FREAKS is a breakout new scifi thriller by directorial pair Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky. It follows 7 year-old Chloe (played by Lexy Kolker) as she discovers the world outside her front door, which she has never been beyond. As she steps further past that door she begins to discover the wonders and dangers that come with it, and begins to realize that all may not be as it seems. For the release of FREAKS, we had the opportunity to speak with both Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky about everything that went into building the world for FREAKS as well as what it’s like to work with children actors (the following may contain spoilers).
If you could have any powers from the world of Freaks, what would they be?
Zach Lipovsky: Ever since I was a kid, and basically ever since I saw The Rocketeer, I’ve always wanted to fly. I think about flying pretty much every day, especially when I’m walking down the street. I wish I could just take off and fly through the air.
Adam Stein: But the power to stop time is pretty cool. That definitely sparks the imagination.
Zach Lipovsky: That’s just because you have kids and you want more sleep.
You’ve mentioned before that much of the inspiration for Freaks came from becoming a new father. What made you choose the scifi genre to explore that in?
Adam Stein: We’ve always been big scifi and horror fans and when my son was growing up I would be fascinated with seeing him try to make sense of the world. “That sound out there, is that bad guys? Is that scary? Oh no. That’s just a car alarm.” They try to figure things out in the world and we just started talking about how interesting it would be if we’re watching a kid try to figure out a scifi world because you, as the audience, wouldn’t know what’s real and what isn’t, just like the character. So that was the first nugget of inspiration that that would be a really interesting way to tell a story.
Zach Lipovsky: Yeah. Using that perspective was something that we did throughout the entire movie. We tried to do it, not only in the way that we shot it, so that literally the angles are two feet off the ground, from her height. You’re looking up everyone’s noses as we go through the movie, but also that the audience feelings towards the movie and the genre of the movie changes with her and her emotion and her perspective. So as she’s scared, the movie is scary. As she’s filled with wonder and exploring the world, it starts feeling like a Spielberg movie. As she starts wanting revenge and bloodlust, it starts feeling like a Tarantino movie. We wanted to take that perspective and really drive it with narrative.
Adam Stein: And everyone on the crew got behind that also. The Art Department, as they were decorating her room, really explored their inner child. I just remembered an anecdote – our cinematographer, when he was filing in the van for that scene where she’s looking out the windows for the first time, he was filming things that were passing and he was talking to himself. He was narrating what his vision was seeing as if he were a kid. He was hanging out the window going “Oh, Look at that. What’s that tree? Oh! Well what’s that? Is that a dog? Is that a real dog? Is that a-“ It was sort of contagious, everyone trying to get into the mindset of this little girl.
Can you take us into a little bit of the world-building process of this scifi world?
Zach Lipovsky: The world-building really began with us sort of thinking of the question of – what would people really do if they had powers? We listened to this one podcast where they went around and asked people, “If you could fly or turn invisible, what would you do? Which one would you choose? And if you could do it, what would you do with it?” And people said “If I could fly I’d fly to France, and if I could turn invisible I’d spy on my ex-wife.” At the end of the podcast they said “You know, what nobody said was fight crime or help people.” Everyone would basically use their gifts for themselves. Basically, that was the beginning of our world building. We asked ourselves what would happen if everyone just used their special abilities for themselves. What would happen is that the government would start not liking it and they would start telling people “no, you can’t do that,” and eventually they’d make it illegal. They’d make it harder for them to do it which would make them have to use their gifts even more, which would make people hate them even more, which would create this cycle of violence. That would very quickly mirror our real world that persecutes anyone who is different or is not the way that the government or the normal people want things to be. That’s happened time and time and time again throughout history. So then we just looked at all of the different ways in our history that people and families and children have dealt with being basically ghetto-ized or persecuted because of who they were. We took those inspirations from all the different times in history and applied them to our world and put them into the film.
Adam Stein: Yeah, we saw it as a world where there are superpowers, but no heroes. Nobody is dressing in suits and going to save people. So we really just wanted to focus on this family and what was driving them in their struggle to survive. When you’re seen as different there’s this choice between embracing what makes you different, even though it might be dangerous, or hiding who you are. That was the theme that drove through the movie.
What inspired the tears of blood?
Adam Stein: In thinking about superpowers, one of the other ideas we had was – when you see a Marvel movie, the characters are going “pew pew pew” without effort. They have sort of unlimited resources of whatever their thing is. Being as out of shape as I am, I can’t run two blocks without starting to feel winded. So I started thinking and we talked about, if you had a power it might be taxing. It might be something that maybe uses a lot of energy to activate. And so it unlocked a lot of doors because it made these characters not as powerful, but also more relatable in a way – like “if I’m going to do this, it’s going to take a lot out of me”. First they get tired, then they start internal bleeding and the eye is the first place they bleed from.
