Interview: Leigh Janiak, Director of ‘Honeymoon’ | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Leigh Janiak, Director of ‘Honeymoon’

The Filmmaker On Her Creepy First Feature

Sep 12, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Newlyweds Paul and Bea head into the Canadian wilderness to spend their honeymoon at a family cottage. It’s early in the season and aside from a few locals, the two have the picturesque lake community to themselves. But strange things start to happen; one night, Bea wanders into the woods. Her behavior shifts. Quickly, their honeymoon becomes a nightmare.

That’s all we can tell you up front about Leigh Janiak’s incredibly creepy first feature, Honeymoon. The filmmaker co-wrote the screenplay with her college friend, Phil Graziadei, and cast Fish Tank’s Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie (of Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey) as her tormented newlyweds. Honeymoon debuted as part of the Midnighters lineup at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

Leigh Janiak chatted with us about making her first feature, her favorite horror and sci-fi films, and casting Rose Leslie in her first leading film role.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: What was the kernel of inspiration that led you to tell this story?

Leigh Janiak: My writing partner [Phil Graziadei] and I decided when we started writing Honeymoon that we were going to make it into a film, no matter what. We didn’t know what budget we would have or anything, but at the end of it we wanted to have a film. And so, we definitely wanted to tell a smaller, more intimate and contained story. We both love genre movies, so we looked at the things we love and what we were interested in, thematically. We thought it made sense to revisit the body-snatcher trope … We could really explore identity, and how well you can know someone in a relationship.

I understand the remote, woodland cottage setting was based on something you grew up with?

My grandma and grandpa had this little cottage in what’s actually called Canadian cottage country, in Ontario. I grew up going there every year with my family for about a week, a week and a half. It was very isolated. There were lots of cottages around, but it wasn’t a resort or anything like that, so it was always kind of empty and weird. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. It’s not like I’m a city girl, but I remember: I’d be three days, four days into my trip to Canada every year and I’d start feeling like, “Oh my god, I need to get back to civilization. It’s so terrifying out here.” Just, the silence. And nature started to feel so oppressive.

Originally, because we didn’t know what size we were going to make the movie, we had though in the worst case with a really, really low budget, we’d go up to the family cottage, which would have been a disaster. It’s so tiny. My DP would have murdered me.

Can we talk about casting Rose Leslie? How’d you land her for this role, and what had you seen her in at that point?

I’d seen her in Downton Abbey, and she had been on her first season of Game of Thrones, which I think was the second season of the show. I think Ygritte is only in a couple episodes that second season. Basically, I had read the Game of Thrones books and Ygritte was one of my favorite characters. When I saw Rose was cast as Ygritte I was super excited, because I thought she was awesome and I knew the character’s trajectory. I thought, I may have this opportunity to land this amazing actress before she has the chance to break out and have all that amazing buzz around her.

So we sent the script to her U.K. agent — she wasn’t even repped in the U.S. yet — and we had no idea if she was going to respond or not. And she did; she loved the script. I was really lucky to get in before she broke out.

It’s her first leading role. How would you describe her talents to someone who maybe only knows her from Game of Thrones or Downton? Imagine this as your sort of letter of recommendation to her next director.

[Laughs] I can’t say enough good things about Rose. She’s so thoughtful and so precise in her preparation. It’s interesting because in her [Honeymoon] role as Bea, she’s undergoing a transformation. We really walked through every little bit of the script tracing where Bea is, internally, every beat along the way. I don’t think that’s necessarily a normal thing, but just the way that she was able to take it to the next level and needing to know every little piece of information—that was really amazing.

Her talent and charisma are so natural and authentic. I think she’s got a huge career ahead of her.

The film really makes a point of giving us all sorts of details about these two characters up front. Later on we learn there are story-based reasons for it, but it also helps us get more invested in these characters than you would in your typical genre film. You then proceed to do pretty terrible things to them… what sort of reactions have you gotten from audiences?

It’s been interesting. Obviously this is my first feature — we premiered at South By Southwest, and we played at Tribeca and a lot of other festivals, as well. One of the things that was unexpected, for me, is how awesome it’s been to interact with the audience. Luckily, they’ve been very positive so far.

