In 1987, Trudie Styler was on the set of the thriller “Fair Game,” in which she was starring and she wasn’t making too many friends. This was by design – she was playing a woman trapped in her apartment with a deadly mamba snake that placed there by her jealous fiancee (Gregg Henry), meaning in practical terms her only co-star for the majority of the filming at Cinecitta was the reptile. However, with few around to converse with, Styler formed especially close bonds with the crew that was there, namely the film’s young cinematographer Dante Spinotti, with whom she got to talking about where they thought their careers would go. Well before Spinotti would lens “Heat” and “L.A. Confidential,” he asked Styler whether she thought she’d always be an actress, to which Styler replied, “I don’t know what’s ahead, but I guess one day I’d really love to direct,” and when the DP heard this, he told her, “When that day comes, I will be at your side.”
Nearly 30 years later, Spinotti finally got the call. Although “Freak Show,” an adaptation of James St. James’ young adult novel, isn’t technically Styler’s directorial debut — that would be “The Sweatbox,” a fascinating documentary about the making of “The Emperor’s New Groove” that proved to be a little too interesting for the Disney execs that had commissioned it — the film, about a gay teen named Billy Bloom who finds himself out of place when he’s sent to live with his father in red state country after growing up in Connecticut, is directed with the skill of a well-experienced craftsperson and the verve of somebody eager to try something new. Of course, there’s a reason for this — in addition to Styler’s ongoing acting career, she has had great success as a producer, throwing her considerable weight behind a number of up-and-coming filmmakers who need their distinctive voices championed, helping to shepherd such bold films in recent years as Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate” and Deniz Gamze Erguven’s upcoming “Kings.”
Styler was planning to do the same for “Freak Show,” but when another director had to bail because of a scheduling conflict, she showed little hesitation in taking the helm, a confidence that extends to the finished film, a gloriously energetic marriage of rousing music and swirling camerawork that reminds of Alan Parker (“The Commitments,” “Fame”). Leading with a ferocious turn from Alex Lawther as Billy, who hatches a plan to be voted as the school’s homecoming queen after being subjected to a vicious physical attack by bullies, “Freak Show” doesn’t only put a bounce in your step because of the righteousness of his mission, but the way it so thoroughly channels his point of view, boasting fanciful costumes from Colleen Atwood (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) and Lisa Harlow Powell that serve as extensions of his personality, the percussive score created by composer Dan Romer out of the slamming of school desks (coupled with a soundtrack comprised of nearly all LGBT artists) and the kinetic steadicam shots Spinotti employs to feel the same rush of adrenaline Billy does, first in his nerves in going to a new high school and then when he finds support, amongst them the school’s football star Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson).
After the film’s premiere at Berlinale last winter and the celebrated festival run that followed, “Freak Show” is finally arriving this week to U.S. theaters and Styler graciously took the time to talk about her long awaited narrative directorial debut and how she was able to infuse it with her own experience, both behind the camera and from the schoolyard.
What attracted you to “Freak Show” to take the plunge on?
I got to know the story pretty well because we were its producer [first]. As Billy says, “All teenagers are freaks” — trying to find yourself if you feel different for whatever reason is part of what being a teenager is about. It’s part of the individuating of growing up. And I had a tough time at school [myself] as a result of a road accident that I sustained when I was very young. I had a lot of facial scarring and it made me look kind of different. I had lots of teasing and mean things said to try to diminish me. And it worked pretty well for a while. [laughs] But not in the long term, as you see. So I do know something about bullying and it hurts. It’s unkind and at the same time, it’s so prevalent. Bullying is an ordinary evil. We allow things to be said, we condone things that are said, we’ve turned blind eyes to bad things that we’ve seen and it’s something that is remarkably familiar at the workplace and can be at home and certainly at schools. This is a film about a young male who decides that even though he’s been bullied and beaten up that he still will remain true to who he is by showing the school that he’ll run for homecoming queen and take some leadership.
Given all the great films you’ve produced, did directing ever tempt you before this?
