The Keys to Establishing a Successful Directing Partnership with 'Freaks' Filmmakers Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky
A science-fiction film that all too often echoes the hateful rhetoric heard in today's society.
A science fiction film that truly becomes one in its second half, the slow-burn Freaks represents a filmmaking partnership that began on a reality competition series several years prior. After years of frustration attempting to get a feature-film career off the ground, the two men teamed up to make Freaks, a film that last weekend premiered in the Discovery section of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Sounds like it was a successful collaboration, right? That's not even the half of it: today the film sold to distributor Well Go USA for a reported $2 million, and the directing team is getting set to direct their next feature: a live-action reboot of the Disney preteen animated series, Kim Possible.
Starring seven-year-old newcomer Lexy Kolker as Chloe, a young girl who lives confined to an abandoned house with her father (played by a bearded Emilie Hirsch), Freaks begins like a thriller in which we assume the daughter is being held captive. The father claims it's for her safety but we can't truly be sure.
All the while, an ice cream truck keeps pulling up outside of their home, an elderly, white-haired man (played by Academy Award nominee Bruce Dern) its owner who goes by the name of Mr. Snowcone. What does he want? And why is Dad keeping Chloe locked up in this giant house? The truth? They have special powers and are considered dangerous by outside society, being labeled "freaks" as a way to dehumanize and send them away to be scientifically tested on up in the nearby mountains. Society feels threatened by them and for that, the "freaks" must live in hiding.
Before the film's premiere, Stein and Lipovsky spoke with No Film School about their casting process, the film's production design, how specific sound choices were made to add to the mysteriousness of the film's narrative, and the keys to a successful co-directing partnership.
No Film School: You were both featured on Steven Spielberg's On the Lot TV series several years back. Is that how you both met?
Zach Lipovsky: Yeah, it was 11 years ago that we were both competitors, put against each other to compete to make the best film every week on the lot with Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett. It was a crazy summer of making movies. Right away we were put together to be competitors but very quickly became collaborators and helped each other make our little movies that we had to make every week. That didn't make for very exciting reality television, but it made for a great long-lasting friendship.
After On the Lot ended, Adam came in third and I came in fifth. He's a little bit better of a filmmaker than I am (and out of many filmmakers in the world). We just became really close friends and as the years passed, we started writing and directing small things together. We were directing other stuff separately and then eventually got to the point where the small stuff we had done really showed that we had a great collaboration and we were really excited by the work we had done.
We were both getting quite frustrated with the stalled feature side of our careers because movies kept falling apart that were out of our control. We both went on a long walk and talked about what the next step would be to get our careers back on track, and we both realized that we wanted to write a movie together. We came up with an idea together on the spot, and that was this movie, Freaks.
"We thought, like everyone else, he's gonna lose, and Hillary Clinton is going to become President. Will anyone even remember Trump by the time this movie comes out? Unfortunately, it's become even more relevant in the last year or two."
NFS: Was Freaks an equal collaboration in terms of the origins of the story? Or was this a story that was percolating inside one of you and then expanded upon by the other?
Adam Stein: It was totally a melding. Like Zach said, we took that walk and by the end of the walk, we had the form of an idea for the story, so it was percolated between us and then we would have long coffees where we would beat out the script. Once we had an outline, we went away for a three-day weekend to a cabin in the woods and wrote the first draft of the script in three days. It wasn't very good, but it got better over time as we wrote subsequent drafts. We then produced it, directed it, did craft service....we did everything on this one.
NFS: Watching the film here in the United States gives you a real feel for our administration's anti-immigrant policies and extreme rhetoric. Were there things going on in the culture at the time of your writing this screenplay, including some of those political undertones, that influenced your writing?
Stein: Absolutely. The Trump campaign had started while we were working on the script, and he famously started his campaign talking about how terrible Mexican immigrants were. That was definitely one of the things we were thinking about. We were also inspired by similar tones of fascist Othering throughout history, whether it's the way Muslims were treated after 9/11, or the way Jews during the Holocaust would hide their kids with families and try to pass them off as non-Jews. All those kinds of things that have happened throughout history, to take one group of people and turn them into Others and try to kill them, was what we were thinking of.
