Ahead of the release of Scream, the fifth movie in the horror franchise, revisit this oral history from December 2021 on the making of the original film.
Like the movie itself, the story of Scream begins with a terrifying phone call. While house-sitting one night in the mid-’90s, Kevin Williamson watched a television special about a Florida serial killer. It scared the hell out of him. Then, during a commercial break, he noticed that a window was open. Except he hadn’t remembered opening it.
At that moment, he felt like he was in a horror movie. For all he knew, someone was stalking him. He went to the kitchen and grabbed a butcher knife. Then he rang an old friend. As they talked, Williamson canvassed the house, searching for an intruder. Their conversation eventually drifted to the kind of bogeymen that used to give them nightmares: Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger.
Ultimately, there was no killer lurking inside, but the incident inspired Williamson to start writing a scary movie. His script combined everything that he loved about slasher films: gore, mystery, humor, and teen angst. But he also added something new: a host of characters who are all too aware of scary movie tropes.
“Horror movies were in a big slump back then,” Williamson says. “The slasher films of the late ’70s and ’80s had sort of petered out. No one was really making great horror films.”
The horror movie that he wanted to see was both an homage and a satire; something that stayed true to the genre and sent it up. And when Scream hit theaters 25 years ago this month, audiences truly had seen nothing like it. Through word of mouth, the low-budget flick became a surprise hit that not only jolted horror films back to life like Michael Myers, but also set off an explosion of teen movies and TV shows that lasted into the 2000s.
It’s hard to imagine now that the franchise has been spilling gallons of fake blood for a quarter-century—Paramount Home Entertainment recently released a remastered anniversary edition on 4K Ultra HD, and the fifth installment of the franchise will hit theaters in January—but there was a time when no one wanted to direct Scream. At first, even Wes Craven passed. Several times. The man behind horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Last House on the Left was tired of being confined to the genre that he’d mastered. Yet the pull of Williamson’s script eventually turned out to be too much to resist, and with its elements at his fingertips, Craven reinvented big-screen horror.
“It felt very alive when we were making it,” says Neve Campbell, the star of the film, “and very exciting.”
Part 1: “If You Don’t Want to Make This, Then I Don’t Know What You’re Looking For.”
Williamson sold his first horror movie script, then-called Killing Mrs. Tingle, in 1995. He wrote his second in just three days while holed up in a friend’s Palm Springs condo. He titled it Scary Movie.
Williamson designed the brutal opening scene to hook both the audience and Hollywood execs. It starts with a teenage girl picking up the ringing phone. The voice on the other end of the line toys with her, testing her knowledge of slasher flicks. Then a costumed stalker chases her through the house with a knife—and brutally kills her.
The screenplay set off a bidding war. Ultimately, the studio most interested was Dimension Films, a division of Miramax, the company headed at the time by now-disgraced executive Harvey Weinstein. But somehow, Williamson’s killer script wasn’t enough to attract a prominent filmmaker. That search took longer than anyone expected.
Kevin Williamson (writer): I thought one of the greatest movies in this genre is Psycho. The entire first act is Janet Leigh, and then she gets killed and you’re like, “Whoa, where is this movie going?” I had no idea. And I wanted that. I wanted that same feeling.
Richard Potter (Dimension Films director of development): My first thought is this is going to be some kind of stupid spoof. I have no interest in that. But why don’t I read a little bit and see what it is? Because you’ll know in a page or two what the tone is. I ended up reading it straight through. I could not put it down.
Williamson: There were a lot of different companies bidding for it. The price started going up. Oliver Stone’s production company had a discretionary fund and they were bidding on it. I got nervous because the price went up to a degree where one of the studios was like, “Well, we don’t pay this kind of money for a horror movie. We’re out.” And I went, “OK, well, this is over.”
Potter: I called Bob Weinstein at home and said, “I just read a script. If you don’t want to buy this or you don’t want to make this, then I don’t know what you’re looking for.”
Williamson: Sure enough, it ended up being Dimension.
