Wes Craven’s Psycho Analysis
Creating a “New Nightmare” involved a self-exploration of the director’s fears and his place in the genre.
By: Marc Shapiro
Published in Fanorgia #138.
Strange things tend to happen on Wes Craven films. The sick list, psychologically speaking, on The Serpent and the Rainbow could have filled every bed in Bellevue. And, depending on who you talk to, crewing on The Hills Have Eyes or Last House on the Left had its twists and turns. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the production of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was rife with tension, frayed nerves, the expected bad dreams and unexpected earthquakes and flu outbreaks.
Most people would duck the label of making films that leave cast and crew mentally black and blue, but Craven considers it a badge of honor. “People do tend to get spooked on my movies,” he laughs. “And the way I look at it, that’s a good sign.”
One positive for the 53-year-old Craven, speaking two weeks removed from the completion of principal photography, is that everyone connected with the director’s latest chiller survived the shoot relatively intact (unless you count a few houses lost to the quake). And while Craven’s demeanor on the set tended toward the somber and self-absorbed, his mood in the midst of post-production is, by contrast, much lighter. He laughs easily and often, displaying a dark streak of tongue-in-cheek humor—especially when confronted with such deep questions as what Freud would have made of his works.
“I never thought of myself as a Freud kind of head,” jokes Craven. “I always thought Jung would have been more approving of me than Sigmund Freud.”
Part of Craven’s positive state of mind in the midst of a nightmarish race to an October release date is the fact that he was not dragged kicking and screaming back to Elm Street. “I’ve always had a yearning to come back to Freddy,” he says. “I’ve always liked the character and the premise that was set up in the first film. I just needed a situation where I could be satisfied both artistically and in a business sense. It’s been very interesting to revisit the primal territory of a good idea and watch it come to life in a way I didn’t expect.”
What Craven didn’t expect of New Nightmare at first was the documentary approach to Freddy’s world that ultimately evolved, encompassing a real-life threat to star Heather Langenkamp and the presence, playing themselves, of Robert Englund, John Saxon and, in a couple of sequences, Craven himself. As the process of making the unusual sequel unfolded, the writer/director marveled at what his latest attempt at genre filmmaking had wrought.
“I was fascinated with the notion of an Elm Street film done as a documentary in both look and concept,” he says. “Everybody came back to play themselves because this film is pretty much about all our lives and our reactions to what was happening in Heather’s life. It basically turned into a story of what would occur if Freddy were to suddenly make his way into our real-life world, so it was pretty frightening.”
And, in Craven’s hands, the experience was all the scarier because it was begun without a finished screenplay in hand. “I wrote the script based on a series of dreams as we went along,” he says. “Scripting this was sort of like catching the story on the wing. It was a very strange and spooky way to do a film, but that’s how it was happening and so we decided to go with it. We felt like we were right there on the edge, doing what we were feeling rather than following any hard and fast plan. It brought a very unusual sense to the filmmaking process.”
The New Nightmare story, which was inspired by a stalking incident that Langenkamp endured following the cancellation of her television series Just the Ten of Us, necessitated numerous conversations between the actress and director. Craven recalls that those talks had their rough moments as Langenkamp was forced to confront a few real fears. Likewise, these talks pushed Craven to explore inward and face some truths about himself and his life in the genre.
“Making this movie forced me to address my experiences as a horror filmmaker and as a parent,” he confesses. “I was gone a lot and wasn’t always there for my kids. There was always the question I faced as to why I make these kinds of films and how I felt about their effects on children. Dealing with my own fears and concerns as well as the fears of others made this one of the most realistic things I’ve ever done.”
And it wasn’t just the effects on others that Craven sought to explore with New Nightmare. “Horror has affected me deeply, and it hasn’t always been in a positive way,” he says. “In certain circles, I’ve become a pariah for making this kind of film. I’ve had a lot of suspicion and resentment directed at me because I choose to deal with horror and for having come back to it more than once. I’ve found that horror can be a lonely watch, and this film addresses some of that loneliness.”
As a result, the line between reality and cinema often becomes blurred as New Nightmare progresses. “There are definite similarities between this film and the real world and, with some of the things we’ve shot, it’s been harder than hell to tell the difference. And when you get right down to it, there really is no difference, because everything in New Nightmare is real.”
As part of this approach, Craven proudly points out that most of the expected Nightmare staples are either gone or greatly muted. “The stereotypical Elm Street teens are not here, and Freddy’s one-liners have been pretty much eliminated,” he says. “But, what ultimately seems to be the hallmark of this film is the balance of tension, suspense and a very touching sense of tenderness. For a Nightmare film, there’s a lot of heart, especially in the scenes with Heather and her son [Miko Hughes]. It’s an interesting mix; there’s the love and affection and, at the same time, an underlying tension because you’re never really sure whether these two people will survive.”
Craven himself will soon be faced with a challenging, if not necessarily life-threatening, situation; his next directorial outing will likely see him switching gears to direct Eddie Murphy in the horror/comedy Vampire in Brooklyn. Though he was aware in advance that Murphy had a reputation of being difficult, Craven remains cautiously optimistic about this post-New Nightmare challenge.
“I’ve heard the negative sentiment about Eddie, but I’ve got to say that all my meetings with him so far have been positive and he’s been real enthusiastic about our working together,” he says. “He’s a real fan of Serpent and the Rainbow and, at our first meeting, he started going into all the characters and voices. I recently visited Eddie on the set of Beverly Hills Cop III, and John Landis wasn’t standing behind Eddie, waving me off. I’m sure if things turn ugly with Eddie they could get very nasty, but I figure if he’s getting along with John these days, I shouldn’t have too much to worry about,” he laughs.
