New Horror Film Honeydew
Cupcakes have never looked as unappetizing as they do in Devereux Milburn’s horror film HONEYDEW, when star Sawyer Spielberg pushes one desperately into his mouth. HONEYDEW follows a couple—Sam and Riley (Spielberg and Malin Barr)—on a weekend getaway. Riley is a botany student studying a fungus called Sordico of Wheat with effects ranging from gangrene to insanity. Sam, meanwhile, is on a restrictive, low blood pressure diet. When the couple finds themselves taking refuge at a local’s home, the diet and the research distort their reasoning.
HONEYDEW was an official selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is being released on VOD starting April 13 by Bloody Disgusting and Dark Star Pictures. We spoke with director Devereux Milburn from his home in New York before the opening.
Science & Film: What inspired you to focus HONEYDEW in part on eating and control?
Devereux Milburn: When we first set off developing HONEYDEW, I had been adapting a George Saunders short story called The 400 Pound CEO, which deals with eating disorders and weight monitoring and body image. When the HONEYDEW DP Dan Kennedy texted me and said, do you want to shoot a horror feature next month? I think we could get some friends together for a nice skeleton crew and a couple of friends to act in it for little to no money. I said, yeah, let’s do it. I was starting to feel discouraged about the fact that I hadn’t directed anything in over a year.
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As I was writing the script someone sent me an article, knowing that I was writing this horror, about mass poisoning in this small French village called Pont-Saint-Espirit in the 1950s. There was a breakout caused by a fungus called Ergot—typically found in rye fields—which can kill livestock and lead to blights and cause a lot of drama. Between 250 and 500 people in the village who were getting their rye bread from the same bakery developed symptoms: gangrene, hallucinations, and they were committed to asylums. That knocked me out as a potential through line for the film and coincided with some themes that I’d been mulling over working on this other script. Essentially, I fictionalized it and called it Sordico to give myself some room to expand upon the symptoms and how long they might last, in an effort to not be overly fact-checked by my audience.
Barbara Kingsley as Karen. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting.
S&F: One of your main characters is studying to be a botanist. Was that choice a way to introduce this concept of the fungus into the story?
DM: Yeah, it was a way to give them access to this era and to this nameless town where they land. Their relationship is not going great, they clearly have a lot of love for each other, but for the most part she’s driving him nuts and part of that is he’s just not eating a lot of the proteins he’s used to and is feeling a bit controlled. It’s her project and he’s like the tail of the dog, along for the ride. By the time they get to Karen’s, the land she lives on has potential to be part of Riley’s research. I really liked having that as an engine for the whole thing.
S&F: It’s almost a story about someone who gets too involved with their research.
DM: Absolutely. They’re both so absorbed in their own directives that by the time they’re brought down to the basement, there’s misgiving but they’re not just sprinting out. There is this sense that they’re oddly unaware of the world they’ve entered into, as though there’s some sort of laughing gas coming out of the radiators. It’s an effect of the house sort of swallowing them up.
There are also some parallels to the current moment that were not at all intentional—we shot this in September 2018. This thing that can make you sick that you’re not aware of, wearing masks, and that sense of being inhibited against your will.
Sawyer Spielberg as Sam. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting.
S&F: The awareness of the body too that I think we all have now more than before—the permeability and vulnerability of the body.
DM: I can fall into hypochondria, thinking I have things that I don’t, and my wife’s the same way. Both of us have had to compete with some crazy thinking, being hyper aware of our skin, stomachs, heads. When you’re running around going to work, the gym, lunch, there’s a lot less time to be wrapped up in that. HONEYDEW puts a magnifying glass up to the body and what it means to be healthy versus feeling good, safe, and comfortable. That is Sam’s dilemma. Riley might come off as a nag or as pestering, but her instincts turn out to be right and his temptations keep him in the house and turn out to be the thing that is going to ruin his vacation—and life.
HONEYDEW is written, directed, and edited by Devereux Milburn. The story is co-developed by Dan Kennedy, who is also the cinematographer. The film stars Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Stephen D'Ambrose, Jamie Bradley, and Lena Dunham. It is available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD platforms.
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