Just last November, two days after Thanksgiving, Wes Craven and his wife invited me over to their home to take Polaroids and record an interview documenting his life. Sitting in their zen, airy home on Mulholland Drive, they made me lunch and we talked about everything, starting from the beginning, when he was on a fast track to selling rare coins for a living.
Wes Craven had an incredible life—half the things that have happened to him as a result of following hunches are completely unreal. Which may be exactly the reason why he was able to change the horror genre, having inadvertently invented a whole surrealist framework for it. As campy and goofy as A Nightmare on Elm Street is, it’s actually very surreal. The way it bends what feels ultra-familiar, following characters who are relatable, made it even scarier. You can watch that film a million times and laugh your ass off and cheer Freddy on, and then without fail have horrible, sweaty nightmares.
In a way, this film was made to ameliorate the very first he wrote and directed, The Last House on the Left. It featured an incredibly brutal scene in which two women just trying to have a good time in life are raped, slashed, and mutilated—a story line that seems to have haunted Craven throughout his career because he realized he took it too far.
Women in horror films are often fetishized as for their bodies and victimhood. Craven effectively changed this narrative, writing the female protagonist of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a strong, intelligent young woman who knew how to outsmart the villain.
Throughout our conversation, Craven stayed present and kind, behaving as if there were no difference between us, even though he was famous and spent half the year in Martha’s Vineyard. Never once did he mention his illness, lavishing me with time as if it were to last.
The Front: You didn’t start off being a filmmaker.
Wes Craven: No. I had an interest in the arts without thinking of them as “the arts” for a long time though. I grew up in the Baptist Church, so no listening to records or watching movies, along with alcohol and dancing and everything else. Disney films, those were OK, that was the one exception. So I saw every Disney film that came out and at first I wanted to be a Disney animator. I drew and drew and drew. Around junior high I got on the school paper and started writing. Then I went to college and chose literature. I was a lit major and nobody in my family ever went to college, so I was kind of an odd duck. My mother always encouraged me and my brothers to take a safe job—she was suspicious of books. She read ravenously, but exclusively Reader’s Digest.
I got a double master’s degree in philosophy and writing and by that time I had wanted to be a novelist. A friend of mine told me that a master’s qualifies you to teach college. I said, “Really!?” So I applied to a bunch of colleges, and this is how my whole life was at the beginning, blindly following instincts and leads. I didn’t get in anywhere and I was being trained to sell rare coins at a department store in Baltimore.
I was getting into rare coins not because it was what I wanted to do, but I thought I could also write at night. Some English teacher in a college in Pennsylvania dropped dead in class two weeks into the semester. The phone rang asking if I could come tomorrow. So I packed my bags and went out to the woods of Pennsylvania and taught English there, and then the next year I got a better job in upstate New York and taught English at Clarkson College. And there I was, writing and trying to get stories published and nothing was happening. But the extraordinary thing that happened was that I got a chance for the first time to watch movies.
So you didn’t start watching movies until after college?
I went to an inter-denominational school, Billy Graham alma mater. If you were caught in a movie theater you would be expelled. They had almost the exact same rules I grew up with. Sex was not mentioned. Senior year I decided to move when my literary magazine was cancelled because of something I published about an interracial couple. I was denounced from the pulpit in chapel. I was semi-radicalized. So I went to go see To Kill A Mockingbird.
What a way to commemorate being kicked out of school.
It hit me like a thunderbolt. If this was a sin…it was clearly not. So then I went on to grad school and there was nothing to do there but read an
How old were you then when you saw the film?
I was probably 20 or 21. I lost a year of school because of paralysis. I got paralyzed from the neck down when I was a freshman in college and had to drop out, it was a long recovery on that. I was laid up for half a year and then worked half a year to get out. Then I went back to college. The college town had an arts center. It was the mid-1960s; I was 24 when I got married. So I was 25 and I already felt old.
I found myself more preoccupied with film. I saw Blow Up and then I went back and saw it six more times. Nothing else had ever affected me like that. As a teacher, you get a lot of sample textbooks. All of us in the faculty would sell them at the end of the year, and I sold enough to get $300. I bought a non-sound Revere crank camera in New York and started taking pictures and reading film magazines. Some students saw this and asked me to be a faculty advisor to a film club they were starting. I agreed and we ended up making a series of small films. For one of them we had a budget of about $300 and it was 40 minutes long. We made almost $1,000 showing them around the local colleges.
Right in the middle of that my department head called me in and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing with this bullshit making movies. You were hired to teach English. You need to get your PhD and publish, or else I’m not going to have you back next year.” I thought about it overnight and went back and said, “Fine. I’m going to go figure out how to make
Thank God, right?
