Griff the Invisible: an Australian superhero

Writer/director Leon Ford, producer Nicole O’Donohue, and actors Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody – the team behind Griff the Invisible – reveal how a project with a modest budget and a lot of heart and imagination became Australia’s first superhero movie.

“It’s the first, but people are not thinking ‘We’ll go see that American movie, or that Australian film’. It will sit amongst all the films in release,” Ford told Encore.

What is the story behind Griff the Invisible?

LEON FORD: I wrote the first draft in 2005. [Producer] Nicole O’Donohue and I were about to shoot a 30-minute film financed by Screen Australia, so they were building us up to shoot a feature. Then we drafted Griff a few times, went into the IndiVision script lab and basically got the green light from Screen Australia in January 2009.

We spent the rest of the year raising the rest of the finance, travelling around markets and pitching the film over and over and over again.

How many times did you have to pitch it?


LF: It’s in the hundreds. And then we started casting, even though we were just 90 percent up. We found our two leads who are sitting here now. Ryan’s timetable with True Blood meant that we had to shoot a little earlier than we were going to, but that all came together very nicely.

What attracted you to this project?

MAEVE DERMODY: I got the script through my agent. I remember I was at Wylies Baths when I read it, and I became obsessed with it; I auditioned over five months. I just kept coming in once a month; I made it kind of a passion.

RYAN KWANTEN: There was a tremendous amount of heat around the script; people were talking about how original it was. I was in the US at the time and I felt the flames that far over. When it was pitched to me they said ‘You’re going to love this’, and I said ‘I’ll be the judge of that’. I fell in love, and I can quite firmly say that. I had to put myself on tape over there, submitted it there and put myself on tape again and again.

The offer finally came through; they just sort of said ‘This guy is not going to give up!’ I guess they could see the character in me and what I was showing them.

MD: That extended casting period turned out to be a bit of a gift, because you really have to think about [the role], and there’s so much pressure to really get inside it that you spend a lot of time doing it again and again, so you discover a lot along the way. I remember when we first met up, we talked about it and we did a lot of the pre-work.

LF: You offer a role to someone on the basis that they’re brilliant at what they do, and then you’ve got to spend the first two weeks of the shoot just working each other out and trying to get on the same page.

Because we spent so long casting, it took the pressure off for me with the actors during the shoot, because we had this path and we knew it back to front, all of us, so it was much easier to communicate about it, as opposed as offering the role to someone you’ve never worked with, and they just show up on set.

The synopsis for Griff the Invisible was very vague for a long time. How would you describe the story?

LF: It’s about a young man who works in an office by day. He’s shy and almost sociophobic, but by night he’s a super hero in his neighbourhood and he protects it from the bad guys, as superheroes do. Through his brother he meets Melody, who is the first person he’s ever met who actually sees the world in the same way, and they have the same open, curious and imaginative view of the world. These two people who thought they were alone are now not alone; they’re with each other. Griff’s greatest challenge at that point is for the first time to open up to someone else and to let them into his very secret and very high stakes world.

So as part of his journey, he goes from being invisible to being visible to someone else…

LF: That’s right. On a metaphorical level he becomes visible to Melody.

RK: The superhero is every little boy’s fascination and dream, ‘What if I had, if not necessarily superpowers, the ability to do things that are otherworldly and save the world?’

LF: A lot of superhero films have that universal theme of a loner… people relate to them because everyone, no matter where you work or what you do, everyone feels like their full potential is not being realised.

MD: That they’re not being seen…

LF: The real side of them is not seen, and if only they could show the world what they can really do.

NO: I think the script is a highly original story that is based on very universal themes of relationships and individuals finding a soul mate, or their way in life. That’s what’s so great about the script, that it’s highly original and accessible.

LF: Our press spends a lot of time talking about why we keep making the same stuff, and I think we need to keep making stories that mean something to us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be through the eyes of a superhero.

It may not be a traditional superhero film, but people do have certain expectations when you’re dealing with that genre. How much action is there?

LF: We spent a lot of time shooting the fight scenes and running through Surry Hills, in a superhero suit. There’s certainly action mixed up with romance and the internal turmoil of the superhero.

MD: The production values are very high; you do see every dollar on the screen.

NO: People have been impressed with what we’ve achieved.

RK: We almost had to create ‘dance’ routines for the action scenes, because on the day, if we didn’t have those moves down, time would just tick away, and it was time we didn’t have. It was imperative that we got every single fight sequence right.

There were also elements that I wanted to add to it, such as the way the character stands. We talked about it; every superhero has a way that they walk, stand, talk, and all those things. Originally they were talking about doing some Bourne kind of moves, or even Jackie Chan, throwing in all these different styles, but we settled on one particular style and incorporated that into how I interacted with the stunt guys.

LF: There are two different Griffs. There’s daytime Griff, who keeps to himself, and the suit turns him into this whole other persona.

Finding the right tone for a superhero film is difficult. A tongue-in-cheek approach can lead to a disaster of Fantastic Four proportions. How did you set the tone for Griff the Invisible?

LF: It’s a matter of choosing actors who don’t’ play it for laughs. It’s not meant to be a comedy; it’s not a roll-in-the-aisles spoof, but a heartfelt action superhero romance. It does, however, have some very unique characters and they say sometimes funny things. It’s about giving everyone their money’s worth; they get to laugh, cry and watch some action.

RK: What makes it work is that you should never make fun of yourself. If you are the filmmaker, you should never make fun of the fact that you’re making a superhero film, which perhaps that movie did at times, making fun of their powers…The ones that people gravitate towards and stay with you are the Batman –type films that take it 100 percent serious.

How did you turn Sydney into a superhero world?

LF: We stayed clear from iconic Sydney landmarks. We’re not necessarily saying it’s not Sydney or Australia, but we look at it in the same way that Gotham City is basically New York, but in its own superhero world. We’re inventing a comic-book Sydney, and that came down to location selection, and Surry Hills is the most urban environment in Sydney that offers a lot of choice for alleyways.

In terms of the architecture, we tried to stay away from Federation Australia, and stick with the architecture that could be found in any comic.

RK: Leon wrote it with Surry Hills in mind, so as a writer and director he got to shoot in the same place he had in his head.

LF: And then we just discovered locations that blew my mind and just sort of appeared on the day. We hopped out of the car to look at one location and thought ‘Oh my god, look at that one!’

MD: Sydney does lend itself to that.

What about the costumes?

LF: They’re very influenced by the 50s sort of silhouette, by Superman, Batman, and lot of those comics from the era.

Did you go for practical effects, or CGI?

LF: If you can work out a way to do it on the day, it’s much more collaborative and exciting for everyone, and we don’t spend the whole time thinking ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do it on post’. We spent a lot of time in pre-production thinking about how we were going to do things. Anything left over that we couldn’t find a way to do, was left as green screen and VFX, which there was a bit of.

With the subject matter and Ryan’s presence, the film is likely to have an international appeal…

NO: There’s been quite a lot international interest.

LF: A new superhero matched with an actor that people know and the comic book element? Fans go crazy.

MD: It goes back to the question, can we actually accept these high-end local concepts? And the only way we can answer that is to actually make them and develop a tradition and a culture for them; otherwise we’re just going to be stuck with this foreign stuff.

LF: Wouldn’t it be exciting if people didn’t know what to expect from Australian films? Hopefully Griff the Invisible will resonate with audiences everywhere.

Griff the Invisible will be released on March 17.


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