Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, and John Lithgow on the set of Pet Sematary (2019)
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Credit: Paramount Pictures

Pet Sematary directors reveal Stephen King Easter eggs and talk about that big change

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Mar 20, 2019, 11:18 AM EDT (Updated)

Pet Sematary is famously one of the Stephen King's darkest, most brutal books. So dark and brutal that legend has it he almost didn't publish it, but relented when Tabitha, his wife, insisted it was "awful, but too good not to be read." How's that for an endorsement?

The book was hugely successful when it was published and has already inspired a 1989 movie adaptation that freaked out a whole generation of horror hounds. Mary Lambert's film captures much of the character of the book and, while dark, never gets as core-shaking disturbing as its source material.

Directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, coming off a couple of low-budget shockers, took another stab at the material. Their top priority was to make this telling as close in tone to the book as they could. Yes, that means the film ended up particularly dark and scary.

It helps that they're both die-hard Stephen King fans and knew this was a fantastic opportunity in what is considered a new renaissance for the horror author, thanks to the runaway success of the killer clown flick It.

SYFY WIRE sat down with them the day after the SXSW premiere of their film and talked quite a bit about the challenges inherent in adaptation, as well as how they navigated the stricter studio system, how and where they chose to throw in extended King universe nods in the film, and even a bit about a big change they made to the novel — a twist that was spoiled by the trailers but is big enough that it's still a spoiler, so be warned.

You got roasted a little bit on Film Twitter for uttering the phrase "Elevated horror" at the Q&A last night. In my experience, there are two ways to look at that term. First, the way you mentioned – a term that is used by producers and studio execs to make them feel more comfortable with the material. The way most horror fans know it is a phrase to diminish the relevance and legitimacy of genre. It can't be good if it's just a horror movie. It has to be "elevated."

Dennis Widmyer: Here's what we learned from this process: When you make a big film for a studio like this, sometimes you've gotta talk their language to use it against them. There are certain words you don't use and certain words you do. If you're trying to make a dark ending, Hereditary-style, never say the word "bleak" and never say the word "cold." You say the word "scary." "We want it to be frightening and scary." You get across what you're trying to do with words they understand.

If you're trying to make a film that is not just concept-driven, that's actually trying to do a little more and it has some meat on the bone, you use the word "elevated" and they get excited about that. After a while, these tricks and words you're using to try to win the battle and get a good movie bleed out, and suddenly you find yourself using them with real horror fans and you're like, "Oh s***!”

But when you're working within the system that stuff does help.

Pet Sematary 2019

Credit: Paramount Pictures

So, I just talked to Jason Clarke, and we both bonded over our love of Stephen King. Amy Seimetz is also a very vocal King fan. As directors, was it annoying that your actors were so into the source material, or did it help?

Kevin Kölsch: Oh, it was helpful. We were the ones telling anyone who hadn't read it to read it. We made our line producer read it! It was definitely helpful. You can't fit everything from a book into a movie.

Widmyer: It's not transcription, it's adaptation.

Kölsch: But we always say we want to capture the essence of the book. You read the book and there's so much stuff that goes on inside the characters' heads that won't be a line of a dialogue on the page, but it could bring the actors in with so much more understanding of the character.

Widmyer: John Lithgow and Jason never even saw the original movie, but our whole thing was we weren't remaking the original movie, we were doing a re-adaptation and a re-interpretation of the novel. We started calling Jason "The Archivist" because he read the book so many times. He'd call us on Sunday night and he'd always have a good idea for the scene the next morning. He got into the essence of the character.

Kölsch: Or he'd throw out some line on the set and we'd be like "What's that? That line's not in the script." He'd say "It's from the book!" Well, all right. Can't argue with that.

Jason said he would listen to the audiobook almost like tone music to get into the mood for whatever scene he was about to shoot.

Pet Sematary Jud and Ellie

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Widmyer: The book is all in Louis' head. People forget that. In the book, it's like "In two months Gage would be dead." You're living in a world of this impending doom that's coming.

The saddest part of the book is when he imagines that he saved Gage and then Gage grows up and goes off to college and becomes an Olympic swimmer. We almost pitched the studio on the idea of doing that. He was running for the road and he dove out to grab her and we cut to black, and then we saw the family at the hospital and you're like, "Oh, he got her. He saved Ellie." Then we were going to see her later and she was going off to school. It was this whole thing, and we'd get to that moment like in the book where blood starts coming out from under the swim cap as she's waving to the family, and then all of a sudden you cut back to the road and the truck hits her. It's such a literary idea that they would not go for.

Kölsch: The book does it an interesting way, too. The book is divided up into three parts, and it starts out at the funeral and flashes back to the accident. It's kind of like he's letting you know what happens first because, I guess, it's so awful.

Widmyer: Just like our trailer did with Ellie!

Kölsh: It prepares you for this, and by doing so sets up this feeling of doom the whole time.

Widmyer: That's why our cold open is the way it is.

