Celebrating Difference: Trudie Styler makes directing debut with compassionate and funny 'Freak Show'

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In decades of interviewing people, I have never experienced such instant rapport as I had with Trudie Styler, who has just made her feature directorial debut with IFC Films’ Freak Show. It’s a beautifully cast, vividly entertaining and quite touching tale of teen bullying, as experienced by high-schooler Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther), who loves drag, glitter and all things glam, and meets an unlikely friend in football hero Mark (Ian Nelson), nicknamed Flip, who turns out to be much less of a conventional jock than he seems. Adding more complexity to Billy’s life is the alcoholic, camp-encouraging mother, Muv (Bette Midler), he adores, and his forbiddingly conventional father (Larry Pine), whose nickname is “Daddy Downer.” 

Styler, the wife of music superstar Sting for the last 25 years, graciously opened the door of her beautiful Central Park West apartment with a vibrant, wall-sized Basquiat on the wall, snow on her terrace, and an open roaring fire in the middle of her book-lined living room. When I told her how much I enjoyed her film, she threw her arms around me in the warmest of hugs. A capacious cappucino was placed before me and, turning the interview tradition around 360 degrees, she immediately asked me about myself. We discovered that we both left home at 17 to pursue our dreams.

Trudie Styer: I had finished school and done my A levels and wanted to go to drama school, which started a family fight: “Nobody from Walls Road is an actor! Get out and go to the local brushworks factory!” That was where all the girls went, to be in the typing pool. “No, I’m not doing that,” and things escalated and became very abusive.

I packed my bags and left, hitchhiked part of the way. I had a little bit of money which, looking back, I remember I had stolen from my father’s wallet. [laughs] I arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon, which I had set my sights on, at 11:30 at night, thinking, “Now what?”

I knocked on this door and this couple in their dressing gowns opened the door. This 17-year-old tearful girl saw these two people wondering what on earth was going on, and I said, “I’ve left home because I want to be an actor!”

They said, “You’d better come in, my dear,” and in I went. Through my tears, they let me know that I shouldn’t panic, they weren’t throwing me out on the street, and gave me a bed for the night, cheering me up with cup of Horlick’s.

Hester Hawks was the name of the lady, and I’m speaking very emotionally about this, because it took 40 years to get back in touch with this couple who I thought for sure would not remember this crazy girl who knocked on their door. But I found their names in the electoral register and they still live in that very same house! That determination I had at 17, like you: Kids don’t think about anything but their dream and vision. Everybody get out of my way because this is what I need to do for myself!

Plus, my birthday was just this past January 6, Capricorn. I think we’re very driven, something is propelling you along and it’s almost bigger than you when you have a dream.

Film Journal International: I’m basically the same age as you, and aren’t you glad we came up in a time when anything seemed possible? Back then, everybody and their mother did not want to become an artist, go into film, acting, theatre or fashion. The pool was smaller; today if you knocked on that same door to try to become an actor, they’d say, “Get in line!”

TS: And you wouldn’t even knock on a stranger’s door because they’d be so terrified, they wouldn’t answer. We did grow up when anything was possible. Look at Sundance. In just a year they went from having 4,000 films submitted to 14,000. A festival like Berlin has films from all over the world, and are always late in selecting them, because they have to plough through so many.

FJI: Every Friday, a minimum of twenty films are released, most of them not worth spit, which is why your film is so very special, especially for its targeted youth audience. It’s based on a book by former 1980s club kid James St. James, who I knew slightly from hanging out at Limelight and other NYC clubs back in the day. He always seemed maybe the one genuine and really nice person in that crazy “Party Monster” crowd with all the outrageous drag, ambition and attitude.

TS: I connected with him, too. I met him before I directed this and he’s entirely positive, doesn’t bad-mouth anybody, and has nothing negative to say. He is very opinionated and has a lot to say, but he’s also very compassionate. I was very inspired by that.

Finding our Billy wasn’t easy, we interviewed like 100 boys. There was originally another director onboard who had reasons to excuse himself, so although I was producer, I jumped in. We wanted to shoot the movie in the window of the school’s homecoming leading up to Thanksgiving, and everything had been prepped. We lost our director in July and I took on the project in August with a September 15 start date. The shoot was 22 days, a whirlwind. But our director dropping out because of personal reasons resulted in the greatest opportunity for me.

