Wes Craven'sEndless Nightmare

by Marc Savlov There are not a lot of directors who have skewed the popular mindset as well as Wes Craven has. It's rare enough to find genre directors who can churn out even one or two good works before settling into the rut that so often catches up with them. Craven is the exception that proves the rule, however.

Starting with his 1972 directorial debut, Last House on the Left (featuring a very young Jodie Foster and a very creepy Martin Sheen), Craven was -- and remains -- instantly recognizable as one of that rarest of breeds, the horror auteur. His second film, the
much-discussed The Hills Have Eyes took the myth of the nuclear family to new extremes, giving it a hideous, startling twist and effectively breaking its neck.

It was 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street that cemented his reputation. The disquieting tale of Freddy Krueger, a disembodied child-killer who returned from the grave via dreams to wreak vengeance on the children of those who had killed him years before. It was the old "sins of the fathers" funneled through Freud in a severely tilting haunted house. Nightmare spawned six sequels, although none that could live up to Craven's original premise. The most recent installment (Wes Craven's New Nightmare) was the only sequel to be directed by Craven.

Despite the rapid decline of the franchise through the late Eighties, the character of Krueger, he of the razored gauntlets, filthy green-and-red sweater, battered fedora, and horribly scarred visage, has become a pop-culture icon, easily as identifiable as Frankenstein's monster or (ugh!) Barney. At one point, you could even walk into the Toys R Us chain and pick up a talking Freddy doll, until someone finally figured out the toy was modeled on the character of a murdered child molester with fourth-degree burns.

Craven's films unite the best of the old guard, things that go bump in the night and so on, with a distinctively psychological and philosophical take on traditional horror shows. Seeing as how the director majored in both those subjects while attending Johns Hopkins years ago, perhaps that's not so surprising.

What is surprising, though, is just how easily Craven makes it all look. 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow (based on the book by Wade Davis) remains one of the truly great films to deal with Haitian ritual magic in a semi-sensible light, while 1991's The People Under the Stairs was a fluid, streamlined look into suburbia gone haywire, and also an updating of the cannibal family unit from The Hills Have Eyes.

Craven, while in town for the third annual Austin Heart of Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference last week, consented to speak with me on everything from the story behind Nightmare and his upcoming big-budget film Scream. Soft-spoken and extremely laid back, this is what he had to say.

Austin Chronicle: When you began making A Nightmare on Elm Street way back in 1984, did you have any idea how big it would become?

Wes Craven: No. I didn't, you know? I knew the story was compelling because I had sort of massaged it enough to be able to tell it in a minute or two. It just "told" as a very good story.

AC: Do you remember your original pitch for it?

WC: The pitch per se? Not exactly. It was something that I had as an idea based on some newspaper articles. There was this series of deaths that have subsequently been studied -- they're called something like sudden death syndrome. It was apparently a big problem in Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia and places like that. Young males would have severe nightmares and die in their sleep. There was a whole elaborate system of trying to deal with it, and apparently it was a very big problem. Just the way that they happened was very dramatic.

The last one was similar to the others, but it had a little more dramatic finesse to it. The kid had tried to stay awake and told his parents that he had had a really awful nightmare and was afraid to sleep. He had extended the period of staying awake to the point that it scared the parents, and they had called a doctor who prescribed sleeping pills. Well, the kid just hid them under his bed, right? Anyway, the kid stayed up a really long time, like two, three days, and then finally fell asleep. The parents took him up to bed and tucked him in, then went to bed themselves thinking everyone was finally going to get a good night's sleep. They eventually heard screaming and ran into the kid's room, tried to wake him up, but he just died. Right there in front of them.

It just seemed so dramatic that I started to toy with the idea of a story about somebody that comes to people in dreams, to the point that their dream life and their waking life become commingled, where they can't quite discern what is real and what isn't anymore.

So I kind of combined those two notions with the idea of somebody who is tied to a series of events in the past that were impinging on the kids, a sort of "sins of the parents/children's children" kind of thing. And basically that's how I concocted the story of Freddy.

AC: How did it morph in the finished film? Was there a quick turnaround on that?

WC: That general notion I think I mentioned to Bob Shaye, who is the head of New Line Cinema, when we met in New York once. He asked me if I had anything, and I said, "Well, I've got this idea about this guy that can kill you in your dreams."

