Leigh Janiak’s journey to her debut as a feature film director, Honeymoon, has taken her from New York University to the University of Chicago to Los Angeles, from studies in creative writing and Jewish literature to student filmmaking groups and development jobs with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and Misher Films. But she never lost sight of her desire to direct, and after several years of penning unsold scripts, she and co-writer Phil Graziadei finally hit on the idea for Honeymoon.
The movie stars Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway (Control) as Bea and Paul, a newly married couple who are deeply in love and just settling into a secluded getaway at an isolated family cottage on a lake. But things take a turn for the mysterious and then the malevolent as a sleepwalking Rose comes back from the woods one night changed — in ways that make her not just a stranger to Paul but a danger to them both.
In efficient low-budget style, Janiak uses mood and character to advance a classic genre storyline with a creepy subtext about how we often discover that the person we’re with is not who we thought they were. Janiak’s confident direction is helped by strong performances from her two leads, who share an intimacy that makes the terror much more palpable. Den of Geek sat down with Janiak in Los Angeles to discuss the hows and whys of becoming a director and making her first feature.
Den of Geek: It’s been a long haul to get your feature film debut done. Can you talk about that journey a little bit and that whole process of finally getting to a place where you have the cameras rolling?
Leigh Janiak: My writing partner and I moved here in 2005 and we were writing screenplays and trying to break in and I was working at production companies. And it was just, you know, it’s hard. We were trying to break in right when the stock market was collapsing. We weren’t writing big specs, period. We were trying to find our footing and our identity as writers and it just wasn’t –- the writer’s strike happened and we weren’t getting there. I think in 2010 or 2011 I saw Monsters and I was just really inspired and reminded that I want to make movies, not just write scripts, and that’s why I moved out to LA in the first place.
So when we started writing Honeymoon it was this idea that we’re going to make this movie no matter what. I mean the script is done so whether or not we make it as a micro budget for no money or we end up getting great financing – it’s going to be a movie at the end. So the process of getting to the point where we made that decision and that commitment was long. We started writing Honeymoon, I’d say, in mid-2011. Got it to the person who became our producer end of 2011. Took 2012 to get financing and shot it early 2013. So it was pretty quick in the grand scheme of things once the actual script started. But the process of getting there was long.
What did you learn about the process in those jobs that you had in development?
Appian Way was my first job and that was interesting because I worked for a producer there and just working at a talent-driven company like that, you don’t get much bigger than Leonardo. So it was interesting seeing how the studios would respond to things that Leo wanted to do and his projects. It’s a whole different kind of charmed world. It has its own difficulties but it’s a very special place to be. And then with Misher it was a very different experience. We had a deal at Paramount when we started working there. That ended and he essentially became an indie producer but within the studio system.
I think, you know, when you spend all day reading scripts, it’s just good experience. I think the best experience for a filmmaker is to watch movies obviously. And then after that reading scripts is super important too. But I think just kind of getting a feel for what that studio system wants is a very different thing than indie filmmaking. But I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of that side of the business and I think hopefully that’ll help with my career as it progresses. I feel like I have an edge on understanding what the studios are actually looking for or what financiers want, what their criteria are, what’s going on behind the scenes that you normally wouldn’t see as a writer or director.
What sparked the idea of Honeymoon? Where did that come from?
I think we thought about the big science fiction and horror movies that we liked and we knew that we wanted to make a smaller intimate movie. Because again, we were going to try to make it no matter what. So Invasion of the Body Snatchers made sense and I liked the idea that this is a story that we kind of re-tell generation after generation with different kinds of sociopolitical things in mind. And so to make a movie about body snatching but that’s on a very intimate level dealing with identity, made sense for us. That was kind of the jumping off point. How well can you know the person sitting next to you ever?
Are genre films close to your heart? Did you grow up watching them or is it something that you did for practical reasons because it is somewhat easier to get those films made?
It’s certainly easier, I think, to get that kind of film done…it’s easier to see an audience for that than it is for just like a drama. But it’s interesting because I think that it’s just that I’ve always loved sci-fi movies. I consider myself more of a sci-fi person than a horror film person. I’ve seen a lot of great horror movies but I don’t watch every single thing that comes out. So it made sense to tell a genre story that was very sci-fi influenced.
I thought that making a sci-fi movie would be a little easier to get made but it’s also what we loved. Everything that we had written up to that point had some kind of fantastical element even if it wasn’t sci-fi/horror. And then the horror part just kind of evolved. It made sense for what the story was and I wanted it to all feel organic and attached to what the characters were going through.
You wrote that Polanski was a big influence.
Well, Rosemary’s Baby is, I think, probably my favorite genre film. And the thing that I like about it is that you’re tied very closely to Rosemary’s POV and but you’re in the real world and you have that very realistic kind of fear and terror happening. The interaction with the neighbors is so creepy in a very relatable way of like, “Oh, do I really want to talk to this old woman that’s living next to me?” The horror all kind of stems from that place. I love that moment when you see the neighbors kind of creeping through the closet, the open closet in the back. It’s terrifying.
