Wes Craven on the joys of 3-D — and the pain of ‘Elm Street’ remakes

Oct. 07, 2010 | 6:00 a.m.
On Friday, legendary horror director Wes Craven will release his latest genre entry and his first project in 3-D, the R-rated thriller “My Soul to Take.” The story focuses on a group of seven teenagers, led by two best friends — Bug (Max Thieriot) and Alex (John Magaro) — struggling to survive the murderous legacy of a local serial killer, Abel Plenkov, a mentally disturbed man known as the Riverton Ripper who allegedly died 16 years earlier. The film marks Craven’s first full-length feature since 2005’s “Red Eye,” but he hasn’t entirely been absent from the screen: Three of his classic movies — “Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” — all got the Hollywood remake treatment (though Craven had no involvement with the last project, which starred Jackie Earle Haley as infamous slasher Freddy Krueger and was produced under Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes banner). Craven, who just wrapped shooting on next April’s new installment of the Kevin Williamson-penned “Scream” series,  recently took time to talk with Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre about bringing “My Soul to Take” to the screen in three dimensions, taking the helm on “Scream 4” and what keeps him excited about making horror movies after all these years.
Wes Craven

Wes Craven. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

G.M.: “My Soul to Take” is the first film that you’ve both written and directed in quite some time. How did the project originate?

W.C.: I’d had this idea of a character who had multiple-personality disorder, but he and all of his personalities were benign.  He was working under the aegis of a doctor who allowed him to go home and have a normal life. This man had not told his wife that he had this condition, but he had been living with her for four or five years; they had a child, a young girl, and the wife was pregnant. In the background of their life, a serial killer was operating in their general vicinity. The night the movie starts, the wife is watching on television that he struck again. At the same time the man, purely by accident, finds a hiding place in his wood shop in the basement of the house where the knife of the killer has been hidden, and it suddenly all comes crashing into his consciousness that he has a seventh personality that is murderous. That was a hideous thought — oh my God, how horrible would that be? That [murderous] character basically says, “If you tell the doctor, I’ll kill your family.”  The man and all of his other personalities, fearing that, does the right thing in calling the doctor.  And then all hell breaks loose. That was kind of the origin of the idea, and it did an interesting swing so that the story of that man and his family and the story of the seven kids born the same night that man ostensibly died, that story really became the interesting one to me. The backbone of the movie is built around the kids, the Riverton seven. It was originally written for 13-year-olds, but it just became impossible for us to budget such a picture, with work- time restrictions and everything else, so we moved it up to the 16th birthday, which made sense. Sixteen adds up to seven in numerology, so I thought, OK, that’s the way we’ll do it.

G.M.: Is there a difference in how you direct your own screenplays versus those written by someone else?

W.C.: The only difference is that the workload is much greater. Unless you’ve written it and you love every single word and you’re not going to change anything, which never happens, when I direct something that I write myself, you’re constantly fiddling with it. You do your day’s work as a director, which usually ends sometimes three, four hours after you wrap shooting at some god-awful hour of the night, and then you start writing to fix scenes that are coming up. You get very little sleep. I think my average night’s sleep was four hours. I remember one time working three days in a row without sleep, so that gets very difficult. But I tend to have a stamina that’s good for that, and it’s great to have the control of your script and to have it all coming out of you. Some of my best films, “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Hills Have Eyes” and “Last House” and so forth, have been things that I’ve written and directed, so it feels exciting to do it again. I’d written a remake of a Japanese movie called “Pulse,” but the plug was pulled on that the week before we shot, so there was kind of a hole in my body of work. From that, I went into “Cursed,” which lasted for 2 1/2 years. That was almost a four-year chunk out of my body of work.

wes craven acknowledges crowd at sp Wes Craven on the joys of 3 D    and the pain of Elm Street remakes

Wes Craven at Scream Awards. (Getty)

G.M.: You’re someone who seems to enjoy maintaining a prolific pace. I would imagine that lag must have been very frustrating.

 W.C.: I did a lot of things in those years. With a producer friend [from] my first two films, we did remakes of “Last House” and the two “Hills Have Eyes” [movies]. There were a lot of other things. I had a quadruple bypass in 2000, I got married, and our house fell down. Our house in Los Angeles turned out to have wood rot, so that when we started pulling it apart to find out how far it went, we ended up taking the house apart down to the studs. Sometimes things happen in your personal life that take huge amounts of time and effort too. Between those two films, the one where the plug was pulled and “Cursed,” which went on for 2 1/2 years, it took a considerable amount of time out of my usual film-a-year or so.

G.M.: I’m curious, where would you say “My Soul to Take” fits in with some of the other projects you’ve done? It does seem to have certain Wes Craven hallmarks.

