Pet Sematary remake directors on tackling Stephen King’s darkest nightmare

We talk to Pet Sematary’s Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer about changes, casting and the key to a great Stephen King adaptation

The Pet Sematary remake hits UK cinemas today, bringing a new take on Stephen King’s darkest tale to the big screen. Anyone who’s read the book or seen the 1989 original movie will tell you that this is a story that scars, as the Creed family encounters the terrible possibilities of the ancient burial ground behind the titular spot in the woods. When tragedy strikes, Louis makes a choice that will blur the lines between the living and the dead…

This new take boasts an impressive cast, including Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz and the great John Lithgow, and comes from the directing duo behind indie horror hit Starry Eyes: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. We talked to the filmmakers just after a big change from the original material had been revealed (there are spoilers here, but nothing that wasn’t in the trailers), and discussed the best way to approach a Stephen King adaptation.

What was your first encounter with Pet Sematary?

Dennis Widmyer: I was 14 or 15. Stephen King was one of those authors that really ushered me into loving fiction. If you were lucky enough to get a book like Carrie on your summer reading list for school that’s the one book you wanted to read most. So, I remember I read Pet Sematary and I’d read a bunch of his other books first and I was kind of scared to read that book because it had that quote on the back cover of the mass market paperback that said that “This is the most frightening book that Stephen King has ever written,” so it sort of felt like a dare to read the book, you know? And I remember reading it and loving it.

Kevin Kölsch: My first experience was with the movie. I was probably around the same age that Dennis was with the book, young teens, and me and my friends used to rent movies and watch them down in his dark basement. And I remember the time we chose Pet Sematary and we sat down in the basement and we put it on. Afterwards we were all freaked out and I remember walking home in the dark after watching it and going home and people in my house were up in bed already and the house was dark and I remember being really freaked out by everything and seeing the reflection of tree branches in the window, like “What’s out there?” But then of course being a horror kid I returned to it over and over again after that.

This remake has been in development for a while, was it something you were actively chasing?

DW: We were, it was in development for 10 years at Paramount. Even before IT came out they were trying to make it and Kevin and I heard about it and we immediately told our agent we want to get on that. I think there was another director attached and for whatever reason that didn’t happen. IT came out and made over a billion dollars and all of a sudden everyone was talking about Stephen King again.

So, we threw our hats into the ring and it was a very difficult process to get it, there were a lot of interviews, a lot of meetings, a lot of pitching, we had to outline the whole script. It was us really needing to convince them of our vision for this, and the big thing was: let’s try to stay as close to the essence of the novel as we can. Don’t shy away from the things that make this novel iconic. This is a dangerous book; it should be a dangerous movie. And to the company’s credit they understood that and they supported that and they still do. But yeah, it was something we were always aware of and it was a dream come true to get to direct it for sure.

What was it about the story that made it so compelling to you?

DW: Kevin and I always lean towards horror movies that aren’t really concept driven. There’s always a drama at the core, some of the best horror movies like The Others, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, these are movies about people dealing with grief in their own way. They’re usually family dramas and the horror is obviously a metaphor. And so, Pet Sematary, more so than most of Stephen King’s books, really, really dealt with that. It’s a horror movie about grief, it’s a horror movie about the scariest thing that could possibly happen to a family: the death of a child.

So, Kevin and I really just took our own life experiences and we said this is a story we know how to tell, we’ve dealt with our own grief and this is the type of horror movie where it’s one for us but it’s one for them, it’s a good studio film and it’s great for fans but it’s also something that really lights us up as filmmakers. For us it had everything.

Did going from an indie like Starry Eyes to a big studio horror feel like a big shift?

KK: It’s a big change but Dennis and I had done some studio jobs in between, rewrite work, things we were also attached to as directors but the projects never went or got greenlit so we kind of dipped our toes in the studio process a little bit before Pet Sematary. But once you’re on the movie it’s always a similar thing, you always wish you had more time and you had more money, no matter what the scale is.

You put a fantastic cast together! Did you have them in mind from early on?

KK: John Lithgow was our first choice from the beginning, so he was Jud for us. He’s a guy that could really capture the duality of the role. He’s played the kindly man in so many things, the loveable character in things like Third Rock From The Sun and Daddy’s Home, but he’s also played the villains in Brian De Palma movies so he could really capture that good neighbour that also has a really dark secret! So, he was great for the role and our top choice.

Jason is one of those guys that we would see in so many things and go like This guy is amazing.” I used to work in a post-production house and he was always popping up in all these movies and I remember going “Ah, I wanna work with that guy one day.” And here we are in our first studio movie we’re working with him! And Amy comes from the same sort of background as us, she’s been in a lot of our friends’ films, she comes from the indie horror world like us and she’s just amazing. And it was great to put her in this movie, she just kills it in every single scene. She would come in and have some really emotionally challenging scenes and take after take she would just bring it every single time.

Can you tell us about why the change was made so that it’s Ellie, not Gage, who comes back?

DW: The switch was something that had already been in the script for a while before we came on board to direct, but honestly it was one of the things that really excited us. Because when you’re adapting from a source material you really should try and switch things up and take chances as long as you’re sticking to the essence of the novel. And for us in the novel Ellie is the one that is asking about death. She’s the one who’s scared about the prospect of her cat dying, there’s that great chapter in the book where she wants to know why pets don’t live as long as people do and Louis is the one who has to give her the speech about death, and mom is not really into it. But Ellie brings it into the movie and then when we read the script, what they were able to do so well is bring that back.

When you bring Ellie back from the dead you can now not only have scary scenes of her physically killing people, but you can also have psychological scenes of her now almost eerily echoing those earlier conversations she had with the dad, now that she’s been brought back from the dead you bring a whole corrupted angle to it. That idea, that lit us up as directors and made us so excited to say “Oh my god, wow, you’re bringing a whole psychology to it as well because you can take those conversations and go full circle with them.” So, it was something we always supported and we’re really excited for people to see it because the trailer definitely shows you that it’s Ellie but there are scenes in the movie where as you’ll see, where we really get into it and they are psychologically unnerving and that’s just something you’re not able to do with a four-year-old boy.

Jeté Laurence comes from a family of actresses. Her two older sisters are actresses and she was just a total consummate professional. She did not shy away from any of the dark material, knew she was making a movie and was able to turn it on and turn it off like that. And that was honestly one of our biggest fears, we said “It’s going to be easy to cast an 8-10-year-old girl that could be cute and precocious and adorable, but can you cast a young girl that could also be scary and frightening and unnerving?” And Jeté was the best actress that came in and was actually able to do both of those sides perfectly. And we were honestly worried we wouldn’t be able to find that but the minute she came in we knew we were good.

How do approach hall-of-fame, “scarred a generation” characters like Zelda and Victor Pascow?

KK: Well, just like making the film itself where, being big fans of the original, we had to try and put the film out of our head and go “OK, let’s tackle this like we would any of our projects and try and make our version of this movie,” it was the same thing with those two characters. I mean, those two characters are so iconic and fans love them so much and as you’re creating them, there’s just this pressure obviously to go “Argh, how do we do Zelda, that scared an entire generation! People say that’s the scariest thing they ever saw as a kid and all that! How do we top that?”

But then eventually we had to put the idea of topping out of our heads and we had to try and forget about the original movie and go back to the book. “OK, Zelda is the 10-year-old sister, she’s got this ailment. OK. Pascow, what are we doing with him?” In the original version, he was a jogger, in our version he’s a skateboarder. “He got hit by a car, maybe he got dragged under the car, what does he look like?” And we just told these things to our special effects people and worked out what we thought these people would look like and try to not think about what they were in the original movie and how we’d top it, just try to go back to the source material and try and imagine what they would look like.

Do you think sticking closely to the source material is the key to getting a Stephen King movie right?

DW: Yes and no, I mean, you look at something like The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, that was an adaptation of the source material. He stayed true to the essence of that novel but he brought a lot of new details that were not in the book that very infamously Stephen King was not a fan of. So, it depends, every novel’s different. It’s like some of Stephen King’s works probably don’t translate so well to the screen if you do them overly faithfully and some do.

So, with Pet Sematary it was always about staying true to the essence of that novel and modernising it where we could and refreshing it where we could but staying faithful where we could as well. It’s always just a balancing act. I think his best adaptations, you can’t say. Some of them are very faithful, some of them aren’t. It’s all about the vision of the director and how they see that adaptation and how true they are to themselves at the end of the day.

Pet Sematary is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.