open in theaters across North America and available On Demand and Digital HD on March 23rd. After this decade long journey from comic book series to screen, what are you feeling?

Joe: Just so excited. It’s been so lovely to speak with people who’ve seen the movie and get positive feedback. I’ve gotten to see it with a few audiences so far and it’s really great. It’s a story I’ve always been very proud of and I’m proud of the film Anders (Walter] and the whole cast, everybody who worked on it did such an amazing job. I keep saying it’s the reverse of all the evil Hollywood stories you hear about the creator getting shoved to the side and they take away the source material. I’ve been there from Day One. Everybody’s been great, everybody’s protected me, they’ve protected the project, and I think it all shows on the screen. So I’m super proud and cannot wait for people to see it.

Here is the trailer for I Kill Giants:

If you’re a parent with children who are different, who don’t fit the mold of being ‘normal’, or are confronting some big emotional challenges in their lives, this is not only an entertaining movie, it’s a deeply meaningful story. I strongly recommend I Kill Giants.

For hundreds more of my interviews with screenwriters, filmmakers, and industry insiders, go here.