(Photo by Jessica Miglio/Netflix © 2021)
Talking to Fear Street trilogy director Leigh Janiak, you get the feeling that if she were to find herself in a Scream movie she’d probably survive a call from Ghostface. Not necessarily because she could out-fight or outrun him (though, having simultaneously directed three interconnected slasher flicks set in different time periods and released them all at the same time to Certified Fresh critical acclaim, we’re not questioning her stamina!). But because she knows so much about horror movies. Whatever trick questions a masked killer could throw at Janiak in some menacing late-night quiz-before-you-die call, we’re pretty sure Janiak would emerge with straight A’s and zero punctures.
Janiak’s incredible knowledge of, and reverence for, the genre is evident all over her ambitious horror triptych, now available on Netflix: Fear Street Part One: 1994, Fear Street Part Two: 1978, and Fear Street Part Three: 1666. Drawn from the books of R.L. Stine, the three films tell the story of a rag-tag group of friends from Shadyside – the wrong side of the tracks according to the uppity citizens of the more manicured Sunnyvale – who are trying to get to the bottom of a centuries-old mystery that has been unleashing a new mass murderer upon their town with each generation. The trilogy’s three “parts” all have their own slasher flavor, with 1994 playing as a Scream-like mid-’90s horror-comedy, 1978 aping the campfire carnage of Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp, and 1666 echoing Robert Eggers’ The Witch – with a heavy dollop of The Crucible stirred into the cauldron.
For horror fans, there are references and Easter eggs galore, from the use of Scream composer Marco Beltrami to co-write the music to the shock kills that will give in-the-know slasher aficionados a giddy rush of deja vu.
(Photo by Jessica Miglio/Netflix © 2021)
The director’s knowledge and passion for horror is even more apparent when you speak with her, as Rotten Tomatoes recently did, in the wake of Fear Street‘s success – and buzz building about a possible new set of films. (She describes meeting Beltrami as the biggest “fangirl” moment of her life.) Janiak says part of the challenge in directing the films was to balance all that geeky enthusiasm for the genre with telling a story that feels fresh and current, something that goes beyond impersonation and homage. The key to doing that, she says, was in where she put the focus. Unlike the giants of the slasher genre from decades past, which centered their stories largely on upper- and middle-class kids – straight white kids at that – Fear Street‘s central characters seem to emerge from the sidelines of those movies, diverse in background and orientation, and happy to f–k with slasherdom’s moral order.
“That was the reason that I felt like we could explore making Fear Street,” said Janiak, whose Certified Fresh Honeymoon marked her as a genre talent to watch when it was released in 2014. “When I started to have these early conversations with the producers, that was the central question, which is, ‘We have a huge, amazing tradition of great slasher movies for decades and decades, so what are we going to bring that’s going to justify making the movie? How do we say that this makes sense?’ For me, that lay in this opportunity to shine a light on these characters that are not usually in the spotlight.”
With the Fear Street films charting on Netflix, and horror fans waiting for news of sequels and spin-offs, Janiak went deep with us on how she created a horror phenomenon, from constructing an epic homage to Scream‘s iconic opening scene and writing an overall “love letter” to her favorite films to giving a new generation its own memorable kills. (Yes, we talked about the bread slicer… at length.) Plus, she talks the power of balancing buoyancy and brutality in crafting a slasher, the current energy behind the genre, and what’s next for her – which, yes, could very well involve a return to the Fear Street universe.
Spoiler warning: The below interview contains spoilers for all three Fear Street movies.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: I want to start with your connection to the Fear Street books. Growing up in the ’90s, I really loved the Fear Street books, and Christopher Pike as well, that edgy teen horror genre. What was it that appealed to you about the Fear Street books?
Leigh Janiak: I was also a teenager like you in the ’90s. I don’t know exactly what it was about the Fear Street books, and the Christopher Pike books, but I think that there was just something appealing about reading these things which described the world that I lived in, but way crazier. Do you know what I mean? Way more violent. But I think there’s something about that, for sure, and the teenage-girl experience. You’re living in this already semi-unsafe world, where you’re taught to walk home at night with your keys between your fingers, and things like that. There’s something about reading about this world, which is super dangerous and insane, but manageable. There’s that ability to dip into this crazy world – I loved it and it felt really edgy. It felt subversive. It felt like I was maybe reading something that I shouldn’t be reading.
