Wes Craven’s Scream almost didn’t happen. The story about a mysterious killer wearing a ghost mask who terrorizes a California town, written by then-novice screenwriter Kevin Williamson, upended horror tropes with a witty self-awareness — but Craven, beloved for his Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, initially turned down the project because he thought it was too violent and dark.
After he finally said yes, hurdles remained, but eventually the project came together and changed the trajectory of the horror genre.
Despite a disappointing late December 1996 opening weekend, which saw the movie lose to more traditional holiday fare at the box office, word of mouth helped the film climb in the following days and weeks. The release brought in $173 million at the global box office ($302 million adjusted for inflation) and spawned a series of successful spinoffs and sequels.
Now, Paramount Home Entertainment is celebrating the film’s 25th anniversary by releasing it on 4K Ultra HD, and the fifth installment of the franchise, which sees Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette reprise their roles from the original, releases Jan. 14. It will be the first film without Craven, who died in 2015 after a battle with brain cancer.
Here, more than a dozen key players both in front of the camera and behind the scenes — including Williamson, editor Patrick Lussier, producers Cathy Konrad and Marianne Maddalena, and stars Campbell, Cox, Arquette, Liev Schreiber, Matthew Lillard and Jamie Kennedy — recount how it came together, navigating the bumps along the way and realizing their little scary movie was a huge success.
WES CRAVEN WAS “VERY ADAMANT ABOUT NOT WANTING TO DO A HORROR MOVIE.”
After winning a bidding war for Williamson’s “pitch-perfect” spec called Scary Movie, Dimension Films wanted Craven to direct. He repeatedly refused — even though everyone around him loved the script — before ultimately taking it on.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON, writer Finishing the script and actually printing it out and holding it in my hands was a big deal. I wanted to be recognized in the industry and try to get a job and just become an employable writer. I had already written Killing Mrs. Tingle, which I optioned but nothing happened. I was still struggling a lot and eating my Oodles of Noodles. So, I wrote a horror movie that I wanted to see because the genre was dead at the time and it’s my favorite. It’s what I crave and what I want to watch every night before I go to bed.
RICHARD POTTER, Dimension executive Bobby Cohen [from Miramax] walked into my office and handed me this giant fax and said, “This isn’t for us, maybe it’s for you guys.” And there’s the Scary Movie script from Kevin Williamson. I just sat there and started reading it and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t believe that I was getting scared, like the writing was working on me. When I got to Casey Becker’s [Barrymore] death, I was like, “Holy crap.” Bob [Weinstein] had told me if I ever read a script that blew me away, let him know immediately. So I called him at home and said, “I just read a script. If you don’t want to make this, then I don’t know what you’re looking for.”
CATHY KONRAD, producer The script was sent out as a spec, which was the norm back in those days. I recall reading it in my home in Nichols Canyon and scaring myself at night. Kevin had written a pitch-perfect script. We got into the game on it fairly early and we were used as a stalking horse for several of the other places that bid on it afterward. We won and got the script.
POTTER I spoke to Kevin about it at the time and his lawyer, Patti Felker, told me the same story: Kevin didn’t know where to go, and she said to him, “Other places will give you more money, but Dimension will make your movie. You have to decide which is more important to you.”
WILLIAMSON When I got the call saying, “You just got an offer from Dimension,” I was hiding in my closet. I remember sitting there with a phone waiting for it to ring going, “This isn’t real. This isn’t real. It’s not really happening.” And then they said, “Oh, we’ll get Wes Craven to direct it.” And I was like, “Yeah, right, sure.” I’m so sorry that Wes is not with us to tell the story. He said no to the script. He said no and no and no.
PATRICK LUSSIER, editor I think [Wes] was reluctant to enter into something so dark. It was just so uncompromising. Even though the script had a lot of humor to it, it is a very brutal story.
MARIANNE MADDALENA, producer I loved the script, but Wes was very adamant about not wanting to do a horror movie next. He wanted to get out of the horror ghetto, as he called it. So he passed on it right away. A couple of months later he read it again and they had attached Drew Barrymore and he just felt like, well, why not? He really enjoyed that work and he knew he was good at it, so he never thought twice about it once he accepted the job.