FJI: How did Bette Midler come onboard?

TS: Bette came onboard because when we lost our director, we also lost the actress who was going to play Muv. So we had to start up again, and to trigger the finance we needed to have a big enough name. We needed a star, although I felt very strongly that Billy should be a newcomer—I wanted him to be an empty canvas for the audience to believe in him all the more. I had known Bette—not hugely well—because we have this common interest in the environment and the Central Park Conservancy.

FJI: And her annual Hulaween costume benefit party, which you and your husband really turn out for, drag-wise!

TS: [laughs loudly] Oh, you remember that! One year, he went as a funny take on the Tin Man—this silver costume with great big platform shoes, like a cross between Tin Man and Elton John. But I adore Bette and I called her and said, “Would you ever consider playing this role? I think it will speak to you.”

She wasn’t very keen on it, but I said, “Will you read the script?” I was in Italy with my family when she said, “I’m in,” and from that moment in August the holiday was over. I had to jump in and fast-forward things, because we then we got a large portion of our funding and also equity investors, Bette has so many fans, especially, who know who she is. Beyond being an actress, she is such a light, isn’t she?

So then we needed our Billy. I sifted through all the boys, thinking, “If I get that wrong, I don’t have a movie.” I really had to be sure to get an actor who had all the dimensions of Billy but also one with whom I’d be able to have a rapport with very fast, so we could get on with making the movie. I wasn’t finding anyone here, so I flew to England and David Kaufman sent along some English actors. One sunday morning, in came Alex Lawther and within ten minutes I had such a rapport with him. We read to each other. I’m an actor and can tell if someone has great dimension and Alex really does. He was 19 when he did it.

FJI: The other actors were also so well chosen.

TS: Abigail Breslin [as Billy’s mean-girl nemesis and homecoming-queen competition rival] is fearless, such a courageous actress. She was 19, and this was alredy her 40th movie.  She’s somewhat like Bette, they both have that fearlessness in front of the camera and they go big, which is entirely right for this movie. The adaptation was not a story about a young male who succumbs to being bullied by his aggressors. He’s beaten up, but he doesn’t succumb. His defiant revenge is becoming homecoming queen, so we were exploring comedic tone and the movie could have gone in either direction.

Some of my film’s detractors say bullying is a serious matter and that this is too lighthearted. But I don’t think the demographic we’re trying to appeal to wants to be preached at. They want to be entertained. I’ve been on the road now to some 29 festivals and sat with audiendes and Q&A talkbacks. Audiences have really laughed their asses off and some said it really spoke to them, and sometimes the laughter turns to tears when they talk about their own stories. How painful it’s been for many, but you can’t tell people how to feel. They’ll tell you. I think the style of Freak Show has great accessibility because it speaks to that age group

FJI: I love that the film is never maudlin, no matter how sad things get for Billy. He’s a fighter , even at his lowest ebb. I know you’ve been bullied in your youth, as was I. And it didn’t end in adulthood here. One incident had me and two friends happily walking one night to go dancing at the legendary club, the Paradise Garage. Two punks came toward us and for no reason one of them shoved me so hard I fell flat on my ass on the sidewalk. One of them turned around and snickered and that triggered me. I charged them, grabbed one by the throat and shoved him to the ground, not realizing that his head hit the base of a lamp post on Sixth Avenue. One of my friends handed me my glasses, saying, “They flew off when you fell. Let’s get the hell out of here!” We dashed to the club and, totally pumped with adrenaline, danced our asses off all night. 

TS: [claps her hands] Kudos to you. Well, I didn’t have a good time in school. [As the result of being hit by a van, which left facial injuries] I looked different, with these big gravel scars on my face. I got called “Scarface.”

I think if you make it to university you can look however the heck you like. That expression ”The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” doesn’t really apply in university. If you stick out you’re cool, people go, “I want to know them!” But in kindergarten through high school, you’ve got to be really careful that you can find your group and have a support system. 

In my film, we have the “Shadow People,” who keep their heads down, so as not to attract attention. But for a kid, growing up in the Midlands in the late 1950s, with these scars from when I was three years old, I had to walk down these school halls and hear “Scarface!” So, in Freak Show, I made the choice to have these long halls Billy had to walk through be like walks of shame, because that’s what they were to me.

