SCREAM if you like his movies
Kevin Williamson dominates the scary movie genre, and he’s back
in primetime with The Vampire Diaries. Now, the Dawson’s Creek creator
is hoping to find an elusive balance in his creative and personal lives.
“I’m not good at highs and lows,” he says.
By David Menconi
Photography by Max S. Gerber
hen it comes to holiday decorating, there are Christmas people and there are Halloween people. Not surprisingly, Kevin Williamson ’87 is a Halloween kind of guy. Ghoulish items fill his home in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, including a sinister-looking mummy guarding the doorbell. A painting shows a Hangman game with the phrase “I will die alone.”
“When I lived over in Hancock Park (a nearby L.A. neighborhood), the kids would be lined up for three blocks,” Williamson says as he pokes through boxes yet to be unpacked after his recent move. “Not because I was the ‘Scream’ guy, but because I really decked out the house for Halloween. I’d go all out—strobe lights, scary music, the works.”
Well, the man does have a reputation to uphold. Scream, the wildly successful 1996 slasher flick that Williamson wrote, was his big breakthrough. It earned $173 million at the box office. A year later he wrote the script for I Know What You Did Last Summer, a revenge-from-beyond-the-grave fantasy that sold $126 million in tickets. Williamson then traded gore for teen angst with the TV drama series Dawson’s Creek, which was filmed in Wilmington and ran for six ratings-filled seasons on The WB. He has returned to scarier territory lately with The Vampire Diaries, now in its third season on the CW television network.
He gives his guest a quick tour of his new home, which is nice but not huge. There’s a small outdoor theater for viewing parties on the patio out back, which also offers a hot tub. The master bedroom closet is crammed with artifacts from his movies, including the original Scream mask. Settling into an easy chair, Williamson offers his visitor candy from a bowl on a glass-top coffee table held up by a boat propeller—a nod to his family of fishermen back home in coastal North Carolina. Along with the expected assortment of lollipops and chocolate drops, the bowl also contains (gulp) a bunch of plastic eyes.
“My new show on Fox is about a serial killer who removes eyes,” he deadpans, an impish twinkle in his own piercingly blue, nonplastic eyes. “So to congratulate me on selling it, a friend of mine gave me a bunch of plastic eyes as a gift.”
Son of a waterman
Williamson was born in New Bern in 1965 in a waterman’s family. We he was an infant, his family moved to Texas, where the family lived for 13 years while his father worked as a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico. When a series of oil slicks killed the shrimping business, the Williamsons moved back home to North Carolina. Young Kevin had become interested in community theater in Texas, and he kept at it while a student at Pamlico County High School in Bayboro. He and a few friends gravitated to the school drama club.
“We did a lot of one-act plays out of the Samuel French catalog,” he says about his high school days. “And we’d write, direct and star in our own shows, too. I wrote this nuclear-holocaust-type one-act about a survivor having a conversation with God—a big, big hit at the science fair. I was also the nerdy A/V guy wheeling the cart whenever someone needed a TV monitor.”
Williamson’s original college plan was to study journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. But on a weekend tour of East Carolina, where his older brother was a student, Williamson got a look at the theater department and changed his mind. As a freshman, he took set-design classes alongside another new student, Sandra Bullock ’87. Later, he was cast with her in two East Carolina Playhouse productions. Bullock, he says, radiated charisma even when wielding a claw hammer in that first set-design class.
“She’s just the sweetest and kindest girl alive,” Williamson says of Bullock. “And funny. Always kept the rest of us entertained during the wee hours of tech rehearsals. We’ve bumped into each other over the years since then. Always hugs and laughs.” Bullock’s many film credits include Speed, Miss Congeniality and The Blind Side, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar in 2010.
For the small-town boy Williamson was, ECU felt like the big leagues. His classmates from back then recall him as the life of the party. But in his telling, he had difficulty getting out of his shell. Edgar Loessin, founder of ECU’s theater department, took Williamson under his wing and encouraged him to audition for everything, including musicals, even though he couldn’t sing to save his life. “Just do it,” Williamson says Loessin told him. “Learn how to stand in front of people and fail.”
A Don Biehn prodigy
Mostly, however, Williamson spent his early college years trying not to fail out of school. He was not, he admits, the most avid student. But two things happened to set him on a more serious path. The first was winning the Edgar Loessin scholarship his sophomore year, which was as important for the confidence boost as for the money (after Loessin died in the summer of 2011, Williamson made a substantial donation to the scholarship fund). The second was getting accepted his sophomore year into Donald Biehn’s acting class, which Biehn ran like a conservatory where each student had to be invited back every year.
Biehn taught the Sanford Meisner Technique, an internalized method of acting centered on connecting with emotional truths. Williamson says it was “perfect for an overly sensitive young gay boy from Goose Creek,” his family’s rural Pamlico County home. The work was intense, and Williamson “went total theater geek.”
