Scream – Resurrecting the Elevated Horror Franchise

When screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick took their first step crafting the screenplay for Scream, the fifth instalment of the ‘Scream’ horror franchise, they insisted on involving series creator Kevin Williamson on the project.

Kevin Williamson, who serves as executive producer on Scream, didn’t expect another Scream film would be made after the death of his close friend and mentor Craven in 2015. “When Wes passed away, I figured that was the end of the Scream series, and if someone did make another one, I’d probably just watch it from afar on cable TV or something,” he says. “I had kind of put it all to rest and said goodbye by that point. So when Jamie first approached me about doing this movie, I didn’t want to hear about it. I told him to go ahead and make a great film without me.”

But Vanderbilt persisted. According to Vanderbilt, when the opportunity arose to make Scream, the first thing he did was reach out to Williamson in the hope of getting him involved somehow. Nevertheless, finding himself discussing Scream with the mastermind of the series was a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least. “When Guy Busick and I finally sat down and pitched Kevin what we wanted to do with Sidney Prescott and the rest of the legacy characters he created, it was one of the most surreal moments of my career,” Vanderbilt says. “And believe me, we pitched him some pretty big things, but that’s what he liked about it.”

After arranging a second meeting, this time with co-writer Busick attending, the two screenwriters took Williamson through their Scream concept, beat by beat. “The story they pitched me sounded really, really good,” Williamson says. “So I woke up one morning and thought, what am I doing? Do I really want them to make another Scream and not be part of it? After that, I called Jamie and said I wanted to do it as long as we can dedicate the film to Wes. And he said absolutely. He even had the studio put it in writing, and now we have this beautiful tribute to Wes Craven.”

As the brilliant mastermind and writer of Scream, Scream 2 and Scream 4, and the producer of Scream 3 and Scream 4, Kevin Williamson knew the property better than anyone. Williamson’s unique vision and imaginative storytelling have thrilled audiences for decades. He also wrote the screenplay for the films I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Faculty (1998), and Cursed (2005), and created the drama series Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003), the supernatural drama series The Vampire Diaries (2009–2017), the Fox crime thriller series The Following (2013–2015), the CBS crime drama series Stalker (2014–2015), and the CBS All Access thriller series Tell Me a Story (2018–2020).

The journey to carry the Scream franchise forward began in 2018

The independent film studio Lantern Entertainment purchased the assets of the Weinstein Company, including the rights to Scream. Veteran producer and entertainment leader Gary Barber and a group of investors then joined forces with Lantern to form Spyglass Media Group and took over the rights to the library and the franchise.

Set in the sleepy suburban town of Woodsboro, Scream told the chilling story of high school student Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell) and a group of her close friends who find themselves stalked by a movie-obsessed serial killer nicknamed Ghostface. Filled with nail-biting suspense and structured as a classic whodunit — but with a bloody twist — the film was both a terrifying slasher movie and a loving homage to the genre itself.

According to Spyglass President of Production Peter Oillataguerre, who serves as executive producer on Scream, continuing the franchise was always a top priority for Barber. “Gary saw the value in Scream from the very beginning, so it was the first project we really focused on,” he says. “And that’s because Scream is more than just a horror film. There’s an element of fun involved in this series that goes beyond horror. The relationships between the characters are unique, and the franchise satisfies a wide array of audience members, not only genre fans.”

Oillataguerre says honouring Craven’s legacy was the first and foremost goal for the company. “Early on, that was one of the main topics of conversation we had on Scream. We really wanted to pay homage to Wes, so our mission was to put together the right group of filmmakers to do that.”

Scream is produced by William Sherak, James Vanderbilt, and Paul Neinstein, who formed Project X Entertainment in 2019 and played a key role in the production of the film. Barber had a close relationship with the trio. “Gary was someone I’d known since I was a kid,” says Sherak, “so when we sat down with him and said we wanted to produce Scream, he trusted us to do it. I guess you could say the dominoes fell into place at exactly the right moment.”

Busick and Vanderbilt were committed to living up to the Scream legacy by honoring the rules and themes that Williamson established in the series.

Twenty-five years after a string of brutal murders shocked the quiet town of Woodsboro, a new killer has donned the Ghostface mask and begins targeting a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the town’s deadly past.

Vanderbilt, the acclaimed screenwriter of Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man and White House Down, co-wrote the film with Guy Busick. Like countless moviegoers back in 1996, Vanderbilt saw Scream multiple times and was stunned by its sophistication and craftsmanship.

That eventually led to a deep appreciation for Craven’s extensive body of work. “He is one of the very few directors who had three enormous genre-shaking hits in three different decades,” Vanderbilt says.

