For children of the ‘90s — elder millennials, or so they call us — Kevin Williamson is a near-mythical figure. This is, after all, the man who burst onto the scene with his screenplay for 1996’s meta-horror classic Scream, followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, Halloween H20 and The Faculty. Then there was Dawson’s Creek, a coming-of-age teen drama centering a group of garrulous film geeks that birthed an entirely new genre of TV nerd (see: Seth Cohen).
Williamson, now 57, has remained remarkably prolific in the years since, helming CW’s hit series The Vampire Diaries and cult favorite The Following, not to mention reviving the Scream franchise with Scream 4. He’s since ceded writing duties to others, executive producing last year’s Scream and the upcoming Scream VI.
But right now, the guy is struggling with the rain. Though born and raised in North Carolina (“The gay kid in a small town,” he says), Williamson is now a tried-and-true Angeleno, used to sunny skies and deceptively sunny dispositions.
“We need someone to mentally prepare us for it,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We’re not ready to handle it… emotionally.”
Those trapped inside can pass the time with Sick. Directed by John Hyams, from a screenplay by Williamson and Katelyn Crabb, the horror film is set in April 2020 during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The death toll in the U.S. has topped 10,000 people and 97 percent of the country are under stay-at-home orders. So, pals Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million) decide to quarantine at Miri’s family’s lake house in the middle of nowhere — only to find themselves stalked by a masked killer and their hunting knife. The fun flick, now streaming on Peacock, marks the first Williamson-penned slasher film since 2011’s Scream 4.
“You can tell when we wrote it and now the time it’s set, April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, almost feels like a period piece,” says Williamson.
In a wide-ranging chat with Rolling Stone, Williamson opened up about everything from his early Super 8 horror films to Scream VI, which he says would make the late Wes Craven happy.
How do you feel about the state of horror movies in 2023? It’s an interesting time for them, as one of the few types of films that still plays in theaters.
Nothing beats that communal experience, you know? I hope everyone watches Sick in groups and with friends and makes it that communal experience. I saw M3GAN in the theaters this weekend, and I just love how the audience is talking to the screen, yelling out and having a blast. It was just a fun movie and I had a great time watching it. I think that’s one of the reasons horror works so well: the adrenaline rush and highs and lows of the movie really work well with a crowd.
The pandemic may have played a part in their increased popularity as well. When the world is off its axis and terrifying things are happening around us, horror movies can feel like a balm.
It’s therapeutic, for sure. I’m already scared. I’m already living with this tense fear of the unknown — not just with the pandemic, but every day there’s something happening that’s cause for concern — and there’s one place we can go to push out all that emotion, release it and get it out: the movies. It’s always been there. It’s where you can let all those dark ideas, feeling and emotions erupt. That’s why I love horror so much, because it’s such a release valve for me.
How did the pandemic serve as a source of horror inspiration for you? Sick tackles a number of pandemic-related anxieties and concerns.
Well, you know, I’m a very dramatic person, so for me the end of the world was happening at the onset of the pandemic. The first thing I did was watch Contagion — again — and it put me in that state of mind of terror and panic. It was so unnerving to read that all of these people were getting sick. Everything turned into a Zoom call and nobody was really working, so my team just started talking and thought, “What if we made a Covid movie and put our fears and anxieties down on paper?” And I thought, “Well, why don’t we do it as an old-timey slasher film?” Because that’s what I miss. I miss good chase scenes. I love all the supernatural horror and the zombie horror, but there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned set piece and chase scene. That’s the reason I wrote Scream — those movies weren’t being made at the time. I’m reminded of Friday the 13th Part 2. That’s one of the chase scenes I remember so vividly because it just went on forever. It’s an old-school slasher with a modern twist.
I wrote this with my assistant, Katelyn Crabb, who’s now a writer — and a fabulous one. I’ve been trying to develop and mentor young voices in the low-budget horror space. I’d like to encourage the next Scream — or something like Get Out, which is such an amazing film. I think that is also responsible for increased interest in the horror space.
Where does your fascination with the knife — and it’s a specific type of hunting knife — as a weapon in horror films come from?
I grew up watching Halloween and Friday the 13th — although that was a machete, I guess — but knives have always been so terrifying to me because it’s so intimate and personal. A person has to get right up on top of you. Or at least that’s what Dateline tells me. It’s not like a gun, which feels like a cop out. I’m not a fan of guns in storytelling. Yes, I’ve used them and did a whole FBI show where they were shooting all the time and it wasn’t fun for me. Be more creative than a gun.
Have you been stabbed before? Is there some personal backstory to this?
There’s no epic backstory! I just like epic set pieces, and set pieces are the best when your character interacts with the victim. You don’t really have that so much with a gun — although we did have that one, continuous monologue with a character holding a gun at the end of Scream 2.
I know Dawson Leery was a huge Spielberg guy. Was Spielberg also the guy you idolized?
I would say first and foremost Spielberg. He was the first filmmaker where I knew his name, started reading about him and wanted to be him. When I found out he filmed movies in his backyard as a kid I got an 8mm camera and began filming movies in my backyard and editing them myself. I’m excited to see The Fabelmans because I feel like it’s going to be a lot of that. It started with the Jaws. I stole the book from my mom’s bookshelf when I was too young, fell in love with it and couldn’t wait for the movie. I was standing in line for four hours the first weekend, and it changed my life. And after that it was Halloween a few years later. People were talking about it on the local news — “They’re fainting in the aisles!” “It’s so scary!” — and I was too young, so I had to convince adults to take me. That started my lifelong obsession with John Carpenter. Then I started getting older, and the world of John Hughes infected me. I’m like John Carpenter meets John Hughes. Then Nightmare on Elm Street came out and I began worshipping Wes Craven.
Tell me about these movies you shot in your backyard. What was the best one you made?
I was the A.V. club guy in high school, so I was that nerd who pushed around the video cart, recording the football games, shit like that. But before that I had a little 8mm camera. I shot a horror film at my granddad’s house. He lives on the water with a dock, because he was a fisherman — I come from a family of fishermen — and so I put my friend in a slicker, just like in I Know What You Did Last Summer, and he walked around with a knife, like a fish knife, and he chased a girl down the dock, onto a boat and in the water, and then she decapitated him. I used a bowl of red Jell-O, a banana, and spaghetti noodles, mixed them up in a bowl, and that’s what you saw when she cut his head off. [Laughs]
Your description of the A.V. guy reminds me of Elijah Wood’s character in The Faculty. What was high school like for you? Also, a lot of your films target the popular kids in high school, so I’m curious if there’s some lingering wish-fulfillment there.
Well, yes, a little bit. I always felt like I was the underdog, the outsider, the “other.” I was the gay kid in a small town, which was never fun back then. I’m sure it still has its challenges, but things have at least changed a bit. Even Dawson was the film geek although when we went to cast it, the network wanted someone more traditionally handsome. Originally, I picked Josh Jackson to play Dawson and they said, no, we want you to step it up a little bit — although neither of them were uncool, and it was sort of a fantasy show. You can try to make Josh Jackson uncool, but he’s just cool. But they were two film geeks who worked in a video store at the beginning.
The horror genre has been a haven of sorts for the gay community, and it seems as though that’s growing with films like M3GAN.
It’s always been there. I think now people are just waking up to it, and we’re speaking out about it. We’re louder than we used to be. We spent so many years trying to push forward in so many different ways. One of the reasons I loved horror was because I was the gay kid in a small town. Of course I’m going to relate to Jamie Lee Curtis. Of course I’m going to see Laurie Strode and love her as the final girl because she’s just trying to survive. When you’re the gay kid in a small town you’re just trying to survive. If you look at Carrie, she’s this girl with a special power, doesn’t know what to do with it and it’s made her life miserable. She’s the bullied outsider; the misfit. What gay kid doesn’t understand that? And could her special power be the fact that she’s gay? She just has to learn how to use it and make it her superpower.
This is going to seem like a random question, but I’m a big fan of I Know What You Did Last Summer and that film came out around the time NSYNC was first blowing up. Ryan Phillippe’s character in that film bears a striking resemblance to early-era NSYNC Justin Timberlake with the short curly-blond hair and white tank top. Was this intentional?
[Laughs] Oh my god! I didn’t even connect that until you said it right now, and I’m like, yes! Absolutely! You’d have to talk to Ryan and the costume designer when they chose to style that character. He was the high school jock in the script.
I’m curious how you feel about the state of the streaming business. Over the past year-plus, we’ve seen streamers cancel shows that have already been shot and remove shows from their platforms — presumably to not pay creatives residuals on them. How do you feel about all this as someone who runs a bunch of shows?
That’s a very loaded question. I have to start my answer by saying that I don’t know all the financial details behind a show leaving a platform. I’m sure it’s a big financial savings, or it’s a tax write-off, or whatever it may be. To me, it’s wait and see. Is it truly a pattern and something that’s happening constantly? It feels like we’re in a time where everyone is crunching down on the numbers and trying to save money, and what’s happening to the economy is happening everywhere. I’m always going to fall on the side of the artist though. That’s no secret. But I don’t know enough about it.
Has there been a project you worked on that didn’t take off that still eats at you a bit?
Sometimes you just miss the timing. I wrote a zombie pilot for Fox before The Walking Dead, and I really loved it. I developed it with Zack Snyder after he did his zombie movie Dawn of the Dead. We created this zombie pandemic in Los Angeles that is taking over the whole world. We started it from ground zero. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written, and it’s the first thing I wrote that never got made. They passed on it. I always thought, man, that was a bummer! I was ahead of the curve on that one, but they weren’t ready for a zombie show.
