The pandemic, as we've covered, really messed up a lot of release schedules and buried many good films that flew under the radar. The horror/comedy Freaky was definitely one of them—I didn't see it until it hit HBO Max this summer, and it's shot to the top of my favorite horror movies of the last few years.

It tells the story of a mousy teen who recently lost her father and is struggling her way through high school. She happens to swap bodies with a deranged local serial killer, and she only has 24 hours to switch back. The film effortlessly blends horror, comedy, slasher, romance, and body swap tropes in ways that feel new and exciting, but it also pokes fun at gender norms and identity.

The film was written by Michael Kennedy and Chris Landon (who also directed). Kennedy was kind enough to hop on the phone with No Film School to talk horror screenwriting and what aspiring screenwriters should (and shouldn't) do. Enjoy!

Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NFS: What's your process for developing an idea into a first draft?

Michael Kennedy: Well, before Freaky, I would literally just, if I had an idea that I really liked I would just vomit out a draft, honestly. And working on Freaky with Chris Landon, we did an outline, and I actually was going to take that movie out as a pitch first before Chris was involved. So, I had a 10-page outline that I essentially wrote that I was going to pitch to people. So what I do now—I also sold a pilot the year before Freaky to the CW, and their process is very—it's very, I guess, regimented is the word I'm looking for, where you verbally pitched your show, and then they bought it. Thank God.

And then I had to do these steps that they require on all their series as they develop them. So for that show, I had to do a four-page story doc, and then they had to approve that. So it was like an approval process. And then when they approved that I did an eight- to 12-page outline. And then once they approved that I went off to script.

So I've kind of taken some of the tools I learned from doing that and then some of the tools I learned from developing a full movie with Chris Landon to my process now. So, what I've been doing lately is outlining the outline in really great detail. My outlines have been ranging anywhere from like eight to like 15 pages based on the project I'm doing. And I find that that's really beneficial because the whole story's broken. And then literally the last movie I sold, I had outlined in major detail that when I went down to write it, I literally wrote it in three days.

Because I had the entire movie. So all I literally had to do was fill in the blanks with the outline and some of the nuance and that kind of stuff. So, that's kind of my process now. Really, really, really, really just trying to get any story fixes done before I even write the script.

NFS: Were there any specific developmental challenges with Freaky? You took it to Blumhouse with Chris Landon, right?

Kennedy: Yeah.

Freaky_bts_chris_landonBehind the scenes of 'Freaky'Credit: Universal

NFS: Was it fully formed at that point or did you have any challenges breaking the story with him, or big changes that were asked for?

Kennedy: Not really, honestly. Freaky was kind of a dream project in the sense that—so the reason Chris came aboard is I was about to take it out to pitch, and he and I were having lunch. And I was telling him about it and I was actually going to pitch Blumhouse first. And he was like, "Oh, let me help you get the pitch ready. I work with those guys all the time."

So when I met with him to do that, he ended up just reading my pages. And when he got done reading my pages, we basically were like, "Let's do this together." So, it kind of recalibrated, then I didn't end up pitching the movie. We decided to write it on spec.

We basically took my nine-page outline that already existed, and Chris had some really great thoughts and some really great notes and he had some really great ideas. We kind of took all that stuff that he had and essentially rewrote my outline. And then, when we went off to script, it was pretty smooth. I think the biggest hurdle for us, just ourselves, was figuring out the rules of the body swap and of the knife and everything. But when we turned it into Blumhouse, we turned in a completed script.

Before they bought it, they had zero notes. And then, really the only kind of pushback we had was kind of budget-wise. It was like, "Oh, this is a little over budget based on the script right now. So we need you to, maybe combine some characters, and you have this scene at a football field. So, maybe that other scene that takes place somewhere else could be at the football field as well." Those kind of things, so you could shoot more in one location in one night and stuff. So, it was a pretty smooth process. Really.

NFS: Incredible.

Kennedy: Yeah. It was like a dream project. Like it'll never happen again.

