By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
These girls were actively looking for a way out, and to create separation between themselves and the world they gladly left behind. I think they felt more comfortable living in their new world the way they wanted, and controlling when others were allowed to experience and judge it.”
With its world debut at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival, 21-year-old Avalon Fast’s Honeycomb heralds the arrival of an emerging filmmaking talent to be reckoned with. Co-written with Emmett Roiko and featuring a group of Fast’s close friends as cast and crew, Honeycomb is Yellowjackets meets Sarah Jacobson, a powerful tale about the transition from girlhood to adulthood with all its curves and sharp edges, of friendship, and, at its heart, about human nature itself.
It’s hot, and five young women stranded somewhere between the end of school and the rest of their lives are looking to shake things up on sleepy Cortes Island off the coast of British Columbia. In Honeycomb, that opportunity arrives when Willow (Sophie Bawks-Smith) finds an empty house hidden in the woods near town, and invites Leader (Destini Stewart), Jules (Jillian Frank), Vicky (Mari Geraghty) and Millie (Rowan Wales) to come and live with her there.
The newfound squatters are fiercely protective of their new home, seeing it as their own secret utopia where aside from the boyfriends they sneak in blindfolded for the odd visit, they live there totally isolated. Effectively building their own microcosmic society from scratch, they have rules, regulations and even their own crude justice system, consciously implemented in the hope of maintaining order and letting their life off the grid last forever. The learning curve is steep, then, when they discover it’s far more complicated than they at first believed, and the lines between civility and something more primitive grow increasingly blurry.
Filmed on a summertime camping trip and spending a year in post where Fast herself edited the film, with Honeycomb Fast follows up on her previous shorts Violets in Bloom in April and Night Trouble. She kindly took the time to talk to us about her feature debut.
“Lord of the Flies for girls” is perhaps an unavoidable observation when it comes to Honeycomb, but what struck me about Honeycomb that makes it stand out is that here the girls left the world voluntarily – there was no accident or crisis or trauma that saw them isolated, they decided to isolate themselves. This feels genuinely quite radical to me, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
Their isolation was absolutely intentional. These girls were actively looking for a way out, and to create separation between themselves and the world they gladly left behind. I think they felt more comfortable living in their new world the way they wanted, and controlling when others were allowed to experience and judge it. These feelings that arise in the girls remind me of how sometimes you can get so bored that even an apocalypse sounds fun. That feeling of waiting for something bad to happen, just to make your life more interesting.
One of the key things that unites all of these Lord of the Flies type stories is a seemingly inevitable rise of tribalism and primitivism when people are separated from their wider communities. Did you have an eye towards these questions of “society”, or were you more focused on the interpersonal relationships between the girls themselves?
In the early stages of writing the script, I felt as though I was going through the motions of their journey with them on a more surface level. To me, leaving society initially just seemed like a fun idea, and even though I knew evil was going to play a part I went into writing with the same amount of blind innocence the girls had when they first hatched their plan. The bigger picture stuff came later.
These feelings that arise in the girls remind me of how sometimes you can get so bored that even an apocalypse sounds fun. That feeling of waiting for something bad to happen, just to make your life more interesting.”
Making this with your friends sounds genuinely so much fun, and a lot of that energy absolutely makes it to the screen. Because you knew each other so well, was there a tendency for improvisation?
It was so much fun!!! There was definitely some improvisation on set yet the dialogue stayed very true to the script. I was really set on having their conversations turn from loose and casual in the beginning to very serious and dramatized towards the end. Almost as if they began performing for some higher power, most noticeable in Willow’s monologue scene. Although any takes of the boys chatting would almost always get improvised in some way and I love how they ended up contrasting each other. The girls have this structured way of speaking while the boys would continue on about nonsense for a while before getting to the point, and that was unpreventable.
Following on from that question, there’s something so pure and energizing about the relationship between the girls in Honeycomb, how do you imagine your own filmmaking practice beyond this group, working with professional actors and bigger productions and things like that?
Good question. Honestly, I feel there will have to be a love for anyone I work with on a project I care about. I think that means that in the future a lot of the auditioning process would have more to do with how well I can connect to people and not just how well they fit the character. I just don’t see the fun in working if it is not with my friends or at least people I really want to get to know. Maybe that will change, but I kind of hope not.
Two things I hesitate to bring up but feel like they would be the elephant in the room if I didn’t are the questions of age and gender (how lovely would it be to live in a world where I didn’t feel obliged to raise this and could just talk to you about your work for what it is?!). But with Honeycomb, you reject the ‘supposed’ norm of what a filmmaker is assumed to be (older men), which brings a totally fresh perspective.
I appreciate you bringing this up and I do understand the hesitation! I honestly have mixed feelings about being a filmmaker who is going to be perceived as a “young female filmmaker”. There is a huge part of me that is incredibly proud to be a woman and to create a film so heavily focused and influenced by more amazing women. Yet there is another part of me that doesn’t see the need to categorize myself and what I am doing as a “female filmmaker coming of age”. This is an ongoing dilemma that I know affects many filmmakers, and it is a great conversation to be had. This aside, I do feel the story of Honeycomb is unique in that we were living it in real-time, and the underlying theme of young women finding strength and power is best created by young women, and it shows.
I was very interested to read that you were accepted to university but decided to not take that path and focus on your writing and directing outside of those more formal institutions. How do you think your work has benefited by taking a more DIY approach to learning the ropes?
Yes! Twice! Right out of high school I was accepted into the Vancouver Film School to study film production. Then someone mentioned to me that a lot of film schools will own rights to the material you create while attending, and I just really wanted nothing to do with that. I also realized the rigidness and guidelines of the curriculum have never worked well for me, and I wanted a more open space to be creative. By the time I was supposed to go I had already started developing Honeycomb and was more inclined to spend my money on my movie!
The acceptance to Concordia for creative writing was a little different, I really wanted to live in Montreal and write in a tiny apartment (I still want to do that one day) but again I realized that I could do that without being enrolled in a program to do so. I also always had this thought that if I went to school for a passion of mine and decided to drop out I might feel a sense of defeat linked to something so personal to me. I decided to keep filmmaking and writing as my own and I feel confident in that choice.
While the film was clearly made with your friends in mind, as co-writer and director there is of course clearly a lot of “you” in there too. What do you see yourself as being the thing – the spark – that makes Honeycomb so distinctly an “Avalon Fast film”?
I believe it is a conjunction of things, the first being (as you brought up), my friends. My relationship with every person involved in Honeycomb is incredibly important to me, these are people I have grown with and experienced many of the things that inspired Honeycomb.
I also spent the best part of my young life on Cortes Island (the main shooting location) and it was so cool to be able to create my own story here with this very special and very familiar place as the backdrop. Lastly, the script was an incredibly freeing space where I was able to incorporate poetry, conversations I want people to hear, and a whole lot of angst. To have my inner thoughts presented through film is a perfect fit. To me, this is the most “Avalon Fast” I have ever been, and it feels incredible to have found that thing!!!
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.