'Fear Street' Director Leigh Janiak on Picking Perfect Needledrops, Crafting Kills, and Writing a Queer Love Story [Interview]

Netflix’s Fear Street movie trilogy, based on the young adult novels by R.L. Stine, are an exciting excercise in telling a compelling story through three shorter stories. The first film, Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is a hard hit of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the Scream era. It introduces us to the town of Shadyside, where the people are cursed and everyone’s pretty miserable, but teenager Deena (Kiana Madeira) wants more for herself. She also wants more for her girlfriend, Sam (Olivia Welch), who recently moved to the neighboring, rival town, Sunnyvale. Their journey to beat the curse is the frame narrative that surrounds all three films, which take us back to a summer camp slasher for Fear Street Part 2: 1978 and finally back to where it all began for Fear Street Part 3: 1666.

Despite being set in three very different time periods, there’s a cohesiveness to the trilogy that truly makes it feel like one big story. A big part of that comes from director Leigh Janiak, who also co-wrote the scripts for the trilogy with Phil Graziadei.Janiak had a clear vision for each installment, and delivers each as an homage to the movies that inspired them.

/Film had the chance to chat with Janiak about her favorite film influences, picking the perfect needle-drops, and that brutal bread-slicer kill. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

So, first off I wanted to ask you just because this has been on my mind since I saw the first film. All three movies have some like really gnarly kills in them, but the one that stands out is the bread slicer death from 1994. So, I was wondering if you could tell me where that came from, what gave you all that idea, and how you executed it.

I think that part of the reason I kind of love the slasher sub genre is finding crazy ways to kill people. So, that was obviously something that me and my fellow writers, as we were figuring out the movies, we’re always thinking about. And then if we’re going really far back, I think that the most incipient idea for this came from when I was a teenager, I worked at a Super Kmart. I grew up in Ohio in a suburb east of Cleveland, and one summer I took a job working at the Super Kmart third shift. I went in at like 9:00 PM, and I worked til like 7:00 AM, because I’m a night person. I think that my time working in that grocery store all night…I just remember seeing all these weird people and like coming up with these crazy ideas, and I just loved the idea of taking over traditional suburban spaces and kind of destroying them. It made sense that when we put our kind of like finale of movie one in the grocery store, I’m looking for objects around that we could use.

That’s kind of where the bread slicer really originated. Filming it was crazy because we knew that obviously there would be the effects that were completely going to enhance the experience, but Julia [Rehwald] who played Kate, she really just kind of came in at a next level performance with just this very organic, real, raw terror and fear. Her screams were just so disturbing even when we were shooting, which when you’re shooting a horror movie, it’s not scary. You’ve got lights everywhere, people everywhere, but the emotion in her voice was so intense that we ended up using it, kind of like blaring it through the speakers when we were filming other scenes in the grocery store to keep Kiana and Olivia kind of engaged with what was happening with their friends and everyone.

The Fear Street books are targeted towards young adults, but the movies are extremely violent, gory, hard R’s. Can you talk about that?

Originally, the movies were greenlit with Fox, so originally they were going to be theatrical. From the very beginning, I knew that I wanted the movies to be R-rated. I felt like it made sense, thinking about the source material that they live in this slasher sub genre, and to me, a slasher movie needs to be bloody. It needs to be pushing the envelope of kind of violence and gore. That’s kind of the fun of the world. That said, I still was a little nervous because when you’re crafting something to be R-rated but you’re still making it at a studio that is always looking for the widest audience possible, that certainly crossed my mind – will that be a conversation?

Fox was very supportive when we were with them and then Netflix continued to really support and embrace [us]. I was thinking about being a kid and renting movies that I wasn’t supposed to, or frankly sneaking into the theater to see things that I wasn’t yet allowed to see. I remember I think I sneaked in to see Pulp Fiction like four or five times when I was 14. Totally not okay. But, part of the pleasure I think for me of being what is deemed too young by the MPAA is finding a way to get your hands on this stuff. I was always kind of like, it’s going to be all right, people are going to find it. It’s going to be fine.

All three movies have some clear influences in the slasher sub-genres, but I’d like to hear you talk about which movies and TV shows influenced each movie, because there’s a lot of very different feelings to each of them.

So the first movie, ’94, I was very much inspired by and trying to hit the tonal sweet spot that the kind of mid ’90s slasher Renaissance. So I think Scream, obviously we steal shamelessly. We send a million love letters to that movie throughout ‘94, but also I Know What You Did Last Summer or The Faculty kind of…There was a reinvention of slashers that Scream ushered in and those movies felt fun. They felt kind of a little bit self-aware, a little bit subversive in a different way, kind of character-wise. Those were the movies that were really driving the ’94 conversation.

