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Writer Joe Kelly on Adapting I Kill Giants for Film


Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Nimura’s award-winning graphic novel, I Kill Giants, has been adapted into a movie from R​LJE Films. Directed by Anders Walter, and starring Zoe Saldana, Imogen Poots, Madison Wolfe, and Sydney Wade, I Kill Giants will be available on March 23, 2018. In advance of the movie’s release, TMS got to speak with Kelly about the process of adapting the graphic novel for film.

In a relatively unique arrangement for writers of source material, Kelly was also the only writer on the film adaptation. “So many times, you hear about creators whose material is adapted and then they get quietly, or not so quietly, kicked to the side,” he said, “and I had the complete opposite experience with everybody with I Kill Giants. They knew how precious it was to me; they knew I had already developed a screenplay before it was ever officially picked up. I mean, one of the stranger days of my life was to say to [Harry Potter producer] Chris Columbus, ‘Just so you know, I will be the only person who ever writes on this thing. And if that’s a problem, we gotta know now.’ And he said okay! So through all twelve, thirteen drafts that we did, it was just me, and I was very lucky and very fortunate to be that person.”

What made you want to turn I Kill Giants into a film?

“When I first wrote it as a comic, I immediately wrote it as a screenplay right after that. It was one of these stories that stuck with me. Any script, obviously, isn’t a complete thing until you give it to the next person, whether it’s an artist or a film team. But a screenplay feels a little bit more like a finish product, for me, just because I was trained as a screenwriter. So I was impatient, because I didn’t have an artist for the graphic novel right away, so I wrote it as a screenplay pretty immediately. And I told my wife, which I rarely ever do, ‘This is the one. This is the story that will go to the next level. I just feel it.’ It was just so in my gut and such a part of me, and I felt like it had to get out.”

“I took a long time, obviously, for it to happen, but the fan response from folks who have read it has been so kind. It really hits people in an emotional place, and I think the film does the same thing. As big as this movie gets, it’s still personal and emotional. I think it’s a complementary experience to the comic book experience.”

“And,” he added, “I just wanted to see a real-life version of Barbara with that hammer.”

While the art style in the graphic novel has this outsized, frenetic energy, the film style is more subdued. Was that a decision in the script, or was that a production design choice that came later on?

“That, I think, is [director] Anders Walter’s vision. His previous work (Nine Meters is a good example) has a similar quality to it, in its airiness and sense of calm. Even when there’s big stuff happening, there’s still a … I don’t know, a surrealness to it. He believed that I Kill Giants is the sort of film that really could be enjoyed by a wide swathe of people. It’s not just for comic book fans. It’s not a kid’s film. It’s not a ‘family film.’ It really is an everybody film. And I think that his look and his take on the world gives it that vibe. And I think it works … The world that’s created by those guys feels real and magical at the same time, which is exactly what we want.”

What were some of the challenges of adapting the graphic novel to the screen?

“Everybody who was involved with the project was incredibly supportive and helpful. Everybody wanted to make the same movie, which is the best thing you can ever hope for in a production. So the only challenge became—and it was pretty obvious early on—that there are some things you can get away with in the book, because reading is a personal experience, and a tactile experience. The reader’s imagination sort of fills in the blanks. But as soon as you see certain things in real life, on the screen, they become concretized.”

“And one of the things I’m fond of about with the graphic novel is that people will come up and ask, ‘Was that real or was that in her head?’ I love that, and I want the audience always to make their own choice. They wouldn’t have that opportunity if certain scenes from the book were in the film. I had plenty of direct lifts from the graphic novel, and then Anders would say, ‘I know you love this scene, but we have to cut it. If we keep it, then it’s pretty obvious that this is a fantasy, and that it’s not real.’ Or, vice versa: ‘This moment really nails down that this is absolutely real, and is that the story your’re trying to tell?’ So that was the biggest challenge: not breaking the tone of the film by being too precious about the comic book script.”

Were there any challenges with Barbara in particular? She’s kind of a prickly character, and she says some nasty things. You can get away with that a bit more when she’s this exaggerated comic character, but when she’s a real girl in front of you saying things, it’s a different experience. 

[Laughs] Oh, yeah. I’m laughing because very few lines were changed, if they came from the graphic novel. And, since you’re familiar with both, you know what they are. And it was literally what you said. I didn’t have so much a problem with it personally. I love films that feature child protagonists but are not ‘kids’ films,’ so I love it when a kid is really sassy. And, as Madison put it, Barbara is ‘savage.’ So I like it when she’s savage. Because she’s trying to get a rise out of everybody. She’s not doing these things to be arbitrarily mean; it’s a defense mechanism. So I love it when she says these really horrible, acerbic things.”

“But when you saw her do it—and we did, we filmed it—it was pretty rough. It was really rough. And I think people just felt like, ‘They like her, but they’re not entirely sure…’ Because we did go through a testing process. In the end film, she still is very funny; she is still really sharp and witty. Madison carries the savage all the way through, but with a lot of heart. So I don’t really think we lost anything by getting rid of those few lines. Folks who find the book will hopefully get to see the nastier version of Barbara.”

The world of this film does feel really detailed and intricate, particularly when it comes to Barbara’s giant traps and her secret hideaway. Were they any real-life details that you got to add into the script at all, or were those mostly coming from the production team?

“That’s a great question. The production team was amazing. That [hideaway] set is literally under a boat on a beach. I thought that was gonna be built on a little soundstage, but instead they rigged it up under an actual overturned boat. It’s incredible. I couldn’t believe it. This team really understood that it’s important for the film to feel grounded, especially as it does get more fantastic.”

“Barbara’s look was really important to me, and we had all agreed early on that the ears were staying, which was very, very important to me personally. I just feel like it’s such an iconic image. I spent a lot of time talking to Anders about how to do the ears in a way that I felt would translate properly. So there were a lot of ears.”

“That handmade feel is really critical for everything that she does. And apparently they did try to make a set that moves at one point. I didn’t actually see them, but I think the rig weighed like 10 pounds on her head. So, not happening.”

“The only other detail I worked on was the name of Zoe Saldana’s character, Mrs. Mollé. My wife’s maiden name is Mollé, and she is also a guidance counselor, so the character was always based on my wife. It’s very nice to get to see her name on-screen, and her little stamp on it.”

Do you have any closing thoughts about the film? 

“I’m thrilled. I’m so proud of the film. I’m proud of everybody who worked on it. I think the performances are amazing. I love everything that Anders did. And I just hope that folks give it a chance and track it down. It’s going to be available in their homes on the day that it comes out. Certainly, I’ve seen the film work with an audience on a big screen, but it also really does work sitting at home on your couch, too. That intimacy that you get from a comic book, I think, comes across in this film whether you’re seeing it at home on in a theater.”

“I also feel like anybody who sticks with Barbara’s journey is really rewarded for it. And I hope that the film finds the people who need it. One of the nicest stories that we hear at comic conventions, and it’s a story we hear a lot, is ‘I didn’t know this book existed, and then I was going through something in my life, and somebody handed it to me. And it’s like the book found me.’ I hope that people have that same experience with the film. It’s deeply meaningful to me that people make that connection with the material, so I hope that translates to the movie as well.”

I Kill Giants will be available in a limited release in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD on March 23, 2018.

(Featured image: RLJE Films)

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