After debuting at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and touring the festival circuit (POPAXIOM saw and reviewed it at the 2019 Gasparilla International Film Festival), Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s Freaks is finally making its way to theaters. The film, which follows a young girl and her paranoid father as they fight to fit in and survive in a world of superpowered people hiding from an oppressive government, stars Emile Hirsch (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Amanda Crew (Silicon Valley), and sure-to-be-breakout Lexy Kolker. POPAXIOM had the opportunity to speak with writer-directors Lipovsky and Stein, and you can read the interview below.
On Writing the Film
POPAXIOM: Your film obviously has a lot of influences from comic books and superheroes. What are some superhero stories that influenced your film?
Lipovsky: We obviously are huge fans of the sci-fi world and all the different superhero stuff that’s been created, but the main thing when we were creating this film was to actually look at films that weren’t genre movies. A lot of the films we looked at were films like Room and Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Florida Project because we wanted to kind-of take that type of story and apply it to a superhero world. We already knew all the superhero stuff by heart. So we just kind-of wanted to give it a new perspective by just investing in the family and the kids and just what real people would be like and put it through that lens. Because we thought that would be something fresh that a lot of the bigger movies that we love kind-of needed that new take on.
POPAXIOM: One important theme addressed in the film is the abuse of power, both on the part of the freaks and the government. How do you think Freaks and its story address this?
Stein: Yeah, it was really interesting. When we started talking about superpowers, we were influenced by this “This American Life” podcast that John Hodgman did where he interviewed people saying, “If you could fly or turn invisible, which would you choose and why? What would you do with it?” And all these people said things like, “Oh, I would fly to Paris.” or “Oh, if I were invisible, I would go spy on my ex.” and at the end of the podcast, John Hodgman says, “You know what no one would do? No one said they would go out and save people or fight crime.” So we really kind-of were inspired by that and started discussing what would really happen if people really started to develop powers. And we kind-of experimented with this idea that people would sort-of use it for themselves in small ways. Bruce Dern, in his character’s generation, when he was a teenager, he might have gone around and been invisible, just to steal things from convenience stores, et cetera. And if people did just use special abilities to get ahead and there was no one dressing up in suits to fight crime and save strangers, pretty quickly the government would crack down on that and make it illegal. And by making it illegal, the people with powers would have to do it more in order to survive. And it kind-of creates this cycle of mistrust and violence that makes things worse and worse for everybody. And that was the thinking that went into creating the initial world-building.
On What the Film Means
POPAXIOM: In this era when violence and aggression is increasing, how do you think a story like this resonates and rings true?
Lipovsky: Yeah, I mean I think the theme of the movie is unfortunately very universal. Everyone, in some way or another, knows what it’s like to have to make the choice to expose the things about themselves that make them different at risk to themselves or the choice of hiding who they are, which is the safer choice. And that can mean, you know, actual violence could happen to you if you reveal it, or it could just mean shame or it could just mean someone you love won’t love you anymore, and I think we did a lot of work to make sure that the movie had the complexities of real life, and in some ways, when we wrote it, those old feelings of segregation and persecution were boiling up again and we weren’t sure if they were still going to be relevant by the time the movie came out because we didn’t think certain people like Trump were going to last very long because clearly they were in the wrong, but it seems like those voices have only gotten louder. And so the film tries to kind-of comment on that, in a way trying to make everyone someone who is in the shoes of someone who is the other. Hopefully create some compassion.
POPAXIOM: Most comic books are allegories for different things, like X-Men was about the civil rights movement. What would you take your film to be an allegory on?
Stein: Yeah, I think like X-Men, we were very much inspired to tell a story about discrimination and violence towards the other. Throughout history, unfortunately history repeats itself quite a bit on this topic, there’s always scapegoats targeted for the ills of society. I grew up going to a Jewish day school where every day we were told stories about the Holocaust and kind-of what families did, what parents did to try to protect their kids during the Holocaust, which is just where that inspiration comes from for him teaching his daughter how to be normal because he’s going to put her with the family across the street to pass as normal. That was kind-of inspired by those stories. But as we were writing, it was also during the kick-off of Trump’s campaign. He famously kicked off his campaign with a speech about how horrible immigrants from Mexico are. So all that kind-of found its way into the stew of this world we were building, but we didn’t just want it to be about one thing or one time in history that this happened because it happens again and again. You know, whether it’s the Japanese internment camps or the way that Native Americans were separated from their families and retrained in the residential schools in Canada, it seems like a constant recurring theme in our world, unfortunately. So we kind-of wanted to explore what happens to a family during a time like that but put it in a sci-fi world so people could see it through a new lens, a new lens on our world. When it boils down to it, it’s really about when you are different in a way that society thinks is dangerous, do you hide who you are in order to remain safe, or do you stand up for who you are and fight back?
On Telling the Film From a Child’s Perspective
POPAXIOM: How did you find the young actress Lexy Kolker, who gives a great performance as Chloe in the film?
