Pet Sematary Screenwriter Jeff Buhler on Adapting Stephen King

We dig deep with Pet Sematary screenwriter Jeff Buhler about adapting King, changing the story and more.

Jason Clarke in Pet Sematary
Kerry Hayes/Paramount Pictures

This article contains spoilers for Pet Sematary.

Adapting the work of a revered author like Stephen King is always a challenge, but it’s twice as daunting when the material in question is one of the novelist’s most famous and acclaimed books. In this case, it’s Pet Sematary, King’s haunting tale of death, grief, and guilt in which a doctor and family man named Louis Creed, tormented by the death of one of his young children, buries the child in an ancient burial ground behind his house that brings whatever is buried there back to life…only not quite the same.

Working off a story by Matt Greenberg, writer Jeff Buhler was handed the assignment of adapting Pet Sematary for directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer (Starry Eyes). Buhler is a horror specialist: he wrote The Midnight Meat Train (from a story by Clive Barker) and has toiled on still-in-development remakes of The Grudge and Jacob’s Ladder. His original script The Prodigy made it to screens earlier this year and he was also showrunner on Syfy’s recent limited series Nightflyers.

But King is in a class all his own, and Pet Sematary is one of his darkest books. By the time Buhler came aboard, one major change was already in place: replacing two-year-old Gage with nine-year-old Ellie as the Creed child whose death sends Louis (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and his neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) down a path of destruction and horror. We spoke about that, adapting King, and more when we sat down with Buhler following Pet Sematary’s premiere in Austin, Texas.

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Den of Geek: Could you talk a little bit about the film’s development? The producers, I think, said it’s been 10 years.

Jeff Buhler: Yeah. So when I came on, this project’s been kicking around. Obviously, Pet Sematary, since the previous movie, has probably been on the radar at the studio, and then [producers] Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] and Mark [Vahradian] and Steven Schneider, they had developed a script with Matt Greenberg, who was the first writer to explore the Ellie and Gage switch. I was brought in to work on the script at that point, and I had the reaction that I think a lot of fans had when they saw the trailer, which is “You can’t do that! What are you, crazy?”

It took about a day for it to sink in, and I started thinking more and more about the story, and how you could remain utterly true to the spirit of the novel and much of the plot structure of the novel, and switch these two kids, and as a benefit, you have a more robust psychological and emotional relationship between Ellie and her father, and Ellie and Jud, which motivates a lot of what’s going on in the film. And you avoid having a three-year-old running around with a scalpel, which, when the first movie came out, was sort of a new thing, but has then been copied umpteen million times. So I think to go back to that well now wouldn’t feel as fresh as you did when you first saw the Mary Lambert film.

Read More: Pet Sematary Review

Can you talk a little bit about it being Stephen King and dealing with source material that people are very familiar with?

I have had the good fortune or not so good fortune — I’ll call it good fortune — to work on a lot of precious material of various authors I’ve adapted. Clive Barker, his fans are rabid and particular about their material; and George R.R. Martin. I worked on reboots of movies like Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, where everyone’s got a say and everyone’s got feelings about what has come before. I’m familiar with tinkering with sacred cows.

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This one was a little bit different because I grew up on Stephen King. I’m a huge fan to start out with, so this was really one of the first times where I was like, “Oh, boy. Don’t mess this up.” But at the same time…if you are so paralyzed by what you think people’s reaction will be, then you won’t take chances. And if you don’t take risks, then there’s never any opportunity for creative growth, and so once I kind of got my head around, okay, we’re doing this, and I saw a clear path into the thing, then I just forgot all of that expectation stuff.

It lands on you again when you’re sitting in the movie theater, and you’re like, oh, wow, people are watching this, but during the process, I was able to compartmentalize it a little bit.

What was it like working with the directors? Were you working closely with them?

Very. I had developed the script with another director who fell off the project, and then worked on a handful of drafts with the producers where we brought the script closer to the book, and made it a little bit more grounded and a little bit more character driven. My desire was to make this a movie about grief and loss, and to really make it [so that] the monster in the film is the death of a child and what that does to a parent.

