Writer-director-editor Devereux Milburn tells Horrorville’s Aaron Yap about the creative decisions and filmic influences behind his new hillbilly nightmare, Honeydew.
Trading in straightforward horror thrills for expertly engineered disorientation, Devereux Milburn’s debut feature, Honeydew, is an often savagely funny shocker with familiar backwoods/fairy-tale conventions: a twenty-something couple (played by Sawyer Spielberg and Malin Barr) stranded in the country with car trouble; the folksy, kindly locals who come to their aid radiating an undercurrent of sinister intent.
But the script, co-written with cinematographer Dan Kennedy, unspools into several out-there, hallucinatory directions that, at their most sadistically strange, suggests The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reimagined by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Although reception has been generally lukewarm on Letterboxd, those who were able to dial into its peculiar and specific brand of squirmy, deliberately paced, hillbilly nightmare found much to enjoy. “Without question one of the most disquieting and atmospheric slices of backwoods bewilderment in recent memory,” Mr_Quint writes. “Thoroughly fucked up American pulp,” Tom says, “Tasteless and brash and too long. I loved it. Also, contains one of the most bonkers cameos you’ll ever see.”
Even members who weren’t completely convinced contend to the film’s bizarreness: “Well that was fucking weird,” WraithApe opens in his review. Madeleine warns, “My advice is don't take an edible before this movie.”
Honeydew features quite the celebrity cameo. Without revealing who this actor is, can you talk about choosing this cameo? What’s the art of choosing the right cameo?
Devereux Milburn: The cameo in question was brought about by another actor having to drop out due to health reasons. She dropped out a month or so before production and I talked to this person. I knew her through another friend and she was very enthusiastic about doing it.
It’s always a risk with any film with a celebrity cameo—whether in the principal cast or immediate supporting role—that it will throw everyone off or ruin the intention of the scene or seem out of context in some way. Ultimately, I decided that the point where she’s revealed in the film is so high-tension, high-octane, that it could have ruined it or lifted it up. From my perspective it injected a whole other element and dynamic that it might not have had without that actor.
I love that Honeydew almost contains no violence or gore but still remains a terrifying and unnerving experience. What other films or scenes have affected you in the same way?
One of the reasons I wanted to be a filmmaker was seeing The Shining for the first time when I was a kid. The most exciting thing for me when I was really little was I wasn’t allowed to watch horror movies. I was reading the synopsis on the back of VHS tapes and looking at the images, and being told about the elevators full of blood. Typically when you hear about the horror films before you see them, a lot of times—at least this used to be the case—people would talk about the violent scenes or the sequence where there was blood.
I remember watching The Shining at the drive-in. It was the first time I’d seen any moving images from the film. Leading up to that, there was so much mystique behind it. There was so much anticipation of how gory and terrifying it would be, and then to start it and realize there’s very little violence, gore or blood for the first half of the film—that’s always had a huge impact on me. And that scene of Jack talking to Grady in the bathroom, and the unbelievable terror. Suspense and tension from scenes like that have always stuck with me.
Kubrick is obviously a genius at that stuff, at holding back the reveal, and not giving you what you’re expecting, and leading with long pauses, and quiet tension, and layers of very minimal sound effects. That was always something that I took with me. Coppola’s also great at it—although there’s a lot of violence in films like The Godfather, there isn’t really right off the bat. There’s 30 minutes before you get into the shoot ‘em up scenes.
The Conversation is another big one. Everything hinges on this possible murder plot. You don’t know who’s involved, who’s the bad guy, and you don’t see anyone get killed until close to the end of the film. Those are the moments that inspired me as a filmmaker thinking about story and narrative and what it means to keep someone hooked ’til the end.
I also love slasher films. I’m a big Takashi Miike and John Carpenter fan and certainly a big Argento fan. I love blood and guts, but also love considered moments and the anticipation of things and to have really no idea when it’s coming.
Honeydew’s sense of distended time is a striking element. It’s almost beyond slow-burn and you’re sculpting in time.
That was deliberate. There was a lot that was cut from that initial living room scene, just because I was so devoted to it having that sense of there being a burn, having the sizzle start in the living room before we even get to the kitchen.
Two other films pop into my head when I think about leading from the angle of having the big wait, whether it’s a big wait before a murder, an attack, or collapse: Tarkovky’s Stalker, and Bertolucci’s The Conformist. There’s so much in the way people look at each other, saying very little but also knowing that there is something that they’re going to do that’s bound to pay off in some respect, whether it’s blood or ecstasy or some sort of euphoric conclusion. There’s this element of something darkly waiting at the end.
The composer for Honeydew, John Merhmann, comes from a background working with churches and choirs. What was the process of working with him to produce the rich, eclectic, layered array of sounds found in the film? What were you listening to?
The first track that came up for me was the title track from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, composed by Jack Nitzsche. He did that bandsaw sound, and John was familiar with him and was also a big fan of the Cuckoo’s Nest score. That first melody when the title pops up was influenced by that bandsaw sound, with an added element of implied terror and darkness.
I was also listening to a lot of Jonny Greenwood, Jon Brion and Mica Levi. I listened to a lot of Mica Levi’s score from Under the Skin. It’s just incredible. The Punch-Drunk Love score. It’s very percussive, which I liked and wanted for Honeydew. For both those films, there’s a real sense that the music was part of the landscape and characters and it was almost initiated by behaviour and elements of the scene as opposed to the other way around. They were very organic and there wasn’t necessarily a lot of melody. I was really taken by that, as an element we could use for Honeydew, having the earth of the area, in that Western Massachusetts landscape, inspiring a sound and the percussion of each sound.
