TORONTO—Like any good comic-book movie, Peter Stebbings’s Defendor was inspired by Feodor Dostoyevsky. Stebbings—a Vancouver native whose acting career includes acclaimed stints on shows like Madison, Traders, and Across the River to Motor City—was visiting friends at the Shaw Festival in Ontario and reading The Brothers Karamazov when he started to picture Defendor, his first feature as a writer-director. (The movie opens in Vancouver on Friday [February 19].)
Watch the trailer for Defendor.
“I literally sprung out of bed with an entire movie in my head,” he said during an interview in a Toronto hotel room. “It was called The Pugilist for about two days. After that, it was called Defendor.”
Defendor—defender as spelled by the movie’s addled hero, Arthur, who’s played by Woody Harrelson—is the story of a would-be hero whose real life and “secret identity” get tangled up with a sweet street kid named Kat (Kat Dennings). There’s also a crooked cop played by the Canadian actor who must be on speed-dial next to the character description “crooked cop”, Elias Koteas. Sandra Oh plays Arthur’s shrink—if you’re going to don crime-fighting pyjamas and challenge well-armed criminals using improvised weapons made with marbles and bees, a shrink is a pretty good idea.
Stebbings noted that aside from the Russian classics, he was also inspired by one of the all-time-classic comic books, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, Dark Knight debuted as a comic book before being reassembled into the more respectable “graphic novel” format. Created by Frank Miller, Dark Knight pretty much launched the concept of “realistic” and “gritty” comics.
Stebbings remembers picking up Dark Knight as a kid at Vancouver’s now-defunct Bizarre Bazaar comic shop and being shaken like so many Bat fans who were shocked by Miller’s nightmare portrayal of how chilling a real-world Batman and Joker could be.
“There was this one panel, just one panel, and it was when these copycat sort of Batman figures were coming out of the woodwork,” Stebbings said. “It was a slow guy eating a chocolate bar. He had a patch of hair, and he had a baseball bat—he’d just murdered somebody. One panel, that’s all it was, and I thought, ”˜I wanna write a story about that guy.’ So maybe that was the germ, back when I was 14.”
Despite sampling the good stuff, Stebbings wasn’t hooked on comics for long. “My romance with comics lasted about four years. I was really into The Teen Titans, and then I was into a bit of Alan Moore [Watchmen, Swamp Thing], and then I was into Frank Miller. That was it.”
While he was studying the panels of Dark Knight, Stebbings was exploring life on-stage with Carole Tarlington’s Vancouver Youth Theatre, a program he credits with launching his career.
“I sort of feel like it was a pillar of my adolescence,” Stebbings said. “It just gave me incredible focus. It was somewhere to go, something to do. Carole Tarlington was incredibly nurturing—aside from the fact that she absolutely hated the fact that
I played soccer and was always encouraging me to quit my sports so I could commit fully to theatre. She was a wonderful mentor, and it was a wonderful place to gain confidence.”
Stebbings went on to study at Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York City and eventually shifted his home base from Vancouver to Toronto, although he frequently finds himself working in L.A.
When he wasn’t acting, Stebbings did some screenwriting, and his experience scripting for other people convinced him to write something to direct himself. Although his romance with comics had ended years earlier, Stebbings loved comic-book movies, but he’d never seen one that totally worked for him. “I wrote Defendor in part because I go to these movies. Iron Man was profoundly satisfying. And also Chris Nolan’s Batman [Begins]. But even that wasn’t entirely satisfying to me. And I thought, ”˜What would I do if I was those guys? How would I do that story?’
“Obviously, I can’t compete on that level, doing an independent film, but I guess this [Defendor] is my answer to that. And I would argue that it’s not really a comic-book movie; it’s a drama with some funny bits about a guy who thinks as a hero. It’s obviously inspired by the medium, and it pays homage to the comic-book movie and it sort of deconstructs it.” Kinda like that comic he read at 14.