Superheroes are everywhere. Between a new Marvel movie at least once a year and DC’s attempts at breaking into the market, the world has its fill of capes, tight suits, and maniacal villains. So how can someone deliver something new to a genre monopolized by two big brands? Make it more emotionally accessible, at least that’s what directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky have done in their film, Freaks, a tale about a young girl learning about her new abilities in a world that hates those like her.
We were able to speak with Stein and Lipovsky about Freaks and what it was like working with the legendary Bruce Dern and Emile Hirsch, as well as young actor Lexy Kolker.
“We were really interested in what it would be like to tell a story from the perspective of a child who’s trying to understand the world while telling a sci-fi story.”
Mary Beth McAndrews for Nightmare On Film Street: I was able to see Freaks at Windy City Horrorama in Chicago last April and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then. It’s so exciting that it’s finally getting released!
Zach Lipovsky: It’s exciting for you, think how it feels for us!
NOFS: I went into this movie knowing absolutely nothing which I think is the perfect way to see this movie because it starts as one thing and turns out to be another. It’s not really a superhero movie, but it’s superhero adjacent. There are so many movies like that today, so were you ever worried about that?
Adam Stein: We felt like we had a different take on it. There were two creative guiding principles when we started the movie. One was inspired by an episode of This American Life [the podcast] that John Hodgeman did years and years ago where he interviewed people about superpowers. He asked, “what would you do if you had superpowers?” and people said, “I would fly to Paris” or “I would spy on my ex.” At the end of the podcast, he said, “You know what no one said? No one said they would save people or fight crime.” We were talking about that and felt like if people started developing abilities, they would still be people. They wouldn’t start putting on suits and joining super teams. We were really interested in getting into the humanity and the nitty-gritty of what would happen when there are powers but no superheroes or supervillains.
The other [guiding principle] came from my experience as a dad, seeing my kid start to experience the world and try to make sense of it. We were really interested in what it would be like to tell a story from the perspective of a child who’s trying to understand the world while telling a sci-fi story. With those two bits of inspiration, we started crafting the story. We were very interested in doing it in a way that puts the audience in Chloe’s shoes to try and figure out what’s going on, just like she was.
NOFS: That really struck me because at the beginning of the film I kept thinking Emile Hirsch’s character is a crazy person, Bruce Dern’s character is a creepy ice cream man, but it’s so much more complex than that. It was like watching the world through Chloe’s eyes. What was it like working with Lexy [Kolker] on set? Her performance is incredible.
ZL: She is a superstar. It felt like we had Natalie Portman in The Professional or Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. It was like, “Woah what have we got here?” It was really scary because we wrote a script that stars a seven-year-old in every single scene of the film in a very active, very commanding type of role. We knew we had to find someone that could hold an entire movie and could especially hold their own against people like Bruce Dern and Emile Hirsch. She matches all their intensity, which is pretty remarkable. A lot of people go into the movie because of Bruce and Emile, but they come out of the movie talking about her.
We’ve worked a lot with kids before. We’ve done a lot of Disney stuff, which is definitely a different style of acting. We had gotten to know that there is a lot of depth to kids, but generally, the way that they work is very rehearsed and very staged. They come off as very robotic, so we were looking for someone who could work in a very different way. We used a lot of connecting to real emotions and connecting to real stuff from [Lexy’s] actual life to bring out the reality into the scene. We would look for things she could relate to. In the movie, she really wants ice cream, but we would say, “when was the last argument you had with your dad?” It was about a sleepover. Sometimes we would actually improvise an actual thing from her life, like an argument over a sleepover. Then, without cutting, we would just go into the argument about ice cream so that the emotion was authentic.
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Bruce Dern is known for his improv and Emile did it as well, so we made sure to get the important stuff in their scenes, but also let them be real and reactive and unpredictable so it felt as authentic as possible. To your first question, that was something we felt was missing from superhero movies. They’re so flashy and so polished, you know what’s going to happen. You know there’s good guys and bad guys. We wanted [Freaks] to be raw and real and unpredictable. No one’s good, no one’s bad. That would reinvent the genre.
“We wanted [Freaks] to be raw and real and unpredictable.”
NOFS: This really felt like a family story about people with powers. We don’t ever see that! It’s usually just pretty-looking adults.
ZL: One of the biggest laughs in the movie is when [Emile Hersch] says, “Shut up Alan!”
AS: It’s just a son-in-law and his father-in-law who have grudges!
ZL: He’s just Alan.
NOFS: So how did you decide who would get what superpowers?
AS: That’s a really good question. We, from the beginning, really wanted to connect it to their characters and connect it to their ultimate expression of desire. For example, Chloe yearns to connect with people in the outside world and have some control over her life. So her telepathic power lets her bring people into her world. Dad wants to protect Chloe and put her in a bubble, so that’s what he can do so she can grow up safe. Mom is in prison, yearning for freedom, and flying the biggest expression of freedom. But, she’s also full of explosive anger, so when she blasts off and lands it creates this massive shockwave.
