Zelda Williams knows comedy. Growing up the daughter of Robin Williams, she had a lifelong front row seat to one of America's most beloved comedic actors. She also knows, as she puts it, that "comedy is the scariest thing in the world!" Which is why, after leaving her own acting career behind to pursue directing, it was the genre that she was least inclined to try her hand at. "I love it very much," Williams says, "but the hardest thing that you can try and get people to do is laugh."
But the first-time feature director is hoping audiences will do just that when they see Lisa Frankenstein, an '80s riff on the Mary Shelley classic about a teenage outcast (played by Kathryn Newton) who revives a handsome corpse using a tanning bad. Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody conceived of the movie as her response to John Hughes' Frankenstein fantasy, Weird Science; for Williams, she found inspiration in the cult comedy, Encino Man.
Which is to say, Lisa Frankenstein and Jennifer's Body — Cody's iconic horror flick about a man-eating Megan Fox — might not be the double feature that you're expecting. Lisa Frankenstein has murder and mayhem and a monster played by Cole Sprouse, but as Williams explains, "At its core, it is a comedy through and through."
"Jennifer's Body is such a wonderful film that I've loved for so long, but it's also, like, about the violence of womanhood. That one is so much darker," the director tells A.frame. "Lisa Frankenstein has horror elements but that would be a lowercase H. We are uppercase Comedy first and foremost."
A.frame: Did you always know you wanted to be a director?
I don't know if anyone always knows anything. I always wanted to tell stories, for sure. And so, even when I was really young, I was writing. I wanted to be an actor when I was really young. I don't know if I would've been able to grasp the needs of being a director until now, as much as I was on sets, as much as I was around it and around incredible people as well. Like, Chris Columbus was one of dad's closest friends and they collaborated so often, but I always saw him as a friend! Then you get older and you're like, oh, no. You were this incredible cruise director of these massive ships, and what an undertaking those are! Now, it's certainly much more of where I'm comfortable. At this moment, this is where all my energy is.
When you realized you wanted to pursue directing, did you have an idea of what you thought your first film would be?
It certainly wasn't this. I can't say that there was a specificity to where I thought I would wind up first, but you don't think you're going to wind up doing the thing you're most afraid of. And comedy was the one that I was like, 'Oh, I'll get a couple movies in and then I'll touch that!'
What scared you most about comedy?
Comedy's the scariest thing in the world! I grew up around it. I love it very much, but the hardest thing that you can try and get people to do is laugh. There's a lot of pretty easy ways to scare people, there's certain things that pretty reliably make people cry, but laughter is such an unreliable thing to chase. And the generation of guys that I grew up with and ladies that I grew up with that were in the comedy world, there's so little about that that exists right now. That's terrifying too. Generationally, comedy hasn't been that popular for a while. It's still being made, but it's not being made the way it used to. In movie theaters in the '80s and '90s, there were so many comedies, and you'd see a lot of them in that mid-range budget, where they were given a lot of money to make interesting action sequences or big dance sequences or these other silly things happen. They're not given that anymore.
So, that's really terrifying. But somehow, this was the one that survived. Through the pandemic, a lot of directors had best laid plans, and everything fell apart. This was the one that refused to. I had other, more serious movies, but it was like, I guess this is where you're starting — with a zombie comedy!
How did Diablo's script find its way to you?
I was initially really shy about talking about it, because I didn't know if she would want to talk about it, but she was fine with it, so now I'm okay, too! I had helped out another director, a male director, years ago when he had a really rough emotional time of a movie, as so many of us will over our careers. I had been there for him and supported him and told him that there are ways to get help, and that he should stick around, and that he has still things left to do, even when it feels like you've hit this place of nothing left to create. And over the years, we would keep in touch periodically and check in on each other. And during the pandemic, when a lot of people were checking in on each other, he said his girlfriend had written a script. He said that she was a bit worried about if it was too weird or if anyone would want to do it, and he remembered the short that I had made called Shrimp. He was like, 'I think you're the right person for this.'
I don't know if you've seen Shrimp, but there's nothing really that ties these together. So, he's a very brilliant man for somehow pulling this from that. He completely buried the lede — did not know his girlfriend was Diablo — but he sent me this script, and I fell madly in love with it and pretty much immediately wrote him back and said, 'Tell me what I have to do. I'll happily jump through whatever flaming hoops I need to.' The rest was pretty smooth and straightforward. She and I immediately got along. Our shorthand of the movies we love is incredibly similar, and it was such a collaborative thing from that point forward that it is kind of wild to realize that it all came from an email in the midst of everyone being shut into their homes.
