How Wes Craven Freaked Us All Out With That Opening Scene of 'Scream'

Gwynne Watkins

Drew Barrymore in 'Scream' (Photo: Everett)

This story is being featured as part of our “Yahoo Best Stories of 2015” series. It was originally published in August 2015.

This week, Hollywood lost one of its greatest creators of modern horror, Wes Craven, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 76. In tribute, let’s look back on one of Craven’s finest career moments: the opening scene of 1996’s Scream. Those 13 terrifying minutes include all the ingredients that would make the movie a classic: Macabre humor, self-aware references to other horror films, over-the-top violence, and most importantly, the element of surprise. “It was our way of saying: ‘Hold onto your hats. Anything can happen in this movie,‘” producer Cary Woods told the New York Times in 1997. The opening scene of Scream — including the unexpected, gory death of the film’s biggest star— electrified audiences and critics, helping Scream to become one of the most talked-about and profitable films of 1996. Almost twenty years later, that brief scene of a teenage girl in peril is routinely discussed in film courses and referenced in other media – most recently, a tribute on MTV’s Scream television series.  Here’s the inside story of how Scream’s iconic, nightmarish first scene came to be. (Warning: spoilers.)

Related: Remembering Wes Craven’s Most Terrifically Terrifying Movies

In the opening moments of Scream, the audience sees a teenage girl, Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), alone in an upscale suburban kitchen, making herself popcorn on the stove. She begins to receive phone calls from a deep-voiced stranger, which at first seem like a prank. But the calls transition into something more sinister when the caller asks Casey the infamous question, “Do you like scary movies?” Soon it’s revealed that the unseen caller is playing a sadistic game with Casey, and before the scene is over, a masked killer later dubbed Ghostface has stabbed both Casey and her boyfriend (who was en route to her house for a movie night) in her own front yard. The last shot the audience sees of Barrymore is her character’s bloody body hanging from a tree.

Watch the beginning of the scene:

Written by screenwriter and Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson, that unforgettable scene initially gave Craven pause. Best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street, the director was reluctant to return to the slasher genre and turned Scream down — twice. “I read the opening of Scream, and it was just brutal. And I thought, ‘I can’t kill another poor girl!’” Craven said on Fangoria TV’s Screamography in 2006. Eventually, the frightening but irreverent script — which told the story of high school students being stalked by a masked killer, with plenty of meta-commentary and ironic humor about the horror movie genre — won Craven over, and he signed on to the project.

At that point, the movie already had its lead actress…or so Craven thought. Drew Barrymore had signed on to play Sidney Prescott, the resilient “final girl” ultimately portrayed by Neve Campbell. Barrymore’s participation led directly to Scream getting the green light from Miramax, but after Craven signed on, she called the producers to request a change. “Drew called and was like, ‘I don’t want to be Sidney. I have this great idea:  I want to be Casey,’” producer Cathy Konrad recalled in the documentary Still Screaming, released as part of the 2011 Blu-Ray set. Barrymore later told EW that the opening scene was her favorite part of the script, saying, “The first scene was really reminiscent to me of When A Stranger Calls, like these great things that left you wanting more.” Barrymore’s change of heart pleased Williamson, who (according to his DVD commentary) thought that a big-name actress would add shock value to the opening. Indeed, Alfred Hitchcock had used the same trick to famous effect in 1960’s Psycho, stunning audiences when lead actress Janet Leigh’s character was murdered halfway through the film.

Producers re-cast the role of Sidney with Campbell, and Craven began working with Barrymore to develop the character of Casey. “Casey’s demeanor was very relaxed. She’s barefoot, and I remember the day I came up with that,” Barrymore said in a promotional interview. Though her character was only onscreen for a few minutes, Barrymore said that she and Craven had dinner every week for four months in preparation. “And we really got to know each other,” she said, “because it was really important to me to have a strong relationship with him — and to have that trust, so that I could look him in the eye and tell him my secrets of how to get me to that emotional level.”

The way that Barrymore reached that “emotional level,” she told EW in 2011, was through a “secret story” she shared only with Craven. “I was like, ‘I never want fake tears, I will come up with a mechanism with which to really make me cry’… He and I had this secret story,” the actress recalled. “We would just talk about it every time because it just made me cry every time I thought about it.” Craven has loosened his lips over the years; he revealed on the DVD commentary that Barrymore’s trigger was a recent newspaper story about a dog being burned by its owner.

