How Sweet to Walk on Sour Ground! PET SEMATARY Set Visit, Part 1: The Directors Speak
2018 was a landmark year for me, both personally and professionally. It was the year I solidified my position as the Assistant Editor here at Dread Central and, as such, became eligible for some of the job’s most coveted perks: Set visits! I think being on the set of
I’m a huge Stephen King fan, so I was extremely excited from the get-go. And, as a child of the 1980s, I still have vivid memories of being absolutely terrified by Mary Lambert’s adaptation—especially the hideously twisted Zelda! So how, I wondered, would Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer revamp this horror classic for the 21st Century? All my questions (and more) were answered over the course of my eight-hour set visit, which also included a tour of the titular “Pet Sematary”.
That’s right, I stood inside the somber and infinitely creepy site—and felt as though I had walked straight into the novel. The makeshift headstones of hundreds of pets spiraled out from a center point; the attention to detail was impeccable, as each “grave” included appropriate trinkets: Dog and cat collars, empty bird cages, and even a cloudy, cracked fishbowl. And there, at the far end of the “Sematary” was a hill-sized mound of brambles and branches; though we didn’t venture over, those familiar with Pet Sematary know exactly what lies yonder: An ancient Native American burial site, where the ground has gone sour.
Of course, photographs weren’t allowed. In fact, the information embargo I signed means I’ve only recently been able to share these experiences with anyone besides the event’s participants. Needless to say, my mind soaked up the imagery like a sponge; I need only close my eyes to find myself right back at the center of the “Sematary”, complete with the smell of rural Montreal wafting into my nostrils. Okay, I admit it: I pocketed a few pebbles from the forest floor; little gray rocks indistinguishable from ordinary, jagged stones. But these are special, even if only I know it; magic stones from sour ground!
Related Article: Zelda’s Back in Latest Teaser Trailer for PET SEMATARY!
Since the second trailer for Pet Sematary just hit the internet this morning (if you missed it, check it out at the bottom of the article) it’s the perfect occasion to unfurrle Part 1 of my set visit recap. Today, I’ll be relaying portions of our conversation with Kölsch and Widmyer where we discussed Stephen King fandom and persistently attempted to get the duo to give up more details than they were willing to. While they remained tight-lipped on some key questions (spoilers) they nonetheless spoke volumes, making clear their goals and aspirations for the project. Read on…
Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home. When tragedy strikes, Louis turns to his neighbor Jud Crandall, setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unspeakable evil with horrific consequences.
When Kölsch and Widmyer emerged from the set for our interview (an actual house in rural Montreal that had been converted into Jud Crandall’s residence) they looked exhausted. In truth, I was kind of worried about the pair. The rose to indie prominence following the release of Starry Eyes in 2014, a completely unnerving supernatural and psychological horror that becomes a metaphor for the pursuit of fame. But Starry Eyes was an indie film and the pair’s first feature film. Now, they’re helming a major motion picture for a major studio, and expectations are high. There are literally millions of Stephen King fans ready to dissect the final product, so the pressure must be immense. Are they worried, I wondered, about losing their indie “street cred” by transitioning into the big leagues? More importantly, would executive interference dull the duo’s razor-sharp creative edge? After a lengthy conversation, I’m pleased to report that the answers are “No” and “No”!
Sure, the pressure is real, and Kölsch and Widmyer are feeling it. But the most important thing to them is staying true to the source material. “We’re fans of Stephen King and the book and the original movie, so we want it to be respectful to that” Kölsch explains. “When we came in, obviously this was a project that, unlike everything else we’ve done before, we didn’t write ourselves; there’s a script in place. We worked with the writer [Jeff Buhler] to actually try and get closer to the book than what the original script was. There are a lot of things in the book that we were always big fans of, or things that didn’t even make it into the original movie that we always wanted to do in the movie, and we worked hard to get those into the script. So, that has been our approach: To kind of be faithful to the book, but knowing the best remakes are the ones that stay faithful to the essence, not necessarily every single thing that happens.”
