Last Wednesday I was already super pumped for my nightly jaunt down to Alamo Drafthouse NYC. FREAKED was the film being shown and I am absolutely in love with everything about it. First of all, I have watched both Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus JourneyCOUNTLESS times. I also sneaked around and watched The Idiot Box when I was around 8 (because I was strictly forbidden to watch MTV, which, sorry Dad but that’s basically all I ever watched). The only reason I even said that is to let it be known that when I was a kid, and probably even more so now, Alex Winter has always been a paragon of coolness to me.
In a post American Horror Story: Freakshow and Greatest Showman world, some people might roll their eyes when you tell them a movie about a freak-show, but what about a movie about a freak-show secretly funded by a shady mega-conglomerate called E.E.S. (Everything Except Shoes) where the visitors becomes the freaks themselves. What about a freak-show movie that has some of the best practical special effects out there, with Screaming Mad George, XFX, and Alterian’s contributions? What about a freak-show movie written by the team behind The Idiot Box (Alex Winter, Tom Stern, Tim Burns) that’s what we’re dealing with here and it’s pure excellence.
I didn’t originally see FREAKED until 2008. I had just started my internship at the one and only Troma Entertainment, after having worked with the team at the 2008 Tromadance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. One of my other teammates, Matt “Skibz” Parsons, decided to do the same outlandish thing I did, which was pick up from our respective hometowns and move to New York City to be unpaid interns in one of the only surviving independent film companies in America. He was much better versed in weirdo cinema than I was at that time. I loved Troma, Roger Corman, and a lot of 70’s exploitation movies and basically any horror movie I’d ever seen, but hadn’t really delved too deep into movies that were just plain wacky. Skibz had brought a huge collection of films with him and one of the standouts amongst the tons of hilariously awesome 80’s and 90’s trash was FREAKED.
I was frankly embarrassed that I had never seen it, nor even heard of it up until that point. What was wrong with my poor uninformed 24-year-old self? Why had I not seen this? No matter, I finally did see it and marveled in its eccentric excellence. I also still, to this day, cannot believe that a major studio funded this project in the early 90’s. It was like if someone had given Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman 10 million dollars to make each film in their respective catalogs. It was a marvel of practical special effects, slapstick weirdo comedy coming at you at breakneck speed, and the cast, OH MY GOD, THE CAST.
The cast of this film includes SO MANY awesome people that I’ve had to use all caps twice just to talk about them. So let’s list off all the stars in this film. We of course have Alex Winter, who plays a douchebag Hollywood actor with a moral compass directed only by money. Keanu Reeves whom I like to refer to as my fake husband, as Ortiz the Dog Boy, Brooke Shields as talk show host Skye Daley (but watch out for her feet), William Sadler, character actor extraordinaire (and also the grim reaper from Bogus Journey) as Dick Brian (hardyhar), a villainous businessman, Randy Quaid as mad scientist/carnival barker Elijah C. Skuggs, Bobcat Goldthwaite as Sockhead, a dude with a sock puppet for a head, John Hawkes, who I love as Kenny Powers’ long suffering brother on Eastbound and Down as Cowboy, which you guessed it is a half man/half cow hybrid who’s also…a cowboy. Michael Stoyanov, who you might remember as the brother who was not Joey Lawrence on Blossom, and Megan Ward as an unwitting pair of Siamese twins, a cameo by Morgan Fairchild as a flight attendant, and in possibly the best casting choice of all time; Mr. T as the bearded lady.
It’s a wild ride and I wholeheartedly wish if you haven’t seen it, that you find it and watch it today! It’s such a well-done hilarious romp and you’re truly missing out if you’ve gone this far in your life without watching it. Now, to the awesome part of the story, I was psyched as all hell to see this film in the theater having only seen it in my living room before on DVD, but whenever our host, Aaron Hillis (co-owner of Video Free Brooklyn) told us we were going to be treated to a live Skype Q&A with the man behind the Ricky Coogin mask himself, Alex Winter, I was HYPED UP. Seriously, the only thing that would have been better is actually meeting the dude in real life, but hearing him talk about this film at length was a great experience to anyone who was lucky enough to have attended. I’m going to transcribe what my dying phone got of the Q&A here for you so you can get a little taste of my experience last Wednesday.