At that point I had a wife and child so we were paid through the summer. I went to New York and didn’t find a job. I had to come back and teach a year at a local high school, which was kind of a letdown. I talked it over with my wife and she told me to try again so I went back and slept on my brother’s couch in New Jersey.
One of my students told me he had a brother in New York who was making movies, something called “Industrials” for IBM. At the end of the second summer, still without a job, I went and saw him. He told me he didn’t have a job for me but he could show me what he was doing. There, he taught me the basics of editing. I just sat by him and sucked it all up. His name was Harry and my student’s name was Steve Chapin, and it was two years before he became the folk singer Harry Chapin.
I was watching him, learning, and the guy who ran the post-production house that Harry was running a room in fired his 16-year-old messenger. He asked Harry if he had anyone to fill in and I said I would do it. He said, “Are you the guy with the master’s degree who is a professor?”
“There was something about me that was drawn to dreams. I had nightmares when I was a kid.”
It paid something ridiculous, but I agreed. That was my first paying job. It was the ticket. Once you get your foot in the door you can show your skills. I worked my way up, first learning post-production, then I moved into synching up dailies and working in editing rooms. Then I met a guy whose tiny little film I worked on, got an offer by some theater owners to make a scary movie. He told me to go write something scary, and if they liked it I could direct it. He owned a little Steenbeck editing table, he said, so I could cut it on that and direct it; he’d produce it. That was Sean Cunningham who did Friday the 13th. That’s how I got started making scary movies. It was The Last House on the Left. Before that, I had no impulse. I immediately tried to move away from it.
From the horror genre?
Yeah. That film was especially brutal and scarifying.
I heard a rumor that you were never able to watch it.
No, no I’ve watched it. It’s just not pleasant to watch. The suffering feels very, very real. It’s mean. The bad guys are mean-spirited and very personal. Just total rage and take no prisoners.
But you wrote it.
Oh, I wrote it. I get that all the time, “Where does this come from? You seem like such a nice guy.” I don’t know. Now I know most of the major guys and girls who make horror films and they are a jolly bunch. We’ve all talked about it amongst ourselves and we were scared in school or bullied or whatever, or had scary fathers. It’s partially a way to immune yourself from terror and fear. And I’m sure there is a certain amount of anger and even rage in being raised in a way that says half of the great sources of inspiration and joy in life are sins and you burn in hell forever. I’m sure that had done a lot of psychic damage.
Did you want to get out of horror because you didn’t like the subject matter?
I don’t think Sean or I knew quite the power of the enraging element of Last House. It was all scary. There were fights in theaters, citizen’s groups formed, projectionists set fire to the reels. We had to set up editing rooms in New York to restore prints from other prints that were destroyed. Among my friends in New York, my girlfriend at the time—my marriage had ended—was a PhD candidate. She was around academic types and they backed away from me. A lot of people were repulsed by it. That’s a big word, but I felt like I had done something almost heinous. I knew that wasn’t all I was, so Sean and I wrote another five or six scripts. None of them was able to get backing.
So they weren’t horror movies?
They were comedies and American beauty contests. A father raises his half of the kids after a divorce, things that I was going through as an adult. No interest. Finally I had a friend who encouraged me to do another Last House. He was in Las Vegas and said there were deserts and no one asks for permits, so I should write something about the desert. So I wrote The Hills Have Eyes. Once that came out and it did very well, I was a horror film director. It soon became clear that I wasn’t going to do anything else unless it was scary, so that’s kind of how it was for a long, long time. Then I wrote the script for A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Did you make a conscious decision to change the constructs of the horror genre?
I never did anything to rewrite horror; I just tried to do something interesting. So it wasn’t that grandiose. It was just that I had no hesitation about writing something that was parallel to what I was studying at the time—Eastern religions and meditation, Sufism.
There was something about me that was always drawn to dreams. I had nightmares when I was a kid. My parents had a contentious marriage, my father had a hair-trigger temper and then he died when I was five. There was a lot of storm and drung. There was one germ that A Nightmare on Elm Street was based on—nightmares—and I was terrified to go back to sleep.
In my child’s naiveté I asked my mother to come to bed with me and she said that’s the one place I can’t come with you. And I was totally awake, just like “What!? What do you mean!?” She said she would be there when I woke up, but I would just have to be brave. I remembered that moment for a long, long time.
So dreams and making horror!
At the time I was reading about a level of consciousness in sleep where you are not really aware yet are essentially fully awake; you need to go down a few levels or you need to lose your ego and break through [to a dream state]. That seemed like a perfect metaphor for a person trying to stay awake in order to face an overwhelming horrible truth that needed to be dealt with. As long as I scared the shit out of people every eight to ten minutes, I thought, let’s try it!
Were other people into it too?
