Pet Sematary Writer Jeff Buhler Discusses Deviating From the Source, Alternate Endings, and the Franchise's Future

For more than four decades, few names in the horror world have been as big as or as recognizable as Stephen King. Whether it be his novels or his various stories that get adapted into movies or TV series, King's name stands alongside icons like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft when it comes to creating tales of terror that haunt audiences. Given his legacy, bringing one of his stories to life for a project can come with an immense amount of pressure, which writer Jeff Buhler knows all about from his experience of crafting the screenplay for this year's Pet Sematary.

When it comes to adapting King's works, some filmmakers have brought his stories to life as authentically as possible while other films take plenty of liberties with the source material. For this latest adaptation of the novel, Buhler's narrative feature a key deviation from the novel which, in turn, led to a number of changes in the film's final act.

ComicBook.com recently caught up with Buhler to discuss the changes to the source material, other ideas the filmmakers toyed with, and directions that the franchise could potentially explore in the future.

WARNING: Spoilers below for Pet Sematary.

pet sematary 2019 remake ellie
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

ComicBook.com: Stephen King regularly supports his stories being turned into movies, so it must have been a relief from early on that he wouldn't be as judgmental as other creators when their work is adapted without their approval.

Jeff Buhler: Yes, for sure. I think time has mellowed all of us, including Mr. King. I think after you've had 30, 40 of your pieces of writing adapted into films, you probably become just a little bit more amenable to people making changes. And we all remember the fight he had with [The Shining director Stanley] Kubrick as being the defining moment in Stephen King adaptations, but there's a lot of people who absolutely love that book, and absolutely love that movie, and understand why things have to be different. It's just part of the game.

How did you get involved in the project initially? Had you been trying to adapt the novel long or did the studio tap you for the job?

The property itself had been in development at the studio for a while before I came on board. And specifically, the most recent development came when Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced the movie, became attached to produce the reboot, and hired Matt Greenberg, who wrote 1408 for him, which was also a huge success. And he's a great writer, and he did the initial run at the script. And then I was brought on board after Matt, and had a slightly different take on things. But there was some underlying elements that Matt had explored that were interesting to me, and if you notice from the final credits, Matt gets a story credit, which is well deserved.

He was the first writer to explore the possibility of switching Ellie and Gage [as the character that was killed and then revived], and he did it in a different way, and it had a different effect on the story, because there were different plot elements that were taking place. But I thought that kernel of that idea was really powerful in what it allowed us to do, in terms of the relationships, specifically Ellie's relationship with Jud, and Ellie's relationship with her father, and everybody's relationship with death and life after death, and their understanding of religion and spirituality. So it made a lot of sense, and that became the cornerstone on which I started building the many, many drafts that I wrote for about five years. It was literally, I think at the end of the process I had delivered 47 drafts to the studio, I had developed with two different sets of directors, I had done work with the producers separately without directors, and then worked through the production and through the additional photography.

Once that switch was determined, were there times you felt this switch made your job easier or times where you wished you were sticking closer to the source material?

Just to answer the second part of that first, I never looked back. I never really thought, "Oh man, if we had Gage running around doing these things, it would be scarier or better." What it did open up, and this was where my take diverged I think from the work that Matt had done before, which is the idea that the monster in this film is really grief and loss, and Ellie is really the first person to experience loss in the form of her cat. And then Louis tries to cover it up, and then he experiences loss in the form of his child. And then all of these decisions cascade into bigger and more deadly problems.

And so it seemed to fit really well, and even having read the book many, many times, reading the passages where Ellie speaks to her parents in the book about death feel very apropos for this treatment. So there was a lot of I think elements of the source material that made more sense in this structure, with that switch. Then on the flip side of that, there's the production question, which is, first of all, working with child actors can be difficult, you have to get very fortunate with the casting. And we were extremely fortunate to have Jete Laurence playing Ellie, and the boys who played Gage [Lucas and Hugo Lavoie] were fantastic as well. But having a three-or-four-year-old feel threatening, in a way that's not campy, is difficult. Not just from executing the production, but also from a stylistic standpoint.

When the first movie came out, there had never been a Child's Play or a Chucky, or any of these other derivative films that came after Pet Sematary. They rode on the success of that motif, and I think the idea of having a little kid running around wielding a scalpel or a knife almost lends itself to a slightly campy treatment. That was far from the tone that we wanted to achieve, so we never really looked back and said, "Oh, that would work better."

That first film definitely treats Gage as the "monster" of the movie, which can ultimately be defeated, whereas this new take on the premise treats the concepts of death and grief as the monster, which is inevitable and can't be escaped.

That was tricky, because the way this film is constructed, with grief and loss being the engine of all these decisions, and people lying and making bad judgments based on this desire to cheat death, or to avoid thinking about death, we have a lot of Rachel avoiding thinking about it, or trying to. And Louis avoiding telling his daughter things, and telling his wife things, everyone's trying to avoid the concept of death. It felt nice at the end to wrap our arms around the fact that it's inevitable for all of us. And as a society, we do tend to, we focus on youth, and we turn away from concepts like dying or aging or anything that represents our mortality.

It felt apropos at the end to lean into it. There was discussion of trying to construct some form of happy ending, at least as an alternate possibility. It's extremely difficult, based on the events that take place prior to the end of the film, to even conceive of what could be a happy ending. I'm really glad that the studio, the directors had the courage and creativity to come up with something that was so fun and exciting, and just leave you stunned.

