Pet Sem church

CGI Cats, Zelda and Stephen King Easter Eggs

Knowing that the filmmakers have a firm grasp on the down-to-earth dramatic elements of the film is great – but what about the supernatural? The unexplainable? The things that go bump in the night? One thing is for sure: the special effects bringing these things to life will be practical.

“It’s as practical as we could get it,” Widmyer says. “That was one of our first pitches – we had to go fully practical, you know?”

So one can assume that probably means no CGI Church the cat, right?

“No CGI cats,” confirms Widmyer. “And it’s a nightmare, I don’t know why we said yes, but we’re working with real cats…a trainer with like six different cats. And there’s some days we wake up and we’re like, what the hell were we thinking? You know, it’s hard to get a cat to act. But a CGI cat would look like crap.”

One of the most terrifying elements of the 1989 film – the thing that still has the power to give audiences the creeps – is Zelda, the dead sister of Rachel Creed, who haunts her to this day. Andrew Hubatsek played Zelda in the ‘89 film, and the ghoulish makeup used on the actor was suitably horrifying.

But it wasn’t exactly true to King’s work. For one thing, Hubatsek was clearly an adult, and the Zelda in King’s novel is a child when she dies. And that’s the approach the 2019 film is taking, going so far as to cast 13-year-old actress Alyssa Brooke Levine in the part. At first this might seem too much of a departure from the 1989 film to work, but the way the filmmakers explain things make it sound even more unsettling.

“[Zelda is] an 11- or 10-year-old girl with a debilitating disease in bed,” Widmyer says. “So if you look at the psychology of the Zelda situation – it’s a family that was dealing with a horrible situation that had a daughter that they couldn’t fix, that was wasting away up in their bedroom, and they had a younger daughter [Rachel] who was in charge of basically like going in and taking care of her and being there as she disintegrated. That in itself is pretty horrific.”

Widmyer also points out that Zelda wasn’t in the new film’s script until they joined the project, and that they both wanted the character, and felt an urge to make her even scarier. “We came along and said you have to have Zelda. And then we just sort of accepted the challenge and said we gotta try to do something on our own and do something that honors the book but is our own thing, which is just as scary if not scarier than they did in the first one.”

A Pet Sematary movie without Zelda would be utterly strange, so we can all be thankful the character has made it into the film. And what else has made it into the film along with her? With the Stephen King renaissance in full bloom, can we expect to catch King-inspired Easter eggs peppered throughout the film, the way they were in the Hulu series Castle Rock?

“The art department has had a blast on this one,” Kölsch informs us. “They almost went too far, where they were showing us a sign that was like D. Torrance Realty [in reference to Danny Torrance, the kid from The Shining], and we’re like, no. Because it can’t be that. It’s not like Danny Torrance went and opened up a realtor company in Ludlow, Maine.”

“They almost got too excited,” Widmyer confirms, “where we were like, we’re going to have Easter eggs, but they have to be accurate and they have to be organic. So we actually turned down a lot of Easter eggs, but we put in a lot of good ones that you’re going to have to find…It’s stuff that would be in the world. That’s in the book. Smaller things that are happening in the background of our world or in the subtext of conversations.”

“Like, Carrie‘s not going to show up,” Kölsch wryly adds.

Soon, the filmmakers leave us, heading back inside that peeling house to prepare for the next scene. And we’re needed elsewhere. Finally, we’re informed, we’re headed to the pet sematary.

Jud and Louis Pet Sem

Jud and Louis

Except we’re not. A slight miscommunication was made, and instead, we’re bundled off to base camp – an endless sea of trailers and campers set up within a sprawling, barren field. We stroll across graveled earth, where we happen to catch sight of twins Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie, who both play Gage Creed in the film. The children run about, laughing, completely oblivious and indifferent to any horror lurking within the frames of Pet Sematary.

We’ve come here to talk with John Lithgow, who takes on the role of Jud Crandall. Lithgow has been in the business for nearly 50 years, appearing in films such as All the Jazz, Blow Out, Interstellar, and yes, Shrek. And that only scratches the surface. Being in his presence is slightly surreal – he’s imposingly tall, and having seen him for so many years on the screen it’s a bit jarring to then catch sight of him in person.

Decked out in a plaid shirt and dirty overalls, he greets us kindly inside one of the trailers. He’s soft spoken, his words are perfectly enunciated. A warmth radiates from him. He’s grown a heavy beard for the role, and in a nice added touch, the makeup department has stained the mouth area of his beard yellow with nicotine. Just as in King’s novel, Lithgow’s Jud is a heavy smoker.

Lithgow inherits the part of Jud from the late Fred Gwynne, who turned in a highly memorable performance as the elderly neighbor, and really nailed the character’s thick Maine accent so prevalent in King’s book. But don’t expect Lithgow to do the same.

“We all talked about [the accent],” Lithgow tells us, “and we even tried it different ways. I did a whole reading with a Maine accent. I personally felt that even people who are from Maine, even actors who get it absolutely right – an accent like that kind of takes you out of the story. I myself think that, especially how they have reimagined this script, which is changed from the book, to the first film, to this – it has evolved and Jud has become a more serious character, in a sense. He is a character in the pull of a kind of deep, deep regret, deep guilt, great longing, great feelings of loss, love. And because of that, I just felt he had to be a very genuine person. Listen, I have Boston roots. My father was born there, all my uncles and aunts were from there, I went to Harvard and I know Boston well. I can do an accent. But as soon as I start, that’s all you’re listening to.”

This genuine approach to the character falls in line with what Widmyer and Kölsch told us about their grounded, mature handling of the material. And Lithgow’s take on the part of Jud is refreshingly serious – this is no frivolous role for him. He’s inhabiting the character.

“The first you see of Jud – he’s a gruff and forbidding, almost scary character,” Lithgow says. “You don’t know who this character’s going to be – but his first scene is with a 9-year-old little girl [Ellie Creed], who is a very unusual 9-year-old girl, but she really warms to this character and he warms to her. And suddenly, you see this kind of forbidding guy, who for some reason can enchant a child. He just, he can really connect with a child –  mean really connect, talk to her about death, talk to her about what it’s like to be a little girl moving to a new town. He’s like Mr. Rogers. He’s got a strain of Mr. Rogers in him – the last thing you expect from this character. And that’s the first you see of him – and before you see his demons. I just love the fact that all those things are going on with him.”

“You know, when you make a horror film,” Lithgow continues, “the emotions have to be so authentic and everything that happens in the story has to really come out in various deep emotional needs from the characters. And that’s built in to the way [Widmyer and Kölsch] have reimagined this story. You believe these feelings and you identify strongly with these characters and their needs, their longings, their feelings of love and anger, you know, and regret. You know, you’ll find this quite a serious film when the time comes.”

Later – much later – Jason Clarke, who plays Louis Creed, will tell us something similar in this very same trailer. Clarke has been filming all day, and is covered in dirt from a scene he just shot. He’s tired, and still has more to shoot. But he takes time when asked questions, ruminating on them for a long time before he gives us answers. “The thing in the book I love is that Louis has such internal monologue,” the Australian actor says. “There’s a sarcasm to him, and a wit to him, an irony, an awareness and a lack of an awareness. [Pet Sematary is] a story about a family and what you’d do, you know, if you could…[the burial ground is] just sitting up there, it’s a hard itch not to scratch, you know, but then when you start scratching it, it gets pretty ugly. You know, it’s not – it’s a festering scratch, if that makes sense.”

Our talk with John Lithgow ends when the actor is called back to set. And at long last, we’re told we’re going to travel to the pet sematary.

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