“High School Is a Horror Movie”: Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec Turn The Vampire Diaries
“I’ve had other things optioned before,” said L.J. Smith about finding out The Vampire Diaries was to be adapted for television, “so my reaction was at first, ‘Okay, another one of those.’ But then when they said it was by Kevin Williamson, I realized it was probably a little bit more serious.”
Kevin Williamson says he “grew up sleeping in front of the tv. I always wanted to make tv and film. I always wanted to live in a fantasy world.” Born on March 14, 1965, in New Bern, North Carolina (not too far from a little spot known as Dawson’s Creek), Kevin, his older brother John, and parents Faye and Wade, moved to Texas when Kevin was small, returning to Oriental, North Carolina, when Kevin was in his teens. Kevin’s father was a commercial fisherman. Though in early interviews Kevin would joke that he grew up “white trash,” he clarifies, “We didn’t have a lot of money, but weren’t white trash. I had wonderful parents, and they always provided. I always got what I needed.” The resourceful 10-year-old requested that his local library subscribe to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, so he could keep up on industry news. He loved reading books and watching movies, but growing up a Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt was difficult for a boy who always knew he was gay. When his preacher spoke about sinners, homosexuals were mentioned in the same breath as murderers and rapists.
A self-described loner in high school, Kevin did his ba at East Carolina University, studied theater arts, and dated his best friend Fannie. He moved to New York City to become an actor and landed bit parts, including a turn on Another World in 1990. The struggle to make a living eventually drove Kevin to Los Angeles to try his luck in the film industry there. In 1993, he decided to finally shrug off the words of a discouraging high school English teacher, who, in marking a short story, had told Kevin, “Yours is a voice that shouldn’t be heard.” He took a writing class at ucla and wrote his first script, Killing Mrs. Tingle (a revenge story inspired by that nasty teacher), and it got optioned. Kevin used that money to pay down his college loans, but the script languished with its production company. By 1995, Kevin was 30 and working odd jobs — walking dogs, taking shifts as a word-processing temp, slogging hours as an assistant; he needed a career to keep himself afloat.
One night, alone in his apartment, Kevin heard a strange noise and, as he went to investigate it, he noticed a window standing open that he could have sworn he had shut. A little spooked, he locked the window and called up a friend. The two started throwing horror-movie trivia questions at each other, and with that, the opening scene for Scream was born. Williamson wrote the script very quickly, reportedly in three days. As he says, “The movie just came out of my youth. I grew up with a vcr; Blockbuster was my friend. The dialogue in the film comes from conversations I had with my friends about films from that era.” He hoped to at least use the script as a writing sample; he did not expect Scream (which was originally titled Scary Movie) to provoke a bidding war. Dimension Films, a division of Miramax started in 1992, picked it up, and the legendary horror film director Wes Craven signed on.
Kevin was nervous as he began his working relationship with Wes Craven, mostly thanks to “all the Hollywood stories about directors mutilating scripts.” At their first meeting, however, “[Craven] handed me back the script and there were pages and pages of notes. It turned out they were all typos. He said to me, ‘I’m sorry, Kevin. I used to teach English and this sort of thing bothers me.’” The two would go on to work together again on the other Scream films and on Cursed.
Released on December 20, 1996, Scream became the highest grossing slasher movie of all time, a rank it still holds over a decade later. Williamson was widely praised for revitalizing a tired genre, and he won the 1997 Saturn Award for Best Writing. It was a huge change for the formerly unemployed writer, who was now considered one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood. “Suddenly Miramax was looking for any Kevin Williamson project. I wasn’t writing them fast enough, which I didn’t understand, because I was writing them as fast as I fucking could.” A year after Scream’s release came I Know What You Did Last Summer, which performed well at the box office but didn’t receive the glowing reviews Scream had. The film’s villain was modeled, in appearance only, on Kevin’s fisherman father. In December 1997, the same month that Scream 2 came out, Kevin signed a $20 million contract to write, produce, and direct movies and tv shows for Miramax. Bob Weinstein, then co-chairman of Miramax, said, “Writers that don’t pander [to teens] win the game. Kevin understands this brilliantly, and he’s got the talent to go with it.”