“He had great sensitivity as an actor, and also other instincts at work,” says Biehn, who is now retired and living in Chicago. “You could tell in the way he’d ask questions or explore his work as an actor that there was also a writer and a director there. Those are different intelligences and it’s unusual to find a good actor who’s a good writer—or vice-versa. I think the sensitivity in his acting transferred well to writing, producing and directing. He could play roles other people couldn’t, used the truth of himself in unusual ways. From early on, I think he understood truthful behavior and that transferred to his writing.”
Williamson acted in a number of East Carolina Playhouse productions and worked as a stagehand in several others. He shared the stage with Bullock twice. He was Smee to her Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, which ran in October 1985(see playbill at right
). The next month he played Bullock’s Russian soldier brother-in-law in The Three Sisters.
But it was in his senior year in 1987 when Williamson found his acting touchstone. He won rave reviews in Children of a Lesser God as the teacher who falls in love with his deaf pupil—the role William Hurt made famous in the movie version. Directed by Biehn as a theatre arts department collaboration with ECU’s program for the hearing impaired, Children was staged in McGinnis Theatre with sign language translators positioned at either side of the stage. Williamson plunged into the role, becoming fluent in sign language. ECU students and many deaf people from the area who attended the play gave it standing ovations.
A review in the April 14, 1987, issue of The East Carolinian, headlined “Playhouse closes with a winner,” said Williamson “has been preparing for this role since the fall, and his work has paid off with deft, fluid signing. He pours his energy into the nimble gestures.” (A quarter-century later, he can still sign.)
Biehn “can be proud of this production both as director and acting teacher,” the review concluded. “His two years of instructing Williamson show dividends on stage.”
“Kevin was a lot of fun, a crazy actor,” says Scott Charles Rymer ’86, who also acted in Peter Pan and The Three Sisters. “He’d get way out there with Peter Pan, then come back and do something really finite like Children of a Lesser God,” says Rymer, an actor based in St. Simons Island, Ga. “His work in that was just impeccable. He was a really good student of the work. Exceptional, I thought, one of the better actors to come out of ECU. I always felt like acting was where his real talent was.”
Set design for that 1987 production, as well as Peter Pan was by Robert Alpers, who recently retired from the faculty of the School of Theatre and Dance.
Hard times in New York
After graduation, Williamson moved to New York hoping to break into theater while sharing a tiny apartment with the brother of actor Woody Harrelson, who introduced them. But between big-city culture shock and the difficulty of landing parts, he was miserable. It also didn’t help that he was trying to come to terms with his own sexuality after years of conflicted emotions.
“I was pretty much straight through college. I was struggling with coming out in my early 20s in New York, which was a big reason why I was depressed and hated those days. Just the travails of growing pains—struggling with your identity and how you fit into the world.”
Williamson spent more time waiting tables and working odd jobs than he did acting during those early years in New York. It was a harsh dose of reality that brought to his mind some wisdom Biehn had imparted at ECU: “Other people might strike it big right away, but you might take a while. So remember that slow and steady wins the race.”
During that hardscrabble four-year period, Williamson bounced between New York and North Carolina, doing production-assistant work in Wilmington and landing the occasional bit part in soap operas. After getting a job as assistant to a music-video director, Williamson began to focus more on the behind-the-scenes aspect of entertainment. He’d always written, but meeting some professional writers on the set of the NBC soap opera Another World inspired him to take his writing more seriously. It was an instinct he came by honestly.
“My mom bought me a typewriter when I was 10 years old, because she wanted to write herself,” Williamson says. “I’m convinced she wanted to be Judith Krantz, or the female Sidney Sheldon. I’d stumble upon chapters she’d written, really cool and interesting stuff. If I got humor from my dad, I got storytelling from my mom. She knew how to weave a story. Just talking about going to the grocery store, she could be mesmerizing.”
In 1991, Williamson moved to Los Angeles to continue working with the music-video director, who promptly fired him. He was broke, but he kept interviewing for jobs and writing. He even sold a script called Killing Mrs. Tingle, inspired by a real-life dressing-down he’d gotten from a teacher in high school. But the fee wasn’t much and Williamson continued struggling.
A scary inspiration
While housesitting for a friend one night in 1994, Williamson discovered an open window and became convinced someone had broken in and was lying in wait. Alarmed, he telephoned an old ECU classmate and fellow Don Biehn disciple, David Blanchard. As Williamson searched the house, he and Blanchard chatted nervously over the phone, making dark, satiric comments about serial killers and slasher movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
There was no intruder, but it was a scary experience—and it started the wheels turning in Williamson’s head. Not long after that, he went to another friend’s house in Palm Springs, locked himself away for a weekend and wrote a screenplay he called Scary Movie. As inspired by that phone call with Blanchard, the opening scene shows a young woman on the phone with a serial killer who eventually bursts in and murders her. The story combined comedy and whodunit mystery with the violence of traditional slasher movies to satirize the horror film genre.
