Making it in Hollywood as a screenwriter can be a tricky business, especially if your primary focus is on the horror genre. Bloody Disgusting had the opportunity to catch up with screenwriter, producer and director Eric Heisserer about his upcoming film Lights Out (our review). We also took advantage of the time we had to speak with him and asked him to take us on a tour of his career writing for the horror genre, including the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street,* the 2011 reboot of The Thing and Final Destination 5.
*We posted the portion on A Nightmare on Elm Street earlier this week as its own article, so the first section of this feature is a duplicate of that one. Skip ahead to The Thing if you’ve already read it (or read it again, because it’s pretty fascinating).
Heisserer got started his career writing for tabletop games in the mid-90s. After a failed attempt at submitting an idea for an idea that would be an adventure scenario for a game, he received a rejection letter telling him that it was too linear and sounded too much like a movie. Heisserer took that as a challenge. “I went and tried to figure out how movie scripts work,” he said. “I got Final Draft and I think I picked up a William Goldman screenplay from Barnes & Noble and…I wrote my first script. It was terrible, but I learned and it was like the first hit of a drug. I was addicted and this is what I wanted to do.” After writing 13 screenplays, Heisserer would finally get his first screenwriting credit with the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
A Real Nightmare of an Experience
It would be an understatement to say that the 2010 remake of Wes Craven’s 1984 classic slasher film was met with a poor reception. Directed by music video director Samuel Bayer (in his only feature film gig), A Nightmare on Elm Street has a staggeringly low 15% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 171 reviews) and a 35 Metacritic score (based on 25 reviews). It is one of the worst received horror films to come out in the last 20 years, remake or otherwise. High expectations certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the lack of Wes Craven’s involvement (the studio chose not to have him on board as a consultant), something that made The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left remakes better films than they had any right to be. When thinking of someone to blame when it comes to any film’s end result, the common answer would be either the director, the screenwriter, the studio or some combination of the three.
Rather than go the Friday the 13th route and develop a plot that combined elements of the first few films in the franchise, the decision was made to simply remake Craven’s original and make it scarier. An original draft of the script was written by Wesley Strick (Cape Fear, Arachnophobia), but Heisserer, without a single credit to his name, was brought in to take elements from Strick’s script and write his own. This would be the first screenplay that Heisserer would get credit for as a screenwriter. You may be wondering how a screenwriter with no credits was handed A Nightmare on Elm Street. I wondered that too. “I was brought in on what I thought was a general meeting,” Heisserer said. “Instead of meeting a junior executive I was meeting the senior executive and one or two others at New Line.” Understandably, Heisserer thought he had done something wrong and was being brought in to be chastised. “It turned out that they had a pair of writers that they thought would work on Elm Street but they couldn’t get them out of a contract. They needed a writer very quickly and I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
The reason New Line was in such a hurry is that “they were trying to swing as hard as they could for the 25th anniversary of the original and that meant that they wanted to see a first draft from [Heisserer] in four weeks. It was ridiculously hard.” Funnily enough, they missed the anniversary by almost six months (the original was released in early November 1984 whereas the remake was released in late April 2010). It just goes to show that sometimes focusing on quality is more important than rushing something out to make a deadline. Still, the film went on to gross $115.6 million on a $35 million production budget, so it was a success for the studio.
Remaking a film that many view to be one of the best slasher films ever made is no small feat, and with it comes an understandable amount of pressure. “I was under a lot of pressure, for sure,” Heisserer said. “I also had some fairly direct orders of the shape of that story that the producers wanted and I had to follow within those lines.” Luckily for Heisserer, he had Strick’s script to go off of and essentially had a list of what the producers wanted in the film. “This was a case where it seemed like the producers knew what they wanted and my job at that point was to try and deliver the best version of that that I could, something that I believed in.” New ideas were brought in to the film, but since this was a major release with a lot riding on it, Heisserer was essentially given a instructions on how to write the film.
Something many people may not realize is that once the script is turned in, the screenwriter doesn’t have that much of a say over what happens during the filming process unless they are also serving as producer (something we will get to in a bit). I asked Heisserer if was one thing from his screenplay that he really liked that he was disappointed didn’t make it into the final cut and he bluntly replied “Uh, just about all of it.” I was loathe to pry too much out of him regarding the circumstances surrounding A Nightmare on Elm Street since the man still needs to be able to work in Hollywood, but I did ask at which point he knew something was awry with the film. “I was fortunate enough to get a set visit,” Heisserer said. “My first night there the location was an abandoned church and Freddy Krueger was in this monk’s robe. I began to hyperventilate because I didn’t write anything like that at all. There was no scene in a church. The director had fallen in love with this location when they were scouting for places and decided they wanted something for that and were playing around with a scene that could take place in a church.” While that must have come as a rude awakening to Heisserer, it is unfortunately the way the industry works. If inspiration strikes, the director does have a certain amount of control over the proceedings.
As depressing as it is that Heisserer didn’t have much of a say with the film, it makes sense. “I’m the baby writer. It was my first real credit and work on a studio picture. My voice carried no weight there. I had my share of ideas and there were plenty of people that supported those, but it’s definitely a group effort to get a movie made.” A group effort, indeed. But what happens when everyone involved in the making of a film has a different idea for the film? The end result, like that of A Nightmare on Elm Street can become a muddled mess. The character of Freddy Krueger is arguably the most recognizable slasher in the history of cinema, if only because he is one of the few that actually speaks. Unfortunately, Krueger had evolved in the 25 years since his introduction from a terrifying bogeyman to a wisecracking comedian. “So many people involved with the film had a different idea of Freddy Krueger,” Heisserer said. Those different idea made for a confusing end result with Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of the character, and the film was damaged by it in the process.
Going back to The Blame Game, Heisserer has certainly inherited a significant chuck of it (he even went so far as to thank me for not crucifying him during the interview). “Sure, I feel like I do get the blame but that’s because my name is in the credits there next to Wesley Strick,” he said. While it would be foolish to state that Heisserer shares none of the responsibility, it would be equally foolish to lay all of the blame solely on him. This was a group effort, and thus it was a group failure.
One tidbit of information that came out of the interview is that New Line Cinema apparently still considers A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 to be a sequel in the franchise as opposed to an actual remake. “That’s why you’ll see ‘Story By Wesley Strick’ and not ‘Story By Wes Craven’ in the credits,” Heisserer said. Whether or not that was a way to get out of paying Craven more money is up to the reader, but it sure does seem fishy.
It wasn’t all bad though. When asked about the one thing he felt just had to be in the film (and did get included), Heisserer showed his true affection for Craven’s original. “What meant a lot to me about A Nightmare on Elm Street was what Craven had done with the original that was akin to Psycho. You follow a character who you believe is your main protagonist and then 30 minutes into the film she dies.”
Heisserer did try to inject some newer aspects into the story to add more terror to the proceedings. The most well-known of these aspects was the introduction of micro-naps. If you have seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, you know that while the concept shows a lot of potential, the film doesn’t really do much with it beyond its initial introduction. “One of the sequences I had been most excited to see was when the micro sleep got worse and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and Nancy (Rooney Mara) were driving and trying to track down where Freddy was. There was a micro nap sequence inside the car where Freddy just completely gored Nancy and Quentin freaked out at the wheel, crashing the car into a tree.” Clearly, that did not make it into the film. Instead we were “gifted” with a similar sequence, but with Freddy appearing in the middle of the street, leading Quentin to swerve and crash the car. Any horror fan knows that this is a familiar trope, so it is regrettable that they went that route, though it may have been due to budget constraints. Who knows?
Something else that showed promise in the film was the idea that Freddy Krueger may have been innocent all along. I’m only speaking for myself here, but that idea would have worked better had Kruger actually been innocent. It’s a plot development that sounds great in theory, but didn’t work in execution. The reveal that he was a guilty child molester failed to pack much of an impact, especially since that removed any internal conflict with the characters. It made the majority of the film’s run time feel like a waste. “Both the doubt and the reveal that he is guilty were elements from Wesley Strick’s draft,” Heisserer said. That being the case, it was something that was always going to be a part of the film. It’s just a shame it turned out to be a copout.
Concluding the Elm Street portion of the interview, Heisserer touched upon how much of a learning experience writing A Nightmare on Elm Street was. The main thing he learned? Be explicit. “Subtlety can work very well for a reading draft or a spec draft,” he said, “but there are times when it’s okay to get sort of bold-faced about certain elements. If there’s a piece of dialogue or a little visual element in a scene that is a setup that has a powerful callback or payoff later on, it’s okay to be very bold about that so that when people are filming it they realize that it connects with something else later on.” The lesson here, screenwriters, is to spell things in your script out if they need to be spelled out. Don’t just assume that those reading it will understand what you are implying. You may not like how it gets interpreted.
