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Diablo Cody and Zelda Williams Build Their Own Monster with Frisky, Freaky ‘Lisa Frankenstein’

No icebreakers are needed when it comes to kicking off conversation with Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and first-time feature filmmaker Zelda Williams, who arrived for a mid-week, Midtown-located breakfast with IndieWire with nothing but smiles. Their first collaboration, ’80s-set horror comedy “Lisa Frankenstein,” blends together their seemingly mutual obsessions (comedy, horror, teenage girls, wicked twists, hilarious gore), and is ripe for fun conversation.

Still, this writer had to ask something kind of silly to get it going: like, oh, have they heard from the Lisa Frank people? Cody laughed. No, they haven’t called!

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“Here’s the thing, the fact that the movie’s called ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ is actually kind of a coincidence, because I knew it was going to be an ’80s classic Gen X girl name plus Frankenstein for the title,” the writer said. She cycled through some names, like Stacy and Heather, before landing on Lisa, like the built-from-scratch leading lady in “Weird Science,” a film that “super-duper inspired” her.

The new film follows Kathryn Newton as our titular Lisa (her last name is not actually “Frankenstein”), a traumatized outcast who is having a damn hard time fitting in at her new high school. Her stepmom (Carla Gugino) is wicked, her dad (Joe Chrest) is checked out, her stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) is well-meaning but way too popular, and even seemingly nice male students are casually accustomed to getting their way with the ladies. The only person she sort of connects with: the dead teenager Victorian era teenager (Cole Sprouse) buried in a tiny cemetery in her backyard. You can guess (from the title!) what happens next.

“Then it’s ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ and then you hear it and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cute, it’s pretty cute,’” Cody said. Williams, ever detail-oriented, added a sweetener: “Also, thankfully, in any case, Frankenstein is a public domain thing, so I’m like, we’re safe.”

While “Lisa Frankenstein” marks their first project together, Cody and Williams have an obvious, easy chemistry with each other. They’re complementary (and complimentary), they listen to each other’s answers, and wait to respond when it makes sense. (They also ordered the same meal — seasonal fruit plate — and enjoyed tangential talk on everything from birds to the tragedy of so many new pairs of jeans no longer having pockets.)

The pair first “met” during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, so yes, it was over Zoom, which was a little awkward for Cody. “I tend to make these decisions from instinct,” she said. “When I’m looking for a collaborator, I am not super intellectual about it. I’m more spiritual about it, as corny as that sounds.” She turned to Williams, the daughter of the beloved Robin Williams and a performer herself. “And obviously I was super impressed with your materials and your talent, but there was also the vibe.”

The vibe? It was right. Even before that first Zoom meeting, the pair traded scads of emails, mostly talking about ‘80s movies they both liked. “I made this look book after I read the script, and I remember putting a lot of movies in it, primarily ’80s films,” Williams said. References included “An American Werewolf in London,” “Tie Me Up! Time Me Down!,” “Heathers,” and the original “Nightmare on Elm Street.” (Other films that seem to have inspired them: “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” and “Jennifer’s Body,” which came up quite a bit during this chat.)

4208_D021_00182 Cole Sprouse stars as The Creature and Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
“Lisa Frankenstein”Michele K. Short

“Obviously, I have a personal connection to the ’80s,” Cody said. “The is [a] movie set in 1989, I was 11 then, and I was obsessed with teenagers, particularly the girls with their big hair and their harsh eyeliner. Everything was bigger and colder somehow. It was just a really striking era. And also, I know this is kind of a cop out, but setting a movie about teenagers in the ’80s lends itself to so many more narratives, because you don’t have technology, you don’t have kids making plans on their phones. That’s always hard to write around. I thought, if I can avoid that, I’d like to.”

Williams naturally gravitates toward the filmmaking of the era and wanted to play in that space. “The ’80s was an era of filmmaking that I thought was just really adventurous and unique and that I miss quite a lot,” she said. “There was a lot of kind of unbridled, experimental creativity.”

