Mary Lambert on Pet Sematary, Non-Linear Narratives and Child Actors
As haunting and macabre as when it was first released in the spring of 1989, Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary is fondly remembered for being one of the more faithful and rich screen adaptations of a Stephen King novel. (A documentary on the film’s production, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, is to be released later this year.) The story of a nuclear family who move to small-town Maine and, through a series of unfortunate events (i.e. the death of a beloved feline), discover an ancient Indian burial ground that brings the dead back to life, Pet Sematary’s playfully dark twist stems from reincarnation as a degenerative and soulless practice; if you could bring your loved one back from the dead, albeit in a increasingly zombified form, would you? Helmed by Mary Lambert, at the time celebrated for her music videos of “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” for Madonna, the film continues to be so well regarded that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t yet been saddled with an inferior remake.
As Lambert’s Pet Sematary has been the recipient of several recent repertory screenings in the New York City area — including this Thursday at the Film Forum as part of their “Genre is a Woman” series — I spoke with Lambert about her transition from music videos to feature films, how casting is such an important part of her work, incorporating dream logic into a mainstream narrative film, and her own ideas regarding the future of the Pet Sematary franchise.
Filmmaker: In the ’80s, you directed a number of celebrated music videos. Had you been contemplating directing feature films at that time?
Lambert: Not really, no [laughs]. When I was younger, I wanted to be a painter. That was my goal. Quite honestly, I grew up at a time in the rural South where the idea of becoming a film director didn’t even seem like a possibility; it didn’t even sound like a job description. I don’t think I knew where movies came from! I was obsessed with them, but the idea that I might be able to make them seemed impossible when I was younger. And so, I wanted to be a painter. I went to Rhode Island School of Design and that was a really great experience. I was there with a lot of really important artists. Two of my best friends, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, went there, and there was a real sense that being an artist was not limited to being a painter. It was a state of mind, a creative lifestyle that you chose. Anything you did could be art. It could influence other people and you could have a voice in that world, as an artist. That was my goal when I was in college. It was a time, in the early ’70s, when painting was declared dead. Representational or narrative painting was very much not in vogue.
I really loved stories. I come from the South and come from a tradition of storytelling. If a rabbit jumps across a road, it turns into a story! If you have a bad dream, then the house feels haunted, etc. Everyone that I grew up with was a crazy storyteller. There weren’t any artists in my family, no filmmakers or writers, but everyone was a storyteller. Even though I wasn’t a photorealist — and my paintings weren’t highly representational — my work still had a narrative to them, even if it was of the abstract kind.
Filmmaker: For your first feature, Siesta, you had a number of Hollywood movie stars to work with (Ellen Barkin, Jodie Foster, and Martin Sheen, to name a few), and yet the film’s narrative is far removed from the Hollywood mainstream. What was it like making that film and getting it out into the world?
Lambert: The film had some very positive responses, but it wasn’t a big financial success. It was nominated for the Best First Feature Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, and it screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The film was an attempt to do something different with narrative, to tell a story in a nonlinear way. In that respect, I think it was a little ahead of its time. I think it’s been copied…a lot of people have copied elements of it. It also was kind of primitive. It was my first film. I noticed when watching it again recently with a younger audience, I’d really like to fix the sound! It features a Miles Davis score and it was a pretty primitive sound mix, so it’d be really great to remix the sound. I’d like to see it released on DVD, but I can’t seem to get through to Warner Bros to convince them that it would be a good idea.
Filmmaker: When you received an offer to direct Pet Sematary, I believe you had been working on the music video for “Like a Prayer” with Madonna?
Lambert: Yeah, I was in the editing room working on Like a Prayer when my agent called and asked if I would be interested in directing a Stephen King film, a horror movie. I loved fantasy films and I loved scary movies. I was completely obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman movies when I was younger. I loved all of those drive-in movies like The Blob and stuff like that. Village of the Damned is one of my all-time favorite movies. I really loved scary movies, but in terms of slasher movies like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and movies like that, I didn’t really consider myself a horror director. I wasn’t looking to direct a horror film. I liked Stephen King though, and I had read almost all of his books. Nobody could read all of his books at this point in time, unless that’s all they did, because he’s so prolific. I had read a number of his novels, including Pet Sematary, and I got really excited about it and realized it would be a great progression for me. Siesta is a movie that’s about obsession and what happens to obsession when a person dies, how obsession can seep into the afterlife, the link between death and obsession. That’s also what Pet Sematary is about.