It was funny in terms of the Trump stuff as that was very present while we were writing. We thought, like everyone else, he's gonna lose, and Hillary Clinton is going to become President. Will anyone even remember Trump by the time this movie comes out? Unfortunately, it's become even more relevant in the last year or two.
NFS: The film's first 20 minutes or so possess a different kind of tension than the rest of the film. At first, I'm watching it thinking it's about a father holding his daughter captive, and it obviously becomes something very different than that. Could you speak a little bit about teasing out some of those narrative elements? How it shifts, and how we're perceiving certain characters based on what they're actually trying to do in terms of safety?
Lipovsky: There are stories where you're figuring it out as you go along, but in this case it is really driven by the fact that we're telling the movie from the perspective of Chloe, who's the seven-year-old lead in the movie, and she doesn't really know what's going on, and as she goes through the world. As she learns each piece of what's going on, we really wanted her to be true to her perspective, to the point where we shot the movie from her eye line and we showed what she could see. We really wanted to walk the audience through only what she could understand.
At the same time, we wanted to walk the audience through what she was feeling as far as genre. The film moves through several different genres as it goes, and that's largely due to her perspective of how she's feeling. If she's really scared, it feels like a horror film, and when she's amazed, it feels like a Spielberg movie, and when she gets really angry, it feels like a revenge film. We really wanted her perspective to drive the audience's perspective.
"In that casting process, we really approached it from, 'Let's find a girl who can be this character, not just say the lines, but really be this character.'"
NFS: Lexy Kolker, as Chloe, is put into some pretty dramatic, frightening situations in which her character's life is threatened. How did you work with her to get the most authentic performance possible while maintaining a relaxed set?
Stein: It started all the way back in the casting process, when we were looking for someone to play Chloe. That was probably the one stage of the movie where we felt if we can't get this to work, we can't have this movie happen. We knew we needed a girl who could carry this movie and do all sorts of emotional colors that you were talking about.
In that casting process, we really approached it from, "Let's find a girl who can be this character, not just say the lines, but really be this character." We auditioned with our shoes off, sitting on the floor, and improvising with kids to see if they could get to those emotional places. We weren't even worrying about the lines, but their own experiences and through their own instincts.
One thing about Lexy in terms of having a good experience, was when we did that audition, we brought an actor friend in to read opposite her, to read the Dad part. We got into this really angry place, where they're screaming at each other in the audition room, and right after we said, "Okay, great. That was wonderful." She turned to our friend who was acting with her, and she goes, "You're a really good actor." She immediately broke out of it and knew that it was pretend, which some of the kids didn't get.
There were a couple of kids who auditioned, who were really close to their emotions, but you could tell they were taking it a little too seriously, that it was really affecting them, and that was an issue, you know? Then on set, it was a really warm, close environment where Emile was especially helpful in getting her to that safe place where she felt nurtured.
"We worked a lot with our Production Designer, and even in the script stage, we talked a lot about what it would be like to be in this house that they have been hiding in, and all the different things they would have in their house, specifically to the type of issues that they're facing."
NFS: With its low-lit interiors, the family household, boarded up and intentionally removed from signs of outside humanity, feels both intimate and enormous. We're never clear how many secret rooms exist nor where there could be means for escape. How did you go about mapping out your production design?
Lipovsky: We worked a lot with our Production Designer, and even in the script stage, we talked a lot about what it would be like to be in this house that they have been hiding in, and all the different things they would have in their house, specifically to the type of issues that they're facing. They're trying to hide, and so obviously everything would be covered, but they're also not going out for food very often, so how would that be represented in the kitchen?
At the same time, he's trying to raise a daughter and try and give her a normal life, so what are the type of things that he would bring into the world to teach her about the world? One of my favorite things about the production design is that we also wanted to get the sense that they've lived there for seven years. We wanted to see stuff from seven years ago underneath the stuff from one year ago. We wanted it to be layers of stuff, so if you actually look closely, there are drawings on the wall, and the drawings on the bottom of the wall are very much like as if a one-year-old did them, and as they get higher they get fancier and fancier until cleary a seven-year-old old has been drawing them. There are all those types of ideas that give the space certain layers of time.
