Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Note: This interview took place during the SXSW Film Festival; an abridged version of it originally ran as part of Complex Pop Culture's SXSW coverage. With Honeymoon officially debuting on VOD today, though, it felt only right to re-run my convo with writer-director Leigh Janiak. Honeymoon more deserves the love.
As you'll see in our preview of the Midnighters lineup, this year's SXSW Film Festival was heavy on must-see, highly anticipated genre movies. There were world premieres from the filmmakers behind some of the best horror flicks of the last ten years, including the directors behind last year's You're Next (director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett), the wildly hardcore 2007 French masterwork Inside (co-directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo), and Eduardo Sanchez, one-half of The Blair Witch Project's team who's following up his excellent 2013 creep-out Lovely Molly with a found-footage Bigfoot movie.
One previously unknown, first-time director, though, showed all of those veterans up. Her (yes, the words "her," "horror," and "director" we're just used in the same sentence) name is Leigh Janiak, and the film is Honeymoon, a brilliantly sneaky and slow-burning study of a recently married couple's descent into psychological ruin.
The buzz-worthy duo of Rose Leslie (a.k.a. Ygritte on HBO's Game of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway (Victor Frankenstein on Showtime's Penny Dreadful) play Bea and Paul, two madly-in-love newlyweds who head off to a quiet, secluded honeymoon at her family's cottage in the woods. All's going well until, late one night, Bea mysteriously ends up naked in the woods. After that, her personality gradually changes, her identity slips away, and...well, the rest is best left unmentioned here. But know this much: Honeymoon slowly evolved into a first-class nightmare, with Janiak confidently tearing the characters' love apart through possibly supernatural, wholly unnerving circumstances.
It's an eye-opening, who-the-hell-is-she? debut, made with the assurance of vintage Polanski but also a feminine empathy atypical in horror. Get familiar with the name Leigh Janiak, folks—she's the real deal. Let's get to know her.
You went to NYU for undergrad, right?
Yeah, but I didn't go there for film, actually, which surprises people. Everyone assumes I went there for film school.
Really? What'd you go for, then?
I went to Gallatin [School of Individualized Study] there, which is where everyone makes their own majors. And, yeah, it's as weird as it sounds. [Laughs.] You can investigate that to see what's really going on there. And then I went to Chicago for grad school, before moving to Los Angeles.
When I went to NYU, I had always loved movies and I'd done a lot of theater before that in high school. Growing up outside of Cleveland, it wasn't like people would come up to you in high school and say, "Hey, you know film school exists, right?" I didn't really understand that that was an option. I'm not even sure why I applied to NYU, honestly. There wasn't a guidance counselor telling me to do that. It was maybe through Felicity. [Laughs.] I hadn't been to the city before, either. The first time I went to New York City was for orientation.
So I knew I wanted to work in movies, and once I got to NYU, I considered transferring to Tisch [School of the Arts]. I kept putting it off, though; I studied Comparative Religion while there. To me, religion is interesting because it's essentially about masses of people coming together, and that's basically the same as film, right? There's also the angle of people gravitating towards story and myth, like in the film, too. When you break it down, that's what it's about. Religion and film are similar.
At grad school in Chicago, I was getting my Ph.D in Modern Jewish Literature, even though I'm not even Jewish. [Laughs.] I was interested in near-Eastern texts. The epic of Gilgamesh was one of the first written stories in the world, and my mind was blown by its connection to the Bible and other religious mythos.
I was in Chicago for three years, and my current writing partner, Phil [Graziadel], was there with me. I told within the first year, "You know I'm never going to finish this, right? I'm not going to be able to do this." Two years into it, I asked myself, "What are you doing? Why are you still doing this?" I realized that I was still young enough to really pursue what I love, which has always been telling stories and studying stories.
That's when filmmaking became the main focus?
Yeah. I was working on a little small things through Chicago's film program. They have this great film society with tons of cool equipment. I was able to use this old Movieola where I was actually splicing film reels. Doing that, I knew that I couldn't see myself working in any other medium, and I also realized if I wanted to make a go at filmmaking, I needed to be in Los Angeles or New York. Because I'd already been in New York, I picked LA and moved there in 2005.
From that point, what moves did you make in the filmmaking world before starting Honeymoon?
I worked for two production companies. I worked for Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way; that was my first industry job. I was the assistant to a producer there. And then I worked for a different company, which is where I met the producer of Honeymoon, actually. Those were both really important jobs for me to have because I learned about the business side of filmmaking and also the ins and outs of studio filmmaking, which is, hopefully, something I'll get to do at some point.
My jobs mostly consisted of reading scripts all day. I was able to balance that with writing in my free time.
Working as a script reader seems like the perfect way to learn what works and what doesn't work as a screenwriter. It's on-the-job training and education.
