Anchor Bay UK has just released a special edition of the cult favourite, Freak Out. This bizarre, hilarious and incredibly inventive movie was made with no budget and no help from any studio. We tracked down writer/performer and co-producer Dan Palmer (Onkey in the movie) for an exclusive chat about the movie and his plans for the future.
Tell us about your background and where the idea for Freak Out came from.
I studied at a film school in Bournemouth, England – that’s where I met Christian James (Freak Out’s eventual Director and Co-writer). We hit it off as we dug the same kind of movies, plus we were the two youngest students in the college and the majority of our peers thought we were a pair of obnoxious juvenile punks… they were right. When we left college we were wary of going straight into the first television or film job that came along ‘cos the jobs we had witnessed people in the years above us going into bore little relation to what we really wanted to do. So instead of making sandwiches on the next Bond or Harry Potter we decided to try and make our own flick.
An older student in the year above me had previously raised money and filmed his own 16mm feature. He invited me to be an extra on the movie and he would happily show me rushes on a movieola. I can remember seeing the exposed footage of my 1.5 second role and thinking to myself ‘this is what I wanna do..’. The student was Edgar Wright.
A while after Christian made a black & white short film entitled ‘Bank Holiday Monday’ which was a satire of slasher flicks. Knowing that I would be a fountain of useless gore-movie knowledge he had mined my demented brain for hack and slash info whilst putting the film together. So when we decided to make a feature we went back to his short film and used its basic concept as the foundations for what eventually became FREAK OUT.
Freak Out took four years to make, so how did you keep your enthusiasm for the project? Was there ever a time that you wanted to just give up and do something else?
It’s weird, after awhile it just became a regular part of your life; do the washing up, feed the cat, shoot the indie movie.. so I never really took time out to reflect on it that much. People outside couldn’t really understand what the hell we were doing, girls didn’t understand; I go for the crazy, self-involved types and the impressiveness of making your own flick soon wears off for that particular species..
There was a point about a 100th of the way in when Chris talked about making the movie into a short and I shit my pants and thought it was all over. Short films are redundant and inherently self-indulgent. Thankfully Chris changed his mind and we never looked back. So many things went wrong; our 16mm Arriflex got fried, our sound got stolen, an elderly actor died - we could have quit a number of times but we never had a deadline so it’s not like we had to have the film in the can by a certain date.
The movie has been a huge hit on the independent film festival circuit, picking up a few awards on the way, has this come as a shock to you?
Am I allowed to say no? I actually am a little annoyed at some of the festivals that turned us down. We would often be duped into thinking that we had a great chance of being included, we’d send off our extortionate entry fee and then eventually we’d get told to f**k off. I understand that film festivals struggle almost as much as us indie filmmakers but I really believe that they should come up with other means to raise their funds. Kids are spending every penny they have on making their films and then they have to fork out just for the pleasure of submitting their film with no assurance that they will actually get in? It’s a flawed system.
But winning the award at Rhode Island and having six hundred plus Canadians go absolutely ape at Fantasia in Montreal were two amazing developments. (Neither of those fests charge by the way..)
How did you decide on the horror/comedy balance, as many horror comedies just don’t work?
I always say that Freak Out is a comedy/horror as opposed to a horror/comedy.
For me there are three types of film within this genre; there are your reality based horror/comedies such as ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, ‘American Werewolf..’, ‘Slither’ etc, then there are your cartoonish ‘spoofs’, crap like ‘Scary Movie’, ‘Repossessed’ etc and thirdly there’s the rarely mined sub-genre, where I think FREAK OUT belongs, the comedy-horror – films like ‘Wacko’, ‘Class Reunion’, ‘Return Of The Killer Tomatoes’, ‘Elvira’, ‘Burbs’ ‘Student Bodies’ etc. But don’t let that put you off.
Did you have a specific audience in mind whilst writing this movie or were you doing it just to entertain yourselves?
I sort of pictured the present day equivalent of me when I was 15. The kid sat in his bedroom covered in Freddy and Jason posters on a Friday night watching slasher flicks and screwball comedies whilst drinking coke and eating junk food instead of going to a party. That’s who I wrote FREAK OUT for and that’s essentially who our lead character Merv (played by James Heathcote) is.
Where did characters such as the Larry Hagman fans come from? You must have a pretty “side-ways” view on life?
There’s a scene in the flick that calls for a mob of rabid fans to be present in a shopping mall, initially we had a fake boy-band doing a signing and we thought that had so been done before, so that got us to thinking ‘Who would be the most surreal and unlikely sex symbol for a mob of teenage girls?’ Larry Hagman was your answer.
How proud are you of the finished movie?
Very proud. I am not arrogant enough to say that FREAK OUT’s perfect but it’s the flaws that have endeared themselves to a lot of fans. As a writer I look back and wish we had added a few layers to Merv’s motivation, some of the day-players I ain’t happy with and as a performer I wish I had more time to rehearse as there’s one or two scenes that make my stomach do back-flips. But on the other hand reviews have been very flattering towards Onkey - so, what do I know?
We made a movie with no money, no industry contacts, no rich parents and no common sense. We all had to juggle jobs and/or college. To have simply completed the damn thing would have been an achievement but to have it wow festival after festival, get all these fantastic reviews and for it to be released by a company like Anchor Bay? Well that’s just plain f****d up. My dad’s in it for God’s sake!
The movie has plenty of slapstick as well as surreal comedy in it, was there any major influences in your lives that are reflected in you film making?
It was my 5th birthday, my mum and dad drove me and my sister all the way up to London from Bournemouth not telling me where I was going. I was extremely excited and being only 5 my imagination was going wild – thinking I was going to meet the Ghostbusters or something. I had made many guesses but each of them wrong, eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we arrived in London and my parents revealed to me that I was going to… Holiday On Ice. A crappy song and dance ice show that, it turned out, my SISTER wanted to go to; NOT me. Needless to say I was seriously ticked off. Cut to us at Wembley watching grinning idiots skating around in spandex and fake tans when a Ringmaster suddenly cries out ‘Bring out the birthday boat!’ A boat the shape of a runner bean comes out on the ice and a gang of DWARVES jump from it pulling kids into the boat whose birthday it was. Needless to say, I was on their list. Being cripplingly shy at the time and a tad p*****d off at my shit birthday surprise I wasn’t particularly enamoured by being pounced on and clawed at by a mob of midgets with the intent of pulling me into their vegetable shaped boat with a packed Wembley Stadium looking on.
I believe it was this incident that shaped and influenced my artistic outlook on life.
The film has loads of laugh out loud moments in it, the shower scene in particular had my side aching, was it difficult to keep a straight face?
Not really, ‘cos it was a scene we really wanted to get right. It’s the first scene where Merv and the Looney meet so we knew it had to be a good one. The scene didn’t actually take place in a shower until the 11th hour, it was originally intended to be filmed on a flight of stairs but we could no longer use the house that we had used for Merv’s home. Because the bathroom was the only room in Merv’s house that we hadn’t already seen we just relocated the set-piece to a pal’s bathroom and re-wrote it to fit. It’s one of those instances where we used a negative to actually improve upon the flick. There’s a hefty section within the DVD’s 50 minute making of dedicated to the shower sequence. Something for the ladies...
What was your budget, how did you raise the money and how did you set about realising some of the SFX shots?
We never really had a full budget in the bank. We’d raise a chunk of cash and film until we ran out then try and raise some more. We did go back and tally up the donations and it came to just under £30,000. For financing we initially tried official industry channels like The Film Council but we soon realised that we had more chance finding a monk in a red light district so we slowly but surely got donations from kind-hearted business folk in and around our local area. Most where happy enough to give us a small sum just to get their name in lights, one of our financiers; Simon Nurrish caught the bug and eventually became a hands on member of the team and is now one of us. One of us! One of us!
When people ask me about SFX shots my first reaction is ‘What SFX shots?’
There’s a moment towards the end of the film where we yank soundman Glen Yard’s lower torso clean form his body, we realised this by stuffing a pair of trousers with newspaper, taping shoes to the ends of the legs and placing Glen in a manhole down to his waist. We loosely attached the false legs to his midriff and covered the torso stumps in wallpaper paste coloured with red food dye. When the killer yanks the fake legs away from Glen’s stomach it looks like his gams are ripped clean off (economical editing is also required for such slap-dash movie ‘magic’).
Was it difficult trying to sell the movie to distributors? Again, did you ever feel like giving up?
Very difficult. It would have been more understandable if industry people had just said; ‘We hate it, go away’, but instead buyers and distributors would watch the movie, laugh their arses off, tell us they thought it was great but there’s no way that they can buy it! They didn’t know what the hell it was, an independent movie made with a bubblegum approach. It was particularly frustrating in the UK ‘cos there was an obvious element of snobbery and cynicism from the film world. Who were these upstarts that dare make their own film? Then the websites got hold of the flick and went crazy about it, the festivals followed and then ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ came out which suddenly turned snotty UK film execs into overnight horror aficionados.
Anchor Bay UK has produced an excellent, extras packed DVD release for the movie, how much input into this fabulous package did you have?
God bless Mo Claridge. He was Anchor Bay UK’s head honcho, a real William Castle type. One of the few to put faith in us and our work. The amount of doors we had slammed in our faces during the FREAK OUT period had pretty much hit its peak by the time we got the news that Anchor Bay wanted the movie. Ultimately, this was Mo’s decision and he’d seen something in the movie and in us that encouraged him to take a chance. He was particularly enthusiastic about what we were going to do next. He saw potential in us and we’re indebted to him for doing so.
He sadly passed away on Christmas Day and never got to see FREAK OUT released.
Thanks to Mo, we pretty much had carte blanche with the DVD so we knew exactly how we wanted it. Being fans of the format we knew what consumers want and we were also well aware of the ‘debut filmmaker ego-syndrome’ where you get a first timer talking like he’s Kubrick and Mamet’s lovechild or something, so we do go out of our way to lampoon ourselves.
So what’s next and will there be a Freak Out 2?
We have a very bizarre dark comedy/horror that would be fantastic to make next, I’ve written the lead for myself and Chris would direct, I think it’s something that will really strike a chord and touch on a lot of subjects that young disturbed people will relate to. But it all depends if we can get the right backing.. and if Chris can decide what format he wants to film on! As for F.O 2: LOONEY BOOGALOO? If the DVD does well and fans want it and Anchor Bay are willing to pony up the dough then I’d love to don the Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap once again. On set we were always coming up with ridiculous situations and scenarios Merv and Onkey could get themselves into for a sequel, so we have plenty of ideas. And YES we’ll try and have more naked chicks and gore.
I think we’d happily do a ‘Merv & Onkey’s Bogus Journey’.
Thanks very much