Since he debuted with The Last House on the Left in 1972, writer / director / producer Wes Craven has developed into an undeniable icon of the horror film genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its razor-gloved villain, Freddy Krueger, truly redefined what the slasher flick could be. In between the Elm Street franchise and his current juggernaut, the Scream franchise, Craven has dotted the horror landscape with such gems as The Serpent and the Rainbow and The People Under the Stairs.
Scream 4, his latest directorial effort, hits Blu-Ray and DVD next week. While promoting the release, the horror master recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with our writer Gabriel O’Friday about his films, his career and more.
Gabriel O’Friday: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Wes. I really appreciate it.
Wes Craven: You’re welcome. Happy to do it.
GO: With the upcoming release of Scream 4 on Blu-Ray and DVD, you have really come a long way with the franchise. When you first began work on the original Scream film, did you ever envision it becoming what it is today, in the same way that A Nightmare on Elm Street took off?
WC: At first and even about halfway through Scream, I just thought it was a one-off. Typically when making a film, you just have your head down, and you are working away, and you don’t really think about sequels. You are just so focused on getting the first one right, that you really can’t afford to be thinking about anything beyond that initial goal. Then as we neared completion of the film, and then after we saw the finished product, we were really blown away. It wasn’t until most of the hard work was behind us that we realized we could have something on our hands here.
GO: When I was younger, I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks for fear of Freddy Krueger coming after me in my dreams. That element really sets Freddy apart from the other slasher flick villains. How did you develop that concept of the nightmare stalking character?
WC: Well, it all goes back to a story I read in the newspaper years ago about this kid who was frightened about going to sleep, because he thought something bad was going to happen if he did. And apparently he kept himself awake for a few days, and then finally he fell asleep, and sure enough he died. The story shook me, and that story planted the seed in my mind for what would become the character of Freddy Krueger.
GO: Many of your films, including one of my favorites, New Nightmare, deal with life imitating art. In the case of Scream, the idea of horror movie “rules” and the concept of films within the film adds much more depth than the typical slasher movie. Do you usually set out to add some sort of philosophical or social commentary to your work, to give it an edge over other films of the genre?
WC: Well, the way that story line developed in terms of New Nightmare was basically the studio wanted another film after The Final Nightmare, but we couldn’t really figure out what to do. There was really no coherent story. Then I got to talking to Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp, and I realized how these films had really shaped all of our lives off of the set. That with the fact that the film industry was fighting censorship issues at the time, and the idea for that film just blossomed out of that. As far as the concept of touching on social issues in my films, I find an effective method for horror is to take very real things and to take real fears and to put a face on them in the form of the movie villains.
GO: Also in New Nightmare, playing yourself, you put forth the concept that the only way to destroy Freddy is by capturing his essence in a work of art, in other words, by making another movie about him. This strikes me as particularly interesting, because as a writer, I feel a connection to the concept of finding catharsis through placing personal demons and fears onto the printed page. Does this idea tap into your own creative process?
WC: Well, you have to put yourself in very dark place to write this sort of thing. I mean, it’s really trying to find the darkest stuff you can come up with and, as in the Scream films, having to put yourself in the place of a killer to really make it effective. And in order to do that, yes, I think you have to use your own fears in order to make it as real and as terrifying as possible.
GO: Several of your films, such as Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, have been remade in recent years. You produced Last House and The Hills Have Eyes remakes, so you were obviously on board with those projects. But how do you generally feel after the first viewing of films in which others have taken your work and put their own creative spin on it?
WC: With Last House and Hills, I think the filmmakers really did a great job, and I was very proud of what was accomplished on those. But then there is a secondary feeling in which you are concerned about the original films getting buried and losing their uniqueness.
GO: So would you say you are worried about people associating those titles with the remakes instead of the original films?
WC: Sure, that’s one possible fear, but more I think you are worried about losing the uniqueness of something that up until that point was solely associated with your work. Of course, we had much different budgets, so there will be those who compare them in that light, but I think they stand up pretty well next to each other.
GO: Ingmar Bergman seems to be an influence on your career, as Last House on the Left was based on his film, The Virgin Spring. And there are aspects of New Nightmare that are reminiscent of the identity crises faced by the lead characters in Bergman’s Persona. Specifically I mean the scene in which Langenkamp and Saxon begin to lose track of where their characters end and their actual selves begin. First of all, am I on the right track with the weight of his influence on your work, and what other filmmakers have influenced you?
WC: Yes, certainly Bergman and a lot of the European filmmakers of the 50’s were enormous influences on my career. Of course, I was forbidden by my church to see films growing up, so when I discovered Bunuel, Truffaut and Fellini among others, I was inspired to drop everything and go into film. Polanski is another director whose films had a profound effect on me early on.
GO: Just off the top of your head, what are a few of your favorite films of all time?
WC: Getting back to Polanski, Repulsion and The Tenant were two films that had a big impact on me when I first saw them. The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are some of the really gritty horror films that impacted me. Of course before I got to know some of the guys who made these films, I thought they must be really screwed up for making movies like this. Now I suppose that’s what people think about me.
GO: Speaking of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that is a film with a lead character who is female. You cast females in empowering lead roles in films like A Nightmare on Elm Street. Would you say that was a conscious decision on your part, in which you decided beforehand, or do things just sort of work themselves out that way during the creative process?
WC: There’s a story to that. When I made Swamp Thing, my daughter was watching it with me, and I had a scene where a female character was running away, and as in all such situations in horror movies, she stumbled and fell. My daughter turned to me and said, “Dad, girls don’t always fall down.” This made me realize I had fallen into the old horror cliché of the girl running from the villain and tripping on a rock or some other debris. I didn’t really care for that, so it got me thinking about taking it in the other direction and creating some strong female characters. I certainly did that with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then of course we got to revisit that again in the Scream films with Neve Campbell and some of the other female characters.
GO: I like that. “Girls don’t always fall down.” You should have a female character declare that in one of your films.
WC: That’s right. Sometimes the girls are the strong ones, and it’s the guys who need the girls to help them up.
GO: Wes, thanks again for your time. It’s been great talking to you today.
WC: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.