Aaron Hillis: First and foremost, I just want to say congratulations because I heard the news recently that you and Ortiz the Dogboy are finally getting Bill & Ted 3 off the ground.
Alex Winter: Yes, we finally, finally have gotten a God-forsaken sequel.
AH: God, I have so many questions for you on this one, I gave a little preamble at the beginning of this and you know that this is one of those movies that I can’t believe exists as a studio project. I don’t know how many of you here in the audience are familiar with The Idiot Box (lots of cheering), the MTV sketch comedy show that Alex did with Tom Stern. Maybe that’s a good jumping off point of how Idiot Box led to this beautiful monstrosity?
AW: Well, gosh, I’ll try to keep that short because it’s a pretty circuitous journey. We came out and went to NYU film school together, Tom and myself, and we came out to LA and Tom was delivering pizza and I really didn’t want to deliver pizza so I had an acting agent and I asked them to put me out on auditions so one thing led to another. I mean, I had been acting since I was young but I ended up doing Lost Boys and the two other Bill and Ted movies. Tom and I were ruthless, so pretty much everything that we did, we fed back into our filmmaking and we had hooked up with Sam Raimi and he was trying to help us get an anthology comedy script off the ground called Laugh Out, which nobody was interested in and we were eventually able to turn that into The Idiot Box and that sort of became and we sort of broke up a feature idea into a live-action long running series for MTV. They paid us basically no money but they let us do whatever we wanted so we made a pretty aggressively violent TV show for them and during the interim, Bill & Ted had come out and we were starting to work on Bill & Ted 2, and while that was happening, Tom and I had started working on a Butthole Surfers vehicle. We had done a lot of work with them, and we wanted to make a feature with them so Gibby Haynes came up to our apartment in Venice and lived on our floor for about a month and we wrote what was the first draft of FREAKED and that was written as a Butthole Surfers vehicle to be made with (Sam) Raimi producing for like $200,000. You know super violent, Cormanesque, punk-rock musical with freaks, you know one of those and true to everything that Sam tried to help us get made, no one was interested in that either.
So by now Bill & Ted is happening and my name’s starting to mean something, so we were like screw it, let’s try to re-write it as a PG movie and sell it to a studio and we did within like a week and I don’t think they quite knew what they were buying actually (laughs).
AH: I mean, what even remained other than characters that were freaks? How did it go from a violent Butthole Surfers horror vehicle to a PG-13 comedy…in a week?
AW: You know, we didn’t know the answer to that question. We had a studio that was willing to meet with us that liked our work; you know we weren’t really trying to scam anyone. Joe Roth and the administration at Fox, at the time, were into The Idiot Box and the stuff we were doing. They set a meeting at 2pm on a Friday and at like 11pm Thursday night we were like “we don’t really know what we’re gonna pitch this guy.” We literally stayed up all night and constructed this loose, incoherent, sort of amalgamated idea of how you turn this beach blanket horror thing into what you now saw. By like 4am we’d had no sleep and were like “Screw it” we’ll just sort of assemble it and go pitch it and we did and then they bought it so we had to actually make it (laughs).
AH: But you know, here’s the thing, it’s not like there’s still a lot of money on that screen. The prosthetics, the production design, how much of this were you able to convey to them up front, since you did have to storyboard it and you can’t exactly improvise this on set.
AW: Well, I mean, it was done in stages, right, so the scenario I just gave you; that was just getting to the script. Then we sold it to FOX and they were like “Okay, go write a script and if we like that, we’ll make it.” So then we had our foot in the door and we had a job which was even more important than a foot in the door. We brought Tim Burns on who did The Idiot Box with us, and the three of us sat about writing a proper movie, or you know, the best we could do. We were very organized, we were pretty rigorous filmmakers so we had done a lot of special effects work and we knew how to construct this thing even though it was much bigger than anything we’d ever done.
