Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Interview with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake writer Eric Heisserer - Part I

It's not often that I get to interview a writer while his first produced film is sitting at number one on the box office charts. Last weekend, the remake of Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street opened with $32.2 million at the box office, and today and tomorrow, we're hosting an exclusive interview with screenwriter Eric Heisserer about his background, rebooting Freddy and his future work on two other horror franchises - The Thing and Final Destination 5.

Be warned - this interview is RIFE with spoilers for A Nightmare on Elm Street!

Tell me a little about your writing background. What was your writing “education,” formal or informal?

Informal. No college. I’m more of an experiential learner. I started writing short fiction after high school, and eventually migrated to screenplays. I wrote my first feature script in 1997. That spec, plus the next three features, was the equivalent of a formal education. That is to say, the scripts were awful. Just terrible. But I learned a lot from them.

The million dollar question that ever reader wants to know – how did you get your agent?

I got my agent after I got my manager, which is probably the more important question. A writer friend referred me to Julie Bloom, who read one of my specs and liked it, then demanded to read another. She doesn’t sign new clients based on just one good sample. Thankfully she liked my second spec as well.

I had to network with fellow writers and people on the edge of the industry for five years before I got to the point where a peer was both willing and able to refer me to Julie.

As I understand it, your first sale was a spec called The Manifestant, all the way back in 2000. How many scripts did you write before The Manifestant?

The Manifestant, about someone who could conjure things out of thin air, was the fourth feature spec I’d written.

Was The Manifestant the first spec your agent went out with?

This predated my time with Julie Bloom. I was basically hip-pocketed by a manager for that option to Artisan Entertainment. That manager later retired from the business.

Unless IMDB is completely wrong, A Nightmare on Elm Street is your first feature credit, so what were you doing the last ten years? Were you getting rewrite work? Assignment work?

My real break happened with the sale of The Dionaea House, based on the online epistolary story I wrote in 2004. That got me in the door more than any other work I’d done prior. In the years between that sale and Elm Street, I worked on a number of assignments, rewrites, and I sold a few pitches as well, both features and TV. A few times I got dangerously close to a produced credit. In one case, the film was two weeks from shooting when the studio pulled the plug due to casting problems. Elm Street is my first produced credit after clawing my way up for the past ten years. Which is pretty much everyone’s “overnight success” story in this town.

If I’m interpreting the writing credits correctly, you came onto A Nightmare on Elm Street to rewrite a draft by Wesley Strick. What brought the producers to you?

Either the producers or the studio wanted a fresh approach to the script after Strick had done a pass, and I was the right guy at the right time. My old spec of The Dionaea House got me in the door, and my passion for the franchise got me the rest of the way.

What’s it like to get the call “They want to see if you can write the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot?” Is it exciting? Terrifying? Is it hard to take on this kind of remake knowing that a certain segment of fandom is going to oppose it on principle?

It’s all those things. In my first meeting, producer Brad Fuller pointed at me and said “You fuck this up, you fuck us all.” I had to prove I was worthy of being hired, since with no credits to my name I was obviously a huge risk. I would’ve worked my hardest anyway, but those words kept me up at night more than my fear of nightmares.

I knew there would be no way to appease every fan out there while welcoming in new fans. The original is near and dear to me, marking one of the few movies I snuck into the theater to see, so it was a daunting task.

Is it a challenge to get some measure of creative freedom when working on one of these franchise films? With something like this, surely there are plenty of people above you either weighing in or flat out dictating terms. Is there a risk of becoming little more than a stenographer?

It could have been a real problem if we hadn’t all gotten together early on and discussed the kind of movie this was supposed to be; the tone and the feel of it. Once we figured that out, I was given some elbow room to play in that sandbox.

Did you end up pitching them on how you saw the character and the story first, and then they said “Yeah, that works for us?”

Mostly. They started by saying: “This is what we want kept from Strick’s draft. These elements are important to us.” Then we discussed what elements from Craven’s original were crucial. And then I was let loose to figure out a story and characters to meet those guidelines. Even then, it was like: “Here is a hammer and a dozen planks of wood. Go build us a house.”

Were you a fan of the original films and how did that inform your take? What were the important elements for you to retain?

I liked the original and the third film, Dream Warriors. I enjoyed bits and pieces of the other films quite a lot, but those two were my favorites. The problem: The longer I dwelled on the original, the more I felt paralyzed in front of the computer. I eventually had to set that movie aside and create a story from the inside out. It was a long and frustrating process that I now feel was a no-win situation.

One thing that stuck out to me is that it took at least 45 minutes before Nancy really became the protagonist. The first 35-40 minutes it’s really Kris’s (Katie Cassidy) story. Then she hands off to the character played by Thomas Dekkar, and he’s center stage for about ten minutes until Nancy really starts to have significant screentime. Why structure the story like this? Was it a deliberate attempt to pull a Psycho-like bait-and-switch, or were there simply other Nancy scenes that got removed in editing?