The father, Louis Creed, is so obsessed with bringing his son back to life in the third act that he doesn’t look at the potential tragedy it might cause. That’s the same basic theme as Siesta. Ellen Barkin’s character is so obsessed with her love for this Spanish acrobat that she can’t peacefully move on into the next life. I have a very strong belief that spirituality is probably what interests me the most about horror films. It’s one of the few places in modern society where you can explore spirituality. Spirituality isn’t such a big part of pop culture, but I think it’s starting to become a bigger part of our dialogue.
Filmmaker: I imagine Stephen King had to give his blessing as well?
Lambert: Yes, Stephen had final approval of the director, and I wouldn’t have directed the movie if Stephen and I hadn’t gotten along so well.
Filmmaker: As he’s credited with penning the screenplay adaptation, what was it like working with someone that close to the source material?
Lambert: It was a dream. We never really disagreed on anything. I didn’t come in with a vision of “How can we change this story to make it better? What can we do to solve the problems of the narrative?” I wanted to be as faithful to the book as possible. Every once in a while I would have an idea that wasn’t in the script, usually visual ideas that would visualize the spiritual and supernatural elements of the script, and Stephen was extremely receptive to it. It was like a kind of improvisation. I love to work with actors improvisationally, especially during the rehearsal process when a scene’s not working, as a way of finding the heart or spine of a scene. One of the biggest thrills of improv is that you never say “no.” You say “yes, but” or “yes, and.” That’s how Stephen would receive my ideas. I would say “I have an idea…can we do ‘blah blah blah?’” And he would go “yes, and…” and build it into the fabric of the script and bring it to the next level. It was always “yes, and,” and it was never “no.”
Filmmaker: The film opens with a creepily serene sequence in the pet cemetery. As the camera surveys the space, we begin to understand the range of its inhabitants: you include a fish bowl and a birdcage among the more standard tombstones. What was it about that sort of specific detail that was important to you?
Lambert: Well, the movie is about accepting death, and one of the hardest things you ever do as a parent, and perhaps even as a human being, is accept death. As a parent, [it’s difficult] to explain death to a child. Children do not understand. A child is alive, a child loves you and you’re their mother, and a child loves being alive and loves their pets and their friends and their brothers and sisters, etc. When they have to learn when someone dies that they’ll never see that person again – and that some day they will die too – it’s really a big moment in their lives. Usually a child first finds out about death through the death of a pet, unless they’re living under traumatic circumstances in a war-torn country — for example, even as we speak, Syria or Iraq. There’s always that moment where the innocence of Eden is destroyed by the notion that not only are the people you love going to die but you are going to die too.
I wanted to open the movie with the poignancy of that cemetery. It’s where the children first learned about death. They would put their canary in a shoebox and bury it, for example. It’s in the novel, and there’s a scene in the movie where Fred Gwynne’s character, Jud Crandall, alludes to it. It was originally a much longer scene in the movie and we had to trim it down a little bit. There was a lot of stuff we had to trim down. It’s probably the most I’ve overshot a movie. Normally I would turn in my director’s cut and it would be the shortest cut of the whole procedure. The producers go “oh, we have to put this scene back in or we have to put this scene back in.” With Pet Sematary, it was really hard to lose some of the scenes that I really loved, scenes that were important in the book, where Stephen goes into the ideas of how you have to respect death. To bring someone back from the dead isn’t a good idea because they will have undergone an irreversible change. Even if they can have the simulacra of life, it’s not life. It’s a false life in bringing somebody back from the dead.
Filmmaker: There had been talk of actor Fred Gwynne having trouble being cast in the film as the elderly neighbor, Jud. Something about him being too closely associated with his role on The Munsters?
Lambert: There was total pushback from several of the executives at Paramount. They felt that Fred would be laughable and that he would take you out of the movie and not be frightening. When I read the script, I knew it had to be Fred Gywnne and I was obsessed with him [playing the role]. When I went to Montana to meet him (he was working on another movie), we got along really well. I couldn’t keep up with him when it came to drinking vodka, although I tried a couple of times [laughs]. We were like Mutt and Jeff because he was such a large man but was so graceful. You weren’t really aware of how tall and big he was unless I was standing next to him and then you realized that he was really a big guy. He was one of the most amazing actors I ever worked with. He was so in control of his craft and loved the role. He told me over and over again how much he loved the part. He said he put the part on like a garment; the role just fit him.
Filmmaker: He’s often filmed from low angles in the film. He’s literally a towering figure, equally comforting and mysterious. How did you use the camera to make this actor with such a warm presence seem somewhat mysterious and sinister?
