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Friday, June 4, 2021

‘I Saw What You Did’: Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier Discuss the Dark Castle Remake That Never Came to Life [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.

In this installment, we’ll be looking at I Saw What You Did, Dark Castle’s intended remake of William Castle’s 1965 teen thriller of the same name. Joining us to chat all things I Saw are screenwriter Todd Farmer and co-writer/director Patrick Lussier, the team behind My Bloody Valentine 3D, Drive Angry 3D, and the sadly unproduced Halloween 3D.

During this talk, the duo discuss their wildly different approach to the source material, its surprising inspirations, and why it ultimately went unmade.

“When I was on White Noise 2, Matt Venne had been writing a version of a remake of I Saw What You Did, which was pretty big,” Mr. Lussier begins, detailing the beginning of his involvement with the project. “It would have been a $20 million version. It had this great sequence set in an abandoned ski resort. The whole climax was on this killer chair lift. Then they decided they didn’t want to make that, because it was too big.

“They were looking for submissions, and I’d been chatting with [Dark Castle producer] David Gambino. Matt’s version, I think, was 2006, 2007. So I talked to David at the end of 2008, just as we were finishing My Bloody Valentine. And he said, ‘Well, come up with something for that.’ Then Todd and I kicked around an idea. Basically, the thing that excited us was ‘Three Days of the Condor in high school.’ So, less of a guy who’s a serial killer, more of an assassin. Imagine the killer that they prank call is Max Von Sydow from Three Days of the Condor. That was sort of the concept.

“So we pitched that. We pitched them multiple times. Didn’t we, Todd?”

“We went in a bunch,” Mr. Farmer agrees. “And they loved it every time we went in.”

Mr. Lussier continues: “Yeah. And we never changed the pitch, from time to time. We just had to pitch different people. Then they said, ‘Yes, that is what we want. Write it to be shot for under ten million, and no more than…’ You know, I think we wound up at ninety-five pages. It was very much ‘Don’t have a hundred pages, or one hundred and twenty pages or something.’

“Obviously, Dark Castle was interested in the William Castle library. They had done Thirteen Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill [both remakes of William Castle films], and others in that arena that they had played in. But as always, I think for some of the older IP, there can be complicated rights issues. I know The Tingler was such a thing because part of that was owned by Sony, and Dark Castle at the time when we went in was solely through Warner Brothers.”

Also a project that we did not pitch one million times,” Farmer jokes.

Lussier laughs. “Yeah, The Tingler, we went in on many, many, many times. Never at Dark Castle, but over at ‘small’ Sony. And, as we were told, ‘big’ Sony doesn’t do that kind of thing.’”

Farmer quips: “They tell us after we leave.”

For those unfamiliar with the original I Saw What You Did, a brief synopsis: two teenage girls, Kit and Libby, spend an evening together at Libby’s house while her parents are out with friends. Along with Libby’s younger sister Tess, the girls take turns prank calling various random numbers, using the ominous phrase “I saw what you did, and I know who you are”, before hanging up and howling with laughter. Kit and Libby eventually find themselves having run afoul of Marak, a crazed psychopath who had just killed his wife before receiving the call he believes has come from somebody with knowledge of his murderous misdeed…

By the late aughts, Dark Castle was just about to leave behind the spooky supernatural horrors of House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts, as well as the more slasher-y thrills of House of Wax and Orphan, in favor of more straightforward action/thriller fare as The Losers, Unknown, and Bullet to the Head. It’s curious that, before this shift happened, we might have seen a return to the company’s original mission statement of remaking Castle’s films with this particular project.

Libby (Andi Garrett) and Kit (Sara Lane) in ‘I Saw What You Did’ (1965)

“I think they were still in that mode,” Lussier says. “One of the things that happened… David Gambino – who is awesome, and who had invited us to pitch – once we had started on the screenplay, he had left to join Susan Downey and Robert Downey Jr. over at their company. And as such, the new people at Dark Castle, who were from Rogue and had previously been at Dimension, they were all on board with it when we started. But in the eight weeks between writing and delivering the script, The Strangers came out and made a bunch of money. Suddenly it was, ‘We need something more like that.’ And then, ‘Are there ghosts in it?’

