Starring Elijah Wood and Stephen McHattie, Come to Daddy is a sharp, dark comedy that cuts through your expectations to deliver a charming yet shocking thrill ride of a film. At its core, it’s a father-son story rooted in heartbreak, but its quirky, offbeat tone and savage violence keep the energy spinning. Though it may be Kiwi director Ant Timpson’s feature film debut, he starts incredibly strong with a film that nestles deep under your skin.
As a producer for such films as Turbo Kid, Deathgasm, The ABCs of Death, and Housebound, and as an avid cinephile, Timpson is well aware of just how much work needs to go in to make a film really click. Come to Daddy certainly delivers with a fantastic genre cast, satisfying practical effects, and stacked plot turns to keep the audience fully engaged.
I recently spoke with Ant Timpson about Come to Daddy, grief as inspiration, and the one thing he wouldn’t allow in the film.
Kelly McNeely: I understand that the story of Come to Daddy was sort of based on a personal experience of yours. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that kind of developed into the completely bonkers but deeply heartfelt story that it is?
Ant Timpson: I guess I was like a filmmaker in stasis, because I started off as a sort of obsessive filmmaker, I used to go out and make crazy films every weekend. And that sort of morphed into lots of other areas of the film industry for a long time, and it took my dad’s passing to actually shake me out of the cocoon I was in where I was sort of realizing other people’s dreams.
I suddenly realized how short life is, and you only get one chance at these things, it was just a huge cathartic wake up call, dealing with his passing, but also with my own mortality and the real world. So that was kind of the genesis of everything, and it was a really unusual sort of process to the grieving, where the embalmed corpse came back and hung out in the living room of his house, and I was in charge of looking after the house at night. So I spent a lot of nights — five nights — with him alone in the house.
I’ve seen in other situations that you’re supposed to talk to your father right after he’s passed and get all these things off your chest, all this unfinished business. And all I did was freak myself out completely, and realized that I wish I’d asked them all these things. And so it was kind of through that process of grieving, but also meeting people that are from my father’s past, and realizing there’s a lot of stories about my dad that I didn’t really know. They were great stories — really interesting — and he had such a wild, rich life, but there were areas that he never really spoke about.
And so later on when I was thinking about making a film as a tribute to him, but also to get me out of my cocoon, I kind of used that as a stepping point. What if you father’s past was dark and it came looking for you. That was kind of the starting point.
I went to the writer, Toby Harvard, who I’d worked with on The Greasy Strangler before, and had such a great time. And, yeah, we sort of took off from there. It was originally going to be a very super lo-fi film, because I was just like, I have to make something, and we were both like, your ambitions are too high, I just know how long it takes to get films up and running. So I was like, oh, this is going to be my Begotten [laughs], it’s gonna be super grungy, 16 millimeter reversal stock, I’ll rephotograph it off the wall eight times, it’s gonna be my undergrad movie.
And then the script that Toby ended up writing — after bouncing back and forth — was so good, but so much more expanded on, and kind of like, wow, this is way more vicious than I thought. But also it’s such a great script that I would love to show it to other people. And so that’s when it went out to Elijah [Wood], and luckily he absolutely loved it, and the whole process was sort of fast tracked.
Kelly McNeely: Elijah Wood has kind of been like a champion for offbeat genre films, which is amazing. Did you work with him to develop the character of Norval? How did Norval sort of come to be?
Ant Timpson: Norval was pretty much written completely for him. Obviously Elijah brings whatever he does to every role that he’s involved in, but the character of Norval was pretty much as scripted. I got Toby to write kind of like a background for everyone involved in the film, so we had this sort of prehistory, enough really for a whole prequel — not that that would ever happen — but enough for rich material. So if one of the actors wanted to get into the mind a little bit further, they had access to all this information about the character.
But you know, Elijah’s big thing that he brought to it was just a real empathetic quality and a little bit of humanity, which — for a character that could have come off as slightly cartoonish — because he’s really like an alien getting dropped into this sort of wild, rustic landscape, and just didn’t want to go for the sort of standard fish out of water beat.
We kind of wanted him to be a little bit douchey, but also relatable, and the needs that he wanted out of his dad to be very understandable in that situation. And I think everyone has these issues, you know, the parental issues. There’s this longing of working stuff out and getting answers to questions, and so the whole point was not to disrupt that — not to treat that lightly. Because we knew that it had to pay off, that emotional resonance had to work for our ending to work, because it’s very much a high wire act throughout the whole film tonally.