Lambert: I wanted to give him a sort of supernatural vibe. His character was like the Dark Angel, the voice that Louis Creed should not have listened to. While he’s a kindly old man that lives next door and seems like an old friend, he wasn’t. He was the voice of evil, the voice of the devil, and he was the Dark Angel. The real angel was Victor Pascow (played by Brad Greenquist), this demonic presence that looked scary and ghost-like and who haunted Louis. Pascow was the voice Louis should have listened to. I liked that counterpoint. You shouldn’t let appearances deceive you. I always wanted to shoot Fred from an angle that would give the audiences a little clue. Even though he seemed harmless with his overalls and stupid-looking hat, drinking beer and telling stories, everything Jud told Louis was a tragic piece of advice that lead to Louis’s downfall.
Filmmaker: There are a number of paranormal and flashback sequences in the film that flirt with reality, specifically the moments involving the character of the deceased Victor Pascow and Rachel’s sister, Zelda. As in your previous film, Siesta, you employ associative editing that feels cut and choreographed to its own elaborate dream logic.
Lambert: That was another reason I loved Pet Sematary and was a good fit for it. One reason as a human race, I think, that we find movies so important and to be such a universal language, is because everybody has dreams every single night. Human beings have been dreaming since they were in caves. The earliest primitive cultures talk about dreams, and there’s a logic that dreams have that isn’t strictly based in reality. Sometimes in a dream you will be in one place and then in another place, you will be a character in a dream and sometimes you will be the observer. You may be able to fly or swim or sing in a dream — something you may not be able to do in real life — and then all of a sudden you can do it. There’s no reason in a dream as to why you can or can’t fly.
It’s difficult to make an entire film with dream logic because most commercial audiences want a narrative that has continuity and consecutive action. Action needs to have consequences that make sense. An entire film told in dream logic can be a difficult one to watch and [is] quickly classified as an art or experimental movie. There are definitely times within a movie, however, where you can employ this kind of intuitive logic within your editing while continuing to tell a linear narrative. I really like doing that. Subconsciously, I think it takes an audience to a place of truth. I’ve tried to do that as much as I could in Pet Sematary and Stephen was very supportive.
For instance, the idea of having the old portraits in Rachel’s childhood home, the ones that were early American, colonial portraits of children that are dressed in strange, little outfits, were planted in the house [for a specific reason]. It was a subliminal image. When Gage comes back from the dead, we dressed him in that little blue dress and the top hat [that are seen in a portrait earlier in the film]. There’s no real logic in Gage wearing that except for the fact that it was from an image that frightened Rachel from her childhood. Stephen and I didn’t feel that we needed to explain that. We didn’t need Rachel to explain that “there was a picture in my mother’s house that always scared me…” We didn’t need to say that nor point it out to the audience. Some people probably don’t get it. And yet, a lot of people have seen Pet Sematary multiple times. When you have moments like that in a film, the movie lends itself to multiple viewings. You’re constantly discovering little things like that, even if subconsciously and unaware. When you watch a movie attentively or even walk down the street and look at things attentively, that information goes into your brain whether you acknowledge it or not. It’s there.
Filmmaker: When Gage runs into the road and is killed by an oncoming truck, you portray his death in a fascinating way. You feature a montage of family photographs representing the key memories his family shares with him. Family photographs make their presence known throughout your film, like the aforementioned Rachel visiting her parents and being engulfed in photographic memories of her childhood. There’s an uncanny presence noticeable here.
Lambert: That was a very conscious decision. Photographs are how we keep people alive after they die. Almost everybody has a photograph of a relative or someone they love who has since passed away. Sometimes they get kind of creepy, taking on an aura of a person, but a photograph is just a piece of paper, just an image. The person in that image has changed and is now dead. It’s really strange to watch videos of not just movie stars or famous people but of family members [who are now deceased].
Filmmaker: How did you cast Miko Hughes as Gage? The character has to be both an adorable little boy and, by the film’s ending, a zombified, soulless killing machine.
Lambert: Wasn’t he amazing in the film?
Filmmaker: He was! When Louis injects Gabe with a needle to the neck, effectively killing his son (for a second time), Hughes looks like he’s in real pain! It’s tough to watch.
Lambert: He was a really good actor. I had to really spend time convincing Paramount to let me hire Miko, who was two-and-a-half years old. They wanted me to hire twins. That’s the conventional wisdom, to hire twins [for issues of child labor]. As soon as I met Miko, I knew I could work with him as an actor. He wanted to please and he wanted to do it. That’s really important when you work with children. Children don’t have the same criteria or agenda or motivation as adult actors. A lot of child actors are just doing it because their parents are pushing them to do it. Their parents want the money. There was something about Miko….I got along with him. A lot of people think that little children are cute, that they’re all cute. Well, not to me! I’m not super maternal! Sometimes small children are really annoying and irritating and you can’t have logical conversations with them all the time. If they don’t want to do something, they’re just not going to do it. You can’t tell them, “I’m going to fire you if you don’t do this.” What does getting fired mean to a two year old? You can’t tell them, “I like your interpretation of the scene but it’s not what the studio wants. We have to go back and make this character more sympathetic, give him a different arc, a playable direction…” How can you explain that to a two year old? You have to have a connection to that person, and I had that connection with Miko. He wanted to please me and he learned how to act. He learned where his mark was, he learned to wait for “action!” I didn’t treat him like a baby or like a dog.
