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Filmmaker Leigh Janiak has seen a lot of changes since beginning her work on the Fear Street trilogy four years ago. During that time, Fear Street‘s original studio, 20th Century Fox, was purchased by Disney, a corporate move that put the future of the movies in flux. A global pandemic reshaped how movies are made and distributed, with the director completing post-production during lockdown. And the streaming market became more competitive than ever, with Netflix, the eventual home of Fear Street, facing upstart competitors such as Disney+ and HBO Max.
For Janiak, who shares writing credits on the three films released a week apart earlier this month, Fear Street was an experiment in blurring the lines between film and television. She oversaw a writer’s room and delivered three films that formed a single story. She also took a page from her own teenage years, as halfway through Fear Street Part 3: 1666 comes a surprise: the film resets with a new title card, Fear Street 1994: Part 2.
“I just always had this moment in my head of, ‘We’re coming back and we have to feel that energy,” Janiak tells The Hollywood Reporter.” I feel like that grew out of my weird love for Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, ’94. I was 13 or 14 and it blew my mind. It totally changed my experience of what filmmaking could be. I feel like that seeped in and that early ’90s Tarantino energy is what we were hoping for there.”
In a conversation with THR, Janiak also talks the challenges of casting actors to appear in multiple centuries, and the connections between her work and Stranger Things.
You started a writer’s room for this. What is that process like?
I started the project in 2017 and I was hired to be writer and director, but three movies was so much – so Phil [Graziadei], my writing partner, and I, had a small writer’s room. Which included Kate [Trefry] who was one of the writers on the third movie and then Zack [Olkewicz], who is one of the writers on the second movie. It was for about three weeks. We kind of just broke the three stories. Phil and I went and we did more outline work across the three movies. Then Phil and I started working on the first script, Zack started working on the second script and then Kate started working on the third script. Obiouvsly the scripts went through lots and lots of drafts and we ended up writing on all of them.
You hear about writer’s rooms for movies sometimes, but I’m not sure how often you see those movies actually get made. This is one of the first examples I can think of where it actually worked.
I think part of that was when we started the experiment, we came to this idea that we needed to find a middle ground between traditional movies and television. It just made sense that we would all be working together on this. It helps that I was directing the three, so then I could be that shared thread, which I think often when you have writers rooms for movies, you don’t yet have a director. Then you have lots of different voices. I think that’s kind of the challenge with movies.
How early are you location scouting? Does that inform your writing?
By the time we started digging into what things are going to be, the scripts are written. I was familiar with Atlanta before. My production designer Scott [Kuzio] had been familiar. We knew the different places. After we had our early drafts, he would say, “There’s this grocery store.” We knew there are a lot of abandoned malls. The fall of 2018 is when I started actually locking down stuff. Just to see the world of Shadyside coming together was really awesome.
You were a Fear Street fan growing up. How much of the text did you want to adapt?
I had read them as a teenager and then they had slipped into that past of teenage-dome, which you don’t really dip in unless something happens. So when Chernin approached me about this, I right away was super excited but also was like, “Wait, there are hundreds of those books. And none of them are connected.” Sometimes they share names and things like that. There’s one that is just called Cat, about an evil cat. Ultimately, we talked and decided what makes sense for our structure of having the three movies that needed to be connected was to create our own mythology that was inspired by the world Bob had created. And to keep the spirit of the books which was always overwhelmingly fun, but also felt subversive to me, in my memory. As a teenager reading, I remember feeling, “Oh, am I supposed to be reading this?” There’s hints of sex and its violent and all of these things. That was important to me in making the movie was giving that feeling of, if you are watching it when you are 13, 12, you feel like “ooh I’m definitely doing something I’m not supposed to be doing.”
How much did you tell the actors in casting? Did they know they’d be doing the 1994 parts and the 1666 parts?
We shared that with them from the very beginning, but we really focused on the ’94 stuff. When we were doing a chemistry read with Kiana [Madeira] and Olivia [Welch], who played Deena and Sam, we were doing a chemistry read for 1994. I can’t remember if we did a scene from 1666. We were filming all of the 94 stuff first. And then the 1666 discussions, we had a dialect coach and all of these things. That was something powerful about being able to have characters play versions of maybe their ancestors or maybe their spiritual ancestors in 1666 and having that generational, cyclical trauma thing. But also, that’s an idea you don’t know if that is going to work or not work until you get on set. Luckily, everyone really worked hard to make it work.
You have one editor, Rachel Goodlett Katz, handling three movies at once. That’s a lot of work What is that process like? Is she you editing as you are shooting?
It was an incredible amount of work. We had other editors on and off that helped with little scenes and things like that. Rachel was there all day with me every day. From 8:30 in the morning until often 9 at night. We worked almost every weekend for a year-and-a-half. During the pandemic it was the two of us who continued working when everyone else was kind of furloughed. Part of that was just we had a great symbiosis. She knows what I want. She knows how I work. She also knows that I sit there all day, every day. Luckily we like each other. It’s a miracle that we still get along.
Talking with other editors and directors, the relationship is unique – it’s almost like the editor can become a therapist or a confidant for the director.
I think Rachel was my editor, my therapist, my best friend. Everything. Now the past couple of weeks we have been moving on with our lives. It is so strange to not see her every day. It was important to be able to have that person who is the unifying voice with me. She knew every nook and cranny of the footage. She’s the only other person other than me, that knew that. It’s so much material. That was important too. I felt like there was that net of someone else being like, “remember?” That was also great and helpful.
