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Alex Winter

Articles - Directing

In support of the premise that lots of great movies

were never given the advertising, patience, or financial push to

find their audience, and that "venturesome audiences are finding

that many commercial failures are funnier, sexier, more dashing,

as well as provocative and penetrating, as their moneymaking counterparts,"

in 1990, The National Society of Film Critics published Produced

And Abandoned: The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen.

In it were a collection of reviews of films ranging

from long-time critical favorites such as John Huston’s Fat City and Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ to more

esoteric winners like the Canadian psycho-pop screamer The Stepfather and By Design, an unreleased lesbian sex comedy starring

Patty Duke(!). In the four years hence, the number of excellent

films that have suffered a similar fate could almost fill up another

volume. No such list from ’93 would be complete without Freaked, the debut feature from 28-year-old writer/directors Tom Stern

and Alex Winter who gained notoriety for their hyperactive, Tex

Averyesque short films Cherub and Squeal of Death.

The multi-talented Alex Winter freaks out

in his new movie.

Freaked has co-director Winter (best

known for his acting, in particular his co-starring role in the

two Bill & Ted films) playing Ricky Coogan, a smarmy

TV actor who lands a big buck job promoting a dangerous pesticide

in the fictional South American country of San Flan. Along the way,

he and a friend pick up a naive environmentalist (Megan Ward) and

wander into a roadside freak show run by Eligah C. Skuggs (Randy

Quaid), a crazed Colonel Tom-style carnival hack, and his cavalcade

of artificially made mutants, including Winter’s Bill & Ted co-hort Keanu Reeves in an unaccredited role as Ortiz the dog-boy

(which, no insult intended, marks his best performance so far captured

on film). Also featured are Bobcat Goldthwait as a man who’s head

has been transformed into a sock puppet, and The Frogman-a French-speaking

man in a wet suit and snorkel. What could’ve been just another bad

cameo-laden (Morgan Fairchild, Larry `Bud’ Melman, Brooke Shields)

pre-made "cult comedy" (ala Adam Rifkin’s disastrous Dark

Backward) is rescued by Stern and Winter’s strong visual style

and Zuckeresque machine gun wit. While at times sinking to the level

of Police Academy-style juvenilia (feces and throw-up jokes are

strictly for the mall-walker audience), Freaked is more often

than not bright, genuinely surprising, and very, very funny. And

really, any movie where Mr. T plays a bearded lady is automatically

worth a $3 rental fee.

While New Jersey-bred Winter has been acting

since childhood, including stints on Broadway, his ambitions were

strongest in filmmaking. Enrolling in NYU film school, he met Stern,

another freshman, with whom he found a similar sense of humor and

shared disdain for the "bitter, would-be filmmakers" running

the East Coast’s top film school.

"Film school was basically a load

of horseshit," Winter says with typical frankness, about his

decision to drop out his junior year.

"We were there, not getting anything

out of our teachers, we just were using equipment, and frankly,

NYU was too expensive just to be there to use the equipment. I left

and went back into acting to supplement our film stuff. Tom stayed

on to graduate and we just kept cranking out films together."

Moving to Los Angeles with Stern in 1986,

the two busied themselves by shooting shorts and music videos (for

artists like Butthole Surfers, Ice Cube and Red Hot Chili

Peppers) and writing spec scripts, while Winter was doing acting

to pay the bills.

"We constantly shot or wrote for about eight

years," Winter remembers, "before we got to do Freaked."

After Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cleaned up at the box office (after sitting on the shelf due

to studio indifference), Winter was approached by MTV to "be

their afternoon VJ as Ted." After politely declining ("I

told them no fucking way"), Winter used his "in"

status with the network to pitch what was to become The Idiot

Box, a limited run series of Winter & Stern material with

videos sandwiched in.

In a Hollywood constantly grasping to connect

with the all-important youth market, MTV gets studio execs interested, and The Idiot Box (which Winter regards as his and Stern’s

most successful collaboration and "the most offensive thing

MTV has ever aired") was the leg up the duo needed to launch

a feature project. They found a kindred spirit in former Fox head

Joe Roth.

"Roth really did see things about

the Idiot Box that were really hitting the nerve," he

says. "Very caustic, very black humor, the underlying theme

that America was basically turning into a big pile of shit, but

not in a trendy, cool, disaffected kind of way – our work always

has an upside to it. He saw it as a healthy, interesting alternative

to a lot of the other youth comedies going around."

The two presented Roth with a revised edition

of Freaks, an old spec script they had written with Canadian

Tim Burns, with whom Stern hooked up while working a brief stint

on TV’s Jim Henson Hour.

"Screaming Mad George (make-up effects

artist) had come up with these amazing character sketches of the

freaks, and we went in there with them and a copy of The Idiot

Box and lied our asses off about the bands we were gonna have

on the soundtrack, and lo and behold we had a movie deal."

Fox put up five million of the total budget

(the remaining five million coming from foreign partners), and gave

them a 44-day shooting schedule. After losing their original title

early on to Ted Turner (who owns the rights to Tod Browning’s 1931

classic), various titles floated through the grapevine during shooting.

"We shot ‘non-union, and shooting

non-union in Hollywood is kind of like walking into Harlem with

a ‘Fuck Malcolm X’ T-shirt on," Winter explains.


are vicious. They (union people) will find you, and if they can’t

shut you down they will throw rocks at your set, or fly planes over

your location to screw up your sound. They are evil people. We had

publicized the project in pre-production as Freaks, so we

came up with the title Very Special People to throw them

off our trail, make them think it’s some TV movie with Mickey Rooney

as a retard spilling pea soup all over his shirt."

