It just keeps on killing. After 27 years, six films, one television series, and more than $740 million in box office returns, the “Scream” franchise shows no sign of slowing down. After being relaunched with sequel “Scream” in 2022, the tongue-in-cheek slasher series bows it next entry, the already-well-reviewed “Scream VI,” in theaters this week.
But, like any franchise film, “Scream VI” is at the mercy of big (even bloody) expectations. And directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, along with producer Chad Villella (AKA Radio Silence) aren’t shying away from them. When Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett signed on to direct “Scream” in 2020, they were taking on a truly chilling gig: becoming the only filmmakers besides horror maestro Wes Craven to direct a “Scream” picture.
“I think we really felt the responsibility of what that meant to be stepping into Wes’ shoes, to be following up that legacy, and we didn’t want to fuck it up,” Bettinelli-Olpin said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
The film collective first catapulted to fame over a decade ago, bolstered by the success of YouTube videos that used an interactive feature the site has since abandoned. They followed those projects with shorts they contributed to horror anthologies “V/H/S” and “Southbound,” followed by profitable horror features “Devil’s Due” and “Ready or Not.” Along the way, Craven’s clever bent guided them.
“I think what it did for us was it put us in touch with a tone that I don’t think we maybe otherwise would’ve experienced,” Gillett said. “Our careers have always been some form of emulation, some form of trying to achieve that feeling that we first had when we watched that first ‘Scream’ movie. Wes has been spiritually a part of our careers since the beginning, as fans of his work. But then getting to know him through stepping into this role and meeting the people that he worked with, hearing stories about him from the cast and the crew, it really feels like he’s been a part of our lives forever, and it’s been really cool to get to know him intimately, even though we never got to meet him.”
Craven passed way in 2015, but his influences on the guys has never wavered. As they readied to make “Scream,” they kept dipping back into his filmography for inspiration.
“The really cool thing about movies is that they’re out there forever once they’re completed, and just going back through Wes’ body of work and how it influenced us as filmmakers, I think is very important,” Villella said. “Something I watched when I was a kid would affect me in one way and probably terrify me, and then you’d watch it again in college or whatever and think, ‘Oh, this is so fun.’ And then you watch it again as a filmmaker and it’s like, ‘Oh, I understand what he’s doing here and I know what he is going for and what he is creating, and how masterfully he is creating this tension and this atmosphere.’”
Even nearly three decades since its release, the trio can still remember the feeling Craven’s first “Scream” instilled in them. How do you even attempt to match that?
“We’re like junkies, chasing that [feeling], with these movies,” Gillett said. “It’s about trying to find the alchemy of those things in everything that we do. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not scary enough. We should push a little farther. Oh, that could be funny. Oh, that moment’s not sensitive enough.’ So much of what we’re looking for when we’re chasing that intuition is because of a feeling that movie gave us back in the day.”
And yes, the trio rewatched Craven’s films in preparation for directing their first “Scream” film, in hopes of finding a way to recapture that magic of Craven’s work.
“We watched all of them over and over and over,” Bettinelli-Olpin said. “Especially the first one. … It’s not so much that we’re trying to emulate it, it’s that we’re trying to emulate the feeling it gave us, and that’s such an important part of it. There’s something about a movie like ‘Scream’ and a lot of these really timeless movies, that while your experience changes, what the movie is doing is so effective that you can watch it over and over again. And for us as filmmakers, [it was important] to learn from that and try to really understand what that is and how it’s working.”
So much of that is rooted in Craven’s ability to wink at the same tropes that guide the horror genre (aided, of course, by the work of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who wrote three of the four original films, and is forever credited as the creator of the series’ characters, like Sidney Prescott, Gale Weathers, and Kirby Reed).
“How do we let the audience know that we’re aware of the same movies they’re aware of?,” Bettinelli-Olpin said. “Which again, if we’re being honest, we probably learned from ‘Scream’ to begin with, but it’s finding that balance, and it’s finding a way to re-set our own guardrails for tone, and then we push past them, and then we pull back, and then we push past them, and then we pull back. It’s a constant process.”