Potter: Kevin asked his lawyer, Patti Felker, what she thought he should do. Patti said, “These other companies will pay you more money. Dimension will make your movie. Which one’s more important to you?” Obviously, Kevin felt making the movie was more important. I think he made the right decision.
Williamson: Every name you could imagine came up [to direct]. Wes’s name came up really early. Robert Rodriguez’s name came up. Quentin Tarantino’s name came up. All of the Dimension stable at that point.
Marianne Maddalena (executive producer): Wes, at that point, really didn’t want to do anything that was considered kind of a slasher movie.
Julie Plec (Wes Craven’s assistant): Vampire in Brooklyn came out and was kind of a disaster. And that made him sad. So he wasn’t in any hurry to jump back into it, into his own genre.
Maddalena: And he had just done Nightmare 7, which is pretty similar as far as being self-referential and killing people with knives.
Williamson: I do know Julie read it. And she understood it.
Plec: I didn’t particularly love horror movies. But I had been an adolescent in the ’80s and so I had seen them all at slumber parties. My Bloody Valentine and Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. As a kid, I was always a little bit scared of them. But when I read this, it just tapped into everything that I appreciated about the genre.
Wiliamson: And she kept pushing and pushing.
Plec: When he did read the script, which he did pretty quickly, he appreciated it. He liked it. And then we all got on with our lives.
Williamson: I remember having lunch with him, and it was just very casual. We were just chatting about it and I couldn’t ever tell if he had read it or not. I mean, he seemed to have read it, but we didn’t really talk about it. It was like he had already passed on it—he had just put it behind him, and he didn’t want to focus on that during lunch. And we just had a really nice lunch.
Plec: I remember [Craven’s director of development] Lisa [Harrison] saying to me, “They’re having a really hard time finding a director for Scary Movie,” and I thought, “Hmm.” And at the time I was working at Wes’s house, so I would have lunch with him every day. And so I said, “Remember that great script?” Like, “You met Kevin, it was so great. They’re having a hard time finding a director and they really want you to do it.”
And I was just his assistant, so I was just kind of making quote-unquote innocent small talk. And he said, “Ah, well they should just make me an offer I can’t refuse then.” And I think he was joking, but I went back to Lisa and I said, “He said make him an offer he can’t refuse.” And so Dimension did. And he took it.
Williamson: After he signed on, I was going to his house for lunch. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go to his house. This is super cool. I want to see how a big hot-shot movie director lives.”
And so I get in my car, and I get lost driving up into [the Hollywood Hills]. And I’m already late. And then I show up. He has all these pages of notes for my script. And I just see them sitting there on a table. And I’m like, “Oh no. This is going to be horrible. He’s going to want to change everything. I’ve heard these horror stories. I know what happens now. This is the moment I get kicked to the curb.” I mean, I’ve always lived in fear of that. And then it turned out that he was like, “Well, most of these are typos.”
There were a bunch of typos. He goes, “We should just fix everything, don’t you think?” It was a really great meeting because it was my first time with a director who was clearly taking the written word and starting to visualize it. He was starting to turn it into pictures. He was starting to paint on a canvas.
Part 2: “Anyone Could Die.”
Like many of Craven’s movies, Scream had a cast of up-and-coming actors. But there were a few A-listers in the mix. One was Friends star Courteney Cox, who plays tabloid reporter Gale Weathers. Another was Drew Barrymore. At first she was in talks to play the lead, Sidney Prescott. But she changed her mind and decided she wanted to be Casey Becker, who gets killed in the first scene. It was a moment of fate: Williamson, too, had always pictured a big name filling that role.
Williamson: I wanted it to be this big, huge Janet Leigh moment. And then when she dies, you’re like, “Wait a second. Wasn’t she on the poster? Wait. What’s going to happen next?”
Plec: I remember Drew calling Wes and saying she didn’t want to be Sidney and that she wanted to be Casey.
Drew Barrymore (Casey Becker, to Entertainment Weekly in 2011): I just read the script one night at my house and I just said, “Oh my God, there hasn’t been anything like this for so long.” I loved that it actually got tongue and cheeky but it was still scary and it was this great game that sort of described genres and revived them at the same time and redefined them all in one script. I went bananas.
