New England Backwoods Horror: Devereux Milburn And Dan Kennedy On HONEYDEW

The filmmakers talk dialects, cicadas and [REDACTED].

By Andrew Crump · @agracru · April 14, 2021, 12:57 PM EDT
honeydew.jpeg
HONEYDEW (2020).

Spoilers for Honeydew below.

Contrary to stereotypes, New England isn’t made only of charming towns built around charming main streets, peppered with charming little stores selling charming handmade goods; it isn’t defined by Boston and Burlington, Portland and Providence. There are parts farther flung around here, and the farther flung they are, the weirder they get. New England is old, the birthplace of American liberty, built on the bones of settlers and the indigenous people they killed to settle here. Spooks, spirits and haunts are as integral to its identity as bad accents and Ben Affleck.

This is the image you must carry with you into a viewing of Honeydew, directed by Devereux Milburn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dan Kennedy. It’s worth also bringing along a 3-word fundamental question: What is it? Honeydew holds back much, but makes up for its restraint of content with abundance of mood. Frankly, that’s fitting for New England: here, everything is a mood, not just the people but the place. (It’s still a nice area to visit! Just watch out for ghosts and poison ivy.)

FANGORIA sat down for a lengthy conversation with Milburn and Kennedy about their own connections to New England, playing around with the conventions of the backwoods horror subgenre, the importance of nailing a regional cadence, and running afoul of burgeoning allergenic plants.

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So, just to satisfy my own itch, which specific New England state is this movie supposed to be set in? Because to hear [Barbara Kingsley] talk, I want to say Maine. I know she's not from Maine, but that's a Maine accent if ever I heard one.

Devereux Milburn: Yeah. Part of my family is from Rhode Island, and a lot of that accent was based off of my grandmother and the way that she talked, the way that people talked I think more in the twenties and thirties and in places like Maine or Rhode Island. I did send Maine dialect recordings for her to take a listen to, and I sent her footage of some of my family that have stronger accents. I really wanted that to be a factor, to have her have that New England vibe, for lack of a better word. The intention was for it to be in a New England town, but I don't think we ever landed on it being a small farming town in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or wherever.

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Dan Kennedy: Yeah, it’s more in between the woods of Pennsylvania and Maine.

So this could be anywhere in New England, but it's definitely New England. I've lived in this region my whole life pretty much. I like seeing horror movies set here, especially if it's not a Stephen King thing or a Lovecraft riff. What I’m interested in is the backwoods cannibal element. I associate that strongly with the American South. That’s the part of America where people get eaten. Was the intention to play around with that trope and relocate the concept to a part of the country where it's not common?

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DM: I didn't have that intention going into it. Even the sort of Texas Chain Saw element was more, I think, a subconscious reference for me. I love Tobe Hooper, and I love TCM and and hillbilly backwoods horror, but I didn’t lead with that as a goal, putting a spin on the landscape. Having family from there, the fact that Dan was from there… part of it was the fact that Dan knew the area and had shot a lot in and around the towns that we shot in. I really liked the look of it, and I also related a lot to the dialect. Even though it might not be your typical go-to setting for something like that – you don't think of hillbillies, or that redneck thing going on that far East – it very much can be a thing. Those people exist.

For me, it was partly about creating a mashup of stuff I thought worked as a whole, as opposed to creating an effect or riffing on something that had come before it, even though it obviously did that. I was subtly aware of it the entire time. But it wasn't my first thought. ‘Let me show these people how crazy New Englanders can really be!’ [laughs]

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DK: I think the point is that anybody can be crazy. There're farmers all over the country who are struggling and who love their neighbors. In terms of the accent, it's just kind of interesting. I've encountered versions of it so many times. I don't know where in New England you're from, but I'm sure you've encountered something close to Karen's. Obviously she's taking it pretty far, but yeah.

Yeah, that accent is something else. You need to hear it to experience it. It sounds like this is a way of saying, ‘This is what New England horror looks like, this is our horror,’ not to riff on any particular niche but to acclimate viewers to these tropes and this storytelling mode in a hyper regionalized way? I keep talking about the accent, but it’s so specific that it's unavoidable.

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DM: It was really important to me to capture that very unique sound. I thought it matched with what I wanted the production design to be and what the landscape offered, the sound, the natural live audio the area provided. I thought there was a creepy element to it. We did actually at one point discuss whether we pretend that this is West Virginia or something with more of a Deliverance vibe, but we ultimately decided we liked that accent, that it was just creepier and newer and fresher.

