When FREAKS begins, it seems to be a perhaps post-apocalyptic scenario in which a father (Emile Hirsch) tries to shield his little daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker) from deadly threats outside their house. Then we witness him coaching her to adopt a false identity, and the intrigue begins. From there, the storyline unfolds in a series of surprising revelations about Chloe’s true nature and its dramatic and horrific implications, while teasing us with odd encounters whose true nature only gradually becomes clear. And what’s up with the ice cream man played by none other than Bruce Dern, who takes a special interest in Chloe and seems to know more about her background than she does?
FREAKS, now going into general release after picking up multiple accolades on the festival circuit, is a thematically ambitious and consistently gripping feature showcasing a stunning performance by young Kolker (sister of Ava Kolker from INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY and SCARY MOVIE 5). It’s also an impressive and intriguing co-writing/directing debut by longtime friends Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky that demonstrates they’ve got real skills balancing fantastical themes and issues of family and discrimination (it won’t be surprising if Marvel comes calling for them). The duo first met on the Steven Spielberg/Mark Burnett-produced filmmaking-competition reality show ON THE LOT (Stein placed third, Lipovsky placed fifth); Stein went on to become a segment director for THE JIMMY KIMMEL SHOW while Lipovsky helmed small-screen B-movies such as Syfy’s TASMANIAN DEVILS, WWE Films’ mini-monster relaunch LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS and Crackle’s DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER. They teamed up for the kids’ adventure series INGRESS OBSESSED and MECH-X4, and along the way decided to create a much darker story centred on a child…
SCREAM: FREAKS is a very complex film; what kind of preparation did you undertake before you scripted it, and how did you organise this very complicated structure?
ZACH LIPOVSKY: In our writing process, we spend a huge amount of time in the outlining stage. We’ll spend three or months figuring out the beats we want, pretty much building the whole screenplay except for the dialogue and trying a lot of things. Then we write a first draft very, very quickly. In this case, we spent three months outlining and then ended up going to a cabin in the woods and writing the first draft in five days. The day we got back, we did a reading of the script in front of an audience—and the reason was that Adam’s wife was like, “If you’re gonna go with your friend to a cabin in the woods while I look after the kids, we’re doing a reading the day you get back, because you’re coming back with a finished script!” And then everyone was like, “What happens in this movie?”
ADAM STEIN: Yeah, the reading was a disaster. We had planned out this detailed outline, and thought it was the perfect amount of reveals and mystery, and nobody at that reading understood the movie at all. It was way more surreal and subtler about revealing things, and people didn’t even understand what it was. They got to the end and said, “So wait, is everyone a ghost?” And some of the people who were there are still like, “Wait, that movie actually got made?” Because they never saw another draft after that.
ZL: That was hugely important, because we walked into it thinking, “We’re amazing, we wrote a script in five days,” and came out going, “Oh boy, we’ve got a lot of work to do.” So we outlined again for several months, rewrote the script from scratch, did another reading and it was a little bit better. And we kept doing that, which is very important for a mystery/thriller because it’s all about, when is the audience realising certain things, and when are they bored and when are they confused? You have to be very specific about that, because we don’t know at what point they realise something, since we know everything. We also tested it throughout the edit, screening the movie for about five people every weekend for months and months, continuously changing little things, adding explanations, taking out explanations. By the time we finished the process, we had reached the point where the audience gets it at the times they’re supposed to get it; it doesn’t take so long that they lose interest, but it’s not so soon that it’s obvious.
AS: Things changed immensely. In the first draft, it was a boy living with his father, and the Bruce Dern character was an uncle. That was because when we started the process, we wanted to write a movie we could make even if we had zero dollars. We thought, what kind of movie can we do that’s in our voice, even if nobody gives us a penny to make it? We were going to star in it, and cast my son as the kid.
ZL: Adam was gonna be the father, and I was going to be the uncle.
AS: We did some screen tests with my son, who was actually pretty good, though he never wanted to do a second take. He was like, “No, I’m good, I did it,” and we thought, “Oh, we’re going to have to get a real actor here.”
ZL: And then you fast-forward a couple of years, and a two-time Oscar-nominated actor is playing the role I was supposed to play. So it escalated quickly from there.
SCREAM: How did you find Lexy Kolker, and how did she handle such a difficult role?
AS: One of the first things we did when we got some investment in the film was hire casting directors. They put out an announcement and got, I believe, about a thousand tapes for the Chloe role. We started going through them and through them and through them, and then we saw the best ones in person. Zach and I had done a lot of work for the Disney Channel, so we’d had experience with kid actors, and figuring out how to get the best performances from them. One technique we found useful was improv. We knew we wanted to do that a lot in the movie, to create a more real-feeling performance, and that all the dialogue was negotiable.