To navigate that, the trio trust their own instincts (plus those of their frequent screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, who have written both of their “Scream” films, plus “Ready or Not”) and their own shared language and intent.
“I think that you feel it,” Gillett said. “Part of what we try to achieve is that the movie can have really sensitive moments and be about real things, and about serious things without taking itself too seriously. And it’s a real fine line, but I think at the end of the day, that is a feeling thing, that is an intuition thing.”
Gillett pointed to a moment in the editing process when that intuition kicked in for the three of them. “We had a cutaway of something really graphic after one of the set pieces and, for as graphic as this movie is, there was something about that shot that just felt mean and cruel and gross and not fun,” he said. “That’s the sort of weird challenge of these movies. If the energy’s up here and there’s a shot where it suddenly goes low, you just know, you just can tell. That’s the thing that we’re always trying to calibrate, that it can get really dark and be about real things, but that the movie is always a movie, and it’s always aware of itself as a movie.”
Using “real things” to help guide the story is a hallmark of the series, from the winking nature of how its characters talk about other horror films to the traumatic storylines they follow, and that was top of mind for “Scream VI.”
“There’s an expectation that these movies are going to have some conversation about the state of things, the state of the genre, the state of movie culture, and the state of fear,” Gillett said. “We felt it subconsciously, and then I think made the conscious choice to steer into this idea that public spaces, very unfortunately, are scary now. That’s a really shitty and unfortunate reality, but it’s a really contemporary fear and something that I think is worthy of exploring in the genre.”
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Despite the dark undertones that always flow through the “Scream” films, Villella noted that Radio Silence’s approach to “Scream” is rooted in better feelings, mostly love and respect, especially for their characters. “That is something that shines through to the filmmaking process, and how we approach characters, because it’s a lot scarier experiencing something with characters you actually feel something about, and you have an emotional attachment to,” the producer said. “You don’t want to see them go through the most tense situations, and you feel with them, and that empathy really shines through from the movie to audiences.”
No spoilers here, but Villella’s mention of empathy reminded me that this film ends with a few, let’s just say, surprising choices in terms of who lives and who dies (like a character who absolutely seems to be dead meat, but somehow makes it through). Gillett laughed.
“We felt [that with] ‘VI,’ that we had the permission to go to an absurd place with it, but to also make sure that the absurdity of it felt really good, and that it was the right flavor at the end of the movie,” he said. “We talked a lot about how one of the reasons why we love the first ‘Scream’ so much is that it’s secretly a feel-good movie. The good guys win. There are a lot of survivors. The people that you’ve formed relationships with as an audience member, they make it out. It’s one of the reasons why we love going back and re-watching that movie, because is it feels really fucking good at the end, and we wanted that feeling at the end of this movie.”
So, about that choice to title the film “Scream VI” after their first film, the fifth in the franchise, was just called “Scream.” “We’ve never learned how to count, so that’s the first part of that answer,” Gillett joked.
Titling what is really “Scream V” just “Scream,” as Gillett explained, “Let the audience know, hey, this movie is playing with the idea of these requels and renaming things, [just by[ having that weird confusing thing be a part of the actual title of the movie. With this we were like, once it became ‘Scream VI,’ that tells the audience you’re watching ‘Scream VI.’ It’s set in New York. Have fun. We’re not over-clevering themselves.”
While it’s unclear how the franchise might continue (though, come on), and if Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, and Villella will be involved (they’re busy enough, still in “very early” development on their announced “Escape from New York” remake, plus hashing through a variety of “big new original stuff,” including a script they sold to Universal), their allegiance to the material is clear.
“We want it to continue forever,” Gillett said of the series. “[Whether we’re] involved or not. We never would’ve imagined that we’d get to step into this franchise ever in our wildest dreams, so if it leaves our life and goes some other direction, as long as it sticks around, as long as they keep making them, that is the most important thing to us.”
Paramount Pictures will release “Scream VI” in theaters on Friday, March 10.