Nearly 10 years ago, Image Comics released the first issue of writer Joe Kelly and artist Ken Niimura's I Kill Giants. The seven-issue series about a girl battling her own demons while trying to save her small town from colossal creatures has been a source of awe-inspiring fantasy and grounded family drama for the past decade, and beginning on March 23rd, those same elements will come to life on the big screen with RLJE Films' anticipated release of the I Kill Giants movie. To celebrate the new version of their coming-of-age tale, we caught up with Kelly and Niimura to discuss their thoughts on the feature film adaptation, reflect on the comic book's long journey to the big screen, and look ahead to their exciting collaborations in the future.
Joe and Ken, thanks for taking the time to discuss I Kill Giants, and congratulations on the new feature film based on your comic book miniseries. What were your initial reactions to the film? What was it like to see your story come to life on screen?
Ken Niimura: We’ve been in talks about making a movie for some years already. Joe knows the movie business better than I do, so he made sure I understood that the chances that the project was finally shot and released were small… and he had done such a great job, it was only when we went to the premiere that I actually realized the fact that our comic was being adapted into a movie!
And the movie is amazing. Anders' vision of the project and the performances are all outstanding. There’s been a lot of love put into every detail.
Joe Kelly: As Ken said, it’s been a long road, but a thrilling one. I’m very proud of the film. The cast is stunning. The look is beautiful. And Anders’ direction is careful but not precious. He did an amazing job. I'm so grateful to everyone who brought our creation to life.
Joe, in addition to writing the I Kill Giants comic book, you also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation. What were the challenges and rewards of translating your story from one storytelling medium to another?
Joe Kelly: The biggest reward is knowing that I was there to protect a project that’s very close to my heart throughout the process. Everyone involved cared deeply about the source material and fought to protect it, but you hear all of these horror stories about creators being swept aside and losing any say in how a work is translated. This was 100% the opposite of those stories. Anders and the producers protected me and my vision for the script throughout the process. There was never any doubt that I would be the only person touching the script, which is truly a gift.
The challenges, of course, are that I had to write the script! Kidding. I’d written a draft way before IKG was officially optioned, so I’d already had a film in my head. The challenge—and it was the best kind—came when Anders would point out elements of the adaptation that would “break the film.” Both the book and the movie are carefully constructed so that you are learning about Barbara’s world through her eyes about 99% of the time. There were some scenes in the comic that work because of the relationship between reader and graphic novel that would unravel on screen. They become concrete in a film where they are left to the reader’s imagination in a comic. Cleaning that up while maintaining momentum and externalizing Barbara’s emotional state was the hardest part of the adaptation.
Ken, one of the great things about reading the comic book is soaking in your tremendous artwork for the fantasy elements of the story. Did you have any input on how the giants and other creatures in the film looked? What did you think of the way they were depicted on the big screen?
Ken Niimura: I actually chose not to intervene much in the movie, as I knew Anders had a specific look in mind and I didn’t want to get in his way. I knew the adaptation was in good hands! I love so much how it turned out, all the things they created from scratch or added to the existing designs. I wish I had been able to come up with them when I was making the comic!
I Kill Giants is such a great one-two punch because it mixes awe-inspiring fantasy with grounded family drama, which I think the cast and crew balance really well in the movie. How important was it to both of you to see the film keep that same balance between fantasy and reality, all while preserving the beating heart of the comic?
Joe Kelly: The tone of the book and the balance in the story are critical elements to its DNA. We worked very hard to create a film where the audience should be wondering what’s real and what is not for a long time. Anders understood the balance implicitly and it’s in every frame—grounded and fantastic at the same time. Our amazing cast, especially Madison, managed to live in Barbara’s world and make it real.
Ken Niimura: We can get away with lots of things in comics that certainly don’t make the cut in movies. That’s what made it a difficult project to adapt: blurring the lines between what’s real or not. And since it’s two different mediums, there are different ways to convey the same things. The good news is that the core of the story Joe wrote is still there!
This movie has an amazing cast, including Madison Wolfe as Barbara Thorson, Zoe Saldana as Mrs. Mollé, and Imogen Poots as Karen Thorson. What were your thoughts on their performances and how they interpreted your characters on screen?
Ken Niimura: Here’s a secret: the characters in I Kill Giants Joe wrote are based on his friends and family… and then I also used some of my friends as inspiration for their looks and demeanor.
Last year Joe and I went to see the movie set and were lucky enough to see Madison, Zoe, Imogen and Sydney in action, and that’s when I realized their looks and feel had a similar vibe to my friends. We had all come to similar conclusions even though we hadn’t talked about it! It just had to be that way.
Seeing them in action was such a treat, too. They’ve added so much to their characters! Madison has given Barbara an athletic and physical side that the original didn’t have, and they all had a great relationship on and off camera, and it clearly shows in the movie.
Joe Kelly: Ken really nailed it. Everyone in the film dug into their characters and truly brought them to life. Zoe, Madison, Imogen, Sydney, and Rory all found a way to stay true to the source material, but they brought so much of their own experience to their performances. You can really feel it in the quiet moments. There are moments in the film that are 100% performance that shatter me every time I see them. You can’t script that. I’m not sure you can even direct that. We have a cast of fiercely dedicated young women and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with them.
