And More From The 92YTribeca Q&A
Cult films come in all shapes and sizes. Some hit right out of the gate with a small but rabid audience while others are discovered over a longer period of time. Somehow both are these scenarios are true for Alex Winter and Tom Stern’s gloriously gonzo “Freaked.” Initially pegged as a mainstream comedy by Fox — with a planned wide release that included action figures and a Gap campaign skewering posters — the film was basically dumped by Fox after head Joe Roth, who had greenlit the project, left the studio, but it picked up raves at TIFF and has been winning fans over ever since. But the film, featuring ugly little trolls and mutating movie stars, is so far outside the mainstream it’s hard to imagine it having been a big hit even if it was carrying both stars of the blockbuster ‘Bill & Ted’ films. (Though technically, Keanu Reeves was unbilled and unrecognizable in full dog boy makeup.)
Originally titled “Hideous Mutant Freekz” (before it was changed to the more marketable “Freaked”), the film centers on sellout actor Ricky Coogan (Winter) who agrees to be spokesperson for a controversial new fertilizer, which may or may not have mutating effects when used on humans. He travels with his buddy Ernie (Michael Stoyanov from TV show “Blossom“) down to Santa Flan, South America (named for the “patron saint of creamy desserts”), meets environmentalist protester Julie (Megan Ward from “PCU“) and the trio stop off at Freek Land, a roadside attraction run by the kooky Elijah C. Scuggs (Randy Quaid), who before too long decides he wants to add them to his collection. A mix of Mad Magazine and Todd Browning’s “Freaks,” the film was a culmination of Winter and Stern’s work on their MTV series “The Idiot Box,” the sketch show that allowed the duo — along with a troupe of actors that included John Hawkes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene“) and Lee Arenberg (“Pirates of the Carribean”) — to flex their creative muscles and be as weird as they wanted to be. For the film they rounded up their ‘Idiot’ troupe along with B-listers Brooke Shields, Mr. T, William Sadler, Morgan Fairchild and Bobcat Goldthwait with a soundtrack by ’90s luminaries like Henry Rollins, George Clinton and the Butthole Surfers.
If you’ve never heard of “Freaked” before, we’re not surprised. Now you can watch the entire thing on YouTube, but for years you couldn’t track it down if you wanted to. It’s a film that was spread by countless cable showings and word of mouth, but unless you taped it off HBO or managed to track down a worn VHS rental, you literally couldn’t buy the film until 2005 when it was finally released by Anchor Bay in a deluxe 2 DVD set. Coming up on its 20th anniversary, 92YTribeca hosted a screening of the film last weekend featuring a Q&A with co-director/co-writer/star Alex Winter moderated by Alison Willmore from The AV Club. Winter was candid and funny discussing his “12 million dollar independent cult film,” his Napster doc, how he almost made an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired comedy called “IHOP” and his possible return to an Excellent franchise. For the superfans, here is everything you ever wanted to know about the movie “Freaked.”
Continuing the film’s storied legacy, the only surviving print was almost destroyed.
The reputation “Freaked” has of being hard-to-find continues as the Anchor Bay DVD from a few years ago is now out of print and fetching up to $75 on the collector’s market and for years, repertory houses couldn’t book the film because Fox claimed they didn’t have a print. When one finally turned up in the Midwest, it was about to be “exterminated” until Phil Blankenship from the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. stepped in.
“About a year ago, the guys at the New Beverly in L.A., who I know really well, were trying to show the movie,” Winter said. “And I was like, ‘There’s no print, it doesn’t exist.’ It turned out that Phil Blankenship, who runs the New Beverly, who’s a total God in the world of repertory cinema, found a guy in the Midwest who worked at a place where, basically movies go to die. They exterminate negatives and the day after Phil called me and I [told him] there’s no print, he called me and said, ‘Dude, they’re going to exterminate ‘Freaked!’ [I said] ‘What do you mean?’ [Phil] was like, ‘My friend says it’s like the dog pound [for films]. They wanted me to exterminate ‘Freaked!’ but luckily he was a cool guy so [instead] he stole it.”
Not exactly typical studio fare, co-writer/directors Winter and Stern pitched their $12 million dollar cult film comedy to Fox without a finished script and sold it in the room.
Winter described himself as a theme-driven filmmaker and said that “Freaked” was made in response to the “surreal and not entirely enjoyable” process of being a child actor, ending up inadvertently as a celebrity and the “bad acid trip aspect to having your face on a cereal box.” He went onto describe the film’s origins as a movie for alt-rock band the Butthole Surfers. “Me and Tom [Stern], my partner at the time, wrote this with Gibby [Haynes] from the Butthole Surfers.” Winter said.
