Chloe Lewis is different, or so her dad keeps telling her. Holed up in her dark, dilapidated house, she spends her days hoping, and training, to be a normal girl and not "freaks"—a term her dad screams at her to prepare her for what people in the "real world" will call her. She's not allowed outside, and consistently pines for the ice cream truck always parked somewhat mysteriously outside, manned by a watchful "Mr. Snowcone."
That's the basic premise of Freaks, a new movie from Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky, which starts weird and gets weirder. Simply put: you're not ready for where this film takes you, and that's just the way it should be. Stein and Lipovsky's genre-defying feature twists and turns, but they owe equal thanks to their cast. Emile Hirsch as Chloe's dad is defeated and intense in a way we haven't seen before. Bruce Dern, ever balancing on the knife-edge of paternal and menacing, chews up scenery while he's handing out snow cones. It's seven-year-old Lexy Kolker who is the beating heart of this movie, though, and she's going to be big.
GQ spoke with the writer-directors about keeping the secrets of Freaks intact, giving Bruce Dern his first sci-fi role in decades, and trusting a little girl to carry an entire movie, scene-by-scene.
GQ: Has it been tough keeping the secrets of this movie?
Zach Lipovsky: The good thing is we haven't really had to police the mystery that much. We've found people were so excited about the experience of figuring it out as they went along, that they want to keep that for everyone else.
Adam Stein: One of our absolute favorite things as moviegoers is sitting in a theater and thinking, I have no idea where this is going. Unpredictability is so rare these days.
Lipovsky: Adam has this great story that inspired us in a lot of ways to write a movie, which was when he went to go see The Truman Show. He showed up five minutes late, so he didn't see the part where they explain everything that's going on. So when he sat down, he sat down with Truman in this world where everyone's staring at him and there are cameras everywhere.
Stein: It was a surreal paranoid thriller. I was in the character's shoes feeling as paranoid and confused as he was.
Was it... a good movie like that?
Stein: It was much better.
So, let's recap what we know about this movie: There's some great horror imagery: A girl who can't go outside, her dad who says they're "freaks," which goes unexplained for a while, and a creepy old ice cream man outside. I'm sure someone unambitious could have made 90 minutes out of that, but—without spoiling anything—we blow past that premise within 20 minutes or so.
Stein: Yeah, I think this was a hard one for the distributor to market. Not really describing what freaks are in much detail, but kind of implying that they are in danger out there. That everyone's scared.
We love playing with expectations. In the initial minutes of the movie, we want people to ask: What is outside those curtain windows? Is it zombies? Is it a virus? Is it the apocalypse? Is he even her father? [Laughs]
Look, that's all fun, but we also really wanted to make sure the math all added up by the end. Yeah. And it wasn't just, we're trying to trick people.
Right, and I suppose that's why it's important to have the kid's perspective, at least early on in the movie.
Lipovsky: Oh yeah, it's Chloe's movie. The film is literally shot from her height. Every shot is from two and a half feet off the ground. And as her emotions change and we move through different genres, the film adapts to that. In the beginning, she's really scared, and it feels like a horror film. And then she ventures out of the house and experiences moments of wonder and there are shots that are almost like Spielberg would do. And then she gets a little into revenge and bloodlust and we get some Tarantino moments.
Stein: When we first started shooting, I was like, "Oh my God, this is what being a seven-year-old is like," having these adults looming over you, telling you what to do.
Maybe this makes me look old, but Emile Hirsch is not where my mind first goes for downtrodden schlubby dad. He's the heartthrob that a lot of my high school friends had crushes on. He's Speed Racer. Tell me a bit about casting him here.
Lipovsky: He really was excited about that. We were looking for actors who connected with the... messiness of being a dad, and he's a new father. There's a lot of messiness in being a parent. You love it, but you're also tired all the time. You lose your temper, and then you're suddenly apologizing for it.
This is a guy who has no support network, no parenting books. He's trying his best to raise his daughter with love, but struggling to do it in really complicated circumstances. Emile loved the idea of playing a role that at the beginning feels like an antagonist. And as it evolves, you end up really caring for him. We did that with all our characters. Chloe's our hero but maybe at the end of the movie... you're a little unsure about her.
And I'm sure getting Bruce Dern in there was a huge moment for you guys.
Stein: He was the first person to sign off when we started sending the scripts around, which was quite a game-changer for us. He hadn't done a science fiction movie in 45 years. And that was something that was intentional on his part. He did Silent Running, and after that, he said: "I don't want to be acting with robots and aliens." We were flattered.
He's somehow paternal and creepy.
Stein: We had lunch where we talked to him about the movie and the lunch lasted seven hours, he told us stories from his legendary career. But the thing he kept coming back to was waving his fingers in our faces and growling "I am Mr. Snowcooone!"
Lipovsky: And when we started writing this movie, we'd had so many projects of ours not happen. Getting movies together when you're coming up is incredibly hard—things fall apart. So with Freaks, we promised ourselves that we were going to make this movie no matter what. Even if we made it for zero dollars, and even if we had to star in it; the Mark Duplass method. So, you know, think about it. The movie stars two guys and a kid. And that's because there would be Adam and his son, and me. I was supposed to play Mr. Snowcone, and Bruce did a much better job.
Stein: Initially that character was kind of a mastermind, a master planner, and Bruce brought more of an unhinged, unpredictable insanity to it. It worked to make Mr. Snowcone a bit more of a scrub. Like, he's got these big plans but never manages to properly pull them off. It's more interesting like that. He's a bit of a fuck-up.
And then we've got Lexy. This is an amazing movie for her. This is a sci-fi movie with a lot of effects and set pieces that hinge on her emotions the entire time.
Lipovsky: Dude, we finished the first draft, looked at it, and we were like, "We are really stupid." We'd just written a movie that basically has a seven-year-old at the center of every scene, speaking most of the dialogue, and driving the movie forward. We knew if we didn't find the perfect girl, we were screwed. We did this huge search, about 1200 kids across North America.
But luckily, we ended up finding Lexy. And the remarkable part of it is a lot of people go into the movie because of Emile or Bruce, but when they come out they're talking about Lexy. She steals the show, she goes head to head with the veterans. And totally holds her own in a very powerful performance. Adam and I say it was almost like we were lucky enough to land Natalie Portman in The Professional.
Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, is it safe to say that "freaks" are a real thing in this movie?
Lipovsky: Yep. They're real. We did a lot of thinking to make sure the film had some kind of resonance to our world. We often think sci-fi is one of the best tools to be a mirror for how our world is. We looked through history, and the family across the street was kind of based on what Jewish families went through in World War Two: hiding their kids with other families so they wouldn't be found.
But we wrote this movie around 2015, 2016, as the Trump campaign was really starting, and we were asking ourselves, Is a lot of this going to be irrelevant by the time the movie comes out? Obviously, he's not going to get elected, and then this is just all going to go away.
Lipovsky: Yeah. By the time the movie came out in 2018 at the Toronto Film Festival, it was just as kids really were being separated from their families at the border and put in camps, which is something that happens. And the audience is asking us, how did you know this was gonna happen? And, you know, this is what happens through history in this situation. We wrote it as science fiction and unfortunately, just a few years later, it's already happening again.
You were right but it must be demoralizing to see... how prescient it all became.
Stein: Definitely, definitely demoralizing to see history repeat itself in such an extreme and dangerous way. This is what happens when families are torn apart, and it's nothing new.
Fantasia Fest 2019 showcased a lot of must-see flicks to look forward to.
Originally Appeared on GQ