So even at the audition stage, when the kids came in, we were sitting on the floor with crayons and stuff, saying, “You know what, forget the scene. Just come in, sit down, colour with us, and let’s start talking about life. Like, what’s it like when you’re mad at your parents? When was the last time you were angry at them about something?” And they would say, “Oh, my dad wouldn’t let me go to a sleepover,” and we’d be like, “Let’s play that scene, let’s pretend to do that.” So we had an actor friend come to do the reading with them, and they would start arguing about going to a sleepover. And then the actor would start weaving in lines from the scene, and the kids who were good would be able to get there emotionally, and say, “I hate you! You won’t let me go to the sleepover!” and then transition into the lines.
ZL: They would connect to something that was real, and the desire from real life, and then carry that emotion over to the scripted stuff. So often, kids come in super-duper-rehearsed, to the point where they don’t have a connection to the material, because their parents have treated it like homework: “You better not screw this up, you better know your lines!” We wanted to approach this from the exact opposite direction, and Lexy was by far the best one at doing that. Even when we were shooting, we told her, “Don’t memorise the script. Just look at it a few times before we shoot, so you know what the scene’s about, and then we’ll just connect it to real emotions and real things that have happened to you on set.” We did long rolling takes; some of them were, like, 45 minutes long. Since we were the writers, we knew the essential elements we needed.
AS: Bruce is an incredible improviser too. He’s kind of known for that. He doesn’t use the word “improv”; he calls them “Dernsies,” a word that Jack Nicholson coined when he first worked with him. Bruce always made it his own, so it fit right into how we worked with the cast in general. If there was a specific line we needed for some plot reason, we would make sure they said it, but generally we would just play around that.
SCREAM: Did anything ever become too much for Kolker, and she had to back off from it?
AS: It was interesting: The part that was hardest for her was the anger. It wasn’t the super-sad stuff or the scary stuff; she was fine with all that, and actually thought it was pretty cool when things got scary. It was the scenes where she got mad, because that was a very foreign emotion for her as a person. She’s such a happy-go-lucky, bubbly girl. It’s funny, when she’s at our screenings at festivals, people fall in love with her, and when she’s not there, the first question is always, “Is that little girl OK?” [Laughs] She had the time of her life on set; it was her best summer ever. So the couple of scenes where she had to be angry were difficult for her, and that was kind of surprising to us, because so much of this was inspired by my son, who’s very hot-tempered [laughs]. But she had never yelled at her parents—not like that.
ZL: Emile and her family helped her a lot, throughout the shoot. She was surrounded by so much love, and Emile, who’s a very experienced actor, helped her navigate through it. She was already super-mature for her age, and she could see the two worlds and was excited by the challenge of the script. She was excited by where she was able to get to, and wanted to go further.
SCREAM: Did you shoot in an actual house, or was some of that done on sets?
AS: We got that house a few days before shooting. We had a few terrible misses on houses that fell through, which is just one of those shooting realities. And then we found this old mansion that was on the market and completely empty. It was in Vancouver’s fanciest neighbourhood, and I think it was going for like $6 million. But it was an enormous house in disrepair at that point, and we were like, “Perfect!”
ZL: It was pretty funny, because we were told, “It’s in a wealthy neighbourhood, so the city will never let you near it because of all the neighbours!” And we were like, “What if we don’t put a single thing on the street?” We were a small enough crew, and it had a big enough backyard—what if all of our trucks and equipment and everything we had was just on the property, and it never engaged with the neighbourhood? And they said, “Well, then you’re good.” So we just squeezed the entire production onto this lawn.
AS: Our producer’s office was in the house too—everything was in there, to the extent that people had to stop working when we were rolling.
ZL: The first time we shot a scene with Emile and Bruce together, where the two of them were yelling at each other, we ended up filming this half-hour screaming match between them, just letting the cameras roll because they were so good. It was so magic to see it; obviously it’s cut down dramatically in the movie to the best minute, but everyone in the office wound up coming down, because they could hear through the floor that something amazing was happening, so they came in and watched these two amazing actors going at each other verbally.
AS: One interesting note is that the exterior is actually a completely different house in a different area, because we couldn’t go on the street in the fancy neighbourhood. So during our house scouting, we found this perfect place that was overgrown with bushes and a creaky old fence and these stairs we loved. I remember when we were scouting it, this gardening truck pulled up, and our producer leaped out of the car yelling, “Stop!”
