Movies

How Fear Street Went From YA Books to Adult Horror Trilogy

The Netflix movies’ creator on filling in the genre’s blind spots and putting R.L. Stine’s novels through a bread slicer.

Images from Fear Street and a logo reading Exit Interview
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

This interview contains spoilers for the entire Fear Street trilogy.

Horror movie franchises are notorious for dragging on long after the spring has gone from the machete-wielding killer’s step, but the Fear Street trilogy now streaming in its entirety on Netflix is a delightful exception. Over three movies that hop backward in time from the mid-’90s to the late ’70s to the 17th century, the trilogy—loosely inspired by the bestselling series from young adult horror maestro R.L. Stine—traces the origins of an ancient evil that menaces the doomed suburb of Shadyside, a witch’s curse that turns out to be much more complicated than it seems. With Fear Street’s third part, set in 1666, now streaming, Slate talked to director Leigh Janiak, who had the massive task of directing and co-writing all three movies, about the horror favorites that inspired her, filling the genre’s blind spots, and why it was important that the movies be a lot gorier than the books. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Sam Adams: How did the overall concept for the Fear Street series—a trilogy of movies loosely inspired by the books, but not adapting any of them directly—come together in the first place?

Leigh Janiak: My producer, Chernin Entertainment, had the rights to the books. And Peter Chernin had this idea that he wanted to release a trilogy all in one year. It sounded awesome to me as a filmmaker, as a movie lover. But then once I actually started working on the project I was like, wait, how do we do this? And how do we make it more than just a gimmick?

From that place, me and my fellow writers, we sat down, we thought about what we would like to see, and tried to figure out a way that we could make the audience feel like they’re invested in these characters in a way that was organic and not just a trick of “Come back for the second movie.” It made sense that the first movie would take place in the ’90s, because that’s the present of the Fear Street books. And then because the story that we were telling had to do with generational trauma and mistakes and cycles throughout time, going back in time made sense. The amount of time between ’94 and the late ’70s worked for the “adult” characters. And then it all trickled down from there.

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At one point, the plan was to have three different directors do the three different movies. When did it become clear that you were doing all three?

When I was hired, it was always going to be that I was going to direct all three. But without getting into the weeds … one of the ideas was “we’d like you to have a different director for the second movie so you can focus on post[-production] for movies one and three.” At that point we hired a very dear friend of mine, fellow filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, who I love. Alex came on and he was on the project for a good five months, something like that, as we moved towards production. Ultimately, there were scheduling things that didn’t make sense, and at that point I just went back to directing the second movie as well. So it all worked out, but I would’ve liked more prep for the second. I’ll tell you that much.

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I like the second movie as it is, but I hope someday we’ll get Alex Ross Perry’s summer camp massacre movie as well.

Alex and I would joke when he was doing it that while he was going to be shooting that movie, I was going to be making a found-footage making-of that then became a horror movie. I’m so obsessed with this idea. And then I was like, all right, I guess I have to do the [second] movie.

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Did you shoot the films in the trilogy one at a time, or was it one big Lord of the Rings–style production?

It was one big production, 106 days, many of them nights. I’d like to say the majority of them nights. We tried to block the different time periods together. So for the most part we did all of the ’94 stuff first, maybe 60-some days of that. Then we went into the 17th century, we did 1666. And then we ended with the camp in ’78. Amid that, there were certainly days where it was like, “Oh, actually, we need to do this piece of ’94 here.” So there was overlap, but for the most part we were able to at least stick to the big chunks. It was crazy, but really fun.

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How dedicated were you in terms of emulating the periods? You’re not just talking about setting in 1994 and 1978, but emulating a specific style of filmmaking. In terms of camera, lighting, editing, how granular did you get?

That was really a very, very appealing part of it for me, the ability to live in these different time periods, to send love letters to the kind of movies that I love from those eras, and keep them distinct. With the ’90s, I spent a lot of time with Caleb [Heymann], my DP, thinking about what our camera style would be. That ended up being much more “traditional” studio filmmaking. Lots of dolly track, lots of locked-off camera, things like that. When we moved into the ’70s, we started dipping a little bit into Steadicam, which was a new technology then. And then in 1666, it’s all hand-held. That visual approach was built-in. But it was about the actors too. Tonally, the actors would calibrate differently depending on the period. If we were living in the ’70s, that was a much more stylized, archetypical universe, I would say. And they approached their scenes in that way. Whereas with the ’90s, we tried to keep them very grounded in the sarcasm and fun of those mid-’90s movies. And 1666 became very dramatic in a lot of ways.

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I remember thinking while I was watching the first movie, “Wow, they really nailed the music—this sounds just like Scream.” And then I got to the credits and that’s because you hired the same composer, Marco Beltrami.

Having Marco was a dream. He was the only composer that I spoke to, and I was so very lucky that he agreed to do it. He did all three. I feel like the Scream scores are revolutionary in what they did for horror sound. They’re so bombastic. They live a lot in a major key. And they’re also filled with this very unnerving chaos. He made perfect sense for that.

