Fans of the “Scream” movie franchise are well aware that there are certain rules one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. But what’s required to have a successful horror TV show? Jaime Paglia, one of the executive producers and showrunners of MTV’s “Scream” TV series, chatted with Variety about the tricks to adapting a horror movie to the small screen, why he is avoiding stunt casting (for now) and, perhaps most importantly, the reasoning for abandoning the films’ iconic Ghostface killer mask.
SPOILERS: “Scream” premieres at 10 p.m. June 30 on MTV. Do not read this interview unless you have watched the first episode in the series.
The TV show has almost a “Friday the 13th” meets “Scream” vibe to it. What was the idea behind the plot?
When you’re paying homage to the horror genre in general, there’s a lot you’re going to be pulling from. We wanted, first and foremost, to have the DNA of the “Scream” movies in the show. Coming up with our mythology and backstory for the murders that happened 20 years ago with a different killer and how that story is going to tie to our characters that we’re following in the present, this is something that we’re going to be pulling back the curtain on slowly.
We’re going to be touching on a number of horror films the way the “Scream” movie franchise did. It wasn’t any particular desire to follow “Friday the 13th,” it just evolved that way for this show. Having the longer arc of 10 episodes and, ideally, multiple seasons to really follow these characters — those who survive — you wanted to have a deeper history of the unsolved murders.
Does this also mean that the body count will continue to grow? Only two people die in the pilot.
The body count will grow, but just like Noah [John Karna’s character, who is similar to Jamie Kennedy’s Randy in the movies] says, we have to stretch things out in television. The audience will engage with the characters so that when they are horribly murdered, it hurts. That’s the rule we set out for ourselves in Noah’s speech in the pilot. We’re not just killing Red Shirts every week. We’re not just having a killer jump out of the closet and try to slash Emma [Willa Fitzgerald’s character, who is most similar to Neve Campbell’s Sidney from the movies].
This is a story made for television, and particularly with today’s audience, it’s more genre. We have very intelligent psychopaths out there with “Hannibal” and “The Following,” and “Dexter” before them, and “American Horror Story. There’s a certain level of sophistication and planning on television shows now. We needed to have a killer that could compete with them. This is not a killer who is going to take risks. When the killer does show up, you want to feel that someone is definitely going to die. If you undercut that with too many near-misses, I think so many of the audience isn’t going to feel that afraid of the show.
Much of the first movie dealt with a virginity storyline — the only way to survive a horror movie is to stay a virgin — and the TV show seems to be skipping that part. Is this because the ideas of teens losing their virginity is so passe now?
We think so and we’ll also turn it on its head a little bit a few episodes from now. That will definitely come up because we feel we have to pay a little tip of the hat to it, but we’re trying to treat our characters as more realistic as today’s audience as well.
We’re not just casting Emma as the virgin and wondering if her moral decisions on that will have an impact on if she lives or dies. It’s more about her family’s history. Thematically, this is a series about the masks that we wear in social media, in our lives, with our families and friends and all the secrets and lies that everybody has that they try to hide from the public.
The fact that the murders happened 20 years ago were precipitated by somebody who kept those secrets and lies and it escalated into a tragedy. The person who’s doing this now is trying to shine a light on that and illuminate what happened then for these characters. It’s a larger social experiment as well.
Is that why you also concentrated so much on mobile and social media in the show, such as the damning YouTube video and stalking via webcam?
I think it’s part of a larger message, but I also think it’s making some of the tropes of the “Scream” franchise more modern. We do have all these different ways of communicating now. There is an underlying tone of we do need to take better care of our kids, especially with what they’re doing online. It doesn’t just have an immediate impact; it lives forever. You can’t take it back and there’s a real human cost to that.
The series is famously not going to use Ghostface, the black-draped and ghoulish-masked figure from the movies. Can you talk about how you’ve created your own masked villain?
Bob Weinstein and everyone involved in the movies felt that they wanted the television series to live on its own. If you’re going to do that, if you’re really not going to follow any of the original characters or storylines or history from [the movie’s town of] Woodsboro, then you don’t just want to take the mask. That’s so iconic from the movie series and that doesn’t fit with doing a television show that doesn’t follow that story.
But just like the show is paying an homage to the movies, we wanted the mask to do the same. We’re putting a twist on it … but it wasn’t just a mask that was picked up at a costume shop, it is actually very intrinsically linked to our killer, Brandon James, from 20 years ago. It was a part of what made him who he was; this tragic figure behind the mask. Tying that history into our mask, it feels more organic actually to the show. We know that it’s walking into a minefield to change something that’s so beloved and we did not do it without a lot of discussion and design and thought.
Did you choose to cast unknowns for a similar reason?
If we cast anybody from the movie series, that would be glaring. It’s a trick because you want to pay homage. If we did come up with a character that would be a wink and a nudge, I think we’d be open to doing that. But right now we wanted it to be its own world. The best way to get to know all of these characters, and to get to know them organically the first time, is as if you don’t have these recognizable figures.
So Neve Campbell could still appear in this?
I can’t say it’s something we’re actively pursing. And if we did, you’d so be wanting it to be Sidney Prescott in some ways. I’ll never say never. If the right idea comes up and we realize oh wouldn’t it be great to have that person come in for just one moment? …