This Pet Sematary article contains spoilers.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has some experience with the canon of horror icon Stephen King: in 2007 he produced the sleeper hit 1408, a genuinely unnerving tale about a haunted hotel room that was based on a King short story. But 1408 was a relatively obscure yarn. Taking on Pet Sematary, the near-legendary 1983 novel that the author once said he was too horrified to publish, is a whole other coffin full of worms.
For one thing, there’s the book itself, which King fans revere as one of his greatest, and which — with its imagery of the eerie, misspelled titular setting — has found its way into the imagination of the public at large. And then there’s the first movie made from the material, a 1989 film directed by Mary Lambert, which has both its fans and detractors, but which almost everyone agrees is faithful to the source.
Therein lies the issue at the heart of the new Pet Sematary: directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer (Starry Eyes), writer Jeff Buhler, and Di Bonaventura himself have gone all-in on a significant change to the story. In the new film, in a development advertised weeks ago, it’s not his two-year-old son that a grief-stricken Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) brings to the Miꞌkmaq burial ground behind his house in an effort to restore him to life after a road accident, but his older daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), putting a new twist into the story that many fans are already finding controversial.
Reviews so far for the film, which also stars Amy Seimetz as Rachel Creed and John Lithgow as the neighborly Jud Crandall, have been largely positive, so the gamble that the filmmakers made may well pay off. Den of Geek spoke with Di Bonaventura about making the change, adapting the book, and more when we sat down with him recently at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
Den of Geek: Bringing this source material to life, no pun intended, I know you’ve been thinking about it for a while with your producing partner. Can you tell me how you decided and why you wanted to do it?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I had read the book a very long time ago and then I’m at Paramount and they own the property and about 10 years ago, I was like, “maybe we should look at Pet Sematary,” so I reread the book and what was so fascinating was, I was scared by the same things, but I was also absorbing them in a different way because my age had changed.
It really made me realize how…they always say some books are timeless and it really is a timeless book. So that is what got me started on it and then we hired a writer named Matt Greenberg who I did 1408 with and his first attempt at it was really good and it was his idea to change Gage and Ellie. What was very apparent was the choice made it very different and deeper because you can have a conversation about death.
In the book, you have that. She’s the one who’s carrying all that water, but in the original movie, because she’s not that character, you can’t spend that time getting that subject matter that gets under your skin. When they have that conversation in that movie sitting on the bed about death and the metabolism of an animal, you know as a horror fan, “uh oh, this is not a good conversation.” But, as a person, you’ve gone through that either with your parents or with your kids. There’s something very universal about that moment. So that really drove us to keep going.
What about just dealing with Stephen King’s work and knowing that there are fans and there are previous things, just dealing with that IP. What goes into that?
It’s interesting because when I did 1408, we did not feel that burden. Partly because it’s a short story, so not that many people knew it and also there’s no movie of it and all that stuff and because it’s a short story, whatever you’re going to do you’re going to depart, you’re going to add to the material.
At that time, there was no Stephen King stuff getting made around that time. But after It came out, we were like, all right, there’s some pressure here, you know. Also, Pet Sematary, many people say it’s his best book. Certainly, it’s a renowned one, so you get pressure out of that. The original movie was very well regarded by a lot of people. [There’s] pressure from that and our decision was really kind of simple and we stuck to it, which was because it’s a long book, you can’t possibly … you could make six, seven, eight movies out of this book and be true to the material.
I have not seen the original movie since it was released, on purpose, because I didn’t want to be affected, either going, “Well I don’t want to do that because they did it or I need to do it because they did it.” We needed to tell a story that we all believed in. So the pressure was, first and foremost, I wanted Stephen King to like the movie. I hoped the fans did, but when you’re showing it to the maestro, you’re like, “Okay, how’s he going to feel?”
Yes. He saw it several months ago in an earlier stage of it. But, first, when he read the script, when he didn’t immediately go, “What are you guys doing changing the kid?”, we were like, all right, we’re on safe ground that he’s embracing that. And then when he saw the film, he really liked the film and he was completely blown away by our actors. I think he really appreciated the level of emotion that we brought to the story because I see it as a family story and I see it as a family book. It’s a demented one, in some ways, but that’s what it is.
