How Lisa Frankenstein’s Director Found the Heart in Horror
An exclusive Q&A with director Zelda Williams.
Lisa Frankenstein, directed by Zelda Williams from a script by Academy Award®-winner Diablo Cody, turns the classic horror tale into comic romance. Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), an awkward teen disconnected from her family and schoolmates, finds a real connection with a 19th-century corpse (Cole Sprouse), who is miraculously reanimated by a freak electrical storm.
“Her talent was super evident,” says Cody about Williams in the production notes, adding that “Zelda’s aesthetic and love of practical effects seemed to really align with this project.” Williams’ love of ‘80s horror and comedy set the perfect tone and palette for the film’s stylish look. “The world in the script is so heightened, but Zelda managed to inject so much heart and love into it,” Newton added.
We spoke with Williams about being a horror fan, finding the perfect actors for the offbeat couple, and what she hopes people will take away from the film.
What made you excited about taking on Diablo Cody’s screenplay?
I was one of those kids who was raised on Beetlejuice, and my family showed me Young Frankenstein when I was little. I was an actor for years, and I’ve never received a script that reminded me of those movies. To hold something in my hands that reminded me of Frankenhooker or Beetlejuice was a joy. I read it within the first 24 hours of receiving it and then immediately wrote back the next morning, “Tell me what I got to do to make this.”
How did you balance the different tones, genres, and stories?
Ironically, for me, they didn’t feel like separate things. It never felt that '80s teen-slasher film and coming-of-age story were two different genres that I had to balance. They felt like one story. In Diablo’s work, the stuff that is on the page is so incredibly colorful and the dialogue so rich that everything works perfectly. And there’s so much personality in each of the characters already. When the actors came to set, we got to run with this world that was already so fully realized. If anything, my job was just occasionally reeling them back in.
How did you cast the actors to play Lisa Swallows and her cadaverous beau?
We wound up with Cole first, which I'm very relieved about because, truthfully, on the page, a rotting male lead who doesn't say anything for the entire movie is not something I know a lot of men would jump at; I know there are more men these days who are open to playing second fiddle to a female lead, but it doesn't happen that often.
I've been friends with Cole for a long time, and he's always wanted to be a monster. So, he immediately came to mind for this role. After we cast him, we started looking for our Lisa. I thought of Katherine after I saw her in The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and Freaky. She’s not only such a delightful sweetheart, but she’s also a nerd and weirdo in the best possible way for this role. Because of the pandemic, we weren't allowed to have a proper chemistry read, which initially made casting them terrifying. With a romantic comedy, blind casting is a horribly dangerous thing to do. We really lucked out, however, because they had previously met and they knew each other's personalities.
How did you approach the film’s look, which feels simultaneously kitsch and restrained?
I don't think that anyone would call the décor in Lisa’s house restrained but thank you; I've never heard anyone refer to a seafoam-blue and baby-pink palette as restrained. Working on the design was really exciting. I got obsessed with fiber-optic lamps and went on eBay to search for them. I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to work with a production designer who was willing to create a world that didn't feel otherworldly except in those moments when I needed a bit of magic. I wanted the house to be a realistic nightmare, a place from that time period that would make one incredibly uncomfortable. Once I saw WandaVision, I knew that Mark Worthington was the right guy. I thought, "He'll never want to do this movie because he is doing Marvel TV shows," but when he read the screenplay, he fell in love with the story, too.
You’ve described yourself as a horror nerd. What makes the genre so inviting?
Horror is a very wide and welcoming umbrella. More than anything, this movie is a comedy with horror elements. Nothing about this movie will likely scare anyone, but horror is not necessarily about scares. Horror movies which are comedies, like Shaun of the Dead, are some of my favorite movies.
The film has such a fantastic soundtrack.
Isabella Summers, who is our wonderful composer, created a mix of songs from the period and a soundtrack that felt of the period, not of this current moment. We listened our way through a lot of the late '80s movies that we loved. We listened to the soundtrack of The 'Burbs quite a bit. I love the simpleness of the Home Alone soundtrack. For this film, we tried to find our way to a soundtrack with the feeling of those movies, rather than one that felt present tense looking back on the '80s.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I've seen audiences watch it and have such a joyful, escapist experience. One young woman during a test screening said something really profound that stuck with me. “The point of this movie is that you can be unhinged and possibly unwell and still deserve love," she said. If people came away with that, that would be great.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.