“Gen. Patton.” “Smuckey.” “Unicorn.” Their names are carved and scrawled crudely into the weathered wood of makeshift grave markers. No two graves are the same. Some are adorned with plastic milk jugs dangling on strings. Others are made of old car parts carefully piled into memorials of rusty metal and chipped paint. As varied as their appearances are, they all share the common link of marking the final resting place where a beloved pet lies. But this is no ordinary cemetery. As the crooked sign at the edge of the path reads, this is a “Pet Sematary,” one that has come to life straight from the pages of arguably the most disturbing book Stephen King has ever written. Although this Pet Sematary can be found in the middle of the woods outside of Montreal and would look like a real graveyard to the unknowing traveler, it’s actually the set of the new movie based on King’s 1983 novel, and to celebrate Paramount’s release of the film’s second trailer (see below), we have even more highlights from Daily Dead’s time on set to share with readers.
A worn path runs between the graves of the Pet Sematary, winding around in an ever-tightening circle, the newer, fresher graves on the circle’s outer edge and the oldest ones in the middle. Joined by several other journalists, I wander the hypnotic swirl of a path, gazing at the grave markers for generations of fallen pets, ranging from a beloved bird to cherished dogs and cats. Everything looks so real, especially the older graves that have the genuine look of something worn down by time, the way an object looks when it has long outlived the hands that made it.
Production designer Todd Cherniawsky and his team have done an amazing job constructing this cemetery in the middle of the Québec countryside outside of Montreal. The graves have the eerie appearance of actually being made by children mourning the deaths of their pets. It’s all almost too real, including the towering timber deadfall at the far end of the cemetery, its massive fallen limbs intertwined like a pile of foreboding bones leftover from prehistoric times, guarding the path to the ancient place where the ground is sour and the dead don’t stay buried.
“It's sculpted into a handful of shapes,” Cherniawsky tells us as mosquitoes whine in the slants of sunshine peeking through the trees. “It definitely has almost a mouth-like kind of plant version of it, so right in the center is kind of a darker hole and then you have almost these hibiscus and these bones kind of projecting outward into that little focus.”
Turning his attention to the grave markers, Cherniawsky explains how he and his crew approached the realistic style of the cemetery itself. “We wanted to make a really scary ghost story, so we didn't try and over-exaggerate things. We wanted it to feel like a very naïve, rural pet cemetery, as if kids had made it. Obviously parents helped, but for the most part we wanted this to feel like it was done and maintained by kids.”
With generations of pet names etched on the graves, viewers will want to keep an eye out for Easter eggs from King’s book. “I tried to be as true to the book as possible,” Cherniawsky says. “Anything named in the book is actually here in some way, shape, or form—the parrots, the raccoons, the bull, they're all here. But we never tried to make them in your face. Some of them are so weathered and aged you can barely tell, but they are all represented here. And then there's a variety of [names of] crew people's actual pets.”
While Cherniawsky used the Pet Sematary book as a visual reference point for some of the finer details of the Pet Sematary, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (who previously directed Starry Eyes together) looked at King’s novel as their own storytelling bible during pre-production and filming.
“We went back to the book for a lot of things,” Kölsch explains to us during a break in filming outside of the Creeds’ new house. “Obviously, there was a script when we came on board. Being fans of Stephen King, we worked on getting a lot of the elements from the book back in, even if it just comes down to a specific line that we know is a fan favorite line that wasn't in their script. We just kind of really worked to get all that stuff in there.”
And while Kölsch and Widmyer tried to preserve many elements of the Pet Sematary novel, they also aren’t afraid to make some alterations along the way to make their own version of Pet Sematary while still preserving the spirit of King’s novel.
“We've given ourselves freedom,” Kölsch tells us. “We took some liberties with things. We've changed some things. Being fans of the book, we were very rigid with it back when we were working on the script during prep. Before we were in here, getting our hands dirty with the film, it was more like, ‘No, no. This book, this bible has to be this.’ Then, once you actually come out here and you start working on it, you're just now making your film and every day you come up with things, too, when you're with the characters, and you just kind of go, ‘Oh, you know what will make the scene better? If this happens."
Shielded from the mid-summer sun beneath a tent pitched behind the Creeds’ home (a quaint red farmhouse with a weathervane perched charmingly atop its roof), Widmyer tells us how their Pet Sematary should be considered a new adaptation of King’s book rather than a reboot of the 1989 movie.