No one thought it was a good idea except for Bob Shea [founder of New Line Cinema, a top independent film distribution and production company]. I have a pile of rejection letters that I go through from time to time just to remind myself. If you are ahead of your time, you are not in a good position. But Bob Shea was in New York; he was totally independent, he wasn’t part of that Hollywood scene.
What did he like about the script?
He just got it right away. Someone took us to an old men’s club with beautiful wainscoting and people bringing you drinks. He told me he loved Last House and asked if I had anything else. I said I have something about a guy who exists only in dreams and he can kill you if he comes into your nightmare. So you have to stay awake and get him to get on your turf, although I didn’t know how at that point. I sent him the first draft and he immediately went out and tried to raise money for it, and it took him a really long time. I showed it to everyone in Hollywood and nothing happened.
That was the second time I was completely broke. I was on the verge of selling my house, which was the last thing I had left. Then Bob got the money. You know that Grateful Dead song, “What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been”? That seems to be like my life.
I’ve heard a lot of filmmakers say that you have to get used to the anxiety between projects.
You operate without a net and that also means that you can die at any moment. You always feel that anything can happen at any time, but that’s true for all of us. Look what happened to the American middle class. They had pensions up the wazoo that just vanished. It’s the cliché of how long you are doing something—at least you’re following your passion.
In “Nightmare” you made Nancy an intelligent character and not a bimbo.
Part of it was having a daughter who was 14 at the time. When I was casting for the role of [Nancy’s boyfriend] Glen, just by quirk Johnny Depp came in. His friend had a role of coroner who later got cut out of the film.
There are times when you’re not really ahead of things, but my daughter was. I had the quarterback, the surfer-looking guy, and I had a picture of Johnny Depp that I happened to toss into the car and showed my daughter and her friend. I put the three pictures on the table and asked them which they liked best for Glen and they instantly pointed to Johnny. I asked why, he had greasy hair and nicotine stains! They both said because he was beautiful. So I was smart enough to say OK.
There was something about having a daughter…When I was doing Swamp Thing there was a scene with Adrienne Barbeau and she tripped—it was something I’ve seen in a lot of horror movies, the damsel getting caught. My daughter saw the film and said, “Women don’t fall when they run.” And I saw the truth in it. Women’s liberation was going on and I realized it was true. Going back to King Kong, it’s all so slanted. It seems like we’re going backwards. My daughter now has a five-year-old and is fighting this princess thing. In all the stores everything for girls is pink and princess. The force that wants to push women back is so strong. I felt with Nancy and Sid in Scream, I wanted to do normal, strong women, not Hollywood big boobs and blond hair and speaking the latest teen slang. I wanted someone who you could picture living next door to you who has that strength of character.
New “Nightmare” supposedly brushes up against the fourth wall. What was your idea to do that?
It came at a point of frustration. Bob Shea called me up; I hadn’t talked to him in years. We already killed Freddy Krueger but he said there was an audience for one more. He asked if I could come up with an idea for Freddy to come back.
We were in the middle of dealing with a lot of strict censorship. We asked ourselves what these films give or take away from culture. Do we really make kids go crazy and kill their baby sisters? It’s like boot camp for the psyche. This is the way humans deal with the horrors of existence. If you forbid this kind of art, the actual real horror is unleashed in a sense. The way humans deal with the horrific is to put it in a narrative and cloak it in character. So by censorship and not being able to make any more films about Freddy, he will be unleashed. That was the concept that came out.
Smartest thing I said was that Bob would have a part in it and he liked that. I was steeped in 19th and 20th century literature of the absurd, so it was in my intellectual bag. But in that time people had the same reactions as with Last House, fights in theaters and what have you. So I felt like, why not get past this fourth wall and talk about how music and art affects people… and what about the people who make music and art and how it affects them?
Why didn’t you direct the sequel to “Nightmare”?
They showed me the script and it was terrible. They just wanted to get it out the following year.
How do you feel when a character you created has a trajectory that’s out of your grasp?
It’s an interesting thing, you can fret about it or you can just leave. There was always a creative give and pull about who was in charge, because after the original contract Bob owned everything. He had creative control. I can’t take anything away from Bob, he was very influential on the script, erudite, and he was a Rhodes Scholar, a very interesting man. Robert took something and made it his own, and I chose to leave. Then I came back ten years later and did something.
It’s one of the top three Halloween costumes. Do you get a kick out of that every year?
It’s not too bad. At a certain point you realize that on your tombstone it will say, “I gave birth to Freddy Krueger.” I wrote and directed it, and that’s what I did. A lot of people love it, a lot of people got inspiration from it, I got a lot of letters from young women saying I empowered them. It could be worse, you know? The things that came out of me that never would have come out of me if someone didn’t tell me to make them a scary movie…. I told my friends that I never even saw a scary movie. Sean said that growing up as a fundamentalist Baptist was enough, just go pull the skeletons out of my closet.