HEAT VISION

How 'Freaks' Filmmakers Finally Got to Tell Their Story

Adam B. Stein and Zach Lipovsky spent years developing the project in between duties as Disney TV directors, and have now parlayed their indie feature into a studio movie deal.

The stakes were high as Adam B. Stein and Zach Lipovsky headed to Toronto one year ago to debut Freaks, their long-gestating, low-budget sci-fi feature. The filmmakers had spent years writing the script, which centers on a young girl cloistered in a house with her paranoid father. They spent years more getting it made, raising money, attracting actors like Emile Hirsch and Oscar nominee Bruce Dern to work for little pay, and drawing on friends and family for countless weekend test screenings to perfect the film's reveals.

Now, the time to show it off had arrived, and the filmmakers were nervous. Would anyone really care about their little movie playing in the shadow of awards contenders starring Ryan Gosling (First Man) and Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. The Freaks screening on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 was packed.

"We nearly broke down in tears at TIFF when there were people lining up to see the movie," Stein tells The Hollywood Reporter.

After the screening, the duo were glued to their phones as the positive reviews came in. The movie would find a buyer a day later, with Well Go USA closing a roughly $2 million deal at 4 a.m. Monday morning.

In the year since that premiere, the buzz on Freaks led to Stein and Lipovsky to land a studio deal, with Universal set to make their family adventure project Outside the Box. It's all more than they dared to hope for back when they were dreaming up Freaks in between working day jobs on children's TV shows like Disney XD's Mech-X4.

Freaks, which is in theaters today, opens with young Chloe (Lexy Kolker), who lives alone with her father (Hirsch) for mysterious reasons. It's the type of movie you want to see without any spoilers, so we'll largely steer clear in the conversation below with the filmmakers. 

Influential people have been seeing Freaks ahead of its theatrical release. Phil Lord was at your Comic-Con screening. Have you been hearing from those people so far?

Adam B. Stein: [Lord] tweeted about it and hung out a bit afterwards and we chatted about it, which was amazing. Lord and [Chris] Miller have been heroes or role models of ours, especially as co-directors.

Lipovsky: We've been sending the movie around town and we've been getting into rooms with a lot of our idols, which has been kind of incredible, getting to meet people you grew up basically loving their movies as a kid and now they are responding to our movie and wanting to meet us and talk about their projects.

The first act of Freaks doesn't quite make sense until you see the film in its entirety. How much debate took place when deciding how much to include that would only make sense upon a second viewing?

Lipovsky: It's really hard to create a mystery, because you know everything. We wanted to make sure that even though it's a mystery, when you watch it again, every single frame makes sense. The stuff that we hate is mysteries, who done it things, and at the end, they reveal who did it and it's, "I could never have guessed that." It just comes out of nowhere. Then there's no rewatch value because they never gave any clues to that. … We worked hard so that every single thing that happens, that seems weird, that's really mysterious, when you watch it again all the math adds up. People have said the second watch is more satisfying in a totally different way. It took a lot of editing and a lot of writing and a lot of testing to get to that point.

This movie was innovative in that you did weeks and weeks of friends and family screenings, and would take that feedback into the editing room for the next week. How did having such a long editing process shape the film?

Stein: We were interested in trying to replicate the Pixar model of continuous iteration — in live action. We constantly said to ourselves, "Let's have a growth mindset here." Let's approach this like every piece of criticism could really improve this film. … Every weekend we would get some groups of friends together and show them the latest cut and do questionnaires and do detailed discussions to figure out what was working for them and what wasn't, especially related to the mystery and the reveals. As you are making a movie that is a slow reveal, it's hard as a filmmaker to know what the audience is getting and what they aren't. There's a scene early on where Chloe asks, "Did mom's eyes bleed too?" In a regular Hollywood sci-fi movie it would be, "Your mother was this wonderful woman who had lots of issues, but I'll tell you all about her." And it would be a paragraph monologue explaining all the backstory because that's how they deal with that problem. We knew we didn't want to do that.

Lipovsky: One of the early people we went to for money was like, "It's a cool script but I don't get what is going on at the beginning. Can we just put a scroll at the beginning that explains everything? That would be a lot simpler." We were like, "I don't think this is a partnership that's going to work out."

It wasn't just during the editing process, it was during the writing process, we did many, many iterations. We also shot a version of the movie on our iPhones with random actors in our house for a few days, to have the experience of shooting the movie without having to shoot the whole production with the actors. All of this was to really see it was possible. [Pixar co-founder] Ed Catmull has been quoted in saying what Pixar does for story would never work in live action because production happens and you have what you have. I wanted to prove that wasn't the case.

