Legendary horror director Wes Craven died at the age of 76 on Sunday, following a battle with brain cancer. The beloved filmmaker is known for Nightmare on Elm Street and the original versions of both The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, but he may be best remembered for directing the Scream movies. Craven even served as an executive producer on MTV’s current Scream television series, which airs its first-season finale tonight.
Fans of Scream were perplexed when the TV adaptation ditched both the iconic mask (a change Craven had nothing to do with) and, worse, the timelessly creepy voice of Ghostface, the anonymous identity adopted by various killers throughout the course of the franchise.
We tracked down the man who terrified a generation without ever showing his face: actor Roger L. Jackson, who lent his deep, menacingly seductive voice to Ghostface in all four Scream movies.
Jackson, who also played Mojo Jojo on The Powerpuff Girls, told Fusion about his experiences working with Wes Craven and the cast (whom he was never allowed to meet—more on that later) from the first film in 1996 all the way through 2011’s Scream 4. Now you too can hear what it’s like to have a phone call with Ghostface, with the added benefit of not being brutally murdered right after you hang up.
This interview, conducted prior to Craven’s passing, has been condensed and edited.
What was the audition process like? Did the script specify much about Ghostface’s voice?
It was handled by a casting agency in San Francisco. There was no real description. I was told it was something involving a new Wes Craven movie and my ears perked up. I was and am a big Wes Craven fan. When I got there, I heard other people in the room saying, “What is this about?” “I don’t know, my agent told me they’re looking for a new Freddy Krueger or something.” But I read the sides… it was nothing like Freddy Krueger.
You know the scene, the first scene. It’s obvious that it’s a game of cat and mouse. This guy has to be interesting enough and playful and a little sexy, hopefully to keep her on the phone and keep her interested until the trap springs. It’s not Freddy.
It had to be kind of silky, is the way I thought of it at the time. I went into their recording room. They didn’t have a booth—just a microphone on a stand in the middle of the room, with someone running the recorder. I played the scene as it was written. Kevin Williamson is a brilliant writer, and everything was in the script.
I think you’re totally right: when Ghostface gets scary, he gets really scary, but it is a silky buildup. Did you have any particular inspiration for that, or did it emerge organically from reading the script?
At the time I realized what I was doing was similar to the bug in Naked Lunch, the typewriter bug.
Basically, I just tried to make him silky smooth, but he also has to be able to shift into something darker. It’s nice and friendly in the beginning, kind of an interesting voice, and then suddenly it starts to grow teeth.
How much would you say your version of Ghostface’s voice changed between your audition and the actual recording for the film?
Not at all. That’s what they wanted. Initially, they were only hiring to get someone to play the scene with Drew Barrymore, because she wanted to have an actor to play the scene with instead of just having someone feed her lines. Somebody to react to.
They were gonna dub it all later in Los Angeles. But Wes and Marianne Maddalena, the producer, liked what I was doing so they decided to just keep me. So it was my good fortune and the generosity of Miss Drew Barrymore.
I’ve read that you were intentionally kept from meeting the cast, to preserve the mysterious, scary nature of Ghostface. What was that like? How would the actual recording of the scenes happen?
The first night, I was sort of under a tent—not really a tent, just four poles with a piece of fabric on top, because it was raining. And I was outside the window of the room they were filming in, so I could see [Barrymore] through the window, but she couldn’t see me. As in every scene, I’m actually talking on a cell phone connected to her phone, but I’m also miked to get a clean sound. That first night I’m out there in the rain—next time you watch the film, when you see the boyfriend outside, taped up to the chair, you may notice that he’s dripping.
After that first night, whenever we would film from then on, [I was] in a room somewhere nearby sequestered with a monitor to watch my camera feed.
In the moments before the director called action, would there be any banter, like, “Hi Drew, how are you? Having a good day?” or were the only phone conversations you had with the actors in character as Ghostface?
It’s like the old radio plays: the scariest monster is the monster you make with your own imagination. Nothing will duplicate your own worst fears, what you make for yourself. Knowing Wes and Marianne wanted to keep me as an element—to keep me out of the other actors’ minds, as it were, so they would have a thing to react to—whenever I did speak to someone, I just spoke in the Ghostface voice. I never spoke to Drew Barrymore. I never talked to her or met her. Someday I hope to and say thank you.
A couple of times, like in number two, when Sarah Michelle Gellar was on the other end of the phone between takes, she would go, “So. You’re the scary voice man, huh? Why do you do that? Do you like scaring people? You like scaring people? Why? Why? What is it about you that wants to scare other people?” And I’d go, “I think you better save it, Sarah.”
It was fun because I would still hear stuff coming through the phone lines between takes. It was really nice when, in the same movie, I could hear Heather Graham saying, “Who is this guy? He’s really scary! He’s giving me the creeps!”
That must be satisfying, to get instant feedback to your work.
Yeah, because you don’t really have an audience. That’s why it’s great going to the conventions and meeting the fans and people who loved the movies and cartoons and whatever I do and getting to hear what they have to say. They’re the audience.
I understand that you only met Neve Campbell recently—how many of the actors that you worked with as Ghostface have you met?
I’ve only met three people: Jamie Kennedy, Neve Campbell, and Skeet Ulrich. Neve and Skeet at this last convention, Monster-Mania. That’s the first time we’ve ever met. They’re nice people. Skeet’s table was next to mine at the convention, so we talked some back and forth. It was pleasant.
Jamie I met by accident. When we were filming [Scream 2] in Atlanta, my hometown, I went down in the middle of the night to get a snack, and that’s where the hotel had washing machines. I walk into the room and there’s Jamie Kennedy bent over the washer. He whips around and looks at me and goes, “Do you have any fabric softener?” And I go, “No, I don’t, man.”
If it wasn’t the next day, it was soon after that we were filming a scene where I’m talking to him on the phone. It was interesting because I think he knew who I was, or had figured it out, or something. I tried improvising a line in the film and when Wes called cut, Jamie said, “That was great! That’s scary as hell! Do that again on the next one!”
Was improvisation encouraged on set?
Once we’d have a few takes, they would say, “Go ahead and see what you can come up with.” Then it would become my job to try to think of something really terrible to say. That’s when I thought of the business: “Have you ever felt a knife slice through human flesh and scrape against the bone beneath?”
Wow, that was an ad-lib? That’s a hell of an ad-lib.
After that, I started trying to think of more things like that. I got a good reaction from Neve once on the fourth film, when in a very calm voice, I say to her, “I’m going to slice your eyelids in half so you don’t blink when I stab you in the face.”
Wes called cut, and over the phone Neve said, “You sick bastard,” but I could see her laughing on the monitor.
By the time you filmed the first scene with Drew Barrymore, had you seen the costume design?
Ghostface is Ghostface no matter who’s adopted the persona, but does the identity of the person underneath the cloak affect his voice? Did you know who the killers were?
I didn’t know. Once the second film came out, of course, the two guys were dead from the first movie, so I knew the killer was someone else. I knew I had to be the same, yet somehow a little different. That’s a tricky thing to do. I’ve added some quirks here and there to differentiate one film from the next. As I’ve said before, Ghostface is the worst within each of us. Ghostface can be anybody, anyone at all.
Do you remember any of the specific quirks you implemented between the films?
In some instances, like in the fourth film, I tried to keep him more even, to just deliver the horrifying lines in the simplest, most normal manner possible: “I’m going to slit your eyelids,” not “I’M GOING TO SLIT YOUR EYELIDS!”
But in some of the other movies, he was harder. He had more of the edge, the tooth to him.
Is there a particular line that fans most frequently ask you to say?
Usually it’s “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Some people like “I’m gonna gut you like a fish.”
I have to ask: what’s your favorite scary movie?
The scariest movie I’ve ever seen was a documentary called Titicut Follies, by the great filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It was filmed at a Massachusetts institution for the criminally insane, where the prisoners who were too nuts for regular prison were sent. And in the course of this movie, you’re hard-pressed to see who’s more insane: the prisoners or the keepers.
Are there any recent horror movies that have captured your attention?
Oh, yes, The Babadook. It’s psychological horror—really, really makes your spine tingle. And another Australian film, Housebound. Penny Dreadful is great. The Strain, marvelous show.
I’ve never seen any of the Saw films. I tried watching one once and… there’s a difference between horror and torture.
When you meet fans, what are the most common questions you hear?
When I go to conventions, people are fascinated by Ghostface, but they love Mojo Jojo. That’s an entirely different relationship I’m very appreciative of. He’s such a rotten guy, but people can see something in him… Mojo has that element of being a jerk you can still somehow sympathize with.
What are you working on now?
Today, I was recording a character for the continuing video game Rift. I think my part is now finished on Tales from the Borderlands, which I did not too long ago. I’m the Masked Stranger. And I’m in the midst of working on an animated film that at this point is called Monster Island.
I was so disappointed to start watching the MTV series and discover that the voice of their masked killer was unfamiliar. Did the producers approach you?
No, never. I’ve never watched the series; I don’t know anything about it. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the stuff that I do watch regularly.
What was your reaction when you found out the show was happening?
Well, I was hoping they were gonna hire me. I like work. But they never approached, never said anything, so… They obviously had their vision of what they wanted. It’s good to follow your dreams.