I think once we kind of got that framework down, and it was working, that’s when Dennis and Kevin came on, and then the first coffee meeting we had was talking about all the things from the book that we’d like to get in there, and it became really exciting because those guys were as geeky as I am about the material. We developed the script together. They worked very closely on all of the drafts from that point onwards, and then I was on set and writing. I was writing scenes all the way up through additional photography, which took place earlier this year in January. We were in it, in the trenches.

What sort of changes happened in that last minute?

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There were some things that we wanted to clarify. There were some opportunities…You mean in the additional photography?

Yeah.

I think, you know what happens is everyone involved in this movie took it very, very seriously, and the actors…John Lithgow was bringing in ideas. Jason read the book a million times and was bringing in, “Oh, this line. What about when Louis says this in the book, these words?” And so people were very specific and took it very seriously, which is an amazing gift to have because you’ve got a lot of strong opinions, and it allows you, if you get a good creative environment, to really have that tug of war where you’re like, “Well, why? Why do we need this?”

So those discussions were happening right through the end of photography…I think, at the end of the day, that was really hard work, and at the end of the day when you look at the performances that the actors delivered, and you look at the movie that Dennis and Kevin delivered, you think, oh, okay. It was all worth it. It shows.

Read More: Every Stephen King Movie and TV Show in Development

Is that common for you, or is there also times where you just walk away when you’re done with it?

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Every project’s different. Recently, I wrote an original film called The Prodigy, which was directed by Nick McCarthy, and we worked together on the script, but once we had that script finished, it was kind of done. We knew what we were doing, and we had it done, and then he went off with the producer and just went and made the movie. We did a preview, tinkered around with a couple things, and then locked it and it was done. I watch the movie now, and I’m like, oh, I really wouldn’t change anything.

But not every project is like this. Stephen King has sprawling mythologies. There’s wendigos, and Victor Pascow, and Norma. There’s so much stuff.

Could you talk a little bit about this new horror film renaissance that’s going on right now? What are your thoughts on that?

Well, for me, the horror film resurgence has been going since I was five, so I think genre is one of those areas where people like to talk about cycles. Zombies are cool, vampires are cool. I think what’s always cool is a movie that scares you. I think people want to be scared. I think they want to get that adrenaline rush. I think they want to go with their friends and have a good time, and laugh nervously. Like, “Oh, fuck. I can’t believe you’re doing that.” As long as you can do that, it’ll work.

What I will comment on in terms of the marketplace right now and in terms of the genre is that…I think audiences have always been very smart. Horror audiences, in general, are very wise, and they know their movies, but I think film producers and production companies and studios are starting to understand that you can do grown-up horror. That you can do stuff that makes people think a little bit. I think Jordan Peele is doing that, and I think movies like Hereditary do that. I think people call it elevated. I don’t know if it’s elevated or not.

It’s using horror as a lens to say something.

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Right. Well, and I think that’s what horror does best is kind of hold up a mirror. Science fiction is similar in that you’re really not telling a space story. You’re telling a story about us as people. You’re telling a story about humans, and then you’re using this fantastical lens to peel apart what makes us human.

You look at Pet Sematary. Everyone can understand the loss of a loved one. That’s not a wild concept. Now, there’s all these crazy, supernatural things going on around that, but at the heart of it, it’s like, oh, it’s a very simple, human story that’s taking place.

Could you talk a little bit about nostalgia? I guess in the positive ways. Nostalgia is something that gives us some sort of weird emotions when we remember things and combining that with filmmaking…

I think Stephen King, his material has matured in our cultural consciousness in a way that it’s ripe for nostalgia. Because for many of us, that was stuff we grew up on, so that automatically makes it nostalgic. But then his material is really accessible and really fun, and so people have good feelings towards it, and he writes for everybody. He’s not looking down on you when he writes. He’s not writing from the mountaintop. He’s one of you. It’s like this common man thing that he’s so good at, and that gets under people’s skin.

So I think people maybe miss that, especially in genre. That might be what’s fueling some of the nostalgia. And there’s just…I know everything that’s old is new again. We tried to service people’s expectations in terms of Stephen King and the material without being nostalgic in that overt sense that you might see in an ’80s period piece.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Pet Sematary is out in theaters tomorrow (Friday, April 5).