I think people have responded that they are invested in these characters, and they do care about them. That makes the horror so much worse, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. On the one hand it’s sad, and people are shocked. They’re like, “Oh my god, I’m so mad that this happened!” And I’m like, “Yes! That’s exactly what I want! I hope you feel terrible.” [Laughs] That’s the point of the movie.

But that’s the kind of horror that I respond to, too; the kind that’s really grounded in character interaction. When you do get to the blood and the guts, that makes it all that much worse.

How did you prepare your cast for these roles? How much time did you spend together before shooting, and what sort of conversations did you have with them?

I think I had Skyped with Harry twice, and met him once in person in Los Angeles. Those were the first couple times we talked about the script, and how I thought about it visually, and gave him an idea that it wasn’t going to be a typical genre movie. And I had a similar process with Rose – I actually met Rose in London and Skyped with her a couple times. But none of that was real preparation. I think they met once or twice in London before we started production. They arrived on set in North Carolina four days before we began principal photography. We spent about four hours per day for those four days together, just kind of talking through everything. We didn’t really rehearse, but we went through the script and talked about the different scenes and where their characters were, to make sure we were all on the same page emotionally and physically with everything. And I spent time with them individually, as I mentioned.

With Rose, we talked a lot about brain trauma, and how there are different aspects of your memory that decay and fall apart. I don’t remember the order of it now, but things like being about to remember the names of objects goes first, then you forget simple actions, and people’s names. We talked through all of that kind of stuff, as well.

There wasn’t a lot of time to prepare, but they were awesome and I’m so happy that their chemistry worked really well.

For the most part, those two are pretty much your entire cast. What effect did working with such a small group have, as a first-time filmmaker? Do you think it made things any easier, or more difficult?

It’s great to be able to have such a close relationship with your actors and be able to spend that much time with them, but that said, there’s a lot of pressure when you know you only have two people. When you get to post-production, there’s nothing to cross-cut with. [Laughs] These scenes, you really have to nail them, energy-wise. There’s not going to be a lot of, like, “Well, if we just cut to this storyline here, that’ll bring the energy back up.” So the pressure of just being with these two people the whole time is pretty high. I did have anxiety about that; knowing that it was all sort of riding on them and their interactions.

I know the location wasn’t actually as isolated as it was portrayed in the film, but did you ever spook yourselves out, making a scary movie out in the woods like that?

It’s funny, actually — there were cottages around, but because it was a little before season there weren’t a ton of people around. I stayed in a house that was also on the lake, and I shared it with my DP and first AD. At night it was extremely dark out there, like a darkness I had not anticipated. There weren’t any lights around. I remember, I think we were still in pre-production and I wanted to go back to the cottage at night. Because we hadn’t started shooting, we didn’t have anyone there; no security or anything, because we didn’t need any and didn’t have any equipment there yet. I went by myself, and it was like 10 o’clock at night and pitch-black, with woods surrounding everything. There was this creeping feeling inside me, like, wouldn’t this be a good story, if something terrible happened to me? [Laughs] It was terrifying. The cottage itself, too, was creepy. 

Now that you have this experience under your belt, what lessons are you going to take with you to your next project?

Aside from being a little more cognizant of the production things that everyone warns you about, but you’re just like, “It’s going to be fine”—like night shoots, and water, and stuff like that—I just think knowing that you have to be confident in your vision. When you’re in production and shooting, knowing that is your chance. There aren’t re-shoots on an indie movie, so you have got to get what you know you need to get, and not move on until you know that you’re ready.

You mentioned that you prefer grounded, character-focused genre films—I’m curious if you could name a few of your favorites?

Well, for sure Rosemary’s Baby. That’s one of my favorites. I love The Shining. I looked a lot Alien and The Fly for the practical special effects stuff.

I could go on! I love Sunshine, but I know that’s not a popular choice. And all of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies, for sure. 

***

Honeymoon opens in theaters today, and is available on VOD. For more information about the movie, check out its website. To read our review, click here



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