With stars like Emile or Bruce, you have them for a certain number of days. With this long of an editing process, how did it work if you really needed them for a reshoot?

Lipovsky: We put into their contract we would have them for two extra days in post. Having been editors, we know there's always a point where you need to reshoot something, but you don't know what it is before you start shooting. We had planned ahead of time knowing that would be the case, so every actor has two reserve days at some point in the future.

When you are meeting with your film idols, do they think you are crazy when they hear about your process?

Stein: Phil really got it, and he's done animation and they used this process on Spider-Verse, so I think he was excited and intrigued to hear about its use in live action. Some old school people might think, "you guys are crazy." But we definitely want to work this way in the future and we see the benefits. And it actually doesn't cost anything. Especially if you are bringing your friends in to help out.

What ideas did Bruce and Emile bring to the table when they joined?

Lipovsky: Bruce was like, "Who's going to play that father, because that motherfucker better be ready to dance, because I'm going to dance with that motherfucker." He was so excited to dig into the conflict between those two characters. … He was super excited when he heard Emile was going to play the role. He hadn't worked with Emile, but he was excited to dig in and go to-to-toe. The scene where they are shouting at each other in the movie was the first scene we shot with the two of them. Months of prep had built up in their actor brains. We ended up shooting a 45-minute take of the two of them going nuts.

Stein: Emile was cast quite late. I believe it was five days before we started shooting. We kept having very little money. We kept going out to actors. We would sometimes get really good reads. "I love the script, but I don't want to do something this low budget."  And the script got to Emile and we had a call with him and he's like, "You guys are shooting next week? Why don't you have an actor in the role? The script is really good." We were like, "Because we don't have any money. You know how much we're paying." … He was a new dad at the time and connected to the fatherhood aspects of the character.

What were some of the creative ways you saved money on this production?

Lipovsky: Adam and I had been doing this TV series for Disney and our initial plan was to shoot the movie between season two and three, and then there was no season three. Because we were really close with all the producers and everything, we said, "All those two seasons worth of costumes, props and sets and vehicles, what's happening with all that stuff?" They said, "Oh, nothing! Do you want it?"

Stein: "We're about to throw it into the landfill, so come and get it before we do that."

Lipovsky: So the ice cream truck in the movie is the food truck from that TV show. A lot of the big science fiction sets are sets from that TV show. We did 40-something episodes worth of sets and wardrobes and props and office chairs. Everything you could imagine and we took it all and made a movie with it. That was one of the great savings.

Stein: We went with our Freaks crew to the soundstage where all this TV stuff was getting ready to die. They'd already turned the power out on the soundstage. We opened the big bay doors, and we had flashlights searching around to scavenge.

How did you cast your Chloe?

Stein: When we found her, we realized "OK, we can shoot this movie." That was the last variable. "If we don't find a Chloe, I don't know if we can make this movie." We did lots of auditions. We auditioned both genders. We realized, we just need an amazing kid. If we don't find a girl, maybe we'll find a boy. … We did some rounds of callbacks in Vancouver and L.A. and when we saw Lexy, we were "OK, we're good. We can do this now."

With a child actor, there are challenges, such as shooting shorter days. How did you work around that?

Lipovsky: Any shot that doesn't have her face in it, you're not shooting it while she's on set. You've got to plow through everything she is in. It's an interesting balance because you want her to be on set to help other actors' performances … the secret is shooting during the summer otherwise within their eight hours, they have to do three hours of school. So if you shoot during the summer you get those three hours of actual shooting every day.  

What are your thoughts on a potential sequel? Is it a Catch 22, because part of this movie's storytelling success comes from its budgetary constraints?

Stein: When we thought of this world, we had lots of ideas for other stories that could happen in this world. And we told one slice of it, focused on this particular family. If people go see it and there's a demand for more stories in the Freaks world, we'd love to get back into it. But at the same time, the constraints, the budget constraints creates smarter storytelling. We'd never want to lose that and fall into the trap of being too comfortable.

Lipovsky: Every festival we've gone to, at the Q&A people ask and demand to know where the story goes.

Stein: People have asked, did you mean the ending to feel like a sequel hook? To us, we didn't think of it that way at all.

Lipovsky: The reason people are having that response is this story is over, but it feels like there's a much bigger world to explore with all sorts of new characters and new conflicts and the world building of that is what people are hungry for, so that's really cool, so you can now create other stories that fit within a larger narrative.

***

Freaks is in theaters now.

LATEST NEWS