NFS: The film is often shuffling between the "real" world and the fantastical world of Chloe. On an aural level, what specifications did you make to blend those two together? There are moments where we hear sounds of Mr. Snowcone's ice cream truck outside and aren't sure if it's real or not...
Stein: You are the first person to ask about sound, and I appreciate that question. The music did that through the Mr. Snowcone song. The movie starts with that ice cream truck theme song being slowed down to nothing, as to hint about the world slowing down. Inside the house, we did a lot of thinking about what it would sound like to be inside this bubble.
There's an easter egg thing that people watching it for the first or even second time wouldn't notice: we took bird song...normally, you put sounds of birds during the day and crickets at night as your typical background noises, and so we slowed those down to 1/100 of their speed, and got this surreal background feel where it almost sounds like whale songs. You don't quite know what you're hearing, but it's got this surreal quality.
When the bubble drops, when it goes back to normal time, those sounds go abruptly to the typical birds and crickets. It's going to give you a hint that that's what you were hearing. We loved that feeling of keeping the audience guessing about what they were watching. Even from the beginning, where you, like you said, on a subconscious level are watching Chloe in this house and you get the sense that something weird is going on outside, you're not sure what that is. That's the feeling we were going for.
NFS: And in the second half of the film, Chloe has the ability to view events that involve her mother, taking place at locations removed from where Chloe is. You stage it in such a way, however, that we're seeing the mother both at this other location and in the location where Chloe resides; it requires some clever match-on action editing and choreography. How did you work to stage this? What complications did you encounter?
Lipovsky: It's definitely something that takes a lot of planning ahead of time. Really, the execution ends up being that you shoot the scene twice, and you do a lot of work to figure out what are the moments that we transition between and visually how do we communicate that? It gets more and more complex as the movie goes on, for sure.
We did talk about how we wanted the shot flow to work there, but really by the time you get to the set, you're generally just shooting the scenes twice, and then figuring out in the edit exactly how and when is appropriate to cut between them. From the actor's perspective, they're basically doing the work that they always do, so a lot of it is sort of seamless from their perspective, and you just have to do a lot of planning to make sure that it will all make sense, that your actions totally make sense. Other than that, it kind of seamlessly comes together.
Stein: We did some fun things with lighting in those situations, because we wanted the lighting of the space to bleed into Chloe's world, and we did that with the closet, where she finds her mom in the closet. We did that also with the scenes at the execution room, where we had the lighting of one environment bleed into another, and with sound as well. Some of that was done on set, with lighting guides, and some of it was in post, with the DI process.
Lipovsky: Adam and I both came through post before we were directors and have a very good understanding of digital effects and editing and camera tricks. Because of that, we picked powers that could be achieved that way. We also picked the powers that fit the characters best. I'm a big fan of thinking of elements that come from the characters, so it's not just powers for powers' sake, but it's figuring out, "Okay, if this person had an extension of their personality, what would it be? That's a father who wants to put their child in a bubble. Someone who's a trickster, wanting to disappear," and so we came up with that type of stuff.
Stein: And from a story perspective, you can think about how those people became who they are because of their powers. The grandpa became a trickster probably because starting early in his life he could turn invisible and start scheming and spying on people. Amanda Crew's character has more of a heroic feel to her, totally because that power would lead to that sort of personality.
NFS: As you're both about to shoot another film together, what would you say is the key trait to having two directors working successfully on a project? You both wrote, produced, and edited Freaks, so I imagine it was the beginning of a solid partnership...
Stein: I'd say there are challenges to it, and there are beautiful rewards, as well. I think Zach and I have really done a lot of work between us to figure out how to balance those responsibilities and listen to each other, because we think the biggest reward comes from having someone to keep you honest and keep the project as good as it can be.
When there's a problem with a script, or a shot, or an edit, and you're one person, you can sometimes convince yourself that something's working, even when it isn't, i.e. "Oh, I just wrote that scene. It's pretty good I think, yeah that's good enough." It's great to have that second person who is candid and honest, and if you're the first person who felt that scene was pretty good, to be able to lose your ego so you can really listen and say, "You know what, if he's thinking that this isn't working, well, I'd better listen."
Together, that has really led to a final product that we think is much better than what we could've done ourselves. We've really honed it through the gauntlet of the two of us looking at each thing with very careful eyes.