Screenwriter Jeff Buhler & Producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura Talk “Pet Sematary”
The name Stephen King is synonymous with horror films. Really scary horror movies. Pet Sematary is allegedly the scariest. The spelling of “Sematary” has been the subject of much debate among King’s evangelicals. Did Stephen King’s autocorrect function go horribly wrong, or is there a significance to the spelling?
Academics have concluded that an autocorrect malfunction is unlikely. Instead, they proposed that it was a deliberate misspelling of the amateurish transliterated sign the children in the movie made. It’s cute and adorable, just like when a first grader writes words with reversed letters. This cutesiness juxpatoposes against the eeriness that emanates from the the cemetery (grown up spelling) where children bury their dead pets. Moreover, it can be argued that “sematary” is derived from the word “sematic” which is a ominous sign of impending danger.
And danger there is in the 2019 re-adaptation of the classic horror film. Creative Screenwriting Magazine sat down with powerhouse producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura (also known for the Transformers franchise) and powerhouse screenwriter Jeff Buhler (who also penned the 2020 remake of The Grudge (directed by Nicholas Pesce) to talk pets and deeper themes in the film.
“It was super important for us to be true to the original Stephen King novel (1983) and also to be our own movie,” said Lorenzo. Buhler addressed claims that Pet Sematary was Stephen King’s most terrifying film. “I feel it’s one of King’s most terrifying books. The mythology behind the publication of the book preceeded the film.” Initially the book was initially considered too dark for publication. “I can attest how difficult the material is. It really got under my skin and still lives there.”
Lorenzo chimed in, “I read a recent interview with Stephen King. The thematics of the Pet Semetary book were so singularly bleak. Beyond dark. The idea of losting a child was the third rail in the subway. It’s a dangerous place to go. One wrong move can electrocute you. That’s one reason why Pet Sematary stands out. There’s such an utter amount of truth to it and a child’s death is the last thing you want to face.”
Buhler and Di Bonaventura dived deeper into the themes of death in Pet Sematary. “I think it explores the inauthenticity of how we handle grief,” said Lorenzo.”
Jeff continues, “I think in Western culture, there is a fear of talking about death and dealing with death. Horror films are a great device to poke a stick at that hornet’s nest. Grief is a big driver in this story. There are other facets to grief with regard to religion, the afterlife and spirituality that are embodied by the two main characters Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz). Having these two characters with differing opinions about their spirituality and what comes after this world allowed us do dig into their relationship. This is familiar terrain and the dissonance between them is easy for the audience to understand. Louis is a doctor and very scientific-minded. Rachel is clinging onto a traumatic experience as a child leading to a more glossed-over fantasy version of the afterlife.”
Lorenzo relates to the spectre of death in a scene where Rachel and Louis discuss it with Ellie. “I had the exact same conversation with my son over his dead gerbil. I asked my wife if we should tell him. She was really Louis and I was Rachel. I told our son that his gerbil had run away. My instinct was partly protective and partly avoidant. Once you make a decision, you introduce the concept of believing in God in a slightly uncentered way. People tend to think of heaven in religious terms. There is some question of faith in the film without being directly on point.”
There is a visceral line of dialogue in the movie when Louis screams ‘”Let God take his own fu**ing kid.” Jason Clarke, who plays Louis, altered this from the original dialogue in the book where Ellie says “Let God take his own cat.” Such powerful lines allow the audience to make their own judgments about faith. “Clarke transported that into the Louis point of view because there’s that rage against the inevitable.. we feel futile as people,” said Jeff.
“There’s this elemental truth. We all feel, therefore death affects us all,” mused Lorenzo.
Stephen King talks about real life. Every parent faces the task of breaking news of death to their children. “What makes Pet Sematary so chilling is that it feels so real in such a fantastical way,” added Buhler.
The greatness of any Stephen King novel lies in the depth of the mythology it explores. It forms part of the research screenwriters perform to distill the vital components onto the screen. “It’s dangerous to juggle too many mythological elements, in depth. You lose sight of the central narrative. A few tidbits add a little bit of action and a little bit of mystery. You’ve got to stay on the central storyline. If you divert for too long, you lose the momentum of the movie and the audience experience,” cautioned Di Bonaventura.
“We did a ton of research about these tribes in a level that wasn’t even presented in the Pet Sematary novel. We stepped back so these elements felt real and present in the story without pulling the focus away,” said Jeff.
Lorenzo was asked about how a horror film lands on a mainly action movie producer’s development slate. “I have a wide ranging taste in movies. When I make a horror picture, I learn about suspense, which is absolutely applicable to an action picture. I learn about the cost of a character’s choices. I like movies where people are doing something extraordinary for themselves. Louis does an extraordinarily bad thing. In Transformers, the characters do the extraordinarily heroic thing. I get bored when a character doesn’t get put in a highly challenging environment.”
