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Friday, January 15, 2021

Writer Jeffrey Howard Revisits His and Mike Flanagan’s ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

With this installment, we’ll be exploring the unproduced remake of the 1997 neo-slasher classic I Know What You Did Last Summer, itself an adaptation of popular young adult author Lois Duncan’s 1973 novel of the same name. To have been directed by Doctor Sleep helmer Mike Flanagan, this iteration of I Know found the filmmaker again collaborating with writing partner Jeff Howard, who had previously co-written the Flanagan-directed Oculus, Before I Wake, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Gerald’s Game. Mr. Howard was kind enough to join us for a discussion about this I Know’s origins, its wildly different story, and why this particular remake ultimately never came to pass.

After the success of the original ’97 film and, to a lesser extent, its 1998 sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, this burgeoning slasher franchise found itself unceremoniously left on the side of a deserted coastal road to bleed out after its poorly-received third entry, 2006’s direct-to-video I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer. With grisly torture porn commanding genre fans’ attentions and traditional slashers no longer de rigueur, the I Know series would be left on ice until about 2014, when news of the Flanagan/Howard remake was first bandied about. So how was it that the duo found themselves in the position to potentially remake the Kevin Williamson-penned original?

“In the wake of Oculus and Somnia [released as Before I Wake], we went out on a bunch of meetings, and talked to different people,” Mr. Howard explains. “One of them was an executive at [I Know producer] Neil Moritz’s company, who was just a super nice guy. We all really hit it off and had a good time, and they all kept talking about I Know What You Did Last Summer.

“I saw [the first movie] in the theatre. The thing that everybody agreed upon is that it is a fun, entertaining, rock-solidly great time of a movie to watch. You know, it was never designed to be Citizen Kane, but it’s great. It really does the job, and it filled that post-Scream world where you kind wanted a little bit more of that vibe, but different.

“So the executive kept asking us about I Know What You Did Last Summer, and we kept saying ‘No’, because our feeling – look, I’m gonna say ‘my feeling’ here – my feeling was ‘They already know the story.’ So unless you’re going to do something radically different with it, who’s this movie for? Because anybody in the world who hasn’t seen it will just look it up on the internet, y’know?

“So we just kept saying ‘no’, and they kept calling back and asking. They were just so nice, and you know how it is – when you spend years trying to knock on doors, when you’re eventually pursued by people whose stuff you really like, it’s really cool. We went in for the meeting … and their whole thing was ‘Why don’t you just go make up a take? Whatever you want. As long as it thematically fits in with the title, and that kind of world, you can just make up whatever you want.’

“When they told us we can do that, that was when it became ‘Oh, yeah, this would be a whole lot of fun to do.’ We didn’t want to just retread something that already existed, because it was already done really well, and the only thing you’d do is…what? You’re gonna change like one or two things to surprise people? Eh. We just wanted to come in with a whole new world, but thematically write on what that kind of movie would be, if there was a universe of movies like that.”

The Fisherman (Muse Watson) in ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997)

Once the pair had agreed to work on a take, they quickly set about crafting a vastly different iteration of the I Know story. But did it draw anything from either the ’97 movie, or Lois Duncan’s original novel? “I’m only going to speak for me, but you can assume this was the consensus in the room. I, myself (and maybe others), did not know that the book existed until the deal was made. The author reached out and said ‘I’m so excited, because I read in the trades that it’s going to be close to the book.’ So I picked up the book, and realized – the book is fantastic! She’s great. I checked out her other titles, desperately looking for something available, but everything was pretty booked. Then she unfortunately passed away.

“The problem with the book is that it’s got that Fight Club thing,” Mr. Howard notes. Indeed, and spoiler alert for a forty-seven year old novel, the original book ends with a twist that could only work on the printed page: once the story reaches its climax, readers are treated to a reveal that finds two of the story’s characters are, in fact, one person – and the story’s would-be killer to boot. “The twist is very Fight Club-oriented. It’s like – depicting that would be difficult, and even if you did it, people would say ‘Oh, this is just a horror version of Fight Club.’ But at the time of taking the job, we had no idea that it existed.”

Given that Ms. Duncan was very vocal about her resentment of the slasher elements that were introduced into her story for the first film adaptation, what does Mr. Howard think might she have made of this remake’s quite divergent, yet still slashery take on her tale? “I think she’d have been pretty pissed off,” he laughs. “Deservedly so. But we didn’t know! Honestly, that whole universe is really the brain child of Neil Moritz. The thing that shocked us about the entire experience of working on that script was that Neil was involved in the way that you’d expect a junior creative executive to be involved. He wanted to meet a lot, and story conference a lot. It was a lot of fun.”

