Warning: Scream (1996) spoilers follow. There are no spoilers from the new Scream, which is currently in theaters.
The poster for the fifth installment in the Scream franchise has the following tagline: “THE KILLER IS ON THIS POSTER.”
It’s a cheeky nod from a franchise that has always acknowledged its slasher genre trappings in a meta way.
Scream writer and producer James Vanderbilt and his co-writer Guy Busick took this idea of “anyone can be the killer” very seriously, in large part due to some key advice that came directly from the iconic duo behind the first four entries in the series: director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson.
“Wes’ attitude was everybody should look guilty. So don’t worry about someone looking too guilty or not. You don’t want to try and convince people that this character is innocent. You want to convince them they’re guilty, so that by the time you get to the end, you go, Oh, well that makes sense, because of this, this, this, this,” Vanderbilt says of the advice Williamson relayed to him.
Craven passed away in 2015. The new Scream honors him with “For Wes” before the credits roll.
“So it was this sort of wonderfully freeing thing, where even with the person who ends up actually being the killer, we didn’t have to worry about it,” Vanderbilt adds.
“And it’s funny, if you go back and look at that original Scream — Skeet Ulrich (Billy Loomis) and Matthew Lillard (Stuart) are playing murderers the entire movie. They’re not subtle about it. They are clearly the killers, all the way through. And you get to the end and you’re like, Of course. And that’s what makes it such a great mystery and reveal, is because it can be everyone. Dewey is creepy in the first movie — everybody has an element of Oh, it absolutely could be you.”
If that statement doesn’t make it clear enough, Vanderbilt is a massive Scream fan.
“About a minute and a half after I knew we were going to get Scream at Project X, I knew that I wanted Guy to write the script with me and Radio Silence to direct it. And so I tried to build the movie in such a way that those things could happen because I never wanted to trust something as precious as Scream to people I hadn’t been in a foxhole with before and made a movie with before.”
Project X Entertainment was founded in 2019 by Vanderbilt and two close collaborators: William Sherak and Paul Neinstein. Radio Silence is a trio of filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, and Chad Villella. Project X produced their horror-comedy Ready or Not in 2019. Vanderbilt knew Busick well, but had never written with him before.
Their co-writing process was smooth, in part due to their shared Scream fandom.
“The first thing we did, we sat down, and we watched all four of them again over the course of two nights. And we each had notebooks and stuff,” Vanderbilt explains.
“And we made a deal that we wouldn’t talk about what we were writing down — we would just come up with our own ideas. And after that, we did sort of a show and tell with each other.”
The synchronicity that occurred next both amazed Vanderbilt and confirmed his instincts that Busick was a perfect writing partner for the project.
“It turned out that 90 percent of the ideas he had written down, I’d written down too, so it was sort of this, OK, if we both think this is a good idea, then that’s going to go in the movie. It really was this process of: What have we always wanted to see in a Scream movie, if we got to make one ourselves?”
With references to “elevated horror,” A24 films The Witch and Hereditary, and an extended, very funny monologue explaining the rules of the “requel,” Vanderbilt and Busick understood that a key element of any Scream entry, regardless of the decade, was timeliness.
“The great thing about these movies is they’re always in conversation with the audience about where pop culture is when they come out. So with a Scream movie, talking about that stuff is like a feature, not a bug. I think it would feel out of place in another franchise. In Scream, meta feels right at home. And that’s the thing they’ve always done and we wanted to do that.”
While Ready or Not and Scream fit firmly in the horror category, Vanderbilt’s career as a screenwriter has always straddled genres, and his work as a producer at Project X does as well.
“We’re very genre-agnostic,” he says of Project X.
“Our feeling is that you can make smart content commercial, and commercial content smart. I grew up in the ’80s, where you could have a blockbuster that was nominated for Best Picture. Sigourney Weaver got nominated for Best Actress for Aliens,” he adds.
“I don’t think popcorn precludes intelligence, and I don’t think intelligence precludes popcorn.”
The next film up for Project X illustrates that agnosticism: Michael Bay’s Ambulance, which Vanderbilt describes as “a Los Angeles crime heist movie through and through.”
Many who’ve seen the trailer are already excited for the Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II action-thriller.
“The movie is the trailer for two hours. It’s Michael Bay. It never stops,” Vanderbilt says.
Scream, co-written by James Vanderbilt, and produced through his Project X banner, is now in theaters.
Ambulance, also produced by Project X, opens in theaters on April 8, from Paramount Pictures.