How Netflix turned a slasher trilogy into a summer movie moment

In order to keep her roles straight, Fear Street star Kiana Madeira kept a big Five Star binder with her on set at most times. As part of the experimental slasher trilogy from Netflix, Madeira played two different roles across three movies, each set in a different time period. To make matters even more challenging, the schedule was incredibly compact: all three films were shot together over just a few months. So her binder served a crucial role. Inside were all three scripts, and she would write in it constantly.

“Every time we finished a scene, I would make notes about how it went, how my character was feeling, how I was feeling, what I think we ended with in terms of the tone and the trajectory of the story,” she says. “My binder really helped keep me organized and on that path.” The binder even stayed in character; to go along with the first movie’s ’90s setting, she decorated it with images from old magazines.

Fear Street represents something new for Netflix, a chance to merge the bingeable nature of streaming TV with a summer horror movie. Based on the young adult book series by R.L. Stine, the movies tell an interconnected story about a haunted town that spans generations, starting with the ’90s, before moving to the 1970s and, finally, 1666. To make the trilogy an event, Netflix devised an interesting release strategy: new movies were released on a weekly basis for three straight weeks throughout July, with the final chapter out today.

Kiana Madeira in Fear Street Part 3: 1666.Image: Netflix

Leigh Janiak directed all three movies and says she was first approached to work on a Fear Street series in 2017. Back then, the idea was vague; the producers originally wanted to film a trilogy all at once and then release them theatrically over the course of a year. Janiak was brought on board to help solidify the details of that vision. “It was really an exhaustive search to find the right person who had that clarity of vision and that work ethic and ambition that can carry a years-long process,” says Fear Street producer Kori Adelson.

“I didn’t want it to feel like you must watch this next movie because you didn’t get any answers.”

Janiak says she was excited about the concept, but quickly realized the challenge: “I was like, ‘How the hell do we actually do this?’” The answer, it seems, was preparation. “I was living in these movies for a good year and a half, two years, before we actually started shooting,” she explains. That included creating a TV-style writer’s room, where a group hashed out the plot and figured out ways to connect the three films in a way that made sense. The main focus, she says, was making sure each move could stand on its own while also working within the larger narrative arc.

“The biggest thing that I was thinking about was how do you keep an audience feeling like they’re satisfied with each movie, but still wanting to learn more in a way that they don’t feel like it’s a trick. There was a lot of time thinking about the ends of movie one and movie two,” Janiak explains. “I didn’t want it to feel like you must watch this next movie because you didn’t get any answers.”

All of that preparation and worldbuilding came in handy when production began. The three movies were filmed over a 106-day span in Atlanta. Because some actors had recurring roles or played multiple characters, the films were shot out of order in the name of efficiency: 1994 was done first, followed by 1666, and then 1978. Madeira’s roles were particularly important; she played the hero, Deena, in the ’90s as well as a prominent role in the 1600s. (Saying any more would be a spoiler.)

Part of that focus on efficiency meant being economical with things like reusing sets. As one example, there’s a mall that prominently features in multiple movies. It helped build visual parallels and connections between the different films but also ”created an effective production plan,” as Adelson describes it. “It was actually really smooth considering how much we had to do,” adds Madeira.

It was an exhaustive process that frequently included filming days that lasted 12 hours or more. But Madeira believes that being so immersed in the world and her characters helped improve her performance. “I think because the experience was so condensed, and we shot them all back-to-back, we were just in it from the beginning to the end,” she says. “We didn’t have time to check out of the experience. I was really able to keep that intensity throughout, whereas I think if we had time in between, I would’ve maybe over-thought it. We didn’t have time to do any of that.” Janiak describes those few months as “like living in a black hole; there’s no past, there’s no future, there’s just Fear Street in this moment.”

“There’s no past, there’s no future, there’s just Fear Street in this moment.”

The final piece of the puzzle was figuring out a release strategy. Though it was originally slated for theaters, eventually, the trilogy was picked up by Netflix, which created more opportunities to experiment. “It felt very freeing to be at a place where they aren’t beholden to these old rules,” says Janiak. The idea was to create a moment by utilizing the seemingly disparate concepts of appointment viewing and binge-watching. In practice, that meant giving each movie some space, while also ensuring that viewers could get to the next installment relatively quickly. “We felt like a week was the exact right period between films where we could keep our momentum but not cannibalize the film before it,” says Adelson.

As more and more companies move into streaming and the future of theaters remains a question mark, it’s likely we’ll see similar kinds of experimentation for new movies and series. For Janiak, despite all of the work involved in crafting Fear Street, it’s something she’d like to try again in the future.

“I am not a mother myself, but other women who I know that are have spoken to me about labor, and childbirth. It’s terrible but then you have this kid and a week later you’re like, ‘Oh, I should do this again.’ I feel like I’ve now finished the labor part of it, and we’re in the first weeks after,” she says. “It really was very challenging, but it was such a cool, fun opportunity that I probably would do it again. I can’t believe I’m saying that out loud. But yes, I think I would.”

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