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SYFY WIRE Pet Sematary

SXSW: Pet Sematary screenwriter admits he was initially against the big change in the remake

By Christian Long & Josh Weiss
Jeté Laurence Pet Sematary Ellie Creed

After the second trailer for the 2019 remake of Stephen King's Pet Sematary dropped back in early February, fans of the original novel got a shock when they saw that Ellie Creed would be killed off and resurrected instead of her little brother, Gage.

But don't worry, even the project's screenwriter, Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy, Nightflyers), wasn't initially sure about that massive change. In fact, it took a little time for him to realize that it was the right choice.

“It felt like a natural choice. Now, I knew immediately people are gonna freak because everyone remembers Gage. It’s like, ‘What the f— are you doing?!’ As a matter of fact, I had the same reaction," Buhler told SYFY WIRE at the movie's world premiere at SXSW in Austin. "I was like, ‘We can’t do this.’ And then once it settles, once that initial Stephen King purist shock settles and you start thinking about the mechanics of writing the story and how it would feel on film, it all started to feel more and more right ... It’s impossible to adapt a work like Pet Sematary and not step on somebody’s toes so we just kind of picked one big toe to step on and just left it at that. Otherwise, people would nitpick other little story ideas and it was just like, ‘We’re just gonna go for it.’"

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Dennis Widmyer, who co-directed the film with Kevin Kölsch, felt that the major deviation from the source material made a lot of sense when put into the context of Ellie's relationship with her father in the book.

“It felt good because in the novel, the character of Ellie is the one that’s posing all these big questions about death and mortality and the death of her animal and why do animals die before people do?" he said. "And Louis, the father, has to answer those questions so to us, the idea of being able to revisit those conversations at the dark half of the movie, just felt like going full circle with that theme, so that alone excited us … we were really excited about that and I think it shows in the film. We were able to do a lot of good stuff with that."

When it comes to producers, Mark Vahradian and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, it was all about defying audience expectations. After all, many people love the original adatpation from 1989, so you don't want to retread charted territory.

"That’s an important part of the moviegoing experience, certainly in horror, so we would never do anything to offend Stephen King, but we had conversations about this," said Vahradian. "I think he felt the same way about it as we did, which was, ‘let’s surprise them, let’s take a liberty that doesn’t change the philosophy of this thing or the meaning of it, but we’ll make it more entertaining as an experience."

"By changing our children, because she’s older, you’re allowed to have a much more in-depth conversation about death and the meaning of it, why people are afraid of it," added di Bonaventura. "All that stuff, you can’t do with a three-year-old, so that was a very conscious decision to go at the family theme and the notion of death in a family by [killing off] the older child. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”

To get ready for her role as Ellie, Jeté Laurence watched the original film and read part of the book with her dad.

"I watched the movie—it was pretty scary, but I still watched it," she said.

Based on King's 1983 novel of the same name, Pet Sematary is about Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a university doctor whose life begins to sink into the supernatural mire after his family cat, cheekily named Winston Churchill, is run down in the street.

After his friendly neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), guides him to a magical burial ground that brings dead animals (and people) back to life, Louis cannot go back to his old routine, particularly when he and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), suffer a devastating personal loss. But as Jud wisely puts it, "Sometimes, dead is better."

"For me, I always looked at it as a drama. It’s a horror movie and a scary movie but for me, Louis Creed, it’s a dramatic role … It’s about a family and a man’s descent into madness," Clarke told us.

Pet Sematary will blink the dirt from its undead eyes when it opens everywhere April 5, going head-to-head with DC and Warner Bros.' Shazam! for box office supremacy.