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Exclusive Interview: Director Leigh Janiak on her long trip down “FEAR STREET,” Part One

Monday, July 19, 2021 | Interviews


It’s been nearly four years since it was announced that Leigh Janiak, the filmmaker who broke out with 2014’s much-praised HONEYMOON, would be taking the helm of three FEAR STREET movies. Inspired, though not directly based, on the popular YA horror books by R.L. Stine, the trilogy was originally backed by 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment, which planned to release the films theatrically over the course of a year.

Instead, FEAR STREET: 1994, FEAR STREET: 1978 and FEAR STREET: 1666 just completed their week-apart debuts on Netflix, winning widespread critical acclaim and fan enthusiasm. The stories Janiak and her co-scripters (Phil Graziadei, Zak Olkewicz and Kate Trefry) came up with center on teenage Deena (Kiana Madeira), who must deal with the evil plaguing her hometown of Shadyside while navigating a rocky relationship with her girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). Each succeeding movie jumps further back into the past (a summer camp in 1978, a Puritan settlement in 1666) to reveal the origins of Shadyside’s bad mojo, with 1666 seeing many of the cast playing new roles. The overarching saga is a big win for Janiak, who homages fright fare of past decades, mixing in plenty of pop-culture signposts (particularly in the song soundtracks), while delivering three movies that both work as individual stories and meld into one compelling overall narrative.

How do you feel now that the FEAR STREET movies have finally come out, and so close together, which was not part of the original plan?

It’s so crazy to have been working on them for such a long time. Doing three was obviously an insane amount of work, and now to have them finally out in the world is magical. It’s been a very positive experience, and I love the release strategy. It’s crazy to release three movies over three weeks [laughs], but it’s also awesome.

Were you a childhood fan of the books, and if so, how did that translate into the way you approached the movies?

I was a teenage fan of them. I remember going into our public library, and the FEAR STREET books were always on this carousel, where you could spin it and see all the different covers. I loved those, and it felt really fun and edgy, and kind of subversive to read them; I felt like I was reading something I shouldn’t be. So when I was approached about tackling the movies, I wanted to capture that spirit of what it felt like to be 15 and reading the books. It was very exciting, and it was daunting, because there are so many of them, so it felt like, “Ahhh! How do we do this?” But it was great.

Was it the studio’s plan to do three movies, or was that something you brought to the table?

Peter Chernin had the idea, when they approached me, to release a trilogy over one year, and that was the extent of how far the idea had been developed. It sounded amazing, and then once I was hired, it was like, how do we do this? Usually you have at least a year or two between a traditional trilogy or sequel structure, and it was important to me to find a way to have the story dictate the reason we were doing three movies, vs. just the gimmick of, “Let’s release three in a year!” The most challenging part was finding a way to make the narrative feel like these were singular films, but also connected and revealing this bigger narrative.

It was kind of daring to tell the story chronologically backwards. How did you approach getting the story in order so that each movie would feel fresh as it came out?

That was also difficult. It made sense to me that the ’90s would be the “present” of the movies, because that was the present of the FEAR STREET books. And then as we built out the story, and decided that the idea of generational trauma and cycles of time and history repeating themselves would be integral to the main narrative, it made sense that we would find a way to drive the characters back, so in ’78 you would learn about C. Berman, and about this sheriff who at first seems like that peripheral, rote, “We need a sheriff in the town” kind of character, and find out how he became the person he is today in movie two. So it just unfolded organically. It was really fun that in 1994 we could pay homage to the new wave of slashers that was ushered in with SCREAM, and then in 1978, we could send our love letter to the first wave.

Was there any discussion of adapting specific books, or did you have free rein to tell whatever story you wanted?

We were given free rein. We were very much supported by the producers, by the studio, by the R.L. Stine estate, to look at the material and decide what made sense. Ultimately, we didn’t adapt anything directly; it was really just taking the spirit of the books, the Fier family, the Goode family, the idea that Shadyside is this town where bad things happen. That was very supported and made sense, and everyone seems to be happy with where we landed. Considering that the books were aimed at young teenagers, did the studio ever suggest that maybe the movies could be PG-13?

I built the idea of these being R-rated so much into my first discussions that they knew PG-13 wasn’t something I was interested in. That was probably in the back of their minds–“Oooh, if it’s PG-13, maybe we could get more of an audience”–but I believe everyone ultimately understood that it needed to be R to be true to the slasher subgenre, and then also keeping the kids feeling authentic, so they could speak how teenagers speak. Other than a few conversations about the amount of times the characters say “fuck,” I was very supported with the R-rated world.

So how many F-bombs were you allowed?

I think I cut about 37 from the second movie–and there are still, like, 40 in there! With the first movie, I also had to do a “fuck pass,” as we called it, and I think I took between 20 and 30 out of that one. But it still has a ton of them. It was kind of like, “We’re inching into Tarantino-land here!” [Laughs]

Did Netflix ask for any changes or make any suggestions once they took over FEAR STREET?

They were so supportive, to the point where I feel a little bit like I’ve drank the Netflix Kool-Aid! But honestly, they were amazing, and gave us everything we needed on the music side, on the effects side, and the notes they had about the cuts, which were pretty far along when we ended up there, were all very smart.

You have quite a heavy-duty soundtrack in 1994. Were you able to do more with that once Netflix came on board?

Music was always baked into the DNA of the movies. I made a playlist before we even wrote the scripts, and so when I was doing my early cuts, all the needle-drops were in there. We didn’t get to the point with Fox where we were clearing the songs and starting to have to pay for them, so I don’t know what would have happened if we had ended up there. I suspect it would be different, but Netflix understood right away and got us everything I wanted music-wise, which is crazy.


Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).