Exactly. I've read so many scripts. I still do that today, for my day job: I read scripts and review them for an online company. It's so important as a screenwriter to constantly be reading other people's scripts, and then as a director it's important to watch as many movies as you can. For me, watching movies was my film school. I've read hundreds of scripts at this point, most of them ones that have never been made and probably won't ever get made. So many scripts have this one great idea in them but then there's just a few things that don't connect, and that ultimately kills them. It comes with practice and deciding where you want to be. Do you want to be in the studio system? Or do you want to make an indie movie?
Were you trying to get your own scripts off the ground while working for those companies from 2005 onward?
Originally, Phil and I were just going try to break into the industry as writers. We were going on all of these meetings with production companies, pitching them things and trying to sell them our spec scripts. It was a really difficult time to break into the business; 2009 rolled around, and that brought the writer's strike. It was not a great time to be just a writer.
At that time, though, Tiny Furniture and Monsters became these big wake-up calls for me. Both of those movies screamed at me, "Get off your ass, Leigh, and make a movie!" It was this moment of, I moved here [to LA] when I was 25, and I've been here now for a few years. Listen, we were very lucky because we had an agent and we getting these meetings; we were in the industry, but, yet, we weren't making any money. At that rate, I wondered how old I'd be before I got to make a movie.
Both of those movies were so inspiring. Tiny Furniture motivated me because of, obviously, Lena Dunham, and she was a young female filmmaker. You don't see a lot of females making movies, but there she was, telling me, "You can make a movie—you just have to tell people that you can do it." And then Monsters was just an amazing movie, made for so little money and it's this grounded sci-fi movie, like what I've always wanted to make.
Was Honeymoon the first project that you two put all of your moviemaking energy into?
This was the one that we started with the agenda of, "We're going to make this movie." Our other scripts were written in sort of vacuums, like, "I love this story and I want to tell this story," but not much else going on beneath the surface. Honeymoon, though, was the first one where we told ourselves we'd finish it and 100% make it a movie, no matter how big or how anonymous it may end up. The end goal of the process was that we'd have a movie in some form when all was said and done.
When did you guys start working on Honeymoon?
We started writing it in 2012. The whole process went so quickly. We finished the script after several months of writing, I sent it to Patrick Baker, and he, the first person we ever sent it to, liked it and came on-board. His wife joined him, too, and they became our producing team. They raised the money for us through private equity, and then we were shooting a year later, in North Carolina.
Have you always been a genre storyteller?
No, actually. Some of our earlier scripts weren't genre at all. That was the other thing that Monsters really made me think about. I saw that movie and thought, what am I doing? I've always loved, loved sci-fi. I love sci-fi book, sci-fi movies—I love horror, too, but I've always been a bigger sci-fi fan. So why wasn't I writing things that I would love as a movie fan? I should be writing things that I would want to see. That's the most important thing for a filmmaker: make what you love, something that youwould want to watch as a fan. If you do that, other people will probably want to watch it, too.
The casting was, of course, crucial for Honeymoon, since it's basically a two-person show the entire time. How did you, as a first-time, unproven director, land Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway, two recognizable and established actors?
Going back to my sci-fi/fantasy geek side, I had read the Game of Thrones books before the HBO show began. I knew Ygritte's character and all of her interactions with Jon Snow—they were my favorite characters. I knew Ygritte's trajectory in and out, and I was really anxious to see who'd play her on the show and how the actress would handle the role. When Rose started playing her in the second season, I was like, "Fuck, yes!" She was amazing, strong, and charismatic. She embodied the character in such a beautiful way. I knew that Rose was talented and that she was going to break, big-time, in the industry. I wanted to be one of the first to show that. I just took a shot and sent her the script and she liked it. That was quick and awesome, and I feel so blessed that she's in the film. The Ygritte character is getting greater and greater, and she has this growing fan-base. I'm happy I got her along the way.
Harry, meanwhile, I'd seen in so many things. He has this amazing filmography, from Control to Fish Tank, two films I love. Casting men, I think, is difficult in America. Hollywood kind of spits these archetypes of what a male should be, and I wasn't interested in what the traditional man on screen should be. Harry has a strong masculinity and strength to him, but without being just "generic football dude." That was everything I needed for the character.
As a genre/horror fan, I was initially intrigued by Honeymoon because it's a Midnighter film, meaning there's something about it that's either horror or sci-fi. But watching the film, I noticed how I started caring less and less about the genre elements—I was totally invested in the characters and their relationship, how it was falling apart. Was that your intention, to make a relationship drama first and let the genre elements work as bonuses, not the main attractions?