Too Many Cooks in The Thing’s Kitchen
18 months later saw the release of Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel/reboot of John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing (itself also a remake). The obvious question here is: What kind of masochist would willingly subject himself to another remake after the incredibly poor reception of A Nightmare on Elm Street? “I was in the middle of [The Thing] when Elm Street came out,” Heisserer said, “so I had sort of doubled down on working those kinds of projects. And of course when I saw the end result of Elm Street it made me terrified for what The Thing could look like.” Unlike Elm Street‘s screenplay, Heisserer would be starting from scratch with The Thing (an original draft by Ronald D. Moore went unused), which also meant he earned the only writing credit for the film.
Horror fans are well aware that the script of The Thing wasn’t the biggest problem with the film (I actually enjoy it just fine). It was the film’s lack of practical effects. The over-abundance of CGI in the film was made all the more disappointing when it was revealed that practical effects were shot during filming, but layered over with CGI in post-production. Our own Evan Dickson had a conversation with Heisserer about this very subject a few years ago, but I wanted to revisit the subject. As someone who does not know much about screenwriting, I asked the dumb question: Did Heisserer try to emphasize at all in the script to use practical effects. Heisserer went on to explain that van Heijningen was already hired when he was brought on to write the script and he knew his vision, so it wasn’t a concern for him. “It was clear to me that [Matthijs] wanted to go very retro, very old school. He wanted to make sure this version worked perfectly as the first half of a double feature with Carpenter’s film.”
Originally set to open in April of 2011, the film was pushed back six months to allow for re-shoots. No stranger to having his script tinkered with during production, Heisserer admitted that while changes were made, “it still held a good deal of the superstructure of [his] draft,” but the movie did face two major issues during the production. The first issue being that of the behind-the-scenes executive turmoil at Universal. “I believe we had five or six different executives in charge of the project over a six month period of time,” Heisserer said. “That kind of volatility from a decision-maker standpoint makes it really hard to get anything made. I know that at some point in time Matthijs had to shut everything down for a few weeks as they fought a battle over someone at Universal wanting the movie to be in 3D. When you’re having to fight those battles and not be able to focus on the story, it’s exhausting.”
The second problem that faced the film was marketing. “The film is a mutt. Carpenter’s film was mainly a paranoia thriller, with bits of sci-fi, horror and creature feature…A mixed breed movie like that is really hard for a big studio, especially a marketing team, to grapple with because they don’t know how to sell it. Add to that the kind of slow boil that we had built into it…and it just made it incredibly difficult to finish the film in a fast factory way for those who had been eager to make it that mutt as a paranoia thriller that we wanted it to be.” This is clearly evident in the film’s trailer, as the creature feature aspect was the main focus. It also made the film seem more action-packed than it actually was.
The biggest re-shoot of all was changing the film’s ending, as van Heijningen has detailed on his Facebook page. In the original ending (dubbed “The Pilot Ending”), Kate was to discover the original pilots of the spaceship which had all been killed by The Thing, which was an escaped specimen they had collected from another planet, implying that the ship was crashed in an attempt to kill the monster. As it turns out, even that was a bit different from the ending in Heisserer’s screenplay. “That was not quite the ending that we originally had,” he said. “That scene actually happened earlier when Kate and Sander’s team show up they actually find a way to venture into the ship right then and there and so we get early on in the movie some exploration of the ship and what they see is evidence that this thing broke out and devastated the crew of the ship. It was just a great bit of foreshadowing for what was going to happen to them. That got pulled so that the only time we venture into the ship was in the third act.”
The ending of the film sees Kate torch Sam-Thing as it makes loud Thing-y screams, leaving Kate alone in the Antarctic (Sam-Thing didn’t make those screams in Heisserer’s draft, so it was left uncertain as to whether or not he actually was The Thing). “There was a great little sequence early on…in which it is mentioned that if you start crying the water in your tears will freeze over your eyes due to the wind chill. They will lock up and that would be the last thing you feel before you die. It was supposed to be this big intimidating moment. So the very ending of the script is Kate having torched Carter…the cold is setting in and she starts to cry. It’s that moment of the wind hitting her in the face and the tears pouring out knowing what’s going to happen next. That’s when we cut it off.” Kate”s fate is death, and the audience’s fate is knowing that we never got that amazing moment in the flawed film.
Script-wise, The Thing 2011 does work as a double feature with The Thing 1982, especially when you take into account the scene during the credits (which features Ennio Morricone’s iconic score). It just feels like a completely different film because of the plethora of CGI elements.
The studio turmoil and marketing confusion hampered any success the film hoped to achieve, and it grossed a mere $27.4 million worldwide on a $38 million budget. Had the film been successful, we may have one day gotten a sequel to Carpenter’s film. “I wasn’t in those conversations,” Heisserere said, “but I would not be surprised if there had been talks like that. If that were the case I hope there would have been a way to bring Kurt Russell back. I mean he would be much older but you could say the damage of the winter just aged him overnight.” Heisserer’s tone with that last part is one of humor, but I would pay money to see that movie. Suspension of disbelief be damned.
