|Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn
When Michael Kennedy was 16 years old, growing up in North Olmsted, Ohio, a group of his high school friends convinced him to get in a car, cruise to Westgate Mall, and buy tickets to see this new Drew Barrymore romantic comedy titled Scream.
You know, the “romantic comedy” in which the masked killer dispatches Barrymore within the film’s first 10 minutes? The “romantic comedy” that completely turned the horror genre on its head, created by Cleveland’s own Wes Craven? The uber meta motion picture that would change 16-year-old Michael Kennedy’s life forever?
Yep, that Scream.
“The thing is, I didn’t grow up on a diet of horror movies, and I think my friends knew this,” Kennedy says. They probably imagined they’d get a bit of bonus entertainment watching Kennedy squirm in his seat. “But here’s the thing. Within the first five minutes, I was completely enamored.”
Flash forward nearly 25 years. Now it’s Kennedy’s turn to splatter the screen with love, laughs, plenty of jump scares, and more than a few buckets of blood. Kennedy’s feature debut, Freaky, a wicked spin on Freaky Friday that critics are calling a screwball slasher movie with equal parts horror, humor and heart, premieres this Friday, Nov. 13.
Screaming for something different
|Cleveland screenwriter Michael Kennedy
Kennedy, a Saint Edward High School grad and the youngest of seven, admits he had zero interest in horror movies before that fateful theater trip with his high school friends. He doesn’t even recall seeing a scary movie before Scream (though Kennedy is pretty sure his older brother, Jimmy, a Cleveland firefighter, sat him down to watch Halloween when he was very young).
Scream did the trick, however.
“Watching Scream was like an amazing dopamine hit,” says Kennedy. “I had a complete bodily reaction to it.”
Beyond the humor and horror, Kennedy plugged in to the emotional journey of the film’s main character, Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell.
“Her transformation from this quiet, rather fearful person into this total badass just spoke to me,” he says. “I could identify with Sidney’s need to overcome her fears and embrace her true self. It felt real and inspiring. I remember thinking, ‘I want to write something like this when I’m older.”
After graduation, Kennedy studied English at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Though he describes himself as a poor high school English student, Kennedy attributes his collegiate success to creative writing professor Christine Brandel. She inspired Kennedy enough that he regularly sought out her classes during his time at BGSU, and the two remain friends today.
“Then, after college, I came home and bounced around from job to job, kinda unfulfilled,” Kennedy says. “I was itching to move to Los Angeles and be a writer.”
Kennedy was working at Cleveland Printwear in Lakewood and coaching high school volleyball at Magnificat and Saint Ed’s when he realized it was now or never.
“One day I picked a date and put it on the calendar. That was the date I was moving to L.A.,” he says. “Then I moved back in with my parents, saved nearly every penny I made and, about a year later, packed my stuff into my car and drove west.”
Taking a stab at show business
Like many aspiring moviemakers, Kennedy’s first job in L.A. was tending bar. But he also knew the importance of networking. Through connections back in Cleveland, Kennedy was able to meet with Mark Hentemann, a Cleveland native and Saint Ignatius graduate, who was producing Family Guy. Hentemann gave Kennedy his first job as a production assistant. Kennedy worked his way to assistant to the producer and back-up writer before moving to the writing room on Bordertown.
When Bordertown was cancelled, Kennedy’s writing career fell into a lull. He was working in production, but having trouble landing a seat in a writer’s room. But he kept writing.
“So I wrote this slasher script that made its way to Ryan Turek, the VP of Development at Blumhouse,” says Kennedy. Blumhouse Productions, founded in 2000 by Jason Blum, specializes in making micro-budget films and giving filmmakers full creative control. It has produced hits like Paranormal Activity, Halloween and Happy Death Day. It has also garnered critical acclaim for producing Get Out and BlacKkKlansman.
Turek liked Kennedy’s script, but couldn’t find a spot for it on the company’s slate. Instead, he encouraged Kennedy to join Blumhouse’s growing podcast network. Kennedy did, joining Nay Bever and Brennan Klein for “Attack of the Queerwolf,” in which the hosts “dissect horror faves, from classic to problematic, dish on their favorite weekly offerings and discuss queer identity.”
It was through the podcast that Kennedy met Christopher Landon, director of Happy Death Day and Paranormal Activity franchise screenwriter. The two struck up a friendship.
Funny because Kennedy was already plotting to steal Landon’s work.
The world turns a little bit apocalyptic
In 2018, Kennedy’s father passed away, and Kennedy found himself struggling with the nearly unbearable grief that followed. Working through the loss, Kennedy happened on Landon’s Happy Death Day. Much like Scream’s Sidney Prescott, Happy Death Day’s main character, Tree, was struggling with the loss of a parent. The parallels struck a chord and Kennedy found himself tearing up. Here was this low-budget horror movie that was equally entertaining and moving.