You got to see Fear Street actor Maya Hawke’s work thanks to your connection to Stranger Things. [Janiak is married to Stranger Things co-creator Ross Duffer]. Your Fear Street DP Caleb Heymann is now on Stranger Things 4. Is that something you paid forward to those guys?
We completely just steal each other’s crew, constantly. Caleb did Fear Street. I said, “Caleb is amazing.” And they needed another DP for this new season and they hired Caleb. Caleb actually did second unit for them in season three, but after he’d already been hired on Fear Street. I’d known Caleb for a long time. My production designer on my indie movie, Honeymoon, Chris Trujillo, is the main production designer on Stranger Things now. That was fortuitous experience for him, too. One of my ADs I worked with on Outcast, he’s one of the ADs on Stranger Things. It’s a shared situation, crew-wise.
Are you and Ross more likely to trade crew, or more likely to give each other creative notes on each other’s projects?
I think it’s all of the things. It’s definitely a creative sharing of crew. You are always looking for that person who knows who you want and understands what you are saying and then makes it better. When you find those people, you are like, “I will never let you go.” We definitely share those people, and then there are certainly a very healthy, and sometimes unhealthy amount, of giving [notes] back and forth. (Laughs.)
There was going to be a different director on the second movie. When did that decision come down that to have ou direct all three?
I was originally doing all three, for a year and a half of the development. It was basically from 2017 to middle of 2018 I was doing all three. We knew the merger was coming between Disney and Fox and things were challenging at Fox. At one point we felt like we were going, and then we weren’t going. And then when we were reinvigorated and brought back to life, which was the middle of 2018, there were a few things the studio wanted in order to give us the greenlight. One of those things was they felt we needed to hire another director for movie two. Because of worrying about post-schedule and all of these things. we ended up hiring Alex Ross Perry, who is one of my very dear friends. I love him, still. He filled in that spot for maybe five months. Then ultimately, things got complicated with his schedule and our schedule and I think everyone realized, “Oh, what are we doing?” We are overthinking the post part of it. Which would be easier, by the way, with another, but maybe we need to privilege the connective vision and tissue of the three movies. So we went back to me doing the second one as well, which was great. I will say it would’ve been awesome to have slightly more prep on movie two. We did that one last. So it was kind of like, “Oh man, maybe a few more days of prep would have been lovely for this movie.” But it all worked out.
This morning [July 14) there were two Fear Street movies in Netflix’s top ten streaming. What feedback are you getting? At Amazon, filmmakers apparently get some of the numbers. I don’t know if Netflix gives you a check-in like that?
There was a time when Part 2 was No. 1 in there streaming movies and Part 1 was No. 2. It was awesome.. My experience with Netflix prior to these was through Stranger Things, and they do not share numbers, ever, with them. It’s always, “We think this is a big hit, but I don’t know.” For the movie side of things, it’s slightly different. We have had a few calls where they aren’t getting into the weeds about specifics, and I think they will do that after the experiment is over, after the third movie comes out, I think we’ll have our big conversation about all of the things. Right now the feedback from Netflix has been incredibly positive and very excited. I think it’s doing really well.
We are used to post-credit scenes in superhero movies now. But I’ve never seen a movie switch in the middle. How did that switch for Fear Street 1994 – Part 2, come up?
That was part of the first draft that Phil and I started writing of movie three. Kate was working on the 1666 part and then at some point Phil and I had to handle the ’94 stuff [in 1666], because we were dealing with the 1994 part in the first movie and the second movie. It was all very complicated. I just always had this moment in my head of, “We’re coming back and we have to feel that energy. Here we are! We’re moving toward the end.” That was scripted. We go to black and that slams up on screen. I feel like that grew out of my weird love for Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, ’94. I was 13 or 14 and it blew my mind. It totally changed my experience of what filmmaking could be. I feel like that seeped in and that early ’90s Tarantino energy is what we were hoping for there.
When I was in school in the early 2000s, there were almost no kids who were out at my high school. So 1994 made me reflect on where we were in decades past. Was there a touchstone for you that made you want to tackle that?
I went to the largest public high school in Ohio. There were thousands of kids in there and I don’t think there was one out person. It was not a safe environment to be fully out and vocal about what your life was. A lot of crafting the storyline between Sam and Deena was guided by Phil, my writing partner, who grew up queer in the ’90s. He was always there, guiding us and saying, “OK yes, we are creating this story, which is intertwined into the mythology of Shadyside, which is a town of people who have been told they are other, who have been marginalized. At the end of the day, it’s this love story. We want that love to feel universal. We want it to feel like anybody who has been in love as a teenager and is still figuring things out can respond to that. At the same time, we wanted it to be a queer story too, because the reality was not the reality that we have now. So he was guiding us and saying, “It’s cool that Deena knows who she is, but Sam is not there. Who knows when Sam will get there.” Deena feels comfortable with Simon and Kate, but does anyone else know? We don’t know. He was always there to say, “Let me tell you how this actually went.”
How long have you been finished with Fear Street? Have you had time to think of what’s next?
I have not been finished very long — two-and-a-half, three weeks. My brain is just waking up. There are a lot of things I am circling and thinking about. [After this conversation, it was reported that Janiack had signed on to The Staircase, a true-crime series at HBO Max.]
The three Fear Street films are streaming now won Netflix.
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