Conversely, for the popular students, the pretty girls, like I remember one named Penny Marthew…

FJI: You never forget those names. I remember Molly Mollenhoff, who was a friend in sixth grade, but on the first day of seventh grade she iced me in front of her clique, when I tried to say hello, with “Ew! David Noh!”

TS: [laughs] You never forget!

FJI: And she was German! I loved the line Billy says to his indifferent-to-bullying teacher, “You look away, like a good German.”

TS: Oh, I had so much pushback from some of my investors to take that out: “It’s so offensive!” But I said, “No, it belongs there and I’m not going to apologize.”

FJI: Like that great Mel Brooks line about the Holocaust, “We saw nothing! We lived in the back!” But what is it about kids that makes them such cruel bullies? Is it just rotten but real human nature? It’s supposed to get better, but I still hear many horror stories from friends I know with kids.

[At this point, Styler’s assistant appears to say our time is up and we should wrap it up.]

TS: But we don’t want to wrap it up! We’re having such a good time. So I’ve got a phone interview coming up, is it? Have I got ten minutes? It’s gone too quick! [laughs]

Returning to the subject, I think everybody thinks we’re not meant to be alone and we want to find people to relate to. It’s different for us because you and I were always outside. I’ve never been part of a group, but people do want to form groups.

In the 1980s, when we first went to the Amazon, there were indigenous groups at war with each other. We’d hear, “We don’t know why we can’t get along. It’s an unanswerable question.” So often, people look to the person who’s the strongest in the group to take some kind of leadership. But there are very few people who do not abuse positions of power, as we see right now in this country.

FJI: Ian Nelson is so good as Mark/Flip, and it was great to see that treasure of the New York stage, Larry Pine, featured in an important film role for a change.

TS: Ian’s very good, isn’t he? He has that sort of decency because he himself is a decent human being with good moral values, even though he has been bullied by his father to be the jock that he really is not. So Billy is his inspiration and Flip is allowed to self-realize. I thought that was a good character and Ian was extraordinary in it, and is going to have a fine career.

I loved working with Larry. And he’s got such charisma when he comes into that scene and says, “Put that cigarette out!” to Bette. That gravelly voice—I was like, “Larry!?!” He’s magnificent.

You’re right, you can’t have a lightweight to play opposite Bette, but that scene was kind of hard because at that point Billy is going through so much, hearing her say she should have flushed him, and his heart is breaking. There is so much going on, and then she does her lustful cheerleading routine in front of Mark. That was the scene where I loved the result, but it was difficult and had me wondering, “Is this comedy or tragicomedy or what genre?”

FJI: It’s like Chekhov, layered with different emotions.

TS: Exactly. I said, “I think there’s going to be a master and we’re going to do it eight times, like a stage play. LIke Chekhov, everything is going to shit, but it is funny and strange.

FJI: We’ve got to mention the all-important costumes, by Colleen Atwood.

TS: Well, Colleen has been in my life for thirty-something years. Ah, costume designers! I am the luckiest woman in the world to have her, and Milena Canonero as one of my closest friends in my life. She did Fair Game, the movie I did with (Freak Show cinematographer] Dante Spinotti. We had a pact in the eighties when I was doing this Italian thriller, me being chased around a loft by a deadly snake. [laughs] Milena did the costumes and Dante shot it. We were at Cinecittà in Rome, with a first-time director getting very lost, but we were there for three months and it was bliss for me. I was the only actor in it except for Gregg Henry, who did three days on it. Just me and that snake for 85 minutes. All of this pre-CGI, me and that sucker, and the Italians weren’t very good at caring for them, so the snakes were dying at an appalling rate.

For Freak Show I talked to Colleen about what are the significant costumes. Mark tells Billy to be “More Wrangler, less fabulous,” but that really doesn’t work for him. So we see elements of the costume he’s working on, during his recovery in the hospital, this beautiful mermaid dresss. He has to wear that to take away his feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing. When he puts this apparel on, this is who he is. Colleen also created that incredible costume for the scene in which he’s beaten up by the bullies. In the book,  James said he was a zombie swamp monster, but I thought he should be a bride being defiled. So you see this tiny little body being tossed through the air with the muslin of the dress going everywhere. I thought that was a wonderful design.

Billy makes his speech about how all teenagers feel awkward, like freaks. You maybe align yourself with a bully, because you’re afraid. No one feels in their right skin and I hope this movie will speak to them.