Getting to experience situations we most likely never would in real life is why many of us go to the movies. So, given this voyeuristic nature of film, it’s little surprise that there’s a whole sub-genre that addresses this concept quite literally: The body-swap movie. Last year we got writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor which reinvented this sub-genre in the darkest possible way, and now Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) brings us FREAKY, a slasher/comedy/body-swap mashup that’s as outrageously funny as it is downright scary.
Helmed by Landon, from a script he wrote with Michael Kennedy, and starring Kathryn Newton (Blockers, HBO’s Big Little Lies) and Vince Vaughn (Dragged Across Concrete, Brawl in Cell Block 99), Freaky follows the trails and tribulations of seventeen-year-old Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton, Blockers, HBO’s Big Little Lies). Surviving her senior year becomes the least of her worries when she finds herself the newest target of The Butcher (Vaughn), her town’s infamous serial killer.
When The Butcher’s mystical ancient dagger causes him and Millie to wake up in each other’s bodies, Millie discovers that she has just 24 hours to get her body back before the switch becomes permanent whilst The Butcher soon realises that having a female teen body is the perfect cover for a little Homecoming killing spree…
As Freaky releases in the UK this Friday, June 2, SCREAM sat down with Landon who revealed how, beneath the terror and comedy in Freaky, there’s a deeper story about a young woman finding her inner strength and refusing to be defined or diminished by others and why it made sense for Freaky to be an R-rated, violent and gory film…
I think you’re about the same age as me, so I’m guessing you were brought up on the similar kind of body swap movies as I was: Big, Freaky Friday, Face/Off et al?
I definitely grew up with a lot of the same movies but, at the same time, I think that what I really enjoy about about making movies like Freaky – and also Happy Death Day – is that you have this known formula or familiar trope. But then I get to combine that with something that generally has no business being next to it, and yet it somehow works. It also really makes the audience become an active participant because they have to rely on the same sort of body of knowledge to be able to really appreciate all the things that you’re doing. In the end, much of the movie is about unpacking tropes from different kinds of movies, whether it be coming-of-age stories or comedies or slasher movies, so there’s a lot of active watching going on there.
When it came to writing the script with Michael Kennedy, how did you approach combining all these different genres whilst keeping your target audience in mind?
I think what was really helpful was that, first and foremost, Michael and I are friends and we share similar tastes. We both have a huge love of the horror genre, but we also like comedy and we crack each other up all the time. Having the same tastes was the foundation of it all. And then I think what worked so well for us is that I have a pretty strong grasp of story so I think part of my job was to really break up the story and figure out exactly where it was going.
The way we worked together was great because I would write a scene and he would write a scene and then we would swap them over, which was kind of funny. But the balance of the horror and the comedy came about really organically and it wasn’t something that was as calculated or premeditated as you might think. It was just a case of, “Where’s the story going and how is it unfolding?” In the end, it was quite natural for most of Millie’s scenes to end up being a bit more comedic whilst most of The Butcher’s scenes would end up being a bit scarier because you’ve got one person trying to stop a killer and the other one is just killing. So I think the balance was baked into the story.
It was a really fun and really fast writing process. And it was also the first time that I’d ever actually written a movie with someone else. I have traditionally either written my own material or have rewritten other people’s work so it was really fun to work with someone else this time.
I imagine having a writing partner must help when it comes to making certain narrative decisions and getting someone else’s perspective on things?
There’s a certain amount of accountability, you know? You can’t be lazy because there’s somebody else who is waiting for you to get your shit done. And I think that’s partly why we wrote the first draft so quickly because we were both excited by the idea. We were both having a lot of fun and then ultimately we needed each other to do the work to get it finished.
As the two lead actors were going to be imitating each other once they’d swapped bodies in the film, did you write Millie and The Butcher’s roles with Kathryn (Newton) and Vince (Vaughn) in mind?
This time around I did, but I don’t always have actors in my mind when I write stuff. But for this I really did have Vince and Kathryn in my head. They were the first people that we sent the script to and I honestly expected one or both of them to say no because it’s rare that you get the people that you imagined. So, as you can imagine, I was blown away that that they both said yes.
