Director Jim Gillespie on making a horror that defined a generation
In the mid-’90s, if you were looking for a film with a killer hook, you didn’t have to look much further than I Know What You Did Last Summer.
“It had that core dilemma of, ‘What would I do if this happened to me?’” recalls director Jim Gillespie, talking to Digital Spy. “That spoke to a young audience that was about to embark on their adult life, go to university, college… If you made a mistake and fucked up, what would you do? Would you bury the secret? The audience got it; that’s exactly what they hooked onto.”
Released 20 years ago today, in 1997, I Know What You Did Last Summer was the first teen horror film unleashed in the wake of Hurricane Scream. It had a script by the hot new writer Kevin Williamson (see also: Scream, The Faculty, Halloween H20), a cast of fresh-faced TV teens, and an old-school atmosphere that ditched Scream’s meta kicks for pared-back chills.
It helped that the film had a literal hook; the weapon wielded by a vengeful fisherman, who targets four friends – played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr. – after they’ve killed a man in a car accident, and covered up the crime.
Scottish director Gillespie, making his feature debut, never saw IKWYDLS as a horror film. He approached the production with an artistic eye. Together with production designer Gary Wissner (who hand-wrote the film’s chilling notes), he repainted the house owned by Anne Heche’s creepy Missy, and built both the film’s corrugated-iron gym and the bright yellow shower for the screamer of a epilogue. “I wasn’t interested in making a horror film, particularly,” Gillespie tells us.
Shooting in North Carolina, IKWYDLS even attracted horror royalty in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis, who swung by the set to find out what Gillespie was brewing. “She was doing Virus on the lot where our offices were,” the director remembers. “So she came down to say hi to everybody. To Kevin, she was a goddess, before he’d had any relationship with her, which he then had afterwards [with Halloween H20]. So she came down and just said hi to the kids. Which was nice!”
Digital Spy met up with Gillespie on the film’s 20th anniversary to find out the secrets of creating a hit horror movie. Here’s the story of IKWYDLS, along with Gillespie’s exclusive, never-before-seen behind-the-scenes images…
Drawing From Carpenter
“Halloween is my favourite horror film ‘cos I remember it so clearly. I’m not really scared by horror films, but I do remember one of the few times ever was when Michael Myers just keeps on getting up. I remember saying, ‘If he gets up one more time, I’m out of here!’
“I rewatched that film because it’s [set in a] small town. It’s not a gory film. I like the mood of it. I didn’t want to rip it off, but the feel of it was something I took from.
“And Jaws, funnily enough, is a film I watched as well because it’s set in a seaside town and I wanted the feel of that. So there’s lots of stuff that nods to Jaws; Fourth of July parades, all those things. We amped it up with a Croaker Festival. Gary Wissner designed these big fish buggies, fish hats. We got a load of local school bands to do the march for the festival. We went to town on all that! I wanted the waterfront to have a New England feel, and Jaws was that.”
The Fab Four
“I cast them all. [Jennifer] Love [Hewitt] was always going to be Julie, and she was cast first. We actually had made an offer to Reese Witherspoon first off. Reese came in and met us, but ultimately didn’t want to do it. But she pointed us to Ryan, funnily enough. They were dating at this time. We asked her who the hottest guy was, in her opinion, and she said Ryan Phillippe.
“Love absolutely straight away was Julie James. Nobody wanted Freddie; they thought he was too soft, he wasn’t muscular enough, so Freddie probably screen-tested four or five times. He got to the point where he was saying, ‘I’m done,’ and I really had to plead with him to stick with it because I wanted him. I thought he was going to be great with it. He went to the gym and worked out, changed his diet and his hair cut. I stuck to my guns and eventually they went, ‘Yes.’
“As far as Sarah was concerned, she was the last of the four to be cast. We’d auditioned loads of different people and screen-tested them, hadn’t found the right person. In part it was down to the fact that I didn’t want a 27-year-old playing a 17-year-old in the classic Hollywood way. There were loads of people we looked at who were just too old. Hilary Swank tested for it, who was great, but she wasn’t right for the role.
“We ended up in North Carolina, a matter of two weeks out from shooting, and we still hadn’t cast Helen. I got it down to three girls. I had seen some of Buffy; they’d shot the pilot. Kevin liked the idea of her, which was good. So she flew down to Wilmington and to me, Sarah was it. She was absolutely it. She was fantastic.
“The studio didn’t want her, even after the screen test! They went, ‘Nah.’ They thought she had a Jewish princess, Valley Girl feel to her. I went, ‘Rubbish, she’s good! Look at the screen test again.’ I went, ‘Right, it’s your choice, but know that we think she’s the best choice.’ Kevin backed me up on it. It was a fight for two of them!”
Bring On The Blood!
“We had fights over the blood in the film. I went back and reshot when Helen’s sister [Bridgette Wilson-Sampras] gets her throat cut; there’s a splash of blood on the glass. I initially had shot that without any blood at all. I’d cut the sequence and it worked, everything was exactly as it is, but they wanted this [splatter], to see her throat get ripped out.
“I said, ‘I’m not shooting that.’ So the most I would give in to was the blood from behind splattering the window. We did that as a pick-up; we reshot that towards the end of the shoot and that was my, ‘OK, I’m done with the blood.’”
A Fresh Kill
“The truth was we had a movie where the killer didn’t do anything! He just chased people. You had to physically see him do something in order for the audience to feel that he was capable of doing something. And Johnny Galecki, even then, was someone that people liked; he was a likeable character [as Julie’s suspicious friend Max]. He’d just done Roseanne, so he was a very well liked teen figure.
“So killing him was a big deal. And it was the one gory bit in the film, to be honest. I shot the film with hardly any gore. It made a big difference to how the rest of the film plays. It’s funny, you add a scene and the ripple effect through the whole thing is actually quite important.”
“My point was not to make Scream. Kevin wrote it, Kevin didn’t write this as Scream 2. There were a couple of lines that were very Kevin-esque, but he wasn’t trying to that whole post-modern thing cos he’d just done it with Scream. We deliberately were not going for that sort of thing.
“It was meant to be kind of a stand-alone revisit of those classic ’80s horror films. It worked! The movie was number one three weeks in a row. It just clicked with the audience. The title clicked and everything just seemed to work. Third week was Halloween weekend and it was number one in its third week. I couldn’t believe it stuck there for three weeks.”
“When we were working on the script for this, Scream was shooting. So I would go round to Kevin’s house in Hollywood and we would talk through the script, he’d have dailies tapes from Scream, so we would watch the dailies.
“But he’d also written the pilot for Dawson’s Creek. In fact, when they shot the pilot for Dawson’s Creek, they shot the dockside scenes on our set, because we’d built all these fishing shacks. So they shot some of the pilot for Dawson’s Creek on our sets when we weren’t shooting on them. It was all coming together at the same time with Kevin.”
“There was a moment where we’d shot Love on the boat at the end. We’d shot the end sequence before we shot the last part on the deck with the fight and her screaming. She just had a little tank top on. And then we realised we’d made a continuity error where she was wearing a little jumper all through the first part, so we had to construct some reason that she would take her top off.
“People thought it was so you could see more of her breasts, but actually it was because we had screwed up the continuity and needed it to match! So when we were halfway through building the set, we built this inner chamber that doesn’t exist on a boat. She goes in there and she can’t get the door up she uses her jumper as leverage.
“I watched Passengers recently and there’s a moment in there where the exact same thing happens! She takes off her top in order to use it to pull up some hot door. I thought, ‘They’ve stolen that whole thing!’”
Equal Rights Nudity
“Ryan had to get his six-pack out. That was a pre-requisite! Everybody was like, ‘You’ve got to get Ryan’s top off!’ And he was fine with that because Ryan looks like that all the time.
“Freddie had a six-pack and all that. Ryan just looks like that. You could put a sack on Ryan and he’d make it look good; he’s just one of those guys. Didn’t matter what it was. He was perfect.”
A New Ending
“The original ending, Julie gets an email, like an invite [to a party], and it was a horrible scene. [You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_ES0_Cc_2k%5D I didn’t want to shoot it! I shot it really boringly because I didn’t want it to be in the film. It never worked as the end of the movie.
“The first time we previewed it, it had that in ad the movie had played really well but the movie you could feel was anticlimactic. The studio head came out straight way and said, ‘We’ve got a hit movie here, but not with that ending.’
“So the whole ‘one year later’ thing we shot immediately after that preview because I’d already scripted out what I wanted the ending to be. We got it up and running in about a week’s time, built a little set… and we also shot the Johnny getting killed, we added that in. We did two days of reshoots.”
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
“I agreed to do the sequel. I said yes initially. And then they wanted to release it on the same weekend [the following year], so that gave us nine months, and there was no script. So they wanted me to commit to a page-and-a-half outline, and I didn’t like the outline.
“I thought it wasn’t the right story. I didn’t like the premise. It kind of killed the franchise a little bit. They had a chance to do something a bit different and for me it didn’t work. That’s why I said no, I couldn’t commit to a page and a half with no guarantee that when we got to the script, I was going to like it.
“It was disappointing because Love was signed on, I think she was contracted to do it [the sequel]. She signed on because she thought I was directing it, and then I didn’t. That upset her a bit. Which was fine, we were ok after that, but I know she was upset it wasn’t going to be the same team. They put a lot more gore in the second one, deliberately so.”
Building A Success
“We did a thing that you would never really get away with today, which is the slow-build. Get to know the people before you start chopping them up, so you care about them a bit. They seem more real to you. It’s what Ridley [Scott] did with Alien. It’s 40 minutes before anything happens in Alien.
“I used that argument when we were doing the film. The premise is the thing that held the audience. It wasn’t the scary movie bit, it really was, ‘What would I do if I was in that situation? Drunk and in a car out with my mates on a quiet country road and we knock someone down?’ That was it, that was the hook for me in the script. It really was why the audience liked the film.’
20 Years Later
“Would I do an H20 catching up with Julie 20 years later? It could be interesting, actually. You could do something very different. They genuinely cocked it up with the second one. And then the third one they did straight to video was kind of pointless. I don’t know why they did that. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on it.
“They’ve been talking about a remake for the last three, four years. Neal [H. Moretz, producer] and I still talk back and forth, and Neal’s producing it. It feels like it’s gone on the back-burner a bit. It seemed like it was going to go a year ago, maybe. I thought if they were going to do it, they’d do it after 20 years. It should be out now.
“But I had a fantastic time shooting the first film. We had a fantastic time on it. North Carolina was a fun place to be. There’s a few jobs that you do, despite how hard they were to do at the time, you also have a good laugh. All the people on it were fantastic.”
This article originally ran on Digital Spy.