25 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Ian Fitzgibbon On Bringing ‘Death of a Superhero’ To Life
27 Nov 2012 : By Eva Hall
The cast & crew of 'Death of a Superhero' on location in 2010
When director Ian Fitzgibbon first boarded ‘Death of a Superhero’, the film script was in “development hell” as he puts it, as so many film adaptations of successful novels are.

Rather than dismissing the idea of reworking and rewriting it and realising some other director could pull it off, Fitzgibbon decided to take on the challenge as he’d “never made a film for teenagers, and I have teenage children so I found that really intriguing”.

Ironically enough, ‘Death of a Superhero’ may be Fitzgibbon’s most adult-themed work yet, tackling subjects of terminal illness, adolescence and suicide.

“The idea of this 15 year-old boy who had the courage to face this thing around him that the so-called adults around him didn’t, that part of the story really appealed to me. And then there was the animation; I’d never done anything like that before, I was really curious to see how those two elements can be woven together. So that’s what’s drew me to it I think,” says Fitzgibbon.

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the international film festival critics for the past year, ‘Death of a Superhero’ follows Dublin schoolboy Donald Clarke, played by English actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster, as he struggles with life as a terminally ill teenager. Still tasked with going to school in between hospital appointments, he meets a wayward girl in Shelly, played by Aisling Loftus, who takes his mind off his animations which he once used as a distraction from his chemotherapy.

Add a spectacled, cardigan-wearing Andy Serkis to the mix as the boy’s shrink, Michael McElhatton and Sharon Horgan as his parents, and Ronan Raftery as his older brother, and the cast of ‘Death of a Superhero’ is pretty much complete.

I like the fact that a location has an emotional resonance, and the specific landscape has an aesthetic that’s really pleasing "

Based on Anthony McCarten’s novel of the same name, the film was originally set in New Zealand, but quickly changed to Ireland with Fitzgibbon’s input and support from the Irish Film Board.

The film ended up being an Irish/German co-production with Grand Pictures in Ireland and Bavaria Pictures, Bayerischer Banken-Fonds and FilmFernsehFonds Bayern from Germany teaming up. Trixter in Munich did all the art work, which takes up roughly one third of the entire film.

“We shot the live action and any elements that involved live action and animation. We had VFX supervisors and production studio people come over and were on set with us when we generated those shots, so from a technical point of view it was quite fastidious. Then we stopped the live action and we went into all the animation stuff and that took a few months in Munich,” says Fitzgibbon.

Fitzgibbon based himself in Munich for the edit, perhaps his biggest commitment for a project so far: “I lived in Munich for about six months. We did little stick drawings almost, and we put them into the live action and then we’d watch it. It was a question of getting the balance of the animation and the live action, and making sure that the animation always served a story purpose and wasn’t bringing the story to a halt just for a bit of cool animation. So that took a while to get to the stage where we were happy with everything that we had in terms of balance.”
Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays Donald Clarke in ‘Death of a Superhero’

Although it was definitely the longest he has ever spent on a project, Fitzgibbon says the process didn’t put him off working this way in the future: “I would [collaborate on live action and animation again] yeah. It was fascinating, absolutely fascinating. The thing for me was the animation and the live action are really the same thing. They are part of the one story.

“What I was always wary of was stopping the story for the animation. What really excited me was how they can actually play just as important a role as the live action, in terms or allowing you to discover who this boy was, in a way that the live action wouldn’t show.”

Before the film hit the post studios in Munich, Fitzgibbon filmed it on familiar territory, on-location in Glasthule, Monkstown and Sandycove. Serkis’s character lives on the seafront, and treats his patient Clarke from an office in his home.

Fitzgibbon says: “I wrote it with those locations. When Mark [Doherty] and I sat down to rewrite the script I’d seen that house where the shrink lives, I knew where that boat was going to be, I knew how connected to the sea it was going to be. So those are things that were just in the script.

“There wasn’t a question of trying to discover anywhere with a locations manager. It’s also a stretch of Dublin that Mark knows very well, so I think we felt very anchored in that reality. That helped us write it.”

Fitzgibbon shot in these seaside locations during autumn time 2010. With the aid of German director of photography Tom Fährmann, he was able to capture the light so it would resonate with the story he was trying to tell.
Aisling Loftus, who plays Shelly, & Ian Fitzgibbon on set

“I like the fact that a location has an emotional resonance, and I also think that the specific landscape has an aesthetic that’s really pleasing and that feels to fit the story for me.

“I was very lucky with my DP, he has such a sensitive eye and personality that he was able to show me things and visualise potential things that I hadn’t spotted, and I found that very exciting. So I worked very very closely with him, and we talked about colour schemes, and locations and how particular locations might want to echo a certain kind of feeling.

“In hospital for example, we emphasised sickly greens and yellows because we didn’t want that world. We wanted that world to feel like a prison compared to the rest of the world, and we also wanted to explore the idea of a teenager being confined in what really is a children’s ward.

“In terms of the aesthetics of the locations, I think when [Fährmann] saw Glasthule and the 40-foot and places like that, as a DP he got very excited because he could see skies that he’d never seen before, and he couldn’t believe the relationship between our coast line and the city,” adds Fitzgibbon.

I know other film directors who wouldn’t go near television and that’s fine, but for me, I think I need to be doing it. "

In preparation for the shoot, Fitzgibbon sought advice from a real psychologist who deals with patients like Clarke on a daily basis. “She spoke a lot about how teenagers are the most challenging people. Children obviously have a limited understanding of what’s going on, and adults are capable of articulating things. Teenagers are kind of stuck between two worlds, so they’re very challenging to deal with. I do have two teenage children, so I think it is something that I felt connected to,” he says.

‘Death of a Superhero’ marks the director’s third feature film in a row, having spent time on RTÉ series ‘The Clinic’ before the 2010 shoot. After ‘A Film With Me In It’, ‘Perrier’s Bounty’ and ‘Death of a Superhero’, he then moved back into TV with work on ‘Vexed’, ‘Threesome’ and ‘Moone Boy’.

“I like television because it’s fast, and it keeps you from getting rusty. For me, if I’m going to improve as a director, I have to be doing it, I can’t be thinking about it, so the very real pragmatic routine of television output means you shoot, you edit, you deliver, and then you go on and you do the next thing.

“A film can be much more torturous,” he continues, “features by their nature, if they are any kind of budget at all, are hard to put together. They’ve long gestation periods, so for me, to be able to shoot for a certain amount of weeks, edit for a certain amount of weeks, and then it goes out and it’s on and that’s it, there’s something quite refreshing about that. It certainly allows you to flex your director’s muscle, which I feel I need to do. I know other film directors who wouldn’t go near television and that’s fine, it doesn’t suit everybody. But for me, I think I need to be doing it.”

And he continues to do it, with not only more feature films lined up, but also a ‘Little Crackers’ short for Sky under his belt just in time for Christmas.

‘Death of a Superhero’ is released in cinemas on November 30. To be in with a chance to win a pair of tickets to a screening at the IFI, click here.

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