Murder in the Woods isn’t your typical slasher. For one thing, it’s cast is completely Latinx. That means that the minority is the majority and the stereotypes that come with being a minority in a slasher film go right out the window. What you’re left with is a scary and fun movie with a cast of likeable characters you hope don’t die even though you know they will.
Fangirlish got a chance to speak with writer Yelyna De Leon about Murder in the Woods, breaking Latinx stereotypes, and her love of slasher films! Check out our interview below and make sure to rent or buy Murder in the Woods as it’s available now on digital platforms everywhere!
Fangirlish: I really really loved the movie. And I knew that I fell in love with it when they were gonna split up in the forest and I was like, “Estos pendejos. Don’t split up!”
Did you say that to the screen?
Fangirlish: Yes, yes. I screamed it at the screen. And you know what? I went, “This is good. This is something worth watching.”
I love it.
Fangirlish: I wanted to ask, how did this movie come to life? What was it like giving birth to this movie.
Oh, wow. So you’ve got to backtrack a couple years. I was in film school at UFC. I was getting my masters. And that’s where Luis, the director, and I met. We were a handful of Latinx filmmakers there. And just people of color in general. It was a very very small program and we found each other. Originally we ended up working on a true story. I ended up writing that film. It was a much higher budget. And when the opportunity came around, that’s when we were like, “We’ve got a much lower budget.”
We started talking about movies that we love and we realized that with the resources we had, he had shot a short film in the cabin where we shot Murder in the Woods. So he’s like, “I’ve got a location.” And I went, “Well, I’ve got actors. And I myself am an actor in the industry so I have awesome friends who are super talented. They’re working actors. I can reach out to this person, that person.” The role of Chelsea was written for Chelsea Rendon, the role that was written for Soledad. I met so many talented actors and I went, “We can make a movie with one location and six actors.”
So that’s where the work started for us to really think about what kind of genre we can do. I love slashers. I love horror but I love slashers particularly because there’s a lot of comedic relief that can happen. Which I love in horror movies myself. So this movie was really a love letter to my grandmother. Because when I was a kid we used to take the Greyhound from Chicago to Mexico. And it’s a 30-40 hour trek but when I was in…when we were crossing Texas and it was late at night. I was super bored and my grandmother would tell me these folklore stories. Everything from La Llorona to El Cucuy to los Duendes. All of these awesome stories that really scared the hell out of me.
Fangirlish: That would scare the hell out of me too!
What I loved about her storytelling is that she would tell me all of this in first person. So she would say things like, “Then my mom told me not to go out. And I wanted to meet this guy so I snuck out and we started dancing the whole night away. And it was past midnight and I knew I was going to get in trouble but I didn’t care.” And she was like, “He had a hoof for a foot.” Then I was like, “Wait, what?!”
Then she’d say, “I went home and I had his handprint burned on my back.” And I’m like, “Que?!” “Si, estaba bailando con el diablo!” “Oh my god!” So I loved it because my grandmother’s story always had a moral lesson to learn. So that’s where Murder in the Woods was born. Out of that love for slashers. Out of that love for that kind of storytelling where you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
I love Agatha Christie and I’m a whodunit fan. I love any murder mystery. I love escape rooms. So that was something I wanted to incorporate that you wouldn’t know what would happen or who’s first. Usually when there’s a person of color, they got to go first. But this time, you don’t know.
Fangirlish: Exactly, you really don’t know.
Fangirlish: So how was it working on a film where the Latinx cast and characters weren’t telling a story about immigration or gang activity? This was a scary movie. How was it working around such amazingly talented people that weren’t telling the traditional story that we’re used to?
Well that’s been my vision from get-go. I was born in Chicago. My parents are Mexican American. But I’ve always been the transporter of culture, the transporter of music, the transporter of movies. And I’m talking every time I would go to Mexico. I would take the American music, movies that were hitting and making records. I was always that bicultural transporter.
I feel like it’s such an important movie because I as an actor have played many stereotypes. And that’s because we don’t have representation in the writers room. We don’t the producers. We don’t have our people in power positions that are there green-lighting stories like this where actors actually have an archetype. They don’t act as stereotypes.
I’ve been in the room, when they’re asking for an accent, and when I give it to them, they want something where no one can understand that accent. Which at that point it almost is a caricature. So to your point to that…I’ve played both roles already, and that’s why I made the transition into writing, producing, and directing because I said, “I want to tell the story from an American Mexican point of view. And I want to make sure that up and coming actors get the opportunity to shine and be the stars I know that they are.
Fangirlish: Absolutely. They are stars that deserve the opportunity to shine.
The talent we have. There’s so much talent. Every time I hear…the thing that’s trending right now is putting Latinx people or people of color in movies. And we’re like, “We did it before it was “cool.” Like, you didn’t discover anyone. We’ve been here. And it’s our time right now. So I feel like Murder in the Woods is an important movie because it’s jaw breaking in the fact that we were able to tell a story from a different point of view.
Fangirlish: What horror movie tropes, were really important for you to keep in the movie?
How can I say that without spoiling anything? Ohhhh! I mean, this movie is a love letter to the classic horror films. Because there’s so many movies I love and I’m sure you have a list of the ones we pay homage to in the film. But that was the beauty there. When we were setting up the film we went, “Let’s imagine it with a Latinx and multicultural cast.” I knew it would make it different in the sense that yes, we’ve all seen those movies in the cabin, but this has the cultural references from the Latinx cast. Murder in the Woods has that flavor where you can watch the movie over and over and find things that you didn’t notice weren’t there to begin with.
Fangirlish: Which absolutely leads to some of the best horror movies out there!
Murder in the Woods keeps the mystery. We’ll say that. The whodunit was really important. Because I like to keep people guessing. I like to keep people engaged, especially if they’re screaming at the screen like you were. [laughter] Because those moments take me back to when I was a kid. And even nowadays, one of the funnest things to do is scare someone. Whether it’s a prank or whatever they may be. We always do that in our family. We still do that. And it’s fun when you’re scaring someone. It’s not so much fun when they’re doing it to you.
But I think for me, that was the most important part of Murder in the Woods; keeping the mystery going in the sense of whodunit because you don’t know who did it. Also, the comedic relief was important for me as well. I can’t watch movies that are too scary without some relief. And I went, “Ok, I want people…this is a movie you can watch with your grandma or your mom. Or your cousins. I think you’ll be alright.”
Fangirlish: I really loved all the characters you created. And while watching I was like, “I know this person is probably going to die, but I hope they don’t.” As the horror movie unfolds…you created some really engaging. Where did you get that creative energy to create these characters?
I’m a people person. I’m an extrovert. This whole Covid situation, I’m learning how to be an introvert and be indoors. But I’m a people person and I just love people. Even the mean ones. They’ve been some of the best experiences to write about, even though they’ll never know it’s about them. Those characters are there as archetypes; the jock, the funny guy, the girl next door, the tough girl, and the quiet one.” These were all there in Murder in the Woods and think about all the people that have wronged me, whether it was in high school or even exes. It’s a movie. You can do whatever you want in your movie.
Fangirlish: You really can!
So I poured my heart into that. Murder in the Woods is based on a lot of different people. It makes for a more relatable movie and has people going, “Oh yeah, my cousin is like that.” Or like you said, “I hope that person doesn’t die.” I always was that person that went, “I hope they die!” So that was the fun part, just kind of who you are rooting for, who you are related to, and just keeping that mystery going.