As to what Heiesserer took away from his experience with The Thing, he imparted some words of wisdom that all screenwriters would be wise to listen to: “Despite a movie that doesn’t necessarily live up to your expectations, if you don’t swing for all of the things you want you will regret not swinging for them, and that is worse than trying and failing.” Basically, a missed opportunity is far worse than a failed risk.
At Death’s Door With Final Destination 5
Released just 2 months prior to The Thing but written after that script, Final Destination 5 marked Heisserer’s first true success in terms of both box office gross and audience reception. Heisserer audibly lightened up over the phone as we moved into the Final Destination 5 portion of his career, as it is a sequel that far surpassed everyone’s expectations and became one of the best sequels in a dying franchise. This is a film that no one wanted and no one asked for, and it ended up giving the series an adrenaline shot to the heart.
I spent a minute fangirling over the film with Heisserer, as I do think that it is the strongest sequel (though Final Destination 2 puts up a good fight). While The Final Destination is the only truly bad film in the franchise, it nearly killed it. After that atrocity, Final Destination had nowhere to go but up, and boy did Heisserer and Co. deliver.
One benefit of coming after The Final Destination is that there was really no way Final Destination 5 could disappoint. You just can’t do much worse than that film. “I did feel a lot less pressure,” Heisserer said. “But on the opposite side of things I thought it was going to be a lot easier to write. It turns out that writing a good death sequence in the Final Destination world is ridiculously hard. There are a ton of rules that you need to know are there and I was pulling my hair out over it.”
The Final Destination franchise is primarily known for its Rube Goldberg-ian death sequences, with many moving pieces. “All of that has to be on the page,” Heisserer said. “They don’t let me cheat any of that. I can’t say ‘I’m going to let the director figure this one out.'” Final Destination 5 is home to one of the most tense and arguably creative death sequences in the franchise. Candice’s (Ellen Wroe) gymnastics scene is a masterclass in subverting viewer expectations. While that is my favorite sequence in the film, Heisserer states that it is tied with the Olivia’s (Jacqueline McaInnes Wood) Lasik scene for his favorite.
The strength of the Final Destination films is that they take everyday habits and activities and somehow turn them into death traps. Heisserer got his inspiration for the Lasik scene after seeing his wife’s (then fiancée’s) Lasik procedure. “I foolishly scared the Hell out of myself watching someone cut open her eye. It timed out well with the fact that Final Destination fell in my lap.”
The most innovative aspect of Final Destination 5 isn’t its death scenes though. Astute viewers may have noticed outdated cell phones being used throughout the film and caught on to the film’s twist ending. I was blind-sided by the reveal, so I’m clearly not the most observant. Final Destination 5 is a prequel, set before the events of the first film. “It was always going to be a prequel,” Heisserer said. “That was an idea early on that [producer] Craig Perry and I had been obsessed with.”
Despite rumors of a Final Destination 6 (even from franchise staple Tony Todd himself) it seems to be dead in the water as of now. “If there have been discussions of that I’m not a part of it. I just went in and said ‘Let me wrap this up for you as best I can and give an ending that will hopefully please the fans.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a Final Destination 6 eventually but my phone is not ringing,” Heisserer laughed.
I wrapped up this portion of the interview by mentioning that Final Destination 5 is the only film in the franchise to have a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it even beats the first one!), to which Heisserer guffawed. “I did not know that,” he said. “Is it really?” Yes, Eric. Yes it is.
Playing the Sequel Game Again with The Conjuring 2
While not given a screenwriting credit on James Wan’s latest scare-fest (it’s pretty awesome in case you haven’t heard), he did work on a draft or two of the script. Four screenwriters were given credit, but Heisserer was not one of them. Chad and Cary Hayes, David Leslie Johnson and James Wan himself all received a credit for the screenplay. Heisserer was really brought in to doctor the Hayes brothers’ script before David Leslie Johnson came in. “You don’t really find your name on a credit for something unless you’ve been an architect of the story itself. Changing dialogue doesn’t really give you a credit. If that were the case everyone would change dialogue for the free credit.” 10 years ago there were rumors that Beyoncé was changing song lyrics just for the credit, but I digress. Maybe the music industry just works a bit differently from the film industry.
