As a kid, “Honeymoon” director Leigh Janiak would spend her summers in Canada, going up to her relative’s idyllic cabin by the lake. While peace and serenity were always promised, often all she would hear were the screaming of little frogs.
“That traumatized me as a kid,” recalls Janiak, who with her production designer Chris Trujillo, partially modeled the cottage in her first horror film after her old summer stomping grounds, from the lacquered wood-paneled walls to the gigantic bear rug that hangs from one of them. “My parents actually went there on their honeymoon and [when they saw the film], they’re like ‘No, no, that’s not what our honeymoon was like.’”
One would hope not, though when “Honeymoon” begins, it would be hard to imagine a happier couple than Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway), newlyweds so eager to enjoy marital bliss that as they race to their hideaway the customary soup cans nearly fall off their car. Yet the corroded cans are just a hint of things to come for the pair, who quickly discover that “til death do us part” may come a little sooner than expected when Bea begins to exhibit some erratic behavior.
Rather than siccing a machete-wielding maniac in the woods or some creature from the lake on the couple, Janiak and longtime writing partner Phil Graziadei tap into a more existential fear of never really being able to fully know another person, even if they’re the one you commit to spending the rest of your life with. The result is as nerve-jangling for an audience as it is for pool Paul after “Honeymoon” induces you to fall in love with its characters as much as they are with each other at first, especially when the sense of internal dread manifests itself into the physical world of the film.
“Game of Thrones” star Leslie and Treadaway’s performances vividly bring the couple to life and while it’s Janiak’s job to plot their demise, her consideration for them and a story that burrows in deep, combined with considerable skill, leads to one of the most unshakeable experiences imaginable, not to mention fun as hell. The morning after the film’s premiere at SXSW, I was lucky enough to sit down with Janiak, who appears as excited to talk about movies as Bea does about her beloved in “Honeymoon”’s opening minutes and shared the two South By films that pushed her to make her first feature, how the actors’ different approaches to their characters helped the film and forging a new path of her own towards horror.
There’s a rumor was a fight between film festival programmers over this film and because I’ve heard “Tiny Furniture” and “Monsters” were influential, did that give SXSW the edge?
Yeah, completely. My writing partner had been writing scripts forever. We met when we were in undergraduate at NYU and we were living in LA. I had a good day job working for a production company, where I met my current producers and I was reading scripts and having time to also write, then it was wearing me down a bit. Like, “How old am I going to be before I actually get to make a movie?” Writing a script is great, but it’s only so satisfying in the end. I love movies. I don’t love scripts.
In 2009, I wasn’t at South By, but I saw “Tiny Furniture” and “Monsters.” I don’t know why those movies specifically, but I was definitely drawn to Tiny Furniture because there just aren’t a lot of female filmmakers, period, and Lena managed to break through in a really powerful way and I went to NYU, so I loved the New York part of it. Then “Monsters” just blew my mind because it’s amazing. It’s just unbelievable that somebody could make that quality genre movie that price. It felt exciting and exactly like the kind of movie that I’d like to make someday.
You’ve said that you wrote “Honeymoon” knowing that you’d have a film at the end of it, so how did the budget limitations you set for yourself inform it?
It’s interesting because I wouldn’t say that the end goal necessarily motivated the content of the script, because it didn’t. It was more just as we were writing we were aware of certain constraints that we may have. We tried to keep our locations limited. The idea was that hopefully we’d use those limitations to our advantage.
After the screening you spoke broadly about one of my favorite ideas of the film, the notion of beautiful things that can also be interpreted as terrible if seen in a different light. If you listen closely, that seems to be embedded into the film’s dialogue right from the introduction of the house and I wondered if that tone was difficult to pull off verbally.
Obviously capturing tone in the script is very different than on screen. There was always a line that we were walking, especially when we were in production. I had a lot of conversations with Rose and Harry, and the main thing that I imparted was that we don’t get to see a lot of movies about a couple that are genuinely happy. There’s always problems like the guy is always cheating on the woman, or da-da-da-da-da.