“When I develop films, it’s first and foremost what do I like. Judgement comes later down the road when you try to sell it to a studio or after you’ve sold it, can you get it all the way to the finish line. The initial part of the process is the most fun because you’re completely uninhibited. It’s just you and the writer fleshing it out.”
Buhler doesn’t think too much about the marketplace when he writes a screenplay. “If a story resonates with me, I write it. During my process, I start with the characters and they go into some sort of supernatural happenings or mythology. It’s compelling to me on a human level because it relates to other people with identifiable characters.”
With regards to hiring Jeff Buhler to write Pet Sematary, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura replied “I look at the quality and applicability of what Jeff wrote before. Someone who is comfortable with horror films is a logical person to bring onto Pet Semetary. That doesn’t mean you can’t go to someone who isn’t a pure character screenwriter, because this is a character-based story. I look at an accurate appraisal of the pros and cons of the project from them; both the hurdles and the exciting prospects. They have a measured, intelligent analysis of the problems we’re about to face. They must have a clear point of view of what they want to accomplish. I wanna hear how smart they are. Finally, we look at their reputation as a worker. When we asked about Jeff, we learned he will keep working until we get to victory. It can sometimes be a debilitating process and sometimes exhilarating. You want a screenwriter that’s willing to go the extra mile.”
Lorenzo and Jeff discuss the role of Matt Greenberg (screen story) in the screenplay chain. “Matt was the first writer that I worked with on my version of Pet Sematary, eight or nine years ago. The project went through a lot of ups and downs. Finally, Paramount gathered more enthusiasm about the project and we hired Jeff,” recalls Lorenzo.
After the better part of a decade later, Jeff stated, “I love where you going with this [Greenberg’s draft.] Here’s where I would take it from here. It felt like a clean baton handoff. Because of the period of time that had elapsed, Matt, Lorenzo and I sat together and reworked the screenplay. The final ‘story by’ credit is down to WGA rules. But I do credit Matt for making the extremely daring choice of changing which child kills the family. This was the spark that Matt created. These were other changes to the novel that could potentially freak out Stephen King purists.”
Buhler has been reading Stephen King novels since he was in grade school. “There’s something very natural about they way Stephen King writes. There are very unnatural or supernatural things happening. In King’s books, you’re often in the thought process of the protagonists, there are songs, reactions. This has shaped my writing style and voice. I gravitate toward stories that rip people from the real world, put them in extraordinary situations and see how they react. I learned to trust my gut during my writing process.”
“I gravitate toward brutal material and don’t shy away from that. I’m a more is more [brutality] kind of screenwriter. I don’t show everything brutal off screen. There are situations I find awkard, surreal and strange. They appear to strike people as moments where they can let off a bit of pressure through nervous laughter. The ability to balance those moments is one of my screenwriting fingerprints. Finding places where your deepest fear is present and pushing it as far as you can go is another stignature writing move to extend and build tension,” Jeff admitted.
Di Bonaventura is pleased about the number and variety of horror films released each year. It used to be that horror releases were exclusively reserved for October to coincide with Halloween. The new model “allows for more kinds of horror pictures. It has broadened the genre. October was very narrow in terms of what films people thought should be there. Nowadays, October is saved for more ‘hardcore’ traditional horror, allowing the other months to create space for other kinds of horror such as psychological and comedic. Subject matter in horror has expanded.”
Movie mashups and horror sub-genres can be taken to the extreme. “I think we try too hard to create these wild mash up films. It’s very difficult to do because balancing the differences in tone are too hard to mesh. In order for it to work you need a dominant tone infused with a minor one. Don’t try too hard to combine incompatible genres and tones. It’s too constructive.” declared Bi Bonaventura. “Trying too hard immediately feels like the filmmakers are self-aware. Instead of bringing people into a world, you’re telling the audience how skilled you are at bringing together a combination of elements, as opposed to get on board this ride,” adds Buhler.
In terms of guide newer screenwriters, Lorenzo “is very wary of telling screenwriters to write what’s playing well at the theaters. Write what you know, particularly when you’re starting out. Later on you can branch out. He laments the largely ‘vanilla’ product that Hollywood has produced over the last decade. “It’s too calulated and safe. That is shifting. Pet Sematary is a good example because we chose the darkest possible ending. We shot three endings in trying to figure out what the movie had earned. We chose the darkest. Both the studio and I had hesitations about which ending we should choose. The audience will decide.”
Lorenzo Di Bonaventura offers his final thoughts to screenwriters, “Take risks. It’s more fun.”
Jeff Buhler follows with “Find that thing that makes you excited, that makes your heart start to pump, do that. And be true to that. Don’t try to imitate.” Sage advice from some of the best Hollywood has to offer.
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