POTTER If it wasn’t for Marianne and [Wes’ then-assistant] Julie Plec, Wes would have passed. I kept trying to get him to say yes, and he kept saying he’s done horror, he’s done slasher. I think he felt with New Nightmare that he’d sort of done the self-reflective meta thing. They were the ones at his company who kept saying, “You haven’t done this before. Nobody’s done this before.” The two of them got him to do the movie.
WILLIAMSON He took the meeting, and I had lunch with him. That’s one of the best days of my life. He later summoned me to his home to give me notes on my script. I thought, “This is where it all falls apart. This is where the writer is kicked to the curb and never heard from again.” He had pages of notes, and I was terrified because I thought he was going to change everything. A lot of them were just typos. It turns out he was an English professor. He really shot the movie I wrote and everything he added to it just made it better.
KONRAD What’s always fun about these kinds of gems is that some of the best work gets done when nobody’s looking. This was little. The budget was low. A lot of the actors in it were not really known. You could fly under the radar a little bit because the stakes weren’t that high. It was a great script, but it could have gone either way. In the wrong hands, it probably wouldn’t have winked as much. Would people have understood it? I don’t know. Wes is such a great, classic storyteller that I think it really needed his classicism on top of Kevin’s postmodernism to really make it synergistically what it was.
“WE ALL WANTED NEVE.”
After initially signing on to play Scream‘s lead, Sidney Prescott, Drew Barrymore decided she’d rather play the teen who’s tormented in the film’s gripping opening sequence. Knowing they’d make a splash by unexpectedly killing off a huge star early on, filmmakers turned their attention to finding Sidney.
WILLIAMSON When it finally got time to go into production, Drew was like, “I just really want to be in the opening scene. That’s the part I love the most.” And I was happy to hear that because I always saw it as sort of the Janet Leigh opening. You wanted the biggest star to be in the first moment of the movie. That’s why the scene is so long because I wanted to keep Casey Becker alive just long enough where you think she’s the lead of the movie and that she’s going to survive this moment. It ended up just working out beautifully that Drew liked that part and then we could cast whoever we wanted for Sidney.
By the time we got to the screen test process, we all wanted Neve. So I remember we front-loaded the reel. We put her first so that everyone had to top her. No one did. She was Sidney. It was so obvious.
NEVE CAMPBELL, Sidney Prescott Although I was not very familiar with the horror genre, I was aware of what a god Wes Craven was and how greatly respected he was. I was very nervous when meeting Wes and really wanted this job. I remember being in a dressing room being made up for the screen test. I could hear the other actress who was up for the role in the room next to me. It felt so surreal to know that she would be feeling the same way I felt and that only one of us would get the role. My memory of the audition was that Wes was very gentle and very clear with what he needed from the scenes. He didn’t just sit back and wait to be impressed. He was engaged and very much in director mode. The experience made me excited at the prospect of working with him, and the experience when we finally got to making the film was like fireworks.
“WES SAID, ‘JOHNNY DEPP DIDN’T HAVE ANY CREDITS.'”
Except for Barrymore, Campbell and Cox, a rising television star, many of the actors cast were still unknowns. While some ended up playing unexpected parts, others immediately identified with their characters.
COURTENEY COX, Gale Weathers [Executive producer] Cary Woods was in my manager’s office and she pitched me for the part of Gale. Cary thought it would be a nice surprise to have me play such a calculated character after being on Friends and Family Ties, but I had to convince Wes. So, I wrote him a letter and assured him that being “a bitch” wouldn’t be a stretch at all.
SKEET ULRICH, Billy Loomis I remember reading this script and just being blown away by it and so excited about the possibility of playing a serial killer. I had done several parts where I was this very innocent, wide-eyed kid. Somebody showed me online the audition that I did and I look at it now and I’m like, “That was really horrible. How did I get the part?”
