There is a
videotape...if you watch it, seven days later, you
devilishly simple premise went a long way toward making
the Japanese horror film Ringu an international
hit in 1998. Hideo Nikatas headline-making supernatural
chiller based on a popular series of novels
by Suzuki Koji quickly emerged in Japan as
a kind of home-grown Exorcist; the modestly-budgeted
thriller precipitated blockbuster grosses, a pair
of feature sequels and two different TV series.
tells the tale of a videocassette its VHS spools
jammed full of grainy, disturbing and surreal imagery
that somehow, exactly seven days later, brings
a ghastly death to anyone who watches it. The minute
someone finishes watching the tape, the nearest phone
rings, delivering a cryptic, unearthly message.
plot thickens when a skeptical young journalist impulsively
watches the tape. As the subsequent hours and days
tick by, she becomes increasingly convinced that the
videos seven-day curse is real and finds
herself racing against time to understand its terrifying
DreamWorks inspired perhaps as much by Ringus
sturdy cult status on American shores as by the millions
of yen it reaped overseas acquired the rights
and set about putting together an English-language
remake titled The Ring. Gore Verbinksi
(The Mexican) was hired to direct, Naomi
Watts (Mulholland Dr.) to star
and Ehren Kruger to script.
knows the mechanics of dread. The 29-year-old screenwriter
broke into moviemaking in 1996, when he won the Nicholl
Fellowship via an Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences screenwriting contest for
his screenplay to Arlington Road. Krugers
paranoid, pull-no-punches script centered around a
terrorism expert/academic who finds himself framed
by a network of evildoers smiling, white-militia
types with plans to blow up a federal building. Arlington
Road made it to movie screens, its remorseless
ending miraculously intact, three years later.
it wasnt an unqualified hit, Arlington
clearly impressed the folks at Miramax, who commissioned
Kruger to script no fewer than three subsequent projects
including Reindeer Games (which
turned out to be director John Frankenheimers
final theatrical), the futuristic Philip K. Dick-inspired
thriller Impostor, and the smash horror-comedy
sequel Scream 3 (for which Kruger stepped
in at the last minute for an over-committed Kevin
says he was a Ringu fan before the studio
called him about it. His first encounter with the
project was, appropriately enough, on the alt-video
original, he points out, was kind of a phenomenon
in Japan it was quite a mainstream success.
It got sort of a cult reputation over here, kind of
among the sci-fi and horror underground circuit
and so there are bootlegs of the Japanese film that
would be sort of passed around, or could be seen at
some of these cult video stores.
got a call from DreamWorks early on, he remembers.
Id seen the [original Japanese] film about
a month before and thought it was terrific, and thought
it could make a terrific American version.
Focus snagged a few minutes with Kruger as The
Ring due for release Oct. 18 was
undergoing its obligatory battery of test-screenings.
you read Suzuki Kojis original series of Ringu
novels in preparing for this?
I did not, actually. I watched the original film and
its sequels I saw the original film about three
times, and then put it down and didnt go back
youre adapting a Japanese film to American audiences,
are there any cultural chasms you have to cross?
. I would say that some of the mythology
in Ringu was very specific to Japan
for example, volcanoes play a big part in unraveling
the mystery of the videotape in the Japanese version,
and active volcanoes are few and far between on the
American mainland. Thats an example of something
specific where we had to come up with an alternate
mythology, and just had to think in terms of landscapes
and things that were more iconically American.
of the nice things about the Japanese [version] is
that it plays it very close to the vest in terms of
interactions between characters, and understanding
relationships between characters, until later on in
the story. We sort of have a tradition in American,
Hollywood film to tell you more or less everything
you need to know about your protagonist where you
meet them, or soon thereafter. The Japanese, in the
formality of their dialogue with one another, are
kind of prone to dispensing information more slowly
especially personal information.
wanted to keep that tone without the interaction
between those characters seeming so foreign and full
of omission in the American version.
the DreamWorks version of The Ring driven
by character, atmospheres or plot?
Id say its more driven by character and
atmosphere. There is the spine of a mystery plot,
which is What are the origins of this videotape?
