I didn’t know what I was in for. It was an independent horror film, about a couple that goes to a … cabin in the woods (but at least it’s on a lake), and discovers something unusual is lurking there. It was SXSW so it’s always a grab bag of genres, production levels, and story vs. mumblecore. But this film had one thing going for it that was undeniable, it had Rose Leslie, the vicious, ass-kicking future-star from beyond the wall in Game of Thrones. And it also had a female director, which is, unfortunately, incredibly rare in horror. What I discovered is a film that stuck with me for months, longer than even films I thought I liked more at the time.
HONEYMOON is a rare film, it is honestly frightening, and not in the cat leaps on the windowsill way, or even in the killer jumping out of a closet way. This is a film that scares you to the core because the central premise is so disturbing. The slow burn of Bea (played by Rose Leslie) transforming from something very human and loving to something unknown and alien is nuanced and chilling. And there are moments of cringe-inducing body horror that are some of the most alarming I’ve ever seen, more so because they are not in the midst of some slasher gore-fest or torture porn. Honeymoon works because it is actually a relationship drama. It’s a relationship that turns horrific, but the aesthetics of the film are built around a very real, emotional relationship between a married couple. They’ve come to a cabin to celebrate after their wedding, and in the middle of the night, Bea wanders out into the woods, and is ‘taken’ by something. In the grand tradition of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, she returns just a shell of a human.
I had a chance to speak with writer/director Leigh Janiak about the film just before its theatrical release, after it had literally been haunting me for five months. Janiak is a fresh voice in horror, one that I hope to see more from as soon as we can, so it’s interesting that she has taken a classic set-up and turned it into something new. “We [Janiak and writing partner Phil Graziadei] thought about the bigger sci-fi movies that we love,” says Janiak, “ the body snatcher movies are certainly up there in my favorites. … I feel we re-tell that story every couple of generations in a different way.” Honeymoon does not find an army of pod people taking over the suburbs, this is a small story, in an isolated place. “I thought that it would be just really cool to tell an intimate body snatcher movie,” she says, “about alienation within a relationship and the nature of identity.”
At the core of the film is a couple, Bea and Paul. “Anyone can relate to this feeling of the person that they’re with, they think they know them,” says Janiak, “and something happens and it can be small and then boom you’re like ‘who is this person?’ And so exploring that kind of outside trauma and how it affects a relationship I thought it worked well within the body snatcher trope.” It’s clear at the open of the film that Paul and Bea have a rare relationship where they truly understand the other person and relate to them as a partner and best friend. After Bea comes back from wherever it is she is taken, Paul (Harry Treadway from Penny Dreadful) immediately notices something is off. She is starting to drift away. For Janiak, the film is “commenting on how well you can ever really know another person and what happens underneath inside that body and who that person really is.” These are not themes one finds in say the latest Eli Roth film, or basically any horror film. What I love most about Honeymoon is that it doesn’t go all at once. A large portion of the film is Bea realizing that something has happened, hiding it from Paul, and desperately trying to hold on to her humanity in any way she can. In one instance, she writes her personal details over and over again in a notebook, her name, her address, etc. “The thought of it when we were writing the script and when I explained it to Rose is this idea of if you are transferring a hard drive over, to another computer so like little bits start to go, it doesn’t all go over at once,” explains Janiak; “My writing partner and I did a lot of research into trauma. How you lose short-term memory first, — now I don’t remember the order the way things go — and within short-term memory, you start not recognizing familiar objects, and then you can’t remember the linguistics to describe the action that you just did.”
With the film about the way a relationship decays, having the right two actors may have been the most important decision of production. “We didn’t have a casting director,” says Janiak, surprising me. Indie filmmaker after indie filmmaker has lavished praise on their casting director that got them the right people. On Honeymoon, they seemed to have circumvented this. The director says: “my producer basically spoke with all the major talent agencies and told them ‘look, we have this movie, we’re going to be shooting in the spring’ and we started getting submissions, just lists of people both actors and actresses.” Rose Leslie though was someone Janiak can take more active credit in casting. “I had read the Game of Thrones books and I love her character and she had only been on one season when we were casting Honeymoon,” she says, “so I felt like I have this moment where maybe I can grab her before she blew up.” She had seen her in Downton Abbey and in New Town (a Scottish mini-series) and knew she could pretty much handle anything. “She was so different in both of those and her energy was so high,” Janiak says, “I just felt like she was going to be a star.” Luckily, the actress did not have US representation yet, so the team sent the script over with a ‘look book’ and just crossed their fingers. Leslie is a marvel in the film, exhibiting vulnerability and ferocity as the scene requires. By the end of the film, her terror at her own change is heartbreaking. Treadway has a hard time keeping up with her, but that’s inherent in the script. He keeps us grounded, a view into an alien world from the audience. “I was just looking at dude after dude after dude, when I finally came across his name on ICM’s list,” says Janiak, “I was so excited because I had known him from BROTHERS OF THE HEAD and CONTROL and FISH TANK and I knew that he was extremely talented. … I knew he was Paul.” Of course, casting any important role comes with some hesitation. “The first time I skyped with him he was shooting THE LONE RANGER still,” she says, “and he was like in drag cowboy make-up and his accent is so thick and I was like ‘Holy shit how is he ever going to do this American?’”