You say there were discussions about happy endings, but how many endings did you end up writing as alternate possibilities?

Part of the process, especially after we saw the first cut of the film, and there was discussion about needing to enhance the final sequence, not just the ending of the film, but there was material that we wanted to capture that we didn't have time to capture during principal photography with regard to the face-off between Ellie and Louis, and some fight sequences, and some stunts. We were in a rush, and things got tricky in the initial photography. So we were already looking at going back and beefing up the overall sequence that leads to the final events of the film. And in doing so, the studio, at the studio's behest, they requested that we provide them with alternates, just to think about.

Initially I probably wrote, who knows how many I pitched, but I probably wrote in script form around five or six alternate endings, and we discussed them at length. There were many roundtables and meetings and talks prior to additional photography. And then we executed a couple of them, and we tested them, we tested two, we ended up testing two. It was very clear from the response that the one that's in the film is the one that we liked the best, the one that worked the best, the one that audiences responded to best. It's just not possible to put a smiley face at the end of this film.

So did the other ending that you filmed offer that glimmer of hope?

Without getting into too many specifics, because it feels like crying over spilled milk when you look at what other options could have been, but I think there was a more somber poetic ending that was very thematic, but didn't have a punch in a way that the ending that made it into the film does. That one was a little closer to the book in the sense that, I think at the end of the Mary Lambert film, and at the end of the novel, it ends with Rachel putting her hand on Louis' shoulder, and saying the word, "Darling." That's a very famous moment. So there was an ending that we tried to recreate that, that ended up being very somber and poetic, but it left audiences feeling really depressed.

Not that our current version is happier, I think the current ending has an element of surprise, it jolts you, and it has an element of horror, it really feels fun. Like, "Oh man, they're going to go there." It gets your blood racing right before the credits go up, so I think that was received positively. And then there was a, "let's have Louis try to save his family" version that we tried to execute, but it just really doesn't work. And that one, we never tested that version. That was one that we all looked at, and were like, "Oh god, we can't do this."

Given how different this version of the story ended up being from the source material, trying to recreate those original moments would have felt pretty jarring for the audience.

It just felt like we were trying too hard, I think, at the end of the day. It just felt like we were doing gymnastics to land on a specific image, as opposed to letting the story just play out the way it was trying to go. And that's part of what you learn in making these things, you're still writing, creating, all the way through editing and post, you're still hammering and fashioning these beats. And sometimes the one that you have in your head when you're writing the script, isn't what's there. And you have to step back occasionally, and be like, "So what should this be? What does it want to be?" And that's a difficult thing sometimes.

I think as writers, directors, creative producers, creators, we get a fixed image in our mind of what we think it is. And then sometimes the characters, or the performances, or just whatever you capture on film starts to change that, and you have to be able to let it change.

As you were coming up with all of these different endings, was there one you particularly enjoyed writing but thought would be too crazy to actually be considered?

The one that's in the movie was exactly that. I'm not kidding, we had a conversation, we had a roundtable conversation that was a robust discussion, a debate about possible endings, that went on for hours. And at the end of it, at the end of this conversation, someone in the room, as we were collecting our things, was like, "What if this happened?" Just off-handedly, and it just landed in my head, I was like, "Oh my god, that's insane." The whole idea of the spear coming through Louis, and realizing that Rachel had already died, and already been buried, and that we jumped, like we're pushing the timeline of the events quickly forward, there's a shock. And then that led to the idea of all three family members coming back, and Gage still being in the car.

That was just a delicious accident, and we thought there's no way anyone is going to allow this in the film, but why don't we just go for it. We were all shocked, because it's dark. When we first watched the cut of the family members surrounding the car, the dead parents and dead Ellie surrounding Gage, who's this cute little boy who looks up with those big eyes, we're like, "Oh my god, we can't do this, that's just insane." Like they're going to eat him or something, it just seems crazy. And it's a little child, and you know how studios ... First of all, we're killing children in this movie, which is a no-no.

So there were so many things that were wrong with it from just a general studio perspective, that it surprised us all when it made it into the cut. It was very pleasing. I think it was always a question mark, until we showed it to an audience, and they cheered. Literally, 20 hands out of 20 in the focus group went up and said, "We like the ending." So then studio executives perk up and say, "Maybe we have something here that we could ..." So that certainly helped, and at that moment I was like, "OK, we've got our ending, we're good." That was very gratifying.

Things seem to come to a definitive end for the Creed family, but did the studio ever encourage you to find ways to make a sequel seem possible?

We had discussions about possible follow-up films, and for the most part, everybody feels like we've told the story of the Creeds. It's difficult, there are ways to continue this story, this particular story, but it feels almost, the trajectory of this film feels like we flew the plane into the mountain a little bit. It just blows up. So a lot of the ideas that we've been batting around currently, recently, have all been about, more about digging into the mythology of the town, these rituals that children present, the mythology of the Micmac, the Wendigo, the cemetery, the origins, Jud's life. So it looks like, I don't want to promise anything, because we don't know, we're not even down the road on an idea yet. But no, there was no Easter egg that was meant to be the spark of a sequel in there.

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Pet Sematary is in theaters now.