So we started working with Screaming Mad George and some of the other special effects people while we were writing and mapping out how to actually implement this to make it work. I’d done a lot of physical and prosthetics make-up work on Lost Boys and Bill & Ted movies and we had a lot of contacts in the VFX world so we just kind of assembled all these people and tried. We were figuring it out as we wrote it so by the time we got to actually making it we were completely storyboarded and the shoot was pretty arduous but very mapped out. We had this incredible crew with the best prosthetic make-up people in town: Bill Corso, Steve Gardner, Tony Johnson. We had Catherine Hardwicke, of Twilightfame, as production designer, who’s a genius that built these incredible sets. You know, the giant lights and sculptures and the barn and the lab and all of that was Catherine’s brainchild. We just put together this incredible crew and [the studio] gave us enough money to do it properly, which was miraculous.
AH: So that’s the story, that sounds great, that sounds like a dream, especially since you know, this movie’s probably 25 years old, you were probably around 25 yourself?
AW: I was eight. Yeah, yeah (laughs).
AH: I let people know at the top of the block here that not everything went according to plan. What happened next?
AW: (laughs) Well, true to FREAKED style, we did, thankfully, really well until we were pretty much done with the film and then, as it often happens in the studio system, the studio administration changed. We were about 80% done with our first cut and the new administration really didn’t want to have anything to do with the prior administration’s movies, ours included. It was not the mandate of the new administration. It was sort of the opposite of the mandate and we’re the opposite of the opposite of the mandate.
We were really this big, giant cult movie in 1992. It was pre-South Park, pre-Tim Burton. I mean, there’ just nothing like this in the marketplace on that scale. You know, you either had super underground stuff or you had stuff that was closer to horror. You had Brain Dead, Meet the Feebles, the Peter Jackson stuff, but a lot of that stuff we were doing with FREAKED was pretty niche and usually very, very low budget. The new administration came in and they were like “you know, we don’t know who to sell this to, we don’t know how to sell it, so we’re just not gonna sell it”. They didn’t totally shelve the movie but everything that was happening stopped overnight. We had this incredible soundtrack, we had Iggy Pop and Motorhead and just this huge score, and that was gone overnight. We had to kind of fashion it together with what we had left and the entire marketing plan was scrapped. The marketing plan was pretty cool though, we were gonna do a parody of the Gap ads, you know, the giant building sized ads al over the country, like celebrities in white T-shirts looking very self important. We were gonna do that with all the freaks, and we shot it, but it got scrapped. Ultimately Tom and I really believed in the film and actually a lot of people in town really loved the movie and had seen it in screenings and were really supportive of it. We were in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival and it was a huge hit there and that frankly gave FOX a little bit of wind in their sails to allow us to take a single poster and a single print and go on the road.
We basically went on the road with the movie and we did well wherever we went and it opened larger from there, but we never got a release, it never actually got a legitimate release. It was released kind of like a very low budget indie.
AH: I remember reading about it in Film Threat and I was very excited and it just never really got a release until I was watching it on VHS. At this point I also want to say if anyone wants to ask a question to Alex, we have time for a couple of those. I’m curious about working with Tom Stern and Tim Burns. The jokes in this movie are so eccentric, so esoteric and frankly, odd.
AW: That’s a matter of opinion (laughs).
AH: How did you guys know your comic sensibilities would work well together? How did you know early on before you were working on this project that you two were destined to become creative partners?
AW: Well, Tom and I had been directing for…. this was actually the end of a long, long running partnership of directing. We’re still very, very close friends. Tom and I had been directing for years before we made FREAKED. We directed music videos, commercials, The Idiot Box, so we were like roommates and directing partners, we were connected at the hip.
