This article contains spoilers for Pet Sematary.
Mark Vahradian has been a producer or executive producer on the Transformers franchise, as well as movies like Deepwater Horizon, Salt, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and more. He’s also produced horror films such as 1408 and The Devil Inside, but now he wades into Stephen King territory as a producer on the new adaptation of the author’s classic 1983 novel Pet Sematary.
Like producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and screenwriter Jeff Buhler, Vahradian felt the gravity of adapting one of King’s darkest and best-known novels, especially since there was already a film version in 1989 that has been generally held in solid regard.
But this grim tale of an innocent family torn asunder by unexpected death, grief and a hidden, ancient burial ground suffused with a malevolent power was too enticing — especially in the midst of a King renaissance on the big and small screen –to pass up. With the filmmakers switching out the death of the family’s beloved toddler son for that of their nine-year-old daughter, creating a different scenario for the story’s horrific events also provided the material with a fresh spin.
Den of Geek spoke with Vahradian about the logistics, location and length of the shoot itself, working with the exceptional cast (Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow), changing the story and where the new Pet Sematary fits into the current wave of superior horror films.
Den of Geek: You were involved on the set quite a bit. Tell me about that.
Mark Vahradian: Yeah, so we shot in Montreal. We debated places that look like Maine, which the woods there are very similar.
What were other options that you considered?
Toronto we were looking at, and Vancouver we looked at. We looked at Atlanta. Honestly, this was a movie (that) took so many years to get it made, it stopped and started many times. We actually looked at New Zealand. We looked at a New Orleans. We looked at Connecticut, everywhere, but in the most recent version, the version that got made, it was really Toronto or Montreal.
That’s a great town. Montreal. We found this incredible location. This was mostly a location movie. We were on stage for a little bit. We built some of the woods and some of the actual burial ground. Not the pet cemetery, but we found this incredible house that happened to be right on a road, that we could use for the trucks, too, and right down the street was Jud’s house, which we use in the movie, and the human cemetery where Ellie’s buried.
The house we picked happened to have its own pet cemetery also. We didn’t use that one, because it was farm animals and things like that. We also went into the woods behind the property, and that’s where we built a pet cemetery. So for 90% of the shoot, we were in one place, every day at this house.
How long was this shoot?
38 days. We did a little reshoot in the last month, in January. It was short for the movies we make. I mean, Transformers can be 120 days. This was 38 days is in and out, but what makes it doable is being in one location. If we miss something, we’re still there. We can pick it up again, and that helped us a lot in this movie.
We never stopped writing this script. We wrote it all the way through. We kept pushing, pushing, pushing and coming up with new ideas. Even in the post-process, with visual effects. We had this great company in Montreal, Mr. X. We were throwing things at them ’til literally a week, week and a half ago, and they were still coming through. It might’ve been a little things or big things. The mist became a big idea, the fog from the woods in this. The fact that it’s kind of creeping towards the house, it became this symbol of the reach of the burial ground.
Could you talk about the source material from a personal perspective? Are you a fan of Stephen King? Are you a fan of the book and first movie?
I am. I was a fan of the movie and a fan of the book. It’s funny, I wasn’t a huge reader as a kid, but the things I did read were Stephen King. This book and this story were very different from the horror movies that are getting made now. I mean, my kids are nine and 11, and they talk about jump scares, jump scares, jump scares all the time. That’s what they’re familiar with, from all of these things.
So we’re not a jump scare movie. We have some in there, and that was the challenge of this particular piece of material was a lot of it is just family drama. A lot of it is contemplative, like philosophical stuff about death and grief and all of these things. So the challenge, rightly or wrongly in our heads, we’re always worried that there’s not enough jump scares, that there’s not enough visual gags, that there’s not excitement in every frame.
The first half of this movie, or certainly the first third of the movie is just about a family. So getting them to buy off on this as a movie, a lot of that challenge was convincing them that there would be enough stuff along the way to keep people watching, keep a modern audience interested.
Stephen King never left, but he’s kind of had a resurgence since the success of It, in 2017, and Castle Rock and some other projects. Are there internal conversations about living up to some sort of new standard of Stephen King movies? Or is there any pressure to make the old fans happy?