Williamson: And the studio was really into that too. And they were very good about keeping that all a big secret. They were really billing this as a Drew Barrymore movie.
Potter: We’re sitting around, you kind of see it dawn on each person: “No, that’s a great idea.” Because you’re going to see the trailer and the commercials, and you’re going to be sure she’s the star of the movie. There’s no way she’s going to die. When she dies at the end of that sequence, you’re going to go, “Anyone could die.”
Courteney Cox (Gale Weathers): One of the main characters was gonna die in the first 13 minutes of the film. You knew it was going to be bold.
Jamie Kennedy (Randy Meeks): Remember the elliptical when it came out, how big that was? I would try to read on the elliptical and I would do 40 minutes—and I’ll never forget I read the whole thing on the elliptical. Which is crazy, to read a script in 40 minutes.
David Arquette (Deputy Dewey Riley): I have dyslexia so whenever I could read a script fast, I’d typically know that it worked really well.
Cox: I just knew it was funny and scary and to bring those two emotions together was something that I definitely wanted to be a part of.
Arquette: They wanted me to audition for one of the teenagers in the high school. I felt I was a little older, and I also loved the role of Dewey when I read it and the idea of acting opposite Courteney. I was a huge fan of hers. I met with Wes and I was like, “I really like this role.” And he was like, “Wow, I didn’t even consider that,” because he was written as more of, like, the dumb jock character. I read it as a character that’s in a position of authority getting no respect.
Cox: I just had to prove I could go from Monica to that. It’s really hard to express. You don’t want to say that you’re not that nice of a person. But I definitely can be a bitch.
Arquette: When we all got cast, Wes had us out at his house. I saw Courteney and I was like, “Hey, I’m playing Dewey.” And she’s like, “Yeah, I heard about you,” or something like that. She gave me some real attitude. I think I tried to follow her home in her car but she had a Porsche and I had a hot rod that wasn’t fast enough to take the turns. I wasn’t going to follow her to her house, but I was going to try to roll up to her next to a red light and be like, “Hey.” I don’t know what I was thinking.
Neve Campbell (Sidney Prescott): It was still very new. I was a dancer. I’d had some experience: I was doing Party of Five, and I’d done some film in Canada.
Lisa Beach (casting director): We basically auditioned every girl in town, whether she was known or unknown. As far as the final three, it was Alicia Witt, Brittany Murphy, and Neve. There was just that certain je ne sais quoi that Neve had.
Maddalena: I think with Neve, she’s very self-contained. It looks like she has a large inner world going on all the time.
Beach: She had that perfect combination of strength and vulnerability.
Maddalena: She’s extremely graceful—she was a professional ballet dancer and she moves like that and she runs like an athlete.
Williamson: I want emotional scary stuff. It’s not about the scares but what happens after the scare. And I really think that Neve Campbell delivered such a beautiful performance. She brought you into her Sidney universe.
Kennedy: I read for the casting director and she was like, “That was really good.” You hear that and you’re not sure. It’s like they’re being sweet to you, whatever. And she’s like, “Can you come back on Thursday and meet Wes Craven?” And I’m like, “I think my schedule’s open.”
Skeet Ulrich (Billy Loomis): My first impression when it came time to audition was how gentle Wes was, how present he was, and how interested he was in other people, including me.
Matthew Lillard (Stu Macher): I went to audition for Billy Loomis and the casting director said to me, “Would you mind coming and reading for Stu in three hours? Wes Craven’s going to be here.” And so I went off and memorized all the words and came back and auditioned for Wes for the character of Stu. And he actually gave it to me in the room. That’d never really happened before.
Beach: Of all the thousands of auditions that we have done over the past 26 years, I so distinctly and vividly remember Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, and Skeet Ulrich’s audition. And that’s three in one movie, 26 years ago. There were probably another 10 over the ensuing 25 years that I would say, “Oh my God, that blew me away.” But it’s pretty amazing that you’d have three in one go.
