For Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin, a goth zombie comedy is cathartic

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For Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin, a goth zombie comedy is cathartic
Zelda Williams, left, and Diablo Cody in Los Angeles on Jan 29, 2024. A friend sent Williams the script for “Lisa Frankenstein” without mentioning that Cody had written it. (Devin Oktar Yalkin/The New York Times)

by Melena Ryzik

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA.- Zelda Williams never intended a teenage zombie rom-com to be her feature filmmaking debut. For one thing, the project, “Lisa Frankenstein,” was a big concept to sell, a high-camp period piece set in the fuchsia-and-teal ’80s. There was grief, violence and a floofy-haired love interest who was — not to put too fine a point on it — not only mute but dead.

For another thing, Williams, 34, the daughter of Robin Williams, the Oscar-winning comic superstar, worried that making her first big step out with a comedy would inevitably draw the wrong kind of attention. “It’s the one thing I thought people are going to be particularly mean to me about,” she said.

But the script for “Lisa Frankenstein” came courtesy of Diablo Cody, who found one-liners, and an Oscar, in adolescent trauma with “Juno,” and who wrote the feminist teen horror flick “Jennifer’s Body,” lately hailed as a cult classic.

Some of the themes in “Lisa Frankenstein” resonated with Williams’ own life, as a person who experienced shock waves of anguish after her father’s sudden death in 2014. The film also came wrapped in a pastiche of references from ’80s and ’90s movies she loved, like “Heathers,” “Weird Science,” “Beetlejuice” and “Death Becomes Her.” Williams was sold on it immediately, and of all the projects she was considering, it was the first to get greenlit.

So she tucked away her trepidation, drew up her storyboards and shot list, and in August 2022 showed up on location in New Orleans, where she promptly got COVID and had to spend the first week directing from inside a van.

That she still carried this all off impressed her cast and colleagues, who noted her ambition, preparation and resolve.

“I did not feel like a mentor of any kind,” said Cody, 45, who’s also a producer of the movie. “And in fact, I kind of felt like I was following her into this world.”

Cody is so attuned to mood that she includes specific song cues in her screenplays, but Williams’ ideas and eye for details, like giving the lead character a mane of curly, red hair — for extra comic oomph — surprised her. “There’s so much of what she created that I had never even envisioned when I originally wrote the script,” Cody said.

The reviews and box office returns for “Lisa Frankenstein,” which stars Kathryn Newton (“Big Little Lies”) as Lisa and “Riverdale” heartthrob Cole Sprouse as her corpse buddy, have been middling, although critics bewitched by its Gothy-teen-girl empowerment have reacted warmly. “Consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious,” said The A.V. Club.

Sprouse, 31, who ran in young Hollywood circles similar to Williams’ and counts her as a friend, said they were aiming for the background nostalgia of a must-see sleepover movie. “We wanted it to give that kind of warm, fuzzy feeling,” he said, “even though we’re chopping people’s hands off and stitching penises back on.”

Over breakfast last month at a cafe in West Hollywood, Williams — who wore a leather bomber jacket that had belonged to her father, and bused her own table — reflected on her path to filmmaking. The movie is set in 1989, the year she was born. Its Easter eggs are all cinematic references, not memes. In a world that’s “quite addicted to meta humor,” she said, “to get to make something so purposefully earnest was so nice.” Although she acknowledged that the film’s brand of “earnest camp” would not be for everyone, she hoped at least “that the weirdos who need it, find it.”

She grew up in San Francisco, the middle child of three; neither of her brothers is in the entertainment business. (Her mother, Marsha Garces Williams, is a philanthropist and producer.) Williams was a self-described nerdy kid, head of the high school tech committee, a dutiful student if not an academically inspired one. “I was up every night, writing,” she said, “and that was my form of rebellion.”

Visiting her dad’s sets, she knew by 12 that she wanted to be involved in the industry. Her parents said she had to finish school first. “And even then, I don’t think they really wanted me to be a part of it,” she said. “But I think they started realizing they couldn’t prevent it.” At 17, she moved to Los Angeles, worked restaurant jobs and lived with roommates, quickly accruing small acting parts. After the pandemic, she surfaced as a director, with music videos and shorts to her name.

The script for “Lisa Frankenstein” came to her via a friend whom she was helping through a dark period. After she was publicly eloquent on the subject of her father’s death by suicide (it later emerged that he had a form of dementia), people often contacted her for support, she said. Her friend happened to be Cody’s boyfriend, although he sent Williams the script without mentioning who wrote it.

Cody had had the germ of the idea, about a teenager and a corpse, for a while, and was spurred to complete it during the pandemic. “I just thought about how we live in a culture that wants so badly for us to move on from traumatic events,” she said. “What if this young woman had an opportunity to literally embrace grief by loving this dead man?”

For Williams, the idea that audiences might see echoes of her experience mourning her father was tricky. “I think I won’t ever be able to escape people assuming everything is about him, and I don’t know if they would have had that same position if he was alive,” she said.

But she understands. “You’re in a fantasy world where death is not permanent,” she said with a small smile. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

In practice and on-screen, though, a lot of that fell away, as the filmmakers addressed more visceral decisions: How gory should the movie be? Originally it spewed enough for an R rating; they edited it down to a PG-13. (“We did some really beautiful, creative painting out of the excess blood,” Williams said.)

The ’80s style, from the clothing to the sets, was a huge focus. Costume designer Meagan McLaughlin Luster used some of her own vintage pieces for Lisa’s bouncy Goth silhouette.

And the production design was its own horror show.

“There was a certain kind of woman in the ’80s that really loved a seashell bathroom, a beach-themed powder room, and had this pastel nightmare phantasmagoria aesthetic in her home,” Cody said. That was the vibe they were after for Janet, the aggressively aerobicized, intensely self-actualizing and demanding stepmother, played by Carla Gugino. “The first time I walked into that set, I was triggered,” Cody said. “Like, ‘Oh, the meanest mom I know lives here, and I’m 7.’ So that worked.”

One of their biggest concerns was how to cast the dead guy, called the Creature. Cody was sure it would be an unknown because most actors want, at a minimum, dialogue. But Sprouse, who grew up on monster movies, jumped at the part, even studying mime to figure out the Creature’s stiff but endearing movements. “It’s exciting to see how much emotion you can sort of bury into a character without lines,” he said.

For Williams, making a movie in which no one worries whether grieving is palatable — a movie in which the reaction to death is aggressively, comically unpalatable — was cathartic. But, she said, “for me, at this point in my life, after this long, all work is cathartic.”

She continued, “I actually look at anything that I’m enjoying as catharsis, because I think a lot of life can be the space between things you’re enjoying.”

It was, she added, the “scariest thing I could have done, but glad that’s out of my way now. Now I should just approach everything else I’m not afraid of, and see how that goes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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