But its really about dread and doom,
and that sense permeates every scene. Its about
what that sense of believing theres a
deadline on your life and possibly your loved ones
does to those relationships.
Naomi Watts deliver on the promise of Mulholland
Shes very, very good in the part. And shes
not afraid to play the character as a flawed person.
She can be intense and vulnerable and likable and
unlikable, depending on the scene. Its a difficult
performance, because, for the most part, shes
playing fear, but within that theres
a lot of nuance. I think people are going to be really
impressed with her work.
read some test-screening reviews, and one reviewer
joked that hes been afraid to watch a VHS tape
since he saw the film. Is DreamWorks trying to force
people into the DVD format?
[laughs] I dont know; we never really had that
discussion. Theres just something much more
cinematic about a record player with a needle spinning
than there is a laser reading a videodisc. And theres
something about the notion that you can just pull
out this videotape.
sounds like Ringu was a Blair Witch-like
phenomenon in Japan.
Well, you know, the movie on one level has a very
simple premise, or hook it sort of plays into
the notion of a 500-channel universe where anything
you can possibly imagine has been videotaped or filmed,
and can be watched from the comfort of your own home,
and the way that theres this constant, almost
debilitating, need on the part of this society thats
over-entertained to find The Next New Thing.
Show me something that I havent seen before.
and more people feel like theyve seen everything.
So the notion of a tape that would be so disturbing
or so frightening or so something that it would lead
to someones death? I have a feeling that, if
it were real, there are a number of people out there
who are so bored with everything on that they might
just check it out anyway.
the next step up from a snuff film, where it snuffs
Thats one way of looking at it. I think thats
one of the notions that makes The Ring
topical, in any event. And it is a film that is genuinely
scary its at no point wink-winking at
the audience. You know, usually the most effective
scary movies are the ones that really take their time,
with a sense of foreboding and doom and unease and
discomfort and this film very much does that.
Its not going for the cheap scares.
are two kinds of horror. Theres the unsettling
kind of horror, and then theres the cheeky,
slasher-film, shock-based horror.
you actually have worked in both fields now
because one of your bigger splashes after your writing
debut, Arlington Road, was Scream
3 which is sort of the magnum opus of
Its funny, because I always approached the Scream
sequel as working on a comedy, not so much a horror
picture. Its kind of funny to me when they file
the Scream movies in the horror
genre. Im not sure its on the proper shelf.
at the time you got involved in Scream 3,
the series was already plumbing these new levels of
self-reference. It was actually re-creating scenes
from its own first film on a Hollywood soundstage.
Well, that seemed like the only moderately new place
you could go with it, just because its such
a rigid formula. I mean, the film was spoofing it.
You could either spiral it inward or simply run in
movies scare you?
Well, [Ring director] Gore Verbinski and
I talked a lot about the movies of Roman Polanski
Rosemarys Baby. One of my
favorite horror movies is Dont Look Now.
Those are films that really play on unease and discomfort,
and things being off in an otherwise normal
world. I think thats the most effective kind
of horror movie the movie thats really
very much like a campfire ghost story, that sort of
strings you along in a delicious, atmospheric way,
and hopefully leads you to a worthwhile payoff.
previously worked on such decidedly non-horror fare
as The Mexican and Mouse Hunt.
Hes quite brilliant very talented in
terms of creating an atmosphere and eliciting performances
from actors, and very smart about story and script.
He could do any genre with ease, I would think.
also had the privilege of being one of the last people
to work with the late John Frankenheimer, on Reindeer
He was as legendary as all the tales. Hed seen
and done as much as a director could, Id imagine
just a tremendous, tremendous, tremendous person,
John was. Frankenheimer had more energy at 70 than
I had at 16. [laughs] He was ready to keep making
movies for another 30 years. He was not ready to call
it a career, definitely.
Road has become a weirdly relevant movie in
the past year. And its one of the few Hollywood
thrillers of the past several years to really embrace
that merciless sort of ending you normally find in
such films as the original Vanishing.