Roger Jackson (voice of Ghostface): I was working as a voice actor living in San Francisco, and went in for the audition along with a lot of other people. The audition script was the first scene from the first film, the opener. I heard some of the other people in the waiting room saying, “My agent says they’re looking for a new Freddy Krueger.” And in reading over the scene, I thought, “This is not Freddy Krueger. This is very subtle.”
This guy’s got to be kind of interesting. He’s got to keep her on the phone, keep playing with her, and there’s got to be something about him that draws her in. “Oh, you’re making popcorn. I only make popcorn when I’m going to watch a movie. Oh, you like scary movies? What’s your favorite scary movie?” But it had to be able to—once you turn the dial—go from being very kind of playful and sexy to much more sinister. “Why, what did you think I said? Can you handle that, blondie?”
Part 3: “The Scariest Monsters Are the Monsters You Don’t See.”
Before shooting started, the producers still had to determine what the killer would look like. Finding what became one of horror’s most iconic masks was pure luck.
Maddalena: We were scouting a location and we went to this two-story house on this lovely street. The lady was fine with us walking around and I went upstairs and there was a boy’s bedroom. It had the feeling that no one had been in it for a while. Like, whoever had moved out. And I saw the mask sitting on a chair. At the time it had a white shroud. And I thought, “Oh my God, this mask, this is it.”
Plec: But the studio wanted to own the mask, so they had Greg Nicotero and Bob Kirkman’s company KNB and Howard Berger create a stunt version of the mask, a more shootable version of the mask. We shot it on day one, coming up in the window. Everyone hated it.
Maddalena: The renderings we got were kind of gargoyle-ish. It just wasn’t happening. Wes wasn’t happy.
Williamson: They must’ve gone through hundreds of faces. And Wes stuck to his guns: He wanted Ghostface. Finally, the studio rolled over and allowed him to have it.
Plec: Because we couldn’t beat what we had, they had to use something that they did not own and could never capitalize on. I remember that being sort of scandalous.
Scream was shot in and around Santa Rosa, California, in the spring of 1996. The idyllic wine country locale provided the perfect backdrop for the movie’s mayhem. For the cast of 20-somethings and the crew, filming was like summer camp. And Craven was the wise head counselor.
Campbell: He felt like a father figure. He had this really long, lean stature. He was like a gazelle. He floated when he walked. It was very strange, and he was paced and slow. Not what you would expect of someone with as twisted a mind as his.
Cox: He would make me laugh. I would ask him a direction on certain things, and he’d be like, “Courteney, what do you think, I’ve been there? I don’t know what it feels like to be chased by a knife.”
Maddalena: He was a pun-meister. He did a lot of dad jokes.
Arquette: He was a bird watcher.
Williamson: He would sit in his chair, and he would be doing a crossword puzzle and reading about birds. And then he would just go, “Action,” and become somebody else. It was so bizarre.
Kennedy: He’s like a tenured Berkeley professor. He’s just a chill guy who would be probably teaching film theory with a master’s in psychology and human psyche. He’s like a total dude.
Williamson: Wes created a very family environment. You felt like you were safe, and that you were with your uncle or your father or somebody. We had a really great time. There were a lot of parking lot parties.
Cox: We had a bonfire.
Plec: I still, to this day, don’t like shooting in L.A. because I feel like when you shoot in L.A., it’s a job. And when you shoot on location, it’s camp.
Lillard: The camaraderie was established all the way through. Like, Skeet and I would go play golf. We’d hang out. Every weekend we were together.
Maddalena: We stayed at this DoubleTree in the middle of the countryside.
Campbell: Basically a motel that had cookies on your bed every night.
Kennedy: Every day they give you a fresh cookie. And I know it sounds stupid, but it was just so good. Every day I felt like I had a little treat. If I did a good scene, I’d eat my cookie.
Campbell: We had basically blacked out all our windows because we were shooting nights every night. So, we would get home covered in blood at 6 a.m., and we’d want to have a drink, and we’d want to unwind.
Ulrich: We’d wind up in David Arquette’s room where the bar was.
Arquette: I went to the local head shop and bought all these blacklight posters and lava lamps and got it all funky feeling. I just love that whole vibe.