Just like the comic book, the I Kill Giants movie has a timeless, heartbreaking coming-of-age theme. Joe, when you were writing the screenplay for the adaptation, were you influenced or inspired by any other coming-of-age or family-centric films?
Joe Kelly: There are a few films that came to mind during the writing of the book. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Fisher King are two of my favorite films of all time, so there are dashes of those in I Kill Giants for sure. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d also been deeply influenced by another favorite, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I probably watched that film 10 times with my kids. I love that it’s a female-driven story about a young girl learning to overcome a personal challenge through her interactions with self-assured women.
Writer/producer/director Chris Columbus was a huge fan of the comic book miniseries and came on board to produce I Kill Giants. How crucial was his involvement in getting this story on screen?
Joe Kelly: Having Chris involved helped us kick down a lot of doors. The film still faced many challenges to getting made, not the least of which being our nearly all-female cast, but Chris has made a career of telling iconic stories with young protagonists and that helped to put folks at ease. He’s also incredibly easy to talk to about story, so his notes on early drafts of the film were invaluable.
One of the unsung heroes behind the scenes was Zoe Saldana. Her commitment to the film never wavered, and she had plenty of opportunities to gracefully exit if she’d wanted to. Thankfully, she stuck with us and I’ll be eternally grateful to her for that.
I Kill Giants marks the feature film debut of Anders Walter, who won an Academy Award for his short film Helium. Did either of you have conversations with Walter about his approach to adapting your story? Did his creative vision gel with what you both hoped to see in the adaptation?
Joe Kelly: Anders and I have very similar tastes, which was clear to me almost immediately from watching his short films. We had a lot of conversations about his vision for the film, my take, and there was a ton of overlap. He’s been an amazing collaborator and became a wonderful friend during this process. In fact, we’re working together on something else right now, so it wasn’t a one-off thing!
Watching him on set and listening to him handle the material, I believe that Anders is going to have a long and interesting career in this business.
It’s hard to believe, but this summer will mark 10 years since the first issue of I Kill Giants was published. When both of you look back at when this journey began about one decade ago, what are you the most proud of with this entire experience? What do you remember the most fondly from 10 years of I Kill Giants?
Ken Niimura: I’m still now a cartoonist because 10 years ago, Joe trusted I Kill Giants to a total newcomer. I’m really grateful he agreed to take our time to develop it (almost a year!) with no schedule or publisher attached, and having Joe’s input was crucial, too. Honestly, had it not been for this, I’d probably have a totally different life now—that’s how much the comic means to me!
Joe Kelly: Ken’s friendship and collaboration is undoubtedly one of the greatest things to come from IKG. I’ve been lucky enough to stumble into a genius and convince him to work with me, so I’m not letting go!
Over the years, the most gratifying thing about the comic is that it continues to find new readers every year thanks to word of mouth. A lot of folks describe it as their “gateway comic,” which is a huge honor. Even more meaningful has been the conversations I’ve had with readers over the years. Folks will meet me at a signing or a convention and tell me how important the book is to them; how they found it at a critical time in their lives and how Barbara’s story offered them some strength or peace when they needed it most. Many tears are shed at my booth, by readers and by me.
Knowing that something you created affects a person so deeply is the greatest gift a writer can ask for. I believe it will be the same experience for some of the folks who see the film.
Have you guys talked about doing another I Kill Giants comic book miniseries or something in a similar vein?
Ken Niimura: We’ve recently done a short story based on Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack for a Japanese magazine, a short story for a WWI anthology, and now we’re working on our next long project! It’s going to be very different from I Kill Giants, which is maybe what people would be looking for, but it’s the one project we felt we had to work on right now.
Joe Kelly: Yeah, there was loose talk about a sequel at one point and I thought about it, but it didn’t feel right. Ken and I have other stories to tell. That said, I do make a point of cross-pollinating characters and settings throughout my creator-owned work, so there’s always a chance of seeing some IKG characters in other things.
With I Kill Giants coming out in theaters and On Demand on March 23rd from RLJE Films, what other projects do you both have coming up that you’re excited about? Are there any new Man of Action projects or other things in the works that you can tease? Also, where can our readers follow your work online?
Ken Niimura: You can read online my newest ongoing comic, Umami, through Panel Syndicate online. I’m also on most of the social networks, so come and say hi!
Joe Kelly: Over at Man of Action, we just announced the third season of the new Ben 10 as well as our Mega Man series, both of which are hitting later this year. We have also done some video game work that you’ll hear about soon and are developing a bunch of stuff for animation, film, and TV.
Personally, I’m incredibly excited about the next book with Ken, as it’s a story I have wanted to do for years, and my next script for Anders. An embarrassment of riches, to be sure. Folks can find me on Twitter @JoeKellyMOA and our website, www.manofaction.tv
For more information about I Kill Giants, we have the graphic novel's official cover art and several pages, the movie poster, and the film's trailer: