'Pet Sematary' Screenwriter Jeff Buhler On Changing, And Staying True To, Stephen King [Interview]

It's no small feat to try to adapt the words of Stephen King. Many have tried, and many have failed – and failed spectacularly. When it came time to adapt King's Pet Sematary to the screen for the first time, King took it upon himself to pen the script. Now, the 2019 Pet Sematary is in the hands of Jeff Buhler, the screenwriter behind The Midnight Meat Train and this year's killer kid flick The Prodigy.

I spoke with Buhler about the major changes the script makes to King's work, as well as the book elements that were essential to add into the film, including Pascow, Zelda and the Wendigo. I also asked him about two other horror scripts he had a hand in: the upcoming remakes of The Grudge and Jacob's Ladder.

Potential spoilers follow.When you came in to write this – because I understand there was a script to begin with it before you came in–

Matt Greenberg, who shares the screen story credit.

So how different was that draft from what you ultimately did?

I think Matt explored some of the core things that we did. He was, you know, they were already exploring the Ellie and Gage switch at that time. When I read it, I had the reaction a lot of people had, which was like, you can't do this. And then, after that immediate thought, then I'm like, well, why not? Why couldn't you? And then it starts to sink in and you kind of think about it a little bit more and you're like, well, there's a lot of advantages to having the development of a relationship like Ellie and her father have, to put at the center of this loss and grief. So, from Matt's work, that's the sort of pivotal piece. And then I wrote 47 drafts after that, so it's hard to say...

And then how much input did the directors have in shaping the film as it is now?

A ton. I had developed with another director who fell out of the project. In between that director and these guys [Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer], I did some guys with [producer] Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] and the studio. That interim set of drafts was essentially bringing the story as it is now, with Ellie being the one who is killed – spoiler alert if you haven't seen the trailers – I mean, I feel like it's pretty clear at this point. Apologies to those of you who didn't pick it up.

But there was a lot of stuff from the book that we felt still hadn't landed and one of the things we wanted to do was be as true to the novel with these changes that we could. So, actually, the sequence of events that take place after the death are very – the trajectory of the characters are very similar to what happens in the novel, and we brought back a lot of Victor Pascow and Zelda, which was cool. And that was something that, when Dennis and Kevin came on board, we all went for coffee and were immediately in sync on some of the things from the book that we wanted to get back in there. And those guys, not just designing some of the horror set pieces and obviously just the film itself, but we worked intensely on the script together, and so they were instrumental in shaping all of it.

Was one of those things you guys really wanted to put in was the Wendigo? Because that's obviously not in the '89 film, but–

It's not in the '89 film. It's in the book. It's a pretty big presence in the book, and there was talk of – I mean, it gets tricky when you have an actual Wendigo.

Right. Was there ever a concept of actually show the Wendigo... because in the novel, Louis has that dream where all the dead characters are standing beneath the Wendigo. Was there ever a moment where you were actually going to put a physical Wendigo in there?

Yes. I would say this: there isn't anything you could think of that we didn't try once. I mean, we really tried everything. And then at the end of the day, I think the Wendigo as a concept is a great one. I think the Wendigo as the language that the Algonquin, the Micmac tribe from that region, ascribed to the force in the woods, that that was their way of describing it, that that was their language that they gave to it, sort of made more real-world sense to me than an actual monster running around. But you still hear the presence of it in the film. There's like a lot of hints towards branches and hoofs and whatnot.

One key difference, amongst many – and let me preface this by saying I actually liked all the differences – but in the book the Louis and Jud relationship is really almost like a father-son thing–

Yeah, a surrogate father

And that's not really in this movie. Was there a decision to make it really focused on Louis' family more than on outside characters?

Yeah. Part of it was having the real estate and sort of picking and choosing which relationships we wanted to spend the time on. I think Louis' relationship with his family, and in particular with his daughter, was first and foremost. We did have some of the dad talk in there, and it felt superfluous to what was going on in the film, and I think part of that's a testament to how incredible John [Lithgow] is as an actor. You don't need to have him sit around a campfire and say, "Oh, yeah, you know," to be the surrogate father. You get a sense from him.

And also, two things were really important to me in the Jud character. One was that we don't make him like a local yokel who's got that sort of hayseed quality. Fred Gwynne's performance is classic and I love it for the time and place that that movie was, but if you transported that character into 2019 it would just be ridiculous, and I think I wanted to ground Jud and make him a little more mysterious, make him a little more threatening in ways, instead of like, "Hey, welcome to the neighborhood."

So you really get the sense that he's got a burden of this knowledge that he's carrying on his back. And the other thing that was super important about it was making his relationship with Ellie be almost as present as Louis' relationship with Ellie, because his decision to show them the burial ground is all based in the fact that he – Ellie is this child who is really the first person to touch his heart in a long time, and it was that connection and his desire to protect her from pain that ultimately allowed him to lead the Creeds down a path that was didn't work out too well.

One thing that most surprised me is I actually found the movie to be darker than the book, which I didn't think was possible because the book is so unrelentingly bleak. So I'm wondering if there was ever a point where someone was like, "Maybe tone this down."

Yeah, we had those conversations, and we even discussed – there were conversations we had about like, how can we save...how can we redeem these characters at the end? And everything just seemed silly because they go to such an extreme place, that to then suddenly come back from that is absurd. So we just had to all link arms and jump off the cliff together and sort of embrace it. And the argument that Dennis and Kevin and I made many, many times, is that horror fans respect and desire unflinching portrayals, and it's hard sometimes on the studio side to get your head around, like, well, it's going to be unsympathetic or people aren't going to like these guys, and it's like, well, it's a little different in horror. You give characters a pass for doing stuff because you know it's going to be dark, so we just went for it. And then at the end, when we all watched the various versions of the film, the dark one just plays better, the darker version. There were cuts that were not quite as dark.

Could you tell me about any of those alternate cuts?

Well, no, I mean, a lot of it was just changing – it wasn't like huge alternate stuff. There might be some... I'm trying to think if there's any full scenes that wound end up on a Blue-ray...

I remember in the trailer there's a shot where it looks like Jud's wife Norma is in a chair and I didn't see that in the movie. Do you know that scene was?

Yeah, there were a couple of Norma flashbacks during the story that ended up, again, feeling like it was too much in the narrative context of the film, so that might be where the image you're talking about came from. There were a couple Zelda moments. We had some various Zelda moments that we had to like tinker around with a little bit because, I think, with all of that stuff, there's so much going on this film. People coming back from the dead, you've got a cat coming back from the dead, there's Victor Pascow, there's Zelda. I mean, in classic King fashion, it's kitchen sink – everything's in there–- there's ghosts, there's zombies. It's got all of it. And he does that so organically that when you read the book you don't stop and think, wait, is this a story about reincarnation or zombies or are we talking about ghosts here? He weaves it all together. So he had to do a little bit of juggling to get the balance right on all that stuff.

It almost seemed to me that you guys made it so that the house itself, the new house the Creed family moves into, is haunted. And at one point Rachel says, "We should've never moved here. It feels wrong." That's not precisely in the book, so I was wondering if the haunted house element was a conscious decision.

Yeah, that was definitely a conscious decision, and I think there's a couple of visual elements that sort of key in to that. Obviously there's the stuff that takes place in the house – both Louis and Rachel have supernatural experiences in the house. But our feeling was that it's not the house that's haunted, it's the woods. That whole area. And that the force that's in that burial ground. If it's strong enough to reanimate the dead, to fill a dead body with energy and bring it back, that it must be also sort of radiating out like Chernobyl, you know, like that's the hot spot and then the woods are... And you can tell, during the journey in the woods, the woods that are the closest to the burial ground are just decimated, petrified forest and super creepy.

And there's also the mist – as the force from the woods starts to get its fingers into the Creed family and get a foothold in the world of the living again, you notice that the mist in the woods starts pushing out. So there's a couple of scenes, either Louis coming out of the forest or standing on his porch, where you see fog coming out of the woods, and that again is sort of a visual representation of this supernatural force. So we took – I wouldn't call it a liberty, 'cause all that stuff exists in the book – but we sort of ascribed a visual language to it that made it come across.

Did you have any contact at all with Stephen King? 

Me personally, no. And of course I would love to sit down and have coffee with him and talk about a lot of things. But I think he's pretty busy. Lorenzo has a longstanding relationship with Stephen, so he sent the movie very early on and then he's watched it a couple times as we've made changes. And he was super supportive, he was very supportive of some of the big changes very early on and vocal about it, and I think he had a conversation with Jason Clarke. Once we knew he kind of gave us the proverbial thumbs up, then we started getting the confidence to push things a little further.

All right, before I go, can you tell me anything about The Grudge or the Jacob's Ladder remake?

No. [laughter] The Jacob's Ladder film has been finished for a while and was slated to come out in February and then it got pushed back for various reasons internally, and I'm looking forward to seeing that. And then, again, Grudge has jumped around on the calendar a little bit. I think it's now slated for first week of January in 2020. The only thing I'll say is, they were two examples of projects, much like Pet Sematary, where I'm tinkering in sacred ground, and so it's – I really want to go work on something that everyone's not – that people won't be upset about. So yeah, other than that, no.


Pet Sematary opens in theaters April 5, 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.