How 'I Kill Giants' Writer Joe Kelly Adapted His Comic for the Big Screen

"I was nervous as the creator and as Barbara’s dad," the co-creator of the critically-acclaimed series says.

The upcoming release of the movie version of I Kill Giants is the continuation of a journey for writer Joe Kelly that started with the 2008 release of the original comic book.

Kelly, best known as part of the Man of Action Entertainment collective behind Cartoon Networks Ben 10 and Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, co-created the series about a young girl fighting the titular giants — who may or may not actually exist — with artist Ken Niimura for Image Comics a decade ago, and the collected edition went on to be named one of the books of the year by the Young Adult Library Services Association and win the Gold Award at Japan's International MANGA Award in 2012.

He was also part of the move to bring the story to the screen, writing the screenplay for Anders Walker’s adaptation, which is released in theaters and on demand Friday. Heat Vision spoke with Kelly about the origins of the story, and translating something so personal between media.

One of the first things I did when finishing the movie was go back and re-read the original comic book, and I was surprised by how closely the scripts for both track in many scenes. How did you get started adapting the comic into a screenplay? Did you have a particular approach in mind?

As soon as you take something that’s been in your head as a comic image, frozen in amber for so long, and then see real live people becoming these characters, it’s a surreal experience from second one. But in the construction of it, for me, one of the core aspects of the book is that you’re really in Barbara’s point of view — and in the film too, for about 95 percent of the film — and you need that to sustain your own suspension of disbelief. I like it when people are done with the story, and they ask themselves, What was real? What wasn’t?, those sorts of questions.

When we do it in a comic, there’s a lot more latitude because of the experience of the reader. [Readers] already fill in the gap between panels, they make leaps between pages, between panels, it’s a lot more interactive. As soon as you see that stuff on the screen, it’s an instant message one way or another: This is real. Or, if a character doesn’t react to something that Barbara sees and they’re standing right next to her, then that’s fantasy or whatever. It becomes a way that you break the movie.

...The idea of what things can’t you show onscreen without breaking the story became the hardest part, because you have to kill your darlings. This literally gives nothing away about the film, because it’s not even in it, but the scene [in the comic] with the armor: I love that visual in the book, and when Anders and I spoke about it, he pointed out that, if nothing was said about the armor, then it wasn’t real. But in a comic, you have a different experience as a reader. That went through the entire translation.

I think that comics tee up readers to accept fantasy elements in a way that cinema doesn’t, because there’s so much fantasy and fantastical elements in the medium as a given.

I think it has to do with the tactile nature of how we engage with comics. Luckily, with Anders, he did a great job of bringing that feeling into the film. Especially folks who hadn’t read the book that I’ve spoken to, I’ve definitely had people ask me, Wait, what’s real and what’s not real? at the end, which is great. There’s a lot of stuff that they still find surprising, which is the great gift of that story and what Anders did with it. Just the whole vibe with it, that we shot it in Ireland but it’s meant to be Long Island, there’s this whole kind of magical element to it. Ireland and Belgium. Those forests don’t exist in my neighborhood, you know? [Laughs]

The movie really feels like the comic come to life, which was a pleasant surprise given how strong the aesthetic of the original is. When the adaptation was initially announced, I was nervous about that: How do you recreate that artwork as a live-action movie?

Ken’s art style is so fluid, and relaxed, even though he’s a meticulous designer — before we even did the book, it’s in the collected edition, you can see all the design work he did for the school, for Barbara’s house, all this design work for Barbara, even the bunny ears, everything — he captures, with minimal lines, the maximum emotion. Anders, he sets up a guide rail and let’s people work within that. He’s very into a minimal approach — he loves the emotional approach, he loves the swell of character within a scene, he’s not shy about the melodrama of it, but he does it in a way that’s restrained. You can see it in his short films, also. There’s a lot of emotion, but it doesn’t seem ham-fisted. I think that really maintains the level of reality, but it lets your emotion wander inside it.

Madison Wolfe, the actress who plays Barbara, is really amazing. It’s not an easy role, and she manages to bring out the subtlety in what Barbara says and does, versus how she’s actually feeling. Were you nervous about finding the right actor for the role?

I was nervous as the creator and as Barbara’s dad. Obviously, finding Madison was one of the most important components. I think they were like 500 tapes. When I came into the casting process, they’d narrowed it down to the top five. Anders sent me to top picks, and didn’t tell me who he was in love with, and Madison was just heads and shoulders above. And that was a year before we started shooting, because of the way you put together an independent film, so she was even younger and still was killing it. She had so much subtlety to the acting, her process and the way she evolved that character, and this was just watching a phone video [in the audition]. You could tell, this was a powerhouse. Once I got to see her on set, with the ears and the pocketbook, it was pretty mind-blowing. And she’s such a sweet kid, and so professional! We’d be talking — any questions she had, I was always happy to answer — and she’d say, "In the script, Barbara’s so savage, she’s just so savage!" But she could tap into whatever was needed, she could be savage, she could be funny, she could be sarcastic and loving… The subtleties of the emotions, the guardedness that she has that plays out as aggression towards others, that verbal skill… She delivers as if she’s been acting for 30 years.