Tim Burns was one of our main writer on The Idiot Box. A lot of the actors that were in The Idiot Box came over into FREAKED. A lot of them were actors from the L.A. theater group. We kind of brought a lot of people over from The Idiot Box, it was basically an Idiot Box movie. We worked out a lot of our working style on that series before we got to make FREAKED.
AH: Alright, we got a question for you here…
Audience Member: Hi, how you doing, my name is Kyle and I want to say when I first saw this film it was late night when I was a kid at like 3 or 4am on cable. I just want to say I’m a huge fan. Thank you for making this film; it’s a great film. So my question is how did you get Mr. T. and what was his reaction to the role?
AW: Man, you guys don’t have time for the exegesis.
AH: Before you answer that, I did get a chance to get in touch with Bobcat Goldthwaite. I didn’t know how much he was actually involved with it but I ran into him in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago and he was like “Oh yeah, I got stories, I worked with Mr. T for half a day.”
AW: Yeah, he worked with him for a lot more than half a day, but that’s probably as much as he’s willing to divulge. You know, the script got a lot of really positive responses from the actors so we were lucky. Finding T was not easy, he was not retired but he hadn’t acted in awhile. We found him doing Panto, which is sort of British dinner theater, he was doing Aladdin up in the lake district (I died laughing when I imagined this p.s.) so we got to him, we sent him the script and he was like “let’s do lunch”. We did this Hollywood style lunch with T while he was in town and talked about him wearing a taffeta dress and rouge.
I mean, he got it, he felt like it was in hands that understood who he was and how to manipulate his image from a reverent place, which we totally did, but he did fry. About 3/4 of the way through the movie, he totally friend and eventually it got to him. I just thinking showing up in heels every day on this crazy set, working crazy hours friend his circuitry. You know, I’ve seen T over the years. I saw him no more than like a month or two ago, and he’s really sweet and positive about the movie and incredibly friendly, but his circuitry definitely friend while he was making it. We had to get Lee Arenberg, who plays The Human Torch and does a killer Mr. T impression, to do all of T’s ADR because T had disappeared back in Chicago about two weeks before he was done with his job (laughs).
Audience Member: Hi Alex, thanks for being here!
AW: Thank you!
Audience Member: From blood to drool to goo to snow to farts to pus, this movie had it all for me.
AW: A Bergman fiend I see (laughs).
Audience Member: Yeah, I wanted to know more about your influence and inspiration when it comes to bodily fluids and good and slime and bright colors.
AW: Well, we were making a lot of films at NYU out of NYU that were mash-ups of all the things that Tom and I loved mutually. You know, everything from Tex Avery cartoons, to Surrealism, Bunuel, Dali, ZAP! Comics, R. Crumb, Basil Wolverton, you know the stort of peak of MAD Magazine, punk rock – a melange of influences that we felt were rife for making a certain kind of comedy. I’m not sure it occurred to us while we were film students making films of that ilk. It really is a mash-up of all those influences.
FREAKED was great because it really gave us an opportunity to kind of manifest stuff. Working with someone like Bill Corso, who did my make-up, and showing those guys Basil Wolverton drawings and asking that they make us look like a giant Rickey monster that sort of looks like a Basil Wolverton character. We were working through these other artists and their inspirations but that was what we wanted to manifest. We wanted to see Zap! Comics and Looney Tunes and Mad Magazine in the physical world, basically.
This was around the time that my phone shit the bed, but there was one more question, which focused on how this film was given new life through subscription services such as HBO and Starz. Which I am thankful, because this monumental achievement deserves all the praise it gets. I’d like to say one more time, buy this movie if you haven’t seen it. It’s hilarious and Alex Winter is one of the most genuinely talented and kind working actor/directors out there. He mentioned that he has some ideas in the pot for a narrative long form television series, which I can’t wait to see. Al there is his Frank Zappa documentary coming soon. Of course, I can’t forget to mention the long-awaited return of Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan which is beginning principal photography in January of next year. Thanks for reading this. Wish you could have been there! Party on Dudes!