I really tried to teach him what we were doing and [shelter him] from the horrific elements on set. If we were rehearsing the scene where he bites Fred’s throat, that’s Miko who comes in and does the bite. Fred was totally into it! He told him, “We’re playing. We’re just going to pretend like we’re fighting and you’re going to pretend like you bite me.” Then we took Miko off the set and used a puppet for the worst part of that shot, where the head comes away and the character rips Fred’s throat off. We didn’t use Miko for that. I would set the scenes up with Miko for the real emotional tug you feel when you see a small child do anything, and then keep the horrific elements away so that he wouldn’t see the blood or the scary stuff.
Filmmaker: When Pet Sematary was released, it spent three weekends at number one at the North American box office. At the time, it was the most successful film helmed by a female director. Did you notice professional doors opening up for you?
Lambert: You know, I think that I would’ve had more opportunities if I had been a man at that time. A lot of people disregarded it as a fluke, honestly. If I had been really smart, I would have just dug in and did some more hardcore horror films. Those were the films that were offered to me, these super hardcore horror films. I like scary movies a lot, but not for the hardcore horror aspects. Movies were sliding into torture porn at that point. That was probably a mistake on my part, but those were the movies that were offered to me.
Filmmaker: What lead to you signing on to direct Pet Sematary Two? While thematically similar to the first film, tonally Pet Sematary Two is tonally extremely different. Was that your intention?
Lambert: Well again, I think that men and women are treated very differently in the film industry. If a man — say Ridley Scott or Jonathan Demme, two filmmakers I’m not comparing myself to but whom I have huge esteem for — has success with a horror film like that, it’s assumed that if they can do a horror film then they can do something else. For women, it’s “oh, she can just do [more] horror films.” Pet Sematary Two was a chance me to do something a little different and I don’t think it was completely realized. I wanted to do a really dark comedy and that’s what was interesting about the story. It wasn’t my story. Paramount had developed it and then I worked on the script. To me, the strongest elements of the script were the adolescent, dark humor elements: What’s the worst thing that could happen? Your mom marries the sheriff and you have this stepdad you hate? What could possibly be worse than having this creepy disciplinarian stepfather? Well, guess what? He could die and you could bury him in Pet Sematary and he could come back and be a creepy disciplinarian zombie stepdad! I thought Clancy Brown, who played the stepdad, was brilliant. He was hysterical.
The film didn’t have the same scariness to me as the original. Stephen King, of course, didn’t like the script, but David S. Goyer [revised] it and he did a good job on it. I felt the strongest elements were the Grand Guignol, the dark and scary but ironically funny elements of it. I didn’t have the support of the studio. They kept wanting to take it back. I wanted the electric guitar sounds throughout, however. I didn’t want to have a traditional score. I really wanted to get into the idea of what goes on in a teenage boy’s head. Why do they do stupid things? Because that’s the kind of stupid thing a teenage boy would do! Louis Creed buries his son because of an intense desire, a feeling of guilt that it’s his fault that the boy died, but Edward Furlong’s character buries Clancy Brown in Pet Sematary because he’s a teenage boy and he’s stupid! For teenage boys, the blood is not going to their brain; it’s going somewhere else. There are scenes in the film that I think really work and I wish I could have gone more in that direction.
Filmmaker: The film and this franchise have been very popular for a long time and there’s always talk of another sequel or remake. Do you have an opinion on the glut of horror remakes we’ve seen over the past decade and perhaps touching this property again?
Lambert: Well, I have a great idea for a sequel. I do! I always think I’m going to work it up a little more and then see if I can get Paramount interested in it, but I don’t know anyone at Paramount anymore. I wish them luck on a remake. They’ve been trying to do a remake for years now and they can’t come up with a script that’s better than the original one. Maybe they will finally do it. The studio has been talking about it for about ten years now. They’ve called me several times, not to direct it, but to see if I can talk with this person or that person, etc. Is Guillermo Del Toro involved? I forget who’s involved with it now. I’m sure it’s possible to take that material and do another version of it. It’s a huge book! But they’re having trouble finding that path, I think. But if any serious producer wants to hear my idea for a sequel, I’d be happy to tell them. It would be a true sequel, not a remake! It wouldn’t be a story just about Pet Sematary, but what really happens to the remains of the Creed family.