It’s been 20 years since Ghostface slashed into theaters in Scream and asked that infamously ironic question of a wide-eyed Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore. Three sequels and an MTV series later, “Scream” is just as revolutionary as it was upon its initial release on Dec. 20, 1996.
By the mid-’90s, slasher films were considered dead and buried (pun intended), thanks in part to a slew of poorly received sequels to iconic franchises — “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers,” “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” and “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.” Until, of course, “Scream” changed the game entirely.
Praised by theatergoers and critics alike, “Scream” grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office on a production budget of just $14 million. It was unheard of at the time for horror movies, and, as a result, it fully revitalized the genre. Following the success of Scream, a new generation of horror fans was treated to the birth of new franchises “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Urban Legend,” as well as the revitalization of long-gone icons, such as Chucky, Freddy and Jason.
While many of the horror films that followed were box office successes, none matched the originality of “Scream.” With the combined efforts of director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, they created a relatively simple slasher flick with one unique element: The movie was self-aware. The characters — Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) — knew about other slasher flicks, spent much of their time referencing other slasher flicks and ironically recognized that they were living inside of a slasher flick.
“Every generation has that one movie,” Williamson tells ET. “There were no other horror movies. The ones that were coming out, they weren’t very exciting.”
“I wanted to write the movie and make the movie that I wanted to see because it wasn’t going to be made and I felt like this was it; it was just the time for it,” he adds. In addition to the first film, Williamson penned the sequel as well as the last installment. (Ehren Kruger stepped in to write “Scream 3” while the screenwriter went off to direct Teaching Mrs. Tingle with Helen Mirren and Katie Holmes.)
While Williamson is now known for creating TV series, including “Dawson’s Creek,” “The Vampire Diaries,” The Following and ABC’s upcoming “Time After Time,” “Scream” was his very first script to be produced. “I was a starving, struggling nobody who really just wanted to pay his rent,” Williamson admits now. “I did not think it would live on the way it did.”
Campbell, who was largely known at the time for “Party of Five” and went on to play Sidney in all four films, shares that sentiment. “We were all at the beginning of our careers,” she says.
It’s almost hard to imagine the cast before “Scream,” but Cox was still an ensemble player on Friends, which was only three seasons in at the time, and she had to fight for the role as the tough-as-nails reporter Gale Weathers. “I wrote a letter to Wes Craven — I think I was always known as being so sweet — and I said, ‘I really can be a bitch!’” Cox says.
Arquette knew from the beginning that lightning had struck with the cast. “There was a scene I had with Courteney (Cox) early on in the film at the school and it was the same day that a bunch of the kids were there and the energy of all those people together let me know this was something special,” Arquette tells ET.
Over the course of the franchise, Cox famously went on to marry and eventually have a child with Arquette, who became the most famous of the Arquette siblings during the mid-’90s. “She’s very witty and on her feet and she’s got an incredible sense of humor,” Arquette told ET on the set of the original film, adding: “She’s stunning to look at!” The two later divorced in 2013.
Rounding out the cast were Rose McGowan (Tatum Riley), Matthew Lillard (Stu Macher), Skeet Ulrich (Billy Loomis) and Jamie Kennedy (Randy Meeks), all newcomers with just a handful of prior film credits.
“It was really new for all of us,” Campbell says. “At the time, we could see there was talent around us and we knew the writing was good and we knew that people were having fun with the script and it felt very elevated, but to us it wasn’t a star cast. It became a star cast later.”
It was Williamson’s brother who suggested Campbell for the role of Sidney Prescott. “My brother kept saying, ‘I read the script and I think it should be that girl from ‘Party of Five.’ And she had already auditioned! I went back and everyone had already starred her name. She walked away with it.”
Campbell, who reunites with Williamson for the occasional social dinner all these years later, was actually surprised to hear this. “I didn’t know any of that; that’s amazing! It’s incredible and very flattering,” she says.
“People say to me, ‘How did you choose this role?’ and I’m like, ‘Really, the role chose me.’ It was the perfect fit, I was really lucky,” Campbell adds. “As an actress, especially at that age, in my twenties, it was really fantastic to be able to play someone who wasn’t a victim. She’s strong and holds her own and fights back and wins in the end and it’s a good message for young women.”
“It was my first leading female role in a film and it did really well and catapulted my career to a place that I never thought I could imagine,” Campbell says. Today, her career includes lead roles in “Wild Things” and Robert Altman’s The Company, as well as notable appearances on “Mad Men” and “House of Cards.”
Campbell owes that big break to Barrymore, who was easily the most famous of the cast members. “For a while, she was going to play Sidney,” Williamson says. Instead, Barrymore volunteered to play Casey Becker, who is killed off in the film’s first 15 minutes.
