Monday, July 28, 2014

20 Years of FREAKED! Alex Winter, Tom Stern, and Tim Burns talk about the making of a new cult classic

 Alex Winter, Tom Stern and Tim Burns reunite to discuss some incidentals regarding the making of the cult comedy FREAKED (1993)

TV STORE ONLINE: So how many variations or script rewrites for FREAKED did you go through before you guys finally came to have  the film as we know it today? 

WINTER:   Originally, we were working on a sick little horror movie...But then we retooled it to PG-13 movie for the brass at Fox...

STERN:  The first draft that Alex and I wrote with Gibby Haynes [Butthole Surfers Lead Singer] was really just him throwing a bunch of ideas at us.  It was really this sick little horror movie at that point.  It was a outrageous and insane little visceral horror movie, but it was that draft that got the attention of a couple producers.   It was really nothing like what we ended up writing with Tim, or the film as it exists today.

BURNS:  What I remember about writing the script for FREAKED (1993) was that we all were writing in that house that I had rented and Tom and Alex were in one room writing, and I was in another room.    We worked out the plot, and we divided up the outline, and I took the odd-numbered scenes and Tom and Alex wrote the even-numbered scenes.   We weren't corresponding a lot even though we were in the next room and the scenes didn't always line up together.  I'd end a scene with a key in someones hand and then I'd talk to Alex and Tom and see if the scene after that mentioned the key.  I thought that it was a really weird way to write a script.
STERN:  Is that weird? I don't know... I thought that was the way you do it when you have a bunch of different guys working on the same thing...(Laughing)

WINTER:  We're kind of writing a new script in the exact same way now...(Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  I read an earlier version of the screenplay for FREAKED which had Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford playing talk show hosts, who at the end, are monsters who get stabbed, then proceed to get up, and attack again before they get shot...(Laughing)

WINTER:  Right, we had a lot of drafts.   I just remember that we were working on the script right up until the night before that Tom and I had to go to pitch the movie to Joe Roth at 20th Century Fox.   I remember that we were working on the beats in the script all throughout the night before we were to go in and pitch this pretty elaborate and ambitious movie to a big studio, and we hadn't even shot on 35mm before and we hadn't really done shit either.  I remember that at around 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. in the morning, we panicked.  We decided that we'd just write a completely different movie all together and take that in and pitch it.   Between Midnight and 4 a.m. we came up with this whole other idea about a family who is driving across country and they go into a IHOP and the Maitre'd (who we wanted John Hawkes to play), turns out to be crazy. He kidnaps the family and takes them down into this subterranean universe which was beneath the IHOP...(Laughing)

BURNS:   And that movie became AVATAR (2009)...

WINTER:   (Laughing)...I just remember Tom pacing around the living room in the middle of the night extremely caffeinated and trying to convince me that this was a much better idea...   This was even before Tim came on board, it was during the concept period, before we got the green-light to write the movie.     When we sold the movie to Fox, it was an amazing stroke.   There is no way that I would pitch this kind of insane movie to any studio head today...   We went through so many drafts for the script. Another idea we had for the ending was to have Randy Quaid pull a lever on the stage and this army of hood ornament little-purple-trolls come out to attack everyone.   We had that ending for a long time in the script, but we started to pare it down strictly for financial reasons.   We had no CGI and there was no way that we were going to be able to pull that off.   Tim, do you remember the trolls?

BURNS:  I barely remember that.  What I always remember about FREAKED is how much fun it was to come up with all of the crazy ideas we did.    I remember the very first day of pre-production someone saying, "You guys want this joke which is two-pages long that is going to cost $50,000 dollars or do you want this joke that is a page-and-a-half that will cost us $5,000 dollars."   I had never realized before that there was a price tag on every joke in the script.    One of the jokes I remember was...'Cowboy' had built a replica of the Eiffel Tower out of tube sticks and the 'Human Torch' walks by and burns it without even noticing it.   It was decided that we should cut the joke the minute that the prop guy came in with the replica of the Eiffel Tower...(Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  How bizarre is it that we're still talking about FREAKED 20 years later after the film was made?

