Unresolved guilt. I think Louis starts in a place and start ins a very different place. He probably starts with a false confidence, he thinks he understand death because he’s an ER doctor, and he’s been around it a lot. But he really doesn’t understand death. He and Amy both go through different journeys, where at the end they criss-cross. Amy ends up being someone who’s willing to accept grief, to look evil in the eyes. Whereas Louis at the end of the movie has gone completely opposite, and now he’s the one who can’t accept grief, and he’ll do whatever he can to avoid death. He’s a hypocrite, so the two end up in very different places than where they began.
Thematically grief has been discussed as the dominant theme of PET SEMATARY, but would you say denial plays a significant role as well?
Yes, I think so. I think the whole idea - we like to say communication, but denial plays a part of it as well. You have this couple that don’t see eye to eye on their beliefs. And they’ve never come to terms with how they’ll talk to their child about these issues. So as a result, they push those issues away, which is where the deal could sort of come in - since they never learned how to talk about these issues they pretend they don’t exist. And as a result, it sets forward this chain of events from that denial. It’s the unwillingness to communicate with their daughter about death that leads them instead to bury the cat in the burial ground, and the cat leads to ultimately the destruction of their entire family.
What was the decision process like behind setting PET SEMATARY in the present day versus the 1980’s of the book’s publication?
I think a lot of movies nowadays take place in the 1980s. With IT it made sense, because they’re telling two timelines. The second timeline is the present, so if you do the math, it has to be set in the 1980s for the past, so that made sense. But in our cast, it would have felt like nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, and because it’s such a timeless story it could take place 30 years in the future. There was the fear of cell phones or laptops, so we were conscious of not overseeing them, of only using them when it serviced the story, like when Rachel is trying to get Louis on the phone because she senses something wrong and he’s not picking up the phone. There were earlier drafts of the film set in the present day that were trying to have their cake and eat it too, for example the family was trying to find their new house and then got lost, and Rachel was then taking out a paper map. And we realized that you had to use technology to service the story.
To add to that, I think that like Dennis was saying, it’s such a timeless theme that setting it in a time period would create a different kind of attachment, one in which our viewers wouldn’t feel as connected, when the themes and where it takes place are relevant at any time. So we didn’t want to create a distance with the subject matter. And as far as technology, it’s about embracing technology.
People ask “how will we deal with the cell phone issue in a horror movie?” And I say to use it to your advantage. That’s the challenge of filmmaking. Instead of setting a story in a different time, what can a horror movie be in a world where there are cell phones? In the original film, when Rachel’s trying to get in touch with Louis, he’s just not home. But now if his phone goes with him, he has to make a conscious decision to ignore the call, or answer the phone outside the cemetery and lie to his wife. So it actually creates MORE suspenseful or emotional scenes.
The sound design for the film was brilliant and really heightened the sense of tension and unease throughout the film. Did you have a clear idea of the sounds and atmosphere you were looking for going into the film, or was it a more gradual process?
It was a combination of both. We worked with E² Sound, who are the guys who did A Quiet Place. Oscar nominated, very talented sound company. And the first conversation we had was how important and vital sound design was going to be in the movie. Kevin and I were always saying that what you don’t see is even scarier. And especially with the burial of the cat, you want that scene to feel like a nightmare sequence. We knew that the sounds of the woods were going to be very important. They had to feel like a character. So it wasn’t just the sound of wind and leaves, there was also the sound of breaking tree branches, footsteps, movement like something large was lurking out there. And then there was also knowing when the sound should drop out - like right before the dumbwaiter drops. With the dragging ceiling sounds, to let Rachel know she’s hearing Zelda again. For Louis, the sound we associated with him was dripping blood, from when he lost Pascal. When he’s sitting at the traffic light, seeing the light flash and alternate, he hears the blood dripping, and he hears the same sound in the basement when he encounters Pascal for the last time.
And then with the cat, Church, it was about finding a really distinctive sound for when he comes back. We fused his sound with the Wendigo, which had a scratchy shriek to it, like bones grinding together. So we made sure the cat’s growl and hiss sounded like a broken instrument. Everything had a theory behind it.
The idea of skepticism vs belief was a significant part of the film. Was that something you pulled from a particular source, or something you wanted to infuse into the movie?
In the book, they do disagree about what to tell the daughter, but I think there are moments when the dad talks about believing in God. And now in 2019, it seems more common that a man of science like him would not believe. So it seemed to be able to illustrate that those themes that were in the original 1983 book more clearly.
