Honeymoon’s Leigh Janiak on her relationship horror

Director Leigh Janiak tells SciFiNow about making her debut with superb indie horror Honeymoon

Rose Leslie in Honeymoon
Rose Leslie in Honeymoon

Excellent indie horror Honeymoon, starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway, made an impression on genre fans on the festival circuit, and it’s finally available on DVD to bring its skin-crawling subject home.

The duo play Bea and Paul, newlyweds who travel to Bea’s cabin in the woods for their getaway. But when Paul finds Bea naked and wandering in the woods one night, unable to remember what has happened to her, their relationship begins to tear apart. Has Bea changed? Is Paul just being paranoid? How well do these two really know each other?

We talked to director and co-writer Leigh Janiak about putting her first film together, her influences, and casting Rose Leslie while she could.

Warning: There are minor spoilers throughout and some major spoilers, that are highlighted. We’d recommend watching the film before reading.

How did Honeymoon come about?

I had been working with my writing partner Phil [Graziadei] for about 5 or 6 years in LA trying to break into the studio system. We’d write a script and we’d send it to our agents and then it would be like “Oh, you have good meetings” and nothing ever was becoming real. So in 2011 we decided to write something that we would actually make, and that was the beginning of Honeymoon.

So it came two-fold, one was this mandate that we actually needed to make a film, so when we were brainstorming ideas we were very mindful of cast size, location moves, things like that, because we didn’t know what our budget was going to be. The actual idea itself, both of us were fascinated by this idea that you think that you know someone so well, and then these small moments can kind of push you off track. And the person that you’re with can become completely foreign or alien to you. And so we took that idea and made it extremely literal! [laughs] And took it to an nth degree! But to me the movie is still about a relationship falling apart despite all the other genre elements. So that was the core of the idea.

Our biggest influence other than Rosemary’s Baby, which I just loved for the way that it was such a grounded character-driven thriller, was Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I love that we tell the idea of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers generation after generation, and for me it felt like it was a very good lens to kind of explore the nature of identity through this couple and through this relationship, so we think of it as a vey intimate Body Snatcher movie.

How was it putting the film together; was it hard to sell people on the idea of this intimate two-hander?

You know, it’s interesting. It’s so funny to say, “No, it wasn’t difficult at all!” but really in the grand scheme of making indie film I’ve had quite a lovely trajectory. We finished the script, we sent it to our producer who was a man I used to work with at a production company in LA called Patrick Baker, and Patrick was also just starting out as an indie producer, but he had a very good network of individuals that would be interested in making indie film and so I would say it took him about a year from the time that we sent him the script to raise funds. Which is pretty quick. And within that year, maybe about nine months in, we had a good chunk of our investment and so that was when we were really able to cast and get Rose and Harry to come on board because it was becoming a real project. So it was actually, it was pretty quick in the grand scheme of things.

Honeymoon Leslie TreadawayIt’s interesting that you have two British actors playing the leads. I’m assuming that came about naturally through the casting process!

100%. It’s funny because I get all these questions like “Why did you choose two Brits to be Americans?” I’m like, “Literally, I was just choosing the best actors I could get and whether or not you like that answer, they were both British!” So Rose, I had seen on Downton Abbey and then she had been on one season of Game Of Thrones, she had just started that season when we were casting, and I had read all of the Game Of Thrones books very nerdily and I knew kind of what her character was, who she was going to be and the whole trajectory of that, and I kind of felt like maybe I had a moment to get in on Rose before she became a big star. I just thought she was so talented and she was still such a small part in the show at that point.

When we ultimately tracked down her UK agent, I remember thinking, we were literally sending all this material, my script, my look book, stuff like that, over the ocean, who knows if we’re ever going to hear back again? And about two weeks later we heard that she was interested. So that was really lovely and a great surprise because I really didn’t know what to expect. These people, when they’re not like right here in LA you don’t know if they think if you’re completely off your rocker, like “Oh yes, I’m making a film!” but she knew it was real and she responded to the material so it was great.

Then Harry, I was receiving all of these actor submissions from all of the agencies out here, we didn’t have a casting director because we were so small. And his name was on this list of like a million other dudes and I had seen him in Fish Tank and Control and I just thought that he was awesome and so different. Looking at all these other male actors of this age, they all sort of start to blend together, very cookie-cutter typical dudes and that’s really not what I wanted Paul to be. Harry read for me and was just unbelievably amazing. But Rose and Harry hadn’t met when we cast them so there was a bit of “Oh my god, what if they hate each other! What if their chemistry is terrible?” Your whole movie kind of rests on their chemistry and their relationship and so I felt very lucky and thankful when they showed up four days before production and it felt like it was going to be a good match.

Did the characters evolve more once they’d been cast?