Well, it’s interesting. The directors are Stephen King fanatics, more than anybody involved in this movie. One of the things I loved about them, when we hired them, was that they knew every Stephen King book. They knew every Stephen King movie. They knew what had been done, what hadn’t been done. They also knew all of the mythos around those books. Where did Stephen King live when he wrote Pet Sematary? He lived in a house on a road, just like this, and his son almost ran into the road and died.
They weren’t just loyal to the book itself. They were loyal to the circumstances. I mean, there’s an address. Their address in the movie is the address of King’s house when he was writing, so they planted all these things. There’s some ADR in there, where you can hear at the birthday party, Jud talking about Cujo. He’s talking about a St. Bernard who killed a bunch of people and stuff like that.
We weren’t trying to completely reinvent the story, but we knew we had to have some surprises for people, otherwise they just go and watch the original. We picked actors for their performance abilities, right? They’re all high end, highly dramatic actors, including Jete Laurence, our little girl, who without her performance, we don’t have a movie. I mean, she was the one person we’ve met with who was scary in a way that wasn’t just a little girl screaming. She was clenched and had this simmering, dark thing that she was able to convey.
I think really being true to King was about hiring actors who would be able to cast a spell and make you believe the things that are happening in this movie, because the things that are happening are hard to believe. I think with their performances, especially also Amy selling that moment when she first sees her dead daughter again. I think moments like that were the critical part of doing this book justice.
Is there anything you would want fans to know, if they’re going to read this interview or learn things about the movie before they see it, and they’re on the fence, what is your pitch to them?
I think this is a movie that will definitely deliver scares, but it’s unlike most of what you’re seeing out there in the world, because it’s really more than a jump scare movie. It’s a dread-filled movie. I think movies are about almost a physical experience. When you watch this movie, you’re clenched. You’re leaning forward. You’re nervous from front to back. I think by the third act, the explosion of activity, horror, gore, all this stuff that ultimately does come into the movie is such a release. For all the tension that builds up in the first two acts, I think as a moviegoing experience, it’s pretty original in terms of what’s out there, what’s available now.
For people who love the book, we can’t put everything that’s important in that book into this movie, but there are little things like the Cujo references and things like that, and little seeds we planted. The Timmy Baterman story, which is a big part of the book, which was something we weren’t able to cover, you’ll see hints of all that stuff that hopefully could lead to another movie. There’s more mythology to come and more to explore.
So you’d be interested in making more horror films?
Yeah, we’ve done three: 1408, this movie, and Devil Inside. I like horror. I find it’s not so different from the action movies we made, right? There’s not that many genres of movie that are worth paying the money and going to the theater and having that experience.
I’ll go when the movie opens and sit down front and look up at all the faces and catch their reactions to those moments that we so carefully built. That’s why I love horror. It’s like that, and the same thing with action movies. People jump out of their seats. You’ll see 300 people reacting in the same way at the same time. It’s more than just watching a 2D screen. This genre gets you on the inside.
Horror films are making a huge comeback. What do you think is the reason everyone is so interested?
It’s interesting. Everything has traditionally been cyclical in the business, right? Horror is good for a while, and then they make too many of them and some bad ones. Then people lose interest, and then they come back again. I don’t think movies have been that cyclical lately. People seem to have an endless appetite for superhero movies, right? Everybody keeps saying one of these things is going to come out, and then nobody’s going to show up, and then that’ll be the end of it. They keep showing up. The audience is not getting tired of this stuff, as long as it’s done well. Same with horror.
I think kids especially have a lot of free entertainment in the world, right? They can watch YouTube. My kids watch YouTube more than they watch TV or film. So when you’re asking people to pay money to buy a ticket, that’s unusual. So if they’re going to do that, they want to have a visceral experience, like going to an amusement park. It needs to feel sort of physical. It can’t just feel the same as watching something on your phone, like a 2D image.
Horror I think is a communal event for these people. It might be the one place where they connect with other people, because they’re always stuck at home on their computer or their Xbox or their PlayStation or whatever. So I think that it’s not going away. I mean, there will be bad movies made and there will be good ones. The bad ones won’t probably get the attention, but there’s enough good ones right now. That may be also the part of it, that it’s keeping people interested. I think it’s just the communal nature of watching horror with an audience. It’s worth the time and effort and the money you pay to go see it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pet Sematary is out in theaters now.