On the set of Pet Sematary, one of the signs that Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s adaptation wouldn’t be following the same footsteps as the 1989 film came into focus when we met the new Jud Crandall. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role after Fred Gwynne, right down to the heavy Maine accent straight from the source novel, but that faded instantly the moment John Lithgow showed up on set in character. At 6’4” and in plaid and overalls, there’s a similarity to Gwynne’s iteration. But Lithgow is sporting a beard aged and yellowed by tobacco from his character’s years of smoking. More noticeably, there’s no distinct Maine accent.
“Well, we all talked about it and we even tried it different ways. I did a whole reading in the Maine accent. I personally felt 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 re-imagined the script, it has changed from the book to the first film to this. It has evolved, and Jud has become a more and more serious character in a sense. He’s a character full of deep regret, deep guilt, great longing, great feelings of lost love,” Lithgow shared of his version of Jud.
A pivotal character in both the novel and film, Jud’s accent and appearance are only the beginning of how drastically different the character will be, and the rippling effects that has on the rest of the story. “It makes major changes from the book and from the 1980s film, which by the way I’ve never seen. I read the script, I talked at length with the boys [directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch], I accepted the role, and then I read the book. I saw just how much of a departure this film is from the book. A lot of it has to do with Jud’s character. Something has happened in his life which has made him a very different person from the way he started out. This is all in the back story,” Lithgow explains of how deep the differences go. “That was there in the script that I read when it was offered to me. That was what really fascinated me about the character. That he’s got secrets that bit by bit get unpacked and unloaded and revealed as the story goes on.”
“I found it wonderful that the first you see of Jud, he’s gruff and forbidding, almost a scary character. You don’t know who this character’s going to be. But his first scene is with a nine-year-old girl who is a very unusual nine-year-old girl. But she really warms to this character, and he warms to her. Suddenly you see this kind of forbidding guy who, for some reason, can enchant a child. He can really connect with a child. I mean really connect. Talk to her about death, talk to her about what it’s like to be 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 expected from this character, and that’s the first you see of him… before you see his demons,” Lithgow shares, giving a hint of the very different relationships at play in this adaptation, as well as a potentially very different motivation for Jud than we’ve seen before.
When we meet Jason Clarke, he’s between takes of a very emotionally taxing scene. His voice a little hoarse, there’s an intensity to him, and his knuckles bear scabs by way of makeup effects that indicate where his character is at in terms of place in the story. More so, it’s a detail that demonstrates the level of continuity at play. Like Widmyer and Kolsch, Clarke is also a huge fan of the source novel.
“I read it years ago, and then I reread it before I did it, before I decided to [accept the role]. And then I’ve since read it about eight times, I think, now. I mean I’m kind of at the point now where I’m just reading chapters again, you know, going back and forth just to refresh and keep going over certain things,” Clarke explains of his process in trying to adhere to the essence of who Louis Creed is as a character. Getting so deep into the mindset of Louis Creed, and where his character goes once tragedy strikes has been taxing for Clarke. He shares why it was so easy to get attached to the character, but why peeling back those layers has been tough.
“The thing in the book that I love, is that Lewis has such an internal monologue,” Clarke explained. “There’s a sarcasm to it, and a wit to it, and an irony, and an awareness and a lack of an awareness. You know there’s so much in there to kind of pick and choose and use, which is really helpful. We’re trying to keep it simple in a way. It’s a story about a family and what you’d do if you could. It’s a pretty hard itch not to scratch. But then, when you start scratching at it, it gets pretty ugly. It’s a festering scratch. If that makes sense.”
WARNING: For those who have not read the book or are not familiar with the story in any way, skip this section as it will include a major spoiler.
Clarke’s intensity becomes clear the moment he’s pulled back to set. The scene being filmed that night features an emotionally strenuous moment where Louis is beginning to understand the profound ramifications of his fateful decisions. He’s acting opposite Lithgow in it, but Lithgow’s only job in this scene is to lie dead in a massive pool of blood. It’s the scene fans of the source novel know well; Louis is discovering the aftermath of Jud’s horrific demise.
In character, Clarke enters the Crandall home, dimly lit and wrecked by a struggle, and finds the lifeless bloodied body of his friend. He sets his gun down and clutches mournfully at Jud, screaming both out of anger and devastation. It’s an important scene that Clarke is serious about getting right, and one that indicates just how effective this adaptation will be at unleashing gut-wrenching devastation and pure nightmarish terror.
For all its familiarity to book readers, there’s a small key detail revealed between takes that gives indication to a massive departure from the novel. It’s one that I won’t spoil, but it does change things in a much more plausible, yet terrifying and exciting way.
Before you start to panic about major novel departures, it should be reiterated just how faithful Pet Sematary will be to the core values of King’s story and his world building. We were lucky enough to be allowed to explore the Pet Sematary in depth, located deep in the woods. It’s straight out of the novel, an uncanny level of painstaking detail on display in a loving homage. Each grave from the book, it’s spiraling layout, the deadfall that barricades the beyond, all of it represented. It’s a stunning recapture from the novel full of Easter eggs that will please eagle-eyed Constant Readers.
It won’t be relegated just to the Pet Sematary either; the entire film will have references and homages to the extensive multiverse King has created. “Yeah, the art department has had a blast in this one. The almost went too far where they were showing us signage and it was like… ‘D. Torrance’s Reality,’ and we’re like, no. Because, it can’t be that. If it exists in the world the way like Cujo exists in this book, it happened in Maine, then it’s part of the world. But it’s not like Danny Torrance went and opened up a realty company in Ludlow, Maine. He’s not from Maine. So, if you do Easter eggs, they have to be things that exist within the actual framework,” Widmyer shares of how seriously they take King’s work and what it means in relation to this film. “We actually turned down a lot of Easter eggs. But we put in a lot of good ones that you’re gonna have to find.”
If anyone had any lingering doubts as to how big of fans Kolsch and Widmyer are of King’s works, Widmyer cites the book’s reference of ‘Salem’s Lot, “But our film takes place in 2019, and doesn’t ‘Salem’s Lot go bye bye at some point? That’s what I’m saying, so it wouldn’t be around in 2019. That’s how accurate we’re being.”
We can also thank Widmyer and Kolsch for ensuring fan favorite Zelda made it into the final script. Believe it or not, she wasn’t in the original script for their re-adaptation.
“They didn’t have Zelda in the script until we came along and said, ‘We have to have Zelda,’ and we had a talk and we basically said, ‘Can we top it, should we try? Maybe just leave it alone, maybe just don’t try that.’ And then we just sort of accepted the challenge and said no we gotta try and do stuff on our own, do something that honors the book but is our own thing and is just as scary if not scarier than what they did in the first one,” Widmyer teases of a more faithful take on the nightmarish character.
When asked about a major plot point in the novel that was omitted entirely from the 1989 film, Widmyer grins and simply says, “Oh yeah. No comment.” Get excited now, Constant Readers.
Mike Flanagan has earned a reputation for masterfully adapting Stephen King’s works but leaving set that day it became obvious that Widmyer and Kolsch may take the mantle. We cannot wait.