With her feature debut, “Honeymoon,” co-writer/director Leigh Janiak uncovers a unique corner of a location that passed cliché years ago, and places two characters in the center who draw your empathy rather than mock it. It’s in the performances—Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway as a newlywed couple—and Janiak’s approach, a quietly disturbing, subjective look at a bizarre event that divides the pair on their weekend cabin retreat.
That emotional subjectivity is what elevates the film (co-written with Phil Graziadei) from its horror counterparts, focusing in on, as our B+ review from SXSW states, “how much of your own identity you have to give up when you are in a long-term relationship.” When we talked to Janiak recently in Los Angeles, she explained how staying rooted in Treadaway’s POV shaped the film.
“It becomes a very different movie if you’re inside the person who’s decaying and changing,” she said, “For me, it was about watching, and questioning how well you can know another person. That’s the core of the movie to me.” Read on for Janiak’s thoughts on the challenges of a 24-day shoot on location in North Carolina, her genre influences, and more.
What was the point where you knew “Honeymoon” was ready to go in front of camera?
When we [Janiak and co-writer Graziadei] started writing “Honeymoon,” we knew at the end of it we were going to make it no matter what, whatever the budget. But we have a very rigorous process with ourselves in terms of getting there, of feeling like it’s complete and ready, so when we got to that point we just knew we had to say, “Okay we have to do it now”.
My day job for a long time was working at a production company with Patrick [Baker]. When we finished the script he had left a few years earlier to be an independent producer, so I sent it to him. I was just looking for some guidance into the indie world; I wasn’t expecting for him to say he’d like to produce it with his wife, Esmé [Howard]. It was full speed ahead after that.
Who or what were you thinking about as inspiration leading into it?
I thought about David Cronenberg and “Alien” a lot as far as the effects go, specifically because I really wanted that tactile, gory feeling, and for them to feel really organic. Those were certainly influences as far as the body horror goes. For the rest of the film, I thought a lot about “Rosemary’s Baby,” inasmuch as you’re so grounded with Rosemary, and her paranoia and doubt, during that entire movie. Also Michael Haneke‘s “Amour”—I looked a lot at that film. It informed how I spoke to Rose and Harry about the decay of their relationship, and not knowing what to do when this person you love starts to become someone else.
On a quick shoot like this, how did you develop Leslie and Treadaway’s relationship?
They met once or twice in London before we started shooting, and then they arrived about four days before principal photography. I can’t speak for them, but I don’t think either had been put in this position where they were both onscreen for the entire film. So I think they walked in with a bit of naiveté, as did I. Luckily they liked each other and that helped the intimacy, but it was a lot of work. In the film they’re both on different pages character-wise, and they’re just really dedicated and great actors to have pulled that off.
How did the decision to shoot in North Carolina come about?
I wanted to shoot in Canada but it was too cold—we only had a little window of time where Rose wasn’t shooting “Game of Thrones,” and because the lake would’ve been frozen we just couldn’t. So we decided on North Carolina, and it was good—except for when it rained.
All of us would joke, “There was a time before the rain.” The road going into the cottage was completely mud; our dock was completely submerged. My writing partner was on set for the first week and then he went back to LA, and I called him halfway through thinking, “Okay, what are going to do if in the middle of the movie it just starts raining? Like, what sort of script tweaks do we make where we’re in a world where it only rains?”
Was there a moment of dread when you got to North Carolina and realized what the conditions were really like?
I don’t think that the reality really set in until I got there. You know, I was living in this naive space where I thought I worked through everything. Then we arrived and the lake was freezing, and the stunt coordinator and medic were freaking out because the water was too cold. They said, “You’re risking hypothermia, so you can put them in once.” That was when I was like, “What are you talking about? One take? [Harry’s] not a delicate little doll.”
But that was it. The reality of dealing with the elements — we didn’t have enough time to get as much coverage as I would’ve liked. Because we were shooting a lot of nights and splits, we’d be shooting all night, and then we’d have our day. So when we got to the end of our 6-day week, if we were shooting at night for that last day then we’d be sleeping all day and there was no break. It was intense. The rain started to really hurt us. Things got more jumbled than they should have.
What was sacrificed during that time?
We had some day exteriors when we were deep into nights. The scene where they first arrive at the cottage, and then the scene where Harry finds Rose’s nightgown in the woods—those were still floating, we didn’t have them. Then we basically had one more day, and there was this anxiety over what we were going to do. So we prescheduled a 16-17 hour day where we would shoot all night and then continue shooting into the next morning. Luckily the sun broke and it held, but that was really difficult, mostly for the actors. The crew—yes, we were all tired—but the actors had to be happy and excited, and they had been shooting already in the middle of the night for 12 hours.
How was it on the shoot using your friend Kyle Klutz as your cinematographer? I imagine over production that was invaluable.
I was lucky to be able to use him, and to have support from Patrick and Esme, who took a chance on both a first-time director and DP. There was a lot more leeway as opposed to just meeting your DP six weeks before production. It was great to have all this time that we could spend together beforehand, being able to call Kyle up like, “Hi, do you wanna come over and do shot lists?” We were friends for five years, and then he shot the teaser when we were finding financing for “Honeymoon”.
Who was in the teaser?
I used two friends, one an actor and one not. It was interesting. It’s tonal so you don’t really see either of their faces, and there’s no “acting.” There’s voiceover but it’s not from the actual script. It was just to get a feel for what the visual feel of the movie would be like.
You made a number of short films before “Honeymoon”—were they similar in approach or tone, trying out techniques you would use later?
[Laughs] No, not at all. I do have a DVD of one of the things that I did, shot on Super16 and edited on a Movieola. It’s fine. It’s a silent movie—that was the idea, we made it for a silent film festival. I actually love it because it’s about a mini dog race. I have two whippets so they’re in it, and the lofty idea was doing a take on Edward Muybridge’s human studies. That was the idea going in—it was quickly went elsewhere, but it’s still pretty awesome because you get to watch their bodies running and moving.
The shorts were mostly tiny things like that, nothing that I would really feel comfortable showing to anyone outside of my family. My writing partner and I did some short stuff, too. We met at NYU, and then we both went to University of Chicago for different things. I did a lot of theatre work, acting and then directing, but I never studied film. I played around with transferring to Tisch but thought, “No, I’m going to get my ‘real education’.” It was finally at Chicago, about two years into my PhD, where I thought, “Is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my life? I love film, maybe I should just take a chance at it.”
Having both co-written and directed a project, would an ideal situation be just directing? Or is that combination just a necessary part of launching your own projects now?
Well, just directing would be lovely. In an ideal situation we would be in a place where I could be shooting something and Phil would be working on another script. Right now it’s great because we have this small leeway, so we’re working together and looking for our next thing, since no one’s throwing movies at me or anything like that right now.
I don’t know though, there’s something about developing it all from the ground up and being there every step of the way. I don’t know what it would be like to direct someone else’s material. It’s certainly appealing, because writing is hard; it’s an absolute slog sometimes. But there’s also something nice about protecting the material—it’s just you and your computer, you don’t have all of those other opinions yet. If you’re writing it yourself you can tell the story that you specifically can make rather than anyone else in the world.
“Honeymoon” will be released in theatres and on VOD from Magnolia Pictures on September 12th.