Wes Craven and a Nightmare of Sequels
By Brian J. Robb
Excerpt from Screams & Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven.
Wes Craven was convinced the film A Nightmare on Elm Street should end as in the script, with the defeat of Freddy by Nancy. Nothing more was needed: “I felt the first film was complete in itself. If they wanted a sequel they could always invent a way for things to go on. In my version, the film ended with Nancy turning her back on Freddy and telling him he was nothing. It showed that evil can be confronted and diminished, in the sense that Nancy had become as tough as Freddy and was able to turn away from him. Once you’ve confronted the evil, the next step is to turn away from it. The ending was very carefully thought through and had nothing to do with a world view of my own. I don’t like horror films that end with general massacres, a survivor crawling out at the end and the bad guy jumping on him for the last scare. They say villains will win out and the most brutally powerful survive. In my work I’m continually fighting that.” The ending was to become a bone of contention between the director and the producers, resulting in a falling out which lasted the best part of a decade. Craven says he fought for proposed ending to be retained, but was up against concerns about long term returns and franchise possibilities. “Bob Shaye was the only person willing to back the film and raise the money,” admits Craven. “He was saying to me, ‘This is a partnership. Give me this one thing, a hook to hang a sequel on. That and some jump at the end.’ I felt I owed him that because he’d seen the value of the film. Sometimes you make a compromise and years later you say you were sorry you did it. On the other hand, there might not have been any A Nightmare on Elm Street at all if I hadn’t done that.”
Craven was driven to compromise, but not all the way. Shaye had wanted Freddy to be driving the car at the end of the film, but Craven refused: “The end of my compromise was that I would not have Freddy sitting in the front seat. I would not have him driving that car.” To Craven, the idea would signify a victory of evil. The idea was used later in the opening sequence of the first sequel, in which Freddy drives a school bus.
On a budget of $4 million, the first Nightmare film went on to make over $14 million at the box office. Inevitably, a sequel would follow.
Despite his reluctance to be involved, Wes Craven found it almost impossible to escape Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street films. In order to solve his pressing financial problems, Craven had entered into a deal with New Line Cinema which meant the creator of the characters sold his ownership of the rights to any sequels, “By the time I made A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was virtually broke they bought it outright and owned the whole thing.”
Although under no obligation to do so, Robert Shaye at New Line had tried to tempt Craven back to direct the second film in what looked like becoming an on-going series, but he turned down the offer: “I told them that if they came up with a script that I found intriguing, I would consider it, but the script for Nightmare 2 had certain problems, and I felt it was not in my best interests to direct. They didn’t intend to change the script at all. It brought Freddy out into the waking world a great deal, and scenes like the pool scene where he’s running around amok—he’s not really that big a guy and they were putting him in scenes with these six foot tall kids. I said, he’s going to be diminished, he’s going to be ridiculous.”
Craven felt that some of the story elements and concepts in the proposed sequel script did not hold true to his original creation: “I had a real confusion with Freddy coming out of the central character. I had some structural problems with it. There were things in there that were just patently ridiculous, like the scene where the parrot attacks. What does that mean? To me, it had no philosophical thread which I could follow, so I just bowed out.”
With Craven sidelined, it fell to others to perpetuate Freddy’s reign of terror. The script he’d been so scathing about had been drafted by David Chaskin, a New York native who had begun working at New Line in 1978. Craven’s comments on the script did prove valuable to Chaskin, but the writer didn’t implement them all. “Wes made some suggestions,’ remembered Chaskin, ‘some of which we used and some of which we didn’t, mainly location changes. I had the finale in a more opened space and he wanted it in a more closed, confined area. He also suggested that we shift the focus from Jesse, the male lead. In the script the focus was on him ninety percent of the time, then suddenly shifted to Lisa, his girlfriend.”
Taking over for Craven as director was Jack Sholder, who previously made the thriller Alone in the Dark for New Line. He’d been directing since 1964, with a series of award-winning shorts and a host of TV work to his name. “Our picture is lighter.” Sholder explained to Fangoria. “Wes is a very serious guy and his film was very dark, very oppressive, very serious and fairly unrelenting. There isn’t much intentional humor in it. We, on the other hand, leavened ours with humor. It got filtered out through the writer David Chaskin and Bob Shaye’s sensibilities. The pair of them developed the script on their own without Wes, and then I added my own two cents’ worth.”
With a meager budget of $3 million, Freddy’s Revenge grossed over $30 million, ensuring that New Line quickly thought of ways to prolong the Freddy franchise.
It seems likely that Robert Shaye realized Freddy’s Revenge had been a misjudgement, albeit a commercially successful one. Keen as ever to build a series on the back of Freddy’s character, and with signs that he was becoming a cult figure despite the poor reception of the second film among hardcore horror fans, Shaye was determined to revive Freddy one more time. Despite the problems on the original and his refusal to take on the sequel, Wes Craven was the person Shaye and co-producer Sara Risher approached to help get the series back on track. “I always go to Wes first each time,” admitted Risher.
No one was more surprised at the approach from New Line than Craven himself: “They came back to me for number three and asked me if I wanted to direct. I was just completing Deadly Friend, so I wasn’t available, but I mentioned an idea they liked, so I wrote the script.”
Craven wasn’t coming back aboard the Nightmare train just for the hell of it—he had other aims at mind: “I wanted to do Nightmare 3 because I felt compelled to come back and expand the original concept. I like taking that one more step and it was important for me in a business sense that I was able to negotiate a percentage point in the sequels I didn’t have from the original film.” Craven’s concept was the creation of the Dream Warriors, a group of variously skilled teens who found that together they had the power to take on Freddy in the dream world. Craven co-wrote the screenplay with Bruce Wagner. “We decided that it could no longer be one person fighting Freddy. It had to be a group, because the souls of Freddy’s victims have made Freddy stronger,” explains Craven. “I took a executive producing credit,” says Craven of his involvement in the film. “My understanding was that I would be asked about things all along. I would be brought in to casting and have a real creative part in the picture. The reality was that New Line Cinema never really contacted me again after they had the script. They changed it quite drastically in some ways. The director and a friend of his rewrote it and changed the names of all the characters, and included several key scenes of their own. A lot of the reasons I had agreed to do the picture were taken away.”
Not surprisingly, Shaye and Risher had their own view of the development of the script. “They thought they had it nailed,” claimed Shaye of Craven and Wagner’s final draft screenplay. “We thought it needed more work. There was never any acrimony as far as I know. I think the tremendous success of the film speaks for itself.” As Risher explained to Cinefantastique magazine, “Chuck Russell made the script work. I give Wes the complete credit for the terrific idea of these kids, the Dream Warriors; I’m not faulting that. But Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont turned the script around. We wouldn’t have made it with what we had. They rewrote seventy percent of it.”
To Craven, New Line’s motivations were straightforward: “They were only interested in having my name on another Nightmare film.” Craven was now faced with an uncomfortable situation. New Line hired Chuck Russell to direct—the man who scripted Dreamscape, the film which Craven has always felt was a thinly disguised work of his then-unproduced A Nightmare on Elm Street script. The matter ended up in arbitration at the Writer’s Guild, and all four writers were credited on screen. “I had this idea that New Line and I could patch up old differences with this film,” said Craven at the time. “They didn’t inform me when they had rewritten the script, and it wasn’t until I made a stink that I got to see the final version. I was not even informed when filming was supposed to start.”
Having cost $4 million to make, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors took over $45 million at the American box office alone.
For all the disappointment and aggravation involved, Craven still had too much personal investment in the Nightmare franchise to want to see the series fail. “I would definitely like to see a fourth one,” he told horror film magazine Fangoria after Dream Warriors. “I feel overall that Nightmare 3 does a good job of expanding the boundaries of Freddy and the dream world. It opens things up to be explored in future films, as long as the quality is good.”
New Line plunged straight into production on a fourth Nightmare film, and, in time honored tradition, Shaye and Risher approached Craven yet again, despite the frosty relations between them. “Initially, I approached Wes about a fourth film,” Risher told Cinefantastique. “His idea was illogical. It was about time travel within dreams that broke all the rules of dreams. We decided not to go with that.” Robert Shaye felt that New Line had given Craven a fair chance to pitch his preferred development of the Nightmare universe: “He, Sara and I had a conference call together. I told him I thought it was kind of interesting and that I would get back to him. After a lot of discussion, it was decided that the idea didn’t really have the impact we were looking for. Ultimately, we felt it wasn’t workable. We had to make a producer’s decision about whether we wanted to go ahead with his idea, and we decided not to.”
The producers decided to work on a script written by William Kotzwinkle entitled “The Dream Master”. Risher confirmed that she then approached Craven again: “I told Wes we decided to go with the Dream Master idea. When the script we had didn’t work, I went to Wes and Bruce Wagner to see about rewriting it and directing it.” Craven feared a repeat of the Dream Warriors experience and as it happened, he was already busy working on reshoots for his Universal film: The Serpent And The Rainbow. Craven says, “The script I saw was written by William Kotzwinkle. He’s obviously a gifted writer, but when they had problems with the script they came to me and my partner Bruce Wagner to rewrite it. Bruce and I thought if we were going to be approached, we should be approached as artists of the original material. So, New Line went off to do some more work with the script they had. They never contacted us again. That’s their way. I was not really interested in participating any more.”
Having cost $6 million to make, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master took over $50 million at the American box office.
An unexpected fan of the fourth film turned out to be Wes Craven, at least according to Nightmare 4 director Renny Harlin: “Wes loved it. It was important to base the film in images the audience loved and would remember from the first film. Wes came to the first screening and sent me a letter saying how much he liked it. I thought that was a nice compliment.”
With Wes Craven attempting to develop another horror franchise based around Shocker’s Horace Pinker, there was little point in New Line approaching him about a new Nightmare movie. Craven’s concepts for Dream Warriors had sustained the series through two installments and looked likely to provide the basis for the fifth. New Line commissioned two sets of writers to work on a script. John Skipp and Craig Spector were set to work, finishing two drafts of the screenplay. Leslie Bohem finished a third & fourth draft before leaving the production team in March 1989 and Bill Wisher was brought in to revise the existing screenplay. Finally, horror novelist David J. Schow took a crack at combining key elements from all the previous drafts to produce a working script. Under the directing helm of director Stephan Hopkins, Nightmare 5 grossed more than $22 million at the American box office.
For New Line executive Michael De Luca, Freddy Krueger was coming to the end of his useful life. “We became realistic about the limitations of the genre,” he told Cinefantastique. “I always thought sequels were cheesy to begin with. You have an original idea that works, then you spend the next ten years ripping it off. What I’ve always liked about the Elm Street movies is that, even when they’re incoherent, they’re ambitious.” Two years after the fifth movie, New Line decided that Freddy’s Dead would be Freddy’s swan song. The production was handled by Elm Street veterans, with executive De Luca working on the script and Rachael Talalay filling the director’s role. A twist ending in which the Dream Demons who had tormented Freddy Krueger settled on a new child was dropped at the last minute in an effort to convince critics and audiences alike that this was really the end. The film worked and audiences flocked to see Freddy do his stuff one last time. Costing $5 million to make, Freddy’s Dead grossed almost $35 million in America alone in 1991.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare had been no ordinary project and it started in a most extraordinary and unexpected way. “It began with Bob Shaye asking me to come into New Line because he had heard that I had some problems with the way the business side of A Nightmare on Elm Street had gone over the last ten years and that had been instrumental in me not wanting to participate, not just creatively but business-wise, with New Line,” says Craven of the meeting late in 1992 that sparked off the New Nightmare. “There followed a good hour’s very frank discussion between him and me and I’ll just leave it at that.”
These detailed discussions resulted in the business side of the Freddy Krueger empire being resolved once and for all, to Craven’s evident satisfaction: “Shaye listened carefully and in the subsequent month made good on all the things I felt had been left unattended, so that was the first half of why I came back to work for New Line. There were significant payments and the beginning of a very uniform and predictable accounting of profits and so forth. Then he asked me if I’d be interested in bringing Freddy back again, one more time. I always felt that under wonderful circumstances I’d love to get my hands on the franchise one more time. When I realized it would be the tenth anniversary and the seventh film, it was attractive to come back from a position of strength and do it. So, we agreed, that’s Bob Shaye, Sara Risher, Mike De Luca, the creative heads at New Line and myself and my producer Marianne Maddalena, that unless we could bring Freddy back in a way that wasn’t farcical, like saying it was all a dream and Freddy isn’t really dead, we wouldn’t do it. If we couldn’t do it in some way that was justified, then we wouldn’t do it at all.”
Central to his concept was securing Heather Langenkamp to the Elm Street fold for the third time: “I decided if I were to do it, I would want Heather to star in it. I felt that she epitomised the spirit of A Nightmare on Elm Street. I called her and we hadn’t seen each other for some years, so we had lunch and discussed how our lives had gone, we talked about New Line Cinema and everything else. There were a few incidents, especially one that had come out of Heather having made the first film and having gone on and done a television series,” says Craven of his star’s real life fears. “The attendant of fame had caused her some real difficulties and frightening moments. So, I left that meeting thinking I would love to with Heather again. I realized that things that happened in real life are just as dramatic as things that happened in fiction.”
As before, the final ingredient that allowed Craven’s ideas to fall into place came from a dream, a trusted source of creative inspiration: “I had a dream, as happens quite often in my work. The dream was that Freddy and a whole bunch of us from New Line were at a cocktail party. Robert Englund was there in costume, acting like the burlesque Freddy that I felt he had become, and I felt in the dream that in the background was a shadowy figure that was moving parallel to Robert—his own darker shadow, completely apart from that party and it felt very frightening. I awoke with that and was trying to puzzle out what this dream might mean, when it occurred to me that when I wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street I was trying to account for something in human nature, in the human race, that had been here since day one and went all the way back to Cain and Abel, one half of humanity rising up to club the other, running right up to events in the world today.”
“If there were a series that had begun around this character and that series was to stop production, that wouldn’t mean that this eternal evil being or entity would be stopped, it would simply be out there without a name. At the same time, there was this whole view of horror films, questions about whether horror films harmed children. My conclusion was that, as I never felt these things were harmful, the good that they do and the reason they are so popular is that they somehow give shape and form and name to this unknowable, very frightening and very destructive thing. They somehow contain it, to the extent that they make it a bit more bearable. So, Freddy, by being in the series of movies, captures a bit of the evil and makes it knowable to us.”
“The simple way to put this is, what if New Line stopped making the Nightmare series and unintentionally released the spirit of Freddy to go where he will, and he decided to cross over into our reality. His only limitation is that he must pass through the actress who played the character who first defeated him. I proposed that to New Line and they went for it surprisingly quickly, so I wrote and directed New Nightmare.” Craven at various times subtitled a Nightmare On Elm Street 7 with The Real Story or The Ascension. “New Line were rather shy of using a number,” claims Craven, “because they think if you have a high number on a sequel everybody goes, “Oh, it’s the seventh, why go see it?” Putting Craven’s name in the title was thought to give the new movie a connection to the series source material, making it clear that this was a Freddy feature from his original creator, yet offering something ‘new’ in the Nightmare mix.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare scraped past the $18 million mark in the USA, making it the lowest grossing of the Nightmare films. Surprisingly, the film was a smash for Home Video sales and rentals.
“I think it’s (New Nightmare) my final word, but I hear New Line is talking about bringing Jason (from the Friday the 13th Series) in with Freddy, and I’ve been around New Line enough to know that they’re actively pursuing it. I was approached by New Line for the project, and later had dinner with (Friday the 13th creator) Sean Cunningham and we couldn’t come up with a scenario that wouldn’t be laughable.” The project continued with a script written by Damian Shannon & Mark J. Swift and director Ronny Yu.
Craven continued on with the acclaimed Scream trilogy and other various projects. Craven seems destined to continue going his own way: “I always think that I’ll never work again. And I’ve gone broke several times in my career and lost everything. The biggest motivation, I guess, is that I would never want to go back to really working for a living. I’m having too much fun.”