I Know What You Did Last Summer opens with a goth-metal cover of “Summer Breeze,” ends with Jennifer Love Hewitt flouncing around a college dorm in a towel asking her boyfriend to “ravage” her, and is punctuated by hot teens sulking and screaming into the ether in equal measure. In other words, it is the platonic ideal of late-’90s slasher films, fast-tracked into theaters in 1997 after writer Kevin Williamson’s mega-hit Scream, to sit at No. 1 for three consecutive weekends until it eventually made $125 million.
The film, like so many turn-of-the-century American bildungsroman before it, follows the trials and tribulations of a quaint fishing village, specifically four archetypal teenagers therein: The intellectual brunette who just wants to get out of this small town and see the world (Hewitt), the beauty queen with very long hair (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the drunken rich football player whose star will burn hot and fast before he makes it to the field (Ryan Phillippe), and the smart young man who will nevertheless fail to transcend his station and unconsciously reenact the sins of his father (Freddie Prinze Jr.). After a post-graduation night of virginity loss and whiskey swilling on a local beach, the foursome (who are named things like “Barry” and “Helen”) hit a man with their car, dump his body into the sea, swear never to speak of it again, and blast off in separate directions … until, one year later, a mysterious person begins taunting them with knowledge of their crime.
This mysterious person’s identifying characteristics include, and are limited to: a penchant for hand-writing rude notes on bits of paper, and a tendency to dress exclusively like a fisherman, roaming around town in boots and a raincoat and a little hat, wielding a hook and murdering youths. Eventually, we learn that this fisherman is, in fact, the man who the teens hit that fateful evening — it turns out he did not die, but was actually on his way to murder somebody else who had previously murdered his daughter. (In this way, I Know What You Did Last Summer again reflects its early 21st century novelistic predecessors by suggesting that all things are connected, revenge is both inevitable and natural, and there are no coincidences.) The fisherman, whose name is revealed to be Benjamin Willis, is written on the page as little more than a looming, gently campy symbol of retribution and karmic justice. But the man who plays him, career character actor Muse Watson, insisted on bringing much more to the part. In honor of Vulture’s Horror Month, and the world’s horror year, I called up Watson, now 72, to hear his memories of getting paid to scare the shit out of 1997’s most famous young actors, the conversations he had with his “psychotic” character, bonding with Sarah Michelle Gellar, and accidentally freaking out Brandy while filming the sequel.
What do you remember about getting cast in I Know What You Did Last Summer?
It all happened really quickly. They had already set up in Wilmington, North Carolina, to film. And they had everybody cast but the killer. One of the things they were worried about was that they wanted somebody who could play the killer, but be nice to the kids. Most of the killers you hire will get in character and stay there. So they were a little bit worried about [Jennifer] Love Hewitt and [Sarah] Michelle [Gellar], and they wanted somebody nice. This guy who was a producer on a horse-jumping movie I did with Julia Roberts and Bobby Duvall called Something to Talk About, he was also a producer on this. And he told them, “I know a guy that could kill you in a minute but he’s the nicest guy there was on set.” And they called me and I drove across town in Hollywood and went to this office, and they put me on tape, and while I was sitting there they sent the tape out. Before I got home I got a call saying, “Could you leave in the morning?” So I flew on out to Wilmington. I got out there and started studying the character.
What did your character study entail?
The way I work is, I offer to loan my body to the character. So it’s pretty intense … Well, I guess it’s been long enough that I can talk about this. I was scared to death that if I loaned this guy my body, I wouldn’t get it back. It was really scary and I needed the credit, I needed the money. It was a career move. And as an actor, I knew playing a horror actor could put you down in other areas of Hollywood, which I wanted like hell. Nobody thinks that any of these horror actors act. I don’t know why. But for me, I put so much study into every move I made. When you see that fast walk [in IKWYDLS], I practiced that. I practiced the hook. I worked my tail off on this character. Being scared that I wouldn’t get my body back, one night I was conjuring the character and I got the idea that he was laughing at me.
I immediately said, “What are you laughing at?” And he said, “You’re trying to work yourself up to the point where you can kill somebody. I’m a psychotic. It’s like drinking a cup of coffee to me. It ain’t nothing.” And I made one of the best acting decisions I’ve ever made in my life then. Instead of me becoming a psycho, why didn’t I just walk out there and do nothing? Because I’d be reflecting this guy’s feelings, that killing somebody didn’t mean nothing. So I’d walk on the set, I’d perform this guy, and the look on my face was like having a cup of coffee.
Did you get your body back?
Yes. As a matter of fact, there are five characters I’ve played that my wife says are not welcome in our home. [Laughs.]
Who are the others?
Let’s see. The guy from — it was a home-invasion movie. Oh, gosh. I’m getting so old I can’t even remember the name. I got the greatest compliment in my life working on that film I can’t think of the name of. [My character] raped a lady after breaking into their house with two other guys, beat the father up, and the greatest compliment I ever got as an actor was the next day after that scene. I got a thank-you card from the actress, telling me how wonderful it was that I was so professional and made her feel so easy about doing the scene.
What do you remember about meeting Jennifer, Sarah, Freddie, and Ryan?
The first thing I remember about meeting Michelle Gellar is we went on long walks down the beach together. I was kind of like her new uncle. We walked and talked, and it was great. So Love, when I met her, she had gone to one of those pottery places where you make gifts for people, and she’d made me something to hang on the wall for the shoot. I just thought they were all the greatest bunch I’d ever worked with. They’re all such wonderful people, and I hope they have all the happy joy in their life.
What did you guys talk about on your walks? Why do you think you bonded with her specifically?
The business, our careers. We’d tell each other stories about our families. I don’t know why we bonded. I’ll tell you what, everybody on set at first had somebody there with them. And Michelle Gellar didn’t and I didn’t, and I think that might have been why we ended up going to the store or going walking. I think it was just that. And I adore her. She is one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever met in my life. And she knows how to play the game. Oh, boy.
We were sitting together one day and she saw a PA walk by and she said, “Excuse me, can I have a water?” And the PA went to get her a cold water. And I said, “What happened to your legs?” And she said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Hell girl, you could’ve gotten that water. That kid don’t have to get water for you.” And she said, “Muse, you don’t understand. The more you ask for, the better they treat you.” I thought of all the times I was so hospitable and agreeable and so nice and I got the worst damn trailer on the block. [Laughs.] But I never got as good as Michelle is at it. And Jennifer Love Hewitt and I lived in the same apartment building in Burbank, before we got cast.
So you knew each other before filming?
Well, sorta. We weren’t best of friends, but we knew who each other was and spoke to each other at the pool. She was there with her mother. They’d gotten an apartment there to pursue her career. I was tickled to death we got cast together and got to know each other. And after doing two together, we did Saturday Night Live, which was just amazing.
How did that come about?
Lord have mercy, they asked her to host Saturday Night Live, and I was down in Austin, Texas, shooting two episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger. And on Friday afternoon, the PA walks up to me and says, “Muse, there’s a phone call for you. They want you to be on SNL tomorrow night.” And I said, “Get outta here! I don’t need your joking around with me!” And he said, “No, seriously.” He hands me the phone and they said, “You need to get on a plane and go to New York. We have rehearsals and tomorrow night we shoot live.” I was blown away. I didn’t have clothes fit for New York. But I was playing a rich guy on Walker, Texas Ranger, so I went to the wardrobe lady and I said, “Hey, I gotta go be on Saturday Night Live. Can I take some of my wardrobe with me?” So I wore my Walker, Texas Ranger wardrobe under my hook-man stuff.
Did you ever get the sense that any of the cast were afraid of you?
I did not. I knew one of my purposes there was to not make them afraid of me on the set. But I do remember Brandy, when I got on set of the first day of the [sequel, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer], Jennifer Love Hewitt ran up to me and said, “Brandy is like, falling apart, shaking, because she knows she’s gonna have to meet you.” And I said, “Where is she, Love?” She said, “She’s over in the cafeteria.” So I walked over to the cafeteria and Love came with me, and lord have mercy, [Brandy] was sitting at the table with eight other girls, in a booth, so there was no way she could get out. And as I walked in the door, she immediately saw who I was, and she got to screaming and trying to get across the other people.
