Despite some reluctance, Wes Craven is a name-brand filmmaker. The phrase "Wes Craven Presents" comes with certain expectations thanks to the financial success of the Scream franchise and The Hills Have Eyes series before that. But what cemented Craven's reputation is A Nightmare on Elm Street, a deathless cycle of films, of which he directed and scripted only two installments. In time for the release of commemorative documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, we talked to Craven about how star Robert Englund's performance is like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which porno films Craven worked on, and why Her is actually a horror film.
In Never Sleep Again, one of Nightmare on Elm Street's cast members says that, on set, she would ask you questions about what's going on in the film, and you told her, "I can't explain it; it's just a dream." You've also said that the process of making a horror film brings you, your cast and crew together because it's a controlled environment where you express otherwise terrifying experiences. Is not knowing how to neatly process what's happening in the moment part of that bonding experience, or, in your words, that "catharsis"?
That's strange. Sometimes I hear a free-floater say something that I said on the set, but that wasn't a real saying! [laughs] I usually have very pithy explanations for everything on the set. But [Nightmare on Elm Street] was the first film in which I dealt with the dream state. Some of it was based on knowledge — the dreams I've had — and some of it was based on intuition. So most of that is too lengthy to explain to an actor or actress on the set. I tried to tell the actors everything they need to know about what's going in their teenage lives at that moment. It was its own reality.
Can you think of an example of when your cast brought something of their own experiences to their roles that you hadn't anticipated?
As a director, you're always trying to do that. For instance, with Robert Englund, I always encouraged him to make [Freddy] his own. In fact, from casting on, I realized the power of that man. He was ready, and enthusiastic about exploring that persona in a way that came from his own imagination, as well as mine. The physicality of the character, for instance, was not necessarily on the page; much of it was Robert experimenting and improvising based on a theme. It's a little bit like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The melody lines for that album's songs were very simple, and they had these great players go into the recording studio — John Coltrane and Gil Evans and so forth — and they came out with something that's based on the melody lines, but everybody brought their own genius to it through improvisation. That was the secret of that film in Robert's case: He was able to take the ball and run with it.
When they're criticized, horror films and porn are often conflated. You've directed both kinds of film: Do you think people watch both types of films in the same way?
In the overall history of porn, it's about satisfying the physical urge. With horror, people call certain subgenres of horror films "torture porn" because they seem to indulge in grotesqueness, or exploitation of characters, or scenes of torture. I think people want to be taken into a different world that is unique and exciting because it's different. But on some level — and this is something I've always felt — it has to be related to something very real to the audience, both consciously and subconsciously: for instance, the world of dreams. The power of the nightmare is that it addresses something that is universally recognized. In that sense, it's very real, but not something that's normally treated as reality. That's a profoundly important world, it's just not easily explained or mapped out by the rational mind of human beings.
There's one scene in New Nightmare where Dylan, Heather Langenkamp's character's son, tries to process his father's death by reaching out to God on the playground, but he becomes disillusioned. What was a major moment for you when your faith was shaken? Are you at all religious or spiritual?
[Laughs] I'm not religious now, but I was raised in the fundamentalist world of a strict Baptist church. Where we lived, it was everything, so when we were shooting that scene, tears came to my eyes. That was me — that was a part of me, a child reaching out to God and wondering, "Well, where is God?" There was certainly a point in my life where I thought, "The God people talk about is a God I can't touch, I can't find." Not to say that I now feel that there's nothing transcendent in the world. Anything having to do with the living film is astonishing. I don't have the religious thing of looking to the pope, or looking to a religious figure for a concept of what God is. But religious teachings of what's most important in life, or one's conduct — those teachings have never left me. I was raised on the teachings of Jesus, whether or not he was an actual living man, let alone the son of God. That way of looking at the world has never really left me.
Many of your recent films — even as far back as A Vampire in Brooklyn — seem to exist in an ahistorical setting. In light of how New Nightmare suggests that movies continue a mythic tradition, are all of your films a direct reflection of the time when they were made?
All of them are direct responses to the contemporary world. [Last House on the Left] was reflecting on the Vietnam War: all the lies the government told us, the cravenness of fighting Communism, and breaking all the rules while pretending we're doing everything according to the rules. That's why we have a whole generation of Vietnam veterans trying to deal with the psychological consequences of what they had to endure in that war. Now it's the Gulf War, and the war in Afghanistan, and that will be reflected in our contemporary Homeland-type dramas, and Lone Survivor, and in horror films, too. All horror films are contemporary in that, while they may be set in Dracula's time, they are about the subtext in culture at the time. Vampires are huge now while we have a whole generation of brokers on Wall Street that shaped our economy. And zombies ... I think people have a sense that we're sleepwalking through life.
Max Brooks has a new comic called The Extinction Parade, which pits vampires against zombies as a kind of class warfare: The upper class preying on the middle class now have to face the consequences of their action — zombies. Can you think of a recent example of a film that really impressed you with how it reshapes the contemporary subtext you spoke of?
I'll give you an off-the-wall example: Her wasn't a horror film, but in a sense it was. You see this troubled zombie-ism happening electronically, with an operating system taking over not only a character's life, but everyone around him is talking to their OSes. [laughs] That's a very subtle horror film, when you start to realize that the very essence of human interconnectivity can be subverted by a parasitical operating system that feeds off human beings, and then just drops them. I think there's much less of a dividing line between horror and any kind of psychological drama because psychological dramas taps into something like the dream world.
Are we ever going to find out what you contributed to Deep Throat?
I'd like to know myself! [laughs] I think I gave a quote to a documentary.
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Inside Deep Throat.
Yeah. But I didn't work on that film. We might have been in a nearby studio, but that's about it.
What about working with [Friday the 13th director] Sean Cunningham on porn like The Fireworks Woman?
[Laughs] I might have directed that one. But apart from that one, I didn't make any others. But I might have directed that one.