And then one of his mentors was actually Jerry Goldsmith, who did the original Omen and a million other great things. And Jerry’s music was a very big influence on what our sound was going to be for ’78. So that was perfect for Marco to take that. And then with 1666, we reinvented our musical world and lived in much more atonal, ritualistic-type world.

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You open the 1994 movie with an homage to the first Scream, where the daughter of a famous acting family is murdered by a killer with a knife and a skull mask. And it brought me back to watching Scream when it was originally released, and how jarring that first scene was. People remember the series for the winking meta-ness of Kevin Williamson’s screenplay, but Drew Barrymore’s murder is the first time I remember being viscerally upset by someone getting killed in a horror movie.

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Totally. I was 16, and I felt the exact same way. I think that’s the cool thing about being a teenager and watching horror movies: You’re at that edge where you’re just starting to understand that you can die, but you still are infused with that invincibility. That whole opening sequence is so fun, and then so fucking brutal. For me, too, it was life-changing, in what I felt like horror could do.

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Speaking of theaters, the new Conjuring was one of the first movies I’d seen in a theater in almost a year, and I was really taken aback by how hard all the loud jump scares hit me. It felt almost like being physically attacked. It was probably the longest my body had ever gone without being properly mauled by a theatrical sound system.

It’s so funny you say that, because when I got onto the mixing stage it was the first time that I had really been in a theater. We mixed the second movie first, and it was the same thing. I was like, “Oh, my God. Are we mixing it too hot?” And then I realized it was just my brain and my ears wakening up again to “this is what a theater sounds like.” It’s so crazy.

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Did you have a specific movie model in mind for each time period?

I think for the ’90s it’s very clear how much I loved Scream and how much I was shamelessly stealing from it. I think it’s one of the best movies ever made, period. But also I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, all of those. For the ’70s, Halloween was a huge influence, but you can’t look at making a summer camp movie without looking at the Friday the 13th franchise. Nightmare on Elm Street was a big one. And then also, weirdly, for ’78, The Goonies was a big influence, and then a little bit of Evil Dead. For 1666, I looked at The Witch, The Village, The Crucible, all of those classics. Terrence Malick’s The New World was a big one for me, mostly because I felt tonally it was very interesting to see how he had the camera attached to character point of view in that movie. I think it’s just a beautiful representation of this pure, unadulterated world made rotten and spoiled by these outside forces.

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You’re obviously not just emulating those older movies, but also updating them, especially in terms of who’s at the center, who lives, and who dies. You open the first movie with your heroine in love with a person named Sam and deliberately make the audience think it’s the quarterback of the high school football team before revealing that Sam is a female cheerleader. And it goes all the way through to the end, where the queer couple is your central love story and the town’s white male sheriff ends up being the ultimate evil. Was that part of the mission all along?

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For me it was. When Chernin came to me and talked about it, I was like: “OK, I’m a fan of the books. I love slasher movies, but there’s so many amazing slasher movies. What do we do with this property that brings something new to it and says, ‘Yes, we should make this’?” For me, that was found in representing characters that just weren’t properly represented in the ’70s and ’80s and the ’90s in these movies: telling their stories, and showing characters that normally weren’t the protagonists. Shaping it around this queer love story became this really exciting thing that we felt like we could do. And it combined with the fact that it was organic to the mythology that we were creating with Shadyside and Sunnyvale, the idea that it’s a town of people who have been told that they are outside and othered and marginalized for centuries as the scapegoat. Because we have the three movies, we had this opportunity to give these characters a chance to win, to have a message of hope underneath this. That, I think, is what carries throughout the three time periods: not only “Are you going to survive?” but a feeling of “We’re going to overcome.”

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One thing you did keep from those slasher classics was the fairly intense gore, which might surprise people expecting something more like R.L. Stine’s books. Was that important to you?

The reason was twofold. We’re making slasher movies, and to me, baked into the DNA of a slasher are those outrageous kills and seeing blood and seeing death. And there was also the thing that I read the Fear Street books when I was 14, 15, and they felt very subversive and edgy. I think my memory of them was more intense than the actual content of the books. It’s funny, I wasn’t rereading the books when we were making them. I was relying on what my memory was. But I reread The Wrong Number recently, and I was like, “This is pretty tame.” But my memory was of subversive violence and sex and all of these things. So it was really important to me to preserve both of those things: being true to the slasher subgenre, and also being true to the spirit of what it felt like reading those books as a teenager.

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I also really wanted the violence to be brutal and to mean something, and hopefully not just be the fodder of “We need a certain body count.” I thought that the opportunity of having the three films and telling this bigger story was that you would hopefully care about these characters and really feel like, “Oh shit, I’m having a lot of fun, but this isn’t fun. I’m upset that this person died.”

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You rope-a-dope the audience a little bit in the first movie. You open with this brutal killing, but you don’t do the thing where the core group of characters are getting picked off one at a time, so it starts to feel like maybe they’re going to all make it through. And then one of them gets her head fed into a bread slicer.