“There was all sorts of different questions suddenly being asked, and it was kind of like, ‘Wow, we pitched this to you guys so many times. You know none of that shit is in there.’”

“We got those questions after we wrote it, right?” Farmer asks.

“Well, we got the questions just before we handed it in. A week before we were to deliver, we started getting these questions.”

“Yeah, I remember the trauma now.”

“Yeah. And it was just sort of like, ‘But that’s not what we talked about. We talked about Three Days of the Condor in high school, so…that’s what showed up.”

So what would this particular take on I Saw What You Did have looked like? Would it have been faithful to the original film, or draw from Fred [When a Stranger Calls/April Fool’s Day] Walton’s 1988 made-for-TV remake? Lussier explains: “We talked about the concept, we kept all the character names. Certainly, the two main girls, Kit and Libby, and [the killer] Marak. In our concept, I guess we took a few notes from Carrie and had our two main girls being bullied by the cheerleader girls. [One] cheerleader drops her cell phone in the change room, and one of our hero girls takes the cell phone. That’s the phone they make the calls from, so that the cheerleader will get blamed for these calls saying ‘I saw what you did, I know who you are.’ They call different people in school, then they make some quote-unquote ‘randoms’. One of the randoms is to this woman’s house as she is getting murdered by an assassin for stealing secrets of some sort.”

“And this is the perfect assassin guy,” Farmer notes. “He has done everything absolutely perfectly. You get the sense that he’s done it so many times that it’s just second nature to him. And then all of a sudden, he gets this phone call that just unravels everything.”

“So it starts on her cell phone which he has wrapped up with her body in plastic,” Lussier continues. “So he sees it lighting up through the plastic, and then it calls forward to her landline. The message goes onto her answering machine, which is so [laughs] – technology that … people don’t even have that shit anymore. And, without ever seeing his face, you’d see him rewind the tape and play it, fish the cell phone out, and see the caller ID.

“The assassin shows up at the cheerleader’s home. If memory serves, she’s more capable than he expects, because she’s a cheerleader. He does end up killing her. Then, of course, the two girls the next day are like, ‘Oh my God, what did we do?! We have to put the cell phone back and hide it.’ And mayhem ensues from there.”

Would there have been a pesky younger sister who gets the older girls into more and more trouble, as with the original Castle film? “No, no,” Lussier laughs. “Ours, you know, there were scenes with the police, and with dad and with the school principal. For a lot of the movie, the killer is moving, but you don’t see the killer’s face. Someone in the story is a killer, but you don’t know who it is. You only see the business end of what he does. Until, there’s the middle turn in the movie when you actually see who Marak is, and then we go from there.”

“We took a beat from the old Shoot to Kill movie,” Farmer says. “Where you knew the killer was one of these people. You just didn’t know which one. And, of course, we were going to bring Atkins back.”

Tom Atkins in ‘My Bloody Valentine 3D’ (2009)

Wait a second. Atkins? Tom Atkins? Star of The Fog, Halloween III, and the eventual Farmer/Lussier joints My Bloody Valentine and Drive Angry was going to star? Would he have been the assassin Marak?

“…I don’t think so,” Farmer answers, a bit hesitant.

“I…think he might’ve been? In the version we talked about?” Lussier asks.

“Yes, I was lying.”

“You just confused me there,” Lussier laughs.

“Well, he just went right to that! ‘Would Atkins have been Marak?’ Yes, that was the plan,” Farmer admits, laughing.

Lussier goes on to describe their take on the I Saw’s killer. “Marak was in his early 70s, a killer with tons of experience. The scene where he’s revealed, he’s dressed like the kindly old cop liaison who deals with a tragedy at a school. You know, somebody’s killed and he shows up to talk to the students, when really he’s just there to collect evidence.”

“And our plan was legitimately to take from Shoot to Kill,” Farmer notes. “Where they brought in a bunch of very recognizable character actors and the killer could have been any one of them. We wanted to do the exact same thing.”

With Atkins marked down as playing Marak, who else might have starred in I Saw? Were there any young actresses from that period that were being looked at to play Kit and Libby? “I don’t think we ever got that far,” Lussier admits. “Once we handed in the script, I think it was pretty clear that this was no longer what they were looking for. I think because there had been so many previous versions that had been wildly different, and with the other William Castle properties that were looking at being remade … we certainly had that challenge when we were writing Hellraiser with Dimension. It was the plague of so many different versions of a remake, or a reboot, or a re-whatever, making it almost impossible to do anything.”

