Interview: Lee Kirk on Directing ‘Ordinary World’

Writer-director Lee Kirk discusses his new film Ordinary World, the changes that come with having kids and turning 40, and working with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in the lead role.

You wrote about how the original idea for Original World came after the birth of your first child. I was wondering if you could start off by talking about how that idea came about and what that journey was like, from writing it to getting it made.

Sure. My first son was born a couple weeks before my 40th birthday. When you have a newborn, you’re obviously cooped up in the house for a while [laughs]. I wanted to write another movie and it was clearly the most obvious thing to be writing about.

So I started thinking about this film and the change that happens with having a child, and also with turning 40. It sort of morphed into this film, and I decided to make it a musician. I’m not a musician, but I thought a musician seemed like an interesting way to go with it.

I had no actor really in mind, but I did think I was going to be casting a traditional actor in the role. Billie Joe’s agent read the script and recommended him, which was really exciting to me. He read the script and liked the script, and then I went up and met with him.

We hit it off and talked about our families. He’s got two boys and been married for twenty-something years, so he knows the family life. It seemed like a great fit, and a really exciting fit, too. So we both took the leap together and made the film.

So you don’t have any musical background or ever dreamed of becoming a rock star when you were younger? Anything like that?

[Laughs]. No, I don’t. I love music, you know, and it felt like the right world for this movie to be in. I’m always listening to my music from the ‘90s, because that’s really when I first started getting into music was by the early ‘90s. So that’s always kind of been there and I’ve always wanted to do something with it. This felt like the perfect thing.

This movie is very much about being a dad and family and hitting 40, which I’m assuming you were able to pull a lot from your own life. Can you talk a little more about that and then combining that with the perspective of a musician? Did you do any research or read interviews for that?

No, I didn’t really research. I kind of just came from my own perspective on what it means to be turning 40, and also thinking a lot about maybe what I thought it was going to be when I was 40 and where I was. I think that’s something we all go through.

That must be why 40 is a big birthday, because for a lot of people they’re over that hump of having kids. Maybe their kids are 9 or 10 or something, and for some reason that age, 40, brings up a lot of that kind of thinking. I just felt like it was a fertile area to work in.

I know a lot of musicians. Not on the level of Billy Joe, but I know guys in bands around L.A. and Chicago, and so that seemed like a fun world to write in. Also, I like the idea of a punk rock dad who does the parenting but does it his own way. That seemed like a fun thing to play with.

You structured the film around the 24-hour period where the main character turns 40. Was that always written with that in mind? How did you come across that format?

When I decided on the 40th birthday, it just felt like it should be a one-day journey. I always like movies that happen in a day, and so it felt like a fun world to play in. I think when I realized the twist of the film about his birthday, I felt like this definitely should happen within one day.

And it was fun. It was fun to play with how far you can take that journey in one day, how far you can take that character, and then bring him back and still be within the same 24-hour timeframe.

For Billie Joe, this is his biggest acting role onscreen that he’s ever done before. What was it like more of working with him, someone who doesn’t come from an acting background and has limited experience in that area?

Him and I worked on the role for about nine months. We would get together every week or couple weeks, either he would come down to me or I would go up to him. We would sit and talk about the role and work on scenes. We would rehearse scenes and rewrite scenes, all with the vision of making this role tailor-made for him.

It was so fun because he was so eager to work on it, which was really exciting. He knew instinctively what bad acting was, so that helped [laughs]. He knew, OK, that sucks, so let’s not do that. We just worked on it to find the most honest interpretation of this character.

We worked on the timing and the lines. The lines were a big part of it. He’s in every scene of the film, so he really needed to have those down in his sleep backwards and forwards. We worked on that as well, having them prepared.

It was really fun. It was a total blast working with him. I found it fascinating and I appreciated his desire. His desire is infectious. He’s a charismatic guy, so it was a great time.

Another cool thing about this movie is you have such a great supporting cast around him, with Fred Armisen, Chris Messina, Judy Greer and Selma Blair. What was it like working with them? I’m sure that really helped Billie Joe as well, having such a good group of actors to play off of.

Oh yeah, man. It was a blast. We had such a great cast. We were so fortunate. I think they all wanted to work with him. They all were excited to work with him. When I told Judy that the role required her laying on a bed with him singing a song to her, she was siked. She couldn’t wait to do it.

I think they all elevated his game. They all are such pros and so good at what they do that I think it was really great for him to see how they worked. I think he learned a lot from them, too. We were fortunate. It was an exciting thing to have such great people, and they all bring their own perspectives. They all bring their own process to the film and their own ideas, which was all great. They made it better, to have all those people involved.

You also have a fun little cameo from Joan Jett midway through the movie. What was it like having her on set and how did that role come about?

I mean, that was amazing. We knew we needed someone in that role that he bumps into, weren’t sure who it was going to be, and then Billie Joe suggested Joan Jett. I was like, “Are you kidding? That would be so crazy. I would love that.” I think it was as simple as a text message he sent her, saying, “Hey, do you want to do this movie?” She said, “Hell yeah.”

She came in and that was a pretty special day, to have the two of them in my film. She was great. She was a total natural. She did a great job in the film. Billie Joe has said that was complete honesty on his part. His character is a little bit in awe of her at that moment in the movie, and he was just playing it straight. It was great. It was really fun.

