‘Scream’ Commentary Offers Education in Horror, Any Way You Slice It

(I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case…SPOILER ALERT!)

With Scream, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven very consciously set out to play with horror movie conventions. Part of this approach included using characters who were aware of the genre and used that knowledge to defend themselves. Since smarter characters could only be killed off by a smarter villain, the whole movie was brought to a higher level.

This elevation of the material also carries over to the DVD commentary, which is by far one of the best I’ve heard so far. This is probably because their approach to the movie provides them with at least three inherent topics for their commentary: the conventions they chose to incorporate; how they set up those conventions; and how they played with audience expectations. Along the way they also get into the specific movies that influenced them and all the usual bits of trivia about the making of the film. Maybe it’s because Craven has been working in horror for decades, or because Williamson had taken screenwriting classes at UCLA a few years before writing the screenplay, but it’s refreshing to listen to filmmakers who really have something to say about their film. You can actually learn something by listening to this commentary; that’s a nice change from so many of the others, which can just make you want to…well, scream.

Filmmaking Tips

00:00:25 – Done in the first 5 days of shooting. Meant to be a Hitchcockian introduction. Williamson had always imagined that having a lead name in the part would be really shocking, and was glad to get Drew Barrymore. [Just goes to show the importance of casting, even for relatively small roles.]

00:09:25 – One horror cliché involves the victim walking backwards right into the killer. They set up that scene, but don’t follow through, which increases the tension. [Playing with audience expectations can pay off. That’s the basic concept at the core of the whole movie.]

00:06:10 – The night before shooting, Barrymore started crying when she told Craven about a newspaper story which described a dog being burned by its owner. When Craven needed to get her to cry on set, he’d say, “Drew, I’m lighting the lighter.” [Getting to know your actors, and what resonates with them, can help to bring out the performance you need.]

00:09:45 – In the original script, the killer only wore a mask. Craven added the robe because people would be able to identify the killer by his hands, feet, and other clothes he was wearing. [Attention to detail pays off, especially when transferring a written passage to a visual image. You’d think, though, that Williamson would have covered this in the script. A fresh pair of eyes can also be helpful.]

00:10:43 – The MPAA really wanted this shot removed; Craven lied and said it was the only shot they’d taken. [What they don’t know can’t hurt’em.]

Scream, Front Cover

Scream, Front Cover

00:17:25 – This was shot using a cameraman with a steadicam standing on a crane. As the crane drops, he steps off and continues the shot.

00:29:45 – Some footage of the killer being knocked around was cut because it made him look too much like a clown. [Let your villains take a beating, but don’t let it turn into a Three Stooges routine.]

00:47:35 – Most of the suspects had to wear large, black shoes throughout the rest of the film so they couldn’t be identified as the killer. [Pay attention to details. Who would’ve thought shoes could be so important?]

00:59:45 – Craven decided to have Dewey (David Arquette) nip the ice cream cone every time the sergeant took a drag on the cigarette. Just prior to this scene, Williamson mentions that to keep the red herrings alive, he often has them disappear between scenes rather than go somewhere populated. [Look for opportunities to liven up a scene, even if it’s a just little thing. Also, don’t cheat your audience.]

01:41:29 – The decision to have Sidney put her finger in Billy’s wound was meant to convey “reverse love-making” and convey the level of down-and-dirty fighting to which they had resorted. [Probably not something most people would catch the first time through, but actually makes a lot of sense in a movie that focuses on characters’ virginity.]

Writing Tips

00:02:05 – The popcorn on the stove is meant to indicate the “expanding clock.” [I assume that means the passing of time.]

00:03:05 – Williamson thought that having characters who are aware of horror movies would make it possible to scare the audience. [Perhaps this awareness shifts audience expectations. If the characters are aware of the clichés, then they should be smart enough to avoid them. At the same time, we know some of these people have to die, so this suggests that how they die will be unexpected, which keeps the audience on edge.]

00:05:20 – According to Craven, using a cell phone as a killer’s instrument is something that was pretty new. It was part of an effort to take things that were used in everyday life but hadn’t been used in a film yet. [Sometimes originality stems from the most mundane things.]

00:07:44 – Craven thinks that the scariest killers are the ones that are very smart. [A strong villain can improve the overall movie.]

00:09:03 –  Earlier shots had established the large number of windows in the house, so when the killer throws the chair through the window, the audience knows that there is nothing really protecting this girl. [Pay attention to the details of your characters’ environment.]

00:15:44 – This sets up Sydney (Neve Campbell) as “the virgin”, the character who lives, which is another stereotype. Williamson wanted to explore whether a character who lost her virginity would survive the movie.

00:24:15 – The whole course of the movie involves Sydney’s readjustment to her perception of her mother based on what she learns from other people. [The emotional development of character pays off even in an action-oriented movie.]

00:24:35 – Up to this point in the movie, the filmmakers have focused on establishing the present. Now they begin to establish the past, which they hoped would fuel the audience’s interest. [Audiences care about well-developed characters.]

00:35:55 – Williamson intended to “point the finger” at Billy (Skeet Ulrich) so blatantly that the audience would know he’s not the killer, then spend the rest of the movie challenging that. [Again, play with expectations.]

00:37:35 – Williamson consciously showed the softer side of Tatum in this scene. [Again, audiences get invested in well-rounded characters.]

00:46:44 – This scene in the bathroom was going to be cut, but Craven and Williamson realized how important it is for Sydney’s character and the story of her mother. [Trim the fat from your movie, but don’t cut off a limb.]