Freaky_high_school'Freaky'Credit: Universal

NFS: What was your approach to looking at those like horror conventions, those genre things, and making them fresh?

Kennedy: Honestly we realized as we were writing it that the body swap itself really did that. We started realizing that, we knew we were doing something different and that we were going to play with convention. I know Chris was the one that really had that really great idea. He had a really great idea that I didn't have in my initial pages. I think he goes, "How funny would it be if Millie's trying to explain her plight to her friends and they think it's the killer and there's like a giant chase scene?"

And he goes, "The audience knows they're safe, but they don't know." And he is like, "You're playing with the genre tropes here." So, we started looking at each scene that way. "Well, what are we saying in the scene? Oh, well with the body swap, it's doing this." Once we realized what was going on with the body swap [...] It just immediately changed things by being what it is. We really started fucking around with stuff because it was just like, "Oh wow, we have this great opportunity to upend a lot of stuff here."

So that kind of stuff was fun because if you realize... Once you're, once the genders are kind of flipped, in a sense, audience expectations are like, "What now?" So we just kind of approached and said, "What's the best for this scene? What's the best for the character?" That was kind of how we approached everything and we really wanted to play with the whole love story.

On paper, if you don't have a body swap, it would read like such a basic typical slasher movie love story between the final girl and the main guy. But as soon as you play with gender, it becomes this whole new beast. So then we realized all the tropes were being upended in that way too. So, we really just had a lot of fun with it. We're like, "What would be the most fucked up thing to do here? What would be the funniest thing to do here? What would be the scariest thing to do here?" I hope that answered your question.

Freaky_trio'Freaky'Credit: Universal

NFS: I think that's what I admire, is that you saw that opportunity. You saw how it would go normally without the body swap. And just like you said, by the nature of it being a body swap, it becomes this whole other thing. And it's just so hilarious and amazing to watch. So yeah, you answered the question.

Kennedy: Yeah. And we realized too, really the whole movie is about identity, and as queer people, Chris and I knew we were talking about gender identity and sexual identity and just teenage identity. So we really just wanted to play with all that as much as we could, because we realized with the body swap, you have such an opportunity to talk about things in a fresh new perspective.

We really tried to just do that as much as we can, and Chris is so smart. If anyone knows the genre more than me, it's him, and he was just really smart about taking the sandbox as he played it and was like, "Well, let's really fuck around with this. Let's do something different here." And it was pretty cool.You know, watching it come to life especially.

NFS: I feel like that audience in particular, young members of the LGBTQ community, they're the ones who are finding it now.

Kennedy: Yeah, it's cool. You know, Chris and I, when we were writing it too that's the other thing we said is, like... Joshua especially, we were like, essentially he's wish-fulfillment, that character. That's Chris and I going, "This is definitely not the high school experience we had. We get to relive it through our pen and through this movie."

And we thought it was really important for both of us to show a queer character like that. That there was this out, proud, brazenly spoken, unabashed, lead themselves, kid running around in this movie because you don't see that a lot in horror, especially slashers. And then it was really important for us to also show the audience that his mother is in his life and that she's just exactly like the dream mom all these kids wish they had, if they don't have, so that was really fun to get to do too. It's pretty emotional to see it be shot and that kind of stuff.

Freaky_vince_vaughn'Freaky'Credit: Universal

NFS: What advice would you have for balancing horror and comedy?

Horror comedy, there's such a fine line. If you go too far one way the other suffers and then they both suffer. So, it's really about really, really, really about balance. It's really about knowing your story and editing yourself.

I learned a lot on this movie working with Landon, just because he's such a veteran. And there were times where I would write pages, for example, because our process was we would assign each other scenes and we'd write the scenes and then we'd share the scenes with each other and basically rewrite each other throughout the whole process. And I learned a lot from him because, like I said, editing was the biggest thing I learned. And what I mean by that is I would send him pages, and he'd be like, "A lot of this is really funny." He goes, "But we need to pull back a little bit because, for instance, this is a scary scene. So like as soon as you do such a broad joke like this, it deflates any of the suspense. Or this is the moment for comedy, this is the moment for horror." What I learned from him, it's really about staying true to the moment and staying true to the characters.