Zach Lipovsky: Then they vomit blood, and then they pass out. Those are the four stages of using their power.
Adam Stein: And then because their eyes bleed the government uses that against them as a tool of detection.
Adam, in regards to having your son Milo in the film – were you able to pull any real-life situations you’ve experienced with him and use that for the film?
Adam Stein: Oh yeah. So one thing is that kids are incredibly emotional and incredibly fierce. They’re so raw with their feelings and some of the lines came right from Milo. He is such a fierce, strong little kid. You don’t often see that because people like to think that kids are these sort of idyllic creatures. I think people lose their emotional rawness as they get older. They get more intellectual and they don’t let themselves feel as much. But kids feel so much, and that inspired the character. Another thing that we tried to do was – parenthood is so exhausting and messy. Parents lose their temper. Parents make bad decisions. That sort of messiness was something that we were very interested in exploring. Chloe’s dad is someone who raised her for seven years in this house with no parenting classes, with no books on how to be a good parent, with no role models on how to be a good parent. I often wondered when I was a new dad – this is so hard, and I have an amazing wife and a great community – what if I didn’t? What if I had to do this all on my own? That would be so incredibly hard. Those were the thoughts we had for those characters.
So we know that you two have worked with Disney a lot, what influence, if any, did working with Disney have on this film?
Zach Lipovsky: We had a lot of experience working with kids and when you write a screenplay that stars a 7 year-old in every single scene of the movie, with most of the dialogue in the movie, we realized that was a very ambitious thing to do. Not a lot of movies do that, but in all of the times that we’ve worked with kids we know how rich they can really be. Obviously on Disney it’s a very different style of acting, but we got to know the things that kids are capable of and the ways to make them give performances that are a lot more tapped in to their real emotions. With this film we really took the approach differently, differently than we’re allowed to on Disney, where we relied a lot more on improv, where we actually did scenes from their actual life. We said “what’s the last argument that you had with your dad? Let’s just improvise that. Let’s just do that. He didn’t let you go to a sleepover? Let’s argue over not going to a sleepover”. What that does is that connects them to actual emotions they’ve felt. Then we’d start slowly slipping in the real lines about ice cream instead of a sleepover, but that real raw emotion would be there and be really authentic. Obviously it’s a different tone than it was with Disney, but all that time working with kids gave us the skill set and gave us the confidence that we knew that they are so much more talented and they have so much more to offer than what some people let them do. Like Lexy, who is a powerhouse in this movie. Most people go in to see the movie because of Bruce Dern or Emile Hersch who are these giant icons of cinema. She does more in this movie than many kids have ever done in any movie. The roles she did before that is on a TV show and she’s always baking cookies or saying “Hi, Mom” and “Hi, Dad”. There is not the roles that have the depth for kids this age so our experience with Disney gave us the confidence to try and do that.
How was this process different for you with it being the first feature that you both wrote and directed?
Adam Stein: It’s very, very different. We’ve done a lot of work for hire, and when you’re doing that you do the best you can to make it the kind of thing that you want to make, but really at the end of the day, you’re working for someone else. You have a client and you have to create what the client wants, or you get fired. So it was such a different feeling creating our own project that we were writing and producing and creatively we could do whatever we wanted. But we also had no money, so that was the trade off. We had to figure out crafty ways of making things happen, even though we could do it however we wanted.
Zach Lipovsky: Yeah, it was super rewarding. The whole reason we made the movie was to show the world what our voice was. Before this we always were customizing our voice to the movies that we were making for other people. In this case, we made the budget so low so that we could have the creative control, so that we could completely speak with our own voice and make the movie that we wanted to make.
Was it difficult finding support for this film and what was the process like from writing the script to the first day on set?
Zach Lipovsky: We made this movie initially for us to star in and for Adam’s son to play the role because we were literally going to make the movie for zero dollars. We were going to make this movie no matter what. And we held that “no matter what” in our hands the whole time. So as we were writing the script for us to act in it – eventually some people read the script and said “you should get some actual real actors for this” and “hey, I’ll give you a little bit of money” and it started getting a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger. Never to the point where we gave up control to anyone else. It became sort of actually really powerful to tell people “we’re making this movie, no matter what, whether you are on board or not”. If we get fifty grand, we’re making it for fifty grand.
Adam Stein: That sort of made people want to participate more. It was this FOMO thing of “oh, well they’re making it anyway, I’d better get on board”.
Zach Lipovsky: And so getting to that first day on set, still with a very small crew, but with a two-time Oscar nominee playing the role that I was supposed to play, it was a very incredible experience because we got to that moment of making the movie, still with complete creative control, but with a budget to actually hire real actors and have an actual crew. To have the things to make the movie as great as it can be, and that was way beyond anything we thought we could achieve.
FREAKS is now in theaters and you can read our review here.