“I wanted the biggest star of the film to be in that opening scene,” Williamson says of the sequence that would become a staple of the ‘Scream’ franchise, with Jada Pinkett-Smith (“It’s pretty iconic. My mother is like, ‘To this day I can’t watch that,’” she says), Liev Schreiber, Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin and Lucy Hale all taking turns to die in the franchise openers. There were even talks of getting Alicia Silverstone, who was fresh off the success of “Clueless.” “But that was all of five minutes because the very next day, Drew Barrymore said, ‘The thing I love about this movie is the opening scene. I want to play Casey. That’s who I want to be,’” Williamson says.
“It was amazing for me because when I watched the film, I was actually scared,” Barrymore told ET in 1996 while promoting the film. “I mean, it is so scary that even though I was in it — I was there, I knew everything that was going on, the mechanics and everything — it was still just a flat-out scary scene.” It was so scary that the Motion Picture Association of America clashed with Craven over the scene’s violence and intensity.
“My favorite memory is the first night. Standing outside in the rain, all of us just huddled together, freezing to death while the phone rang and Drew Barrymore picked it up,” Williamson recalls. “It was my first film, the first night, I was in tears. You couldn’t talk to me. I was just walking around in tears.”
“It was one of the best written scenes I’ve ever read in my life,” Barrymore continued. “I mean, what Kevin Williamson did with this script is just, it’s a masterpiece.”
“The opening sequence of the first film is genius,” Campbell agrees. “A lot of people tout it as one of the best opening sequences of any film in many years. I think that’s fantastic.”
For the cast, the moments offscreen were just as enjoyable. “The cast would hang out in the mornings because we would shoot all night,” Campbell says. “We would get in cars and go back to our hotel and we would be covered in blood and there would be people going to work at 6 or 7 a.m. and they’d see me covered in corn syrup. The look on those peoples’ faces was always humorous.”
“We would close all the curtains and hang out and have a drink,” Campbell reminisces. “We were sitting in one of our bedrooms and we were like, ‘Could you imagine if this was good enough that there might be a Halloween costume?’ And we were like, ‘No, that couldn’t possibly happen!’ And now it’s 20 years later and I still see the Halloween costume every year in all the shops. It’s pretty amazing.”
Williamson gives much of the credit to Craven, a famed maestro of horror who created the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Hills Have Eyes” franchises. “This script could have gone so wrong. We met with different directors who saw it as a comedy. They never saw it as a horror movie,” he recalls. “Wes was the perfect choice, because he read it and said, ‘This is scary.’ He was like, ‘Forget the comedy, let that ride, we have to make this movie scary.’”
“I make movies about fear and terror,” Craven told ET during a visit to the 1996 set. “People say, ‘Why would anybody want to go be scared?’ I say, ‘They pay money because they are scared, and they want it to be exorcised.’”
In addition to Williamson, Craven’s participation was a huge draw for everyone in the series, making it all the more difficult when he passed in the summer of 2015. “He was a really wonderful man,” Campbell says. “He had a fantastic sense of humor…You’d be shooting these horrific scenes and you would just hear him giggling after he said, ‘Cut.’ It was a little bit twisted but wonderful.”
“He was incredibly talented and made fantastic films,” Campbell adds.
“Wes Craven is just the greatest man,” Cox says. “I love him.”
“My favorite memory of Wes is watching him watch an audience during an early ‘Scream’ screening,” Arquette says. “He would chuckle like a little kid when the audience would jump out of their seats.”
“It was a huge loss,” Williamson laments. “He was a pioneer.”
And it’s that loss that likely will prevent the franchise from continuing, at least in theaters. “Wes and I, when we were starting ‘Scream 4,’ we had plans for ‘Scream 5’ and 6,” Williamson says. “Now without Wes, I feel like you have to sort of answer the questions of how and why, and I don’t know how to do it without Wes and I don’t know why to do it.”
“It would be tough to do it without Wes,” Campbell says, agreeing with Williamson. “His vision was so clear and he was so good. I think it would be painful. It doesn’t mean it would never happen, but it would be challenging. Nobody is talking about it at the moment.”
And while fans everywhere may be crying out in disappointment at this, they too must ask the questions. The first film was a commentary on classic horror films, the second on sequels, the third on trilogies and the fourth on reboots and remakes. If there were a fifth, what exactly would the plot be?
“If some filmmaker could answer that question, then go for it and I will happily buy a ticket and go see it and cheer it on,” Williamson says.
Even if the film franchise doesn’t continue, it’s had a lasting impact both on the genre and its cast.
“Horror movies at the time were going straight to video,” Williamson says. “I just remember it took on a life of its own. Word of mouth is what made ‘Scream.’” By 2011, the four films in the franchise had a combined worldwide box office revenue of over $600 million.
As to why it still resonates with fans today? “It’s a great movie,” Campbell puts it simply. “Kevin Wiliamson’s writing was fantastic. Wes’ directing was fantastic. The casting was great.”
“It was a fun summer away,” Campbell added. “And we ended up making a film that people really liked.”
That would be an understatement.
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