“I was so broke I had to borrow $15 to get a cartridge to print it out,” he remembers. “I was in the worst financial shape of my life. But things happened fast.”
His agent took the Scary Movie script to market, and a bidding war broke out. The studio owned by the Weinstein Brothers bought it for $400,000. Retitled Scream and starring Drew Barrymore, Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell and David Arquette, the movie was a huge hit when it reached theaters in December 1996, eventually grossing more than $170 million worldwide. Williamson was off and running.
I Know What You Did Last Summer followed in 1997. Based on a script Williamson adapted from the Lois Duncan novel, the film afforded Williamson the opportunity to use his father as a consultant, demonstrating creative ways to torture and kill people on a boat. Both Scream and Summer yielded profitable sequels; Scream 4 hit the theaters last April. Williamson also wrote screenplays for the movies The Faculty, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, in which his old ECU friend David Blanchard, who these days teaches acting and splits his time between L.A. and Arizona, had a minor role as a waiter.
Then came the wildly popular TV series Dawson’s Creek, which debuted in 1998. Williamson named the series after an actual stream near Oriental—the place where high school kids would go to party. He also based many of the show’s episodes and events on things that happened during his own wonder years. The TV series launched then-unknown actresses Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes to stardom.
As a writer, Williamson is an unabashed populist who genuinely loves the pulp novels his mom had around the house when he was growing up (Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodlines being particularly influential for him). Murder and mayhem fill his movies and TV shows, but also pop-culture references and ironic allusions to earlier horror flicks like Friday the 13th.
“Kevin’s an exquisitely sensitive man and a remarkably talented writer,” says Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. “He loves TV, and storytelling, characters, taking audiences on a journey—because he is first and foremost an audience member.”
Meteoric rise, then a crash
The rush of success from Scream and Dawson’s Creek gave Williamson the clout to revive his long-dormant first script, although he had to change the name to Teaching Mrs. Tingle. He both wrote and directed the 1999 movie, which starred Helen Mirren. The movie bombed but it hardly seemed to matter.
“My 20s were slow and starving,” he says. “That all changed as soon as I hit 30 and wrote Scream. That’s the overnight part, and it was bang-bang-bang for a few years. Then there was a spiral downward because I was so overworked and overtired. I went crazy. I was creatively spent, couldn’t write. I’d get wrapped up in projects I didn’t care about and they went south. I did not have the mojo to get it done. I also had to deal with my personal life. My mom got sick, some relationships went sour. Life got in the way.” His mother died in 2004.
After a nearly decade-long funk, redemption arrived from an unlikely source. The WB was looking to get a piece of the vampire craze triggered by the Twilight series and wanted Williamson to take a crack at adapting a book series called The Vampire Diaries.
Williamson overcame his initial hesitations and decided that working through personal issues by creating a show about people literally coming back to life was something he wanted to do. He was emerging from a long stretch of grieving over the death of someone close to him, and this was just the tonic. The first episode of Vampire Diaries debuted in September 2009, and the show is still going strong in its third season.
Vampire Diaries, he says, “is like a perfect combination of everything I’ve lived through. It’s an epic love story that reminds me of every Judith Krantz novel I read when I was 10—thank you, mom! Every episode is epic, which is the key word on that show. It’s epic melodrama like the best Sidney Sheldon. There are twists, turns, cliffhangers every week. It’s emotional, and my favorite genre is emotional horror. I like the emotion of horror, but I don’t like horror movies. You have to pull me in, wrap me up in it, make me care and then scare the hell out of me. Put together Dawson’s Creek and Scream, and you’ve got Vampire Diaries.”
‘I’m not good at highs and lows’
Where Williamson describes his 30s as glamorous, nowadays he says he leads a more sedate existence. He comes back to North Carolina frequently to visit his father and his older brother, John Wade Williamson ’85, who lives in Goldsboro. He has returned to ECU a few times over the years, including time spent visiting several fraternities and sororities for research while writing Scream 2 in 1997. While he was here then he sat in on an acting class taught by his mentor Don Biehn, who pulled a plot twist of his own by having a student stage a surprise attack on the class wearing a Scream mask.
These days Williamson has a circle of Hollywood friends he’s very generous with. “Kevin always remembers everybody’s birthday, and the cupcakes always show up,” says Andrew Rona, president of Silver Pictures, who has worked with Williamson since Scream.
When he’s not writing and developing shows for television, Williamson is content to spend his time watching them. “I’m 46 now, and nothing beats laying on the couch watching TV every night,” he says. “I’ve got a good core group of friends, we go out to dinner, and then I come home and watch TV. It’s boring, but it’s life. I’m not good at highs and lows. The bottom is too far to climb out of, and it’s too easy to fall from the top. I’d rather be comfortable in the middle, so I’ll just try to keep it there.”
Kevin Williamson's Filmography