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Fantasia International Film Festival

Fantasia 2023: Director Mark H. Rapaport Interview on HIPPO



Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival
Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Fantasia 2023: ‘HIPPO’ film Director Mark H. Rapaport spoke to The Natural Aristocrat® about the script he co-wrote with lead star Kimball Farley, the movie’s take on mental illness, and its dark satirical elements.

In Mark’s words, “There’s more than one way to be mentally ill in America.”

This HIPPO movie interview contains spoilers. HIPPO screened at the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 26 and July 27.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT (NIR REGEV): For me, ‘HIPPO’ started off as an exploration of teenage angst… Until the film’s revelation of Hippo’s mental illness being hereditary from his mother’s side. What made you explore young male mental illness as the overarching linchpin of the film?

MARK H. RAPAPORT: That’s a really good question. Obviously, this is a coming of age movie, learning about sex and all. But yes, there’s a big component of mental illness in it. And for me, that came from a place of wanting to satirize American life and American culture a little bit.

A little background: The original title of movie was actually ‘Hippo and the Spectacular Detonation of an American Nuclear Family’, you know, a very pretentious title like Birdman (film).

I felt like people might think I was too pretentious with that title, but the message still remained… That this is a coming of age film, but in doing so you, you also witness the detonation of a nuclear family.

You see this family implode from the inside and it is a critique of how we raise our kids in America. Of course, I’m hopefully gonna have a child soon.

Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

So I’m also hoping this experience teaches me what to do and what not to do. But I think this society, the culture here… At least when I grew up in the nineties, our generation was a little puritanical, a little scared of sex.

It’s probably because it’s the same generation that heard “don’t do drugs”, “this is your brain on pot” and all of these things instilling a lot of fear in our youth. Like we can’t learn to make our own decisions.

I actually think now there’s obviously some counter-culturalism movements. I think America’s healing from some of that and becoming more laissez-faire in the, right ways… At least in terms of sex.

One of the premises of this film was given the way that America views sex and all of its issues, the question we asked ourselves, me and Kimball (Farley) writing it, was what if this happened?

What if a bad sex talk happened to someone who was very mentally ill? What if a child couldn’t just laugh this off later? But actually if the recipient of this poor advice was not mentally well, this could lead to some serious problems.

Lilla Kizlinger as Buttercup. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Lilla Kizlinger as Buttercup. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

We found that both terrifying and hilarious because we both received similar types of sex talks as children. Again, my mother will refute this, but I, for whatever reason what she told me made me feel like an alien. It made sex seem very violent and sperm feel like a weapon.

For whatever reason, Kimball believed that if he laid naked next to someone, that’s sex. That you can have a baby just by being naked in same bed. We joke all the time about these experiences and luckily we’re not like severely mentally ill! (laughs) At least I don’t think so. I hope not!

So we thought what if this happened to the person we all feared we could be. That stereotype caricature, but obviously it doesn’t go that way. Hippo’s playing on that trope of male mental illness in hopefully a unique way that no one’s seen before.

Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Because I think there’s more than one way to be mentally ill in America. We wanna shed a little light on that again, with not only humor, but also the terror of it.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I thought you teased the audience to the brink in the scene where Darwin (Jesse Pimentel) is preying on Hippo’s sister Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger). It’s one of the movie’s strongest scenes. What was it like building the tension and suspense there?

MARK H. RAPAPORT: I appreciate that. I think the Darwin chapter of the film is also, to me, the most hilarious, most fun dynamic part of the movie.

Lilla Kizlinger as Buttercup. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Lilla Kizlinger as Buttercup. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

It goes back to this nuclear family, this sort of bubble of just strange people as a product of their environment and their, and their DNA. Obviously, the mother’s insane.

I think every great movie interrupts whatever comfort they might create. And in this case, it’s the comfort of this family. Even though they’re messed up, they’re messed up together.

The storytelling challenge there was how can we break that? And Darwin (Jesse Pimentel) is also Buttercup’s (Lilla Kizlinger) way to explore sex. He’s a perfect dart to throw at this balloon of the family.

Jesse Pimentel, the actor’s incredible. He’s absolutely the sweetest guy. He’s definitely not a creep, but he can pretend to be a pretty convincing one.

Once we got to page 60 on the script, it just became this really fun thing that just wrote itself. Kind of like, let’s play this out now that he’s in the Hippo Zone. You know it’s not going to end well for Darwin.

