The director of Dolphin Films’ sci-fi action-adventure sci-fi based on the Mattel property stars Ben Witchell and Ana Villafañe and is the subject of a buyer screening at the EFM on February 6.

Director Stewart Hendler sat down with Screen last summer to discuss Max Steel during a break from promotional duties at Comic-Con in San Diego.

Dolphin Films produced, financed and distributes the film, which will open in the US later this year via the company’s deal with Open Road. IM Global provides international sales, marketing and legal support to Dolphin Films International.

Tell us about the background of Max Steel
The mythology is super-neat and is about a superhero who comes from a combination of two different creatures: Max is this 16-year-old and boy and he has this alien [companion]. They’re an odd couple: they can’t live without each other and don’t want to live with each other and when they combine they make Max Steel, so that to me was a neat way in.

What had you done before Max Steel?
I started in horror movies a ways back. The first movie I did was a little picture called Whisper, which nobody saw, starring Josh Holloway from Lost. Then I did something called Sorority Row a few years back. I found myself pigeon-holed into the horror niche and so the last few years I tried to go back to the drawing board and took a left turn into web series and got to pick my material a little more.

I did something called H+, which was a post-apocalyptic thriller in 52 parts that Bryan Singer produced and Warner Bros made. I was proud of that. Then I did another web series for Halo, a 90-minute live-action origins story for some of the characters in he game. That was super-fun – I loved that universe.

How did Mattel get in touch with you?
So [H+ and Halo] got me into sci-fi and out of horror and from that I got a call from Mattel. I thought they’d misdialed because the sci-fi I’d done was dark and gritty and raw and there was this family brand calling me and they sent over a polished cartoon aimed at youngsters… but the mythology was super–neat so I did my research on it. I’d heard of Max Steel but beyond that didn’t know much about it.

They’ve heard about Max Steel in Latin America, apparently
The brand is huge in Latin America. We mention it to someone from there and they go nuts and you think, ‘Oh we better not mess this up.’

What tone were you aiming for?
I felt to make this honestly it would have to be Friday Night Lights with superpowers – something really grounded and authentic and not in the plastic-wrapped space that some movies can find themselves in. [Mattel] fed off that and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last year.

Tell us more about Max’s character
It dips into the puberty allegory: Max’s body is changing, things are happening to him that he doesn’t understand but it’s just that unlike other teenagers, those are dialed up to 11. At first it’s fun and exciting. He has these powers but it’s also really inconvenient because the powers tend to manifest themselves at really inopportune times like in front of really beautiful girls. So he dabbles in them for a while and thinks he’s doing OK and then they quickly spiral out of control and we realise they’re dangerous to him and basically right before he loses total control this alien pops into his life and the two of them have to figure out what each of them are and why they’re meant to be together. It’s interesting. It’s got a little bit of a buddy movie flavor to it like Lethal Weapon it’s a strange combination of genres and I found it really charming.

What have Mattel been like as collaborators?
Mattel were great about, which is super-cool. Working for the Halo people was its own experience. The Halo brand is very definitive and it’s very highly guarded by its fan-base and authenticity and accuracy is paramount to them and that was very cool and also very daunting. Mattel was sort of the opposite in that they said, ‘Look we want this to be a movie. We have a cartoon and toy but make a movie.’ So we got to springboard from it and go to them and show them something and they would ask us to make it a little grittier and edgier and we were like, ‘What? Really?’ They were great. They encouraged us to do whatever we wanted within reason and they generally left us alone in the best possible way. They were supportive but not micro-managerial, which was shocking to me. It’s been a cool experience.

Who are Ben Witchell and Ana Villafañe?
The kids were relatively unknown [when we cast them]. We cast a pretty wide net and met people who had done lots of stuff and people who had done nothing. Ben Witchell is such a good dude and he really is what he plays on the screen, which is a relatable ‘everykid’ who’s attractive and girls will love him, but he’s also somebody that guys can see themselves in. It’s his first movie of any size. He got out of his car at Comic-Con and people were taking his photo and he was flabbergasted by the whole experience. It’s really endearing; he’s one of the most endearing guys. And he’s super-talented. He kept sifting to top when he did callbacks and it became clear it was him. He really blew me away. I’ve worked with a lot of young cast and he’s a natural and he’s in it for the work in the best possible way. Sofia is this gal called Ana Villafañe, who’s awesome. She lights up the screen and they have great chemistry.

You landed some famous names too
The adults were really cool and it’s a high-calibre cast. We had Maria Bello, which was amazing. She does something different every take so my editor is doing backflips with her because it was an embarrassment of riches. Andy Garcia is the same thing, obviously: super-talented dude. Quirky dude. Just a fun guy to have around the set. He seems like he’s totally focused and then he’ll ad lib something out of left-field and the whole set will totally lose it. It was a fun set to be on.