I came to producing from being an actor, and I think the actors and directors operate from the same side of their brain and producers operate a bit more from the left brain, business-minded. I’ve always been a creative producer and when I had my other film company, [I was] what I would call a bit of a hand-holder, helping first-time writer/directors to get their first movie out into the world. That was my passion rather than the fundraising, and I worked with Guy [Ritchie] on his first two pictures and Duncan Jones on “Moon” and Dito Montiel on “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”
As a creative producer, I got to be around my directors a lot and help them with casting and help them with the edit and when I met Celine Rattray seven years ago, she’s got a great business mind and is one of the great mavens of dealmaking, so we started Maven Pictures. We’re a very good couple in that regard, and we created a platform for empowering more women in film. So I’ve joined the ranks of the five percent of us who have worked as directors and I’m very proud about that. Really it’s time to move the needle to have more women’s stories being told about women by women for women and inclusive of women behind the camera and in front, so I’m very happy that I got my shot to do this.
There’s so much energy to this visually. Did you know how you wanted to shoot this from the start?
I hope you found some of it funny. James St. James is very fun [as a writer] and has a great sense of humor about life. The screenplay that P.J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio wrote and adapted from the book really reflects that, and I know as an actor when you’re playing with comedy, you play it with great pace and energy and that was important to me in the making of the film. This is reflected in the edit as well so that we never feel that even though bad things are happening to Billy, he never really succumbs to any of them. Even when he’s put into a coma, the first words when he’s coming around is “Can I have some lip gloss, please?” he asks the doctor. [laughs] It’s like, “He’s back! Billy’s back!”
When the whole film rests on Alex Lawther, what sold you on him playing Billy?
I adore Alex and I owe him a great deal of gratitude because we interviewed in excess of 85 actors for this role and some of them were very good, but once I’d become the director of the piece, what kept me awake at night was, “Oh goodness, if I don’t get the Billy right, I have no movie. This movie won’t fly.” It really relies on this central performance that an actor of dimension, of nuance, of brilliance, of wit, of intelligence, and within 10 minutes [of seeing] Alex Lawther — I flew to England to look at some actors — and that night I slept fine. [laughs] I think he’s remarkable in it and he’s become a very close friend.
I’ve heard the first scene you had Alex and Ian Nelson, who plays Flip, do together was the recreation of the “Pulp Fiction” dance scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman — was that actually a way to loosen up things between the actors for that relationship?
That idea was mine. [That scene happens when] Billy’s in this convalescent period and he’s obviously falling madly in love with Flip, but Flip is also discovering that Billy is a very inspiring person. The all-star quarterback of the school who’s supposedly got this career in football ahead of him changes through this four weeks that Billy has convalescing, so I wanted to find a little series of vignettes where we see the boys really enjoying themselves. It just struck me that delicious “Pulp Fiction” scene of John Travolta and Uma Thurman would really fit the Flip and Billy mold very well and the boys had fun recreating it.
There’s a little bit of Donald Trump in Abigail Breslin’s bully Lynette, and it seems like there’s more awareness around the issue of bullying, particularly towards the LGBTQ community, in recent years. Was it interesting making this during this time when the ground might be shifting beneath your feet?
We have a violent increase in numbers of kids that are bullied because of cyberbullying, which has caused, as we know, an incredible amount of youngsters to self-harm or actually kill themselves. There are very few checks and balances that are done within our communities with cyberbullying, so this is a relatively new thing. When I was at school, the bullying took place in the school and when you got home, you were safe. The problem with our kids now is in their homes when they’re on their screens, which is inordinate amount of times per day, as parents, we don’t know who they’re interacting with half the time. And teenagers are very proud people. They don’t want to go to their parents [to say], “Oh, I’m having a hard time. I’m being bullied,” so they’ll try and sometimes cope with it on their own. And there’s lots of evidence of kids who have gone into terrible depression and despair because they don’t know how or where to go for help. I’m very proud to tell you that we’re working with STOMP Out Bullying with “Freak Show” and I’m hoping to see if we can help to alleviate the problem of not just cyberbullying, but bullying as an ordinary evil that we should no longer accept.