Q&A With Leigh Janiak, co-writer and director of Honeymoon

Cult Projections: Prior to directing your debut feature you worked as a producer’s assistant on several big budget productions, had you always intended to direct when the time was right? What were your aspirations when you first entered the film industry?

Leigh Janiak: My job was in an office in Los Angeles. I read scripts, looked for new ideas for films, etc. In any case, I moved to LA after leaving a doctoral program at the University of Chicago to pursue filmmaking. My goal was always to write and direct, but along the way I needed a day job and working at a production company gave me great insight into the “business” side of things. Even though it wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do, I think my time there was invaluable.

CP: Tell me a little about the Honeymoon screenplay you co-wrote with Phil Graziadei, how did it originate and what was the collaboration process like? Had you been working on it for a long time before it got the green light?

LJ: Phil and I had been writing for years, trying to break into the studio side of the business. This resulted in a lot of great meetings, but no script sale and certainly not production. We started writing Honeymoon in 2011 with the idea that we were going to make the end result of this script, no matter what -- as such we tried to be strategic in limiting cast, location moves, etc, without compromising narrative because we had no idea what our end budget would be. When we finished the script I sent it to Patrick Baker, who I had worked for at one point during my day job at Misher Films and who had since become an independent producer. Patrick came on board right away and it took about another year for him to raise our financing, all through private equity.

CP: How did you find your two leads? They give excellent performances, have you had a background with actors at all?

LJ: Thank you! Rose and Harry are great. We didn’t have a casting agent since our cast was so small. I had seen Rose on Downton Abbey and she had been on her first season of Game of Thrones.  Rose didn’t yet have an American agent, just one in the UK, so Patrick emailed our materials to him and then we had no idea what would happen. It was kind of like, well that went over the ocean, probably a long shot, but then she responded to the script and lookbook. I Skyped with her a few times and we had our “Bea.” Harry I had seen in a bunch of indie films and was a big fan. When I saw his name on a long list of actors that had been submitted to us I was very excited because I knew how talented he was. He read for me and there was just never any doubt. He was perfect. As far as my background with actors, I had done a lot of theatre myself growing up, in high school, etc, and I think that was invaluable experience. I think anyone who wants to be a director should spend a little time on the other side of the camera or on stage, at some point. There’s no other way to fully understand the vulnerability that an actor feels and the trust that they have to put in themselves, their fellow actors, and of course, the director.

CP: Did you always intend to use English actors and have them perform with American accents? It’s curious, as the movie has a distinctly European atmosphere, even retro in vibe.

LJ: I certainly didn’t intend on casting English actors. Rose and Harry just turned out to be the perfect fit. But as for the “European” atmosphere -- I take that as a compliment. Thanks!

CP: It’s a wholly original movie, but – and this is meant as a compliment – it also reminds the viewers (especially the horror/sf geeks) of several other movies. What movies and/or filmmakers influenced and/or inspired you during the directing? What about with Phil during the screenwriting?

LJ: With Phil, we started out with this idea of wanting to take a “bigger” sci-fi concept and tell it in a more contained, grounded way. So we thought about big alien invasion movies, lots of them, but most notably, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We liked the idea that Body Snatchers seems to get retold generation after generation and for us, making an intimate body snatcher movie about a couple on their honeymoon seemed to make sense and would allow us to explore these ideas of identity and how well you can ever really know another person. So Body Snatchers was a huge influence, as was Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and countless others. Picnic at Hanging Rock was one, in fact!

CP: Nice. The movie is swathed in a delicate, but deliberate sense of mystery, a dream/nightmare fabric of paranoia, if you will. Describe the importance, as a filmmaker, to manipulate the audience, to temporarily confuse them, then to reel them in both emotionally and psychologically?

LJ: You know, I think more than audience manipulation, it was really about tying our point of view as an audience with Paul’s. I wanted to explore everything through the eyes of this man who feels secure in his relationship, who loves Bea completely and fully and watch as this outside event seeps in and starts to poison it. I felt that if I could make this alliance with Paul and the audience, then it would be emotionally and psychologically painful and terrible when things between Paul and Bea ultimately are pushed the edge.

CP: Honeymoon is as much about body horror as it is about the way women and men relate to each other, or don’t. Did you always intend the movie to end the way it does?

LJ: Certainly the “ending” of the film for me was always intended to be the final Paul and Bea interaction on the lake. Honeymoon is about how a relationship falls apart because of an outside force, and so it was always this trajectory of their relationship I was most interested in and not the outside event that caused that dissolution.  I felt that there needed to be a bit of resolution with those outside forces, hence the ultimate scene with Bea leaving the cottage, but again, that’s almost incidental to what the narrative really is about.

CP: Honeymoon feels very much like a personal vision that hasn’t been tampered with by executives. So, what is your opinion on horror movies that obviously submit to a happy ending, pulling it out like a rabbit from a hat? What about the whole PG-13 attitude of Hollywood, forcing horror directors to deliver watered down versions of their own movie to appease a commercial viability? Would you succumb to this contractual obligation if it meant you’d have a big budget to work with?

LJ: I feel very thankful that my producers ultimately let me tell the story I wanted to show without submitting to more traditional “concerns.” For me, whether it be in horror or another genre, it’s really about understanding who your audience is and what your final hope for your film is -- This PG-13 neutered horror reaches a wide audience that wants to go to a theatre with friends or on a date and have fun -- to be scared in a way that feels familiar, but satisfying. And so I think that’s largely what you need to provide if you’re trying to reach a wide audience. That said, I certainly aspire to reach wider audiences with larger budget productions, but I believe that films can still be great and original while doing so.

CP: If there were five science fiction and/or horror movies left in the world, what should they be?

LJ: Oh man! This is a TERRIBLE question! So hard! OK. Completely off the top of my head with very little thought and I’m sure leaving out tons of great ones:  Alien. Rosemary’s Baby. The Shining. E.T. Back to the Future.

CP: What appeals to you about genre filmmaking? Will you continue to make movies in a similar vein to Honeymoon? Can you divulge anything about your next project?

LJ: I think that genre films have fewer boundaries and more room for exploring the edges of imagination than something like a straight drama or comedy. I certainly think my future projects will tend to end up in some kind of genre space. Sci-fi, definitely. That said, Phil and I actually are in the process of trying to set up our next thing - it’s a TV limited-series project. It has some genre elements, but is incredibly grounded and focused on a woman’s journey into a dark underground.

CP: Cool. Thank you for your time!

LJ: Thank you!

Honeymoon screens as part of Sydney’s A Night Of Horror International Film Festival, Saturday, November 29th, 5pm, Dendy Newtown.