STERN:  It's bizarre.

WINTER:   Everyone knows the story about how FREAKED never got a proper release.   It came out on DVD in Europe and it played on pay cable, and eventually it came out on DVD here in The United States, so it's nice to be talking about the film again in the recent years since that.  For years, no-one even knew where a film print of FREAKED was.    A film print was found about two years ago and it was saved literally before it was about to be destroyed, and it's actually the only film print known to exist yet for the film today.   

BURNS:  I was talking about FREAKED the other day, and the person I was talking to said, "How did you guys get away with making such a weird movie?"   It is a weird movie, but if you think that it's a weird movie today, you have to know that it was considered an even weirder movie back when we shot it.   I think we were part of this comedy shift that was happening at the time.  The Simpsons hadn't even been on television for that long at that point even.

TV STORE ONLINE:   There's been a story going around for some time about Mr. T walking off the shoot of FREAKED....Have any of you been in touch with T in the years since?

WINTER:   Mr. T is with me right now!  (Laughing)...   I wish he was with me..

STERN: (As Mr. T.):  I suffered emotional abuse on the set of FREAKED.   I'm in therapy yet...  It was a fucked up scene man...(Laughing)

WINTER:  Mr. T.  walked off the set of FREAKED three days before we were done with him.   I wish I could've taped the conversation I had with him over the phone before we had to fire him for walking off.   Our producer said, "I have Mr. T on the phone for you..."   Everyone wanted me to convince him to come back because we needed him for the looping for the film.   When I picked up the phone, I couldn't get a word in edge wise with him for about an hour-and-a-half.   He was philosophizing about how FREAKED had broken his spirit.    He told me about how his mom told him when he was younger that he shouldn't allow anyone to take away his dignity.   When we met him before we started shooting we expected to have this conversation, not when we were almost done with the film!     Everyone on the set loved Mr. T as the 'Bearded Lady' and he was treated like a king. 

STERN:  He didn't want to be just one of the freaks.  That was his problem, that, and he had an in-grown hair problem... Originally, for the ending, when each of the freaks was to walk out onto the stage of the talk show, we were going to have Mr. T. walk out clean shaven but wearing a dress, and he pulled Alex and I aside and told us about his in-grown hair problem that he had.  

WINTER:  I don't think that he wanted to be seen in a dress.  He quietly suffered through the shooting of the film because he wasn't vocal until after he walked off the set.    And we can thank Lee Arenberg for doing all of the dialogue replacement for Mr. T in the looping after he left.    Lee and Mr. T used to sit on the set and do dueling "T's" all day.  It was hilarious.  There are some lines in the movie where you can blatantly hear that Mr. T isn't actually Mr. T.

TV STORE ONLINE:   This next question is for Tim...I wanted to know where you think you channeled the depths of the 'Hideous Frogman" character from inside of you?

BURNS:   That was pretty much my one-and-only acting role.  I think I was just inspired by the fact that we needed someone to play the role who would only work for 40 dollars a day...(Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  There was a great scene that you guys cut from the film that is part of the outtakes on the DVD....It's the Wheel Of Fortune sequence...Why did you guys cut that from the film?

WINTER:  I loved that scene.

BURN:  We argued about that.. I thought we needed it  for the "heart" of the movie, but now I see that there is no heart in the movie, so who cares? (Laughing)

STERN:  Well, we were under quite a bit of pressure while we were ending the movie.   Joe Roth had left 20th Century Fox by the time that we started editing, and the new guy who came in to replace him wasn't a fan.  That made our post-production experience pretty miserable because we knew that we didn't have the support of the studio.   We had a new editor come in, and his credo was just cut, cut, cut and he really took the film down to its bare bones.