As is typical in a Cody story, the pair were interested in subverting all sorts of tropes, the kind you can only twist when you’ve got a lot of love and a lot of knowledge invested in them. Consider Lisa’s stepsister Taffy. Williams original look book also included a generous dose of Phoebe Cates — the director noted she’s “obsessed” with the beloved ‘80s actress — whose energy Cody sees in star Liza Soberano.

“I felt that the relationship between her and Lisa needed to be really important, and I didn’t want to write a stereotypical villain,” Cody said. “I was thinking it would be more interesting if she was the one person who was trying to include Lisa and show her love and embrace her. And Lisa was pushing her away, because society tells Lisa that Taffy is her opposition. Growing up at that time, which I did, it was a pretty toxic culture in terms of putting women against each other.” (Williams added, “It still is.”)

“One of the things I was so happy about when I read the jokes that were on the pages, is they never came off as purposefully mean,” Williams continued. “Even the ones that could have been read mean. … Taffy is, even if she’s being a little naive at times, she’s not cruel. I didn’t ever want her to feel prickly, because we’ve done that a lot to women in movies. It was like if they’re hot, they’re suddenly mean girls, they’re suddenly the villain.”

“Lisa Frankenstein”
“Lisa Frankenstein”

Cody added with a smile, “I am so happy to see people embracing Taffy as a character, because that was the plan. I was like, ‘Taffy’s going to be a fan favorite.’”

That’s just on the micro level. On the macro, “Lisa Frankenstein” puts a spin on the ol’ Frankenstein’s monster myth (created, of course, by another woman, author Mary Shelley, who basically invented the entire sci-fi genre with her 1818 novel). Yes, Cody has seen “Poor Things,” which she loved (“I’m a total Yorgos-head”) and sees it (and other upcoming “Frankenstein”-esque stories) as part of a grand tradition of these types of tales.

“We’re in a Frankenstein moment,” she said. “This happens in Hollywood, where there’s an idea that is floating in the creative hive mind and it’s never deliberate, but it’s interesting. The idea of creating life is never going to get old, and I’m also just never sure it ever really went away. … I’m delighted to be on trend for once. Usually I’m either ahead or behind!”

Williams added, “I’m just happy everyone’s going back to monsters, I miss them.”

(Serendipitously, Sprouse, the film’s very own monstrous creation — who had previously been taking calls in a tiny atrium next to the restaurant — stopped by to say hello, offering an energetic, “What’s up, gang?”)

So, speaking of casting. Both Newton and Sprouse seem to have relished their roles — Newton continuing to bone up on her “scream queen” bonafides post-“Freaky,” Sprouse making a meal of a role that requires zero lines — and it’s hard to imagine two other young stars so ably navigating offbeat material. Were they who Cody pictured while writing the script?

Cody kicks off with a good, hard-won answer: “I learned my lesson about picturing specific actors when you write a script, because it’s not always going to pan out that way. Also, I find I’m obsessed with just the cadences of language and how people talk and then I get locked into a voice and then I’m writing to that voice and it just doesn’t work. I have to just picture these fictional figures in my head.”

4208_D001_00030_R 
Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
“Lisa Frankenstein”Michele K. Short

She was thrilled by the casting of Sprouse, because she had assumed they’d cast an unknown, “because actors typically are not chomping at the bit to play characters with no lines.” And Newton, is “just channeling those classic performances, she almost reminds me of an actress from the ’20s, her physicality, her eyes,” Cody said.

That’s the easy answer: Cody doesn’t picture stars when she writes and that led, at least with “Lisa Frankenstein,” to some delightful casting surprises. The fuller answer comes into relief when Williams weighs in, “I don’t ever picture anyone when I read a script, because I have a thing called aphantasia, so I can’t have mental pictures and I have no inner monologue.”

Cody was stunned. She has that, too!

“I am mildly like this as well, as well as face-blind, and I also don’t have an inner monologue,” the writer said. “I know that people think that you’re like a sociopath if you don’t have an inner monologue, I do not. I have none. I was shocked when I found out there’s people that have a running coherent narrative.”

Cody added by way of illustration, “I should not be advertising this, but my assistant, once upon a time, she had to make a book for me where she would print out pictures of people from the internet that I had met, put their name under them, and be like, ‘Go through the book and just memorize them.’” (Williams, who has a flair for dropping funny, extremely applicable film references into conversation, burst out, “Just like ‘The Devil Wears Prada’!”)

How do you direct when you’re not a visual thinker? “For me, the nice thing is, it becomes very tonal, so an enormous amount of what I’m tracking scene to scene is tone,” Williams said. “And I do all of my shot listing way in advance, so I know exactly what I’m going to need in the edit to make a scene work. For me, but also for the rest of the crew, it makes it so much easier if I can show them as opposed to tell them.”

Nailing the tone and the actual visual mechanics of the film is on full display when it comes to the actual mechanics of Lisa’s monster-building. While “The Creature,” as he’s called in the film, is initially reanimated via a Lisa-issued wish and a bolt of lightning, his teenage master continues to build upon him by adding fresh body parts where he needs them, plus some generous time spent in Taffy’s buggy tanning bed.

But those parts aren’t picked at random: Lisa and the Creature snatch them off of, let’s just say, deserving victims. A hand here, an ear there.

4208_D022_00339_R3 
Cole Sprouse stars as The Creature and Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
“Lisa Frankenstein”Michele K. Short

“One element that I absolutely had to have in this movie is, I wanted her to be able to reclaim the hand of the man who had sexually assaulted her and to repurpose it for her pleasure, which she does, even though it’s not as explicitly stated in the movie as it was in the original draft,” Cody said. “I mean, you know me, there’s definitely a hard-R version of that that exists in my mind.”

It’s not just in Cody’s mind either, as Williams added, “There’s a hard R version on the editing bay floor. It’s what we shot, certainly. I’m grateful now, in hindsight, to have been able to thread that needle of finding a PG-13 version, because teenagers right now, not a lot of stuff is made for them, especially fun kind of pushing the envelope stuff. This pushes PG-13 to a limit that I think teenagers will enjoy. A lot of it is about self-love and finding love and hopefulness as well, and f it can be a little edgy so that they’re entertained in a time where they’re seeing everything possible online, that’s great.”

Williams isn’t kidding about that envelope-pushing, and when I noted that it seems as if the film’s marketing is hiding some of its gorier elements, she agreed. “Yeah, they are!,” the director said. “I think the MPA made them.”

That’s not a sore subject, at least for Cody, who has been through far tougher marketing campaigns in the past.

“I’ve been in the business for 20 years now and I’ve been through marketing campaigns that were so upsetting and so completely misrepresented what I was trying to do, that I’m delighted with all the materials for this movie,” Cody said. “There’s always going to be a hook to what they choose to highlight and what they don’t. We’re marketing to girls. With ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ we didn’t get to do that. Every marketing discussion was about, how do we get men in to see this movie? And I have not heard that question posited once on ‘Lisa Frankenstein.’ I’m thrilled.”

Williams is also enamored of their marketing so far. She said, when Focus Features was cutting the trailer, they asked her for notes. That’s not always the case. “I felt like I could defend the things we didn’t want in the trailer,” she said. “I especially try to avoid spoilers where I can. So it was nice that I could kind of avoid the deaths and kind of avoid my favorite scenes in the movie [being in the trailer].”

She’s obsessed with the posters, too. “I didn’t think they were going to let me be like, ‘No, no, no, like airbrushed ’80s portraits. I love the “Death Becomes Her” posters, can we do that?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, why not?’” One marketing bit that didn’t make the final cut: an early tagline that Williams thinks was “vetoed by the MPA, because it was apparently too violent.” It’s cute, too: “You always dismember your first.” (Focus eventually went with “a coming of RAGE story,” which Williams and Cody are into.)

Both Cody and Williams admitted that this part of the filmmaking journey, the forward-facing, have-breakfast-with-a-stranger-and-her-two-recorders bit, isn’t their favorite. Cody would rather be at home, writing. Williams prefers to be on set, directing. When will they get to do all that again?

“I live in kind of a perpetual state of limbo in my career because, especially if you’re trying to get TV made, which I’ve been trying to do forever, it’s like you’re just waiting for Netflix to call,” Cody said. “I take on a lot of hired gun type jobs, so I fill my days with stuff like that. I wrote a spec script during the strike that’s a teen comedy. It’s probably the most straightforward comedy I’ve ever written. No one gets dismembered, there’s no cannibals, and I’m hoping to get that one made. Honestly, I say I’m a realist, but I’m really a pessimist because so much of what you develop in this business ends up in the bin, so we’ll see what sticks.”

Williams takes a similar stance to talking about the future. “I don’t ever really talk about anything until all the contracts are signed and I’m on my way to set, because I am one of those people who believes it’ll jinx me,” she said. “But there are things in the pipeline, but I will be silent, because I just want them to happen. I miss set, I miss sitting down and looking at what’s being built and being like, ‘Oh my God, this is the Sims in real life.’ It just makes me so happy.”

One idea that might make sense: “Jennifer’s Body 2”? In a recent interview, Cody shared that she wants to make a sequel to her 2009 box office bomb (but critical and fan favorite) “Jennifer’s Body,” which was directed by Karyn Kusama and starred Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried.

“I had no idea people would get so excited about that,” Cody said. “I was delighted to see the response, I’m going to clip those articles and show them to all the people who are like, ‘We don’t think this is such a good idea.’ Bring it into the people that I need to green light it.”

Even if that sequel doesn’t happen, the renewed chatter about it has lifted something in Cody. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my career, it’s like total validation,” she said of the recent response and the continued fandom around the film. “It came late, I’m OK with that, I’ve made my peace with that. I went through a lot when that movie came out, just personal attacks. It was about more than just the movie. .. I always believed in it, but I did lose my confidence. If people hadn’t rediscovered ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ I would not have written ‘Lisa Frankenstein.’ With that whole area, that genre, I kind of felt unwelcome in it, because I had flopped so hard on my last attempt.”

JENNIFER'S BODY, foreground from left: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, 2009. ph: James Dittiger/TM and copyright ©Fox Atomic. All rights reserved/courtesy Everett Collection
“Jennifer’s Body”©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Williams smiled at her. “I loved that movie,” the director said. “I knew I loved ‘Jennifer’s Body’ [when it came out], but I think they wanted people that don’t love horror to love the film, and so they all got mad and everyone over here [in the horror community] was like, ‘No, this is great.’ I grew up loving that movie genuinely, wholeheartedly, but the horror fans I kow, yes, there were a lot of us, but we’re kind of quiet nerds. They were like, ‘We love your shit.’ But really quiet.”

Cody nodded. “It was harder to hear those voices, but I would meet those people over the years and that always kind of kept the hope alive,” she said.

We’re wrapping up this part of the interview when another friend stops by the table: recent Emmy winner Paul Walter Hauser, who appeared alongside his wife, Amy Boland Hauser, and jokingly opened with a well-timed, “Sorry, I never do this!”

Hauser and Williams are long-time friends, and the actor is quick to tell the director, “I’m so proud of you,” before turning toward this writer (and her two recorders) to add, “I just want to say, she was one of my first friends when I moved to Los Angeles, and she always talked about directing and it’s finally happening. I’ve always been so excited for her and this is such a big moment and we cannot wait to see the movie.”

After the Hausers exit the restaurant, Williams it still smiling. “I’m so proud of him, so proud of him,” the director said. “And what we talked about with time, you actually do watch the people who are putting in the work and are good people, stuff does start happening.”

She turned to Cody. “Like people appreciating ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ you’ve been here doing this amazing work for a long time,” she added.

“You just have to stay in the game, which is the hard part,” Cody said, to which Williams replied, “Keep your head down and not let it destroy you, which is hard.” Or, as is the case with Cody and Williams, stay in the game, keep your head down, and build your own damn monster.

Focus Features releases “Lisa Frankenstein” in theaters on Friday, February 9.

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