As you all know, Wes Craven is out in Michigan shooting Scream IV, the latest installment in the slasher franchise arriving in theaters April 15. Bloody Disgusting music contributor Jonathan Barkan (and a few of his classmates) was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with the horror icon, where they talked about all sorts of things ranging from his style of horror vs modern horror to his 3-D conversion of My Soul t Take. Read on for the intimate interview.
This past summer semester, I took a course at the University of Michigan entitled, “The History of Horror After Psycho”, taught by Professor Mark Kligerman. The class was truly an intimate experience, with there being only 15 or so students. Apart from being an amazing class where we got to watch gorgeous prints of classic films, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Alien, and other “must-see” movies, we discussed the impact of social, gender and political occurrences on the horror films of the time. How the so-called “living room wars” during Vietnam affected 60’s and 70’s horror, the rise in Canadian horror (especially in reference to Cronenberg), the role of women in horror, both as victim and as the “final girl”. This was by no means an easy course, but it definitely affected my view of horror films and will constantly force me to challenge what I see and look beyond the first few layers of veneer to find the gritty underbelly.
Although the semester was over, on Saturday, August 21st, we got the opportunity to watch a beautiful 35mm copy of Scream whereupon afterwards, Wes Craven came in for a casual Q & A. The focus of these questions was not to find out about ‘Scream 4’ or ‘My Soul To Take’, but rather to hear the thoughts of the legendary director on how horror has changed over the years and how he approaches his films. Check after the jump for the incredibly in-depth responses from Wes Craven.
Over the history of horror, what does it take to viscerally affect a viewer and is there a difference between what it took in the past versus now?
Wes Craven (W.C.): Well, I found that in order to viscerally affect someone, you need to cut them [laughs]. Well, everyone says “How many gallons of blood do you need for a horror film?” I never find it’s that. Yes, you can have a scene that’s very violent but I find that if you have something that gets under the skin of the audience in other ways and that usually has to do with the more human side of it, even with Last House (on The Left).
And doing something that’s not expected within the genre. When I shot Last House, when you got shot or stabbed, you fell down dead. I just did the opposite: Somebody gets stabbed and they fall down but then the killer is ready to walk away and the person starts crawling. Nothing is as fast as it’s supposed to be in a movie where people are supposed to die. That kinda started a whole different thing.
But it has to do with making people real, I think more than anything else. You can have a movie where you kill people by the billions and it will become like Stalin says: “One person dies and it’s a tragedy. One million people die and it’s a statistic.” So it starts to lose the effectiveness unless you feel those are real people.
And just being different that anything else that people have seen before, also. We just killed somebody last night that way.
But literally I had a scene where somebody was going to be killed and it was described as, well, an incidence; he’s pinned to a seat, he’s in a car. That’s it? That’s what happens to a character I’ve been watching for 45 minutes? So I just really ask myself, all the time, “Have I seen this before? If not, what would be really fascinating and different? And would it be something that I would want to see? Would it grip me? Make me scream, or laugh, or something like that.”
I think, bottom line, the advice I would give is don’t duplicate what you’ve seen before. That seems to be the primary mistake that young filmmaker’s make. They’ve seen every film in the world. I think one of the gifts that I had was that in a Church and a college that was very strict and it didn’t allow seeing movies at all, so I didn’t have any precedent. So, when I made movies, I didn’t copy anything because I hadn’t seen anything! [laughs] Certainly nothing in the genre. So you have to keep your head up and ask, “Have I seen this before and if I have, go someplace else. Do something different.”
Do you think that realism has a more visceral impact as opposed to something not as realistic?
W.C.: Yeah, but nothing in Shakespeare was real but it has enormous impact. It’s lasted for centuries, so it has to do with an underlying reality that there is something human about it that you recognize. And that can even be in ‘Scream’. I think what Kevin Williamson captured, and that maybe I enhanced a bit, was that it’s funny and it’s sort of arch and it’s comedy on the culture and everything else and self-referential, so you get to like Randy. You get to feel like he’s a real person. And certainly with Neve Campbell’s character. That’s kind of a real person and you invest yourself into that character a lot more if it’s real. So I think that even within the context of the film, it is clearly referring to itself as a member of the genre, you know? [laughs] You can still make a reality there that enhances the impact of things, to frighten or just to make you laugh.
Personally, I don’t enjoy going to see a lot of horror films because it’s usually just, sort of, two-dimensional characters getting slaughtered. And I just don’t have any interest in that. But if it’s a situation of a person where I think, “Oh my god, I would do that!” It’s like thinking, “Don’t go outside.” We had a character in Scream 3, an African-American, who at some point said, “This is where all the black characters get killed! [laughs] I’m outta here!” And he leaves the movie, you know? And you never see him again.