ZL: That was literally the first time we saw the house. We hadn’t even talked to the owners yet. We were saying, “This place is perfect! The garden is amazing!” And then a truck pulled up and all these people got out with clippers and shovels, and we were like, “Nooooooo!”
SCREAM: FREAKS starts out very claustrophobic and slowly becomes more expansive, with some excellent effects work. Can you talk about building the story up into that sci-fi world, and creating those effects on your low budget?
AS: One thing we realised early on was that we were keeping Chloe in the house for most of act one, but we didn’t want to make a “house movie.” I feel like people are a little bit tired of those. We loved the world we were building, and we knew we had to be in the house for a lot of it, but we also wanted to explore what was outside. So as we were working on the script, we kept trying to make it bigger and bigger, so that by the end, you feel like you got a true sense of that world, even on our tiny budget.
ZL: We knew we might be making the movie for nothing, and we both have backgrounds in post, so everything we wrote in that first draft was stuff we knew we could do ourselves if we had to, with enough time and a laptop. We made the choice that they were all things that could be done photographically. There’s no CGI in the movie, really; it’s all compositing and similar techniques, because you can make those look realistic way easier than you can with CGI.
AS: When we built the shot list, we were very surgical. We were like, “OK, this is in-camera, this is in-camera, this one’s a visual effect.” But what happened in the edit, when we screened it and realised we had problems, was that we ended up adding a bunch of effects, because stuff we thought we were being very clever about just wasn’t working. For instance, when Amanda Crews’ character has a big moment at the end, we were just playing that with sound, thinking, “The audience will get it!” And people did not get it, so we had to put some effects shots in there.
ZL: Some of them got it, but they were like, “I’ve been waiting the whole movie for that! You’re not going to show it to me?”
SCREAM: FREAKS is one of a number of recent genre films about parents keeping children locked up or sequestered away from the outside world. Obviously it becomes much more than that, but it has become a common theme. Do you think that has to do with our current society, where thanks to the way we’re now connected, parents are more aware of and concerned about potential dangers to their kids?
ZL: Yeah, though we came at it from a bunch of different reasons. One was that, as Adam said, we were looking at this as a zero-budget movie, and all we had was a house, so we had to think of a reason at the beginning that they were stuck there. But as we explored why, a lot of the thematic stuff in the movie came from that. We wanted the audience to be wondering what is beyond the house, and as it becomes clear, a lot of that was related to what was going on in the world.
The film ended up having a lot of tones of discrimination against the Other; we were writing it as Trump was running for election, so that was exploding on the scene in a bigger way than it had in a long time. But we wanted it to be universal, beyond just U.S.-Mexico issues; we wanted it to be representative of all the times throughout history that people have been discriminated against or xenophobia has been built into the ethos. So we looked at families in WWII hiding that they were Jewish, and in Canada, where I’m from, we’ve had a lot of children in the aboriginal community taken away from their families. That fed into why we built the beginning of the movie that way.
AS: It was also inspired by my experiences with fatherhood, watching my son experience the world and imagining what it would be like to see a sci-fi world through a kid’s eyes. That was one of the early inspirations: From a child’s point of view, the world is already such a strange place, and they’re trying to figure it out, but if it’s a sci-fi world where weird things are happening, it would have this surreal quality of not knowing what’s real and what isn’t. The father-daughter side was also influenced by these kind of anxiety attacks I would have as a new dad, thinking about what would happen if my wife passed away. My wife is amazing, and it’s impossible even with her; how would I do this if I had to on my own? Those kinds of thoughts fed into Emile’s character, and the feeling of trying to protect your kid from the dangers of the world.
SCREAM: Are you fans of Tod Browning’s 1932 FREAKS?
AS: [Laughs] Yes, definitely. It wasn’t a direct inspiration, but I love that movie. It’s such a classic that sticks with you. It’s funny; we tried to give the movie any other title we could think of, and we just kept coming back to this one, and we felt, “All right, it’s been over 80 years, maybe it’s OK to use that name again.”
ZL: The other funny thing is that in any country we’ve screened the movie in where English isn’t the first language, the only association they have with the word “freak” is that [’32] movie. So someone in every audience would ask, “Were you inspired by Tod Browning’s FREAKS?” They were coming to it assuming it’s an adaptation or some sort of homage, but we just tried to find a term that fit the movie the best, and it ended up being that one.
SCREAM: Thank you very much for the interview.
AS: Thank you for your great questions, and for checking out the movie. We really are grateful.
ZL: Thanks so much, Michael.
Words: Michael Gingold