Did you eventually calm Brandy down? Did you become friends?
We did, we did. In fact, right then. I let her know I was nothing to be afraid of. It’s always weird on the set. I know in this one movie, I was almost naked with makeup all over me and I was coming out of a grave and I had things in my eyes and I was supposed to pick up this little girl who couldn’t have been 7 years old and put her up on top of the ground. I’m the scariest looking guy in the whole world. And it really got me. So before we shot, I went over there, and she was standing next to her mother, and I got down on my knees and I looked right in her face and I said, “Listen to me. I don’t care what all this looks like. Just know that everything I do with you I’m gonna do with love. I know this is gonna look weird, but just remember that.” And her mother just smiled real big at me, and hey, it worked.
Do you keep in touch with any of them?
Oh, gosh. It’s been forever. And my wife and I have something that just keeps us going 24/7, and that is we have a little girl who’s autistic. That’s why we left Los Angeles, to find a place for her to go to high school. We found a small town and a wonderful situation for her and now she’s 19 years old and she’s working in the cafeteria of an old folks’ home. And she has a 401(k) and health insurance. And that relates, in a way, to how when I did I Know What You Did Last Summer, I understood that this guy had lost his daughter. And that was what drove him over the edge. I understood that, but I never got it completely until Sophie was born. I say, “The producers saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there.” If you mess with Sophie, you’ve got me to handle.
You’d dress up as a fisherman and go on a killing spree.
Exactly. Well, I don’t know if I’d kill. I might make it more painful. Something really horror-movie qualified. [Laughs.]
Ryan Phillippe told HuffPost that 20 years after the movie’s debut, he received an out-of-the-blue direct message on Twitter from you on the fourth of July, when the movie’s events take place. “I think he wrote something creepy like, ‘Hello, old friend,’ or something. He was definitely tweeting in character,” he said, and added that he found the message “really weird and creepy.” Did you mean to freak him out?
Lord, no! When I met that boy, I thought that boy had more potential to be the best actor who ever hit Hollywood in the world. He was just the nicest guy in the world. And I haven’t talked to him in years. And I don’t know why I did that. It just seemed like a greeting. I wasn’t in character or nothing. Just Muse Watson. Then I saw on Twitter or Facebook or somewhere, he was telling everybody, “Ooh, look at this!” And I thought I’d just let him play at it. But I’ll send him something spooky for his birthday or something. [Laughs.]
I think you should. Did you notice Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr. falling in love on set?
No. It’s their story and they get to tell when it happened. I didn’t see that!
Which scene was the most fun for you to film?
When the kids hit me. Me laying in the ditch beside the road and I’m supposedly dead until they get there. And I’m not a warm-blooded person. I tend to be a little cool; I found out in my old age it’s because I didn’t drink enough water. To be dead, you have to be still, but the concrete was so cold and the air was so cold, that when I laid down, I was like, “I’m never gonna pull off dead.” And all of a sudden I remembered something about an article that I read, that when the body shivers, it’s physically warming itself up; it shakes to the point where your body warms up. And I thought to myself, “Well, then I will force the issue.” I’m laying there in the ditch and they’re setting up lights and I started forcing myself to shiver all over my body. The first AD ran over to me and said, “Muse, do you need a medic?” And I said, “No, buddy. I’m preparing for the shot.” I went to shaking and shaking and when they said action, I totally stopped shaking and my body just relaxed like you’d never seen. And I laid there deader than a doornail till we got the shot.
That’s professionalism right there. What was the best murder you performed in the franchise?
It’s hard to remember, because I’m in character when I’m doing it. And it’s pretty despicable to me! Gosh, there’s been so many.
What about the mannequin scene, where you’re standing in the department store?
Oh, wow, that was me and Michelle. It was so cool, because she’s such a good actress. She’d look right past me and I was just standing there deader than a doornail, then all of sudden, whammo! That was a great shot. When it was over, when they called cut, Michelle and I would look at each other and start laughing our tails off, because we knew how scary that was gonna be to the audience. We were like, “Man, that’s gonna get ‘em.”