It’s also the turning point of the film because it’s when Buttercup realizes there is no way to have a baby with someone else. Her step-brother simply is too far gone to allow it to happen on his turf.

Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Kimball Farley as Hippo. Photo provided courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

He thinks the sex will kill her. That’s the moment when she starts to formulate a different plan. So it’s not only the funniest part for me and the most fun, but also becomes the turning point for Act Three of the script.

Where Buttercup eventually gets the idea to steal Hippo’s semen, because it’s the only way out to experience having a baby. It’s really the only way out of this family.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Was Body Harvest your favorite Nintendo 64 game growing up? It takes center stage in this film and has a massive impact on Hippo’s character.

MARK H. RAPAPORT: It’s funny, me and Kimball (Farley) loved video games growing up, so we talked about a lot of options. One of the fun things we were thinking about is what could be a video game that this guy Hippo plays.

Absent of a father figure, Hippo looks up to this game and we were brainstorming a bit, and Body Harvest was one.

We both weren’t like super fans of it. We both played it, but it was the title of it that was so on point. Body Harvest.

There’s kind of a sexual connotation and it’s kind of how Hippo sees sex like harvesting one’s body. We watched the play through of the game. Then we bought it again on eBay.

We watched the play through and found it great! It had some great elements with aliens invading and that tied into the mom and Hippo’s fears and conspiracies.

The blonde man in the game, that was actually just a funny thing. I think Kimball actually noted that guy. When we were writing, I wanted to let Kimball, my co-writer in this case, explore his character.

I sort of implored him to study the game more as the character. And he came back to me and was like, “There’s this blonde guy in the game. I think Hippo would worship him because he just seems cool!”

That character is literally in the game for 10 seconds. And that’s just us kind of having fun with video game lore. Not writing anybody out of the game and just showing how far gone Hippo is, that it would be that blonde guy of all people.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I thought you invested a lot into bringing back the ’90s aesthetic. Did most of the set materials come from eBay like Body Harvest?

MARK H. RAPAPORT: I’ve loved that retro feel for so long. It feels like with society today, there’s an app for everything. You lose a little bit of that tactile feel of older technology.

That’s an element we were excited to approach from a visual perspective. Of course, it’s also the decade I grew up in, so there’s nostalgia there.

To top it all off, my grandmother’s house is where we shot the movie. We edited the house a bit and put up wallpaper and moved things around and built some walls… But we didn’t change the core bones of the house.

It does look stuck in time in like the 1960s. I don’t think it looks so old that it can’t be modern day, it’s more like, “Let’s use that to our advantage as a indie film!”

And so the nineties just felt right for many reasons as the place to set the film. You’re unencumbered by modern internet access for dating. If we wrote the movie for present day, Hippo would find a way to get online and watch adult films. There’s just no way to block that these days.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I liked the NetScape browser inclusion in the film. Real throwback.

MARK H. RAPAPORT: Yeah, exactly! If Hippo was in the modern day, he could find a way to actually search online what’s under a woman’s shirt and he would learn a lot about sex. Which again, goes back to the irony of this American culture, where sometimes in trying to protect people about sex, you actually f*** them up more.

But yeah, I think in this current day and age that it would be a lot harder for this story to happen. If your only way to get a date is Craigslist, you’re, you’re gonna maybe end up with someone like Darwin.

Whereas if this film this took place today, Buttercup would just have to log onto Hinge and Tinder. She’d find a date no problem. And that’s it. Movie’s over! (laughs)

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I felt you made the mom (Eliza Roberts) really vulnerable in a way. Ethel always acquiesced basically to whatever her son wanted. Even Buttercup was taken aback when she bought Hippo the crossbow he wanted for his birthday.

I was wondering about that decision to make Hippo’s mom always acquiesce to her son’s every demand?

MARK H. RAPAPORT: That’s a really good observation! Eliza actually addressed it at our Q and A last night at Fantasia.

Eliza Roberts, who plays the mom [Ethel], she said she was that kind of parent who would never say no… And that now looking back, Eliza felt it’s actually worse.

Her own son apparently admits to this. He said “I wish you always said no, rather than always said yes.” Even though her son obviously loves her. I think that too about my mother, even though I wouldn’t change a thing.

But definitely, acquiescing creates issues later on in life as Hippo clearly has. He gets everything he wants. The golden child. That came from, again, my own personal feeling, that my mother did as well, and that’s to her credit.