Campbell: David is nuts, so he bought every toy possible that you can buy in Santa Rosa, and they were hanging from his ceiling. I think it was called “David’s Bar” or “David’s Club” or something. “Club David.”
The most important scene in Scream is the first. Casey Becker’s slaying and the introduction of the killer set the tone for the rest of the movie. Getting all the details right took an extraordinary amount of effort.
Williamson: The opening scene was in Northern California in one of these houses out in the middle of nowhere. What was interesting is there were just two houses in these huge fields. And our base camp was at the other house—where they shot Cujo.
Plec: That was our first five days of shooting.
Williamson: It was magical. I was in the rain, and we had the killer, Roger, in another tent talking on the phone outside because Drew didn’t want to see him. She just wanted to hear the voice, which I thought was super smart.
Jackson: It’s like old radio theater. The scariest monsters are the monsters you don’t see, but the monsters you make in your mind. So just having the voice to react to made it larger in their minds.
Maddalena: You always get people who walk on the set from another reality and they’re like laughing and giggling. And our first AD, Nick Mastandrea, would yell at them like, “Read the set, don’t laugh, don’t giggle, we’ve got an actress here who really has to perform.”
Williamson: And she was so good. She was so prepared.
Barrymore (in 2011): I just thought, “How could I make it real?” I’m sure it’s everybody’s worst fucking nightmare.
Plec: You just hear Drew screaming and howling and I’d be like, “What the fuck is going on in there?” And it was Wes, like, amping her up.
Barrymore (in 2011): Wes and I, you know, had made this great agreement on how we wanted to approach the whole thing and we couldn’t have been more on the same page. I was like, “I never want fake tears, I will come up with a mechanism with which to really make me cry. I will run around until I’m hyperventilating.” He and I had this secret story. We would just talk about it every time cause it just made me cry every time I thought about it. That worked for tears—it didn’t work for hyperventilating. I would still have to run around a lot.
Wes Craven (director, Scream DVD commentary): The night before we started shooting she told me a horrible story of a newspaper article of a dog being burned by its owner. Set on fire. And she started crying as she was telling me this. So every time that I needed her to get over that edge into complete tears, I would just say Drew, “I’m lighting the lighter.” And she would just burst into tears. Not everybody would tell you a story that’s so close to the heart. Drew is very much an animal lover. That allowed us to get to that place of ultimate horror.
Plec: She would just be like, “Aaaaaaah!” and then he’d yell, “Action!”
Williamson: The studio got the dailies. That’s when we had to hold their hand through it and explain to them what they were watching because they’re like, “Is this a horror movie? Is this a comedy? What is it?”
Potter: All the stories about them not liking what they are seeing, that’s what happened. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the sequence. They weren’t sure what they were looking at.
Plec: They just had a picture of what they thought it would be and they weren’t seeing that in the dailies, and they were just being such assholes about it and really making Wes feel bad.
Williamson: It’s not what a director needs to hear when he’s shooting a movie. It just broke him.
Patrick Lussier (editor): He was very despondent a few days in when he was just like, “Oh, the studio called up. They’re very upset. They don’t think it’s going to be good. They’re sending me the dailies from Nightwatch and telling me it needs to look like this.” He said they told him he was a TV journeyman and a hack.
Potter: The issue was they were looking at the dailies in New York, and they weren’t seeing what they thought was a tense sequence. It didn’t look like it was going to be scary. I arranged with Patrick, Marianne, and Wes to have [the opening sequence] cut together, and set up a screening so they could see what Wes was doing.
Lussier: I cut it all together and sent it up to Wes on a VHS tape. And he watched it. He had one music note and then we conformed it on film and sent the workprint to New York.
Potter: Now keep in mind, I’m confident in Wes, but there’s also that 10 to 15 percent scared I am of: What if they cut this together and, oh my God, it really is bad? But they saw the pieces that we had, and Bob said to Wes, “What do I know about dailies?”
Plec: They were like, “Oh, this is great. You’re right. We’re sorry.” I don’t think they said, “We’re sorry.” But they shut up.
Part 4: “Imagine You’ve Got 1,000 Bullets Ricocheting Through Your Body.”
