Zelda Williams Makes Feature Directorial Debut With "Lisa Frankenstein"
Zelda Williams (photo by Shayan Asgharnia)
Stitches together a campy 1980s' horror satire with writer-producer Diablo Cody

Diablo Cody, a Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner for Juno, is no stranger to bringing a new form of life to somebody or someone's body--perhaps most notably in the Karyn Kusama-directed Jennifer’s Body in which a teen becomes demonically possessed. After an inauspicious box office debut, that film, a victim of off-kilter marketing, has over time come to be regarded as a cult favorite with dimensions and substance that went underappreciated in its initial release.

Fast forward to today and Cody this time around is breathing unexpected life into a corpse, teaming with first-time feature director Zelda Williams on Lisa Frankenstein (Focus Features). Set in 1989, the film follows Lisa (portrayed by Kathryn Newton), a socially awkward high school student who’s trying to adjust to a new community, an unempathetic stepmother (Carla Gugino), and a well-intentioned stepsister (Liza Soberano). Through a quirk of fate, Lisa accidentally reanimates a handsome Victorian corpse (Cole Sprouse) during a lightning storm and starts to rebuild--or rather, literally sew--this creature into the man of her dreams using the spare body parts of newly murdered victims. This otherworldly creation is somehow bizarrely fused together during “tanning sessions” as Lisa deploys a broken tanning bed in the family garage.

A horror aficionado, lover of all things ‘80s, and with a measure of tongue-in-cheek aplomb and appreciation for the absurd, Williams has crafted a stylized yet campy film that reimagines and revitalizes the Frankenstein trope.

Having inherited her love of performing and creating from her father, the late, great actor and comedian Robin Williams, Zelda has set out on her own path, earning acclaim for her acting in both film and television, with roles in Dead of Summer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Girl in the Box, The Letter, and Teen Wolf

Zelda Williams wrote, starred in, and directed the comedy-drama short, Shrimp, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and was then adapted into a weekly half-hour series. She also directed JoJo’s “Lonely Hearts” music video which highlighted the performer’s journey of self-love and her choice of self-preservation over toxic relationships. (JoJo also sings “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the official music video for Lisa Frankenstein.)

Williams discussed with SHOOT what drew her to Lisa Frankenstein, the challenges it posed, and her biggest takeaways from the experience. Williams’ remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest challenge(s) posed by Lisa Frankenstein?

Williams: Going from an R rating to PG-13 was hard though not an unexpected challenge. I never had to seek a rating before. It was a great learning experience.

[Another challenge was] I wanted to bring about this feeling I used to have watching movies like Edward Scissorhands, Encino Man and Death Becomes Her. I haven’t felt that in a while watching movies. Today so much is sort of a self-referential meta mess. This [Lisa Frankenstein] is so deeply earnest as the opposite of that.

SHOOT: How did your short-form experience (music videos, short films) inform your first go-around as a feature director?

Williams: I had been making things with what I could scrape together, making a lot with very little. You think you can be prepared for making something when you have a lot more--but you have to be careful not to squander it. We made Shrimp for $10,000. This [Lisa Frankenstein] was a great opportunity to have a larger crew and make sets. But my experience taught me to grasp practicality. You have to know how to problem solve with what you have. As a director, you are the problem-solving person. Knowing what you have is important, kind of like knowing what meal that is delicious can I make out of these ingredients.

SHOOT: What drew you to cinematographer Paula Huidobro? Was there any work in particular that attracted you to her--she shot the Best Picture Oscar winner CODA, the limited series Pam & Tommy, TV shows like Physical (nominated for an ASC Award) and Barry (nominated for a Best Cinematography Emmy).

Williams: I’m very personality-driven when it comes to people. We clicked. I like having a DP I have a great shorthand with. I shot list everything far in advance. I do not need to be on top of a DP and the camera department that much, as long as I get all the shots I want for edit. Then we can experiment beyond that. I like having her be that person.

I was drawn to the color and vibrancy of Pam & Tommy, as well as Physical. Also the work in comedy with Barry--and the lighting of Physical.

SHOOT: You are committed to mentoring other filmmakers and creating opportunities on set for women. In addition to your influence on hiring, how do you go about helping to make that happen?

Williams: Gersh, the agency which represents me, has been instrumental in my career. Very few places anymore do the building work of taking young writers and directors and helping them grow. A couple agencies wouldn’t take me across the board. I was 26 years old. Gersh took me on as a writer, director and actor. I developed such a great relationship with them that when I meet young filmmakers, I bring them to Gersh a lot of the time. I’ve done that with about a dozen people.

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Lisa Frankenstein. What are among the things you walk away with first and foremost?

Williams: It was kind of fun to make something for women who miss movies from the ‘80s, who want to laugh and not have to be put down or reminded of something horrible. I’m grateful to Diablo for that. Her inspiration for this [Lisa Frankenstein] was Weird Science, Death Becomes Her, and Nightmare on Elm Street--without the scary.

This [Lisa Frankenstein] is kind of fun and sweet--when a lot of things are neither.

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