I really wanted them to be happy in the beginning, and you can feel the rest of the world and all of the sadness seeping in. There just had to be this sense of contamination and decay the whole time. We ramped it up as the movie went on, but it was definitely there in the beginning.
What was so striking is that this is a horror film without the usual scare tactics such as jump cuts or overreliance on Foley artists, but you often do it with language and because you fall in love with the characters, when things go bad, it feels akin to watching a close relative as they age in a less than graceful way. Was that actually an influence?
Completely. Did you see “Amour”? When I watched that movie, the script for “Honeymoon” was already done and we were in pre-production. But watching that couple fall apart, and seeing the person that you love and you think you know so well turn into a complete stranger… “Amour” did it so perfectly in such a grounded way, and I wanted Paul and Bea’s relationship like that as well. To your point that it’s not full of jump scares or crazy Foley sounds, I thought that we could do it. It would be great to just see, feel it in the tone of voice or in the way that their gazes at each other change.
You seemed to suggest that the difference in the acting styles of your two leads was something you could take advantage of in terms of their relationship onscreen. How so?
Initially, it was very stressful. You have essentially only two people in the movie. Ben Huber, who played Will, and Hanna Brown who played Annie, were awesome but they were in limited scenes. This was Harry and Rose’s movie. When they arrived, we had a good five days of intense time together. We basically just went though the script and talked through the characters and motivations. We didn’t actually rehearse the scenes. And [their styles were] very, very different, and I maybe speaking out of turn, but this is just what I noticed from an outsider’s view. Harry completely embodies the character and really worked from the inside out, and Rose is very much like, “This character exists outside of me, and I’m going to dissect it and that’s how I’m going to get to know her.”
I think that it helped completely what their different characters were, because [Treadaway’s character] Paul is completely enveloped in his world and it’s really hard for him to get a grasp of what’s beyond. Things just start falling apart for him. For her, she’s becoming increasingly disassociated from who she is in the world as she is losing her humanity. Whether or not that was a decision on Rose’s part to play with Harry a bit, I don’t know, but it’s brilliant if it was because it really shows.
Was this one of those shoots where you actually were isolated from the rest of the world and might get a little cabin fever?
I had a lot of anxiety when we were location scouting. We shot in this place called Hendersonville, Flat Rock, North Carolina. It’s an amazing place, but someone told me after we arrived in North Carolina that North Carolina doesn’t have any natural lakes. I started freaking out because that’s not what Canada looks like. We found this great lake in this small little town, and we were able to put the whole crew up there. I stayed in a house with my [cinematographer] right on the lake, which was great because we were like 10 minutes from set but also we could drive anytime we wanted to get food at night.
Still, I’m not going to lie, I get the creeps when I’m out in the woods. I very much like being in a city. After a week or so, I started hearing things outside and totally freaking myself out. So the cabin fever, definitely.
Much is being made of the fact that you’re a rare female filmmaker who made a genre film, which I think should be celebrated, but are you comfortable with that being something people are focusing on?
It’s so weird. I don’t ever think about, “Oh, I’m a woman, high five,” at all. At the same time, I increasingly became aware, especially after making a movie and actually going through the process of it, of how few women there are not just in the genre space, but on the production side of film in general. There are a lot more on the development side. So I’m certainly proud that I’m a woman and that I get to do this, and that people are recognizing that that is a slightly different point of view. You can say that point of view varies from filmmaker to filmmaker whatever your gender is, but I get it and I’m happy to embrace it.
If people get excited about there being more women in the genre space, that women that can do this, then you feel they’ll make their own opportunities too. It’s not just about the system saying we feel uncomfortable with women making horror movies. We have to make those decisions too because it’s what I love, so I’m going to make this.
“Honeymoon” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on March 11th at the Stateside Theatre and March 13th at the Alamo Ritz 1.