If you grew up in the ’90s and had access to Starz or HBO then you likely came across a strange and surreal movie about a mysterious redneck sideshow that featured Bill from Bill & Ted as a selfish superstar who becomes a monstrous freak after being experimented on. Maybe you fell in love with the astonishing practical effects, maybe the badass soundtrack won you over, or perhaps you never had the visceral thrill of watching Freaked. If that’s the case then you aren’t alone. But as its creators Tom Stern and Alex Winter told me, there was a time where the little counterculture movie that could was this close to a mainstream comedy smash, complete with Gap advert inspired marketing and action figures.
Stern and Winter met at NYU whilst they were both studying film. The pair quickly became firm friends, eventually moving to Hollywood to make their names as filmmakers. During that period Winters would become a household name through his roles as one half of the titular time traveling duo in Bill & Ted and his portrayal of an ever young vampire in Lost Boys. But despite Winter’s burgeoning acting career, the pair’s passion still lay in making something for themselves. Collaborating with Sam Raimi and his partner Rob Tapper led to the creation of their MTV series The Idiot Box which would give them their first taste of guerilla filmmaking.
“Because we were given so little money we were basically given complete creative freedom,” Winter shared. “It was a very liberating experience for us. We basically got to–provided we didn’t mind not being able to eat or clothe ourselves–we were able to really run rampant. We put together this ensemble cast and were working with a writer that Tom knew from Canada, Tim Burns. So in a sense Freaked became The Idiot Box movie. It was a lot of the same cast and Tim came in and wrote it with us, and a lot of folks that were on one sort of morphed into the other.”
“I’d say it was a combination of arrogance and teeth chattering. We had no idea what we were doing.” – Alex Winter
If you’ve seen Freaked then you’ll know a core part of the story centers on a roadside freak show and its maniacal proprietor who’s also a mad scientist. There was a germ of that idea in one of Winter and Stern’s earliest movie projects. “We had made a short film called Entering Texas which garnered some very cultish notoriety,” Winters told us. “John Hawkes was the lead, the Butthole Surfers were in it, and we shot it near their ranch in Austin. It was really experimental–mostly an extended music video–and it was about a family that stops off at a roadside barbecue run by the Butthole Surfers and they get turned into barbecue.”
With the pair both living and working in Hollywood they were aware of the games that needed to be played, and their experiences in the studio system would ultimately inspire the film and its creation, as Stern explained. “The genesis of Freaked was that we’d done some development deal with Universal to write this mainstream comedy that didn’t turn out all that great. We were pretty disillusioned and we were thinking, ‘Do we want to make this kind of movie? What do we really want to do?’ So we decided to try to make something that really went for it and did not try to kowtow to commercialism, to just do something crazy that we wanted to see.”
Influenced by their love for the Butthole Surfers and their friendship with the band’s lead singer and visionary, Gibby Haynes, Stern and Winter began to work alongside Haynes to craft their film about a freakshow proprietor and his freaks. “We basically thought it would be a Butthole Surfers musical, so there would be Elijah the mad scientist, and his children would be the Butthole Surfers. With Gibby we brainstormed up this crazy X-rated R-comedy art film kind of thing. And we went out and we wrote that and we thought that we could get it made for like $100,000, but we couldn’t do it. No one would give us the money,” Stern exclaimed.
For whatever reason, Stern and Winter’s passion project just wasn’t hitting, though at times it looked like they might get it made, with Roman Coppola even circling the project at one point. Despite that, the pair just couldn’t find the $100,000 commitment. But all of that was about to change–as was the nature of the film itself–with the arrival of a producer named Harry Ufland. “He was interested in the script and brought it to Joe Roth, who happened to be running 20th Century Fox, who didn’t really like the script that much but he liked our work on The Idiot Box.”
“Alex and I were basically the ring masters of this crazy carnival, trying to bring in all these amazing freaky artists and to make this thing.” – Tom Stern
Roth sent the pair off to reconceptualize the script as something far more marketable than their original vision for an X-rated art house comedy: a PG-13 movie. Suddenly, with the backing of the head of one of the biggest studios in Hollywood, Winter and Stern’s $100,000 anti-commercialism guerilla flick was on the road to becoming a hybrid indie-flick-major-studio-comedy with a budget of $10 million. So what did that feel like?
Well, for Winter it was like nothing else he’d ever been involved with. “We were blown away. It was a kind of a dream come true for us. We’d been shooting music videos and short films and I’d acted in a few pretty big movies by then, but to be given that kind of responsibility and freedom by Joe Roth who was a really supportive studio head for us… We were accountable with it, though. We storyboarded everything, made it clear how we were going to make it happen. We were pretty technically savvy in some ways and very naive and green in others.”
Whilst the pair had been fighting to get the movie made, the script had garnered a passionate and supportive base in LA, leading to an ever amassing group of talent surrounding it. “We also had the benefit that some of the best talent in town loved the script. They wanted to take part in something that was so analog, that was so focused on in camera, hard makeup effects, all prosthetics, and it was pre heavy CG. But we were still very intent on this kind of handmade approach to the effects which was appealing to a lot of big effects guys in town.”
Though Stern and Winter had to learn some lessons about artistic compromise and creating for a studio system, for a while it felt like they were living the creative dream, getting to invite all of their friends, idols, and collaborators to work on Freaked. “Because we ended up with a bigger budget, it ended up affording us with the opportunity to sort of pool all of our resources and bring everyone from these different worlds under one tent, literally, I guess,” Winter explained. That “everyone” encompassed artists like Robert Williams and Joe Coleman, musicians like the Butthole Surfers and Iggy Pop, and actors like Keanu Reeves.
“It was almost inevitable that at a certain point the studio would wake up and go, ‘Wait a minute, what the fuck did we just do?'” – Alex Winter
Winter continued. “Despite the kind of calamity that hit us on the other end of finishing the film, the experience of making it and working with those guys was unbelievably inspiring because it was an opportunity to pull kind of every aspect of our lives together, including our influences. And to just work with these people all day, every day, it was an incredible set to be on because in that way it was a freak show of, like, anyone who was doing interesting stuff in LA.”
Stern agreed. “Alex is touching on something we haven’t talked about in interviews much, but it’s true that our sensibilities were underground art world and underground rock and roll. We went to NYU which had this reputation of being more pretentious than USC where you’d go to make Spielberg or Hollywood movies. But we were coming out of that world, and there was this big underground rock scene there which is where we knew Butthole Surfers and bands like Black Flag and the Meat Puppets. There was a cultural cache that came with that and we were bringing our kind of underground art sensibilities to this healthily budgeted feature film.”
Stern continued. “Alex and I were basically the ring masters of this crazy carnival, trying to bring in all these amazing freaky artists and to make this thing. That’s what Freaked is. That’s one of the best things about it.”
But things were changing at Fox and with Joe Roth soon to be out at the studio, the artistic freedom and guerilla dream of Freaked wouldn’t last, after all as Winter laughed. “It was almost inevitable that at a certain point the studio would wake up and go, ‘Wait a minute, what the fuck did we just do?'”
To Be Continued…
The Freaked soundtrack is available for the first time on vinyl at Mondo Records now. If you want to learn more about Freaked and the genesis of its iconic soundtrack then make sure you check out the Mondo Podcast with Stern and Winter!