How did you get away with that?
Well, it wasnt made for a lot of money, which
helped. And everyone who worked on the movie signed
on because of the way it ended and had anyone
wanted to end it any other way, the actors would have
quit and the director would have quit, so thered
be no movie. [laughs] It would just be doing a disservice
to the material and the themes to paste an upbeat
ending on a film about terrorism. It would just seem
disingenuous and fake.
you watched Arlington Road since Sept.
Since Sept. 11? No, I havent. But thats
not really any comment on Sept. 11 because
like most writers and directors, once they finish
a project, they very rarely watch it on their own.
wonder if Arlington Road could even be
Probably not. Probably not.
11 affected the production schedule for The
Ring, didnt it? The shoot was moved out
of Boston after the terror attacks.
There was a bit of a timing issue, where the studio
had to decide where to shoot the movie during a period
when there was a lot of confusion about what the travel
situation in the country was going to be
production designer, Tim Duffield, was scheduled to
be on a flight from Boston, but that was changed.
[The flight Duffield didnt take ended up being
hijacked during the Sept. 11 attacks and two
of the hijacked planes came from Bostons Logan
received the AMPAS Nicholl Fellowship for Arlington
Road in 1996, and thats sort of what broke
you in to the screenwriting trade. What were
you doing before that?
I was living in Los Angeles, kicking around, working
as an assistant at some production companies and just
writing on the weekends and at night and trying
to learn what I could about how the business
side works by going to NYU Film School. I was from
Washington, D.C., prior to that.
would say that unless you win some sort of meritorious
fellowship or award for your writing, the way that
your work will get read initially is by someone who
likes you personally [laughs] and who then
knows someone whos worthwhile, career-wise,
to have reading your script. Its easier to make
friends in the movie business if you spend some time
in Los Angeles.
you have any great unproduced projects in your drawer
you really want to get onto the screen?
Theres a couple of projects kicking around in
development at the studios. But most of the things
that are in the file drawer should be there. [laughs]
In my experience, really good scripts dont get
overlooked because theres a paucity of
really good scripts.
been working on sort of a revisionist adventure film
about the Brothers Grimm that hopefully will be in
production early next year. Thats negotiating
with directors; its at MGM. It sort of posits
that these two collectors of folk tales collected
them by more or less being involved with them. Theyre
adventurers as well as raconteurs.
discussing the distasteful subject of money
The Ring, you joined the elite club where
youre getting a million dollars to write a screenplay.
How did that feel, when you busted in at that level?
Well, Ill tell you. The first job I ever got
was 10 grand to write a screenplay and I thought
that was just a ton of money at the time, and I couldnt
have been happier, because it wasnt so much
the money, it was that somebody wanted me to write
a screenplay. [laughs] And thats kind of been
the case ever since.
nice to be well-paid for what you do but in
most cases I would do the work for very little if
it meant that people would be able to see the work.
Theres no comparison between writing work that
no one sees and writing work that someone sees
no matter what youre being paid. Thats
the real barrier that you remember.
the other thing is: The moneys a Catch-22, because
the more expensive a film is, the less control a screenwriter
has over the material.
you able to keep the costs low on The Ring?
Were you able to keep control?
The movie is the script that we all set out to make.
It wasnt a terribly expensive movie, but I think
the original Japanese movie was made for a million
dollars or something, and we quite out-spent them.
[laughs] Well put it that way.
Ring strikes me as being part of this Hollywood
trend where Japanese pop-culture products are making
their way from cult American audiences
to mainstream American audiences. Im thinking
of the importing of Miyazakis animated features
and the planned remake of Akira, among
Ive seen quite a few Japanese horror films.
There are always interesting things that are done
when expectations are low. [laughs] You know
when people can take more creative risks when theres
not so much money involved.
easier to take risks when youre making a movie
for a million dollars than when youre making
a movie for 30, 60, 100 million dollars. And industries
like Hong Kong and Japan tend to be making more films
for a million dollars. I just think theres interesting
work being done all over the globe and the
less money thats being spent on it, the more
interesting it often is.