With ‘78, I certainly looked at like traditional slasher movies. ‘78 is kind of at the very beginning of what I would consider the heyday of slasher. Halloween came out in 1978. That was an influence. Friday the 13th, that franchise of course, was an influence. Nightmare on Elm Street. But also movies like The Goonies were a big influence on ‘78. We talked a lot about making horror Goonies and that was kind of like horror Goonies is happening in the underground of this movie and then above ground we’re in the Friday the 13th camp world. We also, by the way, thought a little bit about It, and the book is what I’m referencing here, and the idea of like the spider in the book was kind of influential on how we would think about the growth [the strange pulsating mass seen in the second movie], which we called the Heart of Darkness, which first appears in the second movie. So, that was kind of an influence on that side of things.

For movie three, going into the 1600s, I re-watched The Witch, The Village, The Crucible, kind of all of those of period movies that deal with versions of unseen monsters or witches. And then, also Terrence Malik’s The New World was a big influence for me tonally and also just how he creates this beautiful world and then destroys it slowly as these colonists come over and take over the space. Also, The Knick, which is this great TV show that Soderbergh created. It was on Cinemax a few years ago, and that has nothing to do with these movies other than the fact that I thought that it was a very effective way of keeping something that is very firmly set in the past feeling modern and vibrant and exciting.

A big part of all three of these movies is the soundtrack. The needle drops both set a time and place and also help connect us to the story. I was wondering if there were any particular songs you knew from the start you’d be using, or if it was something that just sort of came about as you were filming?

Music was a really important part. So, I made these playlists before the scripts were even written. Playlists were something that I had kind of put together to put me in a time and a place, and those continued to grow as we were writing, when we were in prep, when we were shooting, and were shared with cast and crew and everything. There were certain songs that I knew needed to be baked into the movie from kind of the script stage. “The Man Who Sold The World,” the Nirvana version and the Bowie version, were scripted in the movie from the first drafts. Also with the Pixies and “Hey.” That was part of a very early, early draft of ‘94. Strangely enough, also I think the Soundgarden that we use “The Day I Tried to Live” was also scripted at the end of ‘94.

And, there were a few other ones here and there. Other ones kind of came about. The Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane” felt like this perfect kind of ’90s love song for the kind of hookup crosscutting scene that happens in ‘94. I was so excited when I remembered that that song existed because the thing that I loved about “The Man Who Sold the World” was that we could show that brilliant kind of ’90s Nirvana version and then also show the ’78 Bowie kind of world. With “Sweet Jane,” I thought that we had another opportunity to do that and then do the Velvet Underground version in the ’70s. I was always kind of looking for more opportunities to do that. I think those are the only two that we actually found, so certain things here and there were scripted and then other ones kind of came organically as we started cutting.

You wrote and directed Honeymoon, which is a claustrophobic indie horror movie, much smaller in just a practical way than the Fear Street films. I was wondering what made you decide to tackle something this big, because it’s a whole trilogy. I mean it’s really impressive. What made you decide to just go for this?

Well first of all, thank you. Second of all, I think naïveté.

Honeymoon was such an amazing experience. It was really kind of embraced by the horror community on the Festival Circuit. I was lucky enough to kind of parlay that into getting more work in television and being hired to write other scripts. When I was approached about Fear Street, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the idea of it. At first, it was kind of just like “Oh shit, this is the most amazing opportunity.” I love these books. I love the idea of kind of like revisiting the slasher subgenre. I love the idea of three time periods. All of the things kind of seduced me into wanting to do the project. And then, it obviously became like…it’s a big undertaking. I don’t want to minimize that, but I had an amazing crew and cast and fellow writers and everything, and it was just a very good experience for something that was obviously incredibly challenging.

Horror has always been the genre of the disenfranchised, but what was it like bringing a queer romance within this horror story to life?

It was very exciting and cool, and I felt honored that we could include it as being part of the trilogy. We baked in this idea of Shadyside being a town of outsiders, a town of people that have been marginalized historically and have been told that there are other, or they’re not good enough. Because we created the mythology that was built around this idea, it made sense as we were starting to find these different characters that we could lean into people that weren’t really given proper representation in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s in film and TV, even though they were very much part of the fabric of humanity. There was just something kind of powerful about being able to put a love story at the center of this trilogy. It sounds a little like corny to say that I think that that love is the great motivator here, but that was the thing that was going to drive Deena to really figure out how to take the evil of Shadyside on.

So, that’s kind of what happened. We wanted to craft a story that was very recognizable for anyone that has experienced love or teenage love and is still trying to figure out who you are, but also want it to be true that it is a queer story. And, it’s a queer love story, not just a straight love story. It was really a powerful thing, and we had my writing partner Phil [Graziadei], who grew up gay in the ’90s, always kind of being like, “Hold on a second, let me remind you that this was not the reality. The reality that we live in now was not that then.” So, that was also very helpful and good.

What’s next for you? Are you looking to do more horror films or branch out into something new?

Oh man. I love horror, so I will always be interested in, in doing other horror stories. I love genre generally, so I don’t think that I’m only thinking about that. I’m always just looking for stuff that excites me and feels like a story that shouldn’t be told or could be told in a new way. My brain is just starting to wake up from Fear Street, but I’m excited about what’s next.

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