Kelly McNeely: And Come to Daddy has such a cool shifting tone to it. It sort of jumps a couple of times and completely 180s on itself, which I absolutely loved. What were your influences and inspirations for the tone shifts and for the aesthetic and for the film itself?
Ant Timpson: Primarily, as a movie goer, as an audience member, I just really don’t like things playing out as expected. No matter how beautifully crafted and performed things are, if it’s kind of pedestrian, if the story’s not interesting, I can appreciate it, but it I don’t really have that much fun. And I always wanted this film at the forefront to be entertaining.
So it was a lot of forethought into how do we keep things shifting? How do we pull off those 180s without absolutely derailing everything by making those turns and shifts too huge. It’s really hard to know when they’re successful until you see it with an audience, if it pays off.
But in terms of inspiration, I’m an obsessive cinephile. So there’s just millions of films that are now intertwined with my DNA and I can’t escape from them. They just come out from what I think is gut instinct, but obviously is just some sort of like, very deep recall. We had a template, I made a sort of schematic template of all kinds of films and touch points that I wanted that were referencing that kind of dark humor that becomes uncomfortable.
Sexy Beast was a film we kept going back to where you have really eloquent, fun, beautiful dialogue, but also just this real disturbing quality of, like, how fucked up can it go. So you feel like you want to bring everyone into the headspace of the main character where it feels like it’s a slightly safe space, and then it’s getting more and more disturbed, and you kind of question how far it’s going to go. So that unease is something that I’m really interested in. It’s really fun to try and think about the audience perspective, of how they’re going to read things.
Kelly McNeely: I went in as blind as I possibly could, which is my favorite way to see movies, and I’m so glad I did because it’s just fantastic how it flips around. It really keeps you on your toes.
You’ve produced a ton of awesome genre films like Turbo Kid, Deathgasm, and Housebound… What — as a producer — really excites you when you see a script? What gets you excited about a movie?
Ant Timpson: Ultimately when I read a script I approach it first and foremost as the intended audience. Which sounds bleeding obvious but it’s actually a difficult thing to extinguish all the thought mechanics that usually kick in once you start reading a script. So getting lost in a script is a rare event. The creative sometimes overrides the passive reader and you start reading through other wider lenses. It becomes less intimate.
Luckily there’s usually one moment in the script that crystallises perfectly and you can envisage immediately how it’s going to be created, and more-so, how it’ll play to an audience. I’m a populist at heart. I want everything I do to be appreciated and embraced by an audience. And hopefully that isn’t an audience of one!
Kelly McNeely: You mentioned that you’re a huge genre fan. What draws you to the genre? And how did you sort of get those ideas for the violence in the film, they really throw you off. It’s completely different and new, how much of that was done practically?
Ant Timpson: It was pretty much all practical. We’d spoken about the violence, Toby and I, and I had a strict no gun policy, I don’t want to have guns involved in any sort of film.
I find them boring as hell, I think there’s way more innovative ways to use violence that can be very visceral and somehow feel more relatable to the audience. And we just don’t have guns in New Zealand — well we do, but we don’t have handguns, per se — so we don’t need that. To me it just feels like science fiction. And the other flipside of that is too horrific to think about, with whatever’s going on. So I kind of wanted to say let’s not even have them involved at all.
Same with cell phones, we made a big point of getting rid of those pretty quickly in the film, just because I find them just kind of the ruination of modern filmmaking and the types of films that are being created. So we spent a lot of time coming up with fun ways to hurt and put Norval through the ringer.
In terms of just being genre obsessed, there’s no defining moment. Every kid wanted a monster kit in the 70s, which is when I grew up. I grew up surrounded by Hammer Horror films, because New Zealand is a commonwealth country, so we had a lot of material from the UK; a lot of amazing BBC, ITV, early horror that was shown, and that terrified me as a kid. Those are lifelong memories I’ve burned into my synapses.
One big tangent from there is that nostalgia is something that you have, but you should never go back and rewatch. I made the mistake of going back and rewatching some movies from my childhood, and ended up ruining these gorgeous memories you had, so keep things locked up in the chest.
Kelly McNeely: Do you hold the raisin eyes theory? Do you believe that theory that you can tell a lot about a person if they’ve got those raisin eyes?
Ant Timpson: I’m more of a Robert Shaw shark’s eyes kind of guy. Cold, dead shark’s eyes, that’s my big tell that there’s someone I should stay away from. So I’m probably not a believer of the raisin eyes theory.
Kelly McNeely: I like yours, it’s a bit more terrifying when you see those shark eyes!
In Select Theaters Nationwide + Available on Digital & VOD on February 7, 2020.
Click here to read my full review.