Three years ago, David F. Sandberg’s short film Lights Out took the internet by storm, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to turn it into a full-length feature. Luckily for us, it seems to have worked in everyone’s favor. After premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival (read our review) to rave reviews, expectations are higher than ever for the film from the first-time director. The screenplay for Lights Out was written by Eric Heisserer, best known for co-writing the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as writing the 2011 reboot of The Thing and 2011’s Final Destination 5. Bloody Disgusting had a chance to get Heisserer on the phone to discuss the ups and downs of his career.*
*This article only features the Elm Street portion of his career, but be on the lookout for the full interview later this week!
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.