This was an element from Craven’s original the producers wanted to retain. In the 1984 film, Craven leads you to believe the bubbly blonde Tina (played by Amanda Wyss) is our protagonist and that Nancy is just a friend in her social circle. It’s not until Tina is thrown around and killed in her bedroom half an hour into the film that we discover Nancy is our heroine. So I can’t claim that concept; that’s all Wes Craven (and, as you mention, Psycho, to some extent).

How do you balance the classic moments retained from the original with the entirely new elements? Does it feel like a catch-22 where you find yourself saying, “Well, we CAN’T cut out the claw coming out of the bathtub, or the girl being pulled up the wall!” as well as “But we have to do something different with this – otherwise the audience will see no point to the remake!”

In most cases director Sam Bayer just picked his favorites, like Krueger coming out of the wall, and those ended up in the movie. I tried my hardest not to focus too much on homage and more on character and whatever ideas or fresh updates I could contribute to the story. I knew that if I focused too much on the original I’d get paralyzed again by the task of re-imagining Freddy Krueger.

What “pure Eric Heisserer” elements survived all the way into the final film?

I had a laundry list of horror clich├ęs I wanted to subvert, like the beat where Kris washes up at the bathroom mirror and we all expect Freddy to appear in the reflection, but nothing happens. Some of those moments made it all the way to the end. Others were altered, usually due to budget or production problems. For instance, I tried to avoid the “Freddy standing in the middle of the road” moment since horror fans have seen variations of that a thousand times. Instead I had Freddy appear in the car with Quentin and Nancy, and we see a second after Nancy is gored that Quentin is the one having a micronap. He wakes from it just as he crashes the car into a tree. But for a number of reasons that scene was changed during production. And some changes caused other scenes to change with them.

Microsleep was another one of my ideas. But honestly it’s hard to recall all the ones of mine that survived. You tend to remember the ones that never made it off the page.

From what I’ve seen in the reviews, one of the more controversial points was making Freddy a child molester rather than a child killer. Were you a part of that decision, and what was the thinking behind the change?

That was something Strick introduced in his draft, based on his research into Craven’s early work on the 1984 film and his inspiration at the time. But a controversial case emerged at the time that caused the studio to flinch at the child molestation backstory, so Craven changed Krueger to a serial killer.

That was an impossible element for us to sell to audiences today. You can’t have a man kill 20-30 children in your hometown without everyone knowing about him for decades afterward. That sort of thing is a blight on a town’s history. Strick went back to Craven’s original idea of Krueger as a child molester, and I did my best to work with that idea and have it track.

Jumping off from that, at one point in the film, it’s suggested that Freddy might have wrongly accused of molesting. It would have been very gutsy to outright state that the kids lied or the parents reacted based on bad information. Was there ever a point where you considered following through on those hints? Do you think the audience would have accepted that kind of twist?

I don’t think anyone ever wanted Krueger to be innocent. We liked it as a false assumption or a red herring, but we never entertained the idea for Krueger. Because if he were innocent, then it’s a revenge tale, and that creates two problems. One: The movie’s hero would be Fred Krueger, and two: Once Krueger had his revenge against those who wronged him, the story would be complete.

I didn’t want to write a movie where you’re rooting for the monster. There are plenty of other horror franchises where you can get that. Friday the 13th, I’m looking at you. No, we needed Krueger to be a sick son of a bitch.

That said, the idea that the kids lied was based on a real incident of a day care center where the children began spinning tales because it got them attention from the parents and faculty, and before they knew it they had invented enough lies that they were terrified of being disciplined if they admitted it was made up, and one of the teachers was arrested on molestation charges. So it’s not like we were trying to stretch the truth. We were borrowing from the headlines.

It seemed like the movie might have done with a little more closure for the character of Quentin’s father, considering he’s the one who’s really responsible for Freddy’s death. Was there anything else with that character that ended up being eliminated in either the rewrites or the post-production process?

Oh certainly. I had a second confrontation with him and Quentin in one draft. My favorite version of that backstory actually had Nancy’s mother Gwen as the one who burns Freddy, because of all the kids tortured by him, Nancy got it the worst, and I could see Gwen snapping. Also it felt more interesting to see a mother being the main antagonistic force against Fred Krueger instead of angry-dad Clancy Brown (whom I love as an actor; he’s a great guy).

We lost a few scenes with the kids and their parents due to pacing concerns.

Have you already started thinking about what you’d like to do in the sequel, if asked?

I have a binder full of ideas for a sequel. I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to work on it, but I hope this time around I could learn from the pitfalls of this first movie and better shepherd the story from script to screen.

But wait! There's more!

Part II - Eric talks about his upcoming work on The Thing remake and Final Destination 5.

You can find Eric on Twitter: @writerspry. He's a stand-up guy and was great about giving his time for this interview, so tweet him some thanks if you get a chance.

7 comments:

  1. Saw the new Nightmare -- overall it was good. If Eric can fix the fatal flaw in the Final Destination series, there won't be any horror script he can't nail.