One addition Heisserer made that he was thrilled made it into the final cut was an exchange between Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Anita (Franka Potente). “There’s a moment where Anita says ‘I don’t know what’s worse, the demons or the people that prey on our need to believe these things.’ Then Lorraine just looks at her and goes ‘The demons are worse.'” It is those small character moments that added to the success of the film so even without a credit, at least Heisserer can know that a little part of him made it on screen.
Gaining More Creative Control with Lights Out
Finally, we come to Lights Out, which will see a wide release on July 22, 2016. In a bold move, Warner Bros. Pictures has decided to release the film the same weekend as Star Trek Beyond and the new Ice Age sequel. This shows a tremendous amount of confidence for the film, which has already received rave reviews out of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Produced by James Wan and directed by David F. Sandberg, who created the short film the movie was based on, Lights Out tells the story of a woman who is haunted by a creature that only appears when the lights go out. Sandberg’s original short film was a viral sensation when it was release in 2013. “I was one of the 300 jillion people that had seen it when it came out,” Heisserer said, “but I really was reluctant to get involved because I’ve seen so many short films get a splashy reception from people in Hollywood and then when you get under the hood there’s nothing there to get you through a feature-length story.”
After a conference call with producer Lawrence Grave and Sandberg, Heisserer was swayed and agreed to write the screenplay for the film. “Not only did [Sandberg] have a set of characters that I cared about who were smart and were trying to avoid the standard horror tropes, but he had attached the monster Diana to a thematic core, which was depression. As a horror writer I am greatly relieved to have a theme to associate with whatever the horror subject is because if I ever get lost I just look to that theme and the idea of depression and ask how it affects people in real life. That’s where I can find the scare.”
The framework for the film was set by Sandberg. The concept of the film revolves around a mother/daughter relationship that has been fractured and had some history that needed to be resolved. “That was all his plan,” Heisserer said. “It was my job to take that ball and run with it.”
A big change for Heisserer is that a producing credit was granted to him. “I came on and wrote this on spec before we set it up anywhere,” Heisserer said, “and the contingent of my participation and writing this for free was that I get to be active in a producer role so that I can be on set and sure up any of those responsibilities that might be a bit rough on a first-time feature director being thrown into the deep end.” After the way A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing turned out, can you blame the guy?
Lights Out carries the much-maligned (by horror fans, anyway) PG-13 rating. While R-rated films are demanded by the horror community, the plain and simple fact is that PG-13 rated films have more of an opportunity to make money. It’s easy to say “don’t water down the creator’s vision,” but sometimes a PG-13 rating is always the intention. “David never had a rating intention in his head as he made this,” Heisserer said. “He crafted the scares the way he wanted them to be crafted and he made it as terrifying as he wanted it to be.” When the film was brought to the MPAA for a rating, there were “maybe two or three shots that were questionable.” Therein lies the conundrum. Do you sacrifice mere seconds of footage in the hopes of a more accessible film? Or do you stick to your guns and get the R rating with those shots? “I get that as a consumer of horror you see PG-13 horror and assume that it will be watered-down and that the studio is trying to appeal to a broader audience, but some of the most effective horror movies for me are always the ones that make me fill in the blanks. The biggest complaint about Seven, an R-rated film, was that the film showed Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. Seven did not show her head in a box. It was left up to the imagination.”
On whether or not audiences will be in for a barrage of cheap jump scares, Heisserer informed me that while he “can only go so far in terms of how to set up the scare on the page, the execution of that is on higher shoulders. But David has done more with his film than a lot of horror directors have done on their third.”
Lights Out is the rare horror film to boast performances from high profile actresses like Maria Bello, Billy Burke and Teresa Palmer. Heisserer had nothing but wonderful things to say about those performances. “The actors involved in Lights Out have been tremendous. It’s some of the best performances I’ve seen in a genre movie like this in a long while so I’m really excited for everybody to cheer for these characters.”
What’s in Store for Sandman & Van Helsing
In addition to penning Denis Villeneuve’s (Prisoners, Sicario) new film Arrival, Heisserer’s next big projects are Van Helsing and the adaptation of the graphic novel Sandman. While he couldn’t say much on either topic. He specifically couldn’t say much about Sandman since he was brought on board seven months after Joseph Gordon-Levitt left the project (the leak earlier this year misattributed him to the project long after he had already left). While it is disappointing we didn’t learn more about that, he did offer up the following tidbit of information about Van Helsing: It is not a remake of the 2002 Stephen Sommers film. According to Heisserer, “It is something that John Spaihts and [he] pitched our hearts out for what [they] imagined with the character….[it] has horror elements to it so it can be very scary but it also has a lot more fun put into it as well.”