Honeydew is one of those slow-burn horror films that scratches its way back into your neurosis post-screening and thanks to a wicked sound design, the things that go bump in the night take on a whole new life.
Honeydew is written and directed by Devereux Milburn and stars Sawyer Spielberg in his feature acting debut, Malin Barr, and Barbara Kingsley.
Honeydew tells the story of a young couple (played by Spielberg and Barr) who are forced to seek shelter in the home of an aging farmer (Kingsley) and her peculiar son, when they suddenly begin having strange cravings and hallucinations taking them down a rabbit hole of the bizarre.
I had the pleasure of speaking with writer/director and editor Devereux Milburn about the filmmaking journey behind Honeydew, how his editing background helped with his writing process and the bonus factor of shooting a contained horror film.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Well, thanks for taking some time to speak with Script Magazine. Your movie Honeydew to say the least is intense and it definitely lingers. What was the filmmaking journey?
Devereux Milburn: Yeah, with Honeydew I had been writing another script, a feature adaptation of a George Saunders short story called The 400 Pound CEO that I've been working on for almost two years at that point, and I was getting sort of restless. Hadn't directed anything short format, long format in probably over a year and had been doing a lot of editing work and writing scripts but nothing was really taking off. Dan Kennedy who shot the film and is a co-producer on Honeydew texted me and said, ‘Would you want to shoot a horror feature?’ The following month which was at the time December of 2017. And I said, ‘Yeah, let's do it absolutely’ thinking in the back of my head ‘that sounds completely impossible’ but the sort of the plan initially was to round, like two to like five-thousand bucks from our own bank account and hire some friends to act and crew for free and for free meals. Pretty quickly it became a bit bigger than that, and we were able to fundraise and get enough to get a solid schedule together and get a solid crew and cast, and nine months later we went to production.
Dan had initially sent me the beginning of an outline about a couple on a camping trip. And it was sort of started out more as a creature film where this sort of tree woman torments them. And it pretty quickly became something a bit deeper, and a bit more twisted and then moving a bit slightly away from the more basic horror tropes, so it doesn't start out with those. And as I started to write, a friend of mine sent me an article, knowing that I was writing this horror film and it was about a mass poisoning in a small French village in the 1950s called Pont-Saint-Esprit. There's a breakout of ergot infectants in the 1950s in a small French town and ergot is a fungus commonly found in rye. I read this article and the people of the town had no idea what was causing these symptoms and people were developing gangrene and having hallucinations and going insane and having to be committed to institutions. And it just struck me as something that could really work well as a through-line and something to sort of connect in that, Sam and Riley with Karen and with the landscape. And it sort of went from there.
Sadie: Giving that background, that definitely makes sense now. It's all very cohesive. Even when I was watching this, it reminded me of if the couple from that horror movie The Parents were older, and living, you know on the lam as Randy Quaid would, this is what they would do.
Devereux: [laughs] Yeah, that's funny. Yeah, there's definitely a number of horror influences that went into it, a lot of 70s and 80s horror especially. And, yeah, it certainly drew on some common tropes and then expanded on some as we went along.
Sadie: What are some of the filmmakers that influenced you?
Devereux: Yeah, oh man. Well, in terms of horror genre, The Devils was a big one, the Ken Russell film. I would definitely credit Ken Russell to some degree, Robert Wise’s The Haunting was a big one when I was growing up, that was one of the first horror films I saw when I was a kid that I was allowed to watch. Don’t Look Now, the Nicolas Roeg film, pretty much any of his films around that time that he directed also had something to do with the look of the film and sort of trying to buy some more vintage color and texture. When a Stranger Calls which I guess isn't so much a horror film but it probably has one of my favorite openings. In a thriller genre film, Eyes Without a Face was definitely a huge one George Franju, which obviously deals with, you know family horror and being sort of stuck under the thumb of a father or mother, who think they have your best interest in mind but clearly are just completely out of their mind. Yeah, and like body horrors, like Audition and Ra. Ra I saw when it came out and it really had a crazy impact on me. And going into writing, I knew that a film like Ra or Audition was so startlingly graphic and wince-inducing, and I knew I wasn't maybe completely confident in my ability to sort of replicate that effect. But more than that I really, I'm a bit more inclined to force the slow burn. And so as you know, having seen the film any blood or gore that there is in the film is pretty much delayed till the end. And that was very much a deliberate thing. And also The Shining was a film that was probably the first really scary horror movie that I saw when I was younger, that didn't use a lot of violence, there's obviously violent imagery, but for the most part the first two acts they use tension and ambiance a lot more than any films I'd seen when I was growing up.