W.C.: It’s the first film that I’ve done with a male lead in quite a while, going all the way back to “Swamp Thing,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” the “Scream” series, so that was kind of interesting. I have to say, in retrospect, looking back at it, I think there a lot of echoes of my own life — of course, exaggerated and distorted. My father was not a serial killer, but he did die when I was very young, so I had very sketchy memories of him, and some of them were, I have to admit, a bit frightening. There was that aspect to it and being raised as fundamentalist Baptist, I grew up feeling like I was way behind the curve in sophistication and the ways of the world, since I stayed in that world through college. That idea of Bug being a little bit slow in knowing the ways of the world and learning what it is to be a man and be sophisticated and smart and knowing how to survive, all those qualities that Alex tries to teach him throughout the film, are feelings that I had. That was an interesting parallel; I kind of felt like I knew the basics of that territory very well.



Last House on the Left

Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn in "The Last House on the Left." (Universal)

G.M.: Was the Penelope character, who’s a religious fundamentalist played by Zena Grey in the film, taken from your experience then?


W.C.: I guess it was. It was very funny, because the actress was Jewish, and she kept saying, “I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer!” She would be a typical kid that would be a member of the church that I went to. Obviously, Bug doesn’t have the religious thing, it’s just the innocence. There was a very subtle, almost angelic nature to him that had to be destroyed in order for him to become a man, half following the teachings of Alex and half doing it his own way. It turns out that the teachings of Alex were influenced from the wrong direction.

G.M.: “My Soul to Take” has a character with multiple personalities, a character that has vivid hallucinations, and, of course, your most famous film series dealt with horror in dreams. What fascinates you about those altered states of perception, and why do those settings work so well as fodder for genre movies?

W.C.: I think the genre goes outside the boundaries of reality in many ways in order to get at some central truths and feelings that aren’t served well by very factual states. Whether it be psychotic behavior or being possessed or being in a killing rage, whatever it is, these are things that are not part of our rational grid. Genre films tend to go into areas that we feel a bit afraid about, certainly sleep and dreaming in some ways are very frightening, especially to children, because parents can’t come with them, and there’s no control over what you’re going to encounter every night. Those things are primordial to the human species, the double curse of being aware of your own existence and being kind of alone in it. Genre films go to those areas, because we’re talking about very raw human feelings and perceptions.

Max Thieriot in "My Soul to Take"

Max Thieriot in "My Soul to Take." (Universal)

G.M.: This film is your first in 3-D. At what point was the decision made to use that technology, and why was it the right decision for the film?

W.C.: Part of it was practicality — the studio very much wanted it. I was resistant; I had the right to say no. I thought I’d give it a fair shake. I looked at a bunch of films that were in 3-D, and my feeling was it’s going to come out in both formats; the 3-D did offer some very interesting dramatic choices that 2-D does not offer. They were not of a mind to have it with axes flying into the audience and things like that, which would have been my deal-breaker. They just for their own reasons wanted to have it in 3-D, because I think there’s a consensus among certainly the studios and exhibitors that 3-D is really here to stay. It’s not just some sort of resurgence of a ’50s fad. Infrastructure is being poured into theaters and new televisions are already coming out in 3-D. It feels like if somebody had told me, “You’ve been making silent films and now the talkies have come along, do you want to be a part of it or not?” But I also thought that would be very interesting for some of the scenes involving mirrors and, for instance, when Abel goes into his psychotic fugue, and that’s indeed what we did. We had a lot of fun with that. For me, it’s an experiment, I think the picture lends itself to it; we used it very subtly. If it does endure as a technical form of the art, then I’m learning at the ground floor like everybody else, and it’s an important thing to do.

G.M.: Was it particularly problematic to convert the movie to 3-D during post-production?

W.C. : Unfortunately, we were already shooting “Scream 4” — talk about workloads upon workloads. We had to have sessions on weekends where everybody came up from Los Angeles. We would go through the reels for five, six, seven hours a day, which is really great after you’ve had an 80-hour week [laughs]. It took two, three months, and there was, I’m sure, a lot of preliminary work on the part of all the people who were doing all the technical stuff, pulling all the mattes and everything else, which were done in India. I asked them one time how many hundreds of man-hours; it was a phenomenal number. The process is very nascent but tremendously sophisticated and very manipulable. If we didn’t like anything, we were able to change it in a single pass; within a couple of days, we’d be able to look at a revision. It’s a lot more technical than I’m used to working. I don’t usually do a lot of opticals and fooling around with images. I usually just get it on the set.

G.M.: Speaking of “Scream 4,” what made you want to return to that franchise after all this time?