You auditioned for Juno early on in your acting career, right?
Very early. It was one of the first scripts I was ever sent after I did House of D. Not for the lead role — not for Elliot's part — but for the best friend. I remember it distinctly, but I forgot to tell her! [Laughs] She found out when we were doing EPK way after we sold the movie. I completely spaced, because I didn't audition very much when I first started. I was still a teenager, and I was going to high school, and my parents were like, 'Absolutely not!'
This being your first film, you really get to establish how you want to work and how you want to run a set. What were the most important pillars of Zelda Williams set?
Well, I would like to believe that I take after some of the guys that I grew up around and the ones that I grew up loving. The two that I am the most fond of are Chris Columbus and Mel Brooks, and both of them were so fond of collaboration. They worked with the people they loved working with, and when you do that, you get a shorthand and a trust that's already there. Obviously, I'm very early on in this, but to start this by working with one of my friends who I've known and loved for years — because Cole and I have been really good friends for a long time — that's what I grew up around, where Chris and dad made six movies together. And Mel and Gene and Madeline made so many movies together. I love that form of creation, because no one person makes a movie. I know there are some directors who believe that they're playing God. I don't. I would rather it felt more like a team. So, first and foremost, what I really wanted to embark on was creating a collaborative team atmosphere, and I think we managed to do that quite well. I like my sets to be a place where people feel like they're not just being ordered around. Art isn't a fun thing to make if you're essentially being treated like you're under a fascist dictatorship.
Was there a point while making this where the fear of the comedy went away? What was it like once you were actually in it and having to deliver comedy each day?
When I'm working, fear doesn't really come into it, because I just love solving problems. I'm the biggest escape room nerd you've ever met, and ironically, that's very much my directing style too: Solving as many problems as I can and making sure things are running smoothly. That fear didn't really enter my head again until when I was done and editing and being like, 'Oh no, oh no. I have to now make this.' And we were originally an R-rated movie.
You had to edit it to be PG-13 in post?
Yeah, that happens a lot, particularly with comedies. But it was a big transition to take what was an R-rated film to a PG-13 place without changing the tone of the movie. That was daunting for me. I remember when the directive came down, and my brain short-circuited for a minute. I was like, 'How do you do this?!' But we figured it out.
You still got a flying penis in there, which isn't bad for PG-13!
I know. [Laughs] We get away with murder quite literally in this film, and, I'm shocked by the fact that that happened. I'm very grateful that we did not have to cut that, because I don't know how the movie would've worked! The prosthetic was a real prosthetic that exists too, because there was a shot of it originally in the R-rated cut.
As prepared as you could be, what is something you could only learn from actually making your first movie?
They say that all filmmaking is student filmmaking, and it's a very true thin. You can be as prepared as you thought you were. You can have gone to as many classes or read all the books, but until you do it and navigate it, it's always going to catch you off guard. And I'm sure it will continue to do so with every movie moving forward. That's the thing, is no two movies are the same. But to finally have one under my belt and done is nice, because at the very least, it doesn't feel like an empty night sky now. It's not just completely unknowable. There's one constellation up there that I can use as a north star moving forward, because I'm not usually a do-the-same-thing-twice person anyhow. I'm sure wherever I go next will be very different. I like that challenge, but knowing that the thing that I was the most scared of was the first thing I got to try? From this point forward, if nothing else, I do think I'll be a lot more confident even just walking in that door on the first day.
Do you have a sense of what you want to do next? Or do you know what you hope a quintessential Zelda Williams film will be, or a common thread that will draw you to everything you do?
My team thinks it's going to be some form of joking about death or mortality, and that makes a lot of sense! But I don't want to limit myself quite yet. I just want to try everything, because everyone right now — and this is the nature of an industry that also shot itself in the foot by changing things that didn't need to — are afraid of failure. So, they're not trying anything. And I think it's why some things have gotten stagnated, because they're not experimenting the way they used to in case they don't make money. There's so much really brilliant stuff that's being made on micro budgets, but it does make me worry about what we will get to do in the coming decades. So, if I have the chance to run with it now while I can, I'm going to and I'm going to try a bunch of things. You know, I've always wanted to do a costume drama, because they don't make sense to me. And I know they were usually made for women my age, so I really want to do one just to see if I can make what my version of a costume drama would be like. 1700s Versailles, let me at it! Why not?
By John Boone