“The design originally was ‘Let’s do something different and fun.’ When Mike and I work, we would generally know the basics of a take – what the spirit and the spine of something was – pretty quickly, and we would both latch onto it really fast. From there, it would just become what I imagine a collaborative songwriting thing is, where we would just send e-mails or texts, or talk on the phone, or walk around sometimes and just talk stuff back and forth for a long time. This was one of those that just hit us really quickly, what we wanted to do. We wanted to build something that was like an Agatha Christie. Not like the Hercule Poirot or Miss Marples, but like some of the other, almost more stage play versions of Agatha Christie that she wrote and was in charge of, which were just really fun whodunit entertainments about the classic collection of people put into a bad experience.”

So what exactly would this new I Know have entailed, storywise? It’s worth noting here that, in advance of this interview, Bloody Disgusting was fortunate enough to come across a copy of the screenplay to peruse. While we’re happy to detail the script’s characters and setup for curious readers and longtime fans of the franchise, we will stop short of providing any major spoilers out of respect to Messrs. Howard, Flanagan and Moritz.

The screenplay opens up in Antigua, wasting no time in introducing our main characters: Matt Canton, our lead; his younger sister, Lauren; Kyle, his best friend; and Jenna, his ex-girlfriend. The quartet are on vacation, celebrating the summer after graduation before everyone disbands for college in the fall. As with the original I Know, there is an opening celebration, teens drinking (and eventually doing drugs, in this case), and…a dead body which kicks off a mystery and a number of ensuing murders.

In the story’s first act, Matt meets a young woman named Christie Stratton and spends time with her in an Antiguan cave system amidst throngs of fellow teenage partiers. Matt is drugged by a well-meaning Kyle just before he and Christie steal away for a romantic interlude in an offshoot cave. Just as things begin to heat up for the young lovers, the drugs in Matt’s system overtake him, causing the young man to hallucinate before he finally comes to in an Antiguan police station, being violently questioned about the now missing Christie.

One year later, we discover that Matt has since been extradited and imprisoned in the U.S., with Christie’s disappearance, her presumed murder and Matt’s ensuing trial having captured the nation’s attention. We learn that Kyle testified against Matt, while Jenna now heads up an uber-popular, Serial-style podcast on the case called…“I Know What You Did Last Summer”. The title, in part, refers to the mantra constantly invoked to the media circus surrounding the trial by Donald Stratton, Christie’s heartbroken and vengeful father.

Matt is eventually found not guilty and freed, only to find himself terrorized by scrawled messages bearing the phrase “I Know”, hounded by Stratton and his thuggish right hand man Porter, and being stalked by a shadowy figure in a hooded raincoat. Before long, that very figure begins picking off various characters in increasingly violent and inventive ways, all as Matt finds himself facing antagonists at every turn. Slasher setpieces, red herrings, and shocking revelations abound, as the story barrels toward a jawdropper of an ending which inevitably unveils the story’s true killer and their surprising motivation.

The franchise’s ‘Fisherman’ killer

“We had two really hard sells in our pitch to them,” Mr. Howard notes. “Basically, we wanted to focus on a singular lead. The strange thing was, we had never written anything together that had a guy lead before. It was really different for us.

“Another idea that influenced me was thinking about Wilkie Collins, this detective fiction writer, and his adherence to ever-shifting narratives involving unreliable narrators. The idea for us was ‘What if we don’t have an unreliable narrator, but what if we have a narrator of the story who can’t say for sure, but is absolutely dead certain they know what happened.’ But there would always be an element of mystery to the person who had singularly experienced the [event] at the center of the movie.

The other obstacle was, the entire thing in our minds was designed around a really cool trick ending that got us really excited. Like a real, Witness for the Prosecution-style nod of an ending where something comes in and blows things up in a way that – you could’ve seen it all along, but you never would have seen it. That kinda deal. It was just so much fun, but it was a big controversial ending from the very moment of the pitch. Literally, I think 99% of the interest from me and Mike was that ending. It was really cool to us.”