    The problem in the FD series is that the premise, as executed so far, has undermined the plot and characters. In the FD movies, a mystical vision prompts the protagonist to avoid dying in some squicky fashion, thus "ruining Death's design." Because Death does not take such affronts lightly, the protagonist(s) is/are doomed to spend the remainder of the movie scrambling to escape a series of deadly contrivances. If only he would just give up and DIE like he was supposed to, Death would be appeased and the ordeal would end!

    Ultimately, this makes the FD storyline far too deterministic. The protagonist(s) is/are a hapless victim, a reactive character playing off his heels in all the wrong ways. The characters are all mere tools of the plot contrivances instead of being able to actively and dramatically follow character arcs. Savvy viewers have little tolerance for a story in which the writer has prevented the protagonist from protagonizing!

    True, the protags manage to gain some respite at the end of the film -- only, in most cases, to be killed off in the next. This is utterly valueless storytelling and eviscerates both plot and character of the vitality that emotionally invests an audience and then pays them off. Upon exiting the theater, you haven't even been shown a movie. You've watched a snuff reel, and a lousy one at that.

    Ultimately, a FD hero must assert his right to live and find a way to defeat Death, and Death must be defeatable. (Meaning: the cycle can be broken. Obviously we all die eventually, so Death isn't "destroyed," merely defeated in the context of THIS story.) If not, the film remains a structureless miasma scarcely different than torture porn. (Though at least dreck like Hostel had proper arc and resolution! Aw Christ, I can't believe I'm citing Hostel as a POSITIVE example of anything!)

    Eric, if you can find a way to turn the FD series from a formless pile of crap into a worthwhile story, given the generally high production values in that series, you have a chance to make something really noteworthy. Good luck to you.

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  2. Thanks Eric and Bitter. I watched a video that talked about the 'The Dionaea House' project, and about the creating of the webpage, genius!

    Excited about The Thing. I've always been a fan of that movie's craziness.

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  3. Mike - Really interesting analysis of the FD series and it's conceptual challenges. Bravo.

    Peter - I didn't want to get too in depth about The Thing since it hasn't been released yet, but hopefully the aspects we discuss tomorrow will be enough to whet your appetite

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  4. That's quite sad... the idea that Freddy was innocent really would have given this new franchise some punch and some originality. I had been holding out hope that such had been the original intent, but evidently not. The idea that his being a child molester makes him more "sicker" than someone who tortures and kills children for fun betrays a lack of both insight and simple research on Heisserer's part. A little look into the pathology of those types of people could have shown him that. Freddy could still have been a perfectly effective antagonist as a previously innocent man, provided the betrayal had driven him sufficiently mad. What a missed opportunity. To hear it defended so casually, as though it were the obvious choice, is depressing. Especially as he DID write a movie where you're rooting for the monster, right up until the last fifteen minutes.

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  5. Wow, did I just say "more sicker?" That'll teach me to proofread for fragments of sentences I already deleted. My apologies to grammar at large!

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  6. loomborn - I actually get where Eric is coming from here. His point is that Freddy was already a sick man BEFORE the parents killed him (in either continuity, really. Here he molests kids, in Craven's concept he kills them.) Either way, he's a monster who becomes even more powerful and dangerous after the parents kill him. He's the villain of the story, with the kids as his innocent victims and the heroes.

    If Freddy is an innocent man who's wrongly killed, then the whole film becomes a revenge picture. Worse, it's a revenge picture where Freddy really has the moral high ground. The kids lied, and the parents overreacted - and suddenly you're telling a very different picture.

    That means that in a dramatic sense, Freddy's arc is over once he's avenged his murder. Not only does that make further sequels problematic, but it just feels WRONG. I think I see where you're coming from in suggesting he could have been driven mad. Your notion is that his transformation could have so twisted him that he's become the vile child-killing monster we recognize. At the end of the day, there still would be this sense that Freddy's actions are justified in someway because he's avenging an injustice that was done to him.

    I don't really see where we're rooting for Freddy at all in the film. He turns up as the sadistic boogeyman and it's well over halfway into the film before the notion is even suggested that he's innocent. Even then, it's not stated as iron-clad fact. At most, the red herring lasts 30-45 minutes and I didn't ever get the sense that audience sympathies for Freddie would have eclipsed that of the kids. (Freddy vs. the parents might be another matter.)

    I'm with Eric on this one. Freddy shouldn't be innocent. As I was watching the film, the suggestion that he might have been actually disgusted me and had me clinging to the hope that this was just a red herring.

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  7. Long before I read Freddy's backstory on Wikipedia I had my own concept. There is a book entitled "Battle Cry For a Generation" about the psychological damage that youth go through involving seeing violence or strong sexual situations that a young child's mind can't wrap their imaginations into. The images don't make sense when too young to process, but as their brains grow / evolve so do their imaginations to do what they see.
    I wanted to write my own version of horrific child abuse that Freddy went through in a believable prequel.

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