In 2015, against the rising hills of Los Angeles, Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein went for a walk. The two filmmakers were frustrated: they’d spent years hustling in Hollywood, working on other peoples’ projects, while putting off their own. They had big ideas, but no financial backing. Big stories with no star power. So they made a pact: they would make a movie, no matter the cost or timeframe. If nothing else, they had each other – and they’d hold each other accountable to actually make their film a reality.
They decided on a nugget of a premise: a man and his daughter stuck in a house. They took the idea and escaped to a cabin in the woods, locking themselves in a creative bubble for three days. Stein’s wife begrudgingly let him abandon her with their infant son on one condition: “You better come back with a finished script,” she told him.
Three days later, they did. Next came another year of dramatic rewriting, then two more years of development and production, during which time their newfound confidence helped them find the money and stars they lacked before. Lipovsky recalls telling backers: “Whether we get your money or not, we’re making this movie.” That impressed people. “Eventually, it kept growing until we realized we were not going to be the ones starring in this movie,” Lipovsky says with a laugh. He and Stein were planning on playing the main male roles themselves, but instead wrangled indie star Emile Hirsch and two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern.
The result is Freaks, a constantly engaging, beautifully shot psychological thriller that’s debuting at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Lipovsky and Stein are hoping to find a distributor to secure a wide release. These two Jewish Canadians (Lipovsky is from Vancouver; Stein is a new permanent resident) have crafted a chilling allegory about social exclusion and stigmatized minorities through a child’s eyes.
Freaks is about a girl who runs away from her over-protective father, into a world where the supernatural bleeds into the real. To reveal anything more, even if it doesn’t spoil the plot, would deflate the constant sense of wonder and disbelief that audiences will feel watching the movie – emotions shared by the film’s lead character, Chloe, who’s deftly played by Lexy Kolker.
“We were really inspired by my son’s way of starting to understand the world,” Stein says. He found it remarkable how, to his son, normal things seemed fantastical and the fantastic seemed normal: dragons exist, obviously, but a honking car alarm would terrify him.
“We love telling stories through the eyes of a child, because there’s such fear and magic there,” Lipovsky says. That inspired their project: “What if we told a story completely through a kid’s perspective that had supernatural elements to it?”
Before Freaks, the duo had just finished directing Mech-X4, a Transformers-style Disney TV show. But they also harboured a love of classic horror films. Freaks is a natural combination of those two worlds: it blends an uncertain, Hitchcockian ambience with the naturalized aesthetic of modern kid-led films such as Room and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
“We really want the audience to feel what she’s feeling,” Stein says. To that end, the film relies heavily on point-of-view angles, narrow focus pulls and handheld shots. “The way children experience the world has that kind of surreal quality,” adds Stein. “It’s a good way to tell an unpredictable story.”
Lipovsky and Stein are earning a reputation with children: their next project is the live-action Kim Possible movie, based on the cult cartoon TV series. For the foreseeable future, they’re going to stick together.
“I find the hard times of collaborating are when individual ego gets in the way,” Stein says. “When you’re able to sublimate your ego in service of the project, that’s where the win comes in.”
For more information about Freaks and to purchase tickets to see it at the Toronto International Film Festival, please click here.