June 21, 2024

Stephen King’s 1983 novel “Pet Sematary” has been adapted several times for film, beginning with Mary Lambert’s 1989 version. That was followed by its 1992 sequel, then by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch’s 2019 adaptation — and now, there’s “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines,” directed and co-written by Lindsey Anderson Beer.

What sets Beer’s version apart from the others is that hers is a prequel, with the intention to answer some of the unknowns about the “Pet Sematary” universe, rather than just tell a different version of the same story. Set in 1969, “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines” follows a young Jud Crandall as he is first forced to confront the evil that — as we know — plagues the town of Ludlow, Maine, for decades to come.

The film stars Jackson White as Jud Crandall, who is hoping to leave Ludlow and join the peace corps with his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind). Mulhern portrays Jud’s childhood friend Timmy Baterman, who recently returned from serving in Vietnam. David Duchovny plays Bill, the father of Timmy, and Pam Grier plays Marjorie, another concerned Ludlow local.

Jackson White as Jud in “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines.”
©Paramount+/Courtesy Everett Collection

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, King described Beer’s film as “the story Jud Crandall tells Louis Creed to try and dissuade him from using the Pet Sematary.” King furthered that while the screenplay “takes a few liberties,” it was a “fine story.” After complimenting Duchovny’s performance, King wrote, “The secret, as always, is caring about the characters.”

Beer could not agree more. “‘Pet Sematary’ is so human, and there is so much character drama in it,” she told Variety. “Character-driven horror is the scariest horror, because you care about those characters. You care about their fates.”

Beer said producers Mark Vahradian and Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, with whom she’d worked with on “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” came to her with the project because they knew she was looking to direct. As a longtime fan of the novel, “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines” felt fitting for Beer as her directorial debut. Her screenwriting credits include “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” and “Chaos Walking,” in addition to upcoming projects “Bambi” and “Short Circuit.”

Ahead of the Paramount+ premiere of “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines” on Oct. 6, Beer spoke with Variety to break down the making of the film — from working with animal actors to building a fake swamp in a real forest.

Why did you decide to create a prequel to “Pet Sematary?” What does the franchise mean to you?

It means a lot to me. It was my favorite Stephen King book as a kid. When the producers called me and asked if I’d ever be interested in directing a “Pet Sematary” prequel, I said, “Fuck yeah, I loved that book as a kid.” Jeff Buhler had already written a draft of it, so I said send me the script. I read the script, and I loved some of the core ideas in it. Ultimately, there’s a lot I wanted to change for my own version, but I could see the movie I wanted to make in my head.

I had been looking at the time at a lot of different things to direct as my first thing. It was immediately obvious to me that this was the one, because I could see every element from it almost immediately. And so, I just jumped right in.

There are several “Pet Sematary” stories to draw from. Did you incorporate ideas from the original novel, the 1989 film and the 2019 adaption?

I wasn’t looking to emulate the movies, or be a prequel to any one movie. The book was my North Star, so I just kept rereading the book. There are elements of the book that I thought were really important to bring to the screen. Such as, the end of the book says Jud is the guardian of the woods, which to me hinted at a larger responsibility that we don’t really see in the movies.

There were things like that that were important to me to bring to life from the book. Just little details about the nature of the evil, like it knows your deepest secrets and taunts people with it. Even the element of cannibalism is in the book, but not in the movie adaptations. There’s so much from the book that I felt like hadn’t yet been explored on screen. I felt like there was a lot of questions I had as a reader and a fan as a kid that I wanted answered.

In addition, the trope of the mystical Indigenous and the cursed land, I felt like needed a refresh. It was important to me to kind of reinvent that mythology and invent some Indigenous characters to bring life to a new point of view on “Pet Sematary.” Here was an opportunity to take an IP I really loved but put what I felt like was an important update on it.

Jack Mulhern as Timmy and Isabella Star LaBlanc as Donna in “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines.”
Philippe Bosse/Paramount+

How did you recreate the town of Ludlow for this 1969 setting?

There were little details that I took from the book and even from Stephen King’s forward about when he was in Maine writing the book. But I just did a lot of research about how Maine looked at the time. One of my pet peeves is when stuff from the ’60s looks super stylized, so I did not want it to look really stylized ’60s in the costume design or production design. It was just about finding great locations, and making it feel kind of lived in and specific. The other thing was I tried to design as much spiral and circle imagery into the production design as I could.

What was it like to work with the animal actors? How did they interact with the human actors?

The animals are amazing. We had three dogs playing the same role, and Jellybean was the hero dog. Jellybean is the one who kind of walks creepily and sits and stares. Jellybean is actually a deaf animal, which posed a logistical challenge because it meant the trainer had to be always in the direct line of sight of Jellybean to be able to give commands. It was always a challenge trying to figure out how to shoot it without the trainer in the shot. And then we had Balzac, who was trained specifically to do the attack scenes and the more vicious work. I had a lot of fun shooting those scenes, but it took a lot of choreography just to make sure that the both the animal and the actors were safe.

How did you approach using practical effects versus just relying on CGI?

Anywhere I could, I used practical effects. Most of the movie is practical effects. Some things like the foot shot are practical effects enhanced by digital. I feel like even when we think we can’t, our brains register effects as effects, and I like to work in camera where I can.

Given that there were so many different practical effects used and you’re working with animal actors among other variables, were there any unexpected challenges that came up along the way?

Maybe not unexpected for me, but unexpected for my production design team. I asked them to build that swamp in a real forest, and that’s not something they had been asked to do before. So that was a fun challenge, creating a fake swamp in a real forest and creating a fake underbelly and filling a tank in a real forest where dirt soaks up water, so it’s hard to keep something filled. But it was a worthy challenge and heightened the atmosphere when we were filming. I think it got much more authentic performances performance out of the boys because we were legitimately filming in a dark, spooky woods.

Natalie Alyn Lind as Norma in “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines.”
Philippe Bosse/Paramount+

What would you say was the most fulfilling part of the whole process, including the writing, directing and how it all came together?

The most appealing part is finally being able to direct something that I wrote. It’s hard as a writer if you want to be a director to put so much of yourself into something and then hand it off to somebody else. The ability to see it through from beginning to completion has just been the most fulfilling professional thing of my life. It’s been a joy, and I’m excited for people to see it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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