In Come to Daddy, Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) plays Norval Greenwood, a seemingly well-off young man and LA music scenester who goes to visit the dad he hasn’t seen in 30 years. The opportunity, such as it is, arrives after the old man sends him a warm letter asking for a chance at reconciliation. But when Norval arrives at his dad’s remote coastal cabin, he discovers that his father is quite a different prospect in person, and that the elder Greenwood’s past might put both of them in danger.
Come to Daddy is the directorial debut of New Zealand filmmaker Ant Timpson, who spent a number of years producing independent horror fare like The ABCs of Death and The Greasy Strangler before finally getting behind the camera himself. Part of what made the decision for him was the passing of his own father, whose death not only spurred Timpson to action but had a profound influence on the film.
“I’m a guy who started off making movies every weekend with my brother and friends,” says Timpson when we sit down with him and Wood in a Hollywood restaurant. “But then I just went down different paths in the industry and I ended up in exhibition, distribution, marketing, and producing. I started producing all these films, but deep down I was still that guy who started making shorts and wanted to get back desperately. And then suddenly with the death of my father, it was just like looking at mortality staring at me and it’s like, ‘Holy shit, I need to get my ass into gear.’”
His father’s passing (“he died literally right in front of me”) clearly affected Timpson in a profound way, but so did an unusual grieving process initiated by his dad’s partner, who thought it would be a good idea for Timpson and his siblings to spend five days in the house–with his father’s corpse there the entire time.
“It ended up being really beautiful and cathartic,” recalls Timpson. “I ended up spending a lot of time by myself with him alone in the coffin [and then] sleeping in his bed. I had this strange sort of relationship with his body and him. It was just like this whole thing that once you lose a parent, there are all these things that you kind of wanted to say when they were alive and you didn’t. And then during the day there were a lot of people who came and paid respects. Some were friends and family, but then there were also people who had these wonderful stories about my father that I had no idea who they were.”
While meeting these people from his father’s past, Timpson discovered what he described as an alternate history of his dad: “He was a quiet, Southern New Zealand stoic. He was funny as hell, but there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know about him.”
All of that–the grief, the mysteries of his dad’s life, the confrontation with mortality–sparked an idea in Timpson that he brought to Toby Harvard, the screenwriter with whom he had worked on The Greasy Strangler. “I’m not the guy to make an emotional dramatic response to my dad’s death,” says Timpson. “I’m not that filmmaker. It’s got to be something that’s cached in the genre framework because that’s where I’m comfortable most.”
The genre framework–and we hesitate to say which genre Come to Daddy belongs to, because there are several within the movie itself–is also a comfortable place for Wood. In addition to acting, he has been producing horror films for a decade as one of the principals of the independent production company SpectreVision. With its polished yet gritty veneer, its sly narrative twists and its macabre vein of black humor, Come to Daddy could almost be a SpectreVision title. Timpson’s production of The Greasy Strangler came out under that banner, which meant he and Wood had already worked together as producers–but now they would collaborate as actor and director.
“About the time that I got the script, it was a very, very finely oiled machine,” says Wood. “It was super taut, funny, emotional and surprising. Constantly subverting expectations. The thing that really impressed me as well about the script was how–and this is rare–there were little tiny threads introduced, almost maybe things you could throw away, that get totally paid off. Everything was paid off. I was like, ‘Man, this is a really beautifully written piece.’ I was just thrilled to be asked to read it and be a part of it. I loved the character–it was unlike anything I’d ever really done before.”
The actor also says it was “not that different” working with Timpson as actor and director instead of producing partners. “There was obviously a shorthand in regards to communication,” he explains. “We’ve known each other for many years, but it was just an organic fit. It was his project, it was very clear what Ant’s vision was for it and I was there to serve that vision… [Ant] knew the movie that he wanted to make and who these characters were. The vision was always very, very clear.”
Norval himself is a character more akin to roles that Wood has played in movies such as The Ice Storm and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than his iconic portrayal of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings — a somewhat disaffected, rudderless man-child desperate to be noticed and perhaps even more desperate to be loved. “As long as it was in the script, it was there for me to interpret certainly,” says Wood about the character. “Some of the finishing of Norval, in terms of what my input could be, was sort of on the exterior. So it was collaborating on the wardrobe and getting that just right, making it feel like he’s from another place but also human and also pretentious.”
Wood continues, “All of that was very much a work in progress when we first got there, to try and figure out who this person was. The haircut and the mustache and the clothing did a lot to establish who that person is and helped me a great deal. I didn’t really base the character on anyone specifically. It’s this guy that may not necessarily be all the things that he says he is. At the end of the day, he just wants to be loved and he wants to connect with his father. That’s the core and everything else is just artifice.”
What eventually happens to Norval and his father will remain a secret here–Come to Daddy has some truly delicious twists that you don’t want spoiled–and Wood says that the movie’s blend of genres and tones is one of its biggest strengths. “It’s a complex little piece,” he marvels. “It’s got all these elements that are working in tandem and certain elements that may, in other circumstances, not thrive well together. I think what impressed me so much about this script, and ultimately I think the movie that we made, is that there’s a real tonal balance. Everything does work even though it seems like it shouldn’t.”
As for Timpson, he’s been producing films for enough time now to know his way around a set, but he still calls his feature directorial debut a “holy shit” moment–until he let himself relax into the job. “The pressure I put on myself was ridiculous,” he admits. “It was one of those sort of eureka moments when you realize it’s like having a baby. There’s a period where you do freak out with the enormity of it all and then you just realize people are having other kids left, right, and center all the time and movies get made literally all the time. So I was like, ‘Why are you killing yourself about it?’”
Come to Daddy is out in theaters now.