Her performance really lands. She’s obviously the emotional center of the film, but she does it really well.

I wasn’t there the day they filmed the, well, the finale stuff, but the stories from the people who were there…! [Laughs] Not a dry eye in the house, you know? And watching her do the action stuff when I was there — she’s so willing to climb trees, fight, whatever you ask her to do, she’d do it. She was really incredible. Our whole cast is great; everybody rises to each other’s level, but she’s literally in almost every scene. That’s a lot of pressure, especially for someone her age, but she really came through. I can’t picture it any other way.

It’s funny; I was flipping through the book the other day, and for the longest time, that was the only Barbara in my head, and now Madison is the only Barbara in my head. I have to merge them!

One of the things the film does, that was unexpected to me, is emphasize how unusual I Kill Giants is as a comic property because it’s so quiet and so subtle, even with the fantasy elements. There’s so much under the surface. I also didn’t realize until the movie how female a story it is; it’s so centered around the female characters. Were you aware, going back to when you were writing the comic originally, how unusual the story is for the American comic market?

Going back to the beginning of the process for me. It was my second stab at a creator-owned property — the first one was under the Cliffhanger banner at Wildstorm, so it was still pretty "safe," and more big muscle-y fantasy stuff. I Kill Giants, I wanted to do something that diverted from everything I’d done before. Luckily, Image embraces that wholeheartedly. Eric Stephenson, he’s such a great gatekeeper. I just walked up to him, said, This is the story, this is what it looks like, and he said, Okay, I’ll print it. That’s how they work over there. Their faith in it in the beginning was great, and I knew that this was one of those stories that I believed in it, they believed in it, and I knew it would find an audience.

On the one hand, it’s not a story where you can say, Oh, it’s Die Hard in a school and everyone understands, but I like that it’s hard to pigeonhole, and it’s been really gratifying over the course of the time that the book has been out that I meet people from all walks of life, men, women, any age, who have been moved by it. My hope is that the same formula will apply to the film, and people will find it, but especially the people who kind of need it, which is the most gratifying thing when people come up to talk about their experience of the book. It can get really emotional.

It’s always felt like a very personal story, and I think that the movie preserves that. Are you prepared for more people to find it, especially those who need it? Are you ready for the scale of that connection to grow?

I really hope so. It’s funny, I didn’t get to answer part of your prior question, about realizing that it’s mostly women, especially in the film. There’s literally, like, two lines spoken by men in the movie. [Laughs] I didn’t realize that when I wrote it. My kids were young when I first wrote the book, and I was really heavily influenced by Kiki’s Delivery Service. The story of a young girl being guided to strength by other women — and in Kiki’s case, obviously, they’re all adults — was really beautiful. I really loved it, and I didn’t realize how much it had seeped into my own thinking and then, once I started building out Barbara’s cast, I was thinking, Well, she’s in school, who’s she going to meet? There’s a best friend, there’s this bully, there’s a guidance counselor… Those characters all happened to be female and it all felt right to me. What I’m hoping is, once it’s out, and especially the timing of the film with what’s happening in the national conversation, I hope young women will take a look at it and see a different kind of hero on the screen, someone who can represent them in a different kind of way.

I don’t think, at all, it’s only for girls. I’ve seen it, with an audience, and young boys get exactly how it feels — that’s a direct quote. I’m ready for folks to see it, and I hope they give it a shot. It’s been so nice to hear what people’s reactions have been. Anytime that I work on anything, I have this reaction — I remember once, I was writing Superman [comic books] and someone said, Have you seen the sales? and I thought, Don’t tell me about the sales, I just have to write the story. I’ve always been like that, but Giants has always been special. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever said to my wife, "This is the one." I felt like it was going to connect with people, and hopefully that’s going to be the case with the film as well.

Giants has always felt like the most "you" story you’ve written, and I say that as someone who read and loved your Action Comics Superman stories. But no matter how good they are, they’re Superman stories and there’s an expectation and almost 80 years of history to live up to. I Kill Giants feels very much like a story that only you could tell, and also a story that you had a passion to tell. With the movie about to come out, seeing the story find a new audience in this way, does it drive the desire to more work like this? Is there a sense of, "There’s more I can do like this?"

100 percent. It’s the best motivator, when you put something out — whether it’s a comic or a movie — something that you’ve poured yourself into, and then you get back that emotional charge and that audience reaction that you wanted, or that you didn’t even expect. Ken and I are doing a new book which, really, we should have done seven years ago. We’re doing a new project that’s a different kind of personal story, although it has similar grounding in my personal history — I pull pretty liberally from my life and my experience for this stuff — I mean Ms. Mollé is my wife’s maiden name, she’s a guidance counselor, I just went, Oh, you need to be in this — but the experience of leaving it all on the page, and not relying on the years of super-structure, it’s a great feeling. And then, finding that people care and respond to that work, it’s pretty wonderful.