MATTHEW LILLARD, Stu Macher I auditioned for Billy’s part. The casting director was like, “I love you, you’re great, I want to bring you in for this character Stu. Can you come in in a couple of hours and audition for Wes?” So I said “Sure,” and I sat in the lobby and in my car learning my lines and auditioned two hours later. I think I got the part in the room, which never happens.
JAMIE KENNEDY, Randy Meeks When I read the breakdown, it said Randy was a lanky, gangly, opinionated fifth wheel, who really has a love and passion for movies and begins to dismantle these murders and start piecing things together. I just read that and was like, “Oh, that’s me.” Wes had to fight, because the studio liked Jason Lee because he was in Mallrats. They liked Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, all the guys that I would always go up against — and they’re all great, but I was lucky. I’ll never forget this. Wes said, “Johnny Depp didn’t have any credits.” If he didn’t stick his neck out for me, you would not be talking to me today.
DAVID ARQUETTE, Sheriff Dewey Riley They were considering me for one of the younger roles, but I told Wes I really loved the role of Dewey. He was written more as a big muscle-head kind of lug and I said, “I think I can bring something to it that would be different and really unique and interesting.” He is such an amazing character. I love playing a person that is an authority figure that gets no respect, or nobody gives him the credit he deserves. He wants to be John Wayne, but he’s just not John Wayne. He wants to be this tough guy, but he’s just got a heart of gold.
ROGER JACKSON, the voice of Ghostface It was an open casting. I heard some people saying, “My agent told me they’re looking for the new Freddy Krueger,” and I read the sides and I said, “This doesn’t feel like Freddy Krueger.” This is somebody who has to be interesting and kind of flirty and keep her on the phone, make her interested. I subsequently found out that this was to play the scene with Drew Barrymore because she didn’t want the script person just feeding her lines. So they cast in the Bay Area for that and then they were going to dub it later in Los Angeles. But Wes Craven liked what I was doing and they decided to keep me.
LIEV SCHREIBER, Cotton Weary I was meeting with Bob Weinstein, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing a small part in this Scream movie. I had just gotten out of school and had a ton of debt. All I would have to do is walk down some stairs and get into a police car. I thought, “Great, that’s easy.”
EARL BROWN, Kenny Jones I had worked with Wes twice previously on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Vampire in Brooklyn. I had heard the scuttlebutt about Scary Movie, the script that was going around, how good it was. I grew up during the pinnacle of slasher movies, and I saw every single one of them. Halloween is the movie that made me want to be in movies. Wes’ assistant Jeff was a friend of mine. I called him and said, “I’d love to be in this.” So, that was how it was offered to me.
“JUST READ THE FIRST 15 PAGES.”
The film’s editor, who had also previously worked with Craven, and its composer were both blown away by what would become the film’s iconic opening sequence.
LUSSIER I had been working for Wes Craven for a couple of years and was off cutting the Doctor Who movie for Fox and the BBC when Scream came to be and Wes had wanted me to cut it. I first read it during post on Vampire in Brooklyn, when Wes had turned it down the first time because he thought it was just way more violent than he wanted to make. He gave me the script and said, “Just read the first 15 pages.” It’s like, “Holy shit, that’s insane.”
MARCO BELTRAMI, composer Wes was looking for a composer for the movie, and I sent over a demo tape. I had not seen any horror movies up to that point. I’d never been a fan of the genre. When I went in to meet with Wes, I remember him saying, “It’s funny, all the demo tapes we get, everyone sounds like John Williams. You’re the first one that sounds like you’re original.” Then he’s said, “Why don’t you take the opening scene of the movie home this weekend and score it for us.” It was a daunting task because it’s a 13-minute long cue, the whole Drew Barrymore death scene. What he responded to was that my music was very naive in a way. I played it from sort of the character’s point of view. And that whole scene, when Drew Barrymore is running out and being stabbed, I thought of it in almost like an operatic sense. That became the basis for how we scored the movies.
“THEY WERE GOING TO FIRE HIM.”
But, that scene wasn’t immediately popular with Dimension Films, at least as far as the dailies were concerned. Barely a week into shooting, the film hit rough waters and Craven’s job was on the line. What would become the Ghostface mask was stumbled upon by Maddalena in a house during location scouting, and the studio didn’t think it — or the dailies — were scary.
LUSSIER The first sequence that was shot was the Drew Barrymore sequence. The studio hated the dailies. They sent him dailies from their remake of Nightwatch and said, “You’ve got to look at this. This is how a movie’s made.”
WILLIAMSON I’ll never forget, we were sitting in the parking lot of the grocery store and we were filming the news footage of Liev Schreiber walking out and being put into a car and ushered away. Wes got the phone call from the studio, and I was sitting behind him in my chair, and I just saw his back slump. He just started sliding down the chair. They didn’t think anything about it was good. They didn’t understand the lack of footage and they didn’t see his vision for that sequence at all.
KONRAD A lot of people know that story from me because I had to live every second of it, painfully. The controversy, which is pretty notorious, had a lot to do with the ghost mask. They felt like things looked flat. They felt like things were unexciting, that the mask wasn’t scary. I was getting calls early in the morning that were very demanding about ensuring that things change.
MADDALENA It was awful because the whole crew knew Bob [Weinstein] hated it. Bob actually said the shooting was “workmanlike at best.” We were traumatized because we were working really hard, and we thought we were doing great work.
LUSSIER I had great confidence with it and was just reassuring Wes, “I don’t know what the hell they’re watching. They must be watching somebody else’s dailies because they’re not seeing this.”
BROWN We as the cast were blissfully unaware of what was going on behind the scenes, that Wes almost got replaced on the film. They were going to fire him.
KONRAD They sent an executive out very early on. Myself, Marianne and Stuart Besser, who was the line producer, received a call very late in the evening and it went like this: “Hello, Cathy, do you like scary movies?” It was Wes and he was asking for us to come to his hotel room. We were at the DoubleTree in Santa Rosa. The executive from Dimension was there, Cary Granat. What was being asked of us was to shoot everything that we’d already shot with several other masks so that Bob could decide which one he liked best. No, nobody’s doing that. So the idea was presented, can we cut together what we have shot, and can we prove to you it’s effective? We were given that courtesy period and Patrick Lussier worked very quickly and nimbly. You cannot see these movies for what they’re going to become without the tension being built into the cutting.
MADDALENA After we showed Bob the cut sequence of the opening scene, he said, “What do I know about dailies? Keep going.”
LUSSIER They immediately called out and said, “We are so wrong. This works so incredibly well. We can’t believe how suspenseful and terrifying this is. We clearly had no idea how to look at what you were doing.” Suddenly there was money for an orchestra, there was money for all sorts of things.
KENNEDY Wes got to make what he wanted, but he was under an immense amount of pressure — and he’s an icon! It never really ends in our business.
BROWN It’s one of the classic movie scenes, not just horror genre scenes. The opening of the film is just phenomenal — and that’s what Wes almost got fired over. I said something to him toward the end of production, and he said, “Yeah, those first few weeks were kind of tense.”
“FASTER, BETTER AND MORE BLOOD.”
From there, it’s mostly happy memories for the cast and crew during production. Craven’s calm and funny demeanor, and a familial atmosphere, made shooting even the most gruesome scenes a good time — especially for Williamson, who’d never stepped foot on a set.
WILLIAMSON Every time something happened, I was jumping, “Oh, that’s a crane.” I would just jump up and down and I’d take a picture of a crane. I was that silly guy on set who just was happy to be there. Wes took me in and didn’t push me away. That changed my trajectory, learning from him and being able to understand the filmmaking process. Up until then I was just a writer, and I didn’t understand cameras and lenses and how they moved and actually told the story.
ARQUETTE When you’d do a take and it wasn’t what Wes wanted, he’d say, “Well, David, that’s terrible. That was absolutely unusable.” (Laughs.) He had a way of giving a direction to an actor that doesn’t make them feel like they failed, and it almost lifts their spirit up, so that in the next take you can do it again and have more fun with it. “Faster, better and more blood,” he’d say it like that.
BELTRAMI Scream was a low-budget movie. There was going to be some electronic stuff, but it was primarily an orchestral score, and I really didn’t have the budget for a lot of the things I wanted to do. I had this idea of Sidney’s theme and using all these string harmonics, which we just didn’t have. “What can we do?” I thought. “Well, maybe if we can get the string players whistling.” Some people did, and some didn’t. And I was like, “I need more people whistling.” So, I was conducting, and I turned inside the booth and said, “Wes do you know how to whistle?” He came out with the string section and the producers whistling for Sidney’s theme. Every time I hear that cue now, I can picture Wes standing back there whistling.
CAMPBELL I feel like the memory of making Scream doesn’t come in single moments. It comes in a feeling of an entire perfect, beautiful, fun experience which I knew would change my life somehow in a big way. And, of course, it did.
KENNEDY Wes said to me, “When you’re making a horror movie, the experience doesn’t have to be horrific.” It’s one of the greatest quotes I ever heard. We made this crazy movie, but we drank wine at night and had these civilized dinners. Toward the end of the shoot, I was getting really sad that the movie was ending and I started to cry. Courteney was like, “Oh, honey. Don’t cry. This is the way it is. It’s summer camp.” I’m like, “But this is my life.” She goes, “No, honey. It’s only your life for three months, but we all have a bond that we’ll never forget.”
LILLARD You’d spend your entire week together chasing each other around the house, and then come together and have these incredible three, four-hour meals. You just don’t see that in the world anymore. People are separated in between takes and they’re all on their phones. I think that that camaraderie, that fellowship, that youth spent together is why the movie stands out to us in such a dear way.
“HE WAS ABSOLUTELY INCOGNITO”
There’s one person, though, who wasn’t exactly included. The person behind the voice of Ghostface remained a mystery to the rest of the cast.
LUSSIER One of the smartest things they did when they shot it was Roger Jackson, who does Ghostface’s voice, the killer voice, he was on set. All those phone calls were done live. They were tapped into a phone, but Drew and none of the actors could see him. They didn’t know what he looked like.
MADDALENA We hid him. We had separate rooms. He was never around. He was never at craft services. He was absolutely incognito. It made it scary for the actors and Wes just got better performances out of them. It’s a completely different thing than a script supervisor reading the lines. He has an amazing voice, but I don’t know how menacing he would be in person, you know?
JACKSON The first night when we were filming the bulk of the scene with Ms. Barrymore, I was outside the window under a little canopy trying to keep dry because it was raining. I’m looking at her through the window while I’m talking to her on the phone, but she couldn’t see outside. Then on the second night they moved me to the garage of the house and set me up with a monitor so I could watch the camera feed. That made it much better, not being wet.
ULRICH I remember hearing that they had somebody reading for Drew off camera. There were talks that he was hidden away, but it never really crossed our minds. Afterward, it’s really wild to realize what Wes did and how great a decision that was. To have the wherewithal to give her something visceral to react to was very smart.
THE BEGINNING AND THE END
When it comes to memorable scenes, the cast and crew are partial to the opening sequence and the killer reveal in the kitchen. Though, some of their favorite lines were ad-libbed.
MADDALENA I like, “Do you like scary movies?” You know, Ghostface talking to Drew. The opening sequence of Scream is my favorite all-time scene.
WILLIAMSON I have a favorite scene: the opening sequence. It was everything I wanted and more. I remember watching those first few minutes and thinking, “Oh man, I wrote this.” I still love Matt and Skeet’s last scene too, the kitchen scene. Matt is a dream because no one can ad-lib better than him, and he made me look so good with all his little ad-libs.
CAMPBELL Matt’s line when playing Stu “My mom’s gonna be so mad at me” killed me. I still hear people quoting it today.
LILLARD All that stuff came out of improv, and I’m proud of those moments because it’s what people repeat back to me. For me, it’s, “You fucking hit me with the phone, dick.” I think it speaks to what Wes was creating, which was this freedom within form. We would do takes and you would say it as written and then he would give you some freedom. Obviously, Skeet hit me with the phone because he hates me. I’m so tall and good-looking. He’s like, “I can’t stand it. I have to hurt him.”
