Well after its premiere at SXSW in March, one of the most exciting discoveries of the year remains Leigh Janiak’s “Honeymoon,” a thriller that takes one newly married couple’s first weekend of wedded bliss and turns it into a nightmare once the groom Paul (Harry Treadaway) learns his bride Bea (Rose Leslie) might not be the person he thought he’d spend the rest of his days with. The script by Janiak and Graziadei cleverly toys with the idea of how well you can ever really know someone, but it also presented a unique challenge visually since thematically Janiak wanted to create situations that could be interpreted as wonderful and terrible in equal measure.
You can tell the texture of the image is important to Janiak, who may have gone to the University of Chicago to study modern Jewish studies, but fell in love with filmmaking by tooling around the city with a film collective to shoot shorts on 16mm and cutting them on a Movieola. So finding a complementary cinematographer was no easy task, but when her boyfriend’s brother suggested Kyle Klütz, a fellow classmate of his at Chapman University five years ago, who first knew what he wanted to do when he looked through the lens of a 16mm camera during a student orientation, it proved to be an ideal fit of sensibilities.
While processing costs would make shooting on film impossible for “Honeymoon”’s modest budget, Klütz offers up images as expressive as the performances from Leslie and Treadaway, rising up to the director’s challenge to create an atmosphere both swooningly romantic and utterly terrifying, more often than not in the same frame. Though it would be remarkably accomplished for filmmakers with considerable credits under their belt, let alone those working on their first feature such as Janiak and Klütz, “Honeymoon” becomes even more impressive when you discover the versatile Klütz was responsible both for such a cinematic experience during the same time he was getting the ironic and intentionally generic look of Nathan Fielder’s Comedy Central show “Nathan for You” just right as the director of photography on its first few episodes.
Shortly before the release of “Honeymoon,” I spoke to both Klütz and Janiak about how they were able to create a look for the movie that could shift so subtly emotionally and remain effective, the film’s many one-take wonders and the difficulty of shooting on a lake potentially infested by snakes. (Note: These interviews had to be conducted separately, but were combined and edited for this article.)
What did you talk about in terms of the look of the film?
Leigh Janiak: It’s funny, because [Kyle] probably wanted to punch me in the face by the end of the [digital intermediate], because every step of the way, I talked about how I wanted it to be desaturated and low contrast. Mostly, it was about achieving this gritty, super 16 look — I brought a lot of my parents photos from their honeymoon [from around 1976], and that was the starting point for the aesthetic of it.
Kyle Klütz: We just trying to keep things as natural as possible, so that the [third act] comes out of nowhere. “Chronicle” was a big influence as far as how to pull that off. We also looked at “Martha Marcy May Marlene” for the look. We liked the naturalism with a creepy undertone, or at least the progression throughout. We didn’t want to try and foreshadow anything.
Leigh Janiak: We also looked at “Amour” a lot for our night interiors. Not the lamplit stuff, but just the darkness, because I wanted this lifted, crispy, almost brown blacks, instead of deep crush blacks. We looked at “Zero Dark Thirty” for the exterior nights, although Kyle will tell you, we did not have the resources to light like that, so we didn’t have big light boxes. But we had a balloon for a couple nights.
There’s this central idea in the film that everything with the potential to be wonderful can be equally terrible, which is something that seems to be embedded into the film’s color scheme in how you can make it look romantic and sickly seemingly using the same palette. How were you able to express that visually?
KK: We definitely romanticized it a bit by warming things up and then to make it sickly, we had a color arc built into the shadows. We started with no pollution or minimal pollution when we were timing it, then if you saw the same night interior in the bedroom at the beginning of the film, at the climax of the film, it looks totally dirty, dingey and disgusting. But in terms making it romantic, just showing off that lake and a couple on their honeymoon, it was really important to make Bea look as beautiful as possible because you’re with Paul the whole time. The audience really takes his perspective, so you want to have everyone to fall in love with her and be as heartbroken as he is once he sees her transform into who she becomes.