Do you think that you’ll watch the old Pet Sematary eventually?
Yeah, I’m going to now that we’re done. I remember some of it of course, but once we made the choice of Ellie being our primary character, it immediately changes. We’re different immediately.
What did you see in the directors’ previous film, Starry Eyes?
I’ll tell you what it was. Without exaggeration, people in my company and myself watched about 40 films looking for…you like to find a horror director because you like to find someone who has an innate love of the genre and understanding of it and they were fine, but they were all meat and potatoes. Then suddenly you watch Starry Eyes. It’s so fucked up, it’s so twisted, it’s got great surrealness and at the center of it is the de-evolution of a character, which is a great thing because that’s what Louis does, right?
So you knew that they had that ability to keep the focus on the central character as they’re increasingly making the wrong choices. Also, I love surreal and that movie has some surreal stuff. I find that gets under my skin more than blood or…you need a little bit of that to keep going, but I like surreal.
And when we met with them, they were diehard King fans. I mean, to the point where certain times in the process, we were like, no we don’t need to put that line of dialogue in from the book. There’s one in there right now, which I still don’t even know what the hell it means, “a man’s heart is stonier than a…” I still have no idea what it means, but they’re like, “It has to be!”
It feels like we’re sort of in a horror film renaissance. Do you have any thoughts on why audiences are interested in that?
Yeah, I think there’s a few reasons. Our senses are bombarded these days in every form and way, whether it’s through these devices or whatever it is, 24 hours news, blah blah blah, that it takes a little extra oomph to get through to us. I think we’re a little desensitized. So horror goes at it. It’s unflinching. I think it’s in part that and I think that’s a huge element of it because in a world where there’s so much stimuli, how do you out-stimuli it?
I think it’s one of the reasons why spectacle movies are working as well, is because that’s an amount of stimulus I haven’t had before, you know.
What could you say about nostalgia and reboots? I think everyone keeps going to see them, everyone’s excited about them, but then you always have this small minority that says, “Well, why do you keep redoing the same thing over and over again?” Do you have any thoughts on why it is good to have nostalgia and why that’s important?
Yeah, I think any classic … I mean, if you look at the stage, they keep reinterpreting the same plays over and over and over and over and over again, you know. There’s a reason why they do it, because they’re incredibly satisfying and really good. In our case, it was not a reboot because we did not base it on the film, we based it on the book. But in a sense, you’re still going back to the same material. The trick for us was, how do we bring enough into the movie that keeps the fan feeling like we’ve been honest to both experiences and yet also do something new so they feel like they had a new experience? Our ending is a great example of it. Choosing Ellie is a great example of it.
Can you talk about the casting process? Amazing cast, fantastic performances.
Lithgow was easy. Actually, Jud is a complicated character. I find him the most hard to get my head around from the book. On one hand, he’s super nice, on the other hand, he’s leading him to the pet cemetery, I mean to the burial ground. They’re sort of incompatible in an irrational way. So you needed somebody who you could trust on both sides of it. John’s obviously such an extraordinary actor that that was easy.
Amy I was not familiar with, but when we were looking at it, somebody had brought her to my attention and I started watching things and she’s an amazing actress. Very undervalued, I think, for who she is. I hope this gives her a better platform.
Jason embodied what we thought were the characteristics of Louis. He’s a good guy, his intentions are right, he’s just trying to do the right thing by his family and Jason has that sort of “everydad” feel about him. Also, he’s a really good actor and so when he starts, I’ll say, being taken over by this desire there’s something super creepy about him. But it was relatively easy to pick him too because there’s a body of work to look at.
The really hard one was Jete because one, child actors, they don’t have a body of work. Two, this role demands super sweet and super scary and dark and that’s hard getting that and a lot of the young ladies we auditioned, they had one or the other. Most of them had cute. It was super hard to get them to be that scary. It’s just not in them, but she had … whatever it was, she had it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pet Sematary is out in theaters this Friday (April 5).