Did Vince and Kathryn work closely together to perfect how they were going to mimic each other?
Yes. I do tend to be pretty hands on when it comes to character development and I wanted to give both of them as many tools as possible so that, by the time they walked on set, they were really comfortable and understood the characters. I started working with them individually and we created a video diary with Kathryn. I got her to get into character as Millie and I followed her around with a camera. We just went around L.A. to places like fast food restaurants to allow Kathryn to really work on her physical mannerisms, like her biting her nails and the way that she plays with her hair and the way that she’s kind of slouched when she moves.
But I also had her talk a lot about her past, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with her sister, her relationship with her father who passed away and how that loss impacted their family and all these things to build out a character. We then gave that to Vince so that he could study it in his own time. After that, we all got together in pre-production and rehearsed a lot and that’s where Kathryn and Vince became more involved in building out their characters and handing things over to each other. Vince was great with the physicality of The Butcher and how he carried himself and where his strength came from. That was really helpful to Kathryn because it was a really intimidating aspect of the role because it’s so physical and there’s so little dialogue, but she really embraced it.
As we’ve never seen a body-swap movie in which an adolescent switches bodies with a strapping serial killer, you must have had certain concerns about what might and what might not work?
There’s always a little bit of concern lingering in the back of your head when you do anything like this. It’s like a high wire act. But I think I try to operate from a place of just going for broke. I just embrace the absurdity of it and and run with it. That was the spirit that I think Vince and Kathryn brought to it as well. I think the three of us just kind of ran screaming into the idea of it all.
You are in your 40’s now. Did you find it easy tapping back into your youth to write dialogue for a mostly adolescent cast?
I think I benefit, and suffer, from some measure of arrested development. And I’m still wrestling with a lot of stuff that I experienced in high school. I think I’m around enough young people, like my nieces and nephews, and sometimes I would call them and ask them if certain things sounded old or not. But, generally speaking, I think I have an ear for it and so I didn’t feel like anything I had in there felt too old and dusty, but you never know.
I love high school set movies and I love writing teenagers. I always have, and as I get older, I think I start to understand the adults in the room a lot more. I think that’s been the biggest transformation for me. Before, I would write young characters and I really understood their point of view and I would always be trying to figure out what the adults were thinking. Now that I’m older, for better or for worse, I feel like I have a better grasp on both.
How did you decide on Millie’s friends in the film as the protagonist’s sidekicks are always crucial to the success of a body-swap movie?
I think that because we’re dealing with a style of movie that harks back to a lot of movies from the past, we wanted to make sure that it still felt contemporary and modern. We didn’t want it just to be a film about a bunch of straight white kids that quickly starts to get stale and boring and doesn’t really feel like the real world. And, since Michael and I both are gay men who experienced high school and our adolescence as closeted, it was really important for us to write a character that was out and that wasn’t struggling with his sexuality. Someone who was well supported by his family and confident.
And for Nyla, we wanted a young black woman who also was very strong and had a great moral compass and her own identity and wasn’t stereotypical. There’s nothing about Nyla that feels stereotypical to me. So I think it’s about representation and it’s about dragging some of these old dusty slasher movies into 2021. Often, these ancillary characters are sidelined and we wanted to make sure that they were a very integral part to Millie’s success. She would not be able to switch back without them. I think it’s as much of a love letter and a testament to friendship as it is about some of the other themes in the movie.
You’ve suggested that Freaky shares the same universe as the Happy Death Day franchise. Were you teasing a possible crossover?
They are spiritually linked and obviously sort of exist in a similar world and tone. I 100% could see Millie and Tree running into each other somewhere and sitting down for a coffee and being like, “Holy shit! Guess what happened to me!” And maybe we could figure out some sort of batshit crossover movie, but I’m going to do what I always do because I’m very superstitious. I need to see how people experience this movie and see if they care enough for anything more. Movies are like babies. Everybody thinks their baby is cute even when, out in the world, everyone’s like, “But your baby’s ugly!” So I’m just going to wait and figure out what how well the movie is received and then maybe give that mashup a little more thought…
Words: Howard Gorman