Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky, a pair of writer-directors, sat down with me to discuss Freaks during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
The duo wrote and directed Freaks, which premiered in the Discovery section. The film stars Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Grace Park, Amanda Crew, and features a stand-out performance from Lexy Kolker.
Both Stein and Lipovsky met during On the Lot eleven years ago. They both finished in the top five and ultimately became friends and collaborators. In addition to the feature debut, Freaks, they directed this past year’s live-action adaptation of Kim Possible.
Freaks was one heck of a film that is so full of political allegories. How did you approach the themes in this script?
Zach Lipovsky: When we started writing the script we started with just—it’s about a girl in her house and our father and very quickly those themes started to kind of circle around what was going on. So we started researching a lot—all the different kind of times in history that different groups of people have been persecuted for whatever reason and kind of looking at how families behaved in those situations either by hiding their children with other families or just trying to get away and hide them so that they don’t get caught or whatever those things have happened. We started putting those in—not trying to be too over-the-top with the themes, we wanted it to just be percolating there and still just have a really grounded character story that would hopefully hook the audience.
Adam Stein: We were writing during the time when Trump announced his candidacy and he announced with that infamous speech about how Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers. It was sort of shocking but also part of a trend of increased racism and xenophobia in the country. And I also had remembered feeling shocked and worried after 9/11 for Muslim families who were being targeted. And we basically just wanted to kind of bring those themes in of the other and how the society and state can so quickly turn against people that are targeted as the other and create a cycle of violence and you know turn them into pariahs and sometimes you trap them and kill them. And it’s something that we didn’t want to overshadow the character story as Zach saying but something that also felt kind of important in this time to shine a light on.
It’s surprising that Bruce Dern has not done a sci-fi film since the early 1970s. How were you able to pull that off and did you have anybody else in mind?
Adam Stein: Bruce told us he hates sci-fi films (laughs) and he hasn’t wanted to do them and that’s because he’s such a consummate naturalist. He digs his teeth into characters that are visceral and real and he thinks—in general—genre films are bullshit and fake.
Zach Lipovsky: In this we were trying to take an approach that was really realistic and had real—he kept saying, “You guys write with real voices. You write people.” And he was like, “I’m a people—I’m Mr. Snowcone!” He was just very into the fact that this was sort of a character piece first and a genre movie second and that’s what really that’s what grabbed him.
Adam Stein: Yeah, he also really identified with the story of little girl because he has a daughter and he actually—not a lot people know this but he had another daughter before Laura who passed away and died very young. That’s something he shared with us. I mean it’s public knowledge. It’s not secret but it’s something that I think really drove him for the character that desire to protect and defend (spoiler) in this case. And he was able to really sink his teeth in the role and treat it as if it wasn’t a sci-fi film and treat it as if it was just an intense character-driven story about a family which is what we were really going for.
And there’s a lot of mystery this character, too.
Adam Stein: Yeah. There’s a lot of mystery in the film and a lot of you know keeping the audience guessing because one of our favorite things when we go see a movie is not knowing what’s happening next so many movies these days are just predictable.
It’s gotten to the point where I don’t want to watch trailers anymore.
Zach Lipovsky: Well that’s why the teaser that we sent out is only 15 seconds long. We just wanted a few cryptic images—just enough to kind of make you curious and then it’s really important in this film in particular that it is a mystery because we’re telling the film through this perspective of a little girl and she doesn’t know what’s going on. She doesn’t even know what’s outside her front door. And so we didn’t want the audience to know either. And as she puts each puzzle piece together so does the audience so that you’re always kind of seeing the movie through her eyes.
Adam Stein: Yeah, so much of the time when you go to see a film especially genre films I feel like you know how it’s going to end even if you haven’t seen the trailer—you know that Spiderman is going to be victorious in the movie somehow or whatever. You know what’s going to happen. And our favorite movies are the ones where you’re sitting there going, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. It’s such a delicious feeling and so rare. And we wanted to have a movie that kind of unfolded twist after twist for the audience.
With having previously worked on Disney projects, did that experience help with getting this phenomenal performance out of Lexy Kolker?
Adam Stein: Thank you.
Zach Lipovsky: Thank you. We’ve definitely worked a lot with kids and this is a very different movie than it is with Disney but just knowing sort of how to treat them with a lot of respect and we give them the room to really be mature because a lot of them really are. We’ve searched high and low for a kid that can really pull off what Lexy has to do in this movie. I mean—she’s in every scene in the film and the entire scene film is driven around her decisions and what she does and you know it was ambitious to write a film that needed that. But luckily, we were able to find it with her and everyone you know surrounded her with a lot of support to make sure that she had the room to be able to kind of pull off the ambitious performance that she takes on.
Adam Stein: TIFF put Freaks into the Discovery section. We think that’s because she’s just a true discovery. We think she’s going to be a superstar. It’s sort of like when you see Natlie Portman in the professional or something you just know, Wow this is a star. And it’s because she can go to those deep places and be completely real with it and then still she had the maturity to know that it was acting. In the auditions, we did these intense scenes and then at the end she would be like, “Oh, that was really fun.” You know she’d just snap out of it and be herself again. And that was really amazing to see. And the other fun thing is that she was seven when we filmed. She had her eighth birthday on set and she’s acting opposite Bruce Dern, who is 81. So this movie has the youngest star and the oldest star of any movie here at TIFF acting together. He’s two months older than Robert Redford. (Laughs) So seeing that on screen is not something you see very often—such a young person and such an old person acting together.
Zach Lipovsky: And throwing down together.
Adam Stein: Her eighth birthday was the day we were shooting the driving scenes between them. So they’re like going at each other and spit was flying. And it was just amazing. You know it’s not something you see very often on screen. It was pretty exciting.
I have to ask since the two of you are directing the live-action Kim Possible film. I had an opportunity to attend a panel recently at Wizard World Chicago with Christy Carlson Romano and Will Friedle and they spoke to the fans. How should fans of the original animated series go into the live-action film?
Zach Lipovsky: Yeah, that’s a very good question because we’ve been very aware of the amazing fan base of Kim Possible and we’re big fans of it our self. We tried really, really hard to do two things at once without kind of ruining the film—one, to make it true to the cartoon and all the things that the fans love about the cartoon and two, to update it for today’s times because obviously it was very different when Kim Possible came out. Technology was different. How people were living was very different. So we’re trying to kind of keep all the essential DNA of that original series and the original creators were the writers of the film as well but also update all the certain things that need to feel—because a lot of things that were ahead of its time when it came out. We still want to feel that of its time now. And that was a delicate balance to try to get right.
Adam Stein: Our favorite thing about the show—the original show—is the tone. Just the amazing comedy but also the incredible epic action the cartoon had and bringing that to life in live-action was super fun. We had incredible stunt team that was led by Melissa Stubbs, who is one of the top female stunt coordinators in the world and she created just an incredible fight team of super hero women that were training Kim, training Shego, and doubling them to create epic action that. And also you know the tone of mixing that with comedy. We have Patton Oswalt reprise the role he originally did in the cartoon. It was just you know such a great experience. We hope fans really love it as much as we love making it.
Zach Lipovsky: The stand out in the film to Sadie, too. She’s a complete unknown and she is Kim Possible. It’s pretty amazing to see her come to life as this iconic character so I can’t wait for people to see where she was she did. Very much like like Lexy and Freaks.