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Fantasia ’19: Writer/directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky’s movie “FREAKS” you out

Friday, July 26, 2019 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

The less you know about FREAKS before seeing it, the better, so this article will reveal little in the way of plot details. The movie, which screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival this Sunday, July 28, is full of surprises for the audience, and has been winning them over (and nabbing awards) at various fests around the world.

Starring Emile Hirsch (THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE) as a father keeping his little daughter Chloe (a remarkable performance by Lexy Kolker) housebound to protect her from dangerous forces outside, and Bruce Dern as a man who seems to know her secrets, FREAKS is full of hints, teases and revelations regarding its characters and their situation. Part of its strength is that, as scripted and directed by Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky, the movie plays fair and roots all of its mysteries and twists in well-thought-out characterizations. For example, when it comes to Hirsch’s role, “He’s sort of flawed, so you’re not so sure about him; he’s an unreliable figure,” Lipovsky explains. “We wanted him to be a dad character who’s never had a book on parenting. You don’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, and a lot of that stems from the fact that he’s coming from a good place, but he doesn’t know how to do it, since he’s filled with his own insecurities and fears.”

FREAKS juggles a number of emotions as well, and part of the duo’s enjoyment of touring the festival circuit has been watching the movie work on the crowds. “One of the funny things about watching it with an audience is that they’re very unsure at the beginning what kind of movie it is,” Lipovsky says. “Everyone is sort of sitting there concerned; they know it’s maybe scary, maybe dramatic, they’re worried about this little girl, and the reactions are very reserved at first. There’s an intensity, but everyone’s pretty quiet.”

“They’re uncomfortable too,” Stein adds, “because the situations Chloe is in feel quite dangerous, and you’re not sure where it’s going or who’s good and who’s bad.”

“And then, about halfway through the movie,” Lipovsky continues, “there are small chuckles, sort of introductory laughs, like, is it OK to be enjoying this? Is it OK to be laughing now? It starts with one or two people, and then a few more will join in, and by the end of the movie…not that it becomes a comedy, but the whole audience is enjoying the darkness and the humor within that darkness. They don’t think anyone else is at first, but then they slowly start realizing everyone is, and they’re all in on it.”

“That’s especially true at the genre festivals,” Stein notes. “By the end, they’re shouting for blood. When we were at Sitges, the first genre festival we played, I was shocked that during some of the violent parts at the end, people were like, ‘Woo-hoo!’ [Laughs] It was so different from how they were at the beginning of the movie.”

A film with such unusual storytelling that doesn’t elicit a simple emotional reaction can be a tough sell to financiers, and at first the duo planned FREAKS as a DIY feature, with themselves starring and Stein’s son as the child at the center of the action. The project eventually attracted a bigger budget and experienced actors, but they recall it was a long process. “We had this interesting finance plan,” Lipovsky explains, “which was basically that we could make the movie for nothing [laughs], so any amount of money we got beyond that was gravy, as long as it never came with conditions that could jeopardize the film. It’s hard to get money for movies, because it always comes with attachments: To get this amount, you need that person, and to get that person, you need this thing, and to get this thing you need that other thing, and by the time you get that, you’ve lost that first thing, and it falls to pieces. So we made a promise to each other that any money or resources we used would never have conditions on them. It would just be, if we got $150,000, then great, we’d do it for $150,000, but we had all the creative control.”

“At first,” Stein says, “there were people who told us, ‘Not interested unless you have a bigger-name actor,’ and we were like, ‘OK, sorry, we don’t. We might have no-names.’ Then when Bruce got involved, some of those early people were like, ‘Wait, maybe I am interested!’ ”

“Also,” Lipovsky says, “our first investors were people we had known our whole lives, who believed in us beyond the movie itself; they were invested in us as people, and wanted it to be a success no matter what it was. That helped get the ball rolling, and as we got bigger stars, that allowed bigger investors to come on board. We stuck to our guns; one company offered us a lot of money as long as it had a big superstar, right before we were about to start filming, but we realized that was going to delay the shoot. We didn’t want to go through that process, and in the end we just said, ‘You know what, we’re making the movie with what we have.’ And we were lucky enough to get Emile right before that anyway.”

Still, FREAKS is a smaller film than some of its similarly themed brethren, and when it receives general U.S. release August 23 from Well Go USA, they’re hopeful that more people will see and respond to it in the manner of those fest audiences. “In this world of Disney owning everything and the mega-franchises, getting an indie film into theaters is exceedingly rare,” Stein says. “We’re very lucky and grateful to get that, so we hope people will go and check it out so that other movies like this can get made.” Whatever the box-office figures, however, he already considers FREAKS a success: “When we were writing it, we didn’t know if we’d ever get any money in the budget, we didn’t know if we would ever have the chance to make it, let alone have anybody see it and like it. So it has kind of exceeded all our expectations in terms of making our passion project.”

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.