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Sarah Michelle Gellar

Sarah Michelle Gellar - Stephen Susco (the grudge screenwriter) Interview

Tuesday 5 October 2004, by Webmaster

JPM: How did you become involved in THE GRUDGE?

Stephen Susco (SS): I met Roy Lee and Doug Davison, two of the producers on the project (Vertigo Productions), in early 2002. They had acquired the remake rights for a number of Japanese horror films (including The Ring and Dark Water), and had recently come across the original Ju-On videos. They passed them along to me, to see what I thought. I was completely stunned by the material - and, needless to say, suffered from many nightmares for the months to follow. Ju-On Poster

We talked about the project at great length over the next week, and I told them some of my ideas for adapting the American remake. They attached me as the writer, and in the summer we began pitching the project to Hollywood studios and production companies. At the same time, Takashi Shimizu (the director) was working on the first Japanese feature film of Ju-On: The Grudge, which turned out to be a remarkably frightening film.

At this point (late 2002), with producer Shintaro Shimizu, Roy and Doug began screening Ju-On: The Grudge around town, and when Sam Raimi (director of Spiderman and Evil Dead, amongst other films) saw it he decided he wanted to be involved. His company Ghost House Pictures (in conjunction with Senator Entertainment) purchased the rights, signed Shimizu-san to direct the U.S. remake, and hired me to develop the script.

JPM: What was the biggest challenge you faced in doing this screenplay? Can you describe the writing process you went through from beginning to end?

SS: The biggest challenge, quite honestly, was trying to decide which of our favorite scenes (from the original Ju-On videos, as well as Ju-on: The Grudge and the sequel which followed in mid-2003) we would use in the American remake. There were other difficulties, of course - the language barrier, for one, as well as the struggle to keep Shimizu-san’s vision while incorporating some of my original ideas at the same time. But these issues were easily navigated, since we worked closely with Takashi throughout the entire process.

For several months I developed outline after outline, working with all the producers to find the story we wanted to tell. And every step of the way, Shimizu-san and his producer, Taka Ichise were there to guide us. All things considered, between March and October 2003, I wrote about a half-dozen versions of the script - and from the time the film was green-lit through the end of production, there were about two times that many to follow.

JPM: Considering that the film is based on an established storyline, how much of your own ideas were you able to inject into it? Was the Doug character, who wasn’t in JU-ON, yours? Also, was there something you wanted to include but didn’t take for whatever reason?

SS: Our remake pulls a great deal of material from the existing Ju-on films - we married together a number of storylines from several episodes of the series, and created American characters who could justifiably become involved in the curse that Shimizu-san invented. But Takashi is a wonderful collaborator, and was always willing - and definitely encouraged - consideration of new ideas to layer into the film. So for people who’ve already seen the Ju-On series, there will be a few surprises scattered about. But, character modifications aside, the majority of the incidents in the film are pulled directly from the established storyline.

Yes, the role of Doug (played by Jason Behr) was our invention - the character was actually a later development in the script. Doug’s role was originally a Japanese girl named Megumi - Karen’s (SMG’s) best friend in Japan. But as we started getting closer to the version of the story that finally made it to the screen, we realized that we could learn more about - and have more empathy for — Karen and her plight if she was being supported not by a friend, but someone she was in love with. We were fortuitous at the end of the day - Sarah and Jason have apparently known each other for quite some time, and the connection and history they share in the real world definitely comes across on-screen.

And yeah, there were a tremendous number of things that we wanted to include in the film - scenes from the original films, and new ideas we conjured up — but for one reason or another, they didn’t make the final cut. It’s one of the most difficult parts of screenwriting - trying to figure which scenes you’re not going to use. I don’t want to give away too much, though, because there’s a chance some of those "deleted" scenes may someday end up seeing the light of day after all...(smile)

JPM: I’ve seen JU-ON and I must admit that it scared me enough that I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights. Actually, I think Kayako lives in my head now. For those that have watched the original (or the series), is THE GRUDGE based entirely on JU-ON or does it incorporate ideas/scenes from the other JU-ON films? If the answer is the latter, why were those elements picked?

SS: She lives in your head, too? Wow. (smile)

I was plagued with nightmares for months after seeing the original films - Shimizu-san has an amazing talent for creating scenes that really get under your skin, and get your subconscious crackling.

Without giving too much away, our remake primarily weaves storylines together from Ju-On 1 (the first video) and Ju-on: The Grudge (the first feature). Shimizu, Sarah and Jason Behr

JPM: The cast, at least Sarah and Jason, went back to Tokyo in July to film (how many?) additional scenes. Why was there a need for these scenes and how much time did you have to write them?

SS: There were a number of scenes that we’d originally created in order to get a better understanding of the relationship between Karen and Doug - and for one reason or another, some of the material in those scenes ended up getting thinned down as we approached production. When we had our first cut of the film, there was a feeling that we were missing something - basically, SMG and Jason did such a fantastic job that we wanted to know more about them, and their relationship. The additional scenes were a rejuvenation of the original ideas, with a bit more layering added in.

We didn’t have a great deal of time to create the scenes — the producers and I locked ourselves in a room for a series of days, banging out pages and sending them to Shimizu-san and Sam Raimi... both of whom would promptly send them back with notes and advice. It was amazingly intense for everyone - Sam was at the tail end of Spiderman 2, and yet he was always there to guide the writing. And then I had to go off to a wedding in Vermont, and the final work was done via phone and Internet. It was a bit nutty, but a great deal of fun - and at the end of the day, the additional scenes really paid off.

JPM: The movie shot for 2 months in Japan. How involved were you during the filming? Were you in Japan the whole time?

SS: I was in Japan for the two weeks leading up to production, working with Shimizu-san, the producers and the production coordinators on shaping and tweaking the script - working in final creative ideas and making adjustments based on locations. I would have loved to have been there for the entire two months - Japan is a wonderful and fascinating place. And the food...wow.

JPM: Did you work with Sarah? If so, what was it like working with her?

SS: I worked sparsely with Sarah - a couple rehearsals leading up to the first days of shooting, before I headed back to L.A. But the cast was a fantastic and very social group of people, so we did a fair amount of hanging out when we weren’t working - I think I did more eating with SMG than working. She was an absolute delight to work with: as I’m sure you know, she’s a very fun and friendly person who loves conversation and keeps everyone laughing all the time. In addition, though, she’s a total pro on set - since Grudge is my first produced film, the entire process was a real learning experience for me, and had its challenges and difficulties. But the ease with which SMG carries herself made things all that much easier, for myself and everyone else - her passion, enthusiasm, and personality are nothing short of wildly infectious. She brought a great deal of fun to the process, did an incredible job - and I learned a lot working with her.

JPM: What was it like working with Takashi Shimizu and the Japanese production staff and crew that spoke very little to no English?

SS: Well, it certainly had its difficult moments - but another way to look at it is that they spoke far more English than I (we) spoke Japanese. So in a way, it was probably more difficult for them. But we had a translator helping us through the entire script development process, and - with the exception of attempting to effectively communicate subtleties - it went relatively smoothly.

Shimizu-san, it should be noted, took a few intensive English classes - and in no time, became remarkably adept at handling the language. He’s a guy who has a really sharp and unique sense of humor - and the fact that he would be just as witty in a language other than his native Japanese made his accomplishment that much more impressive. Bill Pullman and Sarah

JPM: What would you say sets THE GRUDGE apart from other remakes like The Ring and other horror/thriller flicks?

SS: The most unique element is the non-linear storytelling. Just like the originals, there’s a bit of jumping around the timeline of the story - which definitely adds to the unease. Also, Grudge is the first Japanese remake to use the same director of the original.

JPM: What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects right now?

SS: I just finished writing a remake of Prom Night for Sony/Columbia, which hopefully will hit the screens sometime around May or June next year. Another horror film I wrote early this year, called Threshold, is getting close to finding the right director. I’m currently working on a big science-fiction epic for Warner Brothers called The Forge of God, based on a pair of incredible books - and who knows, maybe there’s a Grudge sequel in the works. But I guess we’ll just have to see...

JPM: What advice would you give to budding young writers on how to succeed in the industry?

DS: I’d say this: don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed. And don’t let your own fears hold you back. Write as much as you can, every day - stories, poems, songs, whatever. Just write. It’s like anything else: the more you practice, the better you get. If you don’t hit the court every day, day in and day out, you sure as heck aren’t gonna suddenly be able to make a slam dunk in the middle of a game, if you know what I mean. Practice, practice, practice. And watch as many movies, and read as many books, as you possibly can. The more you do, the more insight you’ll have into storytelling.

Learn about the realities of the film industry - buy screenwriting books, call people up and get some advice. If you live in L.A. or New York or Chicago, or any city with film production going on, get yourself an internship - it’s just like going to film school (of course, you could always go to film school, too).

In a nutshell: just believe in yourself. Trust your talent. You don’t need connections - I didn’t have any, and most of the working writers I know didn’t either. You just need a developed talent, faith in yourself...and a thick skin.