As Kevin Williamson readily admits, “Everything I do is autobiographical,” and nowhere was that more evident than in his first television series, Dawson’s Creek. First pitched to Fox but picked up by The WB, the teen drama centered on Dawson Leery, an idealistic wannabe filmmaker obsessed with Steven Spielberg films and struggling with his first romances in Capeside, a fictional Massachusetts town based on Oriental, nc. “I love the teen experience,” said Kevin. “There is something very potent about teen drama in the sense that everyone is dealing with their first love.” The show’s teenagers talked about sex and feelings in an explicit and nuanced way not heard before on tv, and Dawson’s Creek garnered a lot of attention for its language, content, and for that season 1 affair between Pacey Witter and Ms. Jacobs. The WB wisely slotted the show at 9 p.m., rather than during the 8 p.m. “family hour,” airing it after Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dawson’s Creek premiered on January 20, 1998, to great ratings in its core demographic. Part of the show’s magic came from filming on location in Wilmington, North Carolina. It “forces the cast to bond because we don’t know anyone else,” said Katie “Joey Potter” Holmes during Dawson’s first season. In season 2, Kevin introduced the character Jack McPhee, a gay teen, whose experiences in a small-town high school were informed by Kevin’s own. While discussing Jack’s coming-out episode with the media, Kevin seized the opportunity to publicly confirm his sexual orientation. (He had come out to his parents back in 1992.)
Kevin Williamson didn’t leave horror movies behind while working on the Creek. On December 25, 1998, The Faculty was released. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Williamson’s story of a high school whose faculty is taken over by water-starved aliens was a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Breakfast Club. As Kevin said, “That whole theme of conformity versus individuality fits perfectly into the high school metaphor. I got into that and tried to create the characters that interweave in a Breakfast Club way and then left all the cool alien shit to Robert.” (In fact, a viewer familiar with the films of John Hughes can spot the alien-in-disguise among the main cast right away: there’s the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal, and the sweet-as-pie new girl. Hmmm.)
After season 2 of Dawson’s Creek, Kevin decided to move on to other projects. “I feel in my heart of hearts that it could have been better. If it was my full-time job — and I had nothing else tugging at me — it would have been better.” His attention had been split between his directorial debut, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and Wasteland, a new series for abc about 20-somethings in New York City. The tv show centered on Dawnie, a late-blooming grad student writing her thesis on her friends’ lives, one of whom is a gay but closeted soap opera actor. It premiered in October 1999, was ravaged by critics, and was canceled three episodes in. Teaching Mrs. Tingle didn’t fare much better. The film, which was Kevin’s very first screenplay, had been modified in the wake of the 1999 Columbine Massacre, and resulted in, as the New York Times said, “the incongruously toothless version of a sadistic fantasy.” Entertainment Weekly had named Kevin an Entertainer of the Year in 1997, and yet their reviewer wrote, “Williamson, whose best work has melded humanity with a kind of media-savvy meta-playfulness, [made] a movie that dances so clumsily on the grave of empathy, pandering to the worst instincts in young audiences.”
The reason his work was lackluster was obvious to Kevin and everyone around him: he was badly overextended. Katie Holmes became close with Kevin and used to stay with him while in L.A. In 1999, she commented, “He works nonstop. All of us are always telling him to take a break. He is hard on himself because he’s a perfectionist.” Looking back on the late ’90s, Kevin said, “It’s what I call my insane period. . . . I did not know how to say no.” In three years, he had written five screenplays, directed his first feature film, and created two television series. “I worked so much, I didn’t have any personal life . . . I had a great home that I didn’t see. I was sleeping on the floor with no pillow so I wouldn’t sleep, so I would wake up every few hours and go back to the computer. That’s insane! But I had deadlines. I was self-destructing. There’s no way anybody could have met the timelines that I had, but I kept trying. I fell apart.”