In the last year, Craven has been rumored to be attached to a number of horror projects, some of them sequels to his own work. The director, setting the record straight, indicates that plans to follow up People Under the Stairs and Shocker are definitely dead. He was briefly in the running to helm the film version of Peter Benchley’s giant-squid chiller Beast, but was glad, in a way, that he lost the bid.
“I had mixed feelings about Beast,” he says. “I saw it as basically Jaws with tentacles. I’m also very much into animals and I think they’ve gotten a bum rap. So I wasn’t really thrilled with the idea of doing another movie about animals being out to get us, and that we should knock them off.”
Craven is, however, looking forward to playing godfather to his son Jonathan’s producing and writing chores on the long-anticipated The Outpost. Originally intended as a third Hills Have Eyes film but now an unrelated story to be helmed by Joe Gayton, the film might find Craven stepping before the cameras once more, following acting turns in New Nightmare as well as John Carpenter’s Body Bags and the upcoming deadly-dummy thriller The Fear.
“If I ever lose the ability to get a movie mounted, I may start doing character roles,” laughs Craven. “I enjoy acting. Whenever I’m on a set, trying to get an actor to do what I want, I’m finding myself saying, ‘Well, I could do that.’ Acting has become a challenge and a lot of fun.”
At the very least, he might not have to worry about making the rounds of auditions; both Carpenter and the makers of The Fear came to him. “After I did my role in New Nightmare, I got a call from The Fear’s producer, Greg Sims,” says Craven. “He said, ‘I understand you’re doing some acting and I’d love to have you do something in this film.’ I said, ‘Sure what the hell,’ drove up to Lake Arrowhead and did one day’s work as an actor. I play a sympathetic psychology professor who sends the lead on his quest at the beginning and then turns up at the end.”
Another positive experience for Craven has been putting to bed his long-simmering feud with New Line Cinema, a conflict that seems to have been around as long as there have been Nightmare films. “I’ve pretty much let all that go,” he explains. “There was nothing to be gained from beating a dead horse. I really wasn’t holding any grudges. [New Line chairman] Bob Shaye just called me in one day and said he had heard through the grapevine that there were certain things I was not happy with. I had co-written the script for Nightmare 3 and had put a lot of myself into it, but it was ultimately not made to my satisfaction. But over the years, it wasn’t like it had never been possible for me to do another Elm Street movie before now. It’s just that I was onto other films, and they were making the sequels on budgets that I wasn’t comfortable working with. But it was to Shaye’s credit that he listened to all of my complaints and made good on many things.”
Craven takes some time to reflect on the Nightmare follow-ups and, with no small amount of candor, states that there has been much about the sequels that he is less than happy with. “I would have hoped that the Elm Street films would have been treated with absolute respect along the way,” he says. “That’s not a snipe against New Line, but I would have liked to have seen somebody sit down each time they set out to make one of the sequels and really get into the philosophy and the heart behind it.
“My first film was about some very serious and important subjects. I felt that with 2, they immediately threw all of the important issues out the window and made it a series of strange, freaky events and the same old raunchy teenagers. I tried to wrestle it back with 3, and then the series tended to wander, depending on the talent of the directors and the commitment of the writers. Sometimes I had the feeling that they just went with somebody who could knock out a script rather than somebody who had a true vision.”
Given his dedication to the purity of his original concept, it might have made a world of difference if Craven had been involved with all of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. The director smiles at the notion, finding ironic humor in the scenario. “I’d be a very wealthy man right now if I had done them all,” he laughs. “But I really don’t know if I could have done it. In my mind, the first one was a completion unto itself. I really had to rack my brain on 3. My guess is that I could have made two more and they probably would have been very much like 3 and this new one in terms of story and tone.”
One sequel Craven may yet become involved with is the long-rumored Freddy-vs.-Jason film, a project whose inevitability seemed confirmed by the guest appearance of Freddy’s glove at the end of last year’s Jason Goes to Hell. “You’d have to have the perfect idea to make that work,” Craven says. “It was brought up in a conversation I had at New Line, so I know they are planning it. But from what I’ve heard, as of a couple of months ago, they haven’t had an idea presented to them that they feel would work.”
He does confirm, however, that Jason creator Sean Cunningham is interested in the project. “Sean and I had dinner about a month ago, and that crossed our conversation,” he reveals. “He presented a story idea to me that I didn’t respond to very strongly. It needs to be done right; otherwise it’ll become like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Sean’s idea wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, but I just didn’t get it.”
Looking back to past accomplishments, Craven says he was quite happy with his short-lived foray into television horror, Nightmare Café. “The stories were good, and the premise was interesting,” he offers. “What ultimately sunk us was the late time slot and the unwillingness of the network to give us a longer look at a different time. But, it was wonderful working with Robert Englund again.”
As it was on New Nightmare. “Working with Robert on that has been a little different than in previous projects,” he says. “He’s much more sober, which may have a lot to do with the nature of the script. He’s also been quite protective of Heather on this film. He realizes that she’s going through quite a bit in dealing with this very real story, and he’s made it a point to be there for her.
“Heather herself has been a very pleasant surprise,” he continues. “She had been out of the acting loop for a long time and had not been involved with the Nightmare films since 3. There was some concern on her part as to whether she could act out the fears involved in this movie. She’s done more with this role than I could ever have hoped for.”
Craven has no definite genre plans beyond Vampire in Brooklyn, but he feels that whatever he does will have philosophical elements in common with his adventures on Elm Street. “I’ve always been big on making a progression in terms of accepted subject matter in the films I’ve done,” he says. “With the Nightmare films, it was the relationship between ourselves and our parents, and our outer and inner selves. With whatever I finally do, the goal will be pretty much the same, which is to take things to the next level.”