Filmmakers Zach Lipovsky & Adam Stein Talk FREAKS: High Concept on a Low Budget

Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky make their feature debut writing and directing Freaks. The high concept, supernatural drama stars Bruce Dern and Emile Hirsch centering on a girl (Lexy Kolker) whose paranoid father teaches her to be afraid of leaving their house. When she does finally sneak out of the house, she is encounters a world haunted by fear of people that look normal but may not be. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and Well Go immediately acquired the distribution rights in an all-night auction. Described as Room meets Monsters, the film is a commentary on the socio-political upheaval in the world and was inspired by two main things – the cycle of discrimination and violence against outsiders that has recurred throughout history and Adam becoming a new father and watching his son observe and interpret the world for the first time.

I recently spoke with Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky about Freaks and their unique collaboration.

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Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky, Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

JIM DIXON: I watched Freaks this morning and I’ll tell you honestly, I was very impressed.

ADAM STEIN: Wow, thank you.

ZACK LIPOVSKY: Fresh off of seeing the film.

ADAM STEIN: This might have been awkward if you hated it.

JIM DIXON: Well, you know, that’s when you really have to practice your diplomatic skills. But I actually liked it very much. It was very interesting how it starts off with such a claustrophobic set of interiors and then eventually opens up. But from very early on I wanted to see where this was going.

ADAM STEIN: Cool. Very cool. Thank you.

There are times early on where you’re pretty confused, wondering whether Emile Hersh’s character is crazy—he comes off as pretty unhinged—he’s acting like something post-apocalyptic may have happened, but then you get a glimpse out the window and it looks pretty idyllic.

ZACK LIPOVSKY: Awesome, thanks. I mean we designed the movie in a way so that when it starts you feel like, “Ok I’m worried about this girl, and this is going to be one of those films where you’re stuck in the house for the whole film,” and then very quickly things start happening that are not what you expect. Almost immediately she leaves the house and you’re like, “What?” [laughs] This whole time you’ve been wanting her to leave, and as soon as she does you suddenly want her to go back inside because you don’t want her to go outside anymore. Our ambition all along was to make a film that you can’t predict where it’s going. We feel like films these days have gotten to where they’re so predictable in a lot of genre movies because the genre conventions make you think you know all the different things that are going to happen, and it becomes sort of not as engaging—we wanted to create a film where every scene you didn’t know where it was taking you, but when it took you there it felt like, you know, exactly the right thing for the next part of the story. It starts with a lot of mysteries, but by the end every single mystery is solved to the point where if you watch the movie again it’s with totally different eyes.

“They’d better be able to sew this stuff all up by the end…”

Mission accomplished. That is exactly the way I felt about the movie at the end – I was watching it with my wife—she’s my transcriptionist by the way—and I heard her mutter early on, “They’d better be able to sew this stuff all up by the end.”

ZACH & ADAM: [laughter]

ZACH: What did she think?

She loved it. We both did. In fact, I will go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

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Lexy Kolker and Emile Hirsch in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

ZACH: Oh my gosh, are you kidding?

ADAM: That’s so nice, thank you.

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of filmmakers who are working in independents, working with low budgets and finding ways to get around the fact that they don’t have two hundred million dollars, and then I go see something that does cost two hundred million dollars and I sometimes actually kind of hate it.

ZACH: Yeah.

“If Stephen King had written The X-Men…

And despite the modest budget, during the movie at some point I scribbled, “If Stephen King had written The X-Men…”

ADAM: I love that.

And I’m not sure I should quote that in the interview, because I am not sure I want to give away too much for audiences because the surprises are a lot of the pleasure here.

ADAM: True, it’s a hard movie to market. It’s a hard movie to tell people about. I agree with you that part of the fun is the being-in-close perspective. That was part of our guiding perspective while we were writing it, and while we shooting it, is how do we handle it—she doesn’t know what’s going on in the world, so neither does the audience. And as she figures it out, the audience starts to figure it out. She feels terrified at the beginning, so it feels more like a horror movie, and by the end she’s feeling bloodlust, lust for revenge, and so hopefully you are rooting for that too. We really wanted to put the audience into her shoes and feel and experience the world as she was experiencing it.

ZACH: We even shot the movie from her height. So the whole film is shot from 2 ½ feet off the ground.

Everything you’re seeing is from her height, you’re seeing into her eyes. When you look at the adults are they’re giants. They’re looming over you. And that kind of gives you the sense of what it’s like to be her.

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Lexy Kolker in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

And speaking of “her,” you have a secret weapon named Lexy Kolker.

ADAM: Oh, yeah, she’s—

ZACH: —She’s an amazing superstar.