Bruce, Mr. Snowcone, is a trickster and always has a scheme. We thought, “if you could turn invisible at a young age, what kind of person would you turn into?” Bruce, probably starting at 7 or 8, could turn invisible, so what does that do to you as a person?
NOFS: If this actually happened today, do you think people without superpowers would act the way they do in the film?
ZL: We looked at history to build the world. There was a theme throughout the film about how The Other was treated and that’s happened throughout history since the beginning of time. There have always been people in power and people who aren’t in power. We looked at as many different examples as we could to see how individuals behaved, how people were treated, and how families survived. We tried to take those universal elements and bring them into our world [of Freaks] so the world felt real. The family across the street is related to Jewish families in World War II trying to hide their kids with non-Jewish families. The kids being separated from their parents [which was inspired by] the residential school system [in Canada] where kids were separated from their families to be normal.
We wrote the film as Trump’s campaign was kicking off and these new feelings of xenophobia were boiling up. We were wondering if this was going to be relevant when the movie comes out, he’s just going to be a footnote to history that everyone laughs at. No one is going to be thinking about this by the time the movie comes out. But, when the film came out at TIFF, kids were being separated from their parents and put in camps. [Freaks] became shocking prescient. People were very upset about what was going on [in the world] and asked how did you know this was going to happen. Unfortunately, we just looked at history and that’s what always happens.
AS: It’s all about fear. When people are different, the people who are considered normal are often inspired by fear which is stoked by governments. I think if people started developing special abilities there would be a lot of fear from the public about what it means for them. Over many generations that fear compounds and really could create that environment you see in the movie.
“It’s all about fear. When people are different, the people who are considered normal are often inspired by fear which is stoked by governments.”
NOFS: I love the intergenerational aspect of Freaks. It feels like this isn’t a new thing, but rather we’re coming a world in the midst of change.
ZL: We talked a lot about that. We felt like we’ve seen so many worlds where there’s a meteorite, a radioactive explosion, or something that explains the origin of where we’re at [in a story]. We felt like audiences can fill that in. One of the things scripts always have is people trying to explain stuff that they already know. You always hear, “as you know” then they’ll explain something to another character just because the audience needs to know it even if a character already knows it. We made a rule that there will never be an “as you know” moment. The characters will only say things that they would actually say. We won’t explain something to the audience until it needs to be explained to a character. That was another thing we wanted to do to make it feel more realistic.
AS: Bruce was 81 when we filmed and Lexy as 7. You very rarely see that sort of age gap on screen. But it is common in family and our lives that we have a relationship with our grandparents. They had such a great relationship on set.
NOFS: Did they really?
AS: Oh yeah. The day we filmed all of the car scene was Lexy’s 8th birthday. They were riding around in the truck all day together, having the greatest conversations. He’s a fierce, crotchety old guy but whenever Lexy was near him, he would light up. He was so tender with her and really cared about her. He has a daughter of his own, so he was really drawn to this part that was about saving his daughter. But it’s great to see them [Bruce and Lexy] onscreen together, especially with that age difference. It feels like something special.
NOFS: What was it like working with Bruce Dern on set?
ZL: It was pretty special because nowadays he’s a cameo. This is a lot more than a cameo, he’s a main character in the film. He is a legend, obviously, he’s been nominated for two Oscars. He’s a nonstop source of stories about all of the amazing things he’s done. At the same time, he is completely in the moment. When you say action, he is in that scene and every take is different because he is reacting and living with whatever’s happening. That became contagious to the rest of the cast. Lexy didn’t know what improv was. Suddenly, Bruce would say something that wasn’t in the script and at first, we would remind him of his next line. But then she realized, wait, I can just make up a line. That fed into the electricity of what was happening. Bruce Dern’s first scene we shot was the one where he and Emile Hirsch were fighting and shouting at each other. That first take was 45 minutes long. It wasn’t one 45-minute long argument, but they kept doing the scene over and over again, continuously looping and bringing up old arguments.
The first time we met Bruce was at a lunch that ended up lasting six-and-a-half hours. One of the main things he said was “who’s playing that father because that motherfucker’s gotta be ready to dance. I’m going to dance with that motherfucker.” This was before Emile Hirsch was cast. He was so excited about the history between these two characters. He’s so in it, it was contagious. He was the first actor to sign onto the film. We were lucky to have him.
NOFS: OK, I have one more question. What superpower do you wish you had?
AS: Stopping time seems pretty damn good to me right now. Stop time and catch up on some sleep. I probably wouldn’t start saving people, I will admit.
ZL: I would definitely want to fly. Ever since I saw The Rocketeer as a kid I’ve been obsessed with jetpacks and flying. I had dreams every night about wanting to fly.
Freaks is now playing in select cities. Head to the film’s website to see if it’s playing near you. Have you seen Freaks yet? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!