Mr. Howard notes here that the draft Bloody Disgusting has for review actually features an alternate ending, rewritten from the original draft, which bore out the intentions of studio notes attempting to rein in the original take’s exceedingly dark denouement. “I think that [original] ending was really cool. The ending that it was meant to have is not necessarily a big, crowd-pleasing ending. It’s not even a giant downer,” he explains, noting that the imposed change played a part in the project’s eventual unraveling. “It’s hard to understand why some things get made and some things don’t, sometimes. This thing was kind of easy to understand. Nobody was wrong in this situation, in my mind. Once it became clear that the ending was going to have to be softened, I think the interest in making the movie softened in tandem.”

What I Know fans are now left with is the knowledge that we might have had an excellent horror/thriller with, admittedly, not much in common with the films it shares a name with beyond its basic themes. And yet, there are still plenty of fun nods to the original film to be found in this screenplay. The “I Know” line is employed often by Stratton as a sort of terrorist tactic against Matt. It’s an accusation within the world of this new story, but it’s also a great connection back to the original book and film, as is having the full title used within the story. The iconic, handwritten “I Know” notes even make an appearance.

Mr. Howard reveals that the homages wouldn’t have stopped there, as a major role would hopefully have been filled by a veteran of the previous movies. Kat, the producer of Jenna’s I Know What You Did Last Summer podcast, “…was always meant to be Jennifer Love Hewitt. In our minds, that was always, totally meant to be her.” More than a mere cameo, Kat is a sizable supporting role, which would have found Ms. Hewitt running afoul of the film’s raincoat-wearing villain in one significant sequence. “It would’ve been a great part for her, too. That was the design the entire time, and it would’ve been so much fun.

“What was also fun was reading all of the IMDb message boards, which still existed at the time, where people were constantly guessing who was going to play Julie [Hewitt’s Final Girl protagonist from the ’97 film and its first sequel], and who was going to play this, and who was going to play that. So it was like, ‘If they make this movie, these people are going to find us and kill us!’”

Jennifer Love Hewitt in ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997)

While the script definitely has slashery elements and some big horror/thriller setpieces, it also very much reads like a smart teen noir, not unlike Rian Johnson’s Brick. Mr. Howard describes why he and Mr. Flanagan took this approach, rather than wishing to make a full-on slasher film: “I think that’s just a natural, knee-jerk thing from enjoying them so much, that the feeling shows up in our stuff no matter what. You can totally see it as that way. I always thought of it as a slasher/whodunit. ‘Let’s satisfy people who come in to watch people die.’ I enjoyed every setpiece that was in there. I thought they were really cool, and really different. There were some really interesting settings: a parking garage, a foggy dock, there were just some fun places that really worked out.

“There was one signature kill that existed from really almost the very first meeting, that was just so clearly always going to be in there.” Indeed, the kill he’s referencing would likely have been a standout sequence, featuring the slicker-wearing murderer driving the metal spikes of a half-dozen LED solar lights into a victim one by one, pinning them to the ground before delivering the killing blow. “There would have been a version of this poster that was just those little nightlights that stick into the ground in stakes, disrupted out of the ground. That could been a great poster for the movie.”

Given that the original I Know spawned two sequels – one direct, and one relatively standalone entry featuring the killer Fisherman as an undead wraith (yes, really) – was there an eye toward crafting the remake to be a franchise starter? Or was it always meant to be a one-off? “At the time, we operated under the strict ethos of not being able to create a sequel. That was the story.”

With a new I Know TV series adaptation on its way from Amazon and James Wan, is there any chance that this particular iteration could yet see the light of day? Considering how different it is from the source material, might it still be made under another title (with a few minor tweaks to the story)? “Yeah. I think it could, for sure. There’s a market for that stuff, especially streaming. I think Knives Out created an interesting market for stuff like this. I wish it would…but I don’t think it will. But I wish it would!”

As our conversation comes to a close, Mr. Howard offers his final thoughts on I Know What You Did Last Summer: “It was one of the most fun things to do, working on something. Every bit of it was really, really fun. The meetings, Neil Moritz’s involvement. I just remember, even delivering to the studio, it felt like ‘Wow. I know we’re handing over something where they’re just going to be really excited.’ I think the ultimate story of I Know What You Did Last Summer is that the interest of the element that would have most certainly gotten it made was dashed pretty mightily by the idea that …you just couldn’t know there was a really amazing version of the movie out there that was going to be softened a little bit. Even though everything else was great getting there, it wasn’t all hinged on that final twist, but that final twist was just fun.”

Very special thanks to Jeff Howard for his time and insights.

Poster art for ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997)


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