ADAM: And it seems like you know, every year there’s a movie where a kid really gets there, gets noticed, you know, like with The Florida Project or Room or Beasts of the Southern Wild or whatever. And that’s the main thing we hope for—she’s a future superstar. Even when we were on set with her, we were like, “Where did this girl come from?” She’s incredibly emotional, powerful. But in real life, she’s a happy, bubbly seven year old. So, it was kind of shocking to see what a mature actor she is.

“Is that girl in therapy…?”

She’s got an impressive list of credits for a performer this young, but what was it that specifically brought her to your attention?

ZACH: Yeah, I mean, we put out a request and our casting directors looked at over 1200 girls. Eventually we narrowed it down and brought in a bunch of kids and she stood out right away, because what we were looking for was someone that really could show the experience and the passion of what it’s really like to be a kid. I mean, kids are filled with emotion, they will say they hate us, they want you to die just because they don’t get ice cream. And then they’ll suddenly say they love you, and you’re their favorite person in the world. We wanted someone that could do that, that range of emotion, but also do it from a very real place. Most kids when they perform, are very staged and rehearsed kind of fake, and a lot of that comes from the fact that they like really prepare, they like super-memorize their lines, and they kind of forget all the meaning behind it. And with all the kids that came in, we ended up doing a lot of techniques that I’ve learned because we’ve done some other stuff with kids. And we’ve learned that if you can connect it to something real from their life they’ll pretty quickly tap into those real emotions. Lexy was able to do it far better and way more powerfully than anyone else. We would do things like ask her, “What was the last argument you had with your father, from your real life?” And she would say like, “Well, he wouldn’t let me go on sleepovers.” Then we would just we actually improvise that sleepover fight from her real life, to tap into those actual emotion and then start saying “ice cream” instead of “sleepovers.” And very quickly, the scene from the movie would take place, but with the authenticity of what it would really be like.

Not a lot of kids were able to do that. And Lexy was able to do it amazingly. And then even more so than any kid when we said cut, you know she’s breathing hard, her nostrils are flaring, spit’s coming out of her mouth, and we say cut, and she would just flip right back to a happy seven year old that was really excited by the acting she’s just done rather than terrified by it. When we do screenings, and she’s not there for the Q and A, a lot of the time people’s first question is like, “Is that girl okay? Is she in therapy?” She’s actually a really mature actress who just had some amazing moments. And it’s testament [to her talent]—a lot of people go see the film because of Emile Hirsch or Bruce Dern, Grace Park, you know, people that are really famous for doing great performances. And when they come out of the movie, they’re only talking about her, which is pretty amazing for someone who seven years old.

She’s got a couple of scenes late in the movie where she really startled me, because the rage on her face was so genuine-looking.

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Lexy Kolker in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

ADAM: Do you have kids, Jim?

Well, one’s 28 and one’s 24, but yes, I do.

ADAM: So part of the inspiration for it [for me] was as a new Dad, you know, watching my son. And I don’t know how many other parents have this experience, but I was sometimes startled by the anger would come out of him over small things: “No, you can’t have another ice cream cone.” You know, just “Augghh…!” and you know, that was pretty surprising for me as a new dad. I hadn’t really seen that in anything. You’ll see most stuff with kids is they’re either cutesy or maybe they’re kind of like, wise observers sometimes. But that kind of passion was fascinating. And you know, of course it’s very much pushed in Freaks because it’s a very dangerous, deadly world. But we were really eager to capture that and yes, [Lexy] is so intense and she goes to some really dark places but you know, it was very important for us on set to have a very warm, happy environment. The makeup and costume women would give her piggyback rides around the set because she never wore shoes in the movie, so they would give a piggyback rides everywhere. And we had her eighth birthday on set, and we brought an ice cream truck, and she served ice cream to all the crew and you know, she had the best summer of her life. On camera, she was giving us this, you know, incredible intensity.

Directed by Corman, Hitchock and Tarantino, and Killed John Wayne

You also have Bruce Dern in Freaks, and you had to be aware that when you cast Bruce Dern, you’re making a statement, and an audience has certain expectations. I mean, I literally grew up on Bruce Dern playing psychos. He’s also the only actor I can find who has been directed by Roger Corman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Quentin Tarantino.

ZACH: And he will tell you stories about all of them.

And I would love to hear them. I saw him do an interview once where he talked about being one of the few actors ever actually killed John Wayne, because John Wayne died in very few movies—⁰

ZACH: Which one?

—That was The Cowboys, I believe.

ADAM: A lot of people actually hate him for that, he told us. That they still remember that and hold it against him.

Dern said in an interview years ago that John Wayne predicted to him the night they shot that scene they were going to react that way. After all, he did shoot the Duke in the back in front of a bunch of kids. I mean, it’s pretty low.