Bob was always interested in that, but I went on to do two other films, Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing, before anything happened. I did those two films back to back and I thought I kind of deserved a break, so I decided to write my first script around this story.

So I wrote the script and sent it to Bob Shaye. He liked it a lot and had notes and all that, but he wanted to do it for a very low budget, so I spent about two years trying to get it mounted on my own. I had it set at $2.5 million, and I definitely didn't want to do it for less than a million, but Bob wanted to do it for $350,000. There was a long period where I basically went broke, until Shaye relented a bit, and it was finally done for about $1.8 million, I think.

During that time when I had the script, I would always tell the story to friends who would just listen raptly and then say how much they loved it. It seemed like a really good story.

Shaye right away sensed the sequels. I didn't. He's always had a much stronger sense of what could be popularized and how to change something, so in the subsequent sequels, he made Freddy a lot less threatening and much more jokey, which caught on. So to his credit -- or whatever -- he's the guy that sort of developed that facet of it.

AC: Did that ever bother you, the fact that the character devolved into this sort of wisecracking goofball?

WC: Yeah.

AC: But there wasn't really anything you could do about it?

WC: Not if they buy you out, which in those days was part of the standard script purchase. It was before any really big sequels had begun. I think maybe Friday the 13th had had one or two at that point, possibly.

The whole idea of Nightmare was very much of a complete thought. I mean, it had a resolution at the end, how to deal with violence by turning away from it and taking the energy out of it. A lot of it came from oneself, and you had to just deal with those elements of it yourself, in your own way. By the end of the movie, that was sort of a completed thought.

That sort of "Oh, the mummies back again" type of cockamamie story didn't really appeal to me that much. In fact, I passed on doing the second one, because I thought the whole concept was silly.

AC: The second one was really just terrible.

WC: Yeah, it was. I think after that they realized they had to put some thought into it. They actually came back to me for Nightmare 3, and I conceived that one and co-wrote it with Bruce Wagner, who has since become quite an accomplished novelist. That then was rewritten by Chuck Russell and, if I'm not mistaken, Frank Darabont [The Shawshank Redemption].

AC: What is it, in your opinion, that caused such a major reaction to the Freddy character? I mean, the guy was a child-killer, which is not your typical fodder for American icons.

WC: There's something about Freddy that's very conversant. I think that he's specifically a killer of children made the kids respond, and the fact that he was somehow amusing made him a bit less of a threat, and made it something that they could handle. And I think that that's very important to kids, or to anyone who's frightened of anything, really. I know from reading Joseph Campbell early on -- long before I got into the film business -- the idea that cultures tend to take things that they're most frightened of and make them into icons or something that they can control via a story. You wear the skin of the leopard, or you wear these horrible voodoo masks, or whatever it is. It's ironic, in a way, like the Mexican Day of the Dead, with people running out and buying skulls and crossbones when we all know we're all just terrified of the fact that, one day, we are going to be those skulls and those crossbones.

If you can somehow lessen it a bit, and make it into something that becomes more abstract, then you can get a handle on it, and diminish it.

AC: How did you come up with the idea for Wes Craven's New Nightmare? That was such a radical departure from the norm, breaking the so-called forth wall between film, audience, and filmmaker? Was that a conscious effort to wield some sort of control over the franchise and maybe put an end to it?

WC: In a way, yeah. Again, it was based on an offer from Bob Shaye, who called up and said "Look, I hear there's some ill will and you may not be satisfied with the way things turned out [with the Nightmare series]," and so we ironed out differences as part of the dealmaking. He said that killing off Freddy in the last film may have been a mistake, but they weren't sure how to bring him back. I said I'd think about it, and so I went back and looked at the whole series. I didn't think there was any consistency to the story line, no real philosophy as it were. It was really kind of a mess. I thought, how do we jump the paradigm? How do we get up to the next level?

Well, the only way I could think to do that was to say: What if Freddy were to somehow pass outside the boundaries of film and become "real"? I was also thinking about how I'm always asked, "Don't you think your films can harm people, or cause people to do bad things?"

Although I had never felt that was true, I had also never really thought through the mechanism of what scary stories do for kids or cultures. Which is what I did then. I thought, "What if scary stories like these were somehow banned from our culture?" My feeling was that there's something about the function of a scary story that, rather than causing more violence, defuses it in a way. It gets rid of some of that energy, it lets you look at it. It also helps you deal with violence. It begs the question: How would I deal with this situation?

AC: And from this introspection came the premise of the film?

WC: Right. Say Freddy's been killed, right? Well, what if that caused this sort of negative energy to be let loose in a way that nobody even thought about. And then the story per se just progressed from there. I went back to Bob and said I'd like the film to be about the making of the movies, the making of the whole series, and it would star all of us. He liked that idea a lot, and that's when it got interesting to me.

AC: How was popular reaction to the film?

WC: It did respectably. It did around $20 million, I think. Which was as much as the Eddie Murphy picture I made [Vampire in Brooklyn]. It was more of an intellectual thing, frankly, than a totally visceral scary thing. I tried to approach the audience that had been around as teenagers for the first movie 10 years previous, and that's a tricky audience to get. But overall, it was very well reviewed and received well by the thinking audience, that one that likes to have fun with horror.

AC: There seems to have been a major drop-off in both the quality and amount of genre films in the last few years. Why do you think that is? Political climate, maybe?

WC: Oh yeah. The political climate has a lot to do with it. I can tell you I'm in the middle of -- hopefully more toward the end of -- fighting the MPAA on my new film, Scream, for Miramax. It's very disheartening, basically, because they're very powerful and they're very conservative, and so they have the power to prevent your film from being released in any meaningful way, by simply saying it's an "NC-17." That means you can't advertise in 80 percent of the markets, newspapers, networks, and so on, and it basically relegates your film to some obscure, tiny area.

They tell you that you've got to have an "R" rating, and so you have to keep going back saying "Okay, I've made these cuts. Please give it an `R.' It's making a statement. This is art for me."

Basically, they don't want to hear that, and they'll say, take this out, take that out, and so on.

But the insidious thing they're doing now -- and have been doing for the last 10 years -- is saying it's the whole tone of the film that they don't like.

And this is a big film, too. It's got Courtney Cox, Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell. It's a really complicated, very fascinating story, sort of a murder mystery for kids who love horror films. But the last act of it is quite bloody; it's sort of the falling-apart of the world of this killer who had been, up to that point, emulating what he sees in horror films, but when he actually has a wound inflicted on himself, he realizes how much it hurts and he starts to die. It was sort of this character's plan to wound himself and pass himself off as a survivor, but that doesn't go according to plan, and so the whole third act is this guy bleeding to death. And it's got some very dark humor in it.

And they hate it. They cannot stand this kind of humorous treatment of this sort of stuff. They want fantasy violence -- they'll accept that. My point is that violence is far more interesting when it's treated as what it really is, and the ramifications that it really has. In which case, you look at people really suffering, you know, people that get stabbed but don't die right away. They begin the process of dying, but it's not instantaneous, it's not cut and dried.

It's almost like that kind of honesty is forbidden. It's creepy, and to that extent, it's very hard to make a film about some of these things. I've had them tell me, "this whole section of the film is just too intense, cut back on the intensity."

AC: I remember John McNaughton's debut, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer went through the exact same thing.

WC: Right. I mean, you know as a filmmaker what you can do to make something less intense, but the whole point is that you've struggled to get it to that level of intensity already. That's where you want it, and that's where you think it should be. And they make you feel as if you're eviscerating your own film. People you never even get to meet.

If I can get this out to an audience, I think it would be very, very powerful and some of the best work I've ever done, but I'm at this block where it's very difficult to get out.

AC: How does this kind of runaround from the MPAA effect you personally, as a director?

WC: I can tell you the effect it has on me overall is: Why struggle to make this kind of film anymore? You can't make it in this climate where this faceless body of people has control over your final product. What's the point of struggling and working for a year and a half and freezing your ass off doing night shoots and fighting producers and everybody else to get it just right, when at the end you get the shit cut out of it by a bunch of anonymous overlords?

AC: Maybe it's time for you to take a stab at the next, oh, Home Alone sequel. I'd like to see that, actually: Wes Craven's Home Alone!

WC: [laughing] Maybe so. Maybe so. It is in many ways more attractive to get out of the genre and do other things, because, at this moment, there's less of a chance of them being cut to ribbons. The way it is now, all the horror is in the six o'clock news, and we're not allowed to reflect that at all. n

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