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That was a hard decision, because I felt all of this love for Kate and for Simon when we were writing. And then Julia [Rehwald] and Fred [Hechinger] filled them out in this way that you can only hope when you’re writing. But ultimately it was like, movie one, we’re in the third act of that movie when they die, but we’re in the first act of our trilogy. And it felt like we needed that reminder that these are real stakes in this town, and really bad stuff is happening to these kids. It was heartbreaking, but they had to die.

You kill them with gusto, if that’s fair to say.

Lovely. It’s definitely fair to say. Thank you.

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You did at least have the consolation that you were going to bring those actors back for the third movie, where they play the residents of the towns’ original settlement. Presumably you knew that when you cast them.

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That was part of the fun of the experiment too, that we would be able to see these characters as their actual ancestors, or their spiritual ancestors. This idea of fate and soul mates—and people doing the same thing time period after time period, and history repeating itself—was built into the script stage. And then when we’re brutally killing some of these people, it became a fun thing of, “Oh, look, we get to see them alive again.” In a different way, of course, but the characters had the same spirit inside of them.

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And you rip out most of their eyes and kill them again.

And then we do that. Yes, we do. Fair.

Did you have a favorite period to re-create? The ’70s has the hairstyles and those nice warm wood tones, but the ’90s re-creation feels a little more detailed and more personal, even the stuff you’re making fun of, like the mall’s hideous black light store.

Because I was a teenager in the ’90s, filming the ’90s stuff was so fun for me. I grew up in a suburban town right outside of Cleveland, so the idea of being able to take these familiar places and rip them apart and cover them in blood and destroy them was just really appealing. I worked at a Super Kmart third shift one summer, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and that experience working in a grocery store all night long really fed into the third act of the ’90s story.

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So they were all awesome. Doing 1666 was just incredible. The set was so amazing, and it felt very freeing to be living in the handheld. And then the ’70s movie, I had never been to summer camp, even though I really, really wanted to go. My parents wouldn’t let me, and I’m still mad about it.

It is pretty hilarious that you have a 1990s climax that involves Super Soakers and CK One—I have to admit I missed the line “You smell like an androgynous baby” the first time through.

By the way, that was the fucking funniest thing to film ever, because Benji [Flores Jr.], who plays Josh, could not say androgynous correctly. I think we have 15 takes of him just butchering that word over and over again. And then finally, I was like—and he was 16 at the time, now he’s 19—“Benji, do you know what this word means?” I had to explain. And then I had to explain what CK One was. Just really, really funny. But God, I loved how that shit smelled back then.

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I assume you didn’t actually have real CK One on set.

No, we did.

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Really?

We definitely did. All that olfactory memory just comes flooding back. That and Herbal Essences were the heart of my 1993, ’94 summers.

So, how far into the process was it when Fear Street moved from theatrical to a Netflix release? Did you change anything because of that?

Not really. When it was going to be theatrical, it was still with this idea that we are going to have a very tight release schedule. And the idea of putting the Previously On and the Coming Soon, that was baked into my editorial process. So nothing really changed when we moved over to Netflix. They just completely embraced the idea. They were excited about the opportunity to be releasing movies in this way that was this middle ground of their bingeable content, making it feel event-y. They really stepped up and supported us with music, with the effects, the whole thing. It was really a dream.

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It does feels like a good middle ground to release them over three weeks rather than all at once. It’s long enough for you to really crave the next one without too much of a wait.

I feel this weird thing because I obviously have been inundated, like all of us have, with the idea of instant gratification over the past however many years. And I love it. When I was watching Mare of Easttown, I was like, “Goddamn, do I really have to wait for another week? I want all of it.” But I think that there are stories where it helps to wait that beat. It feels fun to have something to look forward to.

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Has R.L. Stine seen the movies? Do you know what he thinks?

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To my knowledge, he’s seen all three of them now. He’s been very complimentary. I feel really lucky that he is a creator that seems to genuinely be excited about the process of adaptation and giving the creative leeway to fill in the story in a different format and not constrict that process. I met him when we were filming the third movie, very briefly. I was shooting. I don’t even remember what we said to each other. I was just like: “Oh my God, I’m meeting R.L. Stine. And I’m disgusting, because I’m covered in sweat and it’s super hot out here.”

The Fear Street movies aren’t based on any particular book in the series, but if you wanted to recommend a Fear Street book, what would it be?

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My favorite, I think, is The Wrong Number, which is one of the earliest ones. It’s the one whose cover we use at the beginning of Part One. I really like that. I really like the Cheerleaders saga. The First Evil is also one of the ones that we pinpoint in the beginning of Part One. And then it’s part of Dina’s, for lack of a better term, bulletproof book vest that saves her in Part Three. The one that I want to read, but I haven’t read, but I always admire the cover as being insane, it’s just called Cat. It’s literally just called Cat. And there’s an evil cat on the cover. No idea what happens in this book, but that’ll be my coming-off–Fear Street reading.

I appreciate that even though your movie is being released on streaming, you still illustrate the importance of physical media.

Indeed.

A Kindle isn’t going to stop a knife, folks.

No, it certainly will not stop that.

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