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Reality TV, Disney kids, and gender-blind casting: The origins of the sci-fi stunner Freaks

By Kristy Puchko

With Freaks, co-writers/co-directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein usher sci-fi fans into a joltingly original dystopian tale that starts with a little girl (Lexy Kolker) locked in a ramshackle house. Her dad (Emile Hirsch) claims they have to stay inside or else be killed by bad guys. But Chloe longs for sunshine, friends, and the tasty treats promised by the smiling man (Bruce Dern) in the jingling ice cream truck. As she ventures out with a fistful of cash and ruthless defiance, this curious kid will discover a world filled with wonders and terror.

With a mystery box narrative, compelling performances, and an electrifying emotional core, Freaks has become one of SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS' most anticipated movies of the fall. So, following the film's Quebec premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, SYFY WIRE sat down with Lipovsky and Stein to discover the origins of this super, scary story. And we were pretty stunned to discover its path to creation looped through Disney shows, real-life family conflict, and DYI designs. But it all began with a reality show.

Lipovsky and Stein built their careers together, helming kid shows like Ingress Obsessed, Mech-X4, and the live-action Kim Possible movie. But their collaborating began 12 years back, when the two were aspiring filmmakers cast on the reality competition series On the Lot. "It was American Idol for filmmaking, and we were competitors," Lipovsky explained. "America would vote and send the worst filmmaker home. And that happened all throughout the summer of 2007. We actually were put together in the same hotel room on the very first audition episode and became friends."

Though produced by celebrated auteur Steven Spielberg and reality-TV impresario Mark Burnett, On the Lot didn't take off. "Nobody watched it," Stein said. "The ratings were terrible because there was no drama. Literally we were up late, working on it, read each other's scripts, and talking about editing software."

Lipovsky concurred, "The funny thing about that show? You put a whole bunch of indie filmmakers together, there's not a lot of drama. They just all help each other and become friends and stuff."

"It was like filmmaking nerd summer camp," Stein added.

"So we became best friends and we went off to try to have our careers," Lipovsky continued. "We each directed separately. I did some horror films, and Adam did some comedy stuff. Eventually, we just started having the same struggles. Our career still wasn't doing what we hoped it would 10 years later. And we were like, 'Okay, well, screw it. We've just got to make something no matter what.'"

To start this something, the directing duo took advice from acclaimed indie filmmaker Mark Duplass, who gave an inspiring lecture at SXSW in 2015 called "The Cavalry Isn't Coming." Lipovsky recalled, "It was basically like, 'Ask yourself, what do you have right now? What do you have, actually, right now? You probably have an uncle who's got something. You've got a dad who owns something. You've got a friend ⁠— what are all those things in, right now?'"

"He said, 'We had a puffy chair, a van, and us,' and that was their first movie," Stein said, referring to the Duplass brothers' heralded debut, The Puffy Chair.

This got Lipovsky and Stein thinking about what assets they had that could help them make a movie. Stein found a tireless source of inspiration at home. "I was a new dad at the time," he said. "[My son] was 4 or 5, and we were constantly just amazed at seeing the world through my son's eyes and how he was discovering things about the world and things he thought about the world that were so strange. That perspective of a little kid was so fascinating to us. And we started thinking, 'What if you told a sci-fi story through a child's eyes and put the audience in the perspective of the child?'"

"Where they don't know what's real or not real, just like a kid doesn't," Lipovsky noted.

To which Stein added, "And because it's a sci-fi world, you really don't know what's real and what isn't."

This is how the central conceit of Freaks was born. However, the child hero at the film's center was originally conceived as a boy, to be played by Stein's son. Keeping to their Duplass plan, Stein and Lipovsky had intended to write, direct, and star in the film, playing the furtive father and the enigmatic ice cream man, while Stein's son would play its protagonist. But as the project gained steam and funding, plans changed. Before long, Freaks had enough of a budget to hire a casting director, professional actors, and even some names, like Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern, who was the first to sign on. "It's still very low-budget," Stein said. "But it had that kind of DNA of it's just us and our friends making a movie."

The more robust budget also meant that they could also hire a child actor for the lead role. And with the possibilities in casting now wide open, these co-helmers went into that process gender-blind, auditioning boys and girls for the part. "We just thought, 'We've got to find the most amazing kids no matter what gender they were,'" Stein said.

To that end, the lead role was written gender-blind. "I don't think we ever really considered sort of boy or girl," Lipovsky said. "Because in our minds we were going to audition both. So we just really concentrated on what she wanted — what the character wants." He added, "Our design wasn't really about the girl experience. It was just about the child experience."

Still, they began to hope for a girl, considering how audiences might be more instantly unnerved by the dad's dubious behavior if it were directed at a daughter. "Because she's a girl and she has a father who you're not so sure about," Lipovsky said. "Immediately, I think the audience is more concerned about her. If it was a boy and maybe a mother they may not have been, or a boy and a father, they're not as immediately concerned."

"We thought maybe this is better as a girl, but let's just see who we find," Stein agreed, adding, "Then we found Lexy and it was 'Don't look back.'"

Once cast, the 10-year-old actress had an intimidating feat head of her. Nearly every scene in the film has Lexy Kolker at its center, often with swaths of dialogue and tricky emotional beats. Yet, tasked with shouldering a sophisticated sci-fi drama with a subgenre secret hidden in its core, Kolker proved a marvel. Far from the over-the-top performances delivered in children's television, she turned in a portrayal that was riveting in its restraint, vulnerability, and wrath. And a bit of this is owed to Stein's son.

"We knew from watching my son that kids are fierce," Stein said. "Kids have strong emotions and go through deep thoughts." He lamented, "You don't really see that on-screen very much. And so it was a matter of 'We've just got to find a kid who can access that and be truthful with that in her life,' because that's what the movie was all about. It was about exploring that perspective of this child."

"And all the things she wants are things that any kid would want," Lipovsky said. "She wants to know what's outside. She wants to have ice cream. She wants a friend. She wants to have control. None of that is necessarily about gender. It all feels true to anyone. Anyone can relate to those deep, deep desires."

Now that Freaks has made its way to theaters, anyone can have a chance to discover Chloe's story, experience her perspective, and discover her secrets.

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