DK: You were obsessed with it!

DM: I was obsessed with it.

DK: In a good way. But we were like, ‘If we can't find somebody who can do exactly this, it's gotta be from the South.’ But Barbara and her husband, Stephen [D’Ambrose, who played Eulis], nailed it.

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DM: Yeah. Stephen nailed it also. Barbara actually has family from the South, and it would have been a bit easier getting her into that voice. But I was focused on that Rhode Island or Maine drawl.

I don't know if people generally think of something like character accent as part of aesthetic design, but that’s an important detail. The details make it work. What else did you look for to bolster that specificity? If the accent had been generic, this could’ve taken place anywhere in the country. What did you look for in locations to drive home the New Englandness? There's definitely a character to New England – that quaint New England town vibe. But I think there's more to it than that. I imagine you feel the same.

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DM: For me, part of it again was the sound, the crickets and cicadas, the sound of the wildlife and the wind. Obviously there are things that you could say they have in the South. But to me, there was an audio element to it that I think overrode, for me, the visual commitment to it being shot in New England or having a New England aesthetic. But like you said, there is a quaintness, there’s an element of sophistication. I think a lot of people associate New England with that when they hear it – they think sophistication and country homes. Obviously that's not the case. No matter where you go, there are different types of people in different types of income brackets.

You see it in the production design even, in the wallpaper. Kendra Eaves was our production designer and one woman art department. She brought that very sort of warped sophistication into the interiors as well as the exteriors, and in the process got a horrible poison ivy rash. But we all put our heads together and were able to nail down, I think, an aesthetic that is different from what you would expect from a home in Alabama or Texas, or even West Virginia or parts of Mississippi. There is something there. Growing up and going to my grandparents every summer, there was this sort of floral vibe, but at the same time they never renovated anything or refurbished or got new furniture. There was always a layer of soot, it felt like, on everything. I wanted to sort of imitate that in a way, but obviously go the extra mile, given the fact that we're working in genre.

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Tangential to this part of the conversation, I mentioned Stephen King, I mentioned Lovecraft, and I think those are the things people think of when they think of what to expect in terms of tropes or the niches when we talk about horror set in New England. What is it about this region that makes it so good for telling horror stories? It's not just Stephen King stuff. It's not just Lovecraft stuff. I think there's something more fundamental to our history and culture here. I wonder what your thoughts on that are.

DM: In terms of my historical arsenal of information, I might come up a bit short [laughs]. But I do think that, like I said before, because there is an implication, whether you're going back to our founding fathers or just thinking about the area politically or religiously, that nearby wherever this is, there could be a bigger world that's more sophisticated, a bit cleaner, well-educated, and has a history that this little farming community, and more specifically Karen and Eulis’ little brood, isn't attached to. I don't think the intention was there right off the bat, but I do think that having that obscured in the background of your mind does enhance the creep factor a bit.

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That was why I really didn't want it to be a Southern film. I didn't want it to be typical backwoods horror just because you're sort of expecting it, and even though you are in many ways still expecting it by the time they meet Eulis and Karen, there is the implication that nearby, there's civilization, there's a depth to the surroundings, and they've created their own little dirty world on the fringes of that.

DK: It's also just super old. Everything's old. If you do find an old farm, there's generally two other generations who lived there before. Definitely in the case of the place we shot, there are three generations of farmers there and knowing that is super uncomfortable all the time. Searching for that is interesting.

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Drive far enough North in Vermont, you'll find Confederate flags in barn windows. In a contemporary sense, there were Trump banners around here leading up to the general election – not the same, but it's close. So this is very interesting, because I had no sense of what I was walking into when I watched Honeydew in terms of intention and the way the movie functions as a story by actively playing with viewers’ expectations. Is that ultimately a difficult thing to do, especially when selling it? I didn't know [the cannibal element] was coming until it was in front of me.