Knowing my mom is always trying not to rock the boat, trying to keep everything going, especially in the face of turmoil and other family issues. I guess Eliza (Roberts) relates to that heavily as well.

She just plays that so effortlessly because it’s her. She just doesn’t like to tell people no, people pleaser personality.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I actually thought the film was about to head in a completely different direction in the dinner scene with Darwin. Once Darwin touched Ethel’s shoulder, I thought maybe he wanted to sleep with her and Buttercup would get jealous.

MARK H. RAPAPORT: Yeah! It turns out he was kind of playing her to get to the daughter. But yeah, I think Darwin would’ve slept with the mom too, but he accidentally killed her instead. He obviously wanted to get to the daughter primarily.

But that’s funny that could have been a whole other crazy scene.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Where does the whole idea for the name Hippo come from? I know you had the hippo stuffed animal, but why did you decide to call him Hippo specifically?

MARK H. RAPAPORT: In the early days, talking about all those things I mentioned with American culture, growing up with incorrect views on sex, the character being mentally ill, an obvious comparison came to mind…

Even though tonally it’s totally different, Elephant, which is the Gus Van Sant Columbine movie, which is this crazy dark film.

It was sort of an homage to Gus Van Sant because while the movie is not dark, it’s twofold. Because I want to play on the expectations of the audience to thinking maybe this guy will be that type. Of course he’s homeschooled too.

But it’s a combination of that. And the Greek tragedy Hippolytus.

It’s about unrequited love from a brother and his sister Aphrodite.

Aphrodite’s love is not taken kindly by this other character who instead prefers to engage in his art of war and chaos. And so HIPPO was like a loose adaptation of that too.

I was like, ‘Okay, well if we’re gonna call it HIPPO, like elephant and hippo, we need a good connection’ I didn’t want to just call it hippo. That’s where the plush stuffed Hippo came into existence, as a good example of how f***ed up he is sexually. ‘Let’s just make it a hippo! Let’s go all in on the name and have fun with it!

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I thought actor Eric Roberts was really the perfect narrator for his line delivery in HIPPO. How did you first get him on board this film? Was the connection made initially through his wife Eliza Roberts?

MARK H. RAPAPORT: I have only incredible things to say about Eric and Eliza Roberts. They’re truly an extraordinary Hollywood couple who is not pretentious. And they take on projects from young and emerging filmmakers like myself and Eric’s Academy nominated.

He’s in Babylon and The Dark Knight, but here he is also doing a narration for my little movie. It’s just so cool, first off that they’re, so down.

We actually know each other from my short film called Andronicus, which also played at Fantasia.

But in the Covid version, so it streamed remotely. Eric submitted a tape to my short, and I was like, “Whoa! Like first of all, this guy’s the perfect person and I can’t believe he submitted.

And the person reading with him was Eliza. I was like, ‘That person sounds great too. Can we get them? Like, who is that?’

I couldn’t find a mom either, so I got ’em on the short and then that’s how our relationship started.

The father character was not physically present, but I think every family has a fatherly light in some way, whether they’re there or not.

There’s always a paternal touch because it takes two to tango. And so I wanted to give that touch without making it about the dad. I wanted to make it more about the kids and this mother character and sort of play on that trope of the unavailable father.

Not that Eric was the father’s voiceover, but he has that paternal kindness, grandfatherly-ness to him that really holds our hand and helps guide us through the story.

And also for a small indie film, I find it a good narrative tool to, to tell more than you have the resources to tell. ‘Cause the narrator fills in the details.

THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Have you ever seen the film ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin‘ with Tilda Swinton? This film reminded me of it a bit thematically, particularly the crossbow.

MARK H. RAPAPORT: I actually love that movie! ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is one of my favorite movies. I’m glad you brought that up. Definitely an inspiration as well as for my short film, also for this film.

And playing on that trope again of immensely mentally ill character doing it in a more tragic comic way. But that is an incredible film and I think Kimball could be the next Ezra Miller!


MARK H. RAPAPORT: Thank you!

'HIPPO' Director Mark H. Rapaport. Photo Credit: Louis Miller

‘HIPPO’ Director Mark H. Rapaport. Photo Credit: Louis Miller

HIPPO Movie Trailer

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Visit the Fantasia International Film Festival section for exclusive interviews, film reviews, news, previews, and more from past and present Fantasia festivals.

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