Fathering the Dream Child: Part One
Freddy Krueger may be the son of 100 maniacs, but Nightmare 5 is the offspring of five writers.
By: Philip Nutman
Published in Fanorgia #87.
One basic tenet of the film business states that movies aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Consequently, a screenplay is seldom the work of one pair of hands. Even if the credits list only one solitary name, the story will have inevitably passed through the typewriters of several other scribes.
The reason for this is a team endeavor, and second, developing a narrative from an initial idea to the final cut is an ongoing creative process dictated by such variables as budget, casting, scheduling and location availability. Directors always have input into scripts. So do producers. Sometimes a star has enough power to have a screen story reshaped to suit his wishes. And sometimes a project just requires a great deal of brainstorming from a range of writers to find as many spins as possible on the core material. This latter case is especially true of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
The number of writer credits on each Freddy film has grown considerably as the stories have come to rely more on the dream reality material and the Krueger FX set pieces. If two heads are better than one, wouldn’t seven heads be a safer bet? This appears to be the philosophy at New Line Cinema, Freddy’s producers. Compounding the issue are the increased frequency of the sequels’ release dates and the consequently condensed production periods.
“I think there’s an operating philosophy with the Nightmare movies of employing as many writers as possible,” opines novelist Craig Spector who, along with partner John Skipp, is one of five writers responsible for bringing Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child to the big screen. “Although New Line is very protective of Freddy and the whole Elm Street mythos, they clearly understand the need to get as much input as they can if the latest picture’s going to top the previous one.” Next to Skipp & Spector, the other individuals who worked on the new Krueger killing spree are Leslie (The Horror Show) Bohem, Bill Wisher and David J. Schow.
So five writers can claim fatherhood of Jacob Daniel Johnson, unborn son of heroine Alice (Lisa Wilcox)and focus of Freddy’s desire for revenge. But as this article was being researched, it was uncertain how the screen credits would announce this to the world. They may read story by Skipp & Spector, screenplay by Leslie Bohem. Then again, they might not.
“Since most of the New Line development executives work very closely with the writers on shaping the screenplay, some of them may feel entitled to story credit,” explains Bohem. “And it’s very likely [director] Stephen Hopkins may be credited, too. He had tremendous input into how The Dream Child evolved. I really don’t know how it’s going to turn out, nor do I know exactly how much of my material will be on screen.”
Whatever the outcome, Nightmare 5 went through at least six drafts and two polishes to reach the shooting script stage. As far as can be ascertained, the movie gestated along the following route: Two first drafts were written simultaneously—one by Skipp & Spector, the other by Les Bohem—during December 1988. When these were delivered in early January, New Line’s development executives opted to stick with Les Bohem as wordsmith and commissioned two further drafts from him. By the time the Californian writer completed his third version, Stephen Hopkins was in place as director. They then did a polish on the material before Bohem left the project in early March due to previous commitments.
Bohem’s replacement was Bill Wisher, whom Hopkins brought in to do a further draft. An old friend of James (Aliens) Cameron, Wisher contributed a number of scenes to The Terminator at Cameron’s request, and following that began clocking in considerable experience as a script doctor, which was his primary function on Nightmare 5. A further polish was completed immediately prior to commencement of principal photography in April, but Hopkins, producer Rupert Harvey and some of the New Line executives were still not satisfied, consequently requesting a full dialogue rewrite from David Schow. Although Schow’s rewrite was apparently applauded by the decision makers, at least 95 percent of his work was thrown out due to time constraints. Now nearly two weeks into shooting (Schow was refining dialogue as they filmed, having new pages dispatched to the set daily), Hopkins and Harvey had a composite of previous scripts minus the new, punchier dialogue, forcing them to use material from other drafts. So five months, five writers and several hundred pages later, Freddy finally went before cameras again.
But the story of Dream Child Jacob goes back before Skipp & Spector sat down to pen their first draft in December. “We were originally approached by Mike De Luca at New Line last July,” recalls Skipp. “It was a case of their seeking out potential writers and issuing verbal invitations. We said we were interested, but it didn’t go any further than that.”
“We’d met Mike De Luca a couple of years back via Mark Carducci, who was then working on a script of The Light at the End, which Mike liked a lot. He’s a cool guy, one of the few producers in the business who seems to actually read horror fiction and know who’s out there,” adds Craig Spector, referring to one early attempt at adapting their first novel. “Even then, Mike expressed an interest in working with us.”
Over the next few months, New Line contacted a number of established horror writers concerning treatments for Nightmare 5, including award-winning short fiction author Dennis Etchison, who had been developing scripts with John Carpenter. “I think Dennis did a treatment for them in September,” Skipp informs, “and they started calling us on a regular basis around the time he was already at work. By October, we had come up with several plot elements and would pitch them over the phone. New Line would call us back a couple of days later to request we continue developing the elements they liked. It was around the time of the second call that the subject of the baby came up.”
After Skipp & Spector made five pitches, New Line finally committed to commissioning them for a full treatment. “We had a big conference call with Mike, Sara Risher, Kevin Moreton and Rachel Talalay, who were the front line in developing the project,” details Spector. “That’s when our involvement was confirmed. Our basic pitch was to go back to Freddy’s origins, which was an idea everyone seemed happy with. Then New Line brought up the question of making Alice pregnant, which was interesting because John and I had already worked out an idea dealing with that but we were hesitant to suggest it. We had no idea how they felt about the subject. So when they suggested it, we assured them it could work within the context of what we wanted to do.”
The team began writing the first draft of Nightmare 5 on December 1, 1988 and delivered the script on January 7, 1989. The story’s dramatic core was Freddy’s childhood and the events that led to the creation of his murderous desires. “We wanted to deal with the whole mother complex and the fears that come with being an orphan,” notes Spector.
Prior to the screenwriting assignment, the two authors had extensively researched the subject of serial killers and their backgrounds, consulting many case studies and theses into possible causes. “We looked at the subject from all angles,” Skipp remembers. “Psychological, sociological, chemical, everything. One book in particular, Serial Killers by Joe Norris, was fascinating since it looks at the subject from a detailed scientific perspective.”
Another main narrative theme they wanted to explore was the origin of dreams and nightmares. To do so, they worked with the concepts of psychologist Carl Jung, from whom they developed the notion of the Dream Pool, which became the script’s original title. “It was logical to take Jung’s ideas as a cornerstone on which to build the dreams and nightmare material, because that stuff is basically symbolic,” reasons Spector. “The concept of the Dream Pool is a purely Jungian notion, this place in the collective unconscious where everybody’s dreams link up. The unconscious is the back door to the mind, and the back door can swing both ways. If Freddy can get into people’s dreams via that door, it would be possible for Alice to get into Freddy’s dreams via the same route, and therefore into his past. And the idea of making Alice pregnant linked the two a lot more than we first thought, because you are linking the dreams of an unborn child with its mother.”
The Skipp & Spector script started with Alice sleeping, sinking into the dream pool and finding herself in the asylum where she sees Amanda Krueger raped by 100 maniacs. This sequence survives in the finished film, though the specifics have changed. From that point on, the screenwriters hit their stride, setting the scene for the conflicts to come. “The first thing we did, once we came out we came out of the Dream Pool and Amanda’s rape, was to have a character draw a picture of the Elm Street house just before it’s bulldozed into the ground to make way for the Elm Street mall. Then we had everyone rush off to high school to graduate,” laughs Skipp.
Although the destruction of Freddy’s home is an idea long gone, much of the mayhem in the new movie has its origins in the Skipp & Spector draft. Careful analysis of the various drafts reveals how ideas were refined or transformed, and it is accurate to say at least 70 percent of the final film’s story is theirs in essence, if not in specific detail. The title, on the other hand, is definitely theirs. “For most of the writing, we called it The Dream Pool, ” relates Spector. “Then, during the last couple of days, we realized the emphasis had shifted. It seemed more accurate to call it The Dream Child.”
On delivery of their draft, Skipp & Spector’s active involvement with the film came to an end. “Our contract was for one draft, and two polishes if requested,” Spector explains. “New Line said, ‘Thanks. The good news is we’re interested in developing [Skipp & Spector’s novel] Deadlines with you, but the bad news is we’re going to work with another writer on Nightmare 5.’ We weren’t aware that Les had been working on a version of the script at the same time. Still, it made perfect sense for New Line to cover all the bases, if they were going to get the film into theaters by August.”
Bohem was similarly surprised to discover another script in the works while he was writing his. “I learned about Skipp & Spector’s version a week before Christmas,” the former musician explains. “New Line called me about the project in the last week of November, and I started the script during the first week in December. New Line had worked out a number of ideas but would only tell me the basics. Their line of thought was that if they told me too much about the specifics they had in mind, it would restrict my imagination. All they told me was Alice was going to be pregnant and involved with Dan, that they were going to graduate high school, that Freddy would try to take over the baby, and that Dan would be the first to die. There was no mention of another script.”
Bohem’s involvement with New Line actually goes back to Nightmare 2, when company head Robert Shaye considered the writer as the man who would bring Freddy back to life. “The idea of Freddy’s controlling an unborn child dates from then,” he reveals. “My concept was a homage to Rosemary’s Baby. I came up with a plot that had a new family move into the house, a teenage boy, his pregnant mother and a stepfather the boy didn’t get along with. It was a real bloody, scary idea, much more physical and realistic because the dream reality stuff was less central to these movies then. My story was more of a possession scenario with Freddy getting inside the mother’s womb, controlling the fetus. But New Line passed on it because [executive] Sara Risher was pregnant at the time, and I understand the idea upset her. So they went with David Chaskin’s concept instead.”
With only basic plot elements to guide him, Bohem’s attitude was to take everything he thought was weird, scary or horrible and work it all into the story. “I just went with it,” he says. “And after I’d worked 15 hours a day for nearly a week, I started to really scare myself.”
After turning in his draft, Bohem was given the Skipp & Spector version to read. “The next step was to take some of their ideas which New Line wanted, ideas Rupert Harvey felt were important and changes I wanted to make, and use these as the meat of the second draft. These were all changed again in the third. It was while I was finishing that version up that Steve Hopkins came on board.”
By this point, it was early March, and Bohem was committed to another project, which only allowed him the opportunity to do one polish with Hopkins. “We rearranged some material at the start of the story, then corrected other connected details later on in the script,” he notes. “I’d already made a number of big changes from draft to draft, primarily scene changes, where things happen and how they’re specifically set up within a scene, and also a lot of ‘meet the characters’ stuff. How we were introduced to the kids was always in a state of refinement.”
In fact, characterization appears to have been a problem throughout the film’s evolution, and was the reason cited for bringing in both Bill Wisher and David Schow. “I worked on the picture for six weeks, and my main reason for wanting to do so was a desire to collaborate with Steve Hopkins,” Wisher acknowledges. “We’d talked about working together for a year or so but hadn’t had the chance. Initially, I was hired to do a dialogue polish, but they were having problems connecting the characters in terms of how Freddy kills them, so I did a full draft to unify what was bothering the kids,” explains Wisher, who has just written Lone Wolf and Cub for producer Edward (Conan) Pressman. “That turned out to be parental pressures on them to achieve as adults. Greta [Erika Anderson], for example, is anorexic because her mother wants her to become a model, so she’s terrified of getting fat. We had Freddy feed her to herself; with anorexia, the body ends up eating itself. The film needed a psychological subtext to what’s happening, rather than just having Freddy kill them. That was all there in the drafts I read, but it hadn’t been fully developed.”
Wisher and Hopkins then focused on the specifics of the horror sequences in the final polish prior to shooting. “Basically, we were just refining everything, finding other details that would increase the visual potential, which is something Steve was very concerned with due to his background as a comic book illustrator,” Wisher adds. “But things changed so quickly, I can’t remember what was already there and what Steve and I came up with, so I’m not going to claim credit for any sequence that may turn out to be someone else’s work. I know that Greta’s death was already at a dinner table, so I can’t claim that’s mine. We did, however, develop it to the degree that everyone liked.”
In essence, all of the character deaths have their roots in the Skipp & Spector draft, and some are very close to those originally scripted. Dan’s midnight ride to hell, for example, is substantially the same and features a prototype Freddy cycle. Of the kills, Greta and Mark’s transformed the most, partially because the two teenagers are now very removed from the ones created by the horror authors. (The specifics of how these changes occurred will be detailed in the second part of this article, which will examine much of the material that didn’t make it to the screen.)
Although shooting was on the verge of commencing in April, the general belief was that the characters still needed development. David Schow had just delivered his first draft of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 to New Line and was immediately hired to inject further life into Freddy’s victims.
“What struck them about Leatherface was that in a movie about a looney with a power tool chasing people around, there were strong characters and meaty dialogue,” Schow, author of The Kill Riff, explains. “That was something sorely lacking in Nightmare 5, from what I was told, and when I read a couple of drafts I had to agree. New Line’s specific request was for me to punch up the four main characters, to define them through dialogue since there was no time to reconstruct scenes. It was clear there were structural problems with sequences that link the Freddy gags. The only way to fix them was to buttress the gags by boosting the dialogue.”
Ironically, it appears Schow did too good a job. The filmmakers were unable to use his material. “When the executives got hold of the rewrite, they thought it was wonderful. Someone—I forgot who—said to me, ‘I wish we could recast the movie according to this dialogue. From what I understand, some of the performers auditioned well but left much to be desired once it came to shooting. Some of my dialogue turned out too stylized for them to deal with. The time factor was so tight, the schedule so demanding, that they had to go with what they had. Of course, that’s frustrating from my perspective, but it probably won’t bother the fans.”
According to Bill Wisher, who returned to the project during postproduction, Nightmare 5 was still plagued with dialogue difficulties. “Stephen called me two or three weeks after filming ended,” Wisher explains. “He asked if I could script some ADR dialogue for the actors to loop during dubbing. That’s a common occurrence, so I don’t feel it was a big problem. Conceptually and visually, I think it’s the best Nightmare movie to date, for two reasons: The quality of the writing was much better than on most horror pictures, and Stephen is a very imaginative director.”
…continue on to Part Two: The Unseen Freddy.