'I Kill Giants' Screenwriter Joe Kelly on How to Adapt A Comic into a Successful Feature Film
Reworking your own source material can be tricky, especially when it involves an inherently complex visual design.
From its title onward, I Kill Giants carries a heavy emotional load. The film's protagonist is a strong, sarcastic, middle-school wunderkind expertly equipped to kill the giants invading her Long Island town. Adapted from a comic by Joe Kelly, Anders Walter's film is richly moody and personal, showing us a young girl's struggles against aggression from all sides, against a backdrop of psychological and meteorological weather that would be a lot for anyone to handle.
Bringing out the full punchiness of his original comic, Kelly's scrip has bullies, monsters, tormented adults...in short, everything most children deal with growing up. Four years in the making, the film features an outstanding cast, including Madison Wolfe, Imogen Poots, and Zoe Saldana.
As I Kill Giants currently resides in theaters and on most digital platforms, No Film School caught up with Kelly to discuss the highs and lows of getting his work from page-to-screen.
No Film School: What element of your original comic convinced you that it would make for a compelling film?
Joe Kelly: I was in love with the story from its conception. It comes from such a personal place. As soon as I finished the script for the comic, I rewrote it as a film because I felt that there was something universal about the story. At the worst, I thought it would make for a nice spec. Ultimately, it wound up being the writing sample that secured my place on the film. When I write, I keep the audience in mind but I don't write for an audience. I figure that an audience finds the comic or film that it's meant for—and I base that on my own reaction to the material. I Kill Giants hit me hard. After many years and probably hundreds of conversations with fans about their connection to the book, I realized that the book hit others in the same way. I was confident that an audience would find I Kill Giants as a film and be moved by it.
"A comic has to be its own complete unit of entertainment and stand on its own merits."
NFS: What is the main virtue that comics bring to screenplay adaptations?
Kelly: On the down-and-dirty business side, having a successful comic helps to sway the risk-averse people who get into financing films. That said, I never write a comic as a "sales tool." The audience smells that a mile away. A comic has to be its own complete unit of entertainment and stand on its own merits. That's how it gains a following.
From a creative POV, comics are obviously a visual storytelling medium, and the creative team can do a lot of research and development for the folks who might later come along to adapt the material. It's the story, the lookbook, the boards, and the emotion, all in one handy package.
Lastly, it has to be said that, despite some opinions that comics are a niche form of entertainment, comics creators are storytellers capable of achieving great scope, gravity, and depth (with very simple tools). We are trained to tell stories episodically for an ongoing, complete three-act structure. It's all the same work that goes into other media from a conceptual point of view, just with a different execution and delivery system.
NFS: What do you feel was the chief change in the work you made in going from the comic to the big screen? There are many differences, of course, but which was most significant for you, as the creator of the sourcebook?
Kelly: The primary changes all fall under the same umbrella: We had to cut anything that would "break the movie" by concretizing Barbara's reality one way or another, and then replace those gaps with scenes that externalized her inner struggles in a compelling way. This meant killing some darlings and replacing them with action sequences. Anders was excellent as an editor in this way—coming to the source material clean and thinking cinematically. It was a great collaboration that resulted in two separate but equal versions of the story, companion pieces that show Barbara's journey in slightly different ways.
NFS: What process did you use to build from the frame-by-frame structure to the structure of a screenplay? To what extent did the frames dictate the shape of the screenplay?
Kelly: I was trained in screenwriting, so I actually approach comic scripts like screenplays with a few extra tools: panels, page turns, and unlimited descriptive power (not being restricted to the page-a-minute standard). So structurally, I always wear the same hat that I would for a film or TV episode.
In terms of the adaptation, what's nice is the ability to take the original comic script and strip down the panel descriptions into the movements of a scene—basically a translation exercise from comics-speak to screenwriting. It got me to a rough draft very quickly. Then there are obviously huge moments that I've already seen in the comic that become tentpoles for the film script. I can build scenes around those moments because I already know that they work.
"The classic version of a giant as a 'tall man dressed in peasant's garb' was our 'no-fly' zone."
NFS: Can you say a little bit about the setting? Why the Long Island coast?
Kelly: It's my home, so it was an easy setting to write about. Also, all of the mythology around water as a symbol of change felt appropriate to the story. Barbara alone on an emotional island, etc. It all fed into the theme of the film.
NFS: What served as your primary inspiration for the appearance of the monsters in both the comic and in the film?
Kelly: That was all Ken Niimura's genius. He's an incredible artist and meticulous designer. We went through a lot of designs of giants and the Titan. We were both fans of Shadow of the Colossus, which helped inform the Titan. Mostly, we were looking at things we wanted to avoid. The classic version of a giant as a "tall man dressed in peasant's garb" was our "no-fly" zone. Ken just went wild from there.
For the film, Anders took inspiration from Ken, and then being an artist himself, started doing designs of giants that were even farther afield from what we'd done in the book. We wanted creatures that truly were of their environment—asymmetrical, of the natural world, etc. The design team really came through for us, especially with the Titan.