“In the 1970s he burst onto the scene with The Last House on the Left, and then he came back with A Nightmare on Elm Street in the ’80s, and then he revolutionized horror again with Scream in the ’90s. That’s just an amazing run of films by any standard.”

James Vanderbilt
Guy Busick’s writing credits include the series “Castle Rock” and the feature Ready or Not, also directed by Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett. His genre expertise made him the ideal choice to help chart a new path forward for Ghostface, according to Neinstein.

“Jamie and I have been influenced in countless ways by Kevin’s writing over the years,” says Busick. “He really created the formula that made the Scream series such a success, and he was so generous with his time and with his thoughts on this project. They say ‘never meet your heroes,’ but in this particular case, it worked out really well!”

“Pairing him with Jamie was the perfect combination of talent to write Scream,” says the producer. “From the moment Guy and Jamie pitched their idea to us, we knew they had hit the tone of what this franchise is all about. The story they came up with felt new but recognizable, which is a hard combination to pull off when you’re looking back on 25 years of movies.”

Busick’s adoration for Scream dates back to seeing it with friends on opening night. While walking back to their car after the film, he and the group began quoting lines from the movie after only a single viewing. “It just immediately sparked my love of the genre all over again,” he says. “The postmodern commentary was mind-blowing, but it also had fully fleshed-out characters that we all cared about. They weren’t just machete fodder. You watched Scream and you became genuinely attached to Sidney and her friends.”

One of the primary rules that Williamson established for the franchise from the very beginning is that each instalment comments on the current state of the horror genre at the time it’s made.

The first question Vanderbilt and Busick asked themselves when writing Scream was, what is it about horror today that lends itself to the Scream treatment? This led to the ideas of “requels” and “elevated horror.”

“Requels are part reboot and part sequel, and that’s something you see happening more and more right now. Not just in horror, but across filmmaking in general,” says Vanderbilt.

Elevated horror is a term that refers to a subset of the genre that relies less on traditional jump scares and gore, and focuses instead on allegorical subtext, artistic mood and social commentary. “I’m a huge fan of quote-unquote elevated horror,” says Busick. “There are auteurs working in the genre today that make these wonderful movies. So in Scream, we lovingly poke fun at the line between traditional horror and what some people consider the elevated form.”

In addition to paying tribute to the first Scream, Vanderbilt felt it was important to honour the three sequels as well.

“There’s a tendency, especially now, to pick and choose which sequels count and which don’t,” he says. “So in this movie, we acknowledge that all of the previous sequels happened, and you’ll see a few characters who were introduced in the sequels return in this movie.” After reading the completed draft of Scream, the Radio Silence team was dazzled by what Vanderbilt and Busick had come up with.

“As soon as we finished Jamie and Guy’s script, we looked at each other like, oh my god! We have to do this! It’s incredible!” says director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, who co-directed the film with Tyler Gillett, “We devoured every scene and every moment, and then we went back over it again with that same level of excitement.”

While he’s a die-hard fan of the series, Gillett acknowledges that Vanderbilt and Busick’s Scream script makes it clear that the screenwriters are in a different league altogether.

“The only two people in the world who are bigger fans of the Scream universe than me and Matt are Jamie and Guy,” the director says. “Their love for the franchise was apparent from the very first line of the script. It just hit the bullseye again and again. There wasn’t a false note in it and every single page was either terrifying or mysterious.”

“Getting Kevin’s blessing on this meant everything to us,” says Gillett. “It’s impossible to overstate how significant his involvement was and how much his work impacted us growing up. I mean, Matt and I are fans of Kevin on a level that’s hard to express, so having him help us shape this movie was invaluable.”

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin

The best horror movies often leave a permanent mark on viewers. Perhaps that’s because fear is, in the words of author H.P. Lovecraft, mankind’s “oldest and strongest emotion.”

Tyler Gillett

A truly frightening film can have an especially enduring impact when seen at an impressionable age, and that was certainly the case for Scream co-director Tyler Gillett when he saw Wes Craven’s 1996 horror hit Scream in his early teens.

“My memory of seeing Scream is one of sheer terror,” says Gillett. “I was introduced to it when I was pretty young, so it stuck with me in a really profound way. It was an entry point to horror for an entire generation because it was like an encyclopedia of everything that was great about the genre. It really opened my eyes to the power of what you can accomplish when you mix genuine horror with moments of intelligent humour and characters you honestly care about.”