Hair plays a big role symbolically throughout the film. Was that drawn from a personal experience or a particular fear?
If you see Starry Eyes, then you’ll know! We’re a big fan of body horror in all shapes and forms. There’s a body horror that stems out of you, and other types that are under the surface. That sort of tactile violence, like getting hair snagged, really puts you in the scene. And in this case, rather than overtly showing you how messed up something was from coming back, you’re seeing what’s being kept inside, the interior trauma.
The twins playing Gage, Lucas and Hugo Lavoie, bore an uncanny resemblance to Miko Hughes from the 1989 film. How did you find these talented lookalikes?
It was just through auditions! And it was just a coincidence. We didn’t pick them based on that. Because Gage was no longer needed to vocalize as much, we went with a local hire in Montreal, so they were French-Canadian children. We were looking for twins, so you could use them throughout the film. It was limited to which sets of Montreal twins were available, and then they came in, they looked great for the role, and now everyone brings it up, that they really do resemble the other kid! But it was really coincidence, they were just the best for the job. It was almost like as we were trying to make our own vision of the movie, we didn’t like the strong resemblance at first - we wanted to have our own Gage. But in the end, they were the best option for the job, and we didn’t let that get in the way of them being cast.
CAT PERSON TANGENT: As a cat person, I think it’s interesting that you went with a domestic longhair / Maine Coon cat to play Church, versus a purebred British shorthair in the original PET SEMATARY. I also love that your animal trainers Melissa Millett and Kirk Jarrett helped several rescue cats, most notably Leo and Tonic, bring the character to life. This direction brought a new sense of menace and matted fur realness to the pivotal cat as opposed to the more meme-able round-faced original. Are you cat people as well? What were the thoughts that went into the design direction and cat casting decisions?
I have owned both British shorthairs and Maine Coons. I had a British shorthair named Nigel who passed away not too long ago, and one of the grave markers in the film's cemetery has his name on it. In fact, all the cast and crew had made grave markers with names of their deceased pets. My parents still have a Maine Coon named Jax, and another Maine Coon cat before him called Barron, and Barron was a show cat, weighed 30 something pounds, and both of his parents were award-winning showcats. For us, it about going to the source, modeling our cat from the original book cover, which you’re right, it’s not necessarily a Maine Coon, you’re right, it’s a mix. I have a mixed Maine Coon cat right now that looks just like Church. We modeled our design off the hardcover book. And besides having a nice little nod to the fans with the original art, you can create effects with a long haired cat that aren't possible with a shorthaired cat, you could play up the matted fur feeling. And emphasizing the colors and contrast of the cat. We did use rescue cats to play Church, and it was hard to find four cats that looked similar. But they were all rescues, and they all found homes after filming.
Speaking of the cat, it was a particularly nice touch to explain Churchill’s name, with John Lithgow having played Winston Churchill in THE CROWN. Was that a fun scene to include? Are there any other Easter Eggs you can hint at?
No, that scene existed in the script!
That’s the only reason we cast John Lithgow, was to make that joke work.
We said It’s him or Gary Oldman!
Stephen King has tweeted his support for the film, and it’s so great to see audiences and reviewers alike reacting so positively. What have been some of the other reactions you’ve gotten that have been particularly rewarding?
I think people are appreciating the change. I think when we made the change to Ellie from Gage, a lot of people watching the trailer would react negatively just because it was different, or it wasn’t the way it was in their beloved book. But then when people watch the movie, and they see what you can do with it, what that change opens up, I’ve seen some of the people who didn’t like it at first like it. They change their minds and see the benefits of the switch when they see how it works in the movie. So those are my favorite tweets, my favorite reactions are when people embrace the change, when people see it created a rewarding experience for them. We are big fans of the original book, the original movie, and this is just a different take on it. And people are seeing it to be a worthy alternative version.
And on the topic of Stephen King: with PET SEMATARY under your belt, are there any other books or stories by him that you’d love to bring to life?
Yeah, if they were going to re-adapt something, I think Firestarter would be a good one to re-adapt. Salem's Lot has never had a feature film adaptation, I’m a big fan of that book. The Tommyknockers, for me, even though it gets a lot of flack as a batshit novel, I love the book, it’s so scary and effective. It might just be nostalgia, as I read it at such a young age. But those would all be interesting.