Glee star Chris Colfer, who wrote and stars in the new film Struck by Lightning, out in theaters Friday, shared his experience about the movie’s road from concept to release in an exclusive guest post for EW. Also check out an exclusive clip featuring Colfer and Modern Family star Sarah Hyland, from the film, below.
Struck by Struck by Lightning
by Chris Colfer
To say the idea for Struck By Lightning hit me like a bolt of lightning would be an incredibly convenient way to start this piece but also the most accurate comparison I could make.
There I was, Chris Colfer, a 16-year-old, 200-pound overachieving-but-underappreciated high school sophomore — you could light a match off my acne and construct a steam engine with the metal in my mouth. School had been out for hours and I had just finished organizing a literary magazine for the Writer’s Club (of which I was president). It was a Friday afternoon and besides the janitors and the teachers staying late to avoid their spouses, I was the last person at school.
As I walked to my car I remember thinking about how little I was appreciated in comparison to how hard I worked. I was so frustrated my social ranking was so low because my passions weren’t “relevant” to my peers. I looked up at the cloudy sky and thought to myself “What if I was struck by lightning? Would anyone care about the magazine I had just spent hours compiling? If I died right now and never accomplished any of my life-long goals, would my existence be a total waste?”
And yes, like lightning, the story of Carson Phillips, a 17-year-old overachieving-and-underappreciated high school senior who was tragically killed before fulfilling his life-long dreams, came to me. (I was between the 700 wing and the faculty parking lot at Clovis East High School in case I’m ever interesting enough to erect some kind of honorary plaque or statue.)
As soon as I got home I began writing a screenplay based on this epiphany. I had taught myself how to screen write from reading Sofia Coppola’s published Marie Antoinette screenplay. It was at our local bookstore and I used to spend hours reading it, immersing myself in the format (It was forty dollars so I never could afford to purchase it). Needless to say, I was anxious to start my own.
I was tired of watching movies geared toward my age about the same types of kids going after the same pursuits of popularity; I saw enough of that in real life. What about the type of kid I was? The kind who was so driven by the things they wanted to accomplish that they saw high school more as a waiting room than a utopia. Where was the movie about that kid?
I put the main character in the same environment I lived in (conservative small-town suburbia) and surrounded him with familiar personas and predicaments. However, I modeled him after the person I wanted to be, rather than who I was. When I was harassed in the hallway during school instead of lowering my head in shame, Carson would stand up for himself with brilliant witty comebacks – he said all the things I just thought.
Adding these and other fictitious elements was incredibly therapeutic. I wrote the movie that I wanted to see, but mostly the one I needed to see. I was set on making it happen.
Looking back, I have no idea why I was so certain I could get this film made. What on earth made a pubescent teenager barely passing geometry with zero connections to Hollywood so confident? Perhaps it was youthful ignorance, or perhaps I just needed something to keep my mind occupied as I survived high school. Whatever it was, I’m so grateful it was there because it cemented itself onto my ever-growing bucket list.
While I waited for an opportunity to present itself I channeled the story into other facets. I turned it into an O.P.P. (Original Prose and Poetry) piece for a Speech and Debate competition. The story was shortened into a ten-minute monologue and I performed it on my own as every character. Unlike my other performances from Wicked and Grey Gardens, it didn’t do very well. I didn’t let this setback discourage my mission though, blaming my hometown’s incompetence to understand it rather than the oddity of the piece itself.
A few years later, after graduation and a long summer working at a dry-cleaners, I was cast in a little show called Glee. The youthful ignorance had finally paid off; I miraculously found myself on a platform to get the film made – for the first time it seemed realistic. I fixed up the screenplay as much as I could, getting it into the best shape possible.
I was terrified to show it to anyone and it took me a while to do it. It was the first thing I had ever written and I felt like bits of my soul were exposed. I eventually got over myself and showed it to my agent and manager and Struck By Lightning went from my daydreams to my daily agenda.
Even being fully aware that the challenge of my career would be getting people to take that gay kid from Glee seriously, the pursuit was overwhelmingly disheartening at times. Convincing people it was a good film to make with very little credibility to my name was not easy. I remember having meetings with production companies that were doubtful of my marketability, but would conclude with them asking “Would you sign this CD for my daughter?”
Making the film reminded me a lot of getting the literary magazine made in school. “I don’t like writing essays for English therefore I won’t like writing for the Writer’s Club” was a very similar attitude to “I don’t like Glee therefore I won’t like anything to do with Chris Colfer”. It’s funny how people are still people wherever you find them.
I was very protective of the content, fearing if I just sold it off to the highest bidder it would be drafted into a story about a pothead losing his virginity, and not what I intended. I wanted to have as much control over the story as possible, so the independent film route became the best option — it allowed me to tell the story I wanted to tell.
Like any independent movie, the biggest hurdle was finding the financing. This void led to some interesting meetings (which I plan on sharing more about as soon as the confidentiality agreements expire) and I actually considered putting a couple organs on the black market to acquire the funds myself. Luckily, we found Camilla Entertainment and Struck By Lightning found its proper home.
Everything from then on was a perfect storm, no pun intended. Brian Dannelly was the first director we met with and I knew he was the perfect man for the job in the first ten minutes of our meeting when he said “I want to direct this movie because I was this kid in high school.” We shared such a mutual vision for the movie at times it was scary. Come to think of it, I don’t think we ever had a disagreement – ever. From what I hear, that’s rare.
We used to joke about the ambitious names our sights were set on when it came to casting – but we surpassed them and won a casting jackpot. I’m still shocked when I watch the movie just considering the cast alone.
Allison Janney was the only actress I had ever envisioned to play the role of “Sheryl,” Carson’s mother; even in my Speech and Debate days I used to emulate her characteristics. I had met Christina Hendricks a couple of times and thought she was perfect for the role of pregnant pharmacist “April,” but never in my boldest dreams did I think she would take the role. Rebel Wilson was cast as Carson’s sidekick “Malerie” the night before she started filming (14 hours to be exact).
A challenging factor when we finally got around to pre-production was that I was on a worldwide tour with Glee. I was as involved as physically possible, taking part in as many discussions that Skype and international calling allowed. I remember at one point I was singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the O2 in London, ran underneath the stage to send off an email about casting and locations, then slapped on a unitard and ran back out for “Single Ladies.”
We started filming three days after the Glee 2011 summer tour ended and shot the whole movie in 17 days. Of course due to the budget and timing there were cuts and revisions made to the script, some more painful than others, but overall the true spirit and essence of the story remained.
I’ll never forget the night it debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie received a standing ovation – and my parents didn’t even start it! The publishers of my novel The Land of Stories saw the film that night and asked me to adapt it into a novel. And so I wrote Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal, and am so happy I did. It gave me a chance to spend a little more time with my first set of characters — and I wasn’t ready to let them go just yet.
I’m so thankful Carson’s journey has finally found a way out of my head and into the world, mostly for my own mental health. I’m not sure what I would have done with myself if the project became a disastrous failure – and I think that uncertainty along the way became one of the biggest reasons I was so inspired to tell the story.
I can’t speak for all generations but I feel like mine has always been programmed to believe one thing about aspirations; you win or you lose, there is no in-between. And unfortunately, the embarrassment of failure has always discouraged the attempt for success, so consequently, we don’t try.
There are a million reasons why I hope Struck By Lightning resonates with audiences, but on a personal level I hope by showing a character like Carson, someone tragically robbed of all the life and potential they possess, I’ll help convince this generation (and maybe even convince myself) that trying doesn’t mean you’re weak – it means you’re alive.