Rotten Tomatoes: I think you really carry that spirit into these films. But also I was watching, thinking, “Who is the age bracket for this?” You balance this hard “R” gore with this lighter fun tone that’s super exciting. How did you think about pitching it in that way, and striking that balance between going too hard and keeping it still light and fun?
Janiak: I felt like, because they were primarily slasher movies, we had to be living in that R-rated world. We had to be violent, and we had to be bloody, and we had to have all of the kills. But I also did want to stay true to the spirit of the books, which always had this element of fun. I felt like, even when things get dark or get violent in the books, there’s still this buoyancy. It’s fun, I don’t know how else to describe it. That, to me, was always the line. Obviously, in movie three, we dip into a different tonal place by design, but for movie one and movie two, it was always watching that line of staying true to what the slasher genre would be – if we were in the ’90s, we’re paying homage to those mid-’90s slashers – and then stepping into this different world. Just walking that line between fun, and then keeping the subversive quality also, of the memory of what those books were, if that makes sense, which I think helped live in that R-rated world, too.
(Photo by © Netflix)
Janiak: That one, for sure, it was all about orienting the audience and saying, “Okay, we’re going to live in this world, the tonal world, of the ’90s slasher.” Scream, obviously, is, in my opinion, the greatest example of this. And to answer your question, I can’t even count the amount of times that I’ve seen that movie, let alone the opening sequence of it. It’s just so brilliant. I’m getting off topic, but every time I watch it, it’s that thing when you feel, “Oh, f–k. That’s so good it stresses me out.” The script, and the way it’s shot, and the scares, and the fun. Anyway, obviously I love that movie. So, when we were shooting, I wanted to very much be sending that love letter, and immediately orienting the audience into, “Okay, this is it. This is creepy, this is scary.” But again, there’s the funny quality of Heather (Hawke) getting scared by the mask when she’s in the gag joke store, all of those things.
The moment that was the most important to me of the whole sequence is when she takes off Skull Mask’s mask, and reveals that it’s Ryan, the guy that she was talking to, because I think that, to me, was the moment of just telegraphing to the audience: “Okay, we’re living in this place where we’re going to be very much paying homage to those ’90s classics, but all bets are off as far as what your expectations are.” Usually, you’d be waiting to see who’s behind the mask for the entire movie, and that’s not what this is. That was the goal of that opening sequence.
(Photo by Netflix © 2021)
Rotten Tomatoes: It was so effective. I was giddy. I’ve seen Scream a million times. It’s my favorite movie, so when I saw this opening, I was like, “Oh, s–t. I’m in this trilogy now.” I want to ask you about striking the balance between homage and not going too far with that, because there were scenes in the school corridor where I was getting flashbacks; I got a sense of deja vu in the bathroom. How did you strike that balance between honoring the source material, placing Easter eggs for people, but also making it its own thing and not just a series of references?
Janiak: I think that you hit the nail on the head, because it was this weird thing of, “Okay, how do we give the audience a good dose of nostalgia?” – like you said, “pay homage, send a love letter,” all of those things – but not have it dip into parody or just mimicry. For me, that laid in making our characters and our story this unique thing so that tonally we would be in this world that we understood – we’d be revisiting sequences, set pieces, things like that, that we’ve seen in these movies – but the point of view of our characters and the journey that they’re on is different. And this goes into the representation in the Fear Street movies that we tried to create, of showing people who just weren’t as represented, if at all, in the movies of ’90s, ’80s, or ’70s. That, to me, was our emotional heart and our narrative was the thing that was new. Then, that let us live in that world in-between, I hope.
Rotten Tomatoes: Yeah, it’s very interesting. During the pandemic, I’ve gone back – I’ve seen these movies a million times – but I re-watched the Scream movies, the I Know What You Did Last Summer movies, the Urban Legends – even Valentine. And you notice these are really un-diverse films. It’s quite shocking to go back to it in a 2021 context. So I wanted to talk about the idea of putting people who are on the periphery of those movies, if they’re even ever seen in those movies, at the center of yours. It’s much more diverse, but it’s also the folks who break the horror rules, so to speak, who are the heroes and the survivors in the Fear Street movies.
Janiak: That was the reason that I felt like we could explore making Fear Street. When I started to have these early conversations with the producers, that was the central question, which is, “We have a huge, amazing tradition of great slasher movies for decades and decades, so what are we going to bring that’s going to justify making the movie? How do we say that this makes sense?” For me, that lay in this opportunity to shine a light on these characters that are not usually in the spotlight.
