'Fear Street' Director Leigh Janiak On Upending Horror Tropes, How Terrence Malick Inspired The R.L. Stine Adaptation & More [The Fourth Wall]

R. L. Stine is back on our screens in top form with Netflix’sFear Street” trilogy, based on the author’s massive and iconic book series of the same name. The trilogy comes after years of will-they-won’t-they development rumors, the collapse of an original distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, and are respectively set in three distinctive years: 1994, 1978, and 1666. Leigh Janiak is the director and co-writer of all three films and comes to the project with a deep-seated love of, and experience with, horror and a captivating ability to command an audience’s attention and investment.

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Janiak is most well-known for her 2014 directorial feature debut “Honeymoon,” as well as for directing episodes of “Outcast” and MTV’s “Scream” television series. Off of these experiences with dramatic, harder-edged horror stories, Janiak found herself faced with the opportunity to helm “Fear Street,” crafting the loosely bespoke adaptations from the ground up. Set in the town of Shadyside across the three time periods, and told largely from the perspective of teenage lead characters, “Fear Street” shows us the town first as a Gen X utopia in the throes of grunge and neon, then during a “Friday the 13th“-esque summer camp escapade at the end of the 70s, and finally as a colonial village in the time of witch trials and bloodletting. A curse 300 years in the making, Shadeyside continues to fall victim to a history of violent trauma.

“It was very daunting,” said Janiak, when asked about the development process behind “Fear Street.” “I was so excited when my producers were like, ‘we’re doing this thing,’ [but] this is hundreds of books, and there’s not really connective tissue. What we decided was that we always wanted to be true to what we felt was the spirit of the books, a little bit of an edge of ‘ooh, there’s a hint of sex,’ and crazy violence, but also fun. That was the main thing that drew me to the project: how we could tell R-rated horror movies, but keep them fun.”

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Having been a fan of the books when she herself was a teen, Janiak looked for the nuances of that period of life in order to create an authentic and relatable experience. “I feel like there’s something amazing about being a teenager where you kind of know that death exists,” said Janiak. “You know that people can die, but you’re still living in that world of invisibility where that’s a distant future. I talked to my cast and said, ‘I know this is crazy, but: if this was happening to you, how do you actually think you’d react?’ I think coming back to that question over and over again was important.”

The effort to create authenticity extends beyond the characters, however, into every aspect of capturing each movie’s unique time period. “One of the things I thought about a lot was, ‘how do we hit the sweet spot of nostalgia without it becoming parody,’” said Janiak. “We were lucky because the ’90s, the ’70s, and the 1600s folklore, have clear tropes that can be revisited and used, [but] telling it now in 2021, I could tell a story about characters that didn’t exist in [past] movies because that just wasn’t the lens that was embraced by film of the time.”

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Another source of Janiak’s inspiration for the trilogy comes from an unexpected source for a horror film: Terrence Malick, and more specifically his 2005 film “The New World.” “[There’s also] ‘The Village,’ ‘The Crucible,’ ‘The Witch,’” said Janiak, “but I’m a huge Malick fan, I love ‘The New World’ probably more than anyone else. I watch it at least once a year. I feel like it does this amazing thing where you see pre-Colonial America, this beautiful space and organic, alive world, with characters that are living. And then these settlers come and they just destroy it, and it’s so gross. I thought it was this beautiful depiction of how something pure can become rotten.”

The first film in the “Fear Street” trilogy, “Fear Street Part One: 1994,” is currently streaming on Netflix. “Part Two: 1978” drops this Friday, July 9, and “Part Three: 1666” will arrive on the platform one week later on July 16. Check out our interview with Leigh Janiak below, where the director also discusses crafting the ideal “Fear Street” soundtrack, embracing and acknowledging the diversity of horror audiences, the possibility of letting the “Fear Street” trilogy loose in cinemas to create an epic murder movie marathon and much more.

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Additional reporting by Jenny Nulf