Freaks, the debut film from Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein, is set to World Premiere in the Discovery section at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival this Saturday night (get tickets). The two wrote and directed as well as produced the dark sci-fi thriller starring Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern, with Amanda Crew and introducing Lexy Kolker.
Described as an inventive mystery, Freaks follows a disturbed father (Hirsch) who locks his 7-year-old daughter in a house, warning her of grave dangers outside. But the mysterious Mr. Snowcone (played by Dern) convinces the girl to escape and join him on a profound quest for family, freedom, and revenge.
We caught up with the filmmakers ahead of the World Premiere to discuss one of the craziest kitchen sink genre films at the festival.
On the Genesis of Freaks
ADAM: We were directors working on TV projects, TV movies, and digital series… but we were frustrated that the film projects we had been attached to hadn’t gotten made.
ZACH: It’s a funny story. We were really inspired by a speech that Mark Duplass gave in Austin telling filmmakers to ask themselves “What do you have”? He urged creators to stop writing movies that you can’t get made, and instead make a film with the elements you have right now.
So we made a list: we had the two of us, Adam’s house, his four-year-old son, and his wife’s family owned a diner-style restaurant. So we came up with a story that had those elements. A kid, a house, a diner.
Never could we have imagined that years later instead of Adam playing the “Dad” we’d have Emile Hirsch, and instead of me playing what was originally an “uncle” role, we’d have Bruce Dern.
ADAM: Obviously a lot changed as we worked on later drafts of the script. The concept slowly got bigger too, but never went beyond the resources we had. What ended up happening is that as we started to show producers, agents, etc the script they came in with access to financing and actors. So the size of the concept grew as our resources grew.
ZACH: The genesis of the story idea was based around watching Adam’s son grow up, and watching him see the world for the first time. To him impossible ideas were believable, and normal things were terrifying. We thought it’d be fun to capture that perspective in a genre film.
On the Film’s Social Commentary
ADAM: Some social commentary and a lot of personal experience. I know when I was a new dad I felt incompetent and unprepared. I took a lot of classes and had great fatherhood mentors, and with that support network, I became a better and better father. But Emile’s character never had the benefit of that support network.
Before he was a father he was a violent guy, someone who’s been a semi-criminal and on the run for most of his life. Because of the way the world has isolated him now, he’s raised Chloe with no training. Not even a book about parenting. So we wanted to show his primal protectionist instinct has been twisted into paranoia and a hair-trigger temper, but underneath it all, he’s got deep love for her. We knew and hoped this would make the audience uneasy about his parenting at first… he doesn’t really know how to keep her safe in this harsh world, but he loves her deeply.
The social commentary in the film is inspired by our world, where the tools of government can be used to destroy the lives of people who are considered Other. A world where immigrant kids are torn away from their parents, where police sometimes shoot on sight and ask questions later. Over the last century, various groups have been hunted down for various reasons… turned into criminals just because they were different. Exploring those issues with a science fiction lens can help the audience see them from a new perspective.
On Juggling Several Subgenres
ADAM: We always came back to telling the story from Chloe’s perspective. She’s 7 and she’s never been outside her house: she has no idea what kind of world she’s living in, what kind of story her life is. So the audience doesn’t either.
Sometimes Chloe is terrified and it feels like we’re in a horror movie, sometimes she’s dealing with her emotions and it feels like an indie drama, sometimes she’s full of rage and the stuff she does feels like an action-revenge story, sometimes she’s full of wonder and it feels like an Amblin wish-fulfillment beat.
We love how it keeps the audience guessing. We are so used to genre conventions today that almost every traditional movie is predictable. But my favorite experience as an audience member is when I have no idea where a story is going. We’ve heard that people’s favorite thing about the movie is the experience of to figure out what the hell this movie is, and where is it going. And sometimes it might make them feel uneasy or curious to not know, and that’s great too because those are the same feelings Chloe is having.
ADAM: The most important thing was to keep it real, honest, and grounded. Even when crazy sci-fi stuff is happening, we always tried to keep it real emotionally. So honestly, the answer might be indie drama! We are really inspired by movies like Ex Machine or Moon where the world is sci-fi but the characters and emotions are all grounded.
ZACH: Many of our favorite films combine genre so we didn’t really aim for one of the other. We based it on the character’s perspective. If she’s scared, we wanted to scare the audience, if she’s amazed we tried to fill them with wonder, if she wants revenge, we want the audience to feel that bloodlust.
Freaks Could Build Its Own Universe
ZACH: We really love Shyamalan-style stories where you are figuring out the rules of the world as you watch. We had a lot of fun building the rules of this world and there are a lot of details sprinkled around the background of the frame. We ended up cutting a lot of the world building exposition out of the film, but we still let it exist around the characters. Pointing out all the secrets of the world will make for a great director’s commentary at some point.
ADAM: In terms of the universe beyond the film, definitely have ideas for other stories that could take place in this world. Mad Max was also an inspiration in that way — how that film started as a DIY indie and then years later can evolve into Fury Road.
Casting Lexy Kolker in the Tough Lead Role
ZACH: We knew we needed to find an incredibly natural young kid who could also go to some very dark powerful places, so we changed the way we auditioned. Instead of sitting behind a table and getting kids to stand and read lines, we sat on the floor with our shoes off and improvised scenes from their own lives.
ADAM: we also brought in a talented actor friend to each audition to read the part of Dad, so that the girls auditioning could experience the reality of acting with another actor, instead of the typical thing, which is to read lines with the casting director.
ZACH: After we saw that a kid could tap into emotions from her real life, we improvised a scene from the movie with them. Lexy really excelled at this. She was able to deliver an incredibly powerful performance, hitting on all the key points of a scene while still listening and responding to any improv the actor threw at her.
ADAM: During the emotional angry scene we did with Lexy, her nostrils flared, her eyes watered, she was totally in it. And then when the scene was done, she brightened and said to her acting partner “you’re a really good actor!”
ZACH: We knew we found our Chloe. It was a big relief because she’s in every scene of the film.
ADAM: Yeah, we really couldn’t have made the movie if we hadn’t found her. A lot of times people cast an older kid to play younger, but it was really important for us to find a real 7-year-old to play 7-year-old Chloe. Some 9-year-olds really look 7 and we saw some kids like that, but it didn’t feel right. We realized one thing you can’t fake is teeth! Once a kid has all their adult teeth in you just know they’re too old, even if they look young in other ways.
On Balancing the Horror and Sci-fi Elements
ZACH: Genre is a tricky thing, because once the audience knows the genre they start assuming they know what is going to happen next. So we worked really hard to lead the audience down a path that led from one genre to the next so that we could benefit from their assumptions.