Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend the SXSW Film Festival for the World Premiere of PET SEMATARY. The film, which is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and is a re-adaptation of Stephen King’s beloved novel, has caused quite a stir within the horror community due to the deviation from major plot points in the book to this new iteration.
Following the World Premiere, I had the opportunity to sit down with the cast and crew to talk about the highly anticipated film. First up was producer Mark Vahradian where we discussed everything from the reasoning behind this adaptation to what Stephen King thinks about all the new changes.
What was the reasoning behind re-adapting PET SEMATARY?
Mark Vahradian: For me, it literally started about 10 years ago at Paramount because they had the rights and made the original movie. I grew up loving horror, I’m 51 so my first movies were Halloween, Friday the 13th, Pet Sematary, all those movies. I was also a reader and [Stephen] King was always one of my favorites. Pet Sematary was perverse in a way, it goes places that not even he [King] wanted to go. I think we loved the idea that it was about something as well. I saw that there was one review that complained that the filmmakers said [PET SEMATARY] was elevated horror but it is elevated horror in the sense that it is scary but it is also exploring something interesting about humanity and the human condition. Everyone was always afraid about making a movie with a kid dying, which was one of our problems all these years, and I think eventually people just came around to Stephen King again. There was a lot of leadership changes at Paramount throughout the years but consistently people would say, “I don’t know if we want to make this one” as I think they thought it was a little tough and that it was dark. One of our concerns was if people would be grief-stricken when they were watching the movie. They see this girl who is so lovable in the front of the movie it made us wonder if the audience was ever going to recover after watching the movie.
One of the biggest changes from the book and earlier film is changing the death from Gage to Ellie. Were you always on board with that change?
Mark Vahradian: Yeah, it was something we talked about a lot because a little boy running around killing people is basically Chucky. We got away with it the first time but we were never going to get away with it this time. It was either going to be an older boy or just keep the same characters and switch to Ellie. The part that I was always drawn to, that I thought was the most interesting thing that the first movie didn’t do, was what happens when [Ellie] comes back home from the dead. We have a lot of that in the film where she’s talking to her dad about being dead and what does this mean and where have I come from. I thought it was so interesting to see. It’s one thing to make the choice to bring your daughter back but then once she’s back and you see that this isn’t quite right you watch as Louis comes to the revelation that this was never going to work. We watch as he washes her in the bathtub, combs her hair, puts her to bed until it finally strikes Louis that he made a terrible mistake. In the book, the Timmy Batterman story was basically a father who did the same thing, brought his son back and tried to live with him, tried to keep him in the house, and it went wrong. That to me was just interesting and to see what the conversation would be with someone you brought back. Everybody always says they wish they had said this or that before someone died and in this case what do you say to them when you get them back?
That kind of leads to the ending, which I loved and really enjoyed the ambiguity of. Was that a conscious decision?
Mark Vahradian: Yes, there were big debates about the ending. We had at least 3 different versions of the ending. We had what we originally shot, which was confusing to people as they didn’t understand why Louis was making these mistakes over and over again. The original ending was more consistent with the first movie and with the book – with Rachel coming back into the house and putting her hand on his shoulder. We played with a bunch of variations and then once we landed on this ending [retracted for spoilers], we then had three variations of that ending. We had these debates about what was too far, so in the end, we left it a little bit mysterious. I think we wanted it to leave people with a sense that the movie was fun and not just relentlessly dark and miserable.
When it came to finding the location for the film, what was that process like? I’m sure there were a lot of factors that all needed to line up exactly.
Mark Vahradian: That was hard. Everyone’s first choice would have been to shoot in Maine but there were financial reasons to go to Canada such as the exchange rates and rebates. Then it was a debate between Toronto or Montreal and Montreal had a closer look to Maine in terms of the forest and everything, so we picked that. Then we debated over three houses and it really was a debate on how close was the house going to be to the road and how wooded was the area around it. We chose the red house because it had interesting architecture but it was also really tucked into the woods and we wanted that sense of nature itself encroaching on this family. That house was a little further from the street so we had to figure out how to get the kids close to the street. Funny enough, that house actually had a pet cemetery on the property. It was a farm and the owner was selling it at the time we were shooting there and not too far from where we built our pet cemetery was a real pet cemetery. It was mostly for farm animals like horses and things like that, which if you have a farm and a beloved horse you just bring out the trenching machine and bury him there. There was some fate in picking that property and everything was nearby too. Jud’s house happened to be 500 yards down the road, so we were just easily walking from one location to the other.
Lastly, did Stephen King work closely with the production or was he more hands off?
Mark Vahradian: We sent him drafts along the way and certainly asked him if we could change the Ellie character, which he was fine with all that. He’s always busy with his own writings so we asked if he wanted to come to the set but he told us he really doesn’t do set visits as he’s writing and held up in his house. Once we finished the movie we sent him cuts of it and got his feedback. I was surprised, he was definitely interested and excited about it. I can’t wait for him to see the final product!
PET SEMATARY arrives in theaters April 5th. Read more about the film in our review HERE.