He wrote an outline for Scream 3 but handed over the screenwriting duties to Ehren Kruger, and after Wasteland’s cancelation he took a year off. “One of the things I learned while I was doing Wasteland is that writing about people in their 20s — who cares? . . . Nothing’s life or death then. When you’re 25, who cares if a love doesn’t work out? You will find another one. But when you’re 16, it’s life and death. . . . There’s your first love and your last love. Those are the epic moments.”
But his return to teen-focused television was still a few projects away. In January 2002, Williamson’s Glory Days premiered on The WB as a mid-season replacement; described by Entertainment Weekly as “a Northern Exposure–cum-X-Files murder mystery for the mtv set,” it was aimed at young men. Williamson didn’t originally envision the show as a thriller, but the network asked for more scares. The story focuses on writer Mike Dolan, who returns to his small Washington hometown where strange things are happening (Twin Peaks, anyone?) and discovers he’s unwelcome because his novel was too revealingly autobiographical for the town folks’ comfort, a predicament Kevin was familiar with. “Dawson’s was autobiographical,” he said in 2002, “and I exposed things in the storylines that I got flak for — things about my family that people saw. I’d change the names and sometimes the outcomes, but you still hear about it. If I were dating someone and we got into a big fight, Dawson and Joey would get into a fight in the same manner.” Glory Days didn’t fare much better than Wasteland, and after only nine episodes had aired, the show was canceled.
Though he hadn’t written for Dawson’s Creek since its second season, Kevin was asked to write the series finale in 2003. Opting for a flashforward so fans could see where the Capesiders ended up, Kevin said, “I put my heart into it, and I cried the whole time I was writing it.” Fans still ask him about his resolution to the series’ long question: who does Joey truly belong with — Pacey or Dawson? At the 2009 Paley Fest where Dawson’s Creek was being honored, Kevin said, “Dawson and Joey are soul mates. And they always will be. . . . My whole goal for that was to show that, you know, your soul mate might not necessarily be the person [who’s] your romantic love.”
After their writer-director partnership on Scream and Scream 2, Kevin was back working with Wes Craven on a Dimension Films werewolf horror movie starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. It was aptly titled Cursed, as the New York Times said, as it had to be “recast, reshot, and recut” before finally being released in February 2005. It was a box-office flop, and the Toronto Star opined that the “only thing worse than a bad horror movie is a bad horror movie made by good people.” Kevin couldn’t seem to catch a break; his next project, Hidden Palms, suffered the same fate as his last two tv projects. The CW series about the dark secrets of a gated community in Palm Springs premiered in May 2007 and was off the air by July. But Kevin was undeterred and was about to join forces with someone whom he’d met over a decade earlier.
Julie Plec first met Kevin on the set of Scream in 1996. “I was Wes’s assistant on Scream. It was [Kevin’s] first movie that ever got made. My first movie. I was 22, just out of college. We were two kids in a candy store, up in Santa Rosa, California, on location, making a movie.” Plec had graduated from Northwestern University’s School of Communications in 1994 where she had become friends with Greg Berlanti. Before Berlanti would work on Dawson’s Creek or go on to run shows like Everwood and Brothers & Sisters, he was a disillusioned and stalled writer in Los Angeles, and he credits Julie with convincing him to take another stab at writing. “[She] took me out for lunch where she read me the riot act for giving up on my dream before I even had a chance to fail at it. . . . Julie reminded me that there was a time in my life when I never cared about how successful I was at writing, just how much I loved it.”
After working as Wes Craven’s assistant, Julie was promoted to his director of development. She worked as an associate producer on Scream 2 and Teaching Mrs. Tingle and became the vp of production and development at Outerbanks Entertainment (Kevin Williamson’s production company, responsible for Dawson’s Creek and Wasteland). Julie co-produced Greg Berlanti’s romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Club (2000) and was back for Scream 3, this time as co-producer. In 2000, she left Outerbanks and landed at Ricochet Entertainment where she worked with Ricky Strauss as head of production and development. Said Strauss, “Julie’s background in film and television is outstanding. She has excellent taste, and her commercial sensibility is right on the money.” By 2005, she was once again working with Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson on Cursed as co-producer...