Absolutely. The movie is really about a relationship being destroyed, and how these outside elements can lead to that. The outside element is what it is in our film, but it doesn't have to be that. It could be anything. At the film's core, it's a relationship drama where crazy things happen.
That being the case, were you happy that it landed in SXSW's midnight movie section, where people expect the genre elements to be prominent?
I was ecstatic that it got into the midnight section, yeah. I love blood, gore, jump-scare horror stuff, but, obviously since I made this movie, I also love grounded dramas that gradually turn into thrillers. Roman Polanski is a huge influence for me—Knife in the Water is, to me, a horror film, even though it doesn't look like one on the surface. We don't have that many of those kinds of horror movies these days, and I want to see more of those. That's why I was so excited that SXSW supported a horror movie like mine that's a little bit different.
Are you concerned at all that people see it's a Midnighter and immediately expect it to be something much more overtly horror, though? And, as a result, feel disappointed in some way.
Definitely, there's been anxiety about that. You want to exceed audience expectation. The audience last night felt very positive. They seemed to respond to it in the right way. Listen, it's not a haunted house movie, and I love those kinds of horror movies, but it's not that. Audiences like different stories—we just have to give it to them. But it's hard to do that in the studio system.
Even the film’s ending isn’t a spoon-feeding kind of thing. Without giving it away here, let’s just say that’s this really delicate balance of ambiguity and closure. You give the viewer just enough to know what happened but still leave things slightly murky.
Yeah, and the movie is about their relationship. I feel like that comes to a very firm conclusion; with the other stuff, I wanted to give answers but not a definite conclusion, you know? That part is important to the story but it’s not the point of the story. We needed it there, we need the ending so you feel some kind of resolution, but not letting it turn the film into something it’s not supposed to be. You could easily turn the entire third act of the film into that last scene, and then it becomes a very different movie, frankly a movie I’m not sure you could pull off as a very low-budget indie, with limited times and resources.
Honeymoon’s setting, that isolated cabin deep in the woods, plays such a big part in the overall mood. Does that come from somewhere you’ve spent vacation time at in real life? Do you have experience with cabins in the woods?
It’s interesting, my grandma and grandpa own this cottage a couple hours outside of Toronto. It’s this tiny little place, even smaller than the place in the movie. I grew up going there every summer with my parents and my brother. It’s very isolated, and my brother and I would go on these canoe trips and make up these stories about, like, a witch who lives in those woods over there, and I had this story about, “What if a serial killer just went from cottage to cottage murdering everyone? It’d be weeks before anyone knew.” [Laughs.] There are no phones up there; there’s nothing up there. Being in a space like that that’s so outside of the world gives me the creeps. The big open spaces make me uncomfortable; the lack of contact with other people makes me uncomfortable. That’s not exactly what happens in the movie, but that feeling is something I had growing up.
That feeling of isolation definitely affects a lot of Paul’s decisions in the movie. When Bea starts acting worse and worse, Paul doesn’t really have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to for help. He’s also very proactive, rather than just sitting around and being all like, “Hey, what’s going on here?” He does everything he can to figure things out, despite the isolation and helplessness.
Exactly. I really wanted to have a character who responds to this situation in as realistic a way as possible.
With Be a, you blur the line between her fading normality and the supernatural changes she’s going through. She’ll something one moment that sounds rational and normal, but then she’ll do something that’s odd and alarming. Was it difficult to write a character like that?
Definitely. It was tricky to write and it was tricky for Rose to execute, I think. She was amazing about it, too; she had it all completely figured out, right down to how she’d say to me between scenes, “I think I’m Bea here,” or, “I think I’m switching over here.” Rose just executed it amazingly. With a lesser actress, those things would have fallen completely apart.
One of the film's big talking points so far is the fact that you're a woman who made a horror movie. You're the only woman in this year's Midnighters lineup, and that speaks to a larger issue that's been heavily discussed in the genre world recently: the lack of female directors. Do you embrace that talking point, or does it feel like a distraction?
It's interesting because, on the one hand, I don't wake up every morning and say to myself, "Yes, I'm going to be a woman today! And do womanly things!" It's not something I really thought about too much until after we finished the movie and now that we're showing it to audiences, and I'm embracing it now.
More women need to be making movies, in general. It was never something I thought as an option, frankly because I didn't see a lot of women doing it when I was growing up as a movie fan. If we can draw attention to the novelty of a female genre director, thats great, but it shouldn't just be about that, either. Someone recently asked me who my favorite female directors are, and I mentioned Kathryn Bigelow and Andrea Arnold [director of Fish Tank], but then I was like, "But I also love 27 Dresses." [Laughs.] Diversity like that is important for any genre, but especially horror. Hopefully me and my little movie can help bring about that awareness.
Honeymoon opens in limited theaters and debuts on VOD and iTunes today, via Magnet Releasing.