When Scream arrived in theatres on December 20, 1996, it broke all the rules and reinvented a genre that was sorely in need of fresh blood. Horror’s popularity was on the wane in the mid-’90s, and hit films in the first half of the decade were increasingly rare. Fans had grown bored with the endless stream of recycled remakes, uninspired sequels, and tired knockoffs that were being released on a regular basis.

Scream changed all that. The film’s whip-smart screenplay by brilliant newcomer Kevin Williamson dazzled moviegoers who could tell it was written by someone who truly understood the genre. Fans saw it multiple times and word-of-mouth grew week after week as the film’s popularity took hold.

Loaded with incredible set-pieces, fully realized characters, and some of the scariest kill scenes ever captured on screen, the cultural impact of Scream was enormous. It single-handedly spawned an entire subcategory of self-aware horror films, and its overwhelming success reinvigorated the moribund slasher genre, resulting in hits like I Know What You Did Last Summer, also written by Williamson.

None of this would have been remotely possible if not for the genius of director Wes Craven, whose legacy within the genre is unsurpassed. After shaking horror fans to their very core in the 1970s with the independent shockers The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven invaded moviegoers’ collective unconscious with the 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, which produced six sequels, one spin-off, and a remake, as well as a TV series that ran for two seasons. The effects-filled Freddy Krueger series pioneered the “rubber reality” subgenre of horror, which inventively blurred the lines between dreams and reality, and became a staple of Craven’s storytelling style.

After directing a number of critically acclaimed stand-alone films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and The People Under the Stairs, Craven stunned audiences once again when he returned in 1996 with Scream.

The film remains the biggest box office hit of his distinguished career, spawning four sequels, with the entire
Scream series grossing an astonishing $608 million worldwide.

Scream co-director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin — who along with Gillett and Scream executive producer Chad Villella form the film collective known as Radio Silence — says seeing Craven’s groundbreaking masterpiece for the first time gave him the experience he always hopes for when he goes to the movies.

“It was scary and fun and moving. It had everything you could possibly ask for and more. Plus, it was the first movie I saw that was self-referential and really understood the films that led up to it.”

For Villella, watching Craven’s classic in a packed theatre with an energized crowd was more than just a great night out — it actually helped inspire his career. “Scream was a real game-changer for me,” he says.

“It’s the movie that made me want to get into filmmaking in the first place. My college roommates and I basically played the VHS on a loop the entire time we lived together.”

The terror didn’t end with Craven’s bloodcurdling blockbuster, however. Scream 2, released less than a year after the original, and once again written by Williamson, took the box office by storm in 1997, cementing Ghostface’s position as one of the screen’s most iconic killers. Ushering horror into the new millennium, Ghostface returned in Scream 3 in 2000 and again stalked fresh victims in Scream 4 in 2011. And each time, Craven was behind the camera orchestrating the macabre mayhem.

“We kept getting amazing new movies in the franchise every few years,” says Gillett. “The Scream series always evolved with the times, and it offered commentary on how fans interact with media and what that means in a larger cultural sense. And it did all that while still being super scary. It’s just an insane creation, and Matt and Chad and I are honoured that we now get to be a part of its legacy.”

With Scream finally ready to terrify audiences everywhere, the filmmakers are thrilled viewers will be able to experience the movie in theatres the way it was always intended to be seen. After all, watching Ghostface leap from the shadows with a knife raised high is much scarier when you’re in a crowd that’s caught up in the story.

“This is an audience movie, and seeing it with a group of people who are all feeling the same tension just amplifies the experience,” says Vanderbilt. “We really built Scream from the very beginning to be an immersive theatrical film.”

Williamson, meanwhile, is happy that the beloved characters he created are back on screen to delight horror fans both old and new. But be warned, he says: Scream has more than a few tricks up its blood-stained sleeve. “There’s a freshness to this movie that’s going to catch the longtime fans off guard, and that’s the beautiful thing about this genre. It has a loyal fan base, and I couldn’t be happier that Scream has endured and will keep going on in the future.”

Reflecting on what it was like to direct a bold new chapter in one of the most revered and influential horror series of the past quarter-century, Bettinelli-Olpin tips his hat once again to the man whose name is synonymous with Scream.

The first thing every cast member from the original Scream brought up when we approached them about this movie was the family atmosphere that Wes Craven created and how much they all loved him,” he says. “So it was important to me and Tyler that we create the same feeling on our set as well.”

Putting it another way, Gillett says, “One of my favourite parts of this whole experience was getting to work with people who knew Wes on a very personal level, and a huge part of that was working with Kevin and the legacy cast members and hearing their stories. It was a truly remarkable experience that Matt and I will never forget.