And really it is about a tonal balance. If you go too, too broad with the comedy, then the scares are just not scary. And then if you go, I think if you go too tell self serious, then the comedy suffers. So, it's a total balance. Like the kills, the kills are the way they are for a reason because they're like "oh shit" kills. But they're also hilarious, they're over the top where it's without the—I don't know, it just was funny because it is such a gory movie, but it's not like unpalatable gore. And I think it's because of the tone is set immediately in the movie.

Freaky_finale_2'Freaky'Credit: Universal

NFS: What advice would you have for aspiring screenwriters?

Kennedy: Write and read, read a lot. I read a lot of screenplays. When I moved to LA in 2009, I thought I knew how to write. And then I got a job as a PA on a TV show and I started reading all their scripts and stuff and I was like, "oh, I don't know shit. I don't know how to do any of this". And that was the biggest thing for me, that was the biggest tool, in the beginning, was just reading a lot of scripts and learning. Just structure and how there is kind of a little bit of a formula at times, which is okay. I know a lot of people are like, "break the rules." Sometimes rules are good, you know?

And the biggest thing is, just do it. I know so many people out here who say they're writers and then they're complaining about not getting work. And you're like, "Well, have you developed anything?" I'll never forget the time I had a stranger reach out to me right after Freaky came out and said, "Is there a way you can introduce me to your manager?" It was like a friend of a friend. So I was like, "Well, do you have a sample I can read?" And he's like, "What do you mean?" I was like, "Do you have a script I can read? I need to read something before I can send you to my manager. I'm not just going to give you his phone number." And he goes, "Oh no, I don't have that. Can't you just show my Twitter account?" And I was like, "Dude, not going to work." Yeah so, that is always my biggest thing is just have work.

Work. It's hard. I worked a day job for 10 years before Freaky. So, it's a lot of work, but it's like... In a lot of ways, I'm very thankful for my ignorance in the beginning because I didn't know any better. So I just kind of learned as I went. And then I was thankful for my ignorance later as I had low, like lulls in my career because I didn't, I felt like I didn't know anything else by that point. So I was like, "What am I going to do? I'm almost 40. I can't start over somewhere else." Like that ignorance and not really knowing anything else really just pushed me through, but I also did the work.

Freaky_slasher'Freaky'Credit: Universal

I wrote constantly, and I had scripts done. If a project fell apart, I mourned it for a second and then moved on to the next thing, so it was constantly. And hustled my ass off. And by that, I don't mean sneaking into the Universal lot or anything like Spielberg did back in the day. God bless him, but...

Making connections and really bonding with people. I think that's another thing people do incorrectly is they meet somebody with power and immediately ask for a favor as opposed to nurturing a relationship. The biggest things in my career so far have happened through of my friendships. You know, Chris, didn't just say, "I want to make this movie with you" because I asked him to read it. It was like, that was a friendship that was formed first with mutual—we liked horror movies and we talked about horror movies and we had similar interests and stuff.

And it just so happened that we ended up doing this project together, but I think it's because I nurtured that friendship, as opposed to trying to take advantage of his position in the beginning. So it's just really knowing that kind of stuff, too. It's knowing when to not take advantage of something, but also knowing like, "Hey, you're my friend. Can I ask a favor?" You know, that kind of thing.

NFS: Unfortunately, you have to point that out and give that advice. But I think it does happen a lot, too often.

Kennedy: I think that was the biggest advice I ever got, was that because I think there are a lot of people [...] I've seen it. They meet somebody who is big-time or has influence, and they ask for something right away. And that person's like, "Ew." You know?

You can watch Freaky on-demand now. Kennedy's next film, Time Cut, will be released sometime next year.


Check out more from No Film School and Blackmagic Design's Horror Week!