You didn’t need to be a scary movie superfan to enjoy Scream, but it paid tribute to the genre like nothing else ever had. The film is stuffed with references to horror classics: Kennedy’s character Randy, a video store clerk, is obsessed with the genre; Halloween plays on VHS at a high school party; Linda Blair of The Exorcist appears as a TV reporter; even Craven himself makes a cameo as a janitor named Fred, as in Krueger.
The movie, however, is more than just a pastiche. It’s an intricate whodunit that manages to balance comedy and ultraviolence. Rose McGowan’s character, Tatum Riley, dies when a garage door crushes her neck. Henry Winkler, the high school principal, gets stabbed and strung up on a football goalpost. Almost the entire third act takes place at a house party. In the end, the audience learns that there are two killers: Stu and Billy. Both are a little too into horror. “Movies don’t create psychos,” Billy says during the climactic scene. “Movies make psychos more creative.”
Campbell: Literally, they wouldn’t wash my costume. I would take it off in the morning, and then in the evening when I went back to work—because the continuity of the blood had to be the same—they would just wet it. They would dampen the blood. I wanted to burn that costume at the end of the movie, I swear to God.
Ulrich: The maids at the hotel hated us, or hated me, that’s for sure, because we ruined a lot of sheets and pillowcases. No matter how much you scrubbed. I didn’t know the trick about shaving cream at the time, that that takes [blood] off pretty easily. But there’s always residuals and it always winds up on your pillowcase or sheets. Fortunately I wasn’t shooting from home.
Lillard: I have a distinct memory of looking over at the two of them, Skeet and Neve, and the three of us just putting our hands together, our fingertips touching, and slowly going back and forth and getting lost in the stickiness of everything. Because look, at the end of that day, when you’re screaming and running for your life for like 12 hours, and you do that for, like, 22 days or whatever that last sequence was, you do go a little mad sometimes.
Kennedy: It was pretty much three weeks in the same house every night. And we just went in and we just shot the hell out of this house. We were getting killed and running and blood and jumping and shooting and falling, and I liked it.
Williamson: We were at that house way too long. It just went on and on and on.
Maddalena: The “people live, people die” scene, as we called it. That’s what the AD called it on the call sheet.
Kennedy: I had a couple of lines here and there, which were great. And then I would be shot and lay down for a while, and then I woke up. So I loved it, but it was definitely one scene that bonded us more.
Lussier: The adrenaline of that final scene.
Lillard: That last 20 minutes, as you’re laughing and you’re horrified, is very rare air. I always go back to the Bill Paxton example in Aliens, where they’re running for their lives and he’s blasting aliens. He’s got such a handle on the comedy in life-and-death stakes.
Maddalena: We thought Wes went nuts, because we didn’t know the sofa had feathers in it. And we all thought Wes was crazy to carry on with everyone covered in blood—which is really corn syrup—as the feathers fall over them.
Kennedy: I’m so emotional and Wes is very reserved. And I think that’s why we got along, because he taught me things—he taught me how to deduce situations and use your brain and not just react emotionally.
Ulrich: I do remember him always reaching into the deeper psychology and reminding me of why I was doing certain things, tying it into parental loss. There was a real psychological approach.
Lillard: I think that the great thing about him is that he wanted to be entertained, right?
Campbell: Matt is so committed. He is so committed 100 percent to every moment. He also has a really quick mind and is insanely funny.
Cox: And he’s vulnerable.
Lillard: There’s a moment where Skeet hits me with the phone and I scream, “You fucking hit me with the phone, you dick.” And to me, that’s a moment that was born out of the situation. And I think that speaks to Wes and to Kevin in that you would always get a take that was as written, and then Wes would continually look for new and different takes.
Ulrich: He actually told me to hit him with the phone to see what he would do.
Lillard: He would sit behind the monitor and laugh and giggle and direct, but he wanted the funny as well as the drama. The thing I liked about him is that he was open to anything.
