Continuing on with our coverage for the release of PET SEMATARY, I had the opportunity to chat with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura during the SXSW Film Festival. With an impressive list of titles under his belt, Bonaventura is no stranger to the world of Stephen King, having also produced the 2007 horror film, 1408, based on the short story by King. During our chat, we discussed everything from re-adapting PET SEMATARY, to the challenges of getting the film made, as well as Bonaventura’s experience producing two adaptations based on King’s stories.

To start things off, can you talk a little bit about the idea of re-adapting PET SEMATARY? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I had read the book, I don’t know exactly when many years ago, but it was terrifying, and then I read it again. Paramount owned the title and I was at Paramount and I remember thinking that I loved that book. What was amazing to me was I was just as freaked out the second time but in a very different way because of my age. The things that hit me then are different than the way they hit me now. That’s when I sort of thought this is a generational movie, every generation can relive this because when you grow older if you’ve seen it before if you’ve read it before, it has a new vibe to it.

When it came to the major changes that take place in the movie that differ from the book, were you always on board for those changes? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: Yeah, our original writer Matt Greenberg was the one that came up with the idea of switching the kids. When he first said it his purpose behind was two-fold and it turned out to be more one than the other. One was if we’re going to get into the thematics of death, it’s much easier to have that conversation with [Ellie], you can’t have it with a three-year-old. It allowed us to get more in-depth. The other was for the people who saw the original film, there was a surprise for them. Unfortunately, our marketing department decided to put that in the trailer but I think, still, the original filmgoers really enjoyed the change. That beat when you think Gage is going to run out there, and even if you’ve seen the advertising, you think, “Oh my God, they really are going to kill Gage.”

Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Dennis Widmyer, and Kevin Kölsch in PET SEMATARY

When it was announced that there was going to be a re-adaptation of PET SEMATARY, I’m sure there were a lot of directors clamoring for the chance to direct the film. 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: There were a lot of people and we purposely waited until we had a script we believed in. Sometimes you don’t feel that way, but for whatever reason, that’s how we felt this time. We had a really good script by the time [Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer] came onboard. They brought on their flourishes but the movie was somewhat set when they came and it was more about trying to find someone who was going to elevate what was on the page.

What was it about Kevin and Dennis that made everyone realize they were the right people for the job? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: That STARRY EYES is a fucked up movie and that’s why. In a sea of sameness, it stood out. We must have watched 40 movies and we were like, “Okay that was fine, okay that was fine, what the hell is this” (laughs). Also, when you think about it, that movie is about the de-evolution of a character – that’s Louis’ ride. So you can see in their work that they would understand how to do that and get a really good performance out of [Alex Essoe] and Jason Clarke.

When it came time to really push forward and get this film off the ground, how difficult was it? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: It took a long time. I can’t remember how long we have been working on it but it’s gotta be 8 or 9 years. Every movie seems to be harder and harder to get going, so it’s not unusual for movies to take a long time. We made one about a year-and-a-half ago that we’ve been working on for 10-1/2 years and sometimes they find their time. In our case, every time PET SEMATARY almost got made the management changed at Paramount and it, of course, got pushed aside for a while. Then it would creep up again and they would just be about ready to do it and then the management would change – that happened to us twice. This time, we had the advantage of IT and the management didn’t change (laughs).

Left to right: Amy Seimetz as Rachel, Hugo Lavoie as Gage, Jason Clarke as Louis and Jeté Laurence as Ellie in PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures | Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

How involved was Stephen King? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: He doesn’t get that involved and I know it’s a conscious strategy. I did the film 1408 and my experience with him is that he wants to know what direction you are going in. He wants to read the script and he wants to like the script and he liked our script when he read it. After that, he’s pretty much like it’s up to you guys, until you shoot the movie and then you show him the movie and you hold your breath. He loved the movie and the thing he kept saying to me was, “My God, the acting is so extraordinary.” I think it’s one of the things about this movie that really elevated it. Those four actors crushed it, every one of them. I didn’t know Amy [Seimetz]’s work that well before this and I’m blown away by her. And then there’s Jeté Laurence. When you hire a child actor you don’t know what you are getting. You have an audition but you can’t look at a body of work and be secure in what they are going to do, but she crushed it. The way she inhabited the character, in a sort of sly, cunning manner, was really cool.