(Photo by © Netflix)
The cool thing about having the Fear Street books was it allowed us to create this mythology, which builds who these characters are at their core, into the central narrative, the central constructs of the entire story, which is that division between Shadyside and Sunnyvale, the haves and the have-nots. The idea that Solomon was this white man who felt entitled to this other world and he used these two girls, who didn’t fit in the box that society wanted them to be in back then, as scapegoats. By being able to tell the entire story of Shadyside’s trauma, these characters that have felt the systemic oppression brought via these killers for century after century, that made the franchise seem exciting and new for me as a filmmaker.
Rotten Tomatoes: I mentioned the “rules” before. Obviously, they were enunciated very explicitly by Randy in Scream – no sex, no drugs etc – but they’ve been built up for decades and decades, with characters traditionally punished for violating them. You have these characters break them, but there’s never any judgment or morality brought into the equation from the filmmaker’s eye. I think about the scene in 1666, where the kids are in the woods and they’re taking the berries and tripping, and it’s this really beautiful, modern, non-judgmental approach to that experience. And I love later when the character says something like, “We were just in the woods having some applejack – this is pretty normal, guys.” Was that an intentional thing as well, to reframe the morality of these films?
Janiak: Absolutely. I’m glad that you talked about that, because that was also one of the things that we felt would be said to be new about these movies. Our characters are outsiders, yes, but they’re also doing the thing that they’re not supposed to be doing that normally we would pass judgment on. To be able to show this teenage spirit, that in whatever century we happen to find these characters in: “Kids are kids, teens are teens.” These are just kids, specifically within the world of Shadyside, who are trying to live. They’re just trying to live their life, and they’ve got all these other things just pushing down on them. We obviously, hopefully, are coming back. I need to show how they can beat those things and come out on top. It was certainly a decision to not pass judgment on these moments and to reframe the entire point of view of the audience on these scenarios that we’ve seen in other movies traditionally.
(Photo by © Netflix)
Rotten Tomatoes: I want to talk kills, because there are some amazing kills in this trilogy. I was reading an interview with the team that’s making Scream 2022, and they were talking about how some of the best kills in horror movies are the ones you can identify with a single word or a single idea – it’s the “garage door kill” or something like that. I think about this trilogy and I’m immediately, like, “Bread slicer!” What was your approach to creating some really memorable and iconic kills. Did you have a frame of reference or an approach?
Janiak: Part of the fun of the slasher genre, to me, is finding ways that people can get killed or destroyed that you would never imagine, just like the garage in Scream. It’s so brilliant. We were always looking for places that we could do something like that. Specifically, like I say, in the ’90s, one of the things that I loved about the world was that we could take suburbia, we could take the familiar places of suburbia, like the grocery store, the hospital, school, all of them, and destroy it, and then twist it. When we would go into the locations, we’d always be thinking of ways that we could deconstruct that and cause more chaos – to make the familiar basically become unfamiliar and become horrific.
I think that was the idea of the bakery, which we had, obviously, before we ever scouted. It was this idea of, “Oh, a bakery: What a beautiful, wonderful place. There are cakes, there’s all these really appealing things… How can we make this horrific?” I just remember the earliest image for that idea was just frosting mixed with blood. When that had come into my mind, everything went backwards from there.
The bread slicer kill – I don’t know how it could not be anyone’s favorite. Julia Rehwald, who played Kate, just crushed it. Her pain and her fear, everything about her performance in that, it’s just so visceral. It’s not usually like that. When you’re filming a horror movie, it’s always challenging because there’s just a million people around, and there are lights and all of the things, and the mood is not necessarily there, but her performance in that moment was just so intense that we were all kind of like, “S–t.”
(Photo by © Netflix)
Rotten Tomatoes: It’s an All Bets Are Off moment, because I think everyone thought something was going to stop that bread slicer. When nothing did, I was like, “Oh, s–t. Okay. That’s what this movie is.”
Janiak: That was a hard moment, too, but I think ultimately we decided that even though we’re in the third act of that first movie, we’re just in the first act of the trilogy, and it felt like we needed… While I wanted the movie to always be fun, I also wanted it to be real stakes and real pain and real emotion; these were characters we cared about and not just a body count for the sake of a body count. It was hard killing her and Simon because I love them so much, but ultimately it felt like that needed to be part of a motivation for Deena and Josh and Sam pushing forward.