Dark Castle wasn’t exactly known for making sequels to their films, producing only one follow-up to their inaugural effort House on Haunted Hill (though more sequels might have followed). Nevertheless, one wonders if I Saw was written as a one-off, or more with an eye toward being a potential franchise starter.

Lussier comments: “We left it that Marak was alive, and the two girls were alive, in our initial version. I don’t know if that would have stayed that way, but sure. Although, you’d hope the two girls would have learned their lesson and not fall into the same trap again.”

“Certainly, for Drive Angry and for Valentine, we spoke of sequels,” Farmer says. “But I don’t think this one survived long enough that we got into that. I don’t remember early discussions of it, but we did leave them alive. And certainly, we could have gone that direction.”

“We mostly left them alive because we liked all three of them,” Lussier admits. “The killer doesn’t really kill anybody who you don’t dislike. You know, we sort of took a page from Valentine, with Jensen Ackles’ character Tom Hanniger. He very quickly became the hero in our mind, even though he’s the killer. Spoiler! He kills everybody, and he still gets away at the end. In our minds he was very much the hero, even though he does horrendously bad things about the movie.”

Marak (John Ireland) in ‘I Saw What You Did’ (1965)

Speaking of Hanniger, the Miner’s pickaxe is surely an iconic weapon for that particular villain. Indeed, most villains of that ilk have their own signature weapons and methods of dispatching their victims. Is the same true of Marak?

“He was certainly more elegant,” Farmer says. “Three Days of Condor is a perfect example of an intelligent killer who’s methodical in how he’s planned everything out. And he can think for himself. He’s not a robot. Just like in Three Days of the Condor, he’d had opportunities to take Redford out. He didn’t.”

Lussier agrees. “The elevator sequence being something that we had talked about a lot, the Condor bit. And again, in the first big reveal scene, his primary weapons were guns with silencers. He has two of them, and he pulls them out because … I think in the scene, it’s the principal, two FBI guys, and the local detectives. None of them know each other, and none of them know the two girls, and we don’t know who [the killer is]. And he makes short work of them very quickly.”

Wait…Tom Atkins would have gone all John Woo/two-guns-blazin’ in this film?! Lussier confirms: “Yeah. That’s an excellent example of what that would have been. That would’ve been exactly correct.”

“It would’ve been such an ‘Oh, shit!’ moment,” Farmer laughs. “You know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know who it is. And then it’s Atkins. It was just beautiful.”

“Yeah, he’s there just being very grandfatherly and kind, going out of his way to be very nice, while a couple of the other characters are very caustic. Then, you do that sort of slow push in on his arms. He’s standing there, arms akimbo, and he pulls out the two guns and mayhem ensues.”

So if the remake’s version of Marak is surely more capable than the hotheaded psycho from Castle’s ’65 original, how do the girls stack up against him? Do they outwit him? Does…does he kill them?

Farmer explains: “Like in Three Days of the Condor, they impress him.”

“Yeah,” Lussier agrees. “I think they outwit him to the point that he is impressed by them and, and he lets them go.”

“They earn their survival.”

Life insurance policies sold at the theatre door, buzzers underneath seats, skeletons flown out over unsuspecting audiences. William Castle was legendary not only for his films, but for the zany gags and gimmicks he used to promote them. Dark Castle had initially attempted this level of hucksterism with their 1999 House of Haunted Hill remake, offering moviegoers the opportunity to win prizes via scratch cards handed out with each sold ticket. Though the later films would eschew such an approach, one wonders if I Saw What You Did might have resurrected Castle’s marketing flair? Did Farmer and Lussier consider such potential?

“We didn’t, no,” Lussier says. “I believe there was a whole sort of cat-and-mouse in an empty high school with the two girls and the killer. There would’ve been lots of opportunities for the woodshop class to provide a vibrating seat. Shooting it in 3D certainly would have [provided opportunities for gimmicks].”