I’m curious if you’ve seen how much Michelle Williams has been talking about Dawson’s Creek during her awards tour for The Fabelmans. Spielberg said he first noticed her watching Dawson’s with his kids in the Nineties, and she said that she’s “constantly reconnecting with my time on Dawson’s Creek” in an interview with The New York Times, and then there was her shout-out to Grams while accepting her Gotham Award.
I saw her speech where she gave a shout-out to Mary Beth Peil, who played Grams on Dawson’s Creek, and I just thought that was sweet and beautiful. I cried. Mary Beth is all that and more. She’s a remarkable, amazing human being. It was so lovely to hear that she inspired Michelle in all those ways because I didn’t even know the extent of it. I knew from the very first time she walked into the audition room that I wanted her to be Jennifer. I remember when she sat down in the chair during her audition. It was this scene where she sits down next to her grandfather and looks at the scars at his heart, and all she says is, “Does it hurt?” She sat in the chair and her whole body transformed into that one line. She had this brokenness about her that I thought was magical. She blew away every expectation. Even when it came time at the end to kill her — losing someone in your group gives you that last step of growing up in a coming-of-age story. It’s the final thing that can ultimately push you into adulthood, into change. When it came time to figure out who should die, I just looked at the person I thought would nail it. She is brilliant. Even in Season 2 during hiatus, she went to New York to do off-Broadway plays. To work on her craft. It’s always been inside of her. To watch her now, I just sit back and smile.
That Jen death was quite polarizing back in the day!
Yeah I know… Probably because Joey ended up with Pacey. I wanted to say goodbye properly to a show that really meant a lot to me and I thought one of the ways to do it would be forcing the characters to say goodbye to someone they loved. It wasn’t meant to polarize, but to honor the audience, so we could all collectively say goodbye.
Was part of the reason you moved to television because of your experience working with the Weinsteins? Because the timing lines up.
I mostly worked with Bob at Dimension Films and they were very territorial, so I didn’t cross paths with the Miramax side so much. It was a challenge. It’s weird: I grew up in a dysfunctional family, came to Hollywood and found a new one. Dimension opened the door, and my career began with them, but it was not an easy road. It was my first taste of Hollywood and I thought this was how it worked. You fight, people yell at you, they threaten to kill you — this is just the business, and you have to have thick skin. I kept telling myself that. And then I went to do Dawson’s Creek and went to work with the WB and Columbia TriStar, and I thought, “Oh wow, not everybody behaves that way! There are actually people who are polite, respectful and treat people the way you want to be treated.”
I wanted to talk about the first Scream film, which I regard as one of the greatest horror movies ever. I had read that it was a hot script and virtually everyone in Hollywood auditioned for the roles of Sidney and Billy. I read that Claire Danes and Reese Witherspoon were circled for Sidney and Joaquin Phoenix for Billy.
I remember at the time we wanted the Janet Leigh opening and we went after Alicia Silverstone to play Casey Becker, and Drew Barrymore was attached to play Sidney Prescott. As we moved forward, Drew really just wanted to be in the opening scene. She loved it. And she was the biggest name, so we thought, “OK, that’s how we’ll get our Janet Leigh moment.” We switched things around. I remember we auditioned a lot of people for those roles — and a lot of people for Sidney. We screen-tested Brittany Murphy. I remember hers. I can’t remember all of them.
Harry Styles Wins Album of the Year in Jaw-Dropping Grammy Upset
Hip-Hop Turns 50. The Grammys Celebrate the Milestone Despite Its Complicated History With the Genre
Harry Styles Drops Lethargic ‘As It Was’ Grammys 2023 Performance
Bonnie Raitt Unexpectedly Wins Song of the Year for ‘Just Like That’ at Grammys 2023
The Ghostface mask has become so iconic.
In the script it was written to be more like a Michael Myers mask — faceless, opaque and scary. I wanted something soulless. And one of our producers, Marianne Maddalena, was on a location scout and found the mask in a garage. She goes, “What about this mask?” The homeowner let her take it and then we licensed it from a mom-and-pop shop.
Does Kevin Williamson get a cut of every Ghostface mask sold?
[Laughs] No, I don’t. I wish I did. But it’s so fun that that costume has lived through every Halloween. I love the rebirth of Scream. I’ve seen Scream VI probably five times now, and it’s great. I’m sworn to secrecy on that one, but I’m so thrilled with it. They ask me my opinion and I give it. I watched it with my partner who isn’t even a big Scream fan and he goes, “Shit — this is good.” When I saw the last edit I told them, “Wes Craven would be so happy.”