Some Freaks had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The director and star kindly took the time to answer some of my questions about their important coming of age comedy/drama
First answers from writer/director Ian MacAllister McDonald
1: This is your first feature length, tell us a bit about your previous experience working in the industry as a production assistant (Superman Returns, The Violent Kind), and how it helped pave the way to a feature-length.
Honestly, my PA work mostly involved answering phones and driving reels around town, so that did relatively little for me. It was really my time as an intern at Contemptible Entertainment that eventually helped me get SF off the ground. That’s how I got to know Tim Harms and Neil Labute (without whom this film wouldn’t’t have gotten made). But just as importantly, when you’re sitting at a desk, writing coverage on two or three scripts a day, you quickly learn what not to do in your own writing. So that was a wonderful education for me and really aided me as a writer.
In terms of directing, I’d gone to film school as an undergrad, but changed majors a few semesters in because I felt like I was being trained to work in a newsroom. We spent most of our time talking about setting up lights and microphones, and relatively little time on actual storytelling. Obviously lights and mics are important, but it just wasn’t’t what interested me. I eventually found myself gravitating towards theatre, and this is where I learned how to work with text and actors. So my education was a pretty mixed bag.
But yeah– in a lot of ways, shooting SF was my film school. You always hear people say that the best way to learn how to make a movie is just to go out and make one, and that was certainly the case here.
2: Where did the idea for Some Freaks come from, and why did you choose this topic for your first feature?
I’ve always had a soft spot for coming of age movies, particularly the ones that deal with the cruelty and poor choices which seem to permeate adolescence– Welcome To The Dollhouse, Last Summer, Fat Girl, Carrie, etc.
But yeah– I’d seen a handful of coming of age films just before writing SF that really rubbed me the wrong way and decided that I wanted to take a crack at the genre. (Oddly, I walked away from this whole experience with a greater appreciation for some of those same films. There’s nothing more humbling for a spectator than trying to improve upon a film you didn’t’t like). Around the same time, I found out that I had vitiligo and one of my eyebrows turned white over the course of about three months. I found myself going to beauty salons and dying my eyebrows, and buying mascara. At the time it was all extremely embarrassing, and I found myself thinking about body image in a way that I simply hadn’t before. So that was something I wanted to explore as well.
3: Explain the casting process and how you found your lead roles.
It was a pretty standard audition process, albeit a long one. I think we’d contracted our casting directors (the wonderful Nancy Nayor and Lindsey Weissmeuller) for three months and wound up taking five. What was frustrating was that we reached out to all the major talent agencies, and while they had actors they could suggest for the three male roles, none of them (at the time, anyway) represented anyone who fit Jill’s body type. So we ended up reaching out to colleges across the country and soliciting audition tapes from actresses in theatre departments. At some point, my producer Lovell Holder suggested bringing in Lily Mae Harrington, who he’d seen on The Glee Project, and she was just perfect. It became especially clear when we paired her up with Thomas Mann in the audition room– the energy between the two of them just felt so warm and real, and we realized pretty quickly that they were the ones.
4: How was Some Freaks received at the world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival?
It really couldn’t’t have gone better. Mitch Davis (co-director and programmer) is basically my hero and gave us the absolute perfect venue to premiere the film. The audience was super loving and gracious, and after the lights came up the vast majority of the crowd stuck around for the Q&A.
I think we were all a little surprised when we got word that SF would be premiering at Fantasia– seeing as how it’s really a genre festival– but it turned out to be the perfect spot. The festival attracts people who are looking for movies that are a little off the beaten path, a little messy, a little strange, a little dark, whatever. And so it was really a match made in heaven.
Mitch, if you’re out there reading this: Thank you again!
5: Was making the feature-length a smooth process? Did you run into any trouble during production?
We were shooting in New England, in the winter, so in terms of weather alone, it was a total nightmare. A random snow storm would hit Providence during the shoot and it would just devastate us. There were a couple instances where we actually had to rewrite the script on the fly to accommodate the fact that the weather had effectively killed our locations.
Beyond that was just the sheer duration of the shoot. Principal photography alone took about ten months. We took a six month break in the middle of the shoot so that Lily could lose fifty pounds for the second half of the film (which was a nerve-wracking by itself since there was always the chance that she wouldn’t be able to). When we returned, a bunch of the people we worked with the first time around had been snagged by other productions so we basically had to crew-up from scratch. So yeah— a lot of challenges.
6: If you had to choose one good memory from the making of Some Freaks, which would you choose?
So there’s this scene in the movie where Matt basically assaults Jill in her dorm room and then two run outside to have it out with one another. It’s a loud, abrasive (verbal) fight, and the lynchpin for the third act of the movie.
We shot it at the end of an excruciatingly long day at something like two in the morning. The crew was exhausted, the actors were spent, and the bystanders at the college were starting getting really irritable. Also, we had like 45 minutes to shoot the whole scene without going into overtime (something we really could not afford to do).
So with zero time to set up lights, we broke out the camera, got the actors into place, and rolled. Thomas and Lily and I had discussed the scene a little beforehand, but we hadn’t had time to rehearse it, so I had no idea what I was about to see. I yelled action and the two of them just exploded into the scene. They hit their marks, nailed their lines, and just poured their fucking souls into the scene. I knew they were both great actors, but somehow this felt different. Finally, when they’d finished, I yelled cut and the actors basically just collapsed from exhaustion.
Then, suddenly, from five stories up there came this massive applause from a group of students in their dorms watching the scene down below. They were hooting and hollering and cheering us on. It was seriously magical.
7: What’s next for you, has Some Freaks opened any door into future projects?
Nothing concrete yet. I signed with Andrew Deane, Stephen Crawford (Industry Entertainment) and Mike Esola (UTA) a while back, and we’ve been talking about doing a horror movie or a thriller next. That was one of the things that was so exciting about being at Fantasia– while SF probably wouldn’t’t indicate this to most people, I’m a huge genre fan, and think we’re going through a kind of indie-horror movie golden age right now: The Witch, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home At Night, We Are What We Are, The Invitation, We Are Still Here, Jug Face, Final Girls, as well as basically anything by Glass Eye Pix, SpectreVision and Snowfort Pictures. But yeah— we’ll see.
8: Did you manage to check out any other films at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival?
Yeah, I saw a bunch of great stuff at Fantasia. I think my favorite film of the festival was Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children, which was a Spanish animated film and one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful God damn things I’ve ever seen. The animation had this wonderful, organic, hand-drawn feel to it, and it’s themes about the way that cultural destruction leads to self-destruction really resonated with me.
I also really loved Shelley, which is a really strong cup of coffee, but gorgeously shot and acted, and makes a meaningful contribution to the House Of Psychotic Women subgenre of horror. For fans of Martyrs, Inside and Black Swan it’s really a must see.
Lastly, I went to the ‘Born Of Woman’ short film series, which was just a blast. Whenever you see eight short films back to back, you always kind of wait, bracing yourself for the clunker, but they were uniformly excellent. Kaitlin Tinker’s The Man Who Caught A Mermaid was especially beautiful.
I saw a bunch of other stuff, of course, but those are the ones that have really stayed with me.
GO TO NEXT PAGE FOR ANSWERS FROM LILY MAE HARRINGTON 🙂