‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Director Zelda Williams on Making Her First Feature and What Happened When a Prosthetic Penis Went Missing

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains mild spoilers for “Lisa Frankenstein,” in theaters now.

Zelda Williams has no problem admitting that her feature directorial debut “Lisa Frankenstein” isn’t destined to be considered a cinematic masterpiece.

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“First and foremost, this movie ISN’T a groundbreaking spiritual journey that will change your worldly perceptions,” she wrote in a filmmaker’s statement, “but it IS a ride — so maybe just try to put your hands in the air and let the coaster take you!”

And that it is — a rollercoaster homage to 1980s slasher films. Written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody, “Lisa Frankenstein” stars Kathryn Newton as a high school outsider who falls for a centuries-old non-verbal corpse (Cole Sprouse) that has come back to life.

The two embark on a journey of friendship, love and missing body parts. They go on a killing spree to replace the corpse’s deteriorated appendages, including a hand, an ear and his manhood. While the shadow of a fake penis is seen flying through the air during one bloody scene, Williams had originally taken things a step further. “When we initially shot the movie it was R-rated, so you saw that prosthetic fly into the trash can,” she tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast, adding, “I hope it winds up on some DVD extra at some point. It’s too beautiful and hilarious of a prosthetic not to.”

She also shares that the prosthetic penis went missing for about two months after the scene was shot. “Everyone got asked if they had it,” Williams recalls. “I’m like, ‘No, I didn’t steal the dick from set.’ They found it eventually.”

Williams is the daughter of the late Hollywood comedy and drama icon Robin Williams. Before “Lisa Frankenstein,” she directed music videos and some shorts. She also has some acting credits to her name, but now says she’s most comfortable behind the camera.

Williams also said she didn’t intend to launch her feature career with a comedy. “Especially growing up around it, my adjacency to it, it’s that combination of respecting it really deeply and also knowing how hard it is,” she says. “There’s formula to everything. There’s ways that you can find your way towards anything. Comedy is one of the things you really can’t teach. There’s still formulas to a good joke, but the daunting task of finding a bunch of young actors that I felt would have chemistry in comedy…I was lucky with Kathryn and Cole.”

I caught up with Williams over Zoom video from her Los Angeles-area home.

In your filmmakers statement, you also write that you thought you did something right because one teenager audience member at a focus group screening said of the movie, “You can be a completely unhinged weirdo and still deserve to be loved!”

So much of what Diablo wrote was about the idea that for a lot of people — not just women, but I know especially for women my age and younger — they’re in this world of feeling like the way they navigate the world has to be palatable for other people, especially with social media, especially with all this judgment that’s going around. Truthfully, particularly in growth and in grief, a lot of what you’re going to want to feel isn’t going to feel like it’s OK for other people. You will lose people when you’re grieving, especially if you’re grieving quite honestly. There will be people that won’t know how to navigate it, especially if they haven’t been through it.

How did you do a chemistry read with Kathryn and Cole since Cole’s character doesn’t speak?

We did not have a chemistry read because we were still technically in the pandemics, so that was also really terrifying for me, especially with the romantic comedy. Thankfully, Cole had shot pictures of Kathryn before years ago, and so they knew each other. They weren’t what I would say close friends, but they knew each other and respected each other. They just called each other and talked on the phone. Really narrowed in on if this would work for them. I had to trust in them very deeply that that chemistry would work and it was wonderful.

“Lisa” is your first feature. What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

I would now take a lot more seriously the concept that more often than not, they are going to end up wanting you to edit multiple ratings versions of your movie. Even though when I was on set, I was like, “Do you want more bloodless versions of these kills just in case?” They were like, “No, no, no, it’ll be fine.”

Being the daughter of Robin Williams, did you ever feel you had to prove yourself even more because people are going to say “Of course, you want to direct. You could direct whatever you want because you’re the child of this Oscar winner.”

I don’t think about it as much as I think other people do. As much as I think he would enjoy this movie, I don’t really feel like I did feel pressure in that way. I think what is interesting, as with all things with time, a lot of people have forgotten that he also did a bunch of very silly or very wacky movies. It wasn’t just these critically acclaimed films… The one thing I will say is there is a certain amount of chatter that I’ve heard where they’re like, “We thought she’d be making a ‘Dead Poets’ thing.” I’m like, “Why on earth would give you that impression?” Other than the idea that you have now curated a version of him in your head that only existed as the movies you like not the other ones he made? That’s been interesting, but it doesn’t really change anything that I’m doing. At 34, I’m just like, “I’m just working.”

Do you see yourself acting again?

I don’t really know, I don’t really care. As funny as it sounds, I would do it for friends, but for me, and this is not me trying to do a fish for compliments thing because I know women get accused of that a lot, I was never all that pretty and stylish and I was never all that popular. I liked acting, but I won’t say I’m all that remarkable. I am deep down not a person who loves the attention that comes along with acting.

What do you think about the Oscar nominations, where Greta Gerwig directs this billion-dollar movie but doesn’t get a nomination for directing?

Don’t be mad, [but] I don’t care about the Oscars so I have no idea. The only thing I noticed was my sweet friend Charles [Melton] didn’t get nominated. Otherwise, I didn’t really keep tabs. I loved a lot of movies this year. “Anatomy of a Fall” was an incredibly made movie, but in terms of the award shows, I’m usually pretty on the outside.

What other movies have you liked this year?

I watch everything. I love movies in general and I love the hefty ones, the really heavy ones. I also love the really light ones. Gosh, I was such a big “Poor Things” fan. It was so funny because my trailer was paired with it…I was honored, but terrified. I did love “The Holdovers.” My fingers are crossed for Da’Vine Joy Randolph. It’s lovely that there is still this vestige of wanting to honor your peers. It’s just never been something that I was too focused on, I guess. I watched Dad go through it when I was younger. I saw it first hand and I also saw that it didn’t end up, at least in his case, making him happy. I removed myself from that.

Did you ever look at and like the glitz and glamour, or it was never for you?

It never was and that’s OK. In the same way that it’s great when people are really excited about it, and it’s great that it can make some people’s careers. It’s just I’ve also watched it stress out a lot of really talented creatives and make them believe that they had to dictate who they were based upon who was honoring them. I’m like, “No, you still are and will remain incredible.” It’s just a really fancy, somewhat erotic paperweight.

If someone comes to you tomorrow and says, “Money is no object — what’s your dream project,” what would you say?

There’s a book series that I’ve always loved that was written by a man named Garth Nix. It’s a very female oriented, almost like a “Lord of the Rings” epic series about a family line of women who put the dead back to rest. It has zombies and it has monsters and all this stuff. It’s also the kind of thing where you’d film in the greenery of New Zealand for three years. I’m more of a bog witch than I am anything else. All I want to do is be around moss and trees.

Are you ever pitched to remakes of your dad’s movies?

Thankfully never. Who would want to? They know how publicly I speak out about that. I’m like, “Why on earth would you resurrect any great actor? Let them rest in peace.” I’m like, “Unless you know someone who’s going to play this and you think they’re great, which I’m probably going to poke holes in that, why would you want to?”

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck told me that they were pitched — and turned down — a “Good Will Hunting” sequel last year.

There were a lot of sequels pitched to [Robin Williams] while he was alive as well. If they’re not right, they don’t happen. With those kinds of people, with people as smart and as capable as Matt and Ben or with people like that, they don’t happen if they don’t think it’s worthwhile…”Good Will Hunting?” No. He went off with the girl. He went to go see about a girl. There’s your answer.

This has conversation has been edited and condensed. You can listen to the full interview above. You can also find “Just for Variety” wherever you download your favorite podcasts.

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