So, it’s doing the unexpected. It’s always a lot of fun and it makes things fresh. I sometimes tell students that the first person you should make the audience afraid of or uneasy with or watching, as far as monsters or scary characters within the film, is the director. They have to feel like whoever made this movie is crazy and smart is one step ahead of me. That’s kind of your responsibility, not to underestimate your audience but to really be as smart and unpredictable and ahead of the audience as you can be. And to make your character smart and unpredictable. And especially your villains.
‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ went around Hollywood for three years and was rejected by everybody as either “too bloody” or “too stupid” or nobody would believe what was going on because it was in a dream or nobody would be afraid of it because it was in a dream. The audience was way ready for it! So, a lot of getting a good script going is finding a way past the studio blockade of people who can’t understand how it will really play. And I deal with that all the time. You feel like, here’s you guys (the audience) and here’s this wall called the studio or a person in the studio. How do I get my film through that little aperture there that the studio allows you sometimes, to get to the audience and talk to them? Because the typical thing is, “This is stupid.” or “I don’t understand this. This will never play.” Because there are quite often people who don’t and sometimes aren’t even that invested into the genre, they’re just invested in the money that the genre can make.
Now, that is changing a lot. I mean, I think starting around ‘Red Eye’ I certainly walked into Dreamworks where the meeting was and pitched my idea and my script and everybody stood up and said, “I watched Last House on the Left when I was 13 and that’s why I’m in the business.” That’s a huge change! And there are a lot more people at the studio level that are real fans and know the genre and are smarter about it. But you still run into it a lot. I think that’s true with any idea. You look at Edison or any person with an idea that’s ahead of its time. That’s something of a curse. People are congratulating me now for making ‘Last House on the Left’ that when I made it were looking at me like I was a sick mother [pauses for effect]
And they kept their children away from me! I’m serious! [laughs] And so I was just commenting on the times as I saw it. But nobody was doing it like that, nobody was being that blunt about it.
In your movies, you display a lot of alternative families: In ‘Last House on the Left’, you had the very dysfunctional family of Krug and company and you also had Nancy’s family in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and you had the kind of unit in ‘People Under the Stairs’. It’s a common theme that I’m seeing throughout your movies. Do you think that because the heroes of the stories are the product of these alternative families, is there the idea of a generation growing up with more strength because of this lack of normalcy?
W.C.: No, I think you guys are all screwed up.
It could well be. With the sort of tsunami of media that started somewhere around the Vietnam War where suddenly everyone was seeing real life almost thrown on their television every night, with documented footage of the Vietnam War and the revelations about the presidency and having electronic ways of retrieving information from the government. A typical teenager knows a lot more about how the world really works. And it just keeps expanding: I remember my son telling me, “I watched this guy get his head cut off on the web.” And shit, my little boy! [laughs] He was a young man at the time but that was when Al Qaeda was capturing people and cutting their heads off and putting it on the Internet so that generation was exposed to just hideous things that are real that they have to process. And I’ve always felt that horror films are the nightmares of the culture and that nightmares, as a function of the organism of human beings and of the mind that human beings have, they’ve kept nightmares, evolutionary-wise. So, I’d say that horror films fall into that in terms of cinema, as the nightmares of the culture, things that keep us awake at night. Whether it’s ‘Frankenstein’, what science is starting to do, fooling around with human beings and being able to control people’s minds and so forth, or atomic energy in the 50’s with all those horror films, or serial killers and mass murderers. It’s all reflecting the culture. And I’ve always felt that people who criticize horror films are trying to break the mirror.
Where did the conception of the personality of Freddy Krueger come from?
W.C.: Well, it’s kind of an old story, so I’ll abbreviate it. There was an adult, a drunk that happened to be walking by the apartment I was living in with my family when I, I don’t know, 12, or something like that. He woke me up out of sleep with drunken rumblings and when I looked out, I was in the second story bedroom, he somehow stopped and looked right up at my window. I backed away from the window and sat on the edge of my bed, scared. There was something about the way he looked at me. I thought I was there for a year and then I finally crept back to the window and he was there and he did this (makes a scary face) and then he kept walking down the street, looking at me, sort of over his shoulder. Then he went into our building and I knew he wasn’t from our building. So that, in retrospect looking at it as an adult, I realize that was somebody getting a sense of power and enjoyment out of terrifying a child and having power over that child’s mind. That never left me, that sense of there are people out there who will enjoy your suffering and sometimes they have more power than you do.
