Can you survive this oral history of Scream's 'horror rules' scene?

How to successfully survive a horror movie? This meta Scream scene — recalled by Kevin Williamson and the movie’s stars — explains it all.

How clever is the script for the original Scream? Let's just say that the knife wielded by Ghostface in the film might not actually be the sharpest thing about the late director Wes Craven's horror-comedy classic. Written by Kevin Williamson, Scream is a nerve-shredding horror whodunit as a masked manic menaces Neve Campbell's high schooler Sidney Prescott, David Arquette's law officer Dewey Riley, and Courteney Cox's Gale Weathers, among other characters.

The movie is also a knowing comedy about the slasher genre, with Jamie Kennedy's movie-obsessed video-store clerk Randy Meeks repeatedly referencing horror films and the way their plots are being echoed by the events occurring in the film's fictional setting of Woodsboro. Scream achieves a meta-textural zenith when Randy pauses a viewing of John Carpenter's 1978 proto-slasher Halloween at a party to instruct guests about how "there are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie." Those rules include "You can never have sex" and "Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, 'I'll be right back!'" The delicious irony? One of the partygoers being lectured about how to avoid getting murdered — Matthew Lillard's Stu Macher — will ultimately be revealed as one of the film's killers. The other is his fellow reveler, Skeet Ulrich's Billy Loomis.

A Killer Audition

Williamson was just starting out as a writer when he penned the screenplay for Scream, originally titled Scary Movie, and in the summer of 1995 sold the script to Bob and Harvey Weinstein's company Miramax for $400,000. The film would be ultimately directed by Craven for Miramax's genre arm Dimension Films with a cast that also featured Drew Barrymore, Rose McGowan, and Henry Winkler. Lillard and Ulrich were up-and-coming film actors when they both auditioned for the part of Sidney's boyfriend Billy. Kennedy was an almost complete unknown at the time he tried out for the movie, reading the "rules" scene as part of his audition process.

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: I felt horror movies were dead, and I was really sad about that. The genre had run aground, like it does every so often. I thought if a killer was actually using the clichés of a horror film, perhaps that would spin them around. I thought if you could just expose the rules and play with them, then the audience doesn't know what they're going to get. Suddenly they're on edge. I started playing with the tropes. The "rules" were part of that.

MATTHEW LILLARD: I auditioned, and they said, "You're not the right guy to make out with Neve Campbell the entire time; why don't you come back and come in for the best friend?" They made a mistake casting Skeet over me, that's for sure! [Laughs]

SKEET ULRICH: [Laughs] Oh my goodness. I'll have a chat with Matt about that. I think he should let that go by now.

WILLIAMSON: Jamie came in to audition, and he seemed part innocent teenager and part comedian. He clearly knew how to spit out the words, and that is what we were looking for. Everyone just fell in love with him.

JAMIE KENNEDY: I thought, this scene is so cool. It breaks down everything that's happening in a horror movie commenting on horror movies. I know the studio wasn't exactly excited to have me because I didn't have any credits. It was Wes and the team who pushed for me to get the part. Without them I wouldn't be talking to you.

Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and officer Dewey Riley (David Arquette) arrive at Stu's house in 'Scream.'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

California Screaming

Craven shot Scream in northern California during the spring of 1996, skillfully guiding and mentoring his young cast members. Away from the cameras, the actors swiftly bonded over fake blood, alcoholic beverages, and British rock music.

LILLARD: Wes became this father figure for all of us.

ULRICH: Wes had so many insights into the psychology of each character and was just such a graceful man and so clever and so smart and witty, and full of stories from his career and life. He was just such a pleasure to be around.

KENNEDY: We shot it in wine country, Sonoma County. We all definitely hung out. I would have a late breakfast with Rose. I played basketball with Skeet. Another time, me, Matthew, and Neve went into the city and kept playing Oasis on our CD player, if you can remember those. David's room was the after-hours party room.

ULRICH: I think we felt like outsiders for the most part, rolling into the hotel. People are going out to explore Napa Valley, and we're coming in at sunup with blood on us and ready to party. We wound up hanging in David Arquette's room. He had a bar.

ARQUETTE: They'd all come hang out in my room at the DoubleTree inn. I had decked the whole place up. Black light posters and lava lamps. We were going to be there for two or three months, so I made it really comfortable.

Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) explains the rules in 'Scream.'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

Laying Down the Lore

The "rules" scene is part of the film's lengthy closing sequence during which a party at Stu's home transitions into the climactic showdown between Sidney and the two killers. This final chunk of the movie was shot at a real house in the small town of Tomales.

LILLARD: I think we shot that last sequence for 21 days.

ULRICH: I remember Jamie being very nervous [about the "rules" scene] but nailing it right away. I was by the monitors and I remember being quite mesmerized by it and seeing the joy on Wes' face as Jamie brought it to life.

KENNEDY: I did it once, and Wes, he liked it. He was like, "I think I got it." I was like, "Oh, man, I'd really love another take"; Wes said, "Are you sure?" I was like, "Yeah, I think there's more I could do." So I did a second take, and Wes let the camera roll, and then I did a third take. Afterward, Wes said, "Cut, great, print." Wes said, "How do you feel?" And I said, "I feel good." He said, "Well, I want to tell you that I'm probably going to use the third take." He goes, "Never be scared to ask for another take, always trust your instincts." That was a big lesson for me, not to be scared. That scene really helped me for my whole career. I'm never scared to ask for another take, to confer with the director. Wes really helped me with that.

LILLARD: It's so funny, looking back on that sequence. Everything in that movie for me was so over-the-top and so much energy and crazy.

Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) hams it up.
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

KENNEDY: I said, "Never say, 'I'll be right back!'" and Matthew said, "I'll be right back!" I think that was part of the script. It was like, "'Ooh, don't say that!'"

LILLARD: "I'll be right back!" was me mocking Jamie, and it ended up being one of those things that people remember. I think I was just riding the emotion and the energy of the moment.

KENNEDY: While I was doing that scene, I was like, "This is so cool." Did I know that I was going to be talking to you 25 years after? Uh, no.

LILLARD: That house is now available to rent on Airbnb. If your readers want to make the pilgrimage to Napa, they can find the house and make out in the kitchen.

Back From the Dead

Scream opened on Dec. 20, 1996. The film grossed a disappointing $6 million over that first weekend but ultimately became a box office hit thanks to positive word of mouth. While Stu and Billy died at the end of the film, Kennedy's character survived only to be killed in 1997's Scream 2. But Randy and his "rules" live on in the memories of horror fans.

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) embraces boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) in 1996's 'Scream.'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

KENNEDY: [The premiere] was at the AVCO in Westwood. My family came. We went to this cool place in West Hollywood afterward, and I remember my dad was eating hummus by Steven Seagal. I was like, "Dad, just make sure Steven Seagal gets the hummus before you get the hummus."

LILLARD: Wes called and said, "Hey, congratulations, you're in a huge hit movie." I was like, "I mean, the box office wasn't great." He was like, "It's not, but the word of mouth, the exit scores...." They'd never seen anything higher in the history of polling.

KENNEDY: Every day of my life [people talk to me about Scream]. When something happens, they always ask me about the rules of it. "There's rules to surviving a pandemic!" I was walking here to do this interview, it was like, "Yo, man, I hated that you died!" I think the people want somehow for Randy to be alive. I don't know how that would be, but there are metaverses and alternate timelines, so who knows? Would I like to come back? You'd better believe it!

Sidney with Randy in 'Scream.'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

Additional reporting by Patrick Gomez

To read more, pick up Entertainment Weekly: The Ultimate Guide to Scream here or wherever magazines are sold.

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