Kevin Williamson: Fear and Trembling
Kevin Williamson single-handedly revived the teen-slasher genre with his screenplays for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. This month he's providing the skeleton for The Faculty. And he's busy with next year's fright fare Killing Mrs. Tingle - all the while keeping his hit TV show Dawson's Creek afloat. With all this success you'd think his fear of failure would have let up. But his anxieties started early and he's not about to give them up now.
Two years ago, nobody had ever heard of Kevin Williamson. Today he's as inescapable as any of the serial slashers he created for the big screen. That's because he single-handedly resurrected the teen-horror genre with his scripts for blockbuster scare-fests Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and then unleashed a gaggle of gorgeous young things into popular culture with his hit semi-autobiographical coming-of-age TV show Dawson's Creek. Just now his profile is even higher because the sci-fi special effects flick he cowrote, The Faculty, which stars Salma Hayek, Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett, is hitting screens across the country, and his hotly anticipated directorial debut, Killing Mrs. Tingle, is already in the can. That Williamson was a barely working actor up to his neck in bills just a few years ago makes all these feats even more surprising. And now that he's got a $20 million writing, producing and directing deal with Miramax's Dimension Films, he's primed to be in the spotlight for years to come.
Under the circumstances, I'm expecting Williamson to wear at least a self-satisfied grin when I meet him, if not lapse into egomania. But when we shake hands, I realize my expectations are way off. He's anything but smug; in fact, he strikes me as downright spooked--in a self-mocking way, of course. Despite being friendly, unassuming and engagingly yackety as he shows off every nook and cranny of his groovy offices and introduces me to his young staff (nasty, dumb or unattractive candidates need not apply), he radiates a palpable anxiety.
"It's a very good time to be Kevin Williamson," he admits gingerly, glancing across his buzzing work space. But before I can agree with him, he continues, "In two years, though, it may not be a really good time to be Kevin Williamson. You know, 'Here today, gone tomorrow.' That could be the case for me. I'm always thinking, 'When's it all going to come crumbling down? When's the big flop going to happen? I mean, the whole teenage horror thing was over five minutes ago, right? Fear drives me more than anything. Fear of what won't happen if I don't deliver."
Williamson discharges this soliloquy so seriously, but at the same time with such a deadpan, manic delivery, that I can't help bursting out in laughter. At this, he looks relieved and cracks up, too. Then he looks me dead in the eye and confesses, "I'm scared to death of coming off really stupid in front of you. Am I doing OK? I'm just such a boring interview. You'll find I'm not very intelligent. It's OK that other magazines I don't like write shitty stuff about me, but I read Movieline religiously every month and I would prefer to come off sounding like I sort of know what I'm doing." I assure him he sounds like everyone who knows what's up in the business: smart, self-aware, hopeful, frantic, toasted around the edges. At this, he relaxes.
"I'm the first one to walk into a room and dispel all my neuroses," he continues. "Look, everyone's insane. So it's not like you're going to find me different from anyone else. I had a totally dysfunctional upbringing. It's led to years and years of the therapy I still badly need."
Williamson, now 33, was raised on the North Carolina coastline in a fishing village that boasts one stoplight, one gas station and two restaurants. While he was growing up, his father, whom he describes as having an absurdist, edgy sense of humor, was a struggling shrimp and scallop fisherman. His mother was a housewife with a gift for storytelling. "We were proudly poor white trash," boasts Williamson, grinning.
At age 12, Williamson was a self-described "very sensitive kid." He was busy either reading (he successfully convinced the local librarian to subscribe to Variety) or checking out the latest blockbuster at the neighborhood theater--his favorites were Jaws and, no surprise, Halloween, which he watched six times straight. He even made such homegrown, sub-Spielberg-ian flicks as White as a Ghost, in which one of his neighbors did double duty as both a psycho-killer and his victim. By high school, he was emoting in the drama club and devouring how-to screenwriting books. It looked as if Williamson was on a straight path toward Hollywood. But the blossoming filmmaker was pushed back by what would turn out to be one of the greatest blows to his confidence ever. The hit was delivered by his high school English teacher, whom he refers to as "Mrs. Tingle." It all happened when he was reading one of his short stories in front of his English class. Before he'd gotten halfway through, "Mrs. Tingle" interrupted him to harangue him about his atrocious grammar. She then proceeded to predict that he'd never amount to anything as a writer, and ordered him to go sit down because he had a voice that shouldn't be heard.
The impact? "My 'Mrs. Tingle' experience paralyzed me," admits Williamson. "I didn't write another word for 10 years. At that age, you don't get why people are being so evil. Only in the aftermath do you look back and go, 'They had their own demons. They were just fucked-up people like the rest of us.'"
Following graduation, Williamson applied to the Chapel Hill journalism program, but was rejected. Was "Mrs. Tingle" right? On the rebound, he decided to study acting at East Carolina University, after which he moved to New York to pursue TV, movie and theater roles. He envisioned for himself an acting career "a little like Bill Pullman's offbeat stuff before he got famous--only with better comic timing." By the early '90s, he'd moved to L.A. but his resume consisted of little more than bits on Another World, roles in what he calls "terrible Roger Corman movies I don't want to name or people will go out to Blockbuster and rent them," and, his high point, a gig as William Kennedy Smith to Jim Carrey's Ted Kennedy on an In Living Color sketch. Why does he think his acting career never took off? "I look horrible on camera," he admits.