SXSW Interview: Directors Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer for PET SEMATARY

What better way to end our week of PET SEMATARY coverage than by speaking with the two men responsible for bringing this new adaptation to life, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. Known for their 2014 genre-breakout film STARRY EYES, Kölsch and Widmyer were able to bring a fresh pair of eyes, so to speak, to this 2019 adaptation while still respecting the tone of both Stephen King’s work as well as the 1989 film directed by Mary Lambert.

Following the World Premiere of PET SEMATARY at the SXSW Film Festival, I had the opportunity to speak with both Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. During our chat, we discussed everything from working with children and animals, the use of practical effects and deciding on the right location, as well as the importance of talking about themes of death and grief with those we love.

Hey guys, thank you so much for speaking with me today, I absolutely loved the film! The start things off, can you talk a little bit about how you came on-board as directors for PET SEMATARY? 

Kevin Kölsch: A lot of meetings (laughs). It started here [SXSW] in 2014 when we played STARRY EYES and it got us some reps and some attention and it got us into some rooms. We started pitching some things and learned that Paramount was trying to do another version of PET SEMATARY. We were like, “We want to do that one” and our reps were like, “You’ll never get it, you just made a tiny little movie!” We spent the next couple of years going to meetings at other companies and getting jobs – we took a couple of re-write jobs and got attached to a few bigger studio movies to direct that ended up not happening, but it was kind of building our cache and showing that we could get these kinds of jobs. Then all of a sudden it was like the planets aligned because IT came out and put us in the Stephen King renaissance and whatever director they had [for PET SEMATARY] dropped off. As I said, we had built up more of a cache but the movies that we were attached too kind of went cold and weren’t going and we just happened to be available. All these things kind of just lined up and we got in the room but it was still a real big fight to fight. We still had to meet a whole lot of people and we had to pitch our vision many times but they liked our vision. They watched our movie STARRY EYES and liked it and they thought between our take and our movie that we could bring something cool to PET SEMATARY.

Director Kevin Kölsch, left, and Director Dennis Widmyer behind the scenes on the set of PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

When the trailer was released people were all up in arms over the fact that instead of Gage dying, it was Ellie. As someone who read the book, it always made more sense to go with Ellie over Gage due to the conversations about death she has with her father. How do you choose what changes should stay and what should go? 

Dennis Widmyer: We had a wheel that we would spin and were like well, I guess we are killing Ellie (laughs). [This film] isn’t better, it’s not worse, I think it’s just different and it’s something that had not been done before and it was something that was there for the taking. As you said, she asked those questions [about death] so why not revisit that later on in the movie and show the corrupt, other side of that coin.

One of the more frightening aspects of the film is when Louis and Jud visit the deadfalls. Can you elaborate a bit on that place and its significance? 

Dennis Widmyer: With the Native American tribes it basically means re-birth in Alquonquin [Micmac] language. On the one hand, they built the deadfall and they don’t want people trespassing and going in there. However, you can read it as two different things: you can read it as “Beware: This is a place where people come back from the dead” or you can read it as a place of hope and mysticism. It can be read as many different things such as a warning sign or a feeling of hope depending on what you are trying to get out of the place.

The masks that the kids wear in the film left quite an impression on me. When it came time to choose the masks, did you have a lot of options? 

Kevin Kölsch: This woman was hired that designs masks for a theatre…

Dennis Widmyer: That’s the main thing she does, her talent, they had an entire room of those things…

Kevin Kölsch: They made a bunch and there were some that didn’t make it into the movie, but there were other cool ones. Even in the trailer, they used one that’s not used in the movie. The funny thing was that not only did you [meaning me] like them, so didn’t one of the kids in the procession. I felt so bad, he tried on this big blue cat head thing. We didn’t choose that one because it didn’t look like the rest…

Dennis Widmyer: It was kind of nightmarish in this weird 1970’s cartoon way…

Kevin Kölsch: We took it off and that kid came up to me like twice and was like “You guys aren’t using that other mask, what’s happening with it?” He really wanted it but I was like, ‘Well, it’s probably Paramount’s…”. He really wanted that mask.

Dennis Widmyer: Poor kid.