As for losing the insidious edge that made Starry Eyes so exceptional, Widmyer assured us they’re pulling no punches for Pet Sematary:
“It’s a dark fucking movie. It’s Pet Sematary! A lot of Stephen King’s work is sentimental. The good guys win. Even at the end of The Shining, Wendy marries Dick Halloran. People forget
Indie “street cred” remains intact! The pair also discussed balancing the source material and fan expectations with the desire to make Pet Sematary a 21st Century adaptation. “We’re making some changes or doing some decisions based on things that we think would be really cool, but it’s all sort of within the spirit of the original source material,” Kolsch explains.
Widmyer elaborates: “Here’s what I’ll say: We’ve refreshed some things, in the essence of the novel, but I would actually say that there might be more things from the novel that weren’t in the first movie that are going to be in ours. Things that everyone loves, fans love, that’s all in the movie. I’m shocked that they let us get away with [some of it]!”
It sounds like fans can expect a bloody romp so, of course, the question of CGI vs practical effects was floated. “It’s as practical as we could get it,” Widmyer assured us. “That was one of our first pitches; we had to go fully practical, you know?” Best of all: “No CGI cats! We’re working with a trainer who has, like, six different cats. And there are some days, we wake up and we’re like, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’ You know, it’s hard to get a cat to act! But a CGI cat would look like crap.” Agreed!
Of course, I couldn’t let the duo go before grilling them on Zelda, the character played by Andrew Hubatsek in Lambert’s Pet Sematary, who basically stole the show in terms of producing palpable, pulse-pounding terror. It’s since been revealed to the public that Zelda does appear in the upcoming Pet Sematary (and will be played by Alyssa Brooke Levine), but she’ll be a far cry from Hubatsek’s version. “[In the novel, Zelda is] an 11 or 10-year-old girl with a debilitating disease in bed,” Widmyer explains. “So, if you look at the psychology of the Zelda situation, it’s a family that was dealing with a horrible situation that had a daughter that they couldn’t fix, wasting away up in their bedroom. And they had a younger daughter [Rachel] who was in charge of basically, like, going in and taking care of her and being there as she disintegrated. That in itself is pretty horrific.”
There was a moment when the pair considered cutting Zelda from the script altogether, but eventually came back around to the idea. I’m pretty sure a huge percentage of 1989’s Pet Sematary fans would have called for the filmmakers’ heads on sticks had they excluded her!
“We just sort of accepted the challenge and said, ‘We gotta try to do something on our own and do something that honors the book but is our own thing,’ which is just as scary if not scarier than they did in the first one.”
The two are also keenly aware that they are part of a Stephen King resurgence that was ignited by the mega success of Andy Muschietti’s IT, released in 2017. “We’re lucky that IT did as well as it did, because now we’re in another Stephen King renaissance and we shouldn’t blow it,” Widmyer says. “We should be making great movies out of this material, because the material warrants it. [Pet Sematary] is a very seminal book; it’s very different from [King’s] other books. Our approach to the material is very mature, very grounded, and we really understood the material.”
And that’s the ultimate message: Pet Sematary is true to the spirit and intention of King’s novel, and Kölsch and Widmyer are treating the project with legitimate reverence. “This is literary horror. This isn’t just concept and shlock,” Widmyer insists. “This could be something more. I think we’re excited to try to tell an elevated, really smart, mature version of [Pet Sematary].”
In the weeks leading up to Pet Sematary’s release this April, we’ll bring you more from my set visit, specifically conversations with Jason Clarke and John Lithgow (who play Louis Creed and Jud Crandall respectively), followed by a discussion with producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian certain to get you amped-up for Pet Sematary!
Look, I don’t think anyone goes into journalism to get rich; the majority of us who cover entertainment do it for the love of cinema. But visiting the set of Pet Sematary was a once in a lifetime experience that literally millions of horror fans would have died to experience—and that makes it priceless. These memories are now vaulted where I can treasure them for the rest of my life!