ZACH: That’s funny, because like, the first time we, when we showed him the movie, the first time, was in a small screening, and he comes off as very creepy and kind of not a likable character in the film. And most actors, you know, are always worried about making sure they come off as likable. When we showed him the film, every time he came on screen and the creepier he was, he would look around at everyone in the audience with a huge smile to see how much they were being creeped out. So that’s something he absolutely loves. I mean, he is someone who has dedicated his entire life [to acting]—he’s been acting since he was 19, you know, and now he’s in his mid-eighties, and he is all about the authenticity of performance, and wanting to just portray real people as intense as life really is on screen. It was sort of like having a wild tiger on set, you know, he is just that wild in person and that wild on screen. And it was pretty exciting. You know, it’s pretty rare to have an 82-year old and a seven year old co-starring against each other, and going at each other screaming and having a tug-of-war of words on the screen.

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Bruce Dern in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

ADAM: I’m hard pressed to think of another movie that has a 75 year age gap between its co-stars. They’re fun to watch.

George Burns did one in the seventies with Brooke Shields called Just You and Me, Kid, and that would have been close, but there aren’t many.

I just saw Amanda Crew in Tone-Deaf, and I’m going to sign on to be the president of her fan club. Her role in this is totally different from the role she played so amazingly in Tone-Deaf, and I was very impressed with her versatility. Just tell me she’s really nice, and I’ll be happy.

ADAM: She’s super nice, super smart, and super, like game to do whatever needs to be done. To make things awesome.

ZACH: We were like, you know, this isn’t going to be very big budget, you know, like this is going to be us, because she was actually begging us to be in the film. She doesn’t want to play kind of just the pretty, funny girl—she wants to play really interesting characters. She was begging us and we’re like, “There’s not gonna be a lot of money.” And she’s like, “Guys, on my last film I was getting changed in a gas station bathroom like I’m here to do this.”

ADAM: First day she came to set it was the scene towards the end where she’s writhing, covered in blood, about to be executed—”Nice to meet you, come on in, let’s get strapped to this table, we’re gonna douse you in blood, now she makes you cry, but let’s do this—” And she was totally down and dirty, you know, powerful in that scene

Co-Directing: Are Two Heads Better Than One?

One thing that I’m very curious about, because we’re seeing more directing teams pop up than we used to—and I have a hard time working with anybody else in the kitchen—so I’m trying to imagine how you co-direct a movie.

ADAM: Well, Zach and I have known each other for years. We met actually, on a reality show of all places. Twelve years ago, there was a show called “On the Lot” that Steven Spielberg produced. We were both competitors on that show, trying to make films and get noticed, and we became best friends afterwards. And over the years, we tried to make our way working on separate projects and started collaborating more and more, realizing we are kindred spirits creatively. But also, as we started to collaborate, and co-directed more and more, we realized what a benefit it was for the final product. We often see eye-to-eye, but when one of us see something differently, we can discuss it with each other, and we usually come up with a third way that neither of us would have come up with on our own, it’s way better. It’s almost like a directing super power, where we can solve problems together and find solutions that neither of us could have found on our own. And you know, directing is sometimes a lonely occupation. You’re on set and you say, “Oh, my God, this is not working.” But you can’t share that with anyone because you don’t have confidence. When you can pull your best friend aside and say, “This isn’t working, is it? What can we do to fix it?”, and come up with a solution quickly in the moment? It’s really priceless.

So you both are always on the set together and making decisions jointly?

ADAM: Absolutely.

ZACH: We do a few things to kind of avoid confusion to the crew, like usually one of us per scene is sort of the voice to the crew and the actors, just so that they’re all getting instructions from one person. We do things like that to try not make it as confusing, and it ends up being very, very helpful, because often, you need one of you…right up against the camera, with the actors, crying when they’re crying, trying to make magic in front of the lens, but you also need someone else back at the monitor, making sure it’s in focus and making sure that overall what you’re trying to achieve in the movie is being achieved and remembering, “Oh, yeah, we need to get this thing in this shot.” And, you know, there’s a lot of different things the director has to do. And so being able to kind of be in two places at once, when you’re on set, as long as you can make it not confusing to the crew, it can have a lot of benefits.

Freaks - Final Christopher Shy Artwork (1)

ADAM: There’s a lot of others that are whispering in each other’s ears, that’s kind of how we do it. I don’t know how many onset people have often thought that we’re like, telepathically communicating, because we’ll do a lot of stuff just with looks. But the reason we can do that is we’ve had so many conversations…Even the day of, we get there way before anyone else. And we walk through every single shot, every single movement and every single thing that’s going to happen that day, and discuss it and kind of figure it out. So when we’re on set all we have to do is to give each other a look to each other to communicate, “Did we get that or not? Or do we need to do it again?” And so from the outside, it kind of looks like we’re telepathic, but they’re not seeing the hours and hours and hours of conversation.