So, it was kind of based on that and also little things; that man wore a hat and Freddy wore a hat. The hand claws were simply two things. One; that was a time when there were a lot of villains with masks and knives or machetes. There was Jason and others. So I asked myself, “What haven’t I seen?”, that was the question I referred to earlier, and I literally went through my memory of what I thought was the earliest sort of DNA structures of human memory of fear. I went back to cave bear and claws and the idea of the tooth and claw, because that has to be buried somewhere very, very deep and that’s gotta be what knives are. I remember walking around London and the royal palaces there and all the fences had swords and that’s part of their fence railings. It’s just this sort of idea of the edged weapon and the thing that skewers you. It’s very deep in our culture and I think that comes from out genetic part of ourselves.
And the human hand: I remember reading that one of the reasons that the brain grew so much is because of the opposable thumb development and what you could do with it. The fingers and brain fed each other. The more the fingers could do, the bigger the brain had to be to handle what the fingers could do and vice versa. So you end up with this creature that has this incredible dexterity. So, the hand as a weapon itself is intriguing.
So part of it was intellectual, psychological, I was a psychology major, art minor in college, so I’m fascinated by nature. So, it’s a whole host of things, kind of being put together.
You say that horror movies are often a commentary of the social events of a time. How do you feel that ‘My Soul To Take’ and ‘Scream 4’ are reflections of current social events?
W.C.: Well, two different things: ‘Scream 4’ is very much about of analyzing the culture of violence and film. It’s been basically 10 years since a ‘Scream’, so that part of it, the Meta part, that standing off and looking at the culture, sort of analyzing it, that’s the subtext of ‘Scream 4’, among other things.
‘My Soul To Take’ was part of, going back to talking about families, was somewhere in the course of my career, I realized that some of my best films were about families of some sort. Also, opposing families and if you look at history, it’s all about opposing families: Royal families, human rights, human families versus animal families and all sorts of things like that. So I found that I just sort of instinctively did films about families and that they were very powerful and to me it was intriguing because you get to look at two or three generations, like ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ where you have the older parents, the father with the gun and then you have the mother, practically nursing her child and then you have the younger child, the baby itself, symbolizing innocence. That sort of tribe and levels of generations and worldviews and all these things that I found really interesting, and missing from a lot of horror movies as well.
Like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, which is one of my favorites, it’s just a bunch of kids but you have the family on the other side and that was really where I found it very intriguing. And even Hitchcock: ‘Psycho’ with the son and mother.
So those are very, very powerful things in all of our lives and that’s kind of how I ended up there, that’s why ‘My Soul To Take’ is commenting about. It’s the question of “Who were, or are my parents?” especially if they’re gone. “What do they do and what grief is it bringing down on my head?” And then, the question you ask yourself, just a few years later, is “Am I going to be like that?” or “Am I like that?” So there’s always this thing as you’re going from high school to college where all the adults are fucked up and they’re responsible for all the wars and blah blah blah. Then you find yourself with your first child, saying something that you remember your parents saying or you’re marching off to war or whatever it is, and it’s then that you realize that it’s kind of this wheel going. It’s very interesting to look at from multiple generations sometimes.
But anyway, ‘My Soul To Take’ is about that. And it’s based on a legend from a Native American legend about condors, because the central character loves birds, especially the California condor, which is kind of clinging on the brink of extinction, about the gatherer of souls and that it’s not a hideous creature that eats dead things, as the high school principle of this young man says, but it is something that keeps the soul of every animal that it eats and protects it, so that it has accumulative wisdom and gravity about it. It’s kind of fun. [laughs]
You’ve been making horror films for a long time and the genre has obviously changed so much in that time. There is a lot of films that use the extreme, such as the so-called “torture porn” films of Eli Roth. Do you feel that you have to keep up with or top those films? Do you feel that audiences are so jaded these days that it’s harder?
W.C.:No, I feel like the audience is bored, like they’ve had enough of it. Like, “Is that all you’ve got?” In fact, that’s one of the things I guard myself against, is never trying to emulate. The few times that I’ve tried to do this have been quite disastrous [laughs]. I personally don’t like the “torture porn” stuff. I watched ‘Saw 1’ and, okay, that was kind of interesting, but it’s just not my cup of tea, so I don’t try to emulate it. Not to say that they’re bad films or anything, unless they get into the 7th and 8th and 10th iteration, then maybe.
Look, we’re doing ‘Scream 4’, so…[laughs]
As long as you keep it fresh!
But ‘Scream 4’ won’t be like that?
W.C.: No. But ‘Scream 4’ is unique. I can’t think of another film that is a tracking of three central characters over a span of 16 years now, with the same actors. You’re literally watching someone go from high school age to full adulthood, with Neve Campbell for instance.
And what’s that vampire movie from Scandinavia. ‘Let the Right One In’? That’s a pretty fascinating film. So, throughout all generations there’s great original films.
I’ve always thought that Nancy Thompson from the original ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ is the quintessential “survivor girl”. I feel that the evolution of this character, who makes the decision to stand and fight has evolved into something along the lines of “torture porn”, where as long as we see the girl fight, that’s enough for us. Is that something that you are still trying to cultivate? The idea of a very strong woman who is trying to face the fears that keep following her?
W.C.: Well, I’ve done a lot of central characters that are female and strong. I have a daughter, who now has her own child, and it was after ‘Swamp Thing’, in a scene where Adrienne Barbeau is running away from the bad guys and she trips and falls down. And my daughter turned and looked at me when she saw that and said, “Dad. Women don’t always fall down when they’re running, okay?”
[laughs] And I really got it! I just got it! So then I went off and did movies about strong female characters. But ‘My Soul To Take’ is Max Theriot, he’s the central character, so it’s not always that.
There is something inherently…how to say this without sounding sexist? But there is something inherently more vulnerable about women in that they are usually a little bit smaller and a little bit more sensitive to things than men, so they quite often get put into situations in horror films or action films. But the interesting thing is that they have become very strong. Look at the character in ‘Terminator’, who when one of the first times you see her, I think it was in ‘Terminator 2’, she’s in the jail cell doing pull-ups and you see these actual muscles on an actual actress that didn’t have them before and you realize there’s a whole different way of looking at femininity that has arrived and is actually being assaulted on all sides by pornography and the popularization of “the pimp”. You know, it just makes my blood boil because it’s just trying to beat back women. It’s quite insidious. There’s a very powerful backlash going on. It’s a battle of centuries and centuries, all over the world, as I’m sure you know. Women are really subjected to being under the thumb and foot of men, so it’s a very important struggle. So I like showing female characters that can stand up and fight through no matter what.
When I saw ‘Saw’, or maybe it was ‘Hostel’, I really felt it wasn’t as bad as I thought, because at least the characters got away, but you can also have filmmaker’s like the German guy, what’s his name? Where in ‘Funny Games’ you have the woman pushed off the boat and she drowns, and it’s just like “Okay.” And with making films you can constantly decide anything you want to happen. So then what do you want to say about life or what do you want to put on the audience? You could center a film around something awful, hideous where everybody dies in the most hideous, novel way and say, “That is the truth.” But there’s a lot of truths, you know?
There’s just a lot of different things that occur in the human family, so at a certain point I think ‘Last House on the Left’ was as far as I would go with bleakness. And I’ve always asked myself, “Am I selling out?” You know, ‘Scream’ people are laughing when someone is getting stabbed and everything else. But I’ve always tried to keep a core of reality in the Neve Campbell character. She actually feels the loss of people. I guess, in a sense, I feel that’s where I am in what I do for a living. This odd job or odd career of doing horror films, which I never expected to get into. It’s just pure chance. I continually wake up and say, “What the hell? I can’t believe I’m making horror films!”
Right now, in the horror genre, there are a great deal of sequels and remakes, especially with a lot of your older films. It seems like the fans wanting some original content, which ‘My Soul To Take’ will offer. But how do you think that ‘Scream 4’ doesn’t fall prey to the victim of “another sequel”?
W.C.: Well, the biggest thing about it is that’s exactly what it talks about. We’re all sick of sequels and what is the new genre of cinema and horror going to be? Of course, the plot is wrapping itself around what it will hopefully be, in the vision of Kevin (Williamson). It takes that on head-on; it’s all about that. Where do films go from here in the genre? What will make them different and not just more sequels or remakes?
I have to say, in defense of the two remakes, or three, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Last House On The Left’ were unique. As you know, they were the first two films that I had made. They were made with two separate buddies, just friends that I had gotten to know in New York when I’d first just gotten in. We had in our contracts, which we were joking about; we were longhaired freaks doing lots of drugs and convinced we would be dead by 35. And at a certain point, we realized, “Oh my god! I think we own that property again!” 30 years later, so that’s when we decided to start looking around, start talking to interesting directors to see if they’re interested in doing a remake. So ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘The Hills Have Eyes 2’ and ‘Last House On The Left’ came out of that. It gave me a chance to work with my son, he was producer on it. And at the same time, it was scary. I was afraid of burying myself, of having people say, “I love ‘Last House On The Left’!” The one two years ago [laughs].
“You mean there was an earlier one?!” [laughs]. So, you do run that risk.
With ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’, unfortunately though, because nobody else wanted to buy it, when I did sell the script, it was, you know, New Line Cinema, which at the time was working out of a store front, the contract was that they owned it forever and ever. And so I didn’t even have a phone call to me on that one. It was just whoever did it, did it.
But ‘Scream 4’ is about that. And at the same time, I have to say it was a joy to have Andrew Rona, who was the executive at Dimension just under Bob Weinstein. I worked with him throughout all the ‘Screams’ and then he eventually left Bob Weinstein and went and to Rogue films, before it’s current Rogue films. And then he offered me the chance to write something if I had an idea and I pitched him the idea and it’s the first film that I’ve written and directed, with the exception of that little 5-minute thing in ‘Paris, Je T’Aime’, since ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’. And I don’t know how the hell that happened! I think between ‘Scream’ and ‘Music of the Heart’ and ‘Red Eye’, I just had good scripts available, so I did them.
And as hard as it is to be a director, it’s even harder to be a writer-director, because you do all the director’s work until two or three in the morning and then [laughs] you start the re-writes and then work until five and then get up at six, so it’s hard, but it is your personal baby and that’s great.
Since you’re post-converting ‘My Soul To Take’ into 3-D, what is your take on the current 3-D craze going on in Hollywood right now?
W.C.: That’s a good question. It’s been a long trek to get it finally coming out. That said, all of that done, we finally have the film done and Relativity is finally gearing up and I get the call of, “You know, we want to do it as 3-D.”
Somebody that’s working with me that started as my assistant and is co-producing with us on this film researched very thoroughly and we started going to places that would do the process if we were to do it. And this is not a film that is shot in the two-camera, old way of doing things, but there’s a new system where basically, you take a film that was shot in 2-D and you feed it through giant computers and assign distances for every single thing in the frame then there is a sub computer system that rounds the characters and others that deal with hair. I mean, it’s an incredibly complex thing. It’s a lot of handwork and all the math involved.
I went to see ‘Clash of the Titans’ at the place that made it, after reading all the reviews and Roger Ebert saying that “3-D was the worst thing to come out of the pipe, ever.” and that for the filmmakers it was a tragedy that had been forced into it. In the place that made it, and showed it properly, ‘Clash of the Titans’ was fantastic. Clear, no problem seeing it. Much more 3-D-ishness then I would prefer. At the same time, I was getting educated in on the enormity of the push towards 3-D by people at top of manufacturing television sets and equipment that shows movies, exhibitors. As far as I can tell, it’s here to stay, in a huge new way. I mean, there are 3-D television sets that are just around the corner, probably already in stores at a high price. And someone at the studio told me that, “You, now, are at the brink between silent films and talkies.” So there were people back then that were fantastic in silent films and that decided that talkies were horrible and they were not going to go there. Then there were others that made the bridge.
I decided for the sake of my film and for what I’d seen in that theater, it was looking pretty good. It was also with an understanding with the studio that I wasn’t going to make it with things flying into your face, especially since the film was already shot. We were going to use it subtly and kind of make it in the way that the eye actually sees things. It was worth a shot and the film would get out there and it would also be out there in 2-D. We’ll see what happens. I hope I haven’t sold my soul!
It’s interesting because there is one character in the film that is quite insane and it kind of comes on slowly, but within the span of a single scene. As a director, you can make that room start to distort very subtly in the course of a three-minute scene. You have another palette that you didn’t have before. I’m trying not to throw it out because it’s new and see what happens.
…There is an infrastructure that is very important at the level of theaters where it takes something like eight times as many lumens to push through the film in 3-D because you’re looking through glasses. So you need extraordinarily bright projections. There is still the option for theater owners to put the bulb at half lumens so it’ll last almost twice as long and the bulbs cost like $3,500 a piece. So there is always a problem at the level of the theater itself where they are pinching pennies and then it’s dim and everyone says “3-D sucks!” but it’s not that, it’s the manager. I think it was ‘Alice in Wonderland’, that studio did a quality check at every single theater it played in. So that’s what I think it will take, at least in the first two, three, four, five years before people catch up. But I can tell you that I’ve seen my films in 2-D back in the day, you know, coming fresh from the mix two weeks before when you go opening night, and there’s a broken speaker in that theater and that guy is running it at half-lights and they have lights for people to walk up and down the aisles and it’s like you just want to blow your brains out anyways.
So, in Los Angeles, there’s a theater called the Arclight. The whole thing about it, you pay more, much more to see a film but it’s perfect projection. Nobody is texting. You go in there to see a perfect quality production and it’s a great thing and that’s what it takes.
Thank you all for the great questions!