With two actors working so regularly and in far away places, they came together on location, four days before shooting started. “I had a little anxiety, because they had never met each other,” Janiak says, “and I obviously didn’t do a chemistry read so I was just relying on the fact that they were both just individually talented.” Luckily, their chemistry was perfect. And they HAD met a few times in London, without Janiak. “Because it’s mostly about their relationship, if you don’t have two amazing actors in those roles, the movie falls apart very quickly,” the director says, “especially because it’s mostly them carrying it.” Janiak does not like to rehearse in the traditional sense of the word, but the three of them spent about four hours a day talking through the script and the scenes, “just really getting to know those characters ahead of time.”
Filming took place in North Carolina, despite that the film is set in Canada. “It turned out that, I think it was Rose’s schedule, she was supposed to go back to Game of Thrones so we only had a little window of time where we would actually be able to shoot,” says Janiak “because of certain things that happen in the movie like going into the water, Canada was too cold.” Actually, the lake would have been frozen over. Janiak grew up going to small lakes in Canada so she had a pretty specific look in mind in writing Honeymoon, but her line producer and UPM assured her they could find what she was looking for in North Carolina. “The first few days of location scouting,” she confesses, “nothing was looking like Canada to me, the cabins were more like cottages, the architecture just didn’t feel right. I was having panic attacks.” Fortunately someone in the town they were staying in as a base camp suggested Lake Summit, about ten minutes away, and it was just what she was looking for. “It’s not a cabin or cottage in the woods that’s completely isolated,” Janiak says, distancing the film from others in the genre, “I like this idea that there would be other cottages around but they’re empty because it’s before season.” This gives opportunity plot-wise for Paul and Bea to run into another new couple, one of whom is a childhood sweetheart from her past. When everything starts to go bad, there is at least someone else to seek for help, or to blame (I’m not going to tell you the plot). Janiak enjoyed creating a story where there is “this feeling of ‘there should be other people here but there aren’t.’ – That was really important to building the unease.” She continues: “we should have the safety of society and civilization around us, but we don’t.”
The setting has such a dramatic effect of the mood, and is so well shot, it is easy to forget that this is still a low-budget indie. This was the plan for Honeymoon from the start, according to Janiak. “When my writing partner Phil and I started writing the script, we kind of fed off this idea that when we have the script done we were going to make the film, no matter what our budget level ended up being,” she says, “we knew we wanted to tell a more intimate, contained story, anticipating that we wouldn’t get $100 million.” One aspect the budget helped was the effects, which were all done practically. “First of all we didn’t have the budget level to support what CG would cost,” Janiak says, “but I think that you can tell, unless the CG is amazing, there’s always that flatness to it, and I wanted that tactile thing to kind of jump off the screen.” The film takes a definitive turn for the macabre in the third act when the ‘thing inside’ Bea actually begins manifesting itself physically. Janiak admits that they were toeing a very dangerous line tonally, and knew it could turn into a disaster without the proper attention. “I had this amazing special effects makeup artist in Chris Nelson who works on American Horror Story,” she says, and he really developed a grounded, biological look for those pieces, “so that we felt we were still in a familiar world even though this very unfamiliar weird thing has entered it.” The result was something very tangible, and recoil-worthy. She admits that of ‘body horror element,’ as we speak of it non-specifically to not give away plot and shock, “quite a few people have said to me that that’s ‘the most cross-your-knees moment’ that they’ve felt in a while.” Don’t say you weren’t warned, however vaguely I can. As for the SciFi aspect out there in the woods, “those creature effects were always meant and kind of crafted to be dark,” Janiak says, “you know that the presence is there, but what that presence specifically is and what they want is not important.”
Of course these creatures are really just the secondary element, with the story always meant to be focused on this relationship falling apart. It’s a bold choice in horror, and one that I have to somewhat attribute to what makes Janiak different from most people working in the genre. “I didn’t think a lot about ‘oh, I’m a female filmmaker,’” she says, “it really didn’t sink in until I got to SXSW and I did a horror panel there. I was with all the other midnight guys and then a couple other that had that genre element, and it was all dudes and me!” I believe there is a sensitivity to Honeymoon that would have been impossible with a male director, unless that director was someone like Ang Lee. “It’s weird, like until I was really there watching all these movies right up against each other,” Janiak says, “you know, I didn’t really think about that Rose is just not clad in her underwear. She’s obviously put in very precarious situations body wise but she’s wearing a polo shirt that is her husband’s for most of the time, and just little things like that that didn’t even register to me as being odd.” Last year at Austin Film Festival, I was able to program three ‘Dark Matters’ films that were all directed by women. I never even realized it until I looked at the shortlist and saw we were able to do something really special. One of those films, DARK MOUNTAIN, is available on VOD and another, INNOCENCE, directed by Sundance award-winner Hilary Brougher, was released theatrically last week. I wouldn’t say there is a revolution going on, but it is quite refreshing the genre is opening up. “I’ve been very supported so far,” Janiak says, “just as a filmmaker period, whether or not male or female. I hope that it doesn’t provide hurdles, I hope that people get excited about having a different point of view in the genre.”
Writer/director Leigh Janiak’s HONEYMOON opens nationwide September 12th.