Tuesday, 17 February 2015

In Conversation With Leigh Janiak | Interview

Just recently released on DVD and Blu ray is the rather wonderful Honeymoon, an independent, chamber-piece Horror starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway. Late last month, The Film Exciter was able to sit down with the director Leigh Janiak for a good chat about writing, directing, the rehearsal process, and childhood inspiration. 

The Film Exciter: I loved Honeymoon. It was one of my Top Five Films of last year.

Leigh Janiak: Thank you so much!

TFE: I thought it was absolutely fantastic. And weirdly, an email just came through this very moment telling me my Honeymoon Blu ray has been dispatched so I'm really happy about that as well.

LJ: That's awesome! That's really funny, because the film actually, I guess it's just being released On Demand and on iTunes and everything over there in the UK, and it looks quite good streaming it here, but the Blu ray still is like, a notch higher, and so I'm happy to hear people are still buying Blu rays!

TFE: Well I've just sold all my DVDs and I only buy Blu rays now so I'm looking forward to watching it. So the reason why I loved Honeymoon so much was that it reminded me of other lo-fi, high-concept movies - of which they've only been a few I've really loved - but things like Tomas Alfredson's Let The Right One In, Gareth Edwards' Monsters which I know you've talked about before, Mike Cahill and Brit Marling's Another Earth, films that really seek to turn convention on its head. It made me wonder what kind of stuff really inspired you when you were growing up?

LJ: Well first of all, you're right-on with all of those other film influences. Monsters was the hugest kind of... it kind of jostled me out of this... I was just in a lull. We were just writing, we were trying to break in and Monsters we saw in 2010, 2011, and it was so inspiring to see that you could tell what is essentially an extremely big story, but so scaled-down and so well done, it just really made me feel like my God, what am I doing? I really need to make a movie. So that was the beginning of Honeymoon. But for me, I grew up in the Eighties in Cleveland, Ohio, and so I was very much in this kind of suburban world that was perfect and Spielberg, so I grew up watching The Goonies a lot and things like that. So for me it was always movies like that that seemed to have a sense of 'there could be more to this world', like there could be this treasure map that leads you to discover this amazing pirate ship totally underneath your suburban streets. So I think that kind of fantasy world right up against reality is what stuck with me growing up, like I loved the Madeline L'Engle books, things like that, I was a big Sci-Fi girl growing up. And so those are really where my influences started. I wasn't a big Horror person, largely because I wasn't really allowed to watch these kind of slasher movies that were so popular in the Eighties. I remember I had a birthday party when I was about eleven. I was having a slumber party and I really wanted to watch one of these Horror movies I had seen while spending the night at another girl's house and my mother said "You're not watching a slasher movie that's just full of blood, but here, you can watch Psycho!" which, you know, was a million times worse than Child's Play. So being able to watch Hitchcock at a young age, now I'm really very thankful for it, but at the time I felt like 'very not cool!'

TFE: It's so interesting you say you weren't that into Horror because for me, Honeymoon wasn't really so much about the Sci-Fi and that's what I loved about it. In all these kinds of films, it starts off in a kind of generic way, the cabin in the woods, and you know there's something out there in the woods, but actually, that gets kind of pushed aside in the end, and it actually turns out it's really a love story.

LJ: That's wonderful, thank you for saying that. That's exactly what it is. The whole thing is completely a love story of these people trying to hold on to what they thought that they were and what was keeping them together and for me, the film is completely about Paul and Bea's relationship and how it falls apart and I think that's a very identifiable thing for anyone, whether you're a Horror fan or not. So when we did get to the ending, the Third Act big moments, all of that was meant to not over-shadow this relationship that was supposed to be front and centre.

TFE: I think it's that movies are contextual and you'll always be moved by what's going on in your own life and I think that goes for filmmakers too. I'm always worried when my wife's away on business, is she ok? Can I get to her if she needs help? So for me, Honeymoon was about this love story, but also about the helplessness one feels when your partner is hurt in some way and there's nothing you can do. And the third element of what I felt the film was about was the neuroses concerning couples trying to navigate their way through making decisions about kids. I felt these are things that perhaps wouldn't have been explored by a male director - obviously it's a really male-dominated genre.

LJ: It's a funny thing. Firstly I did certainly want to explore these things you don't see so much in genre film. And part of that was for me, the things that scare me... I just get scared more when I care about the characters, when I'm involved on this journey with them, so that was really important to me - exploring their relationship from a very real point of view and understanding that these things can happen outside of us, that we have no control over, and also coming to that realisation that your partner is not you. Is not just an extension of you, but lives outside of you as another entity. So that was certainly part of the motivating factor in the narrative. So that's kind of where I came from, and there wasn't this consciousness of being female really at all, in writing it with my writing partner, who's male by the way, or anything. And it wasn't until I got to SXSW where I premiered the movie that I was really shook into this realisation that it really does, I think in my opinion, have a strong, what you would call a feminine point of view and approach. But it was very much being in this pressure cooker situation with all these other Midnight Movies. I was with these ten other male-directed movies, and watching them back-to-back it started to be very clear how objectified generally women are and how what they're actually thinking is never really projected, specifically in the genre and often for a reason. But I don't think it's the only way to approach this kind of victimisation. Bea is certainly victimised and certainly also objectified in her own way so I think it's about that other POV.

TFE: Certainly I felt it was much more interesting watching what made Bea tick where another film might have focussed much more on Paul. But Phil Graziadei your writing partner... how does that work? Who had the power of veto, who edited what, how did it work? Were you both in the same room working silently on two laptops?