Rotten Tomatoes: One of the biggest geek-out moments for ’90s horror fans is that you had Scream composer Marco Beltrami come on and do the score. Was that a geek-out moment for you, too, and what discussions did you have about the music you wanted for the movie?
Janiak: Oh my gosh. First of all, I think that Marco’s brilliant, and I think that his scores for the original Scream, and the subsequent ones as well, reinvented what horror music could sound like – because it’s so light and bombastic. You have these big orchestral movements happening, and there’s chaos underneath always. It often lives in a major key. It’s just very current, and it’s also written and choreographed to movement in a scene in a way that, at least in the past 20 years, horror music doesn’t do. It tends to be more tonal, sitting there in the background, almost wallpaper-y. He was just the opposite of that.
Marco was the only composer that I thought about for this, and really was like, “Oh, all of my eggs are in this basket. He must do this.” I remember I went to his studio up in Malibu, and it’s up on this hill, and it’s really a trek for me from Los Feliz, from the east side of LA. I’ve never had such a fan-girl moment with anyone.
(Photo by Jessica Miglio/Netflix © 2021)
He understood exactly what we wanted from the ’90s, that we were obviously going to be taking inspiration from what he invented. Then, there was the ’70s, Jerry Goldsmith and the original Omen score and those sounds from the late ’70s, were what was going to influence our 1978 score. (Goldsmith was one of Marco’s mentors; Marco actually did some of the music for The Omen reboot that they did in 2006, so that made sense.) Then, obviously, we talked about a score that would be a little more ritualistic, a little more tonal, with more percussion for 1666, and I think he was just very excited about the whole project as an experiment of everything. I think also we were all like, “Oh my God, this is so much music,” but it was incredible. We recorded at Abbey Road in London and it was just an unbelievable experience. I feel so lucky that we were able to have him.
Rotten Tomatoes: I read something Tweeted the other day by Michael Kennedy, who wrote Freaky and the upcoming Time Cut, where he said we were having a real slasher moment. You’ve just put out these three great movies, we’ve got a Candyman movie coming out, a Halloween movie, a Scream movie, Freaky just came out… even A24 is making a slasher! Do you feel some energy behind the genre right now? And in the same way we think about the ’90s as this very meta slasher renaissance, are there any defining qualities yet to the current slasher moment?
Janiak: I hope that we’re in a moment. I hope that we’re in this renaissance with slashers, because I love them so much. I think the thing, for me, is that I love where horror has evolved to in the past 15 years or whatever, but it’s been dark. It’s been really intense in a psychological or emotional way. I think that one of the great things, again, about the slasher genre is that it allows you to have a little bit of… “joy” is a really weird word to describe for people that are so being brutally murdered, but I think there is joy, there is buoyancy through slashers. There’s fun.
(Photo by © Netflix)
It feels like… You finish the movie and you don’t want to go and blow your head off, which I think is a crazy thing to say, but also there’s just something that captures that popcorn moment, being in the theater and just having that fun on a Friday night. I think people are hungry for that. I don’t know, but that’s what I think is the tonal thing about those slasher movies that hopefully will flourish in the next few years as we get the Candyman movie and Scream and all of the things.
Rotten Tomatoes: Speaking of more slasher films, what is next for you? And given what we saw in the mid-credits scene for Fear Street Part Three: 1666, would you ever return to this world of Fear Street?
Janiak: Absolutely, I would certainly return to the world. I don’t know when, but I definitely would. I think that the Fear Street universe is so full, and I think that we’ve done a good job of setting the table, and I think that there’s a lot of room for additional trilogies and standalone movies. There’s a lot of things that make me excited about it, so absolutely. It is a lot of work to do a trilogy all at once, but, for me, it was a very positive experience. I think that’s because I had an amazing cast and crew around me. We were all excited, and the work was extremely difficult, but also it was fun to go to work, so that was lovely. Right now, I’m about to start shooting The Staircase, a couple episodes of that, with HBO.
Rotten Tomatoes: Do you have an idea for more movies in the Fear Street universe?
Janiak: That’s something that I won’t talk about… but, yeah.
The Fear Street trilogy is now streaming on Netflix.