“We’d done a bunch of stuff with the Buttholes, we’d done videos with them, they were really good friends of ours and we wanted to make a Butthole Surfers movie. We wanted to be the first to step into the Butthole Surfers movie genre, which was burgeoning at the time. And we were working with Sam Raimi on a couple [different projects] and we were really young,” he explained. “We were NYU film guys who came out to LA who were making [films, though] I was doing the acting, which is what I was known for, I was shooting all this time. So we were making commercials and we had our own show on MTV called ‘The Idiot Box.’ We were doing all this pretty underground stuff but we really wanted to make a movie, Sam Raimi was helping us make a movie but the movies we wanted to make were crazy. And Sam was pretty crazy at the time so he thought, ‘We’ll get them made’ but none of them got made. So we wrote this movie with Gibby and it was very different, it was a hard R rated totally insane [script] where a family stops off at a road side barbeque and they all get turned into freaks. We couldn’t get that sold for some reason. We had different kinds of freaks, we had a human bong. It was all Buttholes music but we couldn’t get it sold. So Tom and I were like, ‘What do we do?’ I know, we’ll rewrite it as a mainstream comedy and pitch it to the head of Fox studios and we did. And we sold it in the room.”
Even after they’d sold the pitch to Fox, when it came time to write the script they got cold feet and ended up writing an even weirder film, an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired comedy called “IHOP.”
“We pitched it to Joe Roth, who was running Fox at the time, he was doing mainstream movies but he was also doing cool stuff like ‘Naked Lunch‘ and ‘Barton Fink‘ and he knew what we were after. It wasn’t one of those things where we just lied to him, other than we did a little. We were like, ‘Well, I’m going to be in it and Keanu’s going to be in it’ and they were like, ‘Oh, Bill and Ted!’ and we were like ‘Yeah, kinda.’ But we didn’t have a movie. All we had was this Buttholes script and we had a night to come up with the movie. There was no script, we just had an idea: let’s make a mainstream comedy with freaks, just like ‘Bill & Ted’ but not at all,” Winter said. “So from 6 at night ‘till 11[a.m.] we wrote this script and by 4 in the morning we had convinced ourselves that it was the worst idea ever and that we were screwed if we actually walked in and pitched it. So from 4 to 6 in the morning we wrote another whole movie about an IHOP. It was called ‘IHOP’ and was about this family driving across country and they stop at an IHOP and they all seem really nice in the Midwest but they are really these Lovecraftian creatures that live above this subterranean universe. And it was a comedy of course, and we were like ‘Fuck it, let’s pitch him ‘IHOP.’ ‘ And on the drive to Fox we snapped back to consciousness, like ‘What are we doing? Have we lost our minds?’ and found our notes and pitched him ‘Freaked.’ “
Freek Land proprietor Elijah C. Scuggs is arguably one of Randy Quaid’s finest comic performances but filmmakers had initially offered the part to screen legends George C. Scott and Oliver Reed who were turned down by Fox for being uninsurable at the time.
“I wanted to play Elijah but once we got in bed with Fox it made sense to get a proper actor in there. So we went after all these great actors. Oliver Reed was going to do it at one point but Fox said no because in [his] contract at the time it said, ‘You can’t tell me not to drink.’ It was in his contract. George C. Scott, same thing. Fox wouldn’t hire [him] because he was uninsureable. I think we just kept going after drunks. Rip Torn [was also considered] but Randy [Quaid] said yes and we’re so lucky [he did],” Winter revealed.
Another one of the film’s standout performers is Mr. T as The Bearded Lady. But just before filming was complete, T decided he’d had enough of dressing up in drag and vanished from production.
“[Mr. T] was really a great sport all the way through the shoot and about a week before he was done he just had too much cross-dressing. He’s a pretty macho guy and was a really good sport until he wasn’t. And the way he wasn’t was that he disappeared. He didn’t have a fight with any of us, he just vanished. And it fell to me to get on the phone to Chicago and try to convince him to come back because he wasn’t done,” he said. “So we had a scab [replacement Mr.] T in a couple scenes, there was a guy in T’s outfit and we shoved him to the back of the shots. And Lee Arenberg [‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘], who plays the human torch [in the film] does a really good Mr. T impression. He would sit on the set with T and do dueling T’s. So all of Mr. T’s ADR is all Lee Arenberg.”
Initially pegged as a wide release, the film was subsequently dumped by Fox after a regime change but was an instant hit at TIFF and went onto be a hugely successful cult film.
While it’s hard to watch the film today and imagine a major studio like Fox putting up $12 million dollars to fund such an out-there project, the movie was shot with the full support of the studio. “There was no mystery to it. This wasn’t a movie that was made under their radar.” Winter explained. “We shot it in LA with a lot of Fox support and they were fantastic. The problem is, the guy who ran the studio left and you can’t make a movie this idiosyncratic without a lot of high level support. It was over in an afternoon. If Joe [Roth] had left three weeks earlier this movie never would have been done. But we never got released. Tom and I released it by ourselves and self distributed it all over the world by ourselves with one poster and one print.” Winter went onto describe how they would go to each theater at the end of the film’s run and ask for the print and poster back so they could book it at the next location.