Campbell: He once came up to me in that final sequence of the first film. I was exhausted. It’s like levels of fear, because you don’t want to be monotonous either. You don’t want it to be all the same level. In the scene with Skeet and Matt when I’m against the counter and they’re about to kill me, I’m about to get my strength, he came up and he just whispered in my ear, he said, “Imagine you’ve got 1,000 bullets ricocheting through your body,” and he walked away. That was phenomenal.
Part 5: “Another Movie in a Long Line of B Horror Movies.”
Scream wasn’t even called Scream until after production began. The studio decided that it was better than Williamson’s original title. This was a new kind of horror film, but that meant it wasn’t a sure thing. The movie’s hyperviolence led to fights with the Motion Picture Association, which wanted to give it the dreaded NC-17 rating. Craven had to submit several cuts of the film before the MPAA relented and rated it R. Also, the decision to release the slasher flick five days before Christmas didn’t seem to set it up for success.
Plec: I remember when they changed the title and we were so bugged because, like, Scary Movie was the perfect title. And it was on all our wrap gifts and all our fanny packs. They wanted it to be Scream and we were like, “That’s terrible.” We were all outraged. Turned out to be a good choice. And funnily enough, the Scream mask is like the Edvard Munch painting The Scream.
Maddalena: [The studio] probably had an ulterior motive and thought they could rip us off later with Scary Movie, which Wes or Kevin never got any money for. I think they just knew. I don’t know how or why they did it. They must have tested it. I don’t know. Scream is pretty brilliant.
Kennedy: I think that people were so shocked by having it at Christmas. There was nothing like that at Christmas. And they’re like, “Why is this movie coming out now?”
Williamson: They called it counterprogramming. And that had to be explained to me, because I really did not see how it was going to fare in the Oscars market.
Plec: It opened to like $6 million for the weekend.
Maddalena: Variety called us DOA against One Fine Day and Beavis and Butt-Head. And Wes and I went on the Friday night before Christmas to Universal, and it was like a revival in the Beavis and Butt-Head theater. People were throwing popcorn and freaking out, laughing and screaming. And then we’d wander to our theater and there were maybe seven people in there. No one was laughing or screaming. We went away so dejected. We really thought, “Oh well, we tried. But this one didn’t work either.”
Cox: I do remember going, “Oh, that’s a bummer this isn’t going to work. It’s so good.”
Williamson: I was just worried that my career was going to be over. That’s why I said yes to a lot of stuff before the movie came out. Dawson’s Creek was happening. And I Know What You Did Last Summer was happening. And they sent me the script for The Faculty, like, on the set of Scream.
Lillard: It was a movie that was just going to be another movie in a long line of B horror movies.
Williamson: And then the second week, it did better.
Maddalena: Then the next one we made $10 [million].
Lillard: It was the best exit polls they’d ever seen for any movie in the history of film testing. And then they tripled the budget for distribution and for publicity. And the next thing you knew, it was off and running.
Campbell: My team all called me at once, which rarely happens. I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m getting fired. Or something bad has happened.” They call and they’re like, “$30 million.” I went, “Oh no. Is that bad?” I’m so naive at the time. I was clueless. They said, “No, no, Neve, that’s really good for week 2 or week 3.” Then it just went. Weekend to weekend they would call and say, “Oh, now it’s this. Now it’s this. Now it’s $100 [million],” which was nuts.
Cox: I kind of had that same experience with Friends, where the first year was OK, and then on the reruns in the summer people started to catch on. I was just so excited that it took off the way it did.
Ulrich: Maybe if you’re part of the Marvel Universe now you can expect such things, but certainly not when we were making this. Horror was dead for the most part.
Arquette: A lot of things sort of change. For one, you have a little more money in your pocket, you’re not as worried about your rent as you were. It was the beginning of that whole phase of being recognized, and then I was dating Courteney and she was already famous, so there were paparazzi elements.
Kennedy: One of my first residual checks for Scream was double what I made for the movie. And that was like, “Whoa, what is this? What is Hollywood?” I walked to the Bank of America and I cashed the residual check, and then I went across the street to the Blockbuster and rented Scream on video with the money I made from Scream in a video store as Randy. It was super multilevel meta. And I thought, “This is weird.”