Sadie: Yeah, definitely. And it works and you do that as well in this movie, especially with the sound design.
Sadie: With your editing background, how does your editing inform your approach to storytelling, especially with your writing?
Devereux: Yeah, I think, as an editor, it's always available to me, it's always in the back of my head when I'm outlining, especially when I'm writing, and doing scene work. I become aware as I write how I might edit a certain scene or a certain moment and a lot of that was preconceived. But then a lot came out once I sort of got an assembly strung out. I think, on one hand I have an editor's mind a lot more for short format stuff but when you're writing a feature, if you're also a writer-director, you can still get carried away, and I think there are times when I started to get carried away. Alan Pierson and Dan Kennedy who were producers on the film and a number of other people helped to scale me back at times but also the fact that I knew I would be editing that, and I knew what works up to a point. And I also knew that if it was a slow burn horror if there were going to be a lot of awkward pauses and silent moments that I couldn't just torture the audience or steer them to just being bored out of their minds. So, the editing in some respect did inform the writing but even in places where I continued to give a little overwrought, once I got the assembly together, I quickly realized I had my work cut out for me and it just, it sort of style took control.
Sadie: That's a really interesting point of view, especially from the editing point of view. Jumping into the casting of the film, which I thought was really well done, great talent from Barbara Kingsley to Sawyer Spielberg, his new you know breakout role. What was that casting process like, and did you guys ever do a table read beforehand?
Devereux: We never did a table read. With Sawyer, I had never met Sawyer. A mutual friend said you know he's pretty immersed in theater and stage work, but is really sort of anxious to get in front of a camera and try his hand in films. She had also sent me an audition tape or something else and I just really liked his look and I liked his manner, and he came in, we had already tested Riley, casted Malin [Barr] already. And he read with Malin and they just had this immediate chemistry built out of conflict and sort of frustration, but it worked so well and they had a great time, you know, working off of each other, and we pretty much hired him that day.
And then with Barbara, she had a huge career in Minneapolis theater working at the Guthrie and was incredibly seasoned as a stage actor and really talented and she came in and immediately we knew within the first, you know, couple of lines. And we'd been trying to cast her for, I think a couple months at that point. And it was a huge relief to land her and then she happens to be married to Stephen D’Ambrose who's who plays Eulis, lucky for us, and everyone involved did an incredible audition. It was cool to have like a real-life couple on set.
Sadie: That's awesome. And I like that all their backgrounds basically starts on the stage and you kind of now see why it works so well in this horror film that with those silent moments they really make it work.
Devereux: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think that, firstly, it's a testament to their experience working in theater, and they know how to amp it up but they also know how to how to illuminate their own subtleties and the nuances of a character, they're very good at finding things in a character.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. And then in terms of just shooting this basically in one location, what are the advantages from a storytelling standpoint and building a story in one location and shooting it that way?
Devereux: The advantages are that you have all the more practical, you have more time in between certain setups. We shot the most of it in one town and mainly we were shooting at the house at Karen's house, which was a picture house but was also a house where a few of the crew stayed and where I slept. And it just allowed us to sort of compress time a bit more, and not feel as rushed because we did shoot this in 11 days, and it's a 105-page script, so, if we added any more locations we would have been in big trouble [laughs]. But yeah, it helped. It helped a lot. And in fact, if I were to go back and write it again, I might even reduce the other sub-locations and other locations that were nearby that weren't, you know, sort of right by the house. At the gas station, there's the scene where we sort of introduced Sam and Riley, and there are a number of things that went wrong with the car they drive over the course of the shoot. As a result, the Saab had to be pushed through a number of locations by the crew, because it wouldn't run. There are little things like that you just don't plan for and you could never imagine as it did, it ran before the film started and then decided that it didn't want to run anymore, so a lot of the driving shots you see is either us pushing the car, or using a fan through the open windows.
Sadie: And that's what we call movie magic at its finest.
Devereux: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Sadie: Any advice to filmmakers who are about to take a leap into filming their first low-budget horror movie?
Devereux: Yeah, I would say, if you can [laughs] keep the script under 90 pages. And like you said, I think shooting in one, maybe two locations is a good bet in keeping your crew and your cast small and make sure it's people that you know and love and can trust because otherwise it just adds unnecessary time and anguish.
The rural horror film Honeydew is now available on VOD, Digital HD and DVD.