[This interview contains spoilers for Fresh.]
With Fresh, writer Lauryn Kahn and director Mimi Cave serve up an unsettling new take on the classic rom-com “meet-cute.”
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan, the movie — which debuted Friday on Hulu — follows a young woman named Noa (Edgar-Jones) who, after various sour interactions with men in the traditional and digital dating scene, seemingly finds the perfect date in Stan’s Steve, whom she meets in a grocery store produce section.
The two quickly hit it off, and soon he’s inviting her for a weekend gateway at his place in a surprise (read: undisclosed) location. But what awaits Noa there is a bigger horror story than her string of terrible dates. Steve is a cannibal, and he’s planning on selling Noa’s body parts to the highest bidders.
Among a growing crop of movies and TV shows exploring what Kahn calls “the final taboo,” Fresh is a take that’s as much a dark comedy as a social-thriller (operating under the veil of a rom-com) that explores not just the terrors of modern dating but the way relationships can literally and metaphorically devour us.
“I think for me, a lot of the movie is about when you leave a relationship with someone who is perhaps toxic, perhaps narcissistic — whatever it is — and when you step out of it, you realize you feel like they have parts of you still that you didn’t get back,” Cave told The Hollywood Reporter. “That was my way into the film. I know what that feels like. I walk away from relationships, and I’m like, where did I go? I just let that person have those pieces of me. I gave them up so easily.”
In a separate interview with THR, Kahn discusses more of the movie’s macro metaphor — cannibalism as an exaggerated look at the big and small ways women navigate men daily.
“There’s this feeling that I think only women understand. This subconscious way we operate in the world — where we park, do we have our keys, is our friend on speed dial. Things that men don’t think twice about,” she explains. “I wanted to explore that in a big way, as well as trust and women’s fears.”
Ahead of the movie’s March 4 release, Kahn spoke to THR about why she wanted the film to be both scary and funny, how the diversity of its characters gets at the nuances of sexism and survival, and how she chose an ending for Noa that sees her bite back.
What are the origins of this movie, and why did you approach its themes and tone with so much emotional range?
Growing up, I always enjoyed horror movies. Every weekend it would be me and my best friend renting a scary movie. Then it got to a point where I couldn’t do it. I was suddenly terrified and couldn’t really sleep. It just went away in my life. But I always have had this fascination where I need to see the trailer and know exactly what happens. The fear is still there, but I love it so much. So there was something really enticing about writing one. I talked with someone I was with among a group of friends — she had written a horror movie. I said, “How do you even start?” She said something like, “I wrote the scariest thing to me.” That’s pretty simple but good advice. Then it just sort of came to me — I really wanted to explore something that was grounded from the female perspective in the dating world, but also had this levity to it that once you are believing the characters, and you’re with them, I didn’t want to live in the darkness the whole time. I feel when you have something that could end up being heavy-handed — like a social thriller trying to say something — the levity and mix of tones helps to be able to explore things. You’re either laughing or like, “What the fuck? Should I be laughing?” Or you’re just along for the ride. The stuff you’re trying to say then doesn’t feel like it’s being shoved down your throat, no pun intended.
The metaphor of cannibalism as the objectification and consumption of women is pretty clear, but you took a less gory approach. Why?
When I wrote it, there were a lot more WTF moments for the read in certain surgical scenes. But I knew that I didn’t want to end up there when we were actually filming it because that is not something I would want to watch. That people that are horror fans and people that aren’t could somehow find a common place to enjoy this movie was the ultimate goal. Mimi has a really good angle that what’s left to the imagination — and I completely agree with this — can often be much scarier. What’s implied, what’s invited into your own brain, could go to a different place than someone else, and that’s going to go to a place that might end up being worse. For me, we know the subject matter, and if we feel the fear, you don’t have to see a lot to still feel that fear. Mimi and I really got into that in a good way of what are the moments to just push it and what don’t we need at all. Then it was just shaping and crafting that. It got to a place that we were just really happy and knew that this was how much to show and not show.
There’s a horror trope that people end up in deadly situations because they didn’t make the “right” choices. In Fresh, several women, different in their identities and personalities, are captured by Steve. Those differences affect how they get captured, but don’t stop it from happening. Why was it important to make these women dealing with the same predator so different?