Scream cost about $14 million to make and ended up grossing $173 million at the box office worldwide. It was the biggest hit of Craven’s career. Naturally, the smash led to less-clever knock-offs and spawned a sequel that came out less than a year after the first. Two more sequels and an MTV series followed, with a fifth film on the way on January 14.
Campbell, Ulrich, Lillard, McGowan, Kennedy, and Arquette all became movie stars. And those who survived the original film are still part of the franchise.
But for the first time, a Scream film won’t be directed by Craven. He died of brain cancer in 2015 at 76.
Plec: One thing I say is that I regret that I worked on Scream, because I didn’t get to experience Scream in the same way that everybody else got to. I always say, “I wonder if Steven Spielberg wishes he could have just gone to E.T. in the movie theater, knowing nothing about it.” Because when you see something that has such a meaningful impact on you as a filmgoer, that changes your life.
Williamson: When I was little and I went to see Halloween with a group of kids, I just remembered the audience screaming at the screen. I remember we were all yelling at Laurie Strode not to drop that knife. And then she dropped it, and we were just going, “No!” It was one of those interactive experiences. And I wanted that.
Campbell: I went to a test screening, and it was surreal, because it’s such an audience movie, isn’t it? And people standing up and screaming at the screen while Jamie’s screaming at the screen. Everyone is so active and engaged, and on the edge of their seats. I’d never experienced that before in any movie.
Plec: Clueless to me is a perfect movie and a classic, but as a moviegoer, I don’t recall ever linking Clueless to the explosion of the teen genre. For me, it was literally watching Scream come out and then Scream 2, and Kevin had been hired to do I Know What You Did Last Summer and Dawson’s Creek. Right around there, Buffy was also having its moment.
Lillard: I can only speak for myself, but it’s one of the seminal moments in my career. And I think that that was because we had this leader on set that we all loved and respected. The further we get away from Scream, the longer you are around, and the longer you’re a part of this industry, the more you realize that he was just a treasure of a human being.
Kennedy: There’s no way I would be in Hollywood if it wasn’t for Wes Craven. He gave me the break of my life, the break of my career, and the role of my career. I owe him everything.
Arquette: I don’t think he nearly gets the credit he deserves. A lot of the time in the business in general people will try to put you in a box.
Ulrich: He was such an artist. I think he had a million stories to tell and he was constantly shackled to horror.
Plec: They gave me so much opportunity. And I remember Wes’s wife Iya, who he married after Scream 3. I ran into the two of them at a restaurant and she pulled me aside and she said, “He might not ever tell you this, but he’s so proud of you.”
Jackson: We were doing reshoots in Michigan for the fourth film. They had technical difficulties because they’d shot in summer, but now everywhere was blanketed in snow. After it was wrapped for the day, we were taking the car back to the hotel, and as we’re driving up this very long drive to get there, I look out and I saw Wes out in the snow with his camera in the dead dark of night, taking pictures of the night birds. But that was the last time I saw him. And I thought, “After all that he’s put in tonight, he’s out here in the cold and the snow, following something that feeds his heart.” He was just a remarkable man.
Lussier: His memorial service was at the Directors Guild of America. And there’s all these different people who’d worked with him over the years and family. But there were also all these directors who showed up for it: Michael Apted, who used to be the head of the [directors] guild, and Christopher Nolan, John Landis, and Tobe Hooper. And all these different people spoke, but one of the best speeches was one of Wes’s friends from the Audubon Society who played bird calls. Wes would have loved it.
Williamson: I think he’d be smiling from ear to ear because the franchise was living on. And I know how much it meant to him.
Campbell: We had one evening where we’re all sitting around a bonfire in the first movie and talking, and someone said, “Do you think this would do well enough that there might actually be a Halloween costume?” We’re like, “Nah, won’t happen. Maybe. No.” And 25 years later, this Halloween, I was with my sons and took them to a pumpkin patch, and there were probably four or five Ghostfaces wandering around. I have my 9-year-old going, “Mom, mom, go tell them. Go tell them.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed. Drew Barrymore, Henry Winkler, and Rose McGowan were not available to participate in this article.