I think that they completely took on a whole different dimension and life after I cast Rose and Harry. When Phil and I were writing we had purposefully left their characters, I wouldn’t say thin, but the script is very bare. The script that we wrote is the script that we shot, 100%, but there was just a dimension of life that Rose and Harry brought to the characters, it was mostly just what they knew themselves off-screen but that added a whole other level of feeling like they were real people and not just these characters in a genre film, which I think was extremely important. It also extended to how I approached it was just trying to keep everything grounded and real. And without an awareness of being in a horror movie or a sci-fi movie or what have you.

Leigh Janiak on set
Leigh Janiak on set

Did it also help being on location?

I think it certainly helped. It certainly had its challenges too! We shot at this little lake in rural North Carolina, and it was obviously claustrophobic and small and all the normal things that you have to deal with when you’re shooting on location, but then on top of that it started to rain terribly. So suddenly we were very aware of our indie schedule and everything like that as everything turned to mud. But the cottage itself was so small that we really felt it, you felt the walls pushing in on you. It certainly helped enhance everyone’s experience and ultimately what ended up on the film.

Given that it’s a cabin in the woods movie and the audience will be trying to figure out what’s going on, did you think much about audience expectations when you were writing Honeymoon? Or did you just focus on the story you were telling?

I would say definitely the latter in this case. It’s funny because I grew up going to a cottage in Canada every summer and the idea that we had this location that potentially we could shoot at started percolating very early in the process. By the way we couldn’t have ever shot there, it was way too small and ridiculous [laughs]! But in my mind it was like we could shoot up in this cabin in the woods if we needed to. Because that idea was introduced so early to this story, it wasn’t until the script was finished that I started thinking about how it was a part of this tradition of cabin in the woods movies.

I think that I was lucky in that regard because as the writer side of me would have been paralysed with the fear of “Well, you have this movie and this movie and this movie and people are so tired of this!”  I think I felt a bit of freedom that came from just not thinking about that until it already existed, when we were shooting just trying to focus on the story of these two characters and not worry so much about what the expectations may be.

MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN HERE

Leigh Janiak on setI wanted to ask about the ending. Obviously, we find out what is wrong with Bea and it is a shocking moment. Was that slightly terrifying to put together? 

Certainly. I think for the majority of the film I tried to stay as close to Paul’s point of view as possible, so as an audience member if you were tied to his POV then you could kind of feel, when the shock of what was actually happening inside of her was revealed, you would feel that revulsion and that confusion and all of those things through his eyes. But I think the biggest challenge was after Paul is no longer on the scene, so to speak, for that last little coda, of how much information we can give the audience about what’s been happening to Bea, what happened to Annie as well. I didn’t want that to take over the film.

It was like this weird line of walking, if you tell too much about these dark figures that have been in the woods, then you want to know more. And then that kind of takes over the whole narrative, so it was certainly a line to walk and there was a lot of anxiety of “Is this going to be enough, is it going to be satisfying to people at all,” and on top of that some narrative decisions…It’s just a very realistic budget line, which was we could only reference that so much and still feel that we could do it in a way that wouldn’t be like suddenly have a creature effect at the end and it’s cheesy.

So there’s all those things. I’d say the one thing that I wish that I’d had, you know that great moment at the end of Under The Skin where she comes out of her skin and everything, I just loved, it’s such a simple moment but the VFX are great and it just…I wish I had that one punch-out moment at the end of Honeymoon but alas, it is what it is. [laughs]

SPOILERS END

Are you happy with Honeymoon being classified as a horror film?

Well, I think I had anxiety going into the premiere of the film, we premiered at SXSW in the midnight section and I think that I was nervous in so far that it is a horror movie but it does not live in that very jump scare Conjuring type world that horror fans tend to expect or want to a certain extent. So I was nervous that the community would be like “What is this movie, we don’t want this, we need more blood, we need more upfront scares, things like that!” But I feel like we were very nicely embraced by everyone and it ended up kind of being the perfect little community for us to live.

I caught it at FrightFest…

Oh awesome!

It definitely found a very strong audience there

It was nice, we really were very embraced by I’d say first by the indie horror community and now it’s found a kind of wider audience with Rose, especially drawing in the Game Of Thrones crowd so it’s been really great. Man, I wish I was at FrightFest! I got to go over there for Edinburgh and that was awesome, and then FrightFest was maybe like a month or so afterwards and just the resources were not there so I couldn’t make it, I wish I would have been able to.

Do you think you’ll keep working in genre or do you want to try something else?

I think I consider myself more of a science fiction type person than I do horror, and so most of my ideas tend to live in that more fantastical space but I think generally the genre world is some place I’ll be. I just don’ t know if it will be horror or sci-fi or some dark thriller or what. But I don’t see myself making a drama or anything like that. But it’s really just about finding the right story and seeing what that dictates.

Finally, are you working on anything at the moment?

We just finished writing and working on this TV package for this 10 episode limited series thing, we’re going to be trying to set up here in the United States over the next month or so, so our fingers are crossed for that. That’s a very dark, grounded; I don’t know how else to describe it without giving things away, but then just working on some original ideas and some other projects.

Honeymoon is now available on Blu-ray for £11.46 at Amazon.co.uk. Read our review here.