Leigh Janiak Redefines ‘Netflix And Chill’ With Horror Trilogy ‘Fear Street’: It’s “A Hybrid Of Traditional Television Content And Movies”

Kick-starting a new horror franchise is tough enough. But when producer Peter Chernin reached out to indie director Leigh Janiak with the idea of adapting author R.L. Stine’s popular Fear Street books, the end result was not one, but three consecutive movies. Set in the cursed town of Shadyside, Ohio, they feature a recurring core cast, interconnected storylines and an ambitious timeline that starts in 1994, before jumping back to 1978 and then 1666. Shot over 106 days, the R-rated trilogy is being screened over three weekends on Netflix.

DEADLINE: It’s hard enough to make one horror film, but three, back-to-back? What were you thinking?

LEIGH JANIAK: It was definitely crazy. Basically, Peter Chernin had this amazing idea that he wanted to do some kind of new type of theatrical release by making three Fear Street movies and releasing them all together. I pitched this idea of having the movies connected, because if we’re trying to get people to watch these films really close together, how do we make them not feel like they’re just getting fucked around to bring them back? So, we ended up coming up with this idea that’s a hybrid of traditional television content and movies by connecting the stories, yet hopefully finishing each of the stories and making you feel it’s fully complete.

DEADLINE: How does one even begin to tackle three films that visit three completely different time periods in detail?

JANIAK: Because I had been involved from the story inception, writing the scripts and everything like that, I felt like it was very intimately in my veins. But then we started shooting and I was like, “What are we doing here? We’re making three different movies, and we’re shooting them all at once.” I think a little bit of me thought I was being stupid, in that I was like, “Oh, people do this in TV all the time.” The difference was that we were reinventing the same world three times, and so we would have a new camera style, and a new production design, and the tone of how I was working with the actors was changing, because we were trying to reflect these different time periods.

But you know what? I was just looking straight in front of me. I joked that I was only living in the present—there’s no past, there’s no future, it’s just what’s in front of me today—and I had an amazing team of people around to help me.

DEADLINE: How did you approach the three Fear Streets visually and tonally?

JANIAK: I was a teenager in the ’90s, and Scream was one of the first horror movies that I really saw as a teenager who could process things. It blew my mind. It felt like a whole new type of movie, and I think it’s one of the best movies ever made, period, genre aside. There was also that whole swath of ’90s slashers, like the I Know What You Did Last Summer films, where there was a bit of self-awareness and a lot of fun. Since the Fear Street books take place in the ’90s, the presence of these movies was obviously the biggest influence.

Then with 1978, I really tried to tilt more in the direction of the ’70s with camera movement, tone, and the fact that you have the girl who’s the virginal, goody two-shoes that’s kind of unlikable. I definitely looked at Friday the 13th. You can’t make a horror movie in a summer camp without doing that.

For the 1600s one, I looked at Terrence Malick’s The New World, because I love that movie. It’s just this beautiful, wonderful, pure world, and you just watch these colonists come and destroy it. It becomes so disgusting, and so polluted, and it felt really perfect for what we were trying to accomplish with the third movie.

DEADLINE: You have a very large cast for all these films, how long did it take to find them?

JANIAK: The casting process happened over months, and we started casting 1994 and 1666 first, because I share a lot of cast between the two films. I was familiar with some of the actors before because I had worked with them in other things. But there were surprises, too. There were amazing people that came up, like Benji Flores Jr., who plays Josh. I wasn’t familiar with him, and he crushes. Like, he sells some crazy shit. [You need] someone who can put their whole worth into explaining the mythology. I mean, what a dream, finding him! All of them, though, were just incredible. When we moved into 1978, it was like, “Oh my God. I have to find another amazing cast. How is this going to work?” But we dug in, and we found them.

DEADLINE: In the three films there’s a discrepancy of social class: all of the victims seem to come from the poorer town of Shadyside, whereas wealthy Sunnyvalers stay unharmed…

JANIAK: The characters that we created have been told by society, or by their town, that they’re ‘other’ in some way. Sometimes it has to do with race. Sometimes it has to do with sexuality. Sometimes it just has to do with gender or socioeconomic status. That’s baked into the bigger mythology of the world of Shadyside and Sunnyvale.

We’re telling the story of perpetual outsiders. All of them are being told that there’s no way out of this bad world that they live in. Without risking sounding too heady about it, our killers represent systemic inequality—generation after generation, you can’t escape it, it’s just coming for you. That’s what these kids have been told their whole life. That was interesting to me, and I think, because we have the trilogy, we were able to break that open and let the characters try to fight back and win in a different way. I was also interested in finding characters that normally would get killed off right away and letting them live beyond that first 20 minutes, let alone movie to movie. That was very important to me.

DEADLINE: Originally, these films were going to come out monthly in the theaters. What does it mean to you to have them out over three consecutive weekends instead?

JANIAK: I love going to the movie theater, so it was personally a little heartbreaking. Also, I’m coloring it for the movie theater, and I’m mixing it for the movie theater. But truth be told, there was something very exciting about Netflix insofar as they have proven that they’re the ones on the cutting edge and can figure out how we do this new thing.

At the time, we were all crossing our fingers that we would get to the point where we figured out how to properly release them theatrically. But I don’t know that we ever really got to that place of, “How does this work?” When Netflix entered the conversation, right away it was like, “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.” They were so excited. I don’t know why, but it just clicked. So, for me, it was a dream. I feel very happy about the week between each film, because I think that it still makes it an event. Plus, you don’t have to wait too long, because I hate waiting too.

DEADLINE: How important was it for you to make these films as bloody and as scary as they turned out to be?

JANIAK: I had some personal rules: the films have to be edgy; they have to feel cool. They have to feel like movies that I would want to watch now, at my age, but also if you’re 13, 14, and thinking, I shouldn’t be watching this, but I’m going to.

There were various conversations earlier in the development stage where people said, “Well, does it have to be this bloody?” And I was like, “Yeah, it does.” These are slasher movies. It’s not a haunted house movie. The characters need to speak how teenagers speak. Although, I will say that there is an abundance of “fucks” in the movie. I did a ‘fuck pass’ when I was going through my director’s guide—I had something like 15 “fucks” in a scene. I remember I got a call from someone at the studio who was watching the dailies. They were like, “Um, so do you think that sometimes you could shoot an alt version?”

We were shooting 1978 last, and I remember we were all so tired at this point. I swear it felt like I was only saying, “More blood.” Everything is covered in blood in that movie. I was just like, “I can’t.” It was reflecting this place where I was inside.

DEADLINE: What did you do when you wrapped?

JANIAK: When I first got home to L.A., I had a few days before post started, and I was just in a fog, thinking like, “Wait—I don’t need to drink 10 cold brews a day? What’s happening?” But after two years of working on Fear Street, I’m ready to get back to work. I’m actually going to shoot two episodes of HBO’s The Staircase, which Antonio Campos is doing. I’m excited to go back on set and just reset my brain.

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