Speaking of characters, I was shocked to notice that the kid that played Gage in this film looked almost exactly like the kid who played Gage in the 1989 film. 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: That wasn’t purposeful (laughs). We were looking for twins because when they are that young you have to hire twins because if they are having a bad day, you are in deep trouble. Plus, when they are that young they can only work X period of times. You almost always try to hire twins and it was just coincidental. There’s not that many twins that know how to act.

Going back to the film 1408, what was the process like in regards to transitioning from that Stephen King adaptation to now PET SEMATARY? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: Well, it was less pressure because 1408 is not a famous book of [King]’s, it’s a short story and there was no movie before it. Frankly, because it’s only a 25-30 page story we had to come up with a lot of it. You didn’t have the requirement that you have with a book where you have to be true to it. How do you be true for 100 minutes on something that’s 25 pages long? I think what was really appealing to me and what I like about Stephen King horror is he’s not afraid of the surreal. I find for me, that’s more unsettling. It’s one thing to see blood and all that, and there’s a certain requirement to that, but I think some of the elements in this movie, and in 1408, are weird and trippy. The procession that’s walking through the forest [in PET SEMATARY], you could almost imagine that’s a dream. I remember the day we were shooting that it was like we were all a little unsettled by it because it was just really unnatural and expressionless. All of us that day were like whoa, that’s gotta definitely be in the film because that’s weird.

Jeté Laurence as Ellie in PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures | Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

Speaking of that procession, those masks were incredible and really set the tone of the film. 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: You know, it’s funny you mention that because there was a lot of trial and error in that. You wanted them to feel homemade but homemade by who? When it’s by the kids they don’t look good. We had some really rough ones, they didn’t look good. Homemade by the parents is where we ended up sort of. We didn’t want them to feel new, we didn’t want them to feel like they were store bought. Then everyone had an opinion on which mask worked better. I think when you look at it from a filmmaking point of view, especially the cat mask, it’s such an important element that you really second guess, triple guess, quadruple guess, is that really the right choice here? We went round and round on that one in particular, the other ones were easier.

Let’s talk a little bit about Church – what was the process like in finding the perfect cat for that role? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I’m not a cat lover so I don’t know much about them other than knowing they are hard to train. Everyone’s afraid to have a movie with a cat in it because everyone knows they aren’t trainable. Well, we found the right trainers and what I learned was that each cat can basically train to do one thing. I think we had 8 cats, 2-3 carried the burden, one was a really good hisser, and another one you would set a mark and he would get to that mark. That was a really interesting process for me to learn how it was done. The worst thing as a filmmaker that you can hear is three bad things: water – which we didn’t have, children – which we had, and animals – which we had. There were some hard days, especially with the little boys because they would freak out often. I give Jason [Clarke] and Amy [Seimetz] a ton of credit because boy did they have to listen to a lot of crying and do a lot of negotiation (laughs).

Lastly, can you tell us a little bit finding the perfect road for the iconic scene featuring the truck? 

Lorenzo di Bonaventura: Everything was practical except for that moment when the truck disengages. That kind of drove our location choice because you had to find a road that was close enough and big enough to handle that kind of truck. I grew up in New England so I knew what it was supposed to look like. Our directors were not from New England so they were sometimes leaning towards houses that were not Maine houses. They were so conscious about the road that they were driving the equation more by the road rather than by the house, which I understood because the choreography of that moment is crucial. If you blow that moment, you blow the movie. Eventually, we found that house, which does feel like a New England house and does have a big road in front of it, so it all worked out.

PET SEMATARY arrives in theaters April 5th. Read more about the film in our review HERE.

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