WINTER:  The scene really doesn't need to be in there, but as an actor I loved the scene, and it was my favorite scene in the movie as the actor.   Ricky is a false protagonist.  FREAKED is really Elijah's movie. Ricky doesn't give a shit, he, as a character doesn't experience any growth.  I had no problem going in as the actor about that.  He's just there to set up the jokes and get us to the finale just like the straight man in AIRPLANE! (1980).  What that  scene had was that punchline, about Ricky not actually having a character arc.    And by not having that scene in the movie, it really takes away from the ending of the movie, and makes it seem a bit flat.  

STERN:   All of the cuts really just came out of the situation at Fox.   We were fighting for the movie and for it not to get scrapped.   Eventually we'd lose that fight.   We had a awful test screening for the movie in the Valley and the audience was made up of "gang-bangers" who called Brooke Shields a "bitch" in the first five minutes of the screening.  That was traumatizing.  Considering that we were very worried that the movie was going to get scrapped by the studio I think we went into panic mode and just started cutting it down so we wouldn't lose the audience.

TV STORE ONLINE:  There was a project that the three of you were working on as a follow-up to FREAKED...  What was that about?

WINTER:  We all sat down in Toronto to talk about the next movie, but what was it about?

BURNS:  I think it was something to do with the Weekly World News, wasn't it?   I remember that idea going around. It was something like all of the stories in the Weekly World News and how they were actually real.

STERN:  Right, I remember that.

WINTER:  All I remember was that I was supposed to play a janitor.  We were thinking about taking the "Lou Kresnik" character that was based on the "Huggins" character from The Idiot Box...

STERN:  That's right.  It was called LOU KRESNIK: SPACE JANITOR...But I don't think it was something we had fleshed out. I think we just had that idea and a scene or something?

BURNS:  I think the scene was with the janitor, and he goes up on a stage because he's retiring and he's going to get a watch, and he says, "I've worked hard for this company for 50 years, and all I can say is, GIVE ME MY LIFE BACK!"  He starts screaming at them and they have to drag him off the stage.

STERN:  That scene was probably all we had! (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  One of my favorite lines in FREAKED is in that funny parody commercial for Machismo where the announcer says, "If you like cheese, and you like being a man..."

WINTER:  That was a Tim Burns original!

BURNS:   That was something I lifted from a CBC radio comedy sketch that I had written early for a show called The Norm.   Back in the '70s there was a snack product called "Squeeze-a-Snack".  It looked like a loaf of cheese.  You cut a whole in the middle and cheese was extruded from the middle of it.   I just didn't see snack products aimed toward men.  From there I was going to make a breakfast cereal for men and other products as well...(Laughing)

STERN:  I just remember that the hand in the scene was our Gaffer's hand.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How much input did you all have into the visual look of the creators for FREAKED?  Obviously, you can see the influence of someone like Robt. Williams, but would it be fair to say that Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's artwork was also an influence?

WINTER:  Of course.

STERN: For sure, in fact we just asked Steve Johnson who created the monsters to make us "Big Daddy Ed Roth monsters", and that is what he did.    It was a challenge because it was quite difficult to make those types of monsters three dimensional.

TV STORE ONLINE:  On the DVD commentary for FREAKED you guys make a joke about how the bomb on an airplane joke is dead...I was wondering if you think if it will ever be able to make a comeback?

STERN: (Laughing)

WINTER:  What can we say?  I guess we had our finger on the pulse of various terrorist activities back then...(Laughing)

BURNS:  I actually saw that same joke on an episode of The Simpsons about a year after FREAKED was released.  I remember seeing it and saying, "Hey! They ripped us off!"

TV STORE ONLINE:   Then how about the song in the movie "Weinersnitchel Polka"....

WINTER:   I still get BMI publishing residual checks for it, even though the amount of money I get isn't worth the paper that the check is printed on...

STERN:   I just remember that originally we wanted to use an actual song for that but that we couldn't afford it.  I think we wanted to use "Edelweiss" but we were told that it would cost too much money.

BURNS:  We looked into a couple other famous songs written about fried veal, but they were copyrighted.