In your final scene, you have this big moment with Jennifer Love Hewitt where you’re yelling at her on a boat, and Freddie Prinze Jr. punches you, and you get yanked around by the ship’s mast and pulled into the water. How much of that was actually you?
Oh, man. I got pretty bad hurt. Not that this one movie did it. I’ve had nine concussions. Brain surgery. Heart surgery. Back surgeries. Anyway. I told the guys, “Let’s make this real.” And they said, “What do you wanna do?” I said, “This whole thing is about my daughter. So could you put some pictures of me and my daughter fishing on the boat?” So they found some pictures of this little girl locally in North Carolina and put them on the boat, and it must have gotten maybe three seconds of airtime. [Laughs.]
Then we went out to do the fight scene, and they wanted to put the camera at the top of the mast of the ship, and put an accelerator on the mast, and wanted my face to black the camera out, which takes your face really close to the camera, doing 40 miles an hour. They wanted that shot and the stunt guys said, “We can’t do it. There’s no way we can react and push the button at the right time to stop him two inches from the camera. It’s not safe.” And the director said, “Come as close as you can.” So I took off and that accelerator jerked me up and I raced to the top of the ship, and I was like, “Oh my God.” And I got about an inch from the camera and stopped. I heard the stunt coordinator calling at the guy, “What the hell?!” And they said, “Just in case, get medical over here!” And the director said, “That’s the shot I wanted!”
And you weren’t hurt?
Well, after that, the stunt guy got in the rig and did the fall. And then they put me back in the rig and swung me back and forth across the boat, screaming because they cut my [character’s] hand off. I’m screaming and hanging upside down by this rope, and when I get down, Love comes walking over to me to talk, and I look at her, and she starts screaming for the medic. And I said, “Love, what’s going on?” And she said, “You can’t feel that?” And I said, “No, what is it?” Well, when I was screaming upside down, I busted every blood vessel in my eyeball. [Cackles.] I had to wear sunglasses the rest of the shoot. It didn’t hurt but it really made people uneasy.
And on I Still Know, on the beach, I broke my big toe in my left foot, busted it completely. And after that, I was scheduled for surgery on my foot, and I got a call to do a part of a guy on the Jerry Springer Show in a KKK uniform. So I wrapped my foot best I could and put on boots and my KKK uniform — I should have got an Oscar for nobody knowing my foot was broke. And they decided Michael Myers should shove me off the stage, a two-foot drop. My foot just killed me. But you can’t see it on my face!
You’ve really suffered a lot for your art.
How often did you get recognized as the fisherman killer after the movie came out?
Yeah, yeah. One of my buddies wanted to go down on the Santa Monica Pier to see it down there, and we scared some people when it was over. They stood up and were getting their coats and looked back and saw me standing there … [Laughs.] And when I got back to my hideout in the mountains of Tennessee, my wife wanted to go see it in Knoxville. And these five or six kids sitting in front kept talking. And right after one of my close-ups on the screen, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey! Keep it down.” I think he probably hasn’t changed his underwear.
Amazing. So you relished being this character for people.
I did. From an acting standpoint, a psychopath is about as far as you can go. I took it on as something I wanted to master. And I think I did. My performances weren’t always consistent but I think the character of the man was there. Honestly, I wish they had edited it a little different to show the depth of character a little more. I understand it being a horror movie, they just wanted me to be a bad guy. But I was trying to put some depth and reality into this guy. I could’ve hoped they showed a little more of that — like the pictures of my daughter lasting only three seconds.
I thought it was a really good film, though, and I was at my hideout in Tennessee on the first opening night, and my manager called me and said, “The word out in Hollywood is this movie is no good.” The reason was because the producers wouldn’t let the press pre-screen it. So they said there must be something wrong with it. So my manager says, “If there’s something wrong with the movie, you don’t have to come back for the premiere.” So I stayed at the farm. And the next day I get a call, and I’m down at my shop working, and I get a phone call and they tell me I have the No. 1 movie in the nation. I hang the phone up, I walk outside and look at this guy that works for me, and I said, “George!” And he said, “Yeah?” And I said, “I got the No. 1 movie in the nation!” And he spits his tobacco on the ground, and he says, “Yeah. We got to move that tractor.”
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