ULRICH Now that I’m older, I understand “We all go a little mad sometimes” in a different way. It’s such a great moment for a character and for an actor to suddenly get to turn and reveal to the audience. Now sit down and watch, because we were just sort of fucking with you all the way up to this point. Now, let’s play. That’s right on that line.
POTTER Almost every line from Jamie Kennedy is a memorable line because that character is one of the most original characters in the movie. You’ve never seen that character before, even though every one of us had that friend growing up who knew everything about every movie.
KENNEDY I think this line is pretty funny: “There’s always some stupid bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend.” That’s just got funny layers to it. Also, “I never thought I’d be so happy to be a virgin.”
KONRAD The line I laugh at every time is in the fight scene between Billy and Stu, Neve says, “Why did you do it?” And Matthew Lillard says, “Peer pressure.” I just thought that was so genius. The movie has such a great tone to it. I love the balance between the humor and the scares, but that scene in particular is so scary. I think Wes did a great job there. Why that line stands out so much is because it gives you that relief when you need it, because it’s very shocking. It’s super intense.
“WHY IS IT SO BLOODY?”
There’s one line that, along with some slo-mo stabbing and bloody bits, the MPAA didn’t like — and it just so happens to be Williamson’s favorite. (The film narrowly dodged an NC-17 rating.)
WILLIAMSON “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.” That was the line that I had written on a notecard and taped to my wall, and the whole movie was written toward that line. It came out of me watching Bob Dole, who at the time was screaming about the violence in cinema and he was going after Quentin Tarantino for that Woody Harrelson,-Juliette Lewis movie [Natural Born Killers]. Articles were being written on violence in cinema and, at the time, there were no studies that really leaned into his theory. So, I wanted to answer that in my secret little way. I don’t know if I did or not, but at the end of the day I thought it was a great line.
LUSSIER It’s certainly the line of dialogue that the MPAA went after and wanted removed from the film. It was like, “You can’t speak that kind of truth.” That, and don’t crush Tatum’s [Rose McGowan] head in the garage door or see too much dripping blood at the end when Billy and Stu stab themselves. That particular line of dialogue they wanted to censor, but they don’t word it that way. They just say, “Look at these areas, this is a problem, this is, this is, this is.” Thankfully, Wes won the day with them.
WILLIAMSON When I watched the first cut of the kitchen scene at the end of the movie with Billy and Stu, it was so bloody. It was so violent and we did cut a lot of that for the MPAA. I remember saying, “I never envisioned it this bloody, Wes. Why is it so bloody?” And he was like, “Kevin, you wrote a scene with two guys stabbing each other in the kitchen. You tell me how to shoot it then.” And I was like, “OK, all right. You’re absolutely right.”
There’s three or four stabs that you just hear. Those were on camera originally and they took them off because the MPAA were like, “There’s just too much.” The Drew Barrymore slow-motion sequence in the beginning was a big no-no. They hated that. They did not want her running in slow motion and being stabbed. They said it was just too brutal, but we won that one because we didn’t have any other footage. He shot it in slow motion. What you see is all there was. So, they let that one slide, and I think the tradeoff was the stabs at the end.
POTTER That was insanity because they’re not super specific about what’s bothering them. It’s just “too much blood, too much gore.” It’s subjective. There are movies that are bloodier and gorier than that original cut of Scream that will get a lower rating because they see the artistic value in it. I’ve always said that the difference between a horror movie and a thriller is whether or not the person you’re talking to liked it. If they liked it, it’s a thriller. If they didn’t like it, it was horror.
MADDALENA We did cut some frames, especially in the opening sequence. At the end we said, “Hey, this is kind of a spoof. Do you see the humor in this movie? It’s a spoof.” And they bought it. After a few go-arounds taking out maybe seven little frames here and there, we sold them on the spoof aspect. It was a good move.