So 3D was a possibility? This would have been around the time that My Bloody Valentine 3D had been released, but before Drive Angry 3D had been made by the duo. “It would have been right in between.” Lussier reveals. “But no, we asked that. I remember asking that question and they were like, ‘No, we don’t think we want to do that.’ That might’ve changed when we got it to photography, because we had come out in January [with Valentine], and Avatar was coming out the following December, and with this project we were to deliver the script in June.”

Shawnee Smith and Tammy Lauren in ‘I Saw What You Did’ (1988)

Though the original film was limited mainly to one location, it sounds as though the remake’s scope would have been considerably larger. Lussier agrees: “We had a lot in the high school, a lot out on the road and their houses.”

“There was never any discussion that we needed to be tight on this,” Farmer adds. “It felt like they had a budget to do what we were talking about, because they had approved everything before we wrote it.”

“Yeah. I remember one of the notes we got was, ‘We feel you wrote what you pitched.’”

No shit,” Farmer laughs.

So writing what you’d pitched to them was seen as a negative thing? “Well, I think it had become a negative because by the time we delivered, they wanted something different,” Mr. Lussier explains. Everybody we had pitched with at that time were all gone. None of them are at Dark Castle now. I think, from looking at what they’re doing with the new Orphan movie and things like that, I think they’re very much back to form. This was back in the period when they were beginning to shift into more of the Liam Neeson things.

“We saw the same thing in Lionsgate. After we did Valentine, we thought we would be doing a sequel, and they were shifting into more action-y sorts of things as well. So that was a shift at the time, and we weren’t following along with it quite as well as we should have.”

So ultimately, why didn’t I Saw happen? Was it unceremoniously axed, or simply allowed to die off? “More the latter,” Lussier says. “It sort of petered out, and we got onto other things. I think the last conversation we had was, you know, ‘We’ll call you in a couple of weeks with some notes!’ And they still haven’t called.”

“I don’t think they’re gonna call,” Farmer quips.

Lussier laughs. “They might now! Who knows? I think the company is very much reinvigorated. A couple of years later, they said there was some complexity with the rights, so it might not have even been makeable, anyway. You know, it’s like people who’ve talked about trying to remake different IP, only to discover as they get quite far down the road that there’s such a web of complexity around it, they can’t go near it.

“It’s an insane process to do, given the complexities. Especially if you’re doing anything that’s an adaptation or remake, or anything off of existing IP. Unless it’s a company like Disney that has ironclad ownership, and knows they do, then it’s very hard to do now. Unless the source material becomes public domain, you’re sort of fucked.”

With the recent arrivals of several Collector’s Edition Blu-rays of their older titles (with all the reappraisal that affords), a new horror release with Simon Barrett’s Seance, and the aforementioned Orphan prequel on the horizon, one can’t argue with Mr. Lussier’s assertion that Dark Castle is reinvigorated as a company. So, is there a chance we might yet see this particular remake some day?

“Well, I don’t know,” Lussier says. “I’ve had conversations with Alex Mace and the team over there, who I think are great. They really want to make great genre films, and have a passion for it. I haven’t brought it up. But I think by God, we should. Don’t you, Todd? Of course, now we’ve given it all away!”

Farmer laughs: “I mean, Atkins is 117 years old now, so we’d have to give him a smaller role now. I don’t know that he’s going to do John Woo at this point. So we haven’t given that away.”

In closing out our conversation, the gentlemen offer their final thoughts on this particular project.

“Well,” Farmer begins, “I know for me, and I’ve said this a lot, when it comes to the horror genre it’s like all of the genres sort of poured into one. You have drama, you have comedy, you have romance, you have everything inside the horror genre. So I’ve always felt like it’s been given a harder ball-kicking than it deserved. But with this, this was a straight thriller. So to step back and do that, because we had just come off of Valentine … it was really fun to do that. It was really fun to tickle different parts of your brain. And the fact that we were accessing movies that we were fans of, I really loved the process.”

Lussier agrees. “Yeah. I think there was something really engaging about the story, and approaching that story just from a different vantage point, with the thriller aspect. It had a great villain, it had great heroes.”

“I think it’s the same thing with all the movies that we’ve worked on,” Farmer concludes. “I feel bad if they didn’t get made. Obviously monetarily, but at the same time … we got into this because we want to tell stories, and so I feel bad that this is a story that we never got to tell.”

Very special thanks to Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier for their time and insights.

‘I Saw What You Did’ (1965)


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