00:50:10 – Williamson consciously set Sidney’s virginity in opposition to the possibility that her mother was “a loose woman.” [Consider the relationships between characters.]

01:08:00 – The people who turn out to be the killers are accounted for at all times, so there’s always someone out who could be causing trouble. Craven believes people may re-watch the movie in order to track this. [Don’t cheat your audience.]

01:16:28 – Williamson wanted to isolate the core characters, but wasn’t sure how to get the other partiers to leave. When Williamson decided to write in the principal’s murder, that became the answer. It also allowed him to keep a consistent tone in terms of the teens’ hard-edged, cynical response. [If you’re struggling with what happens next, look back on what’s already happened for inspiration.]

01:28:14 – This scene was from an earlier, abandoned script that Williamson started in high school. [Don’t waste anything.]

01:31:48 – For Williamson, the “satirical edge” that was weaved throughout the film suddenly becomes what the whole film is about in these final moments.

01:33:15 – Williamson wanted to make the point that you can’t blame the movies for violence, but by sending out that message in a very violent film, it created some ambivalence.

01:34:45 – In this scene, the killers’ plan comes apart because it depends on them casually being stabbed, but they have no idea what violence does. [Be aware of what you want to say, and how you want to say it.]


00:01:30 – Williamson’s script caused a huge bidding war in Hollywood. Miramax changed the original title, Scary Movie, to Scream. At first everyone thought the new title was dumb, but they grew to love it.

00:02:15 – Initially, Craven removed the girl’s reference to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (“Yeah, the first one was [good], but the rest sucked.”) because, as the director of the first Nightmare, he thought it would make him look like an egomaniac. Williamson reminded Craven that he also directed the seventh Nightmare, and that was included in the films that sucked.

00:03:30 – The opening was an homage to When a Stranger Calls, which Williamson thinks has a very shocking opening.

Scream, Back Cover

Scream, Back Cover

00:03:40 – Casting the telephone voice took weeks and weeks. They finally hired Roger Jackson, who does a lot of narration and radio voices out of San Francisco. They never let Drew see or meet Roger.

00:04:43 – The blue of the television screen suggests we’re about to see a film, which was a conscious choice by Craven.

00:07:55 – One night, Williamson was playing movie trivia in a bar. Anyone who stumped the audience would get a free drink. Williamson asked this question (“Name the killer in Friday the 13th.”) and was soon enjoying a cold one.

00:08:15 – The MPAA repeatedly asked Craven to tone down the film. There was a lot of back-and-forth between them during the editing.

00:17:51 – The reporter in the background is played by Linda Blair, of Exorcist fame.

00:19:19 – Craven’s agent also represents Henry Winkler, which is how they met.

00:19:55 – The dialogue in this scene was one reason why the school board asked the film to stop shooting at the high school. While the school board was chastising the crew for exposing children to such “inappropriate” material and setting a bad example, one of the school board members was arrested for abusing his wife.

00:29:52 – Sydney types her address as 34 Elm St., but it was cut because of time.

00:31:00 – Joseph Whipp was the sergeant in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

00:34:25 – Earl Brown, who plays Gale Weathers’ (Courteney Cox) camera attendant, was the morgue attendant in the seventh Nightmare on Elm Street and the cop with the dog in Vampire in Brooklyn.

00:36:02 – The people in the background aren’t paid extras; they are people who were there to watch the shoot.

00:36:45 – When Williamson’s agent read the scene in which Sidney punches Gale, he was convinced the script would sell.

00:38:30 – This was shot in Healdsburg, California.

00:39:45 – This is Linda Blair’s second appearance as a reporter. She first worked with Craven on a television movie called A Stranger in the House.

00:51:25 – The scene in which the principal dies was the result of a phone call from Harvey Weinstein. After buying the script, he called Williamson and said that there was a thirty-page gap where “nothing happened.” Weinstein’s solution? “Someone’s got to die.”

00:52:13 – The janitor is played by Wes Craven, who wears the original costume from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

00:53:21 – This shot was an optical effect. The idea was given to Craven by Bob Weinstein.

00:56:55 – Prom Night included a lot of red herrings, which partly inspired Williamson to include as many as he could.

01:04:35 – The idea of putting a dog door in the garage door came from Williamson’s assistant, who had the same feature at her home.

01:22:45 – This scene is the one time Skeet Ulrich is in the Ghost Face costume rather than a stunt person.

01:29:10 – Jamie Kennedy put a rock “the size of a hen’s egg” into his shoe in order to limp properly.

01:30:07 – According to Craven, the MPAA was uncomfortable with the film because it “was so imitatable” because they were just using a knife in the kitchen.

01:31:19 – Williamson was worried people would figure out that there were two killers because it wouldn’t be possible for one person to commit some of these killings.

01:32:20 – According to Williamson, some people thought there should be no motive for the killings because it would be scarier, while others thought there should be one. Williamson decided to do both.

01:34:35 – This was the scene that most made the MPAA want to give the film an NC-17 rating.

01:39:02 – The phone was supposed to hit the counter, but hit Matthew Lillard in the back of the head by mistake. He managed to stay in character.


Entertainment – 4/5

Filmmaking Tips – 3.5/5

Writing Tips – 4.5/5

Trivia – 5/5

Scream (1996) | Directed by Wes Craven | Written by Kevin Williamson | Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, and Drew Barrymore | DVD Release Date: 1998 | Commentary by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson

3 thoughts on “‘Scream’ Commentary Offers Education in Horror, Any Way You Slice It

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