“DOA” AT THE BOX OFFICE? NOT SO FAST.
A Dec. 20, 1996, opening had much of the cast and crew nervous about box office performance, but after a modest opening weekend, the movie kept picking up steam.
KONRAD One of the early reviews was “DOA,” dead on arrival. It came out at Christmas. It was Bob’s idea of counter-programming, which we all were quite unenthusiastic about.
POTTER It was a crapshoot to release a horror movie at that time. We were all terrified, but Bob was right. There was nothing else for teenagers to see. Now you never see a winter go by without a horror movie between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
LUSSIER It opened to $6 million, in fourth place, I think. Then the next weekend it made more money, not less. It just kept making more money as word of mouth continued. That was a fascinating thing to watch, that sort of success grow and grow and grow.
KONRAD I was at the airport and I’m getting the news that we’re steady through the week, doing over a million bucks on weeknights. That was a sign that your movie had legs. I said, “That’s so great!” This guy peeked around the corner and said, “What’s so great?” I said, “My movie is doing really well.” And he said, “That is great.” I looked at him and I’m like, “Oh my God, you’re Norman Schwarzkopf.” It was Stormin’ Norman! That was the craziest moment.
MADDALENA We had a box office bump. So we all made money when it hit $40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, a hundred million. I think at 40 we realized we’re onto a pretty good thing and we got money in our pocket.
KENNEDY It felt like we struck lightning in a bottle. We did this little movie, and it just kept rising and rising and rising. When we were on the set, we thought it was really interesting and different. We thought, maybe it’ll make $20 million and then it’ll kill on VHS and DVD. But then it came out and it just slowly took over everything.
ARQUETTE When I first saw it, I was working at a newsstand on Melrose and they used to give out these screenings where you could go in, watch the film and then check what you liked. I showed up and they’re like, “David, you’re not supposed to be here. OK, well you can watch it from the back.” I got to watch Wes watch that screening. Knowing where these scares were coming and seeing him kind of smirk and then the whole audience screams, and then something happens and they all laugh and Wes was just chuckling — he was this incredible maestro. I don’t think it was his opus, but he definitely was the maestro.
“WHEN THE ALIENS COME, WHAT WILL THEY FIND IN THE CANISTER?”
At the time Scream was released in 1996, the horror genre was all but dead. The combination of Williamson’s clever script with Craven’s creative vision changed the trajectory, gave way to a new generation of scary movies and launched a franchise that’s still successful two and a half decades later.
WILLIAMSON It was scary and fun. And it was at a time when, I guess, everyone wanted to have scary and fun in their life. It hit the zeitgeist and I was very fortunate and lucky. If the movie had been released at any other time, I’m not sure that would’ve been the case.
CAMPBELL One of the reasons Scream did so well at the time was because it was such a fresh reinvention of the genre. The fact that it took a look at the genre itself whilst still feeding audiences its classic big scares was new and exciting. It’s funny, intelligent and terrifying. Not an easy combination to get right.
COX It was the first genre-crossing film I remember seeing. It blended comedy and horror with motifs drawn from pop culture. It was a meta masterpiece.
LUSSIER It never played down to its audience. The characters don’t do stupid things, for the most part. I think one of the other reasons it works so well is the mystery itself. It is a great whodunit. Often movies live and die on the strength of their villains. The villain in Scream is fantastic.
POTTER I think in retrospect people appreciate how original Kevin’s first script was. Two killers like that had never been done before. And one of the things I loved about Scream was that it’s sort of the sequel to the movie you never saw. The story of the murder of Maureen Prescott kicks this whole thing off, but we never saw that. I loved that about it. You don’t have to spoon-feed the audience, just give them the pieces they need to understand the story.
SCHREIBER I’m not a big horror genre movie fan. I scare really easy. When I read it, I thought it was very, very witty. People love to talk about horror movies and how ridiculous they are, and, yet, they’re compelled to go and see them over and over again. I think Kevin tapped into that in a way that nobody had before. All of the cliches, all of the things that drive us nuts and excite us and thrill us about the genre were sort of on the screen in this kind of really fun, Brechtian way.