Not only does John know how to play every instrument, he would invent instruments and these sounds. He’s very good at creating soundscapes with the human body and with his face, and experimenting. We just meshed in that way. It was just such a natural and organic place to start. It grew out of that.
How did you come up with the title sequence?
Devereux Milburn: Typically the title comes after the edit is pretty close to final. A lot of that is inspired by what the cut ends up looking like. Initially I was thinking about a larger font, and putting it over picture, as opposed to black. I was pretty sure I wanted credits over a b-roll of introductory images. Part of that was an effort to save time, but also I love movies from the ‘70s. I was watching Marathon Man a lot. I would watch it once a week and when I was a kid. I would love the opening credit sequence over the title footage of the runner and transitioning to Dustin Hoffman around the Central Park reservoir. I love the font of that. I wanted to apply a sort of simple aesthetic to the font but also something that referenced more a vintage aesthetic without being too heavy-handed or spaghetti western-y.
I liked seeing the kid on the bike and I loved the title starting that sequence, and then the kid on bike sparking the narrative of the story and the mystery of the story, and then ending as well with the title over his face. He’s also got this sweet face and he’s right off the bat not entirely menacing physically. He's a more benign presence, until you realize he’s kind of a creep.
You’ve talked about your fascination with addictions and obsessions. What are some of your obsessions when it comes to the filmmaking process or as a filmgoer yourself?
It’s punctuated by obsessiveness. The least obsessive I am is [with] that rough draft, because it’s the most exciting time, it’s the seed, and it’s the time you can do anything you absolutely want. You get to the end of that draft and you realize, “Oh shit, this thing is a complete mess and full of unrelated tangents and run-ons.” Then I go back in, I become very obsessive with detail, with its general mise en scène or wardrobe. I’ll start making notes about make-up, set design—that’s where I become very obsessive to the point where I create a separate notebook that contains footnotes for each scene, and each page.
I’m definitely a huge blocking nut. Things like that always come out from me initially in writing but this often changes as we get into the budget-schedule. Once I’m on set, I definitely like the actors being able to roam free physically. I let them improv where it’s necessary and a lot of times they have even better suggestions than ever something I could have thought of. But I try to keep to the book as much as possible if it calls for that.
In the editing process I become very obsessive [laughs]. I usually start with a very long assembly, 3-4 hours, and I just hack away from there. The dance between that, the score and the sound design can be the most fun thing to explore. I’m an editor by trade in addition to being a director, so I definitely put a lot of focus on that area of the process.
In terms of watching films, it’s hard to say. I go into pretty blind with anything I see. I know continuity might bug certain people [laughs]. I was watching the Friedkin documentary about making The Exorcist, and Friedkin is always very much adamant about one or two takes but preferably one, and it clearly worked for him throughout most of his career.
His talking about not being overly obsessive about mistakes being made in the scenes or things that weren’t in the script or even fumbling lines and not spending too much time about that stuff—that’s helped me. Once I get into that spot, I like to get things right, but I’m also someone who’s worked independently in most respects and with limited budgets so I hope to split the difference a bit.
What are your Letterboxd Top Four Favorites?
I haven’t done them yet but only because [of] being on a number of edit gigs right now with very limited child care.
If you had to pick four right now...
You can’t say The Shining.
Short Cuts. At the very least those are in the top ten or twenty. I’d typically say like Robert Altman, John Schlesinger, Hal Ashby. Being There is definitely huge for me. Peter Sellers has always been a huge selling point for any film. Peter Yates is another big one. Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle are two of my favorites. In terms of older films, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock and John Huston’s The Treasure of The Sierra Madre are two tops.
These films and directors have influenced hugely my approach to movie-making and what I expect out of myself in delivering something to an audience and building a world. An element of that time period, ‘40s-’50s, and especially the ‘70s American, British and French cinema. Those have informed part of my aesthetic and creative process.
What recent filmmakers have caught your eye?
Last movie you watched?
So Long at the Fair. It’s an English film directed by Terence Fisher. It’s about a woman who comes to a hotel in Paris with her brother for this big exhibition and winds up staying the night. The next day her brother is not in his room and his room has been turned into a bathroom. She asks the hotel staff if they’ve seen him, and the hotel staff say “you didn’t come here with a brother”. She then meets this guy who’s staying at the hotel—played by Dirk Bogarde, who’s another fave English actor of mine—and he winds up helping her to figure out what happened.
Do you recommend it?
Yes, if you can find a good version of it, maybe buy a Blu-ray. I watched it on YouTube because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. It’s not the best quality and not the worst. I definitely recommend it.
Guns at Batasi I just watched, with a younger Richard Attenborough playing an older general. It’s about the rebellion in South Africa. It’s really well done. I’ve been doing so much brushing up on older stuff. I recently watched The Parallax View and loved that. Obviously anything Gordon Willis shoots, I’m into.
I know there’s a crapload of new films and directors that I’m not crediting right now… The brother-directing team who made Blood Nose, Empty Pockets—The Ross brothers—that, I’m anxious to see.
Aaron Yap’s interview with Alexandre O. Phillipe, who watched The Exorcist for 30 days straight for his documentary about William Friedkin and the making of the film.
Hillbilly Horror: Brittany’s list of films with ”country bumpkins on the prowl”.
Honeydew is now on VOD and digital platforms.