Kölsch: Stephen King wrote this because he asked himself, what is the most horrifying thing? Losing a child. The book is not just "Okay, here's the scene where he loses his child." The whole thing is him dealing with it. There's the moment where he's picking out the coffin and says, "No, I don't want the concrete layer ..." because he already knows he's going to dig him up.

Widmyer: The internal stuff going on in Louis' head is such a huge part of that book. Jason got that.

Kölsch: That's the thing. We're not going to have a voice-over. We're not going into his head. So for us, we were trying to use cinematography and score and sound design to try to create this feeling of dread that would mirror the internal feelings of Louis.

Pet Sematary 2019 Jason Clarke John Lithgow

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Was it important for you guys to set this within the larger connected Stephen King universe, too? Fans of this book and King books in general know that everything is connected together. I noticed a couple of nods. There's obvious stuff, like a highway sign for Derry, and then some things that are more subtle. Maybe it's just me being a nerd, but you have imagery of a doorway in the middle of nature, which is very Dark Tower.

Kölsch: That's the cover of The Drawing of the Three!

Widmyer: Totally. Here's the thing. With easter eggs, you don't want to be too cute with them, but the thing we remind people of all the time is exactly what you just said, that Stephen King does them himself. He references Cujo. The Crimson King is in Insomnia. All this stuff is lateral sandbox Stephen King Universe.

We embraced that but set rules on it. Wherever we could, if something would tie into the world and would be there, we'd do it. So if Rachel is on the I-95 heading up from Boston she would pass Derry. In the book, it was Jerusalem's Lot, but Castle Rock, the TV show, went and did that before we did. We actually built the sign. One of the only CGI things in that whole scene is we had to change Jerusalem's Lot to Derry because they already did Jerusalem's Lot. But she would be passing Derry an hour and a half south of Ludlow.

Some of our art directors were like, "How about we have some signage in Ludlow that says, like, 'Danny Torrance Realty.'" No, because he wouldn't have a realtor office in Ludlow. Carrie White wouldn't have a prom dress shop, because she's dead. Every little easter egg, and there are a lot of them you probably haven't caught yet, are things that could exist within the world of Ludlow and this story.

There's a map on Jud's wall of Maine, and if you look closely at it, it actually has the names of the towns that would be on that map within the world. Little things like that we tried to hide in there without being too winky because they would be there. Jud talks about Cujo at the birthday party. He's offscreen, but if you listen you can hear him talk.

Kölsch: You're giving away the easter eggs!

Widmyer: I know, I'll stop! That's only a few of them, there are so many more.

Unfortunately, the second trailer reveals the big change you made for the film, but I guess the upside is we can discuss it here! You switch up which of the Creed children is hit by the truck, which is an interesting change from the book and a great way to explore some new ground in something that has already had a film adaptation. You also go for the dark ending, which isn't all that common in studio filmmaking.

Widmyer: I don't know what it is about us, but we've done three features already and a lot of shorts, and they all have dark endings. It's not because we're sadists, it's because those are the movies that linger. I still think of Wolf Creek to this day. I don't love the movie, but I can't shake that film. The end of The Others shook me, too. Even movies that have neutral endings, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where she gets away, but does she ever really get away? I'm haunted by that final image.

I don't want something wrapped up, but if I have to wrap something up I want it to be with a black ribbon. Like Taxi Driver. By the end of that movie you're like, "It all came together, but not in the way that I thought it was going to come together."

In this movie, Louis moved there to keep his family together, so he's going to keep them together one way or another. In Starry Eyes, you have a movie that begins with a woman looking in a mirror hating her body and ends with her looking in a mirror loving what she's become even though she's a monstrous person who has killed all of her friends. She got what she wanted, just not how she thought she was going to get it.

Movies like Hereditary and Rosemary's Baby end in these ways that you're either not told how to feel or you feel horrible and you're haunted by that. It lingers. On Monday morning you're thinking about it. I see plenty of horror movies that I love, but I don't take them home with me. The ones that I take home with me are my favorite horror movies.

That was always something that we were pushing the studio for. You have to have an ending that people want to revisit, that they keep thinking about. If you look at the film again you'll see that the cold opening tells the story of what happens after the credits. Go back and see it and you're like, "This is what happened three minutes after the credits."

Pet Sematary 2019

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Kölsch: For the change to Ellie, the whole thing for us was this was already the character asking about death. She's present throughout the first half of the story asking these questions about what happens after we die. Make her the one that comes back, because she's the one who has the presence of mind and the awareness of what has happened to her. She has the verbal ability to talk about these things. She has the consciousness to know what's happening to her. It just opens it up for so many psychological conversations that you can't have when it's the 3-year-old.

Widmyer: One of the biggest reasons we were so excited to do the film was to live in those scenes a little bit. We could have those moments after Ellie comes back where you don't rush to killing. You could spend three or four scenes dealing with the intimacy of those questions and ponder those things.

How she's the same and how she's different.

Widmyer: Yes! And she has the wherewithal to actually ask those questions. That, to me, is almost more chilling than killing somebody.