“We found a lot of things that are amazing things in the book, that just weren't in that adaptation, the first one. So our whole thing was we're not rebooting the movie, we're going back to the book and telling our own version of the book, because the book really is one of his darkest novels, but it's laced with so much psychology and maturity. It's the type of thing where I think teenagers will love it because it's supernatural. It's fun, it's got these great iconic elements in it, but I think parents will really relate to it, because it's really just about how you deal with grief. It's just kind of cool that there's this big, large-scale horror movie coming out that's really just about that psychology of how people don't like to deal with grief, don't like to talk about grief. They do whatever they can to sort of push it aside. This movie is a look at what happens when you don't deal with grief. If you can undo, or try to undo, death, what really happens?”
Taking a break from the steamy July afternoon in the blissful air-conditioning of a trailer off set, Amy Seimetz (a talented filmmaker in her own right) tells us about her character, Rachel Creed, and the importance of ensuring she is still a strong character despite being traumatized by haunting childhood experiences with her sister, Zelda.
“One of the things that I talked about with the directors is that she [Rachel] can't be crying all the time,” Seimetz explains. “From day one, she has trauma from her past, but she can't just be traumatized all the time. She had two children, so she got through the trauma of childbirth. He [Louis] stayed with her—they're married. So, at some point she's had to have moved on and carried that pain with her. She can't constantly be reliving the whole trauma. I think she's just tucked it away. And in addition to that, because it deals with grief, this is what I find in Stephen King's [book] as well, is that the only way we actually understand the extremely darker places or the really horrific places is if you can see or be able to explore the lighter places, because there's no reason to be scared and there's no reason to feel lost if you experienced what it is to have lightness. So, keeping her relationship to death, as opposed to her being weepy all the time, or somebody that can't get though the day without being skittish about everything, is on the top of my discussion list for keeping everything in check.”
Later, in the same trailer, Jason Clarke walks through the door, sandwich in hand, to take a quick break from filming and talk about his character, Louis, a once-normal father driven to the brink of insanity when he buries his dead child in hopes of bringing them back to life. Like Kölsch and Widmyer, Clarke keeps King’s Pet Sematary within reach as a bible during filming, even using it to flesh out his character beyond what is being filmed.
“I've read it eight times,” Clarke says. “I really enjoy the book. You can just pick up a little piece, and just refresh that piece with it before you go and shoot a scene. I can do that, because I've marked the pages in the book, where I can say, ‘This is my reference point before the scene…’ I can sort of go back and just read a little paragraph and go, ‘Okay, that's where I am going into this. This is what has happened just before now.’”
John Lithgow, who plays the Creeds’ widowed neighbor, Jud Crandall, also read King’s book to prepare for his role, but decided it would be best to not have the “Down East” Maine accent that Jud has in the book, lest it be a distraction from the true heart of the story.
“One interesting conversation was just about how much of an accent [to use],” Lithgow says after sitting down in the trailer, taking a few minutes to speak with us before heading out to the woods to shoot a nighttime scene in the Pet Sematary. “Stephen King writes him with a very strong accent and they [Kölsch and Widmyer] described [the 1989 movie] as making a real meal out of the accent. I said I hadn't seen it yet, and I don't think I will before I finish playing the part.”
“To me, even a perfectly accurate accent draws attention to itself, and people are familiar enough with me to know when I'm putting on a different accent from myself. I thought he [Jud] should have a country quality to him, but the old “Down East” accent, I coulda' had a dialect coach and I coulda' worked mighty hard on this accent, and it would have immediately taken me out of the story, and I thought it was so important for people never to be taken out of this story, not for a second.”
From the palpable makeup effects by Adrien Morot's team to the genuine performances of the cast and the tireless, hard-working crew on set, everyone working on this movie shares Lithgow’s passion to wholly immerse moviegoers in a viewing experience they won’t soon forget. There’s still a lot about this adaptation that won’t be revealed until it hits the big screen on April 5th, but everyone we talked with on set made it clear that first and foremost, they understand the importance of channeling the raw, timeless emotions surrounding death, grief, and the denial of both in King’s 1983 novel.
Before leaving the trailer that day, Clarke told us, “If you're going to create Frankenstein, and the monster has life, and the monster has consciousness, it goes into a whole other level of responsibility and what you're guilty of, and what you should take responsibility for.”
With that in mind, sometimes dead really is better, no matter how unbearable it can be. Either way, we’ll all find out this April when Paramount takes us to the place beyond the Pet Sematary’s deadfall, to the sacred spot where the ground is sour, and the dead don’t rest in peace…
In case you missed it, check here to read part 1 of our Pet Sematary set visit impressions! Here's a look at the official trailer and we also have an early look at the brand new poster!