“How do we make audiences feel this is not just a ticket or a gimmick, that there’s a reason for all of this?” director Leigh Janiak tells TheWrap
Director Leigh Janiak had come aboard the “Fear Street” franchise with an ambitious plan to release three teen slasher horror movies in a short window. But while she was in production, something ominous was looming just over her shoulder: the Disney-Fox merger.
“We knew it was there on the horizon, from even when I was starting to write the scripts, the industry is starting to whisper, this thing is coming,” Janiak told TheWrap. “Winter is coming!”
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Turns out there was reason to wonder, as Janiak’s story of getting the “Fear Street” movies to the screen has been an epic saga involving a change of studios, uncertain release plans and a little worldwide pandemic. And while the trilogy of films ended up at Netflix, even the streaming giant took a different approach to releasing it — rolling it out one weekly movie at a time, starting this week.
Coming off her debut movie “Honeymoon,” an indie horror film Janiak directed in 2014, Janiak was tapped by Chernin Entertainment in 2017 to tackle a film adaptation of “Fear Street,” a series of horror books by “Goosebumps” author R.L. Stine. She wasn’t just given the keys to a studio movie, but an entire franchise. The producers had an idea to make multiple movies back-to-back-to-back and release them all in a short period of time. And they tasked Janiak with figuring out how to finally make that work.
The completed “Fear Street” films are an intriguing hybrid of film and TV. Each movie is a standalone teen-slasher horror flick, but the movies all interconnect with a central narrative about the cursed town of Shadyside and the endless string of serial killings that have gotten it dubbed “Murder Capital U.S.A.” While some cast appear briefly in each film, they bounce backwards in time beginning in 1994, then to 1978 and finally way back to 1666. Each film tells its own story but has echoes of the prior films in themes, camera placements and narrative universe. They even each have a “Previously On” stamp as though made for television.
The idea from the beginning, however, was always to make “Fear Street” as three movies rather than a TV series, and with the movies set at Fox, the challenge for Janiak was hatching a story that could work for a theatrical audience.
“How do you make a movie, get audiences invested, make that movie a satisfying experience, but also enough that you want to keep going without feeling like you’re screwing them out of another ticket price? That was the main stress of the writer’s room, I would say, for the first two weeks,” she explained. “How do we make audiences feel this is not just a ticket or a gimmick, that there’s a reason for all of this?”
Stine’s books were another challenge. The author wrote dozens of them, with each bouncing around in time and without sharing any real connective tissue beyond this hopeless town of Shadyside. So Janiak and her writing partner Phil Graziadei took the spirit of the books, preserving some of the franchise’s recurring characters while crafting a fresh mythology and narrative.
“There’s this feeling in the books of infinite repeatability, of you can dip into Shadyside and anything can happen. That’s great for a series of books. You just want to keep audiences voraciously digging in. But for us, we needed an ending and a cohesive story, so the mythology of our movies and our narrative was conceived from scratch,” Janiak explained. “It’s so dependent on this world and vibe that [Stine] created, and he totally has embraced that and gotten behind it.”
Together Janiak and her team spent four to five weeks in a writer’s room and emerged with a 90-page outline that served as the backbone she could refer to when writing all three films. Janiak then settled on the films’ three time periods based on her own connection with other slasher films of their day. 1994 shared the setting of many of Stine’s “Fear Street” books, but it also was the rise of new wave slasher movies with self-aware characters such as in “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” The ‘70s represented the first rise of the slasher movie, with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and most notably “Halloween.” And finally, colonial 1666 was the perfect setting for a classic witch movie, with Janiak drawing inspiration from Terrence Malick’s “The New World.”
The attention to period detail in both “Fear Street: Part One” and “Part Two” might remind audiences of the nostalgic and Spielbergian teen horror thrills that “Stranger Things” have perfected in recent years. In fact, Janiak is even married to one of that show’s co-creators the Duffer Brothers (Ross, “the better one,” she kids). But there was one other thing that was important for Janiak to preserve: an R-rating.
Stine’s “Fear Street” books were targeted at an older crowd than the school-kid-friendly “Goosebumps,” and they were edgier, bloodier and crazier than their counterparts. And sure enough, Janiak delivers far more profanity, sex, blood and even drug use than you’d get from an episode of “Stranger Things.”
“There were definitely conversations about what would it mean if it was PG-13, but that was always a non-starter for me. These are slasher movies. It’s one thing to have a PG-13 haunted house movie. It’s a very different thing to have a PG-13 slasher movie,” Janiak said. “And to be true to the spirit of what slasher is, you gotta have all the things! You’ve gotta have the blood and the crazy deaths and you have to have the sex. You have to have a little bit of all of that.”
Janiak grew up wearing out the VHS tape of “The Goonies” and having sleepovers when she was as young as 10 but got to sneak watching gory movies like “Child’s Play” or “Nightmare on Elm Street.” It was important that “Fear Street” capture the feeling of being a teenager.
“If you’re a younger teenager, you feel like you’re doing something a little subversive. Am I allowed to watch this? Am I allowed to sneak into the theater or stream this?” she said. “And the language part I wanted to feel true. I didn’t want to be gratuitous, but (1) I just speak like a sailor, but (2), that’s how teenagers talk too! As much as I could keep the movies grounded in the experience of being a teenager, that’s what I wanted.”
Once the reality of the Disney-Fox merger sank in, however, Janiak had to ask, “Where does ‘Fear Street’ fit,” or where even “does horror fit,” within the world of Disney? Though the narrative challenges had been solved, it was never clear how or when the films would be released in a way that could fulfill the producers’ visions – or even whether it would succeed.
“Studio films and theatrical release has existed for so long in this one paradigm. And our movies are pushing that. And what does that mean? And are they going to be able to figure it out,” Janiak said. “We didn’t know what kind of window would be between each movie. And would that work? Could we actually delay audiences?”
When the pandemic hit, all bets were off. But in April 2020, all three “Fear Street” movies were acquired by Netflix, which Janiak said had been pursuing the movies from before they landed at Fox.
“Even before we had a green light, they were very voracious in terms of tracking the project, like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come over to us?’” Janiak said. “When the conversation started happening with Netflix, sort of selfishly on my side, it was a dream come true, because they understood exactly everything about the excitement of the model and how it was new. They were immediately thinking about, ‘We could do it like this or we could do it like this.’”
She continued: “There was excitement about how we figure this out and what we’re going to do. They weren’t scared. It was like, ‘F— yes, here’s another cool thing we can try to do.’”
Netflix will now release all three “Fear Street” movies at the height of the summer but will do so with one film dropping each week throughout July, something that’s atypical considering the streaming giant’s usual pattern of releasing an entire season of TV at once.
Janiak, though, packed the “Fear Street” movies with Easter eggs that will be perfect for streaming audiences to devour, and she’s fortunate they’re all being positioned as popcorn summer movies just waiting to blow up.
“Above all, I want people to watch it and have fun and feeling like, ‘F— yes, that was awesome. I want to go and act like a teenager and go TP someone’s house,’” she said. “But beyond that level of fun, I want it to be, the people that star in movies can be different, that there’s room to tell these traditional fun big movies but with big protagonists.”