DM: We didn't really start off on that foot either. Dan and I initially conceived of a couple on a camping trip, and I’m sure if we were going full-on in the creature realm, but it was bordering on that. Over the course of us developing the concept, someone sent me an article, about an inadvertent mass-poisoning in a small village in France called Pont-Saint-Esprit, where the fungus that sordico is based off of is called Ergot, and basically this local bakery, the rye they were using for their bread was infected with this fungus. It made people go crazy and develop gangrene and have hallucinations. That element in many ways can lend itself to taking a bit longer to reveal the symptoms

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The thing that I like about genre and the films that I like the most are the ones that leave you hanging a bit. Just the fact that you're living in a world of genre and you're living in a world of horror and thrills, even before the thrills occur, that’s what gets my blood pumping the most before the reveal, before you see them bite into the flesh and understand that it is flesh and the implications of it being flesh, as opposed to ripping someone's cheek off and chomping on it and having blood spurt everywhere, which I also love by the way. I love Japanese and Korean genre films that do that really well. I even considered it at a certain point, but we agreed that it made more sense for it to be a slow burn.

I think it does make it a bit harder to sell at least as a horror film. The way that it seems that horror films are marketed is obviously a lot different than drama or comedy or romance or whatever. When you're trying to lead with blood and guts and gore to get asses in seats, or in this case people in front of their computers or their TVs, it helps to have the blood on the screen. When that’s wrapped up in the reveal at the end, it makes it hard to push that part of it as well.

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I reference The Shining all the time. That was probably one of the first horror films I ever saw, and I think the most brutal bloody, gutsy moment in that film was the flash of the daughters in the hallway, all mangled and bloody, and then maybe the blood pouring out of the elevators. It doesn't make you clutch your chest the way a jump scare does or the way hacking off someone's head in Evil Dead. Again, I love that stuff. There's definitely some reference there, but more to create a texture and a world as a priority over creating a scare effect right away.

In my experience, the problem with slow burns is that they tend to be really fucking boring. Nothing happens. Then everything happens. This is not that case. You managed to nauseate me. It's not graphic. There aren’t guts all over the place. But there's atmospheric queasiness maintained by the writing, the performances, mise-en-scène, everything. As filmmakers, as storytellers, how do you make that approach successful? I think it’s easy to fail that way. This was deeply unsettling without doing much more than putting characters in a room and have them interact.

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DM: I think it's a mashup of departments. The thing I love most about films is mise-en-scène and the really intricate details that you see on your 10th viewing that make you feel like you've discovered something, or that this world is three dimensional. It was a combination of Dan and I shot listing and finding a very considered approach to how we wanted the film to move and look, from the lenses Dan chose for getting that really vintage warm feel, to shooting in wides and masters, at least as much as we could with the time we had, and also again, production design to make sure that the world didn't have any cracks. If it was going to start off with a more ethereal slow burn effect, then everything had to be there, especially the sound design, the cinematography, and the score. Those all had such a huge impact. Without those things, if the film looked like shit or had clunky sound or a shitty score, it would be a bad film. I think even with the great performances, even with the story and the script, this is one of those films that has a skeleton and then gets color injected with those elements.

That’s what I focused the most on in talking with Dan, our sound designer Raphael [Ajuelos], and Kendra, and John [Mehrmann], who did the score. A lot of people use the term elevated horror, which I think would be very misleading. You could say that there are films like Goodnight Mommy, or The Witch, that have deeper meaning or more elegance to the aesthetic or the movement of it, but that's because that's the thing they chose to focus on. If Friday the 13th or Child’s Play or Halloween, then that’s a whole different world and effect you're going for.

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DK: Dev was pretty compulsive about the details going in, and we chose the people that were surrounding us and made sure they understood that part of it. I think most of them understood it more than I did for sure. I mean, it took a long time to get the right people to mesh with it. I think it worked out really well.

DM: Dan sourced most of the crew, and that includes post people. We were lucky because they all were incredibly talented and understood the intention of the film in terms of the arc that we were going for. I think there were a couple of people on set who were confused about it; if I remember correctly, a bunch was shot out of order, but, as often happens on indie films, there were disorienting elements there. We really had to find the right minute to get the right shot and the right performance.

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DK: Yeah, we started the shoot off with the dream sequence in a 140 degree barn. Nobody knew that was happening.

DM: That was rough. We had Jamie Bradley, who plays Gunni, in a full suit and hat, and like I said before, people right off the bat got full on poison ivy rashes. Kendra and Dan got bad cases. We told ourselves it added to the body element of the whole thing.

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That’s New England authenticity for you: people behind the camera suffering from poison ivy rashes.

DM: Yeah, but it wound up being for the best.

Honeydew is now available on VOD and digital.