“There is always such a strong emotional center to Chris’s work,” says Kennedy. “There’s always a beating heart working hard, mixing comedy, horror and emotion.”
There’s more to the story, of course.
“I was also thinking, ‘How can I rip this off?’” Kennedy says, laughing. “Here’s Chris, combining a straight-forward slasher movie with Groundhog Day. How do I do that? And then, like that, Freaky Friday came to mind.”
Swapping screenwriting ideas
Kennedy got to work, banging out the pitch of what was then called Killer Body. He reached out to Turek at Blumhouse who told him to set up a meeting. Everything was moving so fast that Kennedy called in Landon to help him practice his pitch. Landon agreed.
“Rather than hear me pitch, Chris read pages while I sat back and played on my computer,” says Kennedy. “Every once in a while, I would hear him laugh. Then he got up and started pacing. And then he started pitching ideas to me.”
Kennedy could tell where this was headed, so he asked: “Chris, do you want to do this with me?”
Landon said yes, but they agreed they should give it a day to be sure. Instead, they shook hands three hours later and were rewriting the next day. Everything was firing on all cylinders and, within a couple weeks, they had a draft ready to share.
“We called Blumhouse on a Thursday and told Ryan we were going live with the script on Monday. We wanted to give him an early crack at it, because of our relationship with the company,” says Kennedy. “All of a sudden, we had a deal on Saturday, and it was greenlit on Sunday.”
Freaky was in front of cameras by October 2019, going 20 months from script to final film.
A terrifying tale of trading places
Freaky tells the tale of Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) and Barney Garris (Vince Vaughn), aka the Blissfield Butcher, who switch bodies when Garris attempts to kill Millie with an enchanted dagger. Suddenly Millie, in the Butcher’s body, has to convince her friends she is who she says she is and save her friends from the real killer - who is creatively slaying fellow co-eds as Millie - all before the transformation is made permanent. Like the movies that inspired it, Freaky both piles on the laughs and the scares while creating well-rounded real people with relatable human experiences.
|Josh, Millie and Nyla plot their next move
That includes supporting characters Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich). Kennedy tells Cleveland.com that Josh, openly gay and unabashedly himself, is “the kid I wish I could’ve been when I was 17 years old.” Kennedy and co-writer Landon found catharsis in their trio of outlier heroes, each battling emotional demons far scarier than the killer on the loose.
Critics are already heaping praise, with Chris Evangelista at /Film calling Freaky “a blood-drenched horror-comedy that goes for big laughs, bigger gore, and wraps it all up in touching pathos that’s bound to catch more than a few viewers off guard.”
In a way, it’s a full circle moment for Kennedy, who granted the wish of his 16-year-old self. But he isn’t stopping here.
Spending days on set watching Landon work and learning under his tutelage was the best film school he could hope for, says Kennedy. Now he wants to take what he’s learned from his friend and build on top of it.
“Chris told me I could be as involved in Freaky’s production as I wanted to be, and I wanted to see the entire process,” Kennedy says. “And that helped me realize how much I’d like to become a producer. I loved seeing how it all came together, how everyone on set collaborated to get work done on a tight schedule and a tight budget. It was just amazing.”
In the meantime, Kennedy has plenty of work to focus on. He recently sold another high-concept horror pitch to ACE Pictures and is working on a project with a Freaky producer. Kennedy’s pitching a show to the networks and streaming and hints at a secret project that has him both excited and overwhelmed.
“It’s just amazing,” he says.
Don’t sit at home, come join the fun
Also amazing? Kennedy is 40 years old. Hollywood cliches would suggest he’s over the hill to be hitting his stride now. Kennedy says that’s all fine. It’s the beauty of ignorance.
“Without that ignorance, of not knowing any better, I wouldn’t have survived,” Kennedy says. “And there were low points when I thought, ‘How am I going to survive? This is all I know how to do?”
Looking back, Kennedy sees how the highs and lows helped clear the path to this moment. The lull between Bordertown and Freaky, for example, helped Kennedy hone his craft, find his voice and discover where his passions lie.
“I realized I was giving up a part of myself to fit in a box I didn’t think I belonged in - or didn’t want to be in. And I learned that you have to be okay with failure,” Kennedy says. “Failure moves you along. Without failure, this movie wouldn’t exist.”
For aspiring filmmakers, Kennedy emphasizes patience.
“So many people arrive in their 20s and expect to be discovered overnight,” he says. “It doesn’t happen. Instead, focus on honing your craft and finding your voice.”
Kindness goes a long way, too, Kennedy says. While the ruthless Hollywood stereotype exists, those people are few and far between, and doesn’t get them anywhere.
“Take your time, be nice, find your land and own it,” Kennedy says.