Fresh from the TIFF world premiere of Freaks, I was able to sit down with the film’s writers/directors – Adam B. Stein and Zach Lipovsky – to discuss casting, collaboration, and where the heck this film came from.
For more on Freaks, you can read Jacob’s full review here!
Kelly McNeely: So, Bruce Dern. He’s prolific! What was the experience like, working with him and having him around on the set?
Zach Lipovsky: I mean, Bruce is just an incredible powerhouse. He’s a fire that’s always burning. He’s really, really special – he lives completely in the moment. And this film is really interesting because he hasn’t done a science fiction film since 1971, and that’s because he really believes in characters and realism. He thinks science fiction films are all fake and baloney.
This film really took the different approach – this really is a film that’s grounded in people and their experience, and he really just latched on to that with his talons. It’s really exciting to see him because he’s also co-starring against a 7-year old. So to see a 7-year old and an 81-year old going at each other —
Adam B. Stein: You don’t see that very often on the screen, where there’s such an age split. I would say I can’t think of another movie that does that, but there’s probably examples that I’m not picking up. But just seeing them go at it together is really special. Bruce likes to work this way anyways, but we love working with improv.
So half of what they’re doing is scripted and half of it is riffing off the script, and they’re just talking through all these, you know, 20-30 minute takes where we’d capture just nuggets of brilliance. Then our really talented editor worked with us to build the scenes from that. But it gives it this really naturalistic quality, which is what we were going for. Which is why he was willing to do our film when he doesn’t typically do sci-fi films, because we were trying to create that natural relationship.
Kelly: I know you’ve got this amazing powerhouse of a 7-year old actress, was there anything that you had to do to shield her from any of the more intense scenes?
Zach: We’re in the discovery section at TIFF, and she’s the discovery. Everyone kind of goes into the movie talking about Emile and Bruce, and comes out of it talking about her. She really just unloads this incredible performance. And it is very intense at a lot of places, but she’s so mature. Especially in the audition – she did this scene where she’s screaming and her nostrils are flaring and spit’s flying out of her mouth and we say cut and she’s like [excitedly] “That was so much fun! You guys are so great, this is so cool!”.
There were times where it got intense, but she always had a lot of support around her and Emile was a huge part of that. She’s just super mature so it never got into a weird place – she could see that it was work, and it was work that she was really excited about doing.
Adam: At the same time, the movie is very creepy. There’s one scene where there’s some other kids who come in to this environment, and they were… completely creeped out, these day player kids we had. One girl was like [emphatically] “This is haunted, this house is really haunted! There’s demons in here!”. We were like, poor girl, but… I think we’re doing something right?
Kelly: That’s probably a good sign, right? Speaking of that kind of haunted house feel, there’s a lot of different genres mixed in this gorgeous cocktail. Can you talk a little bit about the writing process and what you wanted to bring with it, and how that all came into being?
Zach: Some people have described this movie as a kitchen sink of genre because it really changes as you watch the film. And that’s because the film is told through the perspective of a 7-year old girl.
So at the very beginning, she doesn’t know what’s outside her doorstep. It’s very mystery driven, and she’s quite scared, so in the beginning it feels like a horror film. But then she does get outside and the world is a complete wonder to her, and it feels like an 80s Spielberg movie. Everything is new and beautiful and she can’t imagine it, and it keeps twisting and twisting and so it really has all sorts of different flavors.
We just kept asking ourselves, what would it be like for a child. It was largely based on Adam’s experience as a father and his 4-year old son.
Adam: We kept at it from “what would the world feel like through her eyes”. Rather than trying to put it into a certain genre or category, we just kept coming back to the character and having her drive the story.
Kelly: And on the topic of doing it through the perspective of a 7-year old, Freaks speaks to those parental fears that everyone has, that can come out as helicopter parenting or perpetuated prejudice that goes through generations – how did you figure out how to present that from a child’s perspective? Because there are some pretty big themes there.
Adam: I think – like Zach said – it was initially inspired by watching my son grow up and just being fascinated by his perspective on the world. Things that were completely imaginary, he thought were very real. And things that were normal to us, he would find terrifying. You know, a car alarm goes off and he would freak out. And we just thought that that was fascinating, to imagine what it would be like to be him. Especially in a world that was strange – that was dangerous – and how that might feel and how that could drive a story.
In terms of the parental fears… as a parent, you try to protect your kid. You try and shelter them and try and shield them, and sometimes you do it well, and sometimes you do it poorly. Emile’s character is a father who’s trapped himself in this house with his daughter for seven years. He has had no guidance or training on how to be a dad —
Kelly: No baby books
Adam: No! No baby books, no parenthood classes, no grandparents to tell you how to do it… So he’s kind of screwing up in some ways. But he’s also doing his best. And we also wanted to be honest and raw about that. To show a parent who was trying his best, but who wasn’t really good at it, and what that would look like and feel like.
Zach: It was also Emile’s first time playing a father and he had just become a father recently, and that was really why he responded to the material – because it spoke to those experiences.
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