Ordinary World is your second feature. You did your first one, The Giant Mechanical Man, about four or so years ago, which also starred Chris Messina as well as your wife, Jenna Fischer. How did this experience of this film stack up with that one?

They were both about the same amount of days shooting. I think we had three more days shooting on this movie. This one was a 21-day shoot. That one was an 18-day shoot, so they were both quick.

I was lucky enough on both movies to have a lead actor who was 100 percent committed to the movie. I had it in Chris Messina and I had it in Billie Joe. That makes such a difference, when you feel like you’re collaborating with someone on making a film. Both were a wonderful experience.

We shot both at the same time of the year. We shot Giant Mechanical Man in Detroit and Ordinary World was in New York City, which was also a total dream come true to be shooting a movie in New York City.

I think they share that similarity of everyone who signed up to do the film wanted to be there and was excited to be there. That’s infectious. You can kind of feel that around the set when everyone’s having a good time. I was lucky enough to have great people who wanted to have a great time and try to make the best movie we could.

As far as this movie goes, what do you think was your hardest scene to get right, either as a writer or a director, and how were you able to creatively get through it?

That’s a good question. Let me think about that for a second. Well, the scene where Billie Joe’s character sings to Judy Greer’s character in the hotel room was a really pivotal scene in the movie and one that we thought about a lot.

Going back to the song, originally Billie Joe had written a different song for that. I was like, “Hey man, we need this song here. We need this song thinking about the past and trying to reconcile.”

He went off and wrote a terrific, amazing song that we played with for a while, and then I thought, you know what? I feel like we might need a different song in this moment. We might need something a little more about family and simplicity of life. And then he wrote “Ordinary World.”

I was completely blown away when he sent me that song. Also, to his credit he just said, “Fine. Sure. Let me go try something else.” Then a week later I had this incredible song. For me, that was mind-blowing, to have this wonderful, Grammy Award-winning songwriter writing songs and sending them to me.

So anyway, the preparation for that scene started with that song. Then when we were shooting, I think we had about half a day to shoot that scene, which included the song. It was just a matter of getting it right, getting the intimacy right and getting the feel of the song right. So we spent some time really going over and over that scene, and I’m thrilled with how it came out.

They were both so good in the scene. Judy is such a wonderful actress. She showed up and immediately went right to the intimacy in that scene, which I think was great because it helped free Billie Joe up. He had never done something that intimate, so he went right there and we had this chemistry from the get-go. It was really, really exciting.

I know you went through a couple titles before Ordinary World. That’s why the title changed then, after he wrote that song, I’m assuming.

Yeah, so what happened with that was we were calling the movie Geezer. It was a title we both sort of liked. I don’t think we really loved it, but we liked it. Then he said, “I want ‘Ordinary World’ on the new record.”

I was like, that’s incredible. He had been thinking about it, and then he said, “I’m going to put it on there.” He said, “We should change the movie title to Ordinary World.” I was like, “Hell yeah. That’s an incredible idea.” So really, it was to his credit. It was his thinking and doing.

The movie was locked already. The movie was done and was called Geezer. It was finished and it was sold as Geezer. It was all done, so it had to be opened back up again and changed, which everyone was thrilled to do because they understood what it meant. Again, I’m just lucky to have Billie Joe so invested in the film.

When you first hear Billie Joe Armstrong is starring in a movie about a former musician, this isn’t necessarily the type of film you would think of right away. I don’t know if I would call it family friendly, because of the stuff he’s dealing with, but it’s definitely very pro-family and has its share of cute moments. Was it pretty fun to play a little bit with expectations and against type for both of you?

Yeah, absolutely. That was really the fun of it, to take this guy you associate from his Green Day image with snide and going against the grain and punk rock and trouble, which is of course not who he really is but the image I think that comes out of it. To take that and put him in this down to earth, simple, heartfelt movie about family, that was exciting for me.

To find not just that side of him, but then there also is some stuff in there where he does get to go a little nuts and can let loose a little bit. I wanted to have both in there. But yeah, I was hoping to play against people’s expectations a little bit with that.

How many takes did you do of him smashing the guitar? Was that all in one take?

No, I think there were eight guitars that we ended up smashing. I think by the eighth one, Billie Joe said, “Man, I’m starting to feel kind of bad about this [laughs].” I was like, “Yeah, we got what we needed. Let’s hang it up.” So that was a blast. That was one of the most fun scenes to shoot.

What do you hope to leave people with and hope they’re able to take away from after watching the movie?

Hopefully, people will relate to the feeling of the film. The theme or the idea that kept popping through my head with this movie was that saying that goes, “Life is what happens when you’re making plans.”

That was kind of the idea of this. There’s this guy, Perry. He’s been planning on one life, and then on this day he realizes that life’s never happening again. This is the life I’m leading with my family. Hopefully, people can relate to that realization and relate to that feeling.

I hope people like it. I hope people like seeing Billie Joe doing something different and I hope they all appreciate his performance. Whatever happens, I cherish the experience I had working on it with him. It was just a blast.

So what is next for you personally? Do you have any other projects you’re currently working on or will be working on soon?

I have a script I’m just finishing up that I’m writing with a friend. That’s coming up soon, and then I’m actually going to direct a music video for a band called the Old 97’s. I’m doing that music video for them in January, and then I have another possible TV directing job and things like that. Just trying to stay busy, really.

’Ordinary World’ is in theaters, digital HD and on demand October 14.