When asked how he felt about the film’s cult status, he explained there has been a misperception that it took people a long time to catch onto the film. “The movie was a cult hit immediately. That’s the thing that people don’t seem to get. We had instant affirmation, it was a huge hit at Toronto [International Film Festival], we got fantastic reviews and at that point every repertory house all over the world wanted to show it. So it was an immediate cult hit, the problem was that it wasn’t the age of DVDs yet so it was hard to sustain it,” he explained. “It would happen in bursts, we were all over the world with it the year after we made it. We had a lot of fun because we were playing it to the audience we had written it for. Then it went quiet, then HBO picked it up, then it had a resurgence on Starz and then Laserdisc and Anchor Bay’s [DVD] release a few years ago. It’s had this life from the get go. It’s hard to have 20/20 hindsight and [imagine] how it would have done, had it actually been released [wide]. It was pre-Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker], it was around the time of ‘Beetlejuice,’ and there were beginning to be movies like this but it was really early for movies like this. It’s hard to say if it would have done any better if it had been released normally or if its history would have really been any different.”
When asked about the status of a third ‘Bill & Ted’ script, Winter said though he and Keanu were enthusiastic about the completed script (by original writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon), it was “early days” and that anything could happen. He did describe the script as “fucking weird” but “funny” and (with a wink) “hugely bankable.”
Though it’s been over twenty years since the last ‘Bill & Ted’ outing, that hasn’t dulled the anticipation for another installment and both Reeves and Winter are asked constantly about a third film in their Excellent trilogy. Back in April, Keanu Reeves said they were six weeks away from a finished draft and that was a few months after he jokingly pitched Werner Herzog as the director, which Herzog later jokingly considered. The last update on the project was shortly afterward when Winter tweeted that he’d received a finished draft. When asked what the status of the sequel was, he was candid.
“I don’t know. In all frankness, it’s just a slow universe. It took us fifteen years to come up with an idea that we thought we’d want to do. We is just me and Keanu [Reeves] and Chris [Matheson] and Ed [Solomon, co-writers of the original ‘Bill & Ted’ films] and we’re all really close friends. We talk about it from time to time and we see each other a lot anyway. It’s always like, ‘Is there anything there to do? Is there a ‘there’ there?’ A couple years ago, we were having dinner and we came up with an idea which has evolved over the years that we thought was really great. And we spent another year developing it just the four of us. Then Chris and Ed spent another year writing it. And the script only got finished two months ago and it’s really green. It’s the beginning of what could be nothing, frankly,” Winter candidly said. “There’s hooplah because frickin’ Reeves keeps blathering about it. Every time he’s interviewed he talks about it and he’s one of my closest friends and I love him dearly but I think he’s got a very post-modern sense of humor. I think he’s doing it partially just to fuck with people. Because if he says it, everyone goes crazy and I think he just goes ‘Muah ha ha’. [But] we wrote a script, we like it, we don’t really even have the rights. We kinda have the rights. There’s a long road of crap we have to deal with before it ever, if it ever, becomes a movie. I can tell you that Chris and Ed are really great writers and the script is fantastic so it would be fun to do. I really don’t care that much to be honest with you…but if it doesn’t get made I’ll post the script on the net. People will see what we did in some form. It’s a really, really, really good script. They did a great job, it’s funny as hell, and it’s really weird. It’s not like some lame-ass retro thing. It’s fucking weird. It’s really weird. But funny and hugely bankable if anyone is recording this.”
He also shot down the rumors that Herzog would film the third installment. “Herzog said yes, not knowing anything about it. Jokingly. No one asked him officially” and again stressed it was really early and they were still figuring out how to go about doing it and who to get money from. Winter also said he would definitely not direct it.
Winter, who quit acting and left LA after completing the promotional tour for “Freaked,” has kept a lower profile, choosing to stay mostly on the other side of the camera running his production company in London. He recently completed a pilot script for an “The Idiot Box” revamp for MTV (which the network rejected) and is still editing his Napster documentary “Downloaded.”
“Tom [Stern] and Tim [Clawson] and I wrote a new ‘The Idiot Box’ pilot for MTV. [The network] is recreating Liquid Television, ‘Beavis & Butthead‘ is back, the same guys. And we’re all really old now so it’s great. We’re all really good friends so they were like ‘Why don’t you guys do the ‘The Idiot Box’ again?’ and we were like ‘Okay.’ And we wrote a pilot that’s really, really the ‘The Idiot Box’ and it scared the shit out of them. It’s super violent and very excessive in every way and will never see the light of day. It died really fast. We got excited for a second but then realized ‘They’re never going to do this. This is the ‘Jersey Shore’ MTV and they were like ‘There’s no way we’re going to do this!’ Maybe I’ll put that script on the internet,” Winter said.
He’s currently at work editing a documentary about Napster called “Downloaded,” which he’s been working on since the plug was pulled on the downloading service ten years ago. Originally conceived as a narrative film and set up at Paramount six years before “The Social Network” took critics lists by storm, the project was changed to a documentary when he found it suited the material better. Winter described the film as “a movie about the rise and fall of Napster and the downloading revolution, the end of everything” and hopes to show off some footage at SXSW before a planned TIFF premiere. The doc which features interviews with Sean Fanning, Sean Parker, “all the bands, all the record label heads” and “goes all the way from Napster to post-Napster iTunes and then into Occupy and Anonymous and all of Net Transparency” is being funded by VH1 and will receive a theatrical release sometime after that.