On September 23, 2013, Collider (along with a couple other press outlets) was invited out to Manhattan Beach Studios to check out filming and chat with some of the folks responsible for making the horror comedy Freaks of Nature (at the time called Kitchen Sink). One thing that was obvious from my time spent on the set was that this was a very different vampire and zombie story than what audiences are used to seeing, with all of the gore of a horror film, the laughs of a comedy, and the heart of a John Hughes movie.
During roundtables on set, actors Nicholas Braun (who plays human Dag), Mackenzie Davis (who plays vampire Petra) and Josh Fadem (who plays zombie Ned), along with director Robbie Pickering, writer Oren Uziel and producer Matt Tolmach talked about what makes Dillford a town where vampires, zombies and human live together, even though they despise each other. Here is a list we’ve compiled of 21 things to know about Freaks of Nature and how it was made.
- Dillford, Ohio is a town where vampires, zombies and humans live together, but they despise each other’s species. It’s just the world that they live in, where vampires can go get V-block from the 7-11, so that they can go out in the sun, and zombies get brain rations from the government. The vampires have more power, whereas the zombies are sectioned off. So, when the apocalypse happens, instead of dealing with what’s actually going on, they blame and go after each other.
- The tone of the film is being described as The Breakfast Club, if they were with monsters and it were more active. It’s like a John Hughes/John Landis horror-comedy, but with a production feel of ‘80s Spielberg horror. The emotional tone is very grounded.
- When it comes to finding the balance between comedy and horror, director Robbie Pickering said, “I think it’s all about centering it on characters. Horror comedies work when the characters have something at stake. It doesn’t have to be Sophie’s Choice. You just have to find something relatable with the main characters, and find a way to describe this movie without using the word zombie or vampire once. If you make their struggles relatable, you have a lot of freedom around them to play with things like gore and satire, and you can make some of the other characters a little bit broader. If you make everything real, but you don’t have that center, you’re screwed. That center is what it’s all about. That being said, it’s still tough.”
- The movie is not told chronologically, so you don’t see the story in a linear fashion. The story takes place over the course of five days, flashing back to high school when everything was normal, and then going back to the present-day chaos.
- Writer Oren Uziel wrote this script at a time when people wanted vampire and zombie movies, but he did his version of what that is. So, he decided to do all of it at once and jam as many things in as he could.
Producer Matt Tolmach was the President of Columbia Pictures for years, before leaving to produce movies. He was given this Blacklist script (which was called Kitchen Sink, at the time) in the beginning of 2010, and he personally loves these kinds of movies and really liked the script. When you’re in high school, everything feels so apocalyptic that having a literal apocalypse going on seemed perfect. So, he started working with Uziel right away.
- Pickering read the script and knew that it needed work, but he knew that he could find some fixes. He said, “The more I started flushing out the world, the more I became obsessed with it. I had to pitch on the project, which was a new experience, but I was a screenwriter for the studios for a few years, so I’m used to pitching my take on things. It was something I hadn’t done before, and I was really excited to do a genre movie, but I didn’t want to do one that was like all the other genre movies. It was just a great opportunity to do something fun.”
- Tolmach said that the studio agreed to make the movie after they had cast it and had a table read because they wanted to make sure it worked. They already had Pickering in place, so he called Adam McKay and asked for help on a comedy polish on the script.
According to Uziel, a lot of specifics changed, but it’s basically the same movie that he first wrote. For example, the character that Denis Leary plays was written to be Don Johnson, and the cancellation of Nash Bridges is what kicked everything off. And then, Uziel and Pickering spent a few weeks putting in as much funny stuff as they could, in every scene.
- Pickering storyboarded most of the movie, and then shot-listed the scenes that weren’t storyboarded. He has 150 pages of production design and lighting notes, and thoroughly preps before he’s on set, so that he feels comfortable with improvisation and spontaneity.
- Dag (played by Nicholas Braun) is your average high schooler, on the cool end of things. He’s got typical teen angst toward his parents because they just want to talk about their feelings. He’s on the baseball team, but not the star. He wants to get the girl, but he’s just too good of a guy. He wants to be the hero guy, but immediately blows it and has to confront the apocalyptic attack on Dillford. He tries too hard to be someone that he’s not, but in the end, he learns a lot.
- Dag has to work with two people who were trying to kill him and that he has terrible history with, and that is Petra, who he said he hooked up with back in 6th grade, and Ned, who was his best buddy through childhood, until he hit 7th The three of them have to work together to save Dillford.
For Braun, the highlights of the film were the blood, the gore, working with Vanessa Hudgens, and getting to have love-making scenes. He’s content with being the human who gets to see it all go down.
- Ned (played by Josh Fadem) is an outsider. He doesn’t start out as a zombie, but he has a hard teen life. High school is rough and he doesn’t have any friends. He’s the smartest kid in school, but the teachers don’t really care. He’s the oddball in his family and they don’t really get him. He convinces a zombie to bite him, so that he can become a zombie. It’s sort of the equivalent of becoming a druggie because the zombies are addicted to brains. Every time he eats brains, he gets super stoned and high. If the zombies don’t eat brains, they start to get a little smarter.
- To prepare to play a zombie, Fadem watched every talking zombie movie that he could think of, like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Griffin Dunne in American Werewolf in London, Return of the Living Dead, Warm Bodies, My Boyfriend’s Back, Dead Heat and this small-budget British movie called Colin.
- Petra (played by Mackenzie Davis) is an outcast in high school who runs with a goth crowd. The vampires are in a higher social order and she’s trying to get into that crowd by dating the highest of the vampires to find a place to be protected and run with the cool kids. But when she gets bitten by a vampire and turned, she is then cast aside, much like losing your virginity and then having someone dump you the morning afterwards. To begin with, she’s very defensive and has a Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice quality, but becoming a vampire will give her more of a sense of self than she had before. She will find acceptance through trying to help save the world.
- There is a very strong supporting cast in the movie, which includes Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack (as Dag’s parents), Ed Westwick (as the really deranged and sick senior vampire who turns Petra), Vanessa Hudgens (as Dag’s dream girl), Keegan-Michael Key (as an insane vampire teacher), Denis Leary, Patton Oswalt, and even director Werner Herzog. The comedy actors that were brought in were allowed to improvise and add a lot of texture and fun to the movie, whereas Braun, Davis and Fadem stuck more to the script because their scenes propel the story forward.
The movie was shot on such a condensed schedule that the actors were busy every second of the days that they were on set. It was a 36-day shoot with a low budget.
- There is so much blood in the film that the actors continually got sprayed with it on set. There are many practical prosthetics with vampires tearing each other apart and rotting faces. It was a huge operation to do the make-up and practical effects for all of the cast and extras.
- Braun, Davis and Fadem had to do a nude scene on the Universal lot, where they were all walking around naked because of a plot device that led to them taking their clothes off. There was trash and death everywhere and cars on fire, and they were naked. But, they were happy to have each other to go through it with.
- Uziel said they’ve talked a bit about a sequel, and that a TV show could work. He’d be excited to expand the world, if the opportunity were to arise.
Freaks of Nature opens in theaters for a special engagement on October 30th.