There’s an understanding of, if you saw a certain type of woman, and that’s all you saw, this is the story that we’re telling. And it’s like, no, it’s not the story that we’re telling, actually. Violence and things that men do, in a lot of ways, don’t discriminate. It really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s trans women, nonbinary women, straight women, queer women — I think that violent men are an all-encompassing fear. Just starting with Noa, she’s not presenting in any different way than maybe I would going out in the world, and I’m not like a super feminine girl. But I feel like I’ve been in super scary situations, regardless of what I’m wearing. Same goes for Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), right? She is bisexual, and she comes from a totally different place, from a totally different background, but again, [that treatment is] not going to discriminate in terms of how she ends up in this situation. Then you have someone like Ann (Charlotte Le Bon), who is also a totally different woman, and at the end of the day, she ended up in a situation and maybe chose another journey. I just wanted to speak to if it’s a psychopath that is doing a specific thing, or has a specific clientele, it’s an open game.
You mentioned Ann, who also appears to be Steve’s victim but operates very differently in this world than the other women. First, did he really take her leg, and second, what did you want to say about women through her?
Yes, that’s what I wrote, but it’s funny, I think she’s gonna represent a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In my mind, she represented the women behind the men. The ones that don’t help you up; the ones that don’t support other women. They’re complicated, but they’re definitely the evil ones. I was strangely thinking about [Donald] Trump’s election at certain points when I was writing this, and those white women that were kind of the reason we got there. Even with like reproductive rights, there are all these things you’re just like, “What are you doing?” So it was interesting to me because I was writing it during all that. It’s like you’re not putting all the blame on them, but those are the worst ones.
There was just this representation there to me of that. But she’s complicated because you don’t know exactly what she did, how she got there and what she’s convinced herself of. You know she was a victim, so there is a story there that leaves it a little open in terms of how much you blame her. I know that Mimi prefers to keep a little more mystery around her, and I think it’s a little bit for the audience to infer. I have my own ideas, but it’s leaving it up for a couple of different interpretations. We’ve had conversations about it, and I like that people see her in a different way. She represents a lot of things. If you look at her Facebook page in the movie, it was curated in a certain way — that’s just like a fun Easter egg I thought of when I was writing it.
The men and their perceived versus real threat levels — from the man with the baby to Paul to Steve — are also pretty diverse and represent a range of how they exist in relationship to women. What did you want to show with that?
The man with the baby was representative of how we’re always on alert, and sometimes it ends up being nothing, but sometimes it doesn’t. It was a dad and a baby and, of course, we’re made to feel stupid, but it could have easily been something else. So, to me, that’s what he represents. Paul (Dayo Okeniyi) is a couple of different things. He’s the audience to me. He is the one that at the end of the day is going to make a realistic, rational decision. In the situation that he was in — if you heard shots fired — he made the most grounded, realistic decision with not really knowing the details. So he’s not a bad guy. He’s us, is how I saw it. What was the bigger theme for me was the women had to save themselves, and that’s how I knew I had to get there. So this other stuff happened around Paul, but I feel like he’s a good dude, and you can tell that the whole time, but it’s not going to end up the way you think it is. Because in real life, it probably wouldn’t, and I think that’s sort of what he represented. Steve is the other side of the spectrum, and I think what is so utterly terrifying is his calmness and his charm and his trying to rationalize that what this is has any sort of normalcy to it. There was a gaslighting in it, and I think there’s a lot of little moments like that. He’s just the scariest kind of guy you could imagine.
What line or action of Steve’s do you think is scariest to women?
There was a line that we always wanted to make sure was there, and I think the women fully understood it in a way the men never did. It’s when Noa finds out what’s really happening, and Steve’s bear-hugging her to calm her down. He’s like, “Stop being so dramatic.” He says it softly, but you can totally hear it. I just feel like that is something that is in many scenarios, and every woman can relate to that. And to hear it in such a way with what she’s going through? There’s something so scary about it because it’s like, “Oh, he’s insane. I’m never going to be able to rationalize with him. I’m never going to get out of this.” This is someone who is so locked in this way of thinking.
The way Noa eventually escapes Steve is by biting his crotch — a pretty fitting move considering what he’s done to her and other women. How did you decide that was the way she was going to escape?
I knew once I figured out she’s going to have to get in this to get out of it because the only way out is through. She’s going to have to jump through a bunch of different hoops because she’s not going to be able to just physically escape. It was figuring that out, and then what is that final moment, and how did she get there? I knew I wanted like an essential dance, some sort of physical movement that I think Mimi ended up elevating in a really cool way. Then I thought, it’s gonna have to be when his defenses are down. It led me to this place of when you’re getting intimate, you’re vulnerable, you’re at ease.
I thought about when is [Steve] at ease and what could that look like? That led me on this journey — what’s in that room? What can she use? Then I was like, “OK, no, she just needs to incapacitate him in the moment.” I added the toothpaste because that in the eyes? Forget about it. And it’s something that would be in the bathroom. When it came to me, there was no other way because I also felt like it could happen. If you are going to get to that point, what are you really going to do? What can you do? What can actually work? And then it’s, let’s just make it crazy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.