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FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN: James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, Co-Writers of ‘Scream’

James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick spoke to Script about penning the next installment of this classic franchise.

It takes chutzpah for a screenwriter to bring back legacy characters for a sequel--long before the actors portraying them sign on for another go-around. But that’s precisely what James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick did in co-writing the latest Scream entry. Thankfully, A-listers David Arquette, Courtney Cox, and Neve Campbell had no qualms about reprising the roles they made famous 25 years ago.

“We enticed them by giving them something different to play and then crossed our fingers,” explains Busick. “We had no safety net so we pulled out all the stops.”

The fifth in the series, this latest Scream finds Dewey Riley (Arquette) retired from the law and riddled with post-traumatic stress. Boozed-up and agoraphobic, his only connection to his now ex-wife Gale Weathers (Cox) involves watching her on TV sitting behind a news desk. Meanwhile, original bad-ass protagonist Sidney Prescott has finally achieved tranquility—baby stroller and all. But when a brand new Ghostface killer launches a fresh slashing spree in their hometown of Woodsboro, the trio returns to the scene of the original crime to mount an all-hands-on-deck defense.

Scream also introduces us to a new batch of potential young victims/killers. This includes handsome jock Chad Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding), his sultry girlfriend Liv McKenzie (Sonia Ammar), as well as high school graduate Samantha Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who happens to be the daughter of Billy Loomis--one of the notorious original knife-wielding psychos. Can you say ‘daddy issues?’

Like its predecessors, the characters in this installment are vigilantly hyper-aware of the horror movie tropes they soon find themselves in. Whether or not they can leverage their knowledge to outsmart Ghostface—whoever’s rocking that mask, is part of the fun.

Vanderbilt and Busick--both self-described Scream fanboys in their own right, spoke to Script about taking this franchise to the next level.

Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream. Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group.

Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream. Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group.

SCRIPT: The opening scene shows a character alone in the house as she’s terrorized over the landline telephone, as well as her cell phone. Did you always know Ghostface would torment her with these dueling technologies?

JAMES VANDERBILT: We always knew we wanted a landline in the opening scene because it just felt very on brand with Scream. But unlike the original, the character ignores the landline when it rings because we felt that a kid her age would say, “Why does my mother even have this thing?” and refuse to answer it until she has no choice. But we also wanted to lean into modern technology because there are many ways Ghostface can menace you, and he’ll utilize all of them.

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SCRIPT: Did you have any influence over the look of the landline phone design in terms of the slickness or the digital display?

JV: I didn’t have input on that, and Guy didn’t either, but it was literally the kind of landline phone I had for years, so when I saw it, I was like, “Yup! That checks out!”

Jenna Ortega (“Tara”) stars in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream.

Jenna Ortega (“Tara”) stars in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream.

SCRIPT: In describing the fight scenes, did you articulate every physical strike and detail the exact number of knife stabs? Or do you simply write: “Ghostface attacks XYZ” and let the stunt team flesh out the struggle?

Guy Busick

Guy Busick

GUY BUSICK: It’s a mix of both. We were pretty detailed in some sequences—particularly with the opening scene because we saw it in a very specific way. But things evolve once you get stunt coordinators and stunt actors on the set.

JV: And I’ll just say to all the writers who are reading this that we always write out the descriptions of action. We never just say, “They fight.” Because when someone’s reading the script, you want to give them that fun back-and-forth experience and then trust the stunt coordinators to try and beat it, which is what you want.

SCRIPT: One of the most delicious aspects of the film was the utter shock of seeing Billy Loomis [Skeet Ulrich] return, in the form of a vision haunting his daughter Samantha. I gasped.

GB: Yes!

JV: I love that!

SCRIPT: But did you ever debate the possibility of resurrecting Stu Macher--Billy’s murderous partner in crime, instead of Billy?

GB: No, there was never any debate. In fact, we both independently came up with the idea of resurrecting Billy because it just felt right. At the same time, we knew that the protagonist would be Billy’s daughter because in the original film, the obvious motivations for the murders were tied to family—the disruption around Billy’s and Sidney’s families. So, the idea of expanding on what happened to Billy’s family was thrilling to us. And we knew it was a big swing to try and convince Skeet to reprise this role—even if, as you said, it was in the form of a hallucination for Sam. 

Scream's (1996) Original Bad Boys Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) & Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). Dimension Films.

Scream's (1996) Original Bad Boys Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) & Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). Dimension Films.

SCRIPT: What was your reaction to the de-aging process they used to bring back the Skeet from 25 years ago?

JV: Listen. Skeet’s a handsome man. And when we looked at his [unmanipulated] dailies, we asked, “Do we even need to de-age him?” I mean, we did a little, but he’s well-preserved and lovely. We also shot some crime scene photos with Skeet that didn’t end up getting used in the movie, but they were supposed to be taken in 1996, so Skeet was on the set of Stu’s house and it was just the most meta day on the whole movie. There’s Billy Loomis in Stu’s kitchen, dressed like he was from 1996, in that white T-shirt. The crew was like, “Holy God.”

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SCRIPT: How did you decide which secondary characters to bring back? Did you consider Sidney’s father Neil, or Kirby Reed from Scream 4? Or maybe even a relative of Cotton Weary?

James Vanderbilt

James Vanderbilt

JV: It all goes back to Woodsboro because we knew we wanted the movie to take place there. And then it became, “OK, who would logically still be there?” We quickly decided Martha Meeks [Heather Matarazzo] would return because after watching her in Scream 3, we said, “We have to get Heather back!” But we also wanted to get Marley Shelton back as Judy Hicks from Scream 4 because it made perfect sense for the story that she’d be promoted to sheriff to take over for Dewey. We wanted to provide continuity with everything the people in that town went through, instead of thinking, “Portia de Rossi’s so great in Scream 2! I wonder what she’s up to!”

GB: We wanted viewers to know that everything in all the previous movies happened, as opposed to picking and choosing certain events. Everything was canon.

SCRIPT: You also introduced a new group of high school characters. Was it hard to negotiate how much real estate to give each person? 

[L-R] Dylan Minnette (“Wes”), Jack Quaid (“Richie”), Melissa Barrera (“Sam”) and David Arquette (“Dewey Riley”) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream.

[L-R] Dylan Minnette (“Wes”), Jack Quaid (“Richie”), Melissa Barrera (“Sam”) and David Arquette (“Dewey Riley”) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream.

GB: It’s interesting that you talk about real estate because the main task for us was following three groups of characters and trying to service each of them correctly. We had the young cast of high school friends, we had Samantha and her boyfriend Richie [Jack Quaid], who are both a little older, and then we had the legacy characters. It was a balancing act.

JV: And we decided early on to keep the legacy characters off-screen for a certain amount of time to give viewers time to get to know all of these new characters. Because we knew that as soon as Sidney Prescott walks in the door, you’re going to say, “Oh my god, Sidney’s here!” So, that was a very conscious screenwritery decision.

[L-R] Melissa Barrera (“Sam”), Neve Campbell (“Sidney Prescott”), and Courteney Cox (“Gale Weathers”) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream.

[L-R] Melissa Barrera (“Sam”), Neve Campbell (“Sidney Prescott”), and Courteney Cox (“Gale Weathers”) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream.

SCRIPT: To prevent anyone from leaking the killer’s identity, you distributed scripts with false endings to the actors. Did you ever develop an affinity for one of the dummy endings and think, “Maybe we should go that way for real?”

JV: No, because we were never able to beat the real ending. If we did, we’d have made the change because we carried the philosophy that the best idea wins. So, the object of the exercise was to make sure details didn’t leak into the world because I remember driving to the theater to go see Scream 4, thinking, “I hope they don’t kill Dewey!” As a huge fan, I want this to be a surprise for other fans as well. And fake endings are a part of the tradition.

Scream is now available to watch in Theatres. 


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