LJ: So Phil and I met at NYU years ago when we were undergrads and we weren't writing together then. Neither of us were actually in the Film programme there, we were just friends. And then we both ended up going to the University of Chicago for grad school, again different programmes, and it was at Chicago that I kind of realised I was unhappy with my doctoral work and I felt like I was young enough at that point to still pursue what I really wanted to do which was Film. And so I decided I wasn't going to continue my PhD and I approached Phil who was getting his own PhD in Comparative Literature and I was like, "So I'm going to move to LA and pursue movies and do you want to try out writing a script with me?" And he was all for it! So we had been friends for about four of five years before we started writing together. So we have a very Brother/Sister relationship in so far as when we're writing we can be dicks to each other and we're still friends at the end of the day. So I think that's really important in our writing partnership - we can balance each other when we need it,  we can yell at one another when we need that, and so our actual writing process varies as far as who's in the room. Like sometimes we'll be together all day writing. And then other days, we'll write separately and then we'll look at each other's scenes. For Honeymoon, he was actually in New York for part of the writing process. He was David Chase's assistant on his film Not Fade Away  and that was interesting because we had sometimes really long Skype sessions where we would both have the script open and we'd be video chatting while we were writing. So we don't have one strict way of doing it, it varies no matter what.

TFE: And directing as well - a scary thing no doubt to direct your first movie. But awesome, I imagine, to be able to work in pretty much a closed environment, focussing on two actors. You can really get under their skin. It actually felt really theatrical. Was the rehearsal process like that of the approach you might take with a stage play? Was it a combined creative effort? Were the actors having input, being allowed to improvise, playing with the script, was it elastic in its directorial approach?

LJ: Well I did a lot of Theatre. I acted and then I also directed little things and this was all in High school, so when I was a teenager, and that's one of the reasons I went to NYU, to balance that, because Theatre was really my first contact with directing actors and also just my experience too. And so having it be pretty much in one location, and just such a small cast certainly lends itself to a more theatrical environment to a certain extent. But Rose and Harry arrived on set maybe four days before we started production and for me, there are two things; one, the script is really important to me, I'm not a big, you know, "Let's just throw out this scene and see what happens!" I'm not a big improv person at all. And because it was an indie film that was also a genre movie and we had to hit certain beats, if I had thrown out the script, I think we would have run the risk of it becoming a bit of a meandering mess. That's one piece. The other thing is that I didn't really want to rehearse traditionally. This was a lot of screen-time for Rose and Harry, more than either of them had had all at once before. So I knew that we'd be doing a lot of takes throughout the process. So anything we could do to preserve the freshness of each line-reading I wanted to do. So we spent a lot of time walking through the script together and individually to trace the trajectory of each character's continuity and things like that, and also their emotional continuity together, where they were together in each scene, but there wasn't a traditional rehearsal process that we went through. All of that said, when we got on set Harry and Rose also had very different approaches as actors. And... I always say this, and Harry gets pissed at me, but in this role, the way he approached this role was from more of a method place, and that's not to say he was method or anything like that, but it was more so than Rose who approached her character from an outside, more cerebral, analytical way, but Harry would throw in little lines here and there that frankly at the time were driving me crazy because I am very much like we've got to stick to the script and many of those things ultimately ended up in the film, and they're tiny, they're tiny little things. But in many instances I was trying to repress that urge and Harry pushed me, and ultimately I am very grateful for that. But both of them have said to me separately that it'd felt very theatrical, you know, as much as film can feel theatrical, but I think that part of that just comes from the long hours and the pressure of being the only ones on-stage, all day long and night. They didn't have that luxury of going to sit in their trailer because they're always on.

TFE: Sure. And it definitely felt, because of that intimacy, it was a film that would inspire young filmmakers, in terms of, you know, just tell a simple story really well. And having been though that process yourself, what advice would you give young filmmakers who wanted to go out with this great high-concept idea and make a film?

LJ: Well, first of all I think you really hit the nail on the head which is I think there is something to be said for being able to tell a very simple story well, and understanding your limitations going into into it. I knew that our budget was not going to be a bajillion dollars and so being aware of that and how it might serve to make my film look better if I don't have, you know, twenty different location moves because we don't have enough time for that, and if I do move location twenty times, I'm only going to have time for two takes at each location, so knowing things like that and really making your limitations work to your benefit. And for me, that was about finding the right story to tell in a contained environment with a limited cast. So I always say, if you can write that simple story that you love, be attached to it and say, "I'm going to make this."

TFE: And I guess with someone who always creates, you're always thinking about the next thing as well. As in as you're always thinking, hey that's something I want to explore further, maybe next time, I'll investigate it a bit more in depth... So what's next for you? Or rather, what haven't you done that you've thought, I really want to make one of those?

LJ: Well one of the things that we're trying to work on next is a TV limited series thing, so it's a ten-episode kind of show that we're trying to set up here on cable which we'll try and do over the next month or so, and it explores this woman going into this dark underground world over this ten-episode arc. And that was interesting because it was an idea we had originally had as a feature when we weren't quite cracking it and we realised that what we needed was to be able to tell it over a longer period of time, so I'm very excited about that.

TFE: That's so cool. A platform that really allows you to tell a kind of more novelistic, literary narrative.

LJ: It's really something that has started to catch on here, you know, we had True Detective, The Knick which was one of my favourite shows, you know, that in itself wasn't a contained story, but because Soderbergh was directing each episode of that, I feel it was able to maintain that cinematic point of view the whole way. And you know, I'm a huge fan of something like The Missing, but I think it still makes the networks vary nervous because they want that thing that can just run and run for like eight years. So we'll see if that works out. And then also we're working on some original ideas that live more in a Sci-Fi space for the next feature so... we will see.