LJ: The idea of giving the arc to the color was my colorist [Leandro Marini], who actually owns the [company Local Post Hero] where we did all of our post-work. He was like, “Listen, you’re in this contained space, and everything you’re talking about is transformation and evolution of the characters, so I’d like to try to evolve the color as well.” If it was me, I would have started from that end place, of being “Yeah, I want it all really dirty and grimy!” But I’m so happy with the color and the way that it changes.
The film makes great use of a handful of unbroken takes, specifically one at the beginning in which Bea walks Paul through the entire house, describing awful things in the most loving context. Was that particularly tricky to pull off?
KK: Yeah, it was tricky. I don’t know if that was in the cards before we found our location because we went through a couple [others], but Leigh always wanted to do a oner and finally landing at this last spot, we found a way to do it. Luckily, we had a great crew with us and [Nito Cerna], an awesome focus puller who could keep up and just accommodate all these crazy ideas. We spent maybe the first quarter of the day just rehearsing it, running through it and we did six or seven takes.
LJ: We were really lucky [to have Kyle] because he’s an amazing camera operator. We’re an indie movie; we didn’t have the luxury of having a [director of photography] that’s not operating. He’s amazing at handheld, then Nito, our first AC and focus puller completely was able to nail those one-takes. All of [the single takes] were hard, but the one [that may have been the hardest for Kyle] was when we follow Harry outside when he’s looking for Bea. I don’t know how long the shot actually ended up being, but it felt like a long time when we were shooting it and it was night, and Kyle couldn’t see where he was going.
KK: That was always planned to be as long of a take as possible, just trying to keep the oner to build tension. We were also pushing how dark we could go. The terrain made it difficult. That house is built on a hill and it had been raining, so it was a little muddy and there’s an incline as well, so at some points, you’re not even looking through the viewfinder just to keep your footing, but it adds to the whole immediacy of it, which is great.
Did shooting on the lake seem easier by comparison?
KK: It was made a lot easier [because] everyone was super-friendly in North Carolina. We were able to get this 25-foot barge from a construction company that works on all the boathouses out there that [created] a platform to attach a boat to because the boat itself was about three feet above the water. So they built us another one that rested about a foot, so we could secure the boat and depending on what coverage we were getting, we could just drop anchor — it was anchored at four points — and we just pulled the anchor a certain way to turn it a certain direction. It took a little bit of time, but it paid off with the ease of shooting in a small motorboat and a canoe later.
LJ: That was huge for us because we could fit 20 people on it, but we had to build a rig for the boat to them, and that was crazy. Our key grip Jose was in the water for about a week. He had his wetsuit on and a floater between his legs and when we shot the canoe, [Kyle] was in the water. This was very close to the end and I only realized afterwards that he was concerned because they were just standing in this shallow, muddy swamp water and there probably were snakes in there. It was gross.
Speaking of murky situations, Kyle was actually the cinematographer on the pilot for “Nathan for You,” which is a radically different gig. What was it like to establish the look of that show? It’s not exactly like hidden camera, but I imagine there’s some hoops to jump through to create that show visually.
KK: It was cool. Nathan [Fielder]’s a really smart guy and his whole approach to it was we only had two cameras and then the occasional GoPro for making fun of those hidden camera ones. But he was really smart. He wanted to make it seem like whatever coverage we got, it was like we had multiple cameras staged, so if you’re looking towards one direction and he turned around, you’d want to make sure if you were repeating the action, that new angle would’ve been existing in the previous shot, so you wouldn’t be shooting where a camera would be placed. It would make it seem like we have four or five cameras, shooting the coverage, when we’d only have two.
Is it fun for you to go from those extremes of doing a TV show like that to something quite cinematic like “Honeymoon”?
KK: Comedy is great, but It’s actually more difficult sometimes because it doesn’t come naturally to me. I love watching it, but it’s another thing to try and pull it off. It’s always fun to experiment with, but I think I prefer “Honeymoon” and the narrative.
“Honeymoon” opens on Sept. 19 in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset and in New York at the Cinema Village. A full list of other dates and theaters is here. It will also be available on demand.