The Lisa Frankenstein brain trust of Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Zelda Williams became one of the few silver linings of their pandemic experiences. Unbeknownst to Williams, the duo had a mutual friend in common, Cody’s boyfriend, and when Cody put the finishing touches on her outlandish rom-com script, her partner suggested that Lisa should be the feature-length debut of Williams. After all, she’d been cutting her teeth via TV, music videos and shorts since 2016, and she’s been an actor on sets since 1989, the very year that Lisa takes place.
The film chronicles Kathryn Newton’s grieving teenager, Lisa Swallows, who spends time comforting the dead in a creepy, unkempt cemetery. After a high school party gone wrong, she proceeds to make a graveyard wish that reanimates a once handsome young man from the Victorian era. The mute, partially resurrected corpse known as “the Creature” (Cole Sprouse) subsequently depends on Lisa to upgrade his lifeless and/or missing body parts, while Lisa leans on him to be the friend she’s lacked since relocating to a new town following the murder of her mother.
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What ultimately convinced Cody that she’d found the right filmmaker for the job was when Williams pitched her approach for the film’s twistedly hilarious climax in which a group of characters confront each other in a bedroom and bodily appendages go flying courtesy of a hatchet.
“The first time I met with Zelda in person, she started describing how she would shoot that. So I was like, ‘Oh, she’s ready,’” Cody tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The scene was originally shot to be R-rated, as were other sequences, but the current PG-13 version of this particular confrontation still captures Willams’ desired effect.
“In the R-rated version that initially existed, there is a very large, beautifully made prosthetic that you do actually see land in the trash can,” Williams says. “And even while I was filming that, I was like, ‘This is likely not going to wind up in this film.’ But it does exist. Otherwise, it largely ended up on screen the exact way I described it, so I couldn’t be happier.”
Cody also commends Focus Features for taking a chance on the risqué scene.
“We have to give credit to Focus [Features], because that scene probably did turn off a lot of potential buyers [and actors] when I originally wrote the script. I’m sure there were people who read it and said, ‘No, thanks,’ which is always the case,” Cody adds.
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Cody and Williams also discuss remixing the Frankenstein lore at a time when the property has renewed interest by way of Poor Things and upcoming projects from Guillermo Del Toro and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Cody then shares that she’s keen to reunite with Jason Reitman and Charlize Theron in hopes of completing a spiritual trilogy that already includes Young Adult (2011) and Tully (2018).
So how did the two of you first link up? Did your agencies play matchmaker? Or do people with cool names just find each other?
Diablo Cody and Zelda Williams: (Laugh.)
Cody: This was a personal connection, which was cool. It was actually not orchestrated by suits, which is rare, I think. My boyfriend actually knew Zelda. He was one of the first people to read my [Lisa Frankenstein] script when I finished it, and he said, “Do you know Zelda Williams? She would knock this out of the park.” So that was how it all began.
Williams: I’d known [Cody’s boyfriend] for years in the industry. We would just check in on each other periodically, and then the entire world shut down. So one of his check-ins was to be like, “Hey, my girlfriend wrote a script and I think you’re right for it,” but he completely buried the lede. He didn’t mention his girlfriend was Diablo Cody. (Laughs.) So I proceeded to read it with extreme expedience, because we were all locked inside and I was tired of talking to my tomatoes. So that’s when this movie came to be.
It’s an interesting time to be playing with the Frankenstein lore, as your film is coming out well before Guillermo del Toro and Maggie Gyllenhaal take their own cracks at it. Do you credit this resurgence or renewed interest to the obvious timelessness of the source material?
Cody: Well, the source material obviously is timeless, but I also definitely believe that there’s a collective creative consciousness. This happens all the time where suddenly an idea will be in the zeitgeist and then everyone is writing a volcano movie or whatever. It’s never orchestrated or deliberate, obviously, but it just happens. So there’s just something about Frankenstein that seems to be the vibe for 2024.
Williams: I think people miss monsters; I certainly do. There’s also multiple vampire movies in the pipeline at the same time. So that era of cinema with all of these beasties and things was due for a moment back in the spotlight. We are also not the first of this resurgence, because, Poor Things is, technically, very Frankensteinian as well. There was another one a couple years ago called The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster. So I’m just glad we are going back to people in rubbery suits. It’s certainly my favorite.
Zelda, you went into this with Edward Scissorhands, Weird Science, Death Becomes Her and Day of the Dead as references, and while the movie definitely has the spirit of those films, was there a specific point where you could sense Lisa becoming its own thing?
Williams: There’s arguments for both. I think all movies are their own thing, and yet simultaneously, pretty much all stories have been told. So there’s a derivative nature to everything. Frankenstein tends to be about the perils of man and science, but what was so lovely about this is that it was more the perils of women and wishful thinking. (Laughs.) So I quite enjoyed that, and for as much as there might be many people who think that Mary Shelley’s wonderful lore has been mined to a finite extent, this is more about magic than it is about science. This isn’t a mad scientist who tried to raise the dead. This is a woman who made a suicidal wish at a grave, and he came up because he cared for her. So I can’t say that I’ve seen that before, to be honest.
Diablo, it seems like you kept the language very specific to the period. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say “kirking out.”
Cody: That was from the archives, man!
So were you pretty careful to not use any anachronistic turns of phrase?
Cody: Oh, I was totally obsessive about it. As someone who lived in the ‘80s, one thing that drives me absolutely crazy is when I watch something set in the ‘80s and people use vernacular that didn’t exist at the time. The way that people talk has changed. This is in no way a dig on women, but I think women speak in deeper voices now and with more vocal fry than they did in the ‘80s.
Williams: I do!
Cody: Me too! In the ‘80s, if you watch movies from that time, the actresses definitely had a more mannered and feminine way of speaking. And it was really important to me that characters like Taffy [Liza Soberano] had that delivery and didn’t sound like Gen Z. So it was about more than just the language, but yeah, I’m OCD about that stuff.
Lisa (Kathryn Newton) has many one-sided conversations with a mostly silent reanimated corpse (Cole Sprouse’s The Creature). Diablo, what was the key to writing those scenes, and Zelda, what was the key to directing them?
Cody: I have to give all the flowers to Zelda on this one, because, in my case, he just didn’t have a line.
“The Creature grunts.”
Cody: Well, interestingly, not even that, really. Cole [Sprouse] created a lot of those incredible nonverbal noises that the Creature makes. But I would put in the stage direction: “The Creature is confused,” or, “The Creature is quizzical.” But Zelda and Cole created that performance.
Williams: I would pass the flowers along to Cole there, too. So much of what we ended up talking about was Buster Keaton and Charlie [Chaplin]. I would have him watch old silent films, and we would talk about active listening. And then I made him go to mime school, which I knew he was going to love anyhow, but I was just so grateful to have found one that worked and was near him. So he ended up finding this deep love for classic forms of physicality, of posture dictating things, of eyelines being important and where your chin is held having so much to do with the character. So it was just such a blast to find this statuesque male lead that was simultaneously making horrendous mouth noises all the time.
Speaking of Cole, there’s a scene in this movie that is both outrageously funny and incredibly twisted, and yet it makes perfect narrative sense. I don’t want to provide any context for the scene; people will know it when they see it. But did the two of you have to go to bat to keep that scene?
Williams: That was on the page, and I fell really in love with it. It was genuinely one of the main things that I took joy in pitching. (Laughs.) Diablo heard me pitch it quite often, especially in the extreme slow motion. Although, in the original pitch, I really wanted it to have the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, and that turned out to be extremely expensive. So we obviously have another song in there now, which I think is an even better choice. I love [this scene] so much.
Cody: Well, when I wrote it, the whole script had been building to that scene. I knew what I wanted to happen, but I had no way of visualizing it. And then the first time I met with Zelda in person, she started describing how she would shoot that. So I was like, “Oh, she’s ready.” This was something that was a consideration from day one: “How do we film this scene in a way that’s memorable?”
Did the executives start loosening their ties when they heard about it?
Williams: They were really happy about it. The only thing that did change but still exists — as all things that wind up on various cutting room floors do — is that in the R-rated version that initially existed, there is a very large, beautifully made prosthetic that you do actually see land in the trash can. And even while I was filming that, I was like, “This is likely not going to wind up in this film.” (Laughs.) But it does exist. It is out there. Otherwise, it largely ended up on screen the exact way I described it, so I couldn’t be happier.
Cody: We have to give credit to Focus [Features], because that scene probably did turn off a lot of potential buyers when I originally wrote the script. I’m sure there were people who read it and said, “No, thanks,” which is always the case.
Williams: Even actors …
Cody: And actors, exactly. But we were pretty supported in the vision for that. We were never told to cut that scene.
Rather than “time heals all wounds,” Lisa puts forth the idea that “time is the wound.” It takes us further and further away from the things we miss most. I presume the two of you agree with your main character?
Cody: I do, in a sense. There’s the idea of, “As we get further away from an adverse or traumatic event like, it gets easier,” but it also gets harder because there’s distance growing between you and the loved one that you’ve lost. You feel those memories start to fade and that’s painful. So how do you hold onto it? In a way, you are fighting time, and that’s really what this movie is about. The idea that when we remember someone, it’s the opposite of dismembering, right? It’s a fun little play on words, and that’s why Lisa has this connection with the Creature because she was truly the last person on Earth to remember him and say his name and visit his final resting place.
Williams: Interestingly, I’m of an opposing view, but that’s why I actually relate to Creature more. In the movie, he’s the one that feels most like how I see the world. Loving things, no matter how long it takes or from afar, doesn’t make it get any harder. He loved [Lisa] even when he couldn’t be around her, and he loves her even when she decides not to be with him for a period of time. So I’ve never had that relationship with time, but I really respected that it’s what Lisa feels, especially at the age that she is. When you’re in your teens, everything feels so much longer. Every day is more of a percentage of your lifespan, quite literally, than where I’m at now. So it’s important to show that teenagers do feel that way. There’s so much permanence and emotion, and that feeling is incredibly real. But now, at 34, I’m like, “No, I’m okay. I actually have a wonderful relationship with time and pain.” But it took time.
My favorite shot is the half-open closet shot of Cole in between the A Trip to the Moon poster, while my favorite lines are a toss-up between: “I tried using her new last name, her old last name and her old-old last name,” and, “My Aunt Shelley gave it to me for Christmas; she said it might improve my personality.”
Cody and Williams: (Laugh.)
Cody: That makes me laugh, too. I’m sorry. It’s kind of a throwback to the Victorian idea that hysteria could be cured with a vibrator. (Laughs.)
Williams: By the way, I wish more medicine was still that, but that’s such a conversation for another time.
Cody and Williams: (Laugh.)
Williams: One of my favorite lines is actually in the scene that you’re talking about with Taffy. She and Lisa are kind of arm in arm by the bed and she goes, “You don’t understand because your mom’s already been murdered.” I just lose it every single time.
Diablo, the Young Adult and Tully fan in me needs to know if the trinity of you, Charlize Theron and Jason Reitman have an ambition to complete a spiritual trilogy someday?
Cody: It would obviously be a dream to work with Jason and Charlize again. I want to, and while I’m plotting it, I don’t know what it will be about or what stage of life it will be about, because we’re all obviously growing older. That’s what happens. So, yeah, that’s definitely the dream and it’s always in the back of my mind.
Did you know that Mackenzie Davis wanted to play young Furiosa in Furiosa since she’d just played younger Charlize in your movie?
Cody: No, I actually didn’t know that, but she’s such a perfect young Charlize. When Jason called me to tell me about that casting, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s perfect.” It was crazy.
Zelda, decades from now, when you’re reminiscing about the making of your first feature, what day will you likely recall first?
Williams: It’s kind of a tie between the day when I opened the email that had the script in it, which, again, was in the middle of such a weird, unprecedented time across the entire world. So that’s hard to forget, but it’d also be the day when we got the call that Focus picked it up and we were about to start the journey. I can’t really explain it, but there’s nothing like that weird feeling where you’re like, “Oh, everything’s about to change.”
Lisa Frankenstein is now playing in movie theaters.
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