The Secrets Behind This Year's Killer Sequel

Talk about a killer party. Those fun-loving girls from Delta Lambda Zeta have turned the swankiest mansion on the campus of Windsor College into kegger central. Pledge paddles are being put to work on errant behinds. And there's already a boisterous line forming at the SnackWells and Doritos buffet.

Oh, yeah, and Neve Campbell is out by the barbecue grill, screaming her lungs out. It's midnight on the Pasadena set of Wes Craven's Scream 2, and the slashing and impaling are well under way. One sorority sister's already been Ginsued, and Campbell's character, Sidney Prescott, wants to keep mean Mr. Ghost Mask from pulling his Benihana routine again.

Meanwhile, all Craven can do is laugh. "Maybe it's the tension," the 58-year-old director says, watching Campbell shriek away on his playback monitor. "I just think this stuff is hilarious sometimes."

He's not the only one. With its cutting one-liners and to-die-for cast, last year's Scream spoofed its way to the top of the teen horror movie list. Its $103 million box office take puts it right up there with The Silence of the Lambs and The Exorcist. Now Miramax has an ambitious plan to put Scream 2 on more than 3,000 movie screens Dec. 12. Spending $15-20 million on promotion alone--roughly the entire budget of the original--the studio is betting that a traditionally fickle teen audience will again part with their allowance simply to be terrified.

The sequel takes place two years after that wacko in a ghost mask pulled an Edward Scissorhands on the made-up town of Woodsboro. Some of the survivors are enrolled at Windsor College, a fictitious Midwestern university where this generation of all-star coeds--including Party of Five's Campbell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Nutty Professor's Jada Pinkett, Jerry Maguire's Jerry O'Connell, and Boogie Nights' Heather Graham--are majoring, it seems, in Having Great Agents and Looking Really Cute.

And this, we're afraid, is about all Miramax wants you to know about that matter of national security--the plot of Scream 2. In an age when early script drafts surface on the Internet almost as soon as they hit the desks of studio executives, the studio has left nothing to chance. "When I first got the script," says O'Connell, 23, who plays Campbell's devoted boyfriend, "two men with Uzis delivered it and stayed with me until I was done reading it."

There is nothing hush-hush about Campbell, though. Back at the barbecue grill, she's still screaming like Kathie Lee Gifford with the latest edition of the National Enquirer. The scene goes perfectly. "My first job was in [a 1988 Toronto production of] Phantom of the Opera," she explains. "I did 800 shows of it and every day I had to scream, so this is no problem."

No problem, huh? What about Halloween 5? A Nightmare on Elm Street 6? Friday the 13th parts VII, VIII, and, if we must remind you, part nine? Face it: Horror movie sequels suck. Which is the shrewd running gag of Scream deux. While the original was a send-up of slasher conventions, Scream 2--starring most of the survivors of Scream--is a takeoff on the follow-up efforts of Leatherface, Freddy Krueger, and friends. "The entire horror genre was destroyed by sequels," one character grumps near the beginning of Scream 2. "It becomes about money and no one's interested in quality." Adds another, "How can Freddy and Jason possibly be scary after they've all been diluted through five or six sequels?"

Good point. In most cases, pumping out a horror sequel less than 12 months after the release of the original is a recipe for bloody disaster. But as any chain-saw-bearing ghoul will tell you, Scream, with its sly self-referential style (remember the line from the original, summing up horror movies? "Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act, who's always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It's insulting") is nothing like other horror franchises.
"Scream crosses every boundary," boasts Miramax cochairman Bob Weinstein, who two years ago bought Kevin Williamson's original spec script along with a five-page outline for Scream 2 and Scream 3. "It's not just scary, it's not just fun, it's not just clever, it's not just a whodunit. It's all that and it's something more. Like The Crying Game or Pulp Fiction, the Scream saga's a whole new approach to movies. It kills off all the old formulas."

The Scream secret is to pack 110 minutes with sexual tension, hip pop-culture references, and lots and lots and lots of blood. After all, this isn't Captain Kangaroo. "I was in the movie and I still can't watch Scream all the way through," says Courteney Cox, 33, who returns as TV reporter/viper Gale Weathers. "I think that's what made it such a success." The timing was right, too. "There just hadn't been any good scary movies in a long time until these came along," says Campbell.

Still, the original Scream wasn't an instant hit. Released via Miramax's Dimension Films division, it earned just $6.3 million its opening weekend. But word-of-mouth power kept it rolling: It pulled in $9 million in week 2 and was topping $10 million by week 3. "Normally it's four weekends and you're gone," Weinstein says. "But this one stuck around for 26 weeks in wide release. It was almost frightening."

Which, of course, was Craven's intention. "We went off to Christmas vacation last year thinking Beavis and Butt-head had kicked our butts," the director says. "We come back and Scream is all people are talking about." Perhaps the scariest thing of all about the original movie was that Williamson, 32, wrote the script in three days. He locked himself in a Palm Springs hotel room and hammered out a story he'd been thinking about for a while.

"I got the idea two and a half years ago from watching a Barbara Walters special on the Gainesville murders," he says. "I was broke, house-sitting for a friend to pay him back for money he'd lent me for groceries, and I was scaring the hell out of myself. I thought I heard a noise. I walked the house with a butcher knife and a phone and called a friend while I searched the place. We got into this huge discussion, testing each other on horror movies. And that's how Scream was born."

Scream 2, and, for that matter, Scream 3, were part of the plan from the beginning. Says Weinstein: "This is not the classic case of going 'Wow, we made a lotta money, can we make another one quick?' We always saw this as a trilogy of movies. It's like George Lucas' plan for Star Wars, only here we're dealing with a knife-wielding killer in a mask."

Having the idea for a sequel, however, is a lot different from having the script, especially with Miramax pushing to get it out so quickly. And with Scream's raging success, Williamson was suddenly on everybody's hot list ("The last time we saw anyone like him," Weinstein says, "it was Quentin Tarantino").

Virtually every project Williamson had ever considered was suddenly getting greenlighted: I Know What You Did Last Summer got produced by Sony (which capitalized on Williamson's name by advertising it as being "from the creator of Scream"; the ads were pulled when Miramax threatened a lawsuit, but the film was No. 1 for three weeks running). Williamson's pilot for the series Dawson's Creek got picked up by The WB network, and Miramax scooped up his early dark-comedy screenplay Killing Mrs. Tingle from turnaround. With nearly $20 million worth of new writing assignments, three weeks--the writing window Miramax gave Williamson--seemed too short a time for him to turn around a Scream sequel.

"The Miramax mafia basically came down to North Carolina where we were shooting Dawson's Creek," he says. "They came to harass me, and to make sure I wasn't going to eat, sleep, or breathe anything other than the plot of Scream 2."

And what about that Scream 2 plot? Though it's been guarded more tightly than the secret formula for Peach Snapple, we do know this: A prominent black actress gets killed in the first 10 minutes, a la Drew Barrymore's Jiffy Pop scene in Scream. Williamson himself makes an on-screen appearance. Tori Spelling makes a cameo in Stab--a movie-within-a-movie based on the best-selling book by Scream's gore-happy reporter Gale Weathers. And Campbell survives at least until the last scene.
Good luck, though, trying to get any more plot info than that. To maintain the suspense, every cast and crew member had to sign confidentiality agreements; scripts were printed on dark brown paper with red lines through the text so they couldn't be photocopied, and scenes were distributed in installments and filmed out of order.

Even that wasn't good enough. "As soon as Kevin's first 40 pages came in," Craven says, "they went out almost immediately onto the Internet. So all that was blown and we had to go into rewrites."
Perhaps that explains the paranoia around the set on this particular evening in Pasadena. Consider this exchange with O'Connell:

EW: Are you the killer, Jerry?

O'CONNELL: [Cautiously] I play one of many interesting characters who may or may not be the one.

EW: What's it like to have fake blood poured on you?

O'CONNELL: Under the classified nature of this project, I cannot tell you whether any blood actually does or does not touch my skin.

EW: Who's the killer, Jerry?

O'CONNELL: I'd sooner die than tell you.

Alrighty, then! Perhaps costume designer Kathleen Detoro might be more forthcoming:

EW: Are there more ghost masks than last time?

DETORO: I'm not really supposed to discuss the masks. That's really a big top secret kind of thing.

EW: With all that blood, you must have huge dry-cleaning bills.

DETORO: Our bills are appropriate for the needs of this movie in particular.

EW: As costume designer, is it your job to slash the clothes?

DETORO: I can't say.

EW: Is there anything about blood or clothing you're allowed to discuss?

DETORO: Not really, not at this time.

Thank you very much.

One thing we do know about Scream 2 is that all of Hollywood, or at least every actor born after Watergate, seemed to want a role.

"After the success of the first one," Craven says, "we could get any young actor we wanted. They were breaking down doors to get into the sequel. The idea that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a relatively minor role shows you how big this thing is."

"I so desperately wanted to be a part of this movie," says Gellar, 20, whose Buffy slayings have made her the femme fatale of the Home Alone generation. "I called my agent and I was like, 'Please, please, please, please get me in this movie.' It just had a cool feeling about it."

Adds Pinkett, 26, who "may or may not" get killed in the first 10 minutes of the film, "I have a very, very small part, but I thought it was the movie to do. It didn't really matter that it wasn't a huge role. It's a memorable one."

One of the strongest draws was Craven, whose professorial demeanor (he holds a master's degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins university) belies his bloodthirsty screen legacy. Despite killing off dozens of B-movie stars in creep-fests like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Shocker, he can do no wrong in the eyes of his young cast.

"Most of us [in Scream 2] were around 14 when Nightmare came out," says Pinkett. "That makes Wes, like, a total hero." Adds Timothy Olyphant, who plays the opinionated film student Mickey, "Even though there's that feeling you're making a movie with your grandfather, Wes still manages to seem like a young, hip guy."

Scream is earning Craven respect from others as well. Miramax signed him to a lucrative three-picture deal that includes one non-horror film: a feature based on the 1995 documentary Small Wonders, about a violin teacher in Spanish Harlem. Madonna has reportedly expressed interest in the lead. Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster signed a $1 million contract with Craven to write his first novel, a scientific thriller called The Fountain Society. "It's a vindication," he says, "when people acknowledge that you can do more than just horror."

It's just that Craven does horror so well. And it's helping the genre: New Line's readying a Freddy vs. Jason flick, Dimension is releasing the thriller Nightwatch starring Ewan McGregor next March, and Disney's issuing An American Werewolf in Paris Christmas Day.

The genre was dying and Scream saved it," says hirsute director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), who is quietly observing the action with his daughter on this late-night Scream 2 shoot. "It's great for all of us horror guys. Even my phone is starting to ring again."

It's now nearly 2 a.m., and John J.P. Jones, the Scream 2 "knife wrangler," is describing the finer points of his prop collection.

Unlike others, he doesn't seem terribly worried about revealing secrets as he gazes into his Plexiglas-covered cutlery case. Then again, who's going to argue with a knife wrangler?

"A knife has to have death written all over it if we're going to use it," he says. "But it also has to look like something you might find in your dad's garage. Nothing over the top. No jagged edges, no funny hunting knives, no silly grips, no swords, no carved handles. And wacky jungle machetes are definitely out. We like straightforward Buck knives and those butcher knives you see in people's kitchens. They do the trick."

If Scream 2 carves a niche for itself this holiday season, the Scream 3 script is scheduled to wind up on Weinstein's desk sometime next April.

Why the rush? "Everybody's looking for something identical to Scream," says producer Cathy Konrad. "Because we have the brand name, we need to jump in and give the people more of what they want, as long as they continue to want it."

As you might guess, nothing can be revealed about the nature of the third script, other than that it's likely to take place after the Scream 2 survivors graduate from college; and Campbell is likely to return as Sidney. "I didn't exactly say that," she says.

"I don't think any of us are officially signed up yet," says Cox, "but if I said we were, that would mean we'd be alive at the end of this one, and I'm just not gonna tell you that."

Don't count on the Scream franchise to live forever, either. "I won't be a part of Scream 4, 5, or 6," says Williamson. "I'm done. Three stories and that's the end of it." Of course, if there's money to be made, Miramax might squeeze a few more out anyway. "If we ever did get to a Scream 4," Weinstein says, "it wouldn't happen for at least three years, and there'd be all new characters and a whole new conception. Right now, though, we all see the franchise ending at three." Craven, who watched his own Nightmare on Elm Street franchise get sequeled into oblivion, agrees: "If there's a continual clamor for more, I'll be there, but it will have to wait a few years."

In the meantime, a whole new generation of actors is learning the fine art of keeping audiences absolutely petrified.

"I've learned so much about screaming from this movie," says Gellar. "You have to do it over and over again. There's the I'm-being-chased scream, the oh-my-God-I'm-about-to-be-killed scream, the I'm-five-minutes-from-freedom scream. I screamed my head off."

Does that mean Gellar's character gets the old shish kebab treatment?

"I didn't say that, you did. You don't understand, we're so sworn to secrecy. I mean, they're gonna take my firstborn child if I give any of this away. I can't tell you one thing about..."

We get the picture.

-Entertainment Weekly, November 28, 1997
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