So I like the idea of having grounded horror, but then at the end it really is the devil. It’s not a metaphor — the devil impregnated her. I liked that it was real, it was a real place even though most of the horror is grounded. So that’s what we wanted to do with Honeymoon too.
What’s unnerving is the whole subtext that you just don’t always know the person you’re literally getting in bed with or being married to. You devote your life to someone and all of a sudden they’re not who you thought they were.
It can be like one little thing and suddenly your whole paradigm of who that person is shifts. That is the core thing of this body snatcher relationship drama — how well can you ever know someone else. There’s a Freudian theory of the uncanny, das unheimliche, and the whole thing hinges around this idea that the most familiar thing has the potential to also be the most alien and foreign. And so that’s really what das unheimliche is supposed to explore — I think we’ve all had that moment where you’re with someone and you’re like, “Oh my God, who are you?”
What made Rose and Harry the right choices for this?
Well Rose — I wanted someone that felt different, someone that you wouldn’t expect to see in a genre movie. And, you know, not a certain look. That was really important to me. I’d seen her in Downton Abbey and on her first season of Game of Thrones, which I think is the second season of the show. I’d seen her in this thing called New Town which is this weird Scottish thing. And she was so different in each of those roles. I just thought she was really good and her charisma was amazing.
I had read the Game of Thrones books so I knew where Ygritte’s character was going and the trajectory of it. And I felt like if they had cast her for this that they also saw that greatness in her. I knew that she would kind of break out. I hoped that I could get in there before she became bigger and I was very lucky that I did. So that was the process of getting Rose.
And then Harry — I was just getting all of these lists of guys and they all looked the same and felt the same and, you know, they seemed like they were trying to be the same person. I recognized Harry’s name from Control and from Fish Tank and Brothers of the Head and was very, very excited by that. Then he actually read for me and I Skyped with him and right away I knew that he was going to be Paul. I was feeling stressed about casting a guy because again, a lot of these young actors look all the same and sound the same and Harry was just different. He was just awesome.
So you get out there and finally you’re making your first feature. What did you learn about making a feature that you thought you knew and maybe didn’t know once you actually got on the ground?
I think I learned that it’s really, really hard to shoot at night on a low budget, especially if you want it to look good. My DP and I, Kyle (Klutz), had developed this aesthetic that we wanted it to feel like crispy kind of lifted blackness, almost like brown-black, both interior and exterior. And so to achieve that there are certain things that you have to do which I could describe and probably would be very wrong. But we talked a lot about overhead light. We looked at Amour for interior night stuff — not lamp light, just pure black — and then we looked at Zero Dark Thirty for the exterior nights. It takes a long time to light it like that. If you have more, like, pure blackness, it’s a little easier but I wanted that feeling that you get when you open your eyes in the dark and you haven’t been in light for a long time. You know, you can kind of see.
So that just takes a long time to set up and we were shooting in the spring so we only had about eight hours of night. So we went from 12-hour shooting days to eight-hour nights and that was difficult. And then I think the lake. You know, everyone says, “Don’t shoot on water. It’s terrible.” And I was like, “Oh, it’s fine, we only have like three scenes, four scenes.” And it was so hard. I mean I’m saying that, but really you should be talking to my key grip Jose (Cruz) and again my DP Kyle because they’re the ones that were really — like Jose was in the water for a week in a wetsuit, with a floater between his legs, holding the rig for the boat and everything. But that was really, really difficult.
Where did you shoot?
In the mountains of North Carolina. It was weird, when I got there for pre-production about six weeks out there was snow on the ground which was also like, oh no. It’s supposed to be spring and you’re supposed to feel like everything alive around you. And it was pretty dead still. But luckily it bloomed quickly. But the rain was terrible. It rained for about two and a half weeks of the shoot which caused us to have to like reschedule a bunch of our interiors and exteriors. That was really bad. The dock was submerged. The road going in became pure mud. So that was bad. But it did turn sunny and it was pretty humid and, you know, gross by the end of it.
So how do you feel about your own abilities, having done your first feature?
Well I’m just looking forward to number two. I’m really anxious. It feels like already, oh my God, it’s been so long since I’ve been on set. Obviously a lot of that was in post-production and working on the festival release and everything. But I’m anxious to do another one.
Is number two lined up yet?
No, not yet. We actually just did a pilot which is going to be for a limited series type thing. So hopefully we’ll be setting that up shortly, and then thinking about what the next feature will be.
I read you’re a Goonies fan.
I love The Goonies.
So here’s your chance to throw your hat in the ring because they might make The Goonies 2 at some point.
They should certainly hire me to do that. Didn’t they make a Goonies 2?
No, you feel like they have because they’ve been talking about it for like 20 years.
I’m going to call my agent. Goonies 2.
Honeymoon is out in limited release this Friday (September 12).