Thirteen was a key age for writer-director Spencer Susser.
It was the year he became fascinated by the kind of classmate who would inspire the antihero of his debut feature film, “Hesher,” staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which opens on May 13: “They were guys with long, greasy hair, smoking cigarettes, who hung out in the shadows,” Susser, now 34, said.
Thirteen was also the age at which Susser attended a “rough” public school in Sacramento, where drug abuse and teen pregnancy were de rigueur. One of the few Jews in his class, he recalled that several of his teachers were baffled when he took time off to become bar mitzvah at his grandparents’ synagogue in Los Angeles, because they had never heard of a bar mitzvah.
Susser was also 13 when a drunk driver hit and killed his oldest brother, London, then 18, an event that is still so raw for the director that he declines to discuss it.
The filmmaker has channeled those memories into “Hesher,” the story of a 13-year-old named T.J. (Devin Brochu), who is left reeling after his mother’s death in a car accident. Enter Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a maniacal, tattooed drifter who moves in with the boy and his mourning family and shocks them out of their stupor. Natalie Portman — who selected “Hesher” as the first film to be released by her production company, Handsomecharlie Films — plays a broke cashier who befriends T.J. while confronting losses of her own.
In a recent interview, Susser, who lives in Los Angeles, spoke with the relaxed parlance of a skateboarding fan, while declaring an affinity for the characters of one of his directing heroes, Woody Allen. “Hesher” is dedicated to his late brother. “While T.J.’s story is not my story, the film definitely shows some of the feelings I experienced,” he said.
T.J. is overwhelmed by anguish and rage — not just that his mother has died, but that his father (Rainn Wilson) is so paralyzed by grief that he is emotionally unavailable and barely leaves the house. “Sometimes what happens is that the adults around you shut down,” Susser said. “Kids are more malleable; you function with what you’re given. I often think about kids in war-torn areas; how they’re going to be kids no matter what. They still want to play and ride their bikes; they just do it in a blown-out building. There was actually a scene I ended up cutting out of the film in which T.J. says to his dad, ‘Why is it fair that you get to stay home and numb yourself, while I have to go to school and keep functioning? What’s your excuse?’ T.J. is absolutely furious at the world, but it’s not the right way to look at things, and Hesher tries to point that out in his own way.”
Gordon-Levitt (“Inception,” “(500) Days of Summer”) describes his character, in part, as a kind of “mystic fool.” “It’s a beautiful thing that Spencer wrote such a personal story,” added the actor, who lost his own older brother, Dan Gordon-Levitt, a fire-spinning artist and performer, in October 2010, two years after shooting “Hesher.” “I definitely think that’s part of what lent it that weight and made the movie so much more than just a comedy and a shtick. … It’s a pretty brilliant story to tell about loss.”
The hyper-violent Hesher, who has a proclivity for blowing things up, represents the anger and other emotions that T.J. himself cannot articulate; he is a raging life force, but, Susser said, “He also represents death in a way. He is like this terrible, scary thing that shows up at this family’s door and moves in, and there’s nothing they can do about it. But once they learn how to function with Hesher around, in a sense, he goes away.”
Gordon-Levitt — who will star in the third “Batman” sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises” — was not Susser’s first choice to portray Hesher. “Joe is the opposite of Hesher in a lot of ways — he’s like this nice Jewish boy,” Susser said.
“Spencer turned me down; he didn’t want me to do the film,” Gordon-Levitt recalled at the Luxe Hotel, looking decidedly un-Hesher-like with his clean-shaven face and cropped hair. “I had to convince him to let me come in and audition. ... The surface of my character is really intriguing and fun: this bad-ass rocker guy,” he added, “but what really got me about the script were the layers underneath.”
Susser invented a backstory for Hesher, based on the experience of a childhood friend whose drug-addicted parents rejected him and who ultimately committed suicide. “It’s really intentional that none of that information is in the movie, though,” Gordon-Levitt said. “The character is shrouded in mystery, which is part of his power.”
For Susser, making the film was a powerful experience, one he describes as “like a big therapy session. ... When I was writing the movie, I was remembering it and processing [my brother’s death],” he said. It happened a long time ago, but the feelings don’t really go away.”