Ghostface in "Scream 4"

On the set, "Scream 4" (Wes Craven)


W.C.: It was old-home week, in a sense, to work again with Kevin and Neve [Campbell] and Courteney [Cox] and David [Arquette]. It was the thought of having a good time and making an interesting movie and continuing that kind of storyline. It’s pretty unusual for there to be a series of films to have the same core actors for that many years; it’s been 16 years of following the lives of these characters. Usually in genre, they knock them off, and the next sequel it’s somebody new. This one has had the interesting thing of introducing new people and keeping with the old ones as well.

G.M.: You’ve been working in the genre for decades. What do you find creatively satisfying about making horror films?

W.C.: They’re kind of like jazz. You really can improvise almost anything out of them. They’re based on standards of human emotions, but what you can do with that is limited only by your own imagination. “My Soul to Take” is a good example. I don’t know whether it’s going to work or not, but I found that I was able to make a story about a family that goes quite deeply into the family history, a coming-of-age film. At the same time, I’m making a horror film or a slasher film, and if the audience can go there … I mean, they went there on “Nightmare on Elm Street,” when most of the people who read that script for three years thought it would never make a movie. The genre has a great elasticity to it that I find very exciting.

G.M.: So you’re saying that you’re actually able to explore other genres within horror, then?

W.C.: I think I’ve just done it. I think that’s exactly what “My Soul to Take” is. “Scream 4” has a lot of social commentary, especially about the genre itself. It doesn’t have to be just “Hatchet 5,” though I understand that’s a fine film.

G.M.: I think it’s actually “Hatchet 2.”

W.C.: Oh! “Hatchet 2” [laughs]. I just read the New York Times review of it, and it was actually quite good. There are very little restrictions on horror. All you have to do is put the butts in the seats for the studio, but the genre audience itself is very open to innovation and being taken someplace new. That’s kind of fun.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street"
Jackie Earle Haley in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” (Warner Bros.)

G.M.: Finally, would you be willing to share your opinion of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, if, in fact, you did see it?

W.C.: I can’t, because I didn’t. I made a point of not going to see it. It felt kind of bad, personally. I actually went back and pulled out of an old box my two-page contract for the film and just looked at it and said, “How did you ever sign that?” But at the time, I’d been looking for a backer for three years, I was completely broke, I was losing my house. There was no choice. I had no idea that it would go on to a sequel, let alone to a whole franchise. That’s just one of the things that happen to you early in your career when you don’t have much power, but it’s still painful. I just said, “Go with God” to it and didn’t go see it.

— Gina McIntyre


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8 Responses to Wes Craven on the joys of 3-D — and the pain of ‘Elm Street’ remakes

  1. madsircool says:

    IMO, slasher/torture films are not horror. Horror involves fear that is psychological in nature. It involves the unknown; the supernatural even.

    A film about a guy running around murdering people is something completely different. A film about a guy torturing people is just violent porn, catering to either sadists or masochists. But these are not horror.

    • pmforbin says:

      madsircool, no point in splitting hairs over what you've whittled down to an entirely a subjective opinion. Terror is the psychological state that precedes a horrifying event. The sense of impending doom or dread is terror. Horror is the feeling we get after something terrible (horrifying) has happened. They are two separate, but related psychological concepts. Slasher films certainly contain elements of both, so your argument is not convincing.

    • Tom Smithson says:

      I actually agree with you. For example, Saw is just disgusting. Its violent porn to be sure. Nightmare on Elm is Sci-Fi horror.

  2. Shaun says:

    madsircool, i disagree.

    horror by dictionary definition is shocking, painful, or revolting.

    your idea i would coin as thriller. or suspense.

    although i must say i do enjoy psychological thrillers more, much more exciting, involved, suspenseful…

    but wes craven does intertwine horror with thriller or suspense. i mean, his last film, red eye, was purely suspense.

    some slasher flicks are all about the gore/blood… but his films, like the original nightmare or even scream had other elements.

  3. moviedude90 says:

    This film looks soo sick! I can't wait. There's nothing like 3D horror its such an amazing and newly tapped genre thats gonna go a long way! Im going to see both this and that Scar 3D movie tonight at Culver Plaza! Its gonna be a total gorefest!

  4. max says:

    on the nightmare on elm street remake i think its good it was remade i must sey without the original people involed Robert Wes ect, it surely isent no where near as great as it could have been but given the fact the the franchise will continue to i guess progress would be better to sey then evolve and if wes craven had complete control freddy vs. jason may not have happend , BUT imagen seenin the original Terminator remade prehaps the Matrix if the very first film NoES is a master peice and if you look at it as if is stayed the way it was it would surely be a film that to a extent would stand the test of time

  5. IRS Lawyer says:

    Nick: Surely you meant “tortuous” and not “tortious,” yes? (Though admittedly, it sort of works either way…)

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