“I Don’t Feel Like I Gave Birth to Jesus”: Wes Craven on A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, one of the greatest horror directors of all time, a man who directed classics in almost every decade of his professional life,passed away yesterday, August 30, of brain cancer in Los Angeles. Last October, Craven spoke to Filmmaker‘s Jim Hemphill about perhaps his most celebrated creation, A Nightmare on Elm Street. As a way of remembering Craven, we are reposting it today.
On November 9, 1984, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street opened in American theaters and changed the movie industry forever. Serving as a bridge between the primal ferocity of Craven’s earlier work (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) and the visually expressive professionalism of his later films (The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, Red Eye), Elm Street also introduced one of the most iconic horror movie villains of all time and put New Line Cinema on the map. A make-or-break production for New Line and its founder, Bob Shaye, A Nightmare on Elm Street established a new franchise for the company and enabled an expansion that would lead to decades of important films – it’s entirely possible that without Craven’s classic there would be no Boogie Nights, no My Own Private Idaho, and of course no Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film also breathed new life into the stagnant teen horror genre, fusing the art house surrealism of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Bunuel’s dream films with the conventions of 80s body count movies to set the standard for years to come – until Craven himself reinvented the genre with Scream. On the eve of the picture’s 30th anniversary, Craven reflects on the creation of a horror masterpiece.
Filmmaker: It’s hard to believe now, but back when you were trying to get A Nightmare on Elm Street made it was a tough sell. You had already made a couple noteworthy horror films by that point, so what made it so difficult?
Wes Craven: Basically, I’ve found that if you have two films that don’t perform well it doesn’t matter that you’ve had a bunch of successful ones. The phone stops ringing, and after Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing that’s what happened. Deadly Blessing was a re-write assignment that turned into a directing job, and with Swamp Thing we had a very limited budget and terrible, terrible completion bond people. About two weeks from the end of the shoot they said we had to start cutting scenes, and it was already very difficult in the swamps, with very elaborate makeup. I came out of those two films with not much box office to show for it, and the offers dried up.
I decided, since I had a little bit of money in the bank, that I would take six months off and write a script. At about that same time I met Bob Shaye in New York, and he was interested in doing something together. I told him about this guy coming out of dreams; at that time the idea was still fairly vague in my own mind, but he was immediately interested and said, “As soon as you have a first draft, send it to me.” That was very encouraging, so I went back and wrote the script and I sent it to Bob. He was very, very interested, and he gave me notes for a second draft at the same time that he started to look for backing.
Meanwhile, over a period of two years my money ran out. I got a call from the woman who handled my accounts and she said, “You are broke Wes, you are just broke. We have a $5,000 tax bill coming up and it needs to be paid.” I was desperate, to put it mildly, and I called the only guy I knew who had money – that was Sean Cunningham, because he had done very well with Friday the 13th. He loaned me five grand to pay the bill. At about the time that was due to be paid back, a friend of mine put together enough money to shoot The Hills Have Eyes 2 and I thought, “why not, let’s just go make a movie,” because I was standing around Hollywood while Bob seemed unable to raise the money for Nightmare.
Filmmaker: I’m still kind of amazed that he would have had such a hard time raising financing for what was essentially a low-budget horror movie.
Wes Craven: I think after Friday the 13th and its imitators there was a feeling that horror was bad and bad for kids, and it was during that period when video games were being looked at as causing kids to be violent, and there were all sorts of made up stories about kids killing their sisters wearing Friday the 13th masks and whatever. The far right was starting to rattle these cages, and I think the studios were afraid of making a film that had blood in it. They also just felt like it was too far out, that people would be confused about what reality is. Even Sean said, “They’ll know it’s a dream, so there is no danger.” I said, “Look, people can die if they are in dreams!” but nobody got it except Bob Shaye and my friend Peter Locke, who is my producer from the Hills series. Peter was not able to raise the money and Bob eventually was. Even then, two weeks before we were to shoot a huge portion of the money fell out and we had to go back to Europe and scrape up financing. I remember looking at Bob’s fingernails and they were just bitten down to the core. I had never seen anybody who had bitten their nails so badly.
Filmmaker: So going into production it sounds like it was really a do or die movie for both you and for Bob Shaye. Did that make for a pretty stressful shoot?
Wes Craven: Bob was in New York most of the time, and that helped because Bob had an ambition to be a director. When he was on the set he kind of felt like a guy who was fighting his urge, like he wanted to co-direct or something.
By and large it was just a scramble, but the cast was great and we were getting all these amazing sequences. Robert Englund was just blowing everybody’s doors off, and the makeup turned out to be spectacular. I knew I had all the dramatic bases covered, because I had very carefully worked out the rules of how to beat Freddy and how he could kill you, and I felt like the audience would get it. It was wild but that would be part of the entertainment. There were the usual problems, where you run low on money and people are always saying cut this scene or cut that scene and everything else. But with the exception of the end scene, which I’ve talked about enough [Shaye imposed an unmotivated final scare on the film], by and large the movie really felt like something.
Bob didn’t say too much about dailies but insisted that I come to New York for the cutting, which was a huge pain in the ass because I was just married and I had to leave my wife back in LA, and that did not work out well at all. But I came to New York and started working, and when I screened my first cut for Bob in a tiny screening room he looked at me and said, “Do you think we have a picture here at all?” It was like a body blow. He said, “You have two weeks to cut and that’s the amount of money I’m going to put into it.” I called my agent and he said, “Well, you’re DGA, so according to the contract you have twelve weeks.” I told Bob that and he sort of grumbled and walked out. The editor and I worked very hard to tighten everything up and the next time we showed it to Bob it was a different film. He went, “Hm, let’s try that on the audience,” and we started having little family-and-friends screenings. Once the film was cut and had sound effects and everything it played pretty terrific.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the cast, because I’m curious how you direct the actors in a film like this. You’ve got somebody like John Saxon, who couldn’t be more experienced, and then you’ve got kids like Johnny Depp who are working on their first film, and then someone like Ronee Blakley who has her own kind of offbeat sensibility…is it difficult getting all of these approaches in sync and giving the actors what they need to do their best work?
Wes Craven: That kind of comes with the job, especially in this kind of film. Back then they would always feed one or two stars who have been around a long time into the project – a John Saxon, or an Ernest Borgnine in the case of Deadly Blessing – among the money people the thinking was always that you needed somebody for Europe. Saxon was a real gentleman and great to work with, and I’m used to working with young people because I often make films starring teenagers, or people who look like teenagers. In horror you’re constantly working with actors that are just starting out, and I think it helps that I’m a little older. I started later than most filmmakers because I had a college teaching career first. I was old enough to talk to the older actors and be a grown up, and at the same time be goofy enough to relate to the kids. Actors are your treasure and it’s your job to make them feel safe. I’ve done enough acting myself to know how hard it is when you’re standing in front of the camera about to put your soul out there on the line and the crew is just looking at you like, “What time is lunch?”
Filmmaker: I’ve always thought you were somewhat underrated as a director of actors, maybe because people don’t take horror seriously the way that they do something like Music of the Heart. That film showed a different side of you, and obviously you have varied interests, but you always seem to go back to horror. At what point did it become clear that horror was going to be the thing you would be known for, and the genre in which you would work almost exclusively?
Wes Craven: I was almost 34, and I was teaching, with the idea that I wanted to be a novelist or a short story writer. That was going just nowhere, and I had two kids right away. When I got out of graduate school I had seen maybe three films in the theater, because I came out of a religious background. I moved to a small town in upstate New York to teach humanities, and there was a little art theater in the town showing European films. It just knocked me off my chair, the imagination and everything…guys like Bergman and Fellini really appealed to me and the idea of filmmaking just somehow rang my bell. I quit my job and went to New York, where it took me two summers to get my foot in the door, and even then it was this fluke of looking up an older brother of one of my ex-students who was cutting industrials. He said, “I can’t give you a job, but if you want to stick around here I’ll tell you what I’m doing.” The older brother was Harry Chapin, just before he became a folk singer, and he taught me this cutting style that was very nuts and bolts.
While I was just sitting there soaking it all up, a $50 a week job for a messenger opened up and I said I would do it. They said, “Aren’t you a college professor?” and I said, “No, I’m your next messenger.” I always tell people not to worry about what their first job is, but about what door it will allow you to get inside. I started syncing up dailies and working on films, including one that Sean Cunningham was making. He had backers from a theatre group in Boston that wanted to pay beginning filmmakers to make second features for them, because they wanted to run double features but didn’t want to pay Hollywood prices for both films. They had the idea that they could make the second film themselves, so they told Sean they wanted something scary and he came to me and said to go write something scary.
That’s how Last House on the Left got done. I used the backbone of The Virgin Spring, which was one of the films that was so impressive to me when I was teaching. I loved the idea of a story that takes good people and bad people and then halfway through switches it around…we made it very outrageous, though not as outrageous as it was written. I wanted to make a scary film that felt really scary, and true, and because I didn’t know anything about directing I just staged it like real events. I didn’t know what a master shot was, or a close-up, or coverage. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was syncing up dailies, which is how I had begun to pay for the couch I was renting. By that time I was separated from my family and living hand to mouth. Anyway, the movie got made and caused a sensation. A very dark sensation – it got a very personal, extremely negative and disgusted reaction from just about everybody except for Roger Ebert. He gave it three-and-a-half stars and saw something in it that nobody else did. Everyone else was dismissive, and my friends barely talked to me after they saw the film. My social life among New York academic types disappeared.
Financially, though, it was like a dream. Sean and I made a lot of money – something like $100,000 over a two-year period, which at that time was astronomical. I would take the checks into the bank with my long hair and get very strange looks. So Sean and I lived off of that money and I wrote at least seven scripts – comedies, love stories, a story about a divorced father trying to pursue a relationship with his kids, a story about an American war hero that was court-martialed for reporting American atrocities in Vietnam…nobody wanted to know anything about any of it. But everybody said, “If you guys want to make another scary film we’ll give you the money.”
My friend Peter Locke had just moved to Vegas with his wife, a singer and dancer, and he said, “There are all sorts of deserts around here, I don’t think you have to pull permits or anything – write something for the desert.” So I wrote The Hills Have Eyes. Once you have done two of those “rock ’em, shock ’em” films, no normal person, even if he saw your potential as a director, would hire you for anything other than horror because it would be so hard to market you. But after Hills I did get into making television movies of the week, which allowed me to shoot in 35mm and got me into the guilds, and that sort of led to Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing. Then my career was nowhere, until – bang! – Nightmare on Elm Street comes out, and suddenly everybody is writing about it and you’re a hero in the community again.
Filmmaker: In 1994 you made Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which was not only a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street but a kind of a commentary on it and the effect it had on your life and the lives of its stars. In the 20 years since that movie it seems like both Nightmare and Freddy Krueger have become more entrenched in the culture than ever. Have your feelings about the film and the character changed at all since you did New Nightmare?
Wes Craven: I have been amazed by how it just goes on and on. I’ll be watching Jon Stewart, and suddenly he’s doing a bit on “Nightmare on Wall Street” with the artwork from the poster. The way it survives is pretty amazing, and it’s funny that Sean and I have remained friends all these years after he instinctively gave me my first chance to direct – and that he created one of the hugest franchises in history with Friday the 13th. It’s remarkable that starting in a little office on 45th Street, two guys ended up making two of the biggest horror films ever made. It’s funny, I had dinner last night with a bunch of people, and one couple was the parents of the chess genius Bobby Fischer. My wife asked the mother what it was like having her ten-year old son beating all the chess experts, and she said it was so out of the box that she felt like she had given birth to Jesus. Now, I don’t feel like I gave birth to Jesus, but I know what she’s saying in terms of how unbelievable it all is.
The depth of loyalty to the film is such a pleasure, and I still learn things about it. As you know, sometimes as the director you know what’s going on with your story and your camera and the performances but there’s a whole host of other things behind the scenes that you don’t have a clue about. Romances, fights, and everything else that goes on on a set that you’re unaware of because you’re so focused on the directing. When I saw Never Sleep Again [the four-hour documentary on the making of the Elm Street franchise], I heard so many stories and details about the shoot that I just didn’t know before. Recently I got a bunch of photographs from Jim Doyle, the mechanical special effects guy on Nightmare, and looked at some of the work he did. I had never seen the stuff – how he planned the revolving room and other things – so it was really fascinating. It’s been a fascinating year.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. He also hosts a monthly podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.