KENNEDY This is going to sound so crazy, but you know when they say, “When the aliens come, what will they find in the canister?” I think Scream is going to be one of those things. It’s just part of pop culture. It’s that big. One of the reasons why I think it works is because it is self-referential.
WILLIAMSON Up until then, I feel like horror films were locked into a magician’s trick box. They didn’t want to expose how to scare someone. I was the reverse of that. I said, “We know the tropes. Now let’s expose them and spin them around and twist them up. I think that might be a good way to scare people.”
BELTRAMI It was referential to a lot of other movies, but it was its own thing. I think that it’s a good movie, and good movies hold up regardless of the genre. But I think it opened the gates for horror a little bit because it was a huge success. Anytime there’s success, Hollywood takes notice and tries to emulate that.
BROWN There were so many Scream-like films that followed in its wake through the late ’90s. So many impersonators. It gave new life to a dead genre and it put a new twist on it that changed everything going forward.
WILLIAMSON It seemed to light a match under the genre and it did bring an energy back to it. There were several movies, slasher flicks, that came after that. Some good, some bad, but there definitely seemed to be a boom, which I was happy to see. The self-awareness of our characters I think brought in a whole wave of new storytelling.
LILLARD Nobody expected this. It wasn’t built to be extraordinary, but it ended up being something special. It’s hard to scare people, and it’s really hard to make people laugh. To do both … I think that’s why the original hit.
SCHREIBER There was always an element of campiness, but now there was a kind of smart comedy that was part of it. After Scream, I think it made it OK for mainstream actors to participate, and that kind of helped commercialize the genre a little bit.
ARQUETTE I think Scream showed the studio world that horror is really a viable genre that they should pay attention to, they should invest in. I think they also really recognized the different niche audiences aren’t that niche at all. They are quite large, and those audiences exist within all these different genres.
As cast and crew reflect on the past two decades and what made the original Scream so successful, the fifth film installment is set to premiere in January. It’s the first one without Craven and, in a full-circle moment fit for the screen, this time it was Williamson who needed to be convinced to sign on.
POTTER Another brilliant thing that Wes did was as Casey Becker is dying she reaches up and grabs the killer’s mask. What that does psychologically for the audience is it makes them start to wonder, who did she see? The question stays with you subconsciously through the whole movie. That’s the moment that creates the mystery. Sitting next to him and discussing these choices he made was better than any film school you could go to.
KONRAD I don’t know that Scream would ever have been the movie it was if it hadn’t been allowed to be completed under his vision. When you hire a director, you’re really signing on to that point of view. What’s great about Wes was he saw things that other people weren’t able to metabolize until it all came together. He had a very sure hand. Wes is a classicist, right? He’s very classic. The way that he shot the movie was very steadfast. It was on sticks and very composed. It wasn’t running around with a steady cam 24/7. It was a different approach, but that’s what made it pretty terrific. Wes saw it and he knew better, and I’m glad that he got the chance to really bring it home.
MADDALENA I always say that it truly was kismet. We had Kevin Williamson who was brilliant with a self-referential, funny, bending the rules, incredible script. Then we had Wes who, even though he’s really good at scary scenes, had a real zany, humorous side to him that people didn’t really know. He was really funny in kind of a dad way, a pun-meister. The combination was just kismet, and we had the most incredible cast. I really think it’s a perfect movie.
WILLIAMSON I wrote this movie in hopes that somebody would read it and give me a job and then it would simply be a calling card. I never, in a million years, thought it was going to be this big, huge franchise. It’s been 25 years, and I just look back on it as such an old-timer now. Someone pointed out to me the other day that I’m 56 this year, which is the same age Wes was when he made Scream one as a director. It’s kind of cool that all these little milestones are happening, and I’m very excited about the new movie. I didn’t want to be a part of it without Wes, but [screenwriter] Jamie Vanderbilt convinced me after several phone calls, and then I met the directors and I just thought, “I don’t want a movie happening without me.”
Additional reporting by Trilby Beresford.