How Real-Life Jitters Informed Sawyer Spielberg's 'Honeydew' Performance
Sawyer Spielberg may possess a last name with strong associations in Hollywood, but the actor has been honing his craft far away from Los Angeles and the industry he saw in his youth.
"I've been hiding away in the New York theater scene for a decade," says Spielberg, son of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
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The actor is making the jump to film with Honeydew, his first lead role in a feature. The meditative and frightening horror film from writer-director Devereux Milburn sees couple Sam (Spielberg) and Riley (Malin Barr) seek help from a strange woman (Barbara Kingsley) after being stranded in a rural area.
Shot over 11 days in 2018 around western Massachusetts, the tight-knit cast and crew stayed in an Airbnb in the middle of a sheep farm.
"At night there was no light anywhere. It was always dark. There were no street lights. There was nothing that indicated any civilization anywhere," says Spielberg, who previously worked in a very different sort of film environment, as a production assistant on 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by his father.
Early on, Milburn had been struggling cast his Sam, but knew Spielberg through mutual friends and soon was auditioning him. When the filmmaker got his three lead actors together, things clicked quickly. That was a necessary ingredient, given the breakneck pace of the production, which saw them filming roughly eight pages a day.
"There was always some low hum of panic on the part of the crew combined with a levity," says Millburn. "What I love about this genre is you get to infuse a level of comedy into what would otherwise just be terror and tragedy."
In addition to keeping the mood light on set, the team behind Honeydew embraced the mini-emergencies that always seem to pop up while making an indie film. At one point during filming, Milburn was in the back seat of a car, and took a tumble out the door.
"We're driving and driving doing the scene, doing the action," says Spielberg. "Within seconds Dev is gone. I then see it in my side-view mirror and he is rolling off the street, up into the bushes."
Recalls Milburn with a laugh: "One of the many stumbles that kept morale up in the way you wouldn't think it would."
Honeydew also includes a closely guarded mystery role from a well-known actor. An unknown was initially cast, but she had to pull out for health reasons. Milburn was devastated, and wasn't initially convinced someone with a high public profile was right for the role. But the mystery actor was enthusiastic over the part, which is outside what she is known for.
"She was game to do whatever, and was the most accessible and most easy-going about being put in that character," recalls Milburn. "It's not exactly a character everyone would be willing [to play]. Especially someone with the resume she has."
For Spielberg, one day of the shoot stands out in particular.
"I remember looking up and seeing [the mystery actor] and just thinking to myself, 'How did I get here?' I think I was just as shocked as everyone else was who saw the movie, in that moment."
Honeydew was originally supposed to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, but those plans got upended by COVID-19. It has found its audience via this month's Nightstream festival, as well as stops at the Rome International Film Festival and FrightFest UK, which awarded Milburn best director.
"I was excited but I nervous because I haven't had a lot of camera time in front of the camera," Spielberg reflects on the journey. "By day three I was gaining a little bit more confidence and having a little bit more fun and by the end of the film, I definitely felt more hungry to do more film and TV work."
Honeydew will debut via Dark Star and Bloody Disgusting in theaters in March and on VOD and DVD in April.
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