On a frigid Louisiana morning in 2009, in a house that reeked of cat urine, Rainn Wilson kneeled down on a bedroom floor and began to bellow at God. Sitting next to him, off camera, director James Gunn stared down at a small monitor and tried to contain his excitement as hot tears streamed down the face of the sputtering actor two feet away from him.
“It is so, so heartbreaking, but at the same time it’s really funny and people don’t know how to react to those things right next to each other, side by side,” said Gunn, best known as the writer-director of “Slither,” the 2006 comedy-horror film. “It was so uncomfortable, and that’s the playground I love to be in. It’s a scene that will change the way people look at Rainn Wilson. I know I was flabbergasted. Whatever you think of Rainn, it changes during that scene.”
On April Fool’s Day, Gunn and Wilson’s strange, subversive little film called “Super” will reach theaters as perhaps the most unsettling and endearing superhero film imaginable, a kooky blend of “Taxi Driver,” “Donnie Darko” and “The Greatest American Hero” that aspires to be both heartwarming and (literally) skull-splitting. At the center of the film is Wilson, whom costar Ellen Page describes as “a revelation” in his role as an unhinged vigilante who calls himself the Crimson Bolt and uses a pipe wrench to bash in the heads of dope dealers, pedophiles and people who cut in line at the theater.
The 45-year-old Wilson’s previous film credits include “The Rocker,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and “Monsters vs Aliens,” but he is best known as the caddish, egomaniacal Dwight Schrute on the sitcom “The Office,” now in its seventh season. That isn’t about to change — the series pulls in 8 million or 9 million viewers for NBC on Thursday nights while “Super” is just a scruffy little indie film with a heretical spirit and a hard-earned R-rating. The movie has an impressive supporting cast (Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon and Nathan Fillion along with Page), but Wilson knows the movie is too fierce and jagged to be embraced by the wider popcorn constituency.
“You have tonal shifts from really sincere crying to animated sequences to hyper-violence to farcical comedy,” Wilson said. “It’s equal parts Travis Bickle and Napoleon Dynamite. I love all the different places the movie goes. There is a lot of it that you just don’t see coming.”
That’s an understatement. In a central scene in the film, his character is snatched up by mysterious tentacles and held captive while his cranium is cut open like a soup can so the giant, glowing finger of God can tap the top of his brain. For the record, Wilson says audiences shouldn’t be too alarmed by that scene: “It’s not a true story, just so you know.”
The story, written by Gunn in 2002, follows the sad-sack story of Frank D’Arbo (Wilson), a short-order cook who loses his recovering-addict wife, Sarah (Tyler), to a sleazy strip-club owner and low-level crime boss named Jacques (Bacon) who plies her with dope and double-talk. But like a middle-aged, flabby-middled Joan of Arc, Frank gets a message from God (as well as a Christian broadcasting personality played with deadpan delight by Fillion) that takes him to a conclusion quite popular in contemporary American film: He will wear a mask and fight crime.
Superhero cinema is all the rage these days. It’s a function of Hollywood’s need for the kind of big-screen spectacle that can coax audiences away from home theaters and the most ideal use of computer-generated visual effects able to convince moviegoers that, no, really, a man can fly. Poking fun at the masked-man tropes is a natural reflex of our collective masked-man fatigue. “Hancock,” “Kick-Ass,” “Defendor,” “Sky High” and “Special” are a few of the caped satires and sendups in recent years, but none of them — not even Matthew Vaughn’s bloody and brash “Kick-Ass” — are as psychologically edgy as “Super.”
“‘Super’ feels, somehow, part of the real world, unlike a lot of these movies that have a sort of similar theme,” Wilson said. “I’m so happy to be in this film.”
It was Jenna Fischer, Gunn’s ex-wife and Wilson’s costar on “The Office,” who put the actor together with the role. The script had sat on a shelf for seven years, but Fischer’s affection for it never waned. One day on the set of “The Office” she told Wilson that he would be ideal for the part and texted Gunn to send the script over. A production assistant on the comedy show printed it out and brought it to Wilson’s trailer. The actor was 28 pages in when he reached a decision. “My hands were shaking,” Wilson said.
It was 2009, though, and the independent film scene was in a grim funk. The director and actor struggled to find supporters and finally got Ted Hope (“The Ice Storm”) and Miranda Bailey (“The Squid and the Whale”) on board. The movie was filmed in under 20 days, and Gunn said the urgency and discomfort of the shoot added to the jangled-nerves vibe of the film. “There was a culture of speed,” Wilson said in agreement. “We were doing 30 setups a day. It gave everything an edge.”
After screenings in Toronto and Austin, Texas, reviews have been mostly good (The Hollywood Reporter called it “a giddily over-the-top, super-entertaining goof … that deserves to realize its cult calling”), but the film is divisive. When Wilson went on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” it was clear the host didn’t know what to make of his guest’s new film. Gunn couldn’t contain his glee while watching. “My movie mind-raped Jay Leno. What’s better than that?”
The trailer for “Super,” which is being distributed by IFC Films, captures the quirkiness of the story and some of the pathos, but it certainly doesn’t hint at the jarring scenes of graphic gore, such as the moment in the film when Wilson’s character sees someone he knows lose half their skull. There’s also a surreal scene in which Page’s character, in her costume as a sidekick superhero named Boltie, sexually ravishes Frank in a fashion that leaves moviegoers buzzing in the lobby after screenings.
“A lot of people have talked about the violence in the film, and I know it will have a polarizing effect on the audience,” Wilson said. “But if you look at ‘Iron Man 2’ and the violence in movies where buildings are exploding and cities are being leveled and you know people are dying, there’s insane violence but you don’t see the chunks of bone. We show far less violence, but there is the toll of that violence. The movie asks, ‘What is the difference between a hero and a vigilante?’ And it’s almost a meditation on violence, in a weird way. ‘What is it when someone gets hit in the head with wrench?’ This isn’t ‘2012,’ where billions of people die, but there’s no genuine consequence or connection to it.”
Wilson grew up in Seattle and Illinois as the son of a novelist, Robert G. Wilson, and a yoga instructor and actress named Shay Cooper. His interest in the stage eventually took him to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and The Acting Company. To “Super” producer Bailey, that background resonates in Wilson’s work in the film in a way that will startle fans accustomed to his sitcom persona. “You can’t watch this,” Bailey said, “and think Rainn is just ‘that guy from ‘The Office.’”
Wilson says the role of Frank will stay with him quite a while. On a recent afternoon he and Page, who worked together in 2007’s “Juno” and are good friends off the set, wandered the strange exhibits at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the oddball collection of curios, gizmos and critter specimens that is more art installation than science center. “I love this place — it’s like Charlie Kaufman’s brain,” Wilson said. “I think Frank would like it.”
Sitting in the upstairs tea room, Wilson said the surprises of “Super” just keep coming. “What I didn’t expect is that women are reacting to the movie. I have women coming up and saying, ‘I never really thought of you as an attractive guy and in the first half of the movie you’re such a schlub, but then by the end, I was, like, ‘Wow.’ I guess women really do like a guy with a square jaw in a costume blowing guys away. If he knows how to swing a wrench, a guy can be a hero.”
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED