“Building Inner Power Through Outer Strength” Says ‘Freaky’ Screenwriter Michael Kennedy
If Friday The 13th, Freaky Friday, and John Hughes could have a child it would be the movie, Freaky. Screenwriter Michael Kennedy, also known for his work on Bordertown, initially pitched his body/ gender-swap film idea for Freaky to director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day 1 & 2) as “Freaky Friday The 13th” during a lunch. Landon immediately saw a cinematic vision for the “slashedy” and together they brought it to life using an eighties movie aesthetic.
It was the second wave of eighties horror movies (in the nineties) that galvanized Kennedy’s interest in horror after the release of Scream penned by Kevin Williamson who is also a member of the gay fraternity and a source of inspiration for the screenwriter. “Scream was what wanted me to become a writer.” The Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) characters in Scream laid the groundwork for the characters in Freaky. “Gale’s ruthlessness, confidence, and self-assuredness who knows exactly what she wants and gets it,” formed the basis of The Butcher (Vince Vaughn). “Sidney is the shy, quiet kid who is unwillingly drawn into a life or death situation, but comes out on top,” was the basis for Millie.
Kennedy is thankful for this lag in his interest in horror because he gained a greater appreciation and understanding of these films. “I not only wanted to pay homage to these filmmakers, but I also wanted to satirize and borderline spoof them a little,” continued Kennedy.
Team Kennedy and Landon honored these horror movies, but also infused their originality into the genre by adding a John Hughes high school and comedic element to make Freaky their own. “It was a fresh take on the whole concept,” explained Kennedy. Freaky gave a respectful nod to Michael Meyers (Halloween) and Jason Voorhees (Friday The 13th) while drawing on the aggregate of Universal Pictures monsters library to construct the character of The Butcher (Vince Vaughn).
As the pair developed the idea, they were cognizant of lifting high school characters from John Hughes’ films (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and transposing them into a horror-comedy setting.
The kernel of the idea for Freaky spawned from the death of Kennedy’s father. “I wanted to channel my grief through my writing.” After Bordertown, he experienced a lull in his writing career until he eventually found his “lane” in Freaky.
He wanted to explore his grief through Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) so he wrote an eight-page pitch document of “Killer Body” (the film’s original title) to discuss with Chris Landon. During lunch, Landon offered to hear Kennedy practice his imminent pitch to Blumhouse Pictures since Landon had worked with them before and was familiar with their tastes.
As Kennedy pitched, Landon was so drawn to the concept and wanted to read the bones of the idea. Landon, in turn, pitched his own ideas to transform Killer Body into Freaky. He also asked Kennedy to postpone pitching to Blumhouse Pictures because he wanted to direct the project.
They “found” the movie and wrote an outline within a week. A few weeks later they had written a first draft.
Ostensibly, Freaky is an ensemble film centering on Millie and the middle-aged serial killer The Butcher after they swap bodies with the help of a mythical dagger. Millie is ably supported by her school friends, the woke and wise Nyla Chones (Celeste O’Connor) and the super-fabulous, larger than life Joshua Detmer (Misha Osherovich) to get her body back in twenty-four hours.
In some respects, Josh steals the show with his over the top antics. “I think Freaky is ‘really queer,’” declared Kennedy. But the movie is more than a horror-comedy with gay characters. “The film is still broad and mainstream, but it is also has a queer sensibility.”
Chris Landon and Michael Kennedy both grew up closeted and gay in smalltown America, so exploring Josh’s character was vital to their personal stories. “He’s out. He’s proud. He’s not questioning who he is. He’s smart. He’s witty. He has faults. He wears Chanel perfume.”
Nyla is “the den mother of the group.” Kennedy didn’t hint at her sexuality, but her character who saves the day really resonates with him and the gay community.
We asked Michael Kennedy about the importance of gay screenwriters writing gay characters. “There are so many great writers out there who can write any character if they study them long enough. However, there’s a layer of authenticity that wouldn’t be there with a non-queer writer.” The authenticity in Joshua’s character represents the opposite of what happened to Landon and Kennedy when they were seventeen. “We were both quiet, closeted, and unsure who we were. We flipped the memory of our own lives.”
Josh and Nyla were also characters Kennedy readily identified with during his high school years. “John Hughes did the same thing with his movies by giving us a peek into what teenagers were going through,” said Kennedy. The core of the film came down to three elements – gender, identity, and sexuality.
Meanwhile, Millie is caught up in all of this while navigating the full force of these elements. She was invisible, marginalized, grieving over her father’s death, and full of self-doubt. She didn’t want any of this body swap nonsense, but it forced her to forge her identity and deal with her grief. “Millie was forced to be the family glue at seventeen because her mother drank.”
Millie’s life was hellish. Her family life was in tatters, her teacher was ruthless, she only had two friends, and now she had The Butcher wanting to kill her. “Millie’s character arc is about self-discovery. She was such a giver and sacrificed so much for the sake of her family. Embracing who you are and putting yourself first, sometimes is okay. Ironically, she does this through The Butcher’s body.”
The body-swap experience allowed Millie to examine herself as an outsider. While in The Butcher’s body, Millie showcased her new-found confidence and ease of expression. “She found her inner strength, stood up for herself, fought back against school bullies, and talked to her crush. People finally accepted Millie for who she was. Her masculine body was moot.”
Horror is Comedy
Horror-comedy films have gained popularity as a distinct genre in their own right. “Horror and comedy go hand in hand. They have the same rhythm and beat. You set up jokes the same way you set up scares. Both follow the same patterns.”
Michael Kennedy confessed that it’s tough to balance the two opposing genres each demanding equal storytime. “If you lean too hard either way you sacrifice both. You’re always walking a tightrope of tone.”
Freaky begins with a quick introduction to the characters and wastes no time in brutally killing four people. This puts Millie in immediate danger and hooks the audience. After the dagger incident and subsequent body swap, the tone segues into a “fun, jolting ride.” The audience is entertained with the gender-bending antics of Millie and The Butcher as well the sex-positive messaging of Josh, all wrapped up in Millie’s ordeal. Freaky extended its reach from the truly terrifying to the fun and farcical.
The screenwriter believes that every body-swap slasher film requires a degree of levity for it to succeed. “The premise of body-swapping in a slasher film is so absurd that if you don’t make the audience laugh you’re not doing it right,” he joked.
“The key to a successful horror-comedy is to respect it,” said Kennedy. “We never make fun of it.” We had to honor Millie’s emotional journey. Her journey of self-discovery was more important than the comedy of the slasher storyline.
Ensuring Freaky had a solid emotional throughline allowed the film to stay grounded and the tone didn’t go off the rails. “A weird, fantastical concept like Freaky needs a beating heart to land successfully. We had to make the audience feel like a body-swap is something that could actually happen,” he said. Much of this suspension of disbelief was done through Nyla who grounded the film with scenes of reality.
Michael Kennedy draws his creative inspiration from a number of people including horror aficionados John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Craven was more of a spiritual influence on Kennedy because he was so well-liked in the industry. This encouraged the screenwriter to imbue his stories with his brand of “Craven kindness.”
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