Watch the NSFW middle part of the sequence:

The opening scene was filmed in sequence over the course of about a week in spring 1996. In order to keep Barrymore on edge during those mysterious phone calls, Craven kept actor Roger Jackson (the voice of Ghostface) in a separate location, where he could watch the action through a monitor. “I made a policy of the actors or actresses never seeing him,” Craven said in Still Screaming. “Typically in Hollywood it’d be the guy who’d be standing behind the camera giving the lines. [Jackson] would be someplace quite distant, on a real telephone talking to them… It kept it real in a way.”

Occasionally, the phone calls got too real. At one point during filming, Casey had to make a series of frantic 911 calls. Unbeknownst to the cast and crew, the prop master J.P. Jones had forgotten to unplug that particular phone. “So [Drew] starts dialing 911, screaming, hanging up, 911, screaming, hanging up,” Jones recalled in Still Screaming. “We’re in the middle of a take, and the phone starts ringing, and we’re like, ‘What’s going on? Why is the phone ringing?’ And it’s the police asking what the hell we’re doing, and why do we keep calling them?”

The police were pacified, but Craven had something else weighing on his mind during that first week of filming. He had yet to secure the rights to the Scream mask, which makes its first appearance during Casey’s stabbing. Now instantly recognizable, the elongated “Ghostface” mask was something of a fluke; the original was a commercial Halloween mask, discovered in a bedroom while Scream producers were scouting house locations. Because producers were initially unable to trace the mask’s origins, Craven asked the design company KNB Effects to make their own version, in order to avoid a licensing dispute.  “And I just didn’t like the way it looked,” he said in Still Screaming. “And so when it came to the second day when the mask really had to be revealed, I took the mask that we didn’t own, and I shot the entire day just worried about, ‘Am I going to get the studio sued and lose my job and never work again?’” Fortunately, the producers eventually tracked down the designer: a small New England costume company called Fun World, which agreed to license what they called their “peanut-eyed ghost.”  The Scream team acquired more masks to use for the remainder of the shoot, but according to Craven, it’s the original found costume that appears during Barrymore’s scene.

An early appearance of Ghostface (Photo: Everett)

Once the Scream opening was in the can, Craven moved on to the remainder of the film. But producer Bob Weinstein became hung up on that opening scene. Having seen the dailies, he told Konrad that he was “scared” for the film, because — among other issues — he thought Barrymore’s wig looked terrible, and he hated the Ghostface mask. “I thought the mask was goofy,” Weinstein told Vanity Fair in 2004. “I thought people would laugh at it. I thought Wes was crazy.” Weinstein ordered Craven to shoot the film with several different mask designs until he could decide on one. (“My guts were in a knot for the whole second week,” Craven admitted in Still Screaming.) Instead, Konrad asked Weinstein to reserve his judgment until she sent him the completed opening sequence. Craven worked overtime to edit together those 13 minutes, and after Weinstein saw them, his doubts evaporated. Konrad told Vanity Fair that Weinstein left her a voicemail, saying, “You guys were right. I was wrong — I was so wrong it’s f—ing amazing.”  According to then-Miramax producer B.J. Rack, Bob Weinstein never bothered Craven again (and didn’t even ask to see dailies during the making of Scream 2).

Watch the scene of Casey’s gory (and NSFW) death:

Even so, the death of Casey Becker caused one more hurdle for Scream. The MPAA requested that a graphic shot of Ghostface stabbing Casey be cut from the film, in order for it to get an R rating rather than NC-17. Craven protested, telling the ratings board that it was the only shot he’d taken. They let it slide, though Craven did have to cut a few frames of another stabbing scene towards the end of the film.

Scream premiered in theaters on December 20, 1996. The poster was a close-up of Drew Barrymore’s frightened face, and her name appeared on all the promotional materials, leading audiences to believe that she was the film’s protagonist. “The fact that we killed America’s sweetheart at the end of 15 minutes — it was like a body punch to the audience,” Craven said in Still Screaming. A 1997 article in The New York Times gave that unexpected death scene partial credit for Scream’s huge success.  In the ensuing decades, the first 13 minutes of Scream have become a staple of “scariest movie moments” lists, appearing as #7 on Moviefone’s 20 Most Iconic Horror Scenes of All Time and #13 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.  

One might imagine that it’s no longer possible to pull off a shocker like Drew Barrymore’s onscreen death in Scream. (In fact, when Bella Thorne was cast in a Barrymore tribute role on MTV’s Scream, she didn’t even bother to deny her character’s quick demise.) But even though the surprise has long been spoiled, the opening scene of Scream still packs quite a gut punch — and thanks to Wes Craven, the question “Do you like scary movies?” will never seem innocent again.

The 'Scream' poster (Photo: Everett)