WINTER & STERN: (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  And then with the problems you had in the post-production and the poor release of the film....With Joe Roth gone, and Peter Cherin in at Fox as his replacement...What kind of notice were you given, if any, that the studio wasn't going to get behind the movie and release it properly?

WINTER:  Well, to be fair to Fox...They gave us due process.    They ran the movie through a myriad of test screenings and if it didn't do well then they weren't going to get behind it.   The thing that we had with Joe Roth...I remember when we screened the movie for Joe Roth on the Fox lot, he loved the movie.  He knew it, because he was very present during the shooting.  The movie was story boarded, and we shot the boards.  He knew that the movie was going to have a particular audience, and I remember Joe Roth saying, "Let's go out and find the audience."  The new administration at Fox wasn't interested in going out to find the audience for FREAKED.  It was a movie that was specific to Joe Roth's tastes and not specific to that of the new administrations.    FREAKED is a movie that needed someone to get behind it and Shepard it out to its audience, and it just didn't have it.  

BURNS:  I just remember hearing from our agent, and I remember him saying that Cherin said over lunch to him, "I like the guys. I think that they are really talented, but we are going to bury the movie." (Laughing)

STERN:  It was a miserable experience.  I remember Alex and I just battling the marketing department to get just a couple of posters.  They didn't even want to print posters for it.  We were willing to go around city-to-city to promote it and put the posters up for it!

WINTERS:   Movies get buried all of the time still.   They get killed when the power changes at the studio.   They gets scrapped half way through their shooting.   I think that if the technology would have been as far along as it is today with the internet, I think that Fox would've seen then that we had a ground following.   There was no way for the studio to even see that following at that time.  There was no Comic-Con, there was no Ain't It Cool News...Had we been able to work in this newer climate I think that the studio would have probably released the film and marketed it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What are your favorite memories from the making of FREAKED?

STERN:  Just that I was so young and I got to direct a feature at a studio.  It was such a weird movie and I just remember Larry 'Bud' Melman being on the set with us and there he was, a real freak, amongst all of these prosthetic freaks.   It was a blast to just feed him lines and have him say them.

WINTER:  FREAKED was a magical experience and we were very lucky that we got to make the film. I got to have Keanu Reeves get individual hairs glued onto his face.  That made the whole thing worth its weight in gold...(Laughing)   The moment that we were on the freak compound set and Randy Quaid is there in his Elijah costume with that microphone...I just remember standing there and looking around and just being so blown away by those amazing Catherine Hardwicke sets that she created.   You want to talk about someone plucking your hearts desire out?  I remember being on that set and feeling lucky because we were getting to do what we had always wanted to do.   Shooting FREAKED was one of the reasons why I really wasn't interested in acting any longer, because all I could think about was shooting afterward.   Going back to acting was just anti-climatic.  I wanted to keep going, and I remember getting an offer to act in a really lame and bland teen comedy after the whole FREAKED debacle, and I just refused to audition for it.    There was no way that I was going back to do that, after I had been on that FREAKED set.

BURNS:   I have two moments.  The first is when I bought my ticket to go to Los Angeles for pre-production, because up until that point it felt like the whole thing really was a practical joke.  I remember being on the phone with Tom in my kitchen and him saying, "No, the movie is going.  There is just this last minute problem with the financing."   I said, "Well, is there an office with a phone?  Is there a photocopier?  Do we have letterhead?"    I was literally on the fence about whether or not the movie was actually going to happen.  The moment when Tom said that I had to fly to Los Angeles for the shooting was my favorite moment.  The other is while I was in the Frogman costume.   I had a real oxygen tank strapped on my back for a week or two which weighed about 50 pounds.  I whined and complained about it to the prop guy.  I said, "Can't you make a yellow, round, plastic version of this?"   Finally, after me whining  about it enough,  he finally made it for me. That was 50 less pounds on my back that I had to carry around which was great.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung 
For a more detailed look back at FREAKED with Alex Winter please visit us HERE: