Long before the Saw franchise was splitting jaws and Oldboy took a hammer to a poor, unfortunate soul’s pearly whites, David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes permanently drilled into our skulls one of the most cringe-inducing, orally discomforting scenes of the 1990s, in which the father of a psychic tyke, Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) — plagued by haunting visions of a ghostly girl from beyond the grave — yanks out his own tooth during a supernatural fever dream. Nearly 20 years later, the director and star tell EW what went into making the iconic scene, the viewing of which is still as painful as getting a root canal (as was dealing with the looming presence of The Sixth Sense, a similarly themed film which ‘completely f—-d’ Stir of Echoes’ trajectory, Bacon says).
KOEPP: [The scene was] based on a nightmare I had… It’s a classic aging dream. It’s a fear of your body crumbling and dying, which, as it turns out, is a pretty darn legitimate fear, because it’s going to happen.
One of [my kids] asked me once what the scariest idea for a horror film would be. Without hesitation, I said aging, because it is. It’s awful. Your body will betray and desert you. When I look at this scene, I see someone’s body falling apart before their eyes. As a viewer, I relate to it because it’s that inability to not pick at it, to not make it worse… but you have to see how bad it is. I know I’d do the same thing if I were him.
BACON: [Tom’s] fragile at that point… Teeth are a symbol of vibrancy, health, and youth. Everything’s crumbling around him… without your teeth, you’re a shadow of your former self.
Crafting the scene was simple (and practical)
KOEPP: We blacked out Kevin’s tooth and built a cap to go over it, so he’s pulling out a cap that comes off fairly easily, and he gives some grunts and groans and we added grotesque, crunching flesh noises… while he’s pulling out the tooth, he’s [also] palming a real tooth in his other hand [to drop into the sink]. He drops the real tooth, we tilt down to see it, and then somebody darted in [from off-camera] with a washcloth and wiped the blood off Kevin’s face, so when he looks back up into the mirror, his face and teeth are clean. We were doing it all very low tech… everybody was doing it like a magic trick, and that creates a great sense of teamwork in a crew, and brings life to it.
… and that bloody tendril that lingers on Bacon’s finger?
KOEPP: That was just lucky! He knows enough as an actor when he’s got a good thing going, to keep going… I was behind the monitor trying not to giggle.
BACON: [Laughs] It’s amazing! That was a happy accident, it was f—ing fantastic… I don’t know if the blood was made to specifically to have that stringy effect, but I don’t think it was… When it comes to horror, I’m drawn to things that are chilling in their simplicity. [Horror often uses] bells, whistles, jump-scares… but when you can do it with such a simple, uncomplicated gesture, it’s f—ing creepy and horrific.
That wasn’t the only happy accident. Bacon accidentally kicked a bucket through a window, too.
BACON: I wasn’t supposed to kick the bucket, but it was there, and I kicked it! I’ve never played a game of soccer in my life, and it was not a breakaway window. No one thought I was going to kick the bucket through the f—ing window, so obviously we had to pay for a new one. I still have to continue with the shot, and every instinct of my being was telling me to stop and go, ‘Holy s—, did you guys see that?’
KOEPP: He couldn’t have done that kick in 100 tries. I threw my hands over my mouth and prayed he’d keep [the scene going], and he did.
A month before release, The Sixth Sense sort of ate Stir of Echoes alive…
KOEPP: It completely screwed us… we finished shooting [and] we got ahold of [The Sixth Sense] script. We went to the studio and said, ‘Hey, there’s this movie that’s similar to ours with a psychic kid, we should probably get out ahead of that. We could come out in April,’ because The Sixth Sense was due to come out in August and we were set for September. [The studio] said, ‘No, we read that. It’s soft, and no one’s going to go to that.” Well, don’t you want to be the first psychic movie rather than the second? They said no, and then [The Sixth Sense] became The Sixth Sense [laughs].
I remember reading one of our reviews… that started with the sentence: “It’s amazing how quick Hollywood is to emulate success.” Come on! They came out in August, we were in September! [But] I’m happy with the movie in the long run. We’re still here talking about it, 20 years later.
BACON: Overshadowed is 100 percent an understatement. Listen, The Sixth Sense would have been a hit regardless of when Stir of Echoes came out. The Sixth Sense is a fantastic movie, there’s nothing that could’ve happened that would’ve gotten in its way. We weren’t The Sixth Sense, and there was the option to come out before; Stir of Echoes was well received and testing very high, and well reviewed, as far as I remember. The Sixth Sense was a phenomenon, so every step of the way we were compared to them, and it completely f—-d the possibility of the movie being seen. It was a terrible mistake on the part of the studio… It was, in my opinion, a really dumb move. The thing is, we didn’t get an explanation for it… This was a rare instance where I tried to lobby for the release date… generally what you get [when you do that] is, “Listen, kid, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We know what we’re doing.” And this was a case of that.
I don’t have too much of a rearview mirror when it comes to that stuff… [but] Stir of Echoes is way up there in terms of responses I get from people about movies of mine they like; The problem is, it isn’t a good title, and I know that because people have a hard time remembering it [now]… and there was time we were all lobbying for a title change. I wanted to call it Dig!