Left to right: Director Kevin Kölsch, John Lithgow, Director Dennis Widmyer behind the scenes on the set of PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

Speaking of kids, it’s a known fact that in films one shouldn’t work with kids or animals because they are the most difficult. In PET SEMATARY you worked with both. What was your experience like? 

Dennis Widmyer: Talk about trial by fire (laughs). [I remember] we were running out of time and we needed to find a kid [to play Gage] and we wanted twins because we knew we were going to have long days and we needed to get as much shooting done with them as we could. Having twins helped because if one of the kids was feeling shy one day, or not in the mood, usually the brother was in a good mood. They were always opposite each other which helped us a lot.

The cats were like a marvel, they were all rescue cats. It was a tall order because we wanted to mimic the cat that was on the original hardcover which is like a half Maine Coon, long-haired cat with multi-colors. It’s not like getting a solid colored cat. We found trainers named Kirk and Melissa who are based out of Canada and they found like seven of these cats and we came down to four that were really in the movie. Two that were mainly in the movie but there were two others hiding throughout the film. Every cat had a different speciality and it was great. They would get on set and they would need to be acclimated to the set. We would clear it for these fuzzy divas and they would smell everything and get used to everybody. We would encourage the actors to hang out with them in-between shooting and actually visit the little cat village that we had on set. They would play with the cats as a way to get familiar with them. Everything you see in the movie [with the cats] is not CGI, that’s all really the cats doing a lot of that stuff. There’s really not any CGI in the film.

I was actually going to bring up CGI vs. practical effects, especially in regards to the Zelda character. There’s a scene where she’s in a dumbwaiter. Was that the actress? 

Kevin Kölsch: Yeah, that’s the actress

Dennis Widmyer: [Alyssa Brooke Levine] is a gymnast so she can bend backwards and stuff. You would think if we cast a 12-year-old girl like her, that’s a gymnast, we would have all the Exorcist-type of stuff, but we didn’t want to overdo it. She was also wearing like 4-hours of makeup, which hindered her movement a bit but she was able to bend and crawl and get into small little cubbies like that. We were worried that the dumbwaiter would be too small for her but she crawled right into that thing like a spider.

I can only imagine how important finding the right location was considering how it’s almost its own character. How difficult was it to find this location?

Kevin Kölsch: It was tough. The funny thing was we were so married to the idea of a house that would have all the things we needed. Even the house that we used, when we got there we went, “But there are trees lining the front! Isn’t the whole point that it’s dangerous because the road is right there?” We were so rigid with it but then we were like it’s not a fence and even if there were a fence it wasn’t like a kid can’t run out of a fence. We had to think if it was crucial to the story that you could, or could not, see the road. These are all things that you put in your head thinking it needs to be a certain way, but then you end up picking something based on only one of those aspects.  [The house] looks great and has the woods in the backyard and a clearing in the woods that we could build the pet cemetery practically. When we look at the film now and see how great the house looks, especially with these overhead shots, it’s amazing to think that in the beginning, it was an issue because there was a tree in the wrong spot (laughs).

Lastly, there are so many themes that play out throughout the film. Is there anything you like people to take away from this new adaptation? 

Kevin Kölsch: I would like them to go, “Man, I want to see that again…”

Dennis Widmyer: …again, and again, and again (laughs). We really tried to layer the film. There are things that are in there, not just Easter Eggs, that is seated very early in the film, even in the opening shot of the movie [that will look different] on a second viewing. We set out to make, hopefully, a very smart movie about dealing with grief and the idea that if you don’t talk about these things and if you choose not to talk about death and acknowledge that it’s something that we all go through, it will fester. That’s kind of what these characters go through. The whole movie is a chain reaction of not talking about this horrible topic and avoiding talking about it with the daughter. Then the father not being able to put this evil cat down and the cat coming back and leading everyone to the road. Everything is a chain reaction that leads to something worse all because they don’t want to talk to their daughter about what happens if their cat dies one day. Death is a part of life and I think the message of the movie really is that death is something we all live with. Sometimes talking about it and embracing it and understanding it’s a part of life is scary but it’s not such a bad thing.

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

Shannon McGrew
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