After settling on the title Hideous

Mutant Freaks, which "the studio thought sounded too much

like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they came up with Freaked, which was "OK but makes it sound like a Cheech and Chong movie. "

It is common, even fashionable, for a feature

comedy to wildly overshoot, creating gags and whole scenes on set

to keep humor’s natural spontaneity alive. Coming from a background

of self-financed shorts and low-budget music videos, Stern and Winter

had other ideas.

"Film is a very chaotic medium. There’s

only so much improvisation that you can do. The cameraman’s gotta

see what the actor’s gonna do, the sound and lighting guy’s gotta

know you’re gonna do line A at point C, you got an actor who wants

to change all that around, you spend half a day trying to set up

tech for these changes, and then they’re gonna wanna change it all

back at the end of the day … you’re screwed. When your budget’s

tight, unless you wanna have it look like a TV movie you have no

room for looseness – you have to block people around like props.

Spontaneity is real important in comedy,

but our scriptwriting process was loose, and we looked real hard

for actors who got the humor in our material and could be spontaneous

and go with the comedy."

For an independent filmmaker working under

the dreaded studio system, Winter describes the shooting as idyllic.

"When I die, I’ll look back at this shoot under Joe Roth and say it was probably the best moviemaking experience I’ve

ever had. As an actor or whatever, I’ve never seen a studio so supportive

and casual. Roth saw our first cut, loved it, wanted to work with

us to find the right audience, and two days later I read in the Hollywood Reporter that he’s gone. Then the shit just hit

the fan. It was that simple.

"It’s basically a puppet institution,"

Winter says about the current studio power structure. "Rupert

Murdoch, who owns Fox, wanted to have more power in the movie-making

business, and decided that Roth was the director’s friend. Besides

giving the world Home Alone, he also green lighted Naked

Lunch and Barton Fink, which didn’t make a dime for anyone.

So he gets this guy from Fox TV, Peter Chernin, to do his bidding

and move away from this wacky, weird Roth stuff."

In the March 7, 1994, Los Angeles Times,

Fox executive vice president, Tom Sherak, who runs distribution,

denies management changeover had anything to do with the studio’s

dumping of Freaked, saying that "the film didn’t work

… we tested the film … but we couldn’t get an audience to come."

"First of all, they tested it with

young teens and the film is very much for the college audience,"

Winter says."Also, you test screen a rough cut, which especially

for a comedy, is a disaster, the timing is all wrong, and you put

the whole kitchen sink in. Rough cuts play like a lead balloon.

It’s good to get an idea how the movie plays. But that’s not why

studios do it. They are there to decide the fate of your movie.

Because these people have no power of or taste, they rely on this

Fallbrook, California pre-teen mall theater audience, who see it

for free under very alien circumstances, to tell them whether your

film is good or not. Those comment cards are a joke. These kids

think they have to be Siskel and Ebert and say something bad about

what they saw in order to not sound stupid."

Last fall, Freaked had it’s official

theatrical release. Didn’t catch it at your local multiplex? Well,

no surprise. The studio struck two(!) 35mm prints of the film, as

opposed to thousands for it’s major summer releases. While it’s

next to impossible for a major studio to lose money on a $10 million

movie, the message being sent to the flickers was clear. Freaked was the black sheep of the Fox family.

"When they did what they called

the New York release, they had made two awful posters to put up

in front of theaters," Winter laughs. "There was a lot

of interest in it, so we were doing all these different things for

publicity, and we’re running around town, carrying these two posters

with us, putting them up, and then carefully taking them down and

moving on-it was insane!"

Having had his labor of love project

effectively orphaned by it’s studio parents, Winter uses his experience

to reflect on the tenuous, factionalized state the motion picture

industry now resides in.

"Hollywood is kind of lost right

now. It used to be a very clear cut capitalist organization, where

you had your Louis B. Mayers and Jack Warners, who were like carpet

salesman or oil magnates. They made movies, and the better movie

they made, the more money they made back. It was very hands-on with

the writer, producer and directors. Now it’s run by agents, studio

executives who are very young and out of business school and don’t

know anything about movies at all. They don’t trust their tastes

because they aren’t moviegoers themselves. They’re scared, and they

don’t know what they’re doing.

"It used to be you’d have a knowledgeable

studio head like Jack Warner or even Roger Corman who would put

his foot down and tell you what to make your movie about this year,"

he continues. "Or sometimes a director was allowed to have

that vision and it worked.

Now you have 25,000 people with an executive

producer credit, and it goes through a development company and agents

and a distribution company and everybody wants to put in their creative

two cents so they will feel powerful, but what you get is a mess

every time. If there was anything good about it at the inception

it’s all been cooked away by the time it hits the screen; it’s a

flavorless paste. Diplomacy and democracy just do not work in film

or any other art form. You need a bottom line theme that is very


If anything, the Freaked story

proves the unheralded power of the fringe film press. Good press

in fan journals like Film Threat and Fangoria have

generated enough excitement (or at least name recognition) that

an otherwise doomed-to-video-obscurity release is doing more than

decent business since it’s April 20th VHS & Laserdisc release.

The story for Stern and Winter, both of whom have moved on to separate

script writing projects, has an upbeat hook-people are seeing their

movie, if only on TV.

Winter takes a rare breath and pauses

to reflect when asked for advice for filmmakers attempting to work

within the Hollywood system.

"Anybody who is getting into the

business now, and has integrity, and doesn’t want to end up making Driving Miss Daisy, should really know that it’s a

fucking struggle like they wouldn’t believe and that they’d better

be Alexander the goddamn Conqueror. Because it is like trying to

move a mountain to try to do something that is independent, not

just artsy fartsy, but with a singular, strong point of view, within

the current industry system. Unless it’s just sickeningly commercial.

I’ve thought that was the way it was on the outside, and now that

I’m on the inside I’ve found it to be totally true."

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