There is one question I absolutely have to ask, and I may be kind of reaching a little bit, but it struck me that there might be a political context to this story, and that just possibly the treatment of these children who are being born with these powers might actually be a metaphor for the treatment of say, undocumented immigrants…

ADAM: You know when we were writing it, we were actually inspired by all kinds of things from history. I actually grew up in a Jewish school, and every day was told stories about the Holocaust, and about the way parents tried to hide their kids, and keep them safe. That whole story about Emile Hirsch’s character trying to pass Lexy’s character off as normal with the family across the street was kind of inspired by some of those stories. But at the same time, we were writing Freaks when Trump kicked off his campaign, and some of that rhetoric was kind of filtering into our world. But it wasn’t really about one thing, it was about the way that history repeats itself, targeting people who are different. In our mind, the story is about when you’re different in a way that the world doesn’t like, do you hide and stay safe, or do you stand up for who you are, even though it may cost you? And that’s kind of where we see it. It wasn’t something that we wanted to be a political polemic. It’s more about humanity in dangerous situations like that.

You’ve managed to make a movie that’s both entertaining and relevant and thought-provoking. I’m not going to ask you how much the movie cost, because I know the powers-that-be get really hinky about that, but I’m going to assume that you have a lot less money than say, the average X-Men movie.

ADAM: We had a lot less money. What’s interesting is, you know we’ve done some TV work and stuff, and it probably cost less than an episode of a typical cable TV episode. We just really wanted to tell a story no matter what. We’ve been filmmakers trying to make our way for many years, and we’ve had a lot of frustration, movies not happening, or getting fired, because we weren’t big enough, or whatever. And when we first came up with this story we decided early on, we’re going to make this no matter what, even if we have zero dollars, we’re going to make this movie. We’ll even be in it if we have to, and the project grew from there. And then we got Bruce Dern, an Oscar-nominated actor to be in it. But we never lost sight of the idea of like, no matter how little money we have, we’re going to make this. And now you know, it’s like a dream come true.

You’ve got some very convincing special effects in there, which I think compete very effectively with the high priced spread.

Special Effects on Your Laptop

ZACH: Most of the special effects were done on my laptop on a 15 inch screen, and the first time in an IMAX theater at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was a bit nervous, but they seem to hold up.

The most recent Godzilla movie was some of the phoniest looking crap I’ve seen lately—It looked like a video game. You’ve got some very interesting effects in Freaks, like those time bubbles, you know, that look quite three dimensional.

ZACH: A lot of that was designed, knowing the limitations that we were going to have. We intentionally didn’t put a giant lizard in it, because we knew we weren’t going to be able to do those on a budget that we were going to have. We didn’t have $200 million.

They did have it, but it didn’t look it.

ZACH: Everything that’s in the movie is in visual effects that we knew we could achieve because they look photographic. And a lot of them are photographic. A lot of them rely on very simple photographic techniques in combination with photographic imagery—Even those time bubbles you mentioned, there’s nothing there that’s computer-generated at all. It’s just distorting what’s actually in the frame, and creating a shot that looks like real, but all those reflections come from what we shot. So it looks real, because it was actually photographed. So from the very beginning, even in the script stage, when we were thinking of certain set pieces and stuff, it was lucky because I have a background in visual effects, so we were able to add things that we knew we could achieve, that would be true to the world, but also be hopefully spectacular within the limited scope we had.

ADAM: Yeah, I’d say that’s it’s not even about luck, Zach, because I think it’s sort of the consolation prize of being a struggling filmmaker for 15 years is that you get a lot of experience doing all kinds of stuff. And we had, Zach and I, have both worked every job you can think of on a film set, or in post-production, and had all kinds of learning experiences along the way that all fed into this movie. And, you know, we couldn’t, couldn’t have pulled off this movie if it weren’t for the years and years of service sweat equity, building our skills, and all the favors that built up along the way. The effects that Zach didn’t do on his laptop, were all pretty much done by favors from the effects companies that we’ve worked with over the years on other projects, who really wanted to help us out, make our passion project.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for your time.

ADAM: Well, thank you for your time.

ZACH: We really we rely on people like you to get the word out there. Small film, not a lot of marketing muscle. So we really rely on people like you to help get the word out. So, thank you so much.

My pleasure. Thank you again, Best of luck with Freaks.

Freaks opens in theaters on Friday, September 13, 2019.

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