Lipovsky: Yeah, it was really hard to find somebody. I mean, the whole movie is basically driven by this one kid who’s at the center of almost every scene in the movie. She has most of the dialogue in the movie. And we needed to find somebody who could hold up the entire movie with her performance. And we searched over twelve-hundred kids, looking for people that could really be real and authentic. We did a lot of improv in the auditions to kind-of find people that could improvise emotion from their real life and bring that into their performance. And when we found Lexy, not only could she tap into her real life and we’d say, “What was an argument you had with your dad?” and she’d say, “He’d never let me go on sleepovers.” and then we would improvise a scene where it was from her actual life, fighting about a sleepover. And once she was in that emotional state, we would start shifting it to the actual lines of the movie about fighting about ice cream or whatever. And she was one of the few that could really tap into that real emotion and bring it onto screen, but then also after being so fierce and so emotional and her eyes watering and her nose flaring open, once we said cut, she could snap back with the maturity to become her happy little self again and be excited by the fact that she could go to such deep levels in her acting. And we knew we needed that because the movie is pretty intense and the stuff that Chloe does is very bold and very intense, and we needed someone that could do that but also have the stamina to kind-of be healthy about it over the course of the whole shoot. And she’s really special. When people see the movie, most of the time they go into it because of hearing about Bruce Dern or Emile Hirsch, but when they come out of it, usually they’re just talking about her. She’s the real discovery of the film.
POPAXIOM: The film is largely told from Chloe’s perspective. How do you think this helps your film stand out?
Stein: Well I think there’s a couple ways that the perspective helps tell the story. One of them is just the way the information is dribbled out so that at the beginning of the movie, she’s trapped in the house by her dad, who’s saying that it’s too dangerous to look outside or go outside and you don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not. You don’t know what’s out there because Chloe doesn’t know. And so that sort-of perspective is how we structured the whole story of the mystery that reveals. It’s all what does she know and when does she know it. And also what is she feeling and when does she feel it. At the beginning of the movie, she’s terrified about her dad and the mysterious nightmares that appear in her closet, and so we wanted the audience to feel scared too. And later on, by the end of the movie, when she wants to kill people, hopefully the audience is rooting for blood because that’s what she’s feeling. So it’s really you’re on the ride with her the whole time. And you know technically, filmmaking-wise, we did lots of things to get you inside her perspective. One of the simplest was we just filmed the movie from her height so that when you’re looking at her, it’s at her eye-level, but when you’re looking at an adult, it’s usually looking up at them so that the adults are kind-of looming over you as you’re watching the movie. And you start to feel like Chloe might feel.
On Their Film’s Ambition
POPAXIOM: One of the parts of the film that stands out the most is Tim Wynn’s distinctive score. How did you work with him to create it?
Stein: I’m so glad you liked it.
Lipovsky: Yeah, that’s one of our favorite parts of the process is working with composers, and the soundtrack is actually going to come out right before the release. The score was really important because it had to be a theme, especially Chloe’s theme, that was simple and childlike, but had room to grow into something that was large and commanding and had to be able to be a theme that could do that. But also, it had to be able to do two emotions at the same time: one that childlike wonder and whimsy but at the same time that feeling of tension and dread because often in the movie, the audience is seeing her full of wonder and curiosity, but the audience is feeling terror and concern for her even though she isn’t. And so the score had to play to what the audience was feeling, but also what the characters were feeling and sometimes those weren’t the same. And Tim really did an amazing job of capturing almost a demented fairytale kind-of feel and one that kind-of grows into feeling like a superhero movie. So we’re really excited for people to get to hear that.
POPAXIOM: This is your first feature film together, and your ambition paid off. Why choose something so big and ambitious for your debut?
Lipovsky: Well you know, we’ve been trying to make movies for our whole life, and many of the movies we were trying to get made, they never actually happened for all sorts of different reasons, and it really came down to us, we went on this long walk together and went, “How can we just make a movie no matter what?” And we realized we wanted to do something ambitious, that showed the world the type of movies we want to make, but was actually achievable with the means we had at our disposal which was not very much. And so we kind-of wrote the story to be something we could shoot with what we had. The original version of the movie, Adam and I were going to star in it with Adam’s son playing the kid, and we were just going to shoot it in Adam’s house for basically nothing. As we wrote that script, things got a little bit bigger and actors came on board and a little bit more money became involved and the execution got bigger, but we were always able to make the movie no matter what and that was really important because we wanted to have creative control, something we hadn’t had on previous projects. And so this movie was designed basically to be small enough that we could create it and defend the vision, but also at the same time, explode into feeling like a giant movie. At the beginning, it seems like it’s going to be a movie about a girl who’s trapped in a house, and you think, “Oh boy, it’s one of those movies where they never leave the house,” but we wanted to kind-of turn that on its head by the end of the film. By the end, it feels like a much bigger movie, but at the same time, still with all of the character and investment in emotion that you have on smaller movies. And that was our ambition, and it seems like people are hopefully responding to that.
Be sure to check out Freaks in theaters on September 13!