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1:1 With Nightmare on Elm Street’s Sam Bayer

On remakes, past projects, Krueger & more

If Sam Bayer is nervous this morning by the deafening and divisive online opinions surrounding New Line’s latest trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street, a reboot of the Freddy Krueger franchise, he’s not showing it. In fact, he’s pretty mellow with a pack of Marlboros in hand ready to sit down with Shock Till You Drop at L’Ermitage’s writer’s lounge (where scripts for Jaws and The Godfather hang on the walls across from the bar) in Beverly Hills, pound some coffee and talk about his controversial feature debut.

Bayer has made his career in the music video world having directed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Nirvana, Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains” and David Bowie’s “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” to name a few. A Nightmare on Elm Street, opening on April 30, marks the end of a long flirtation between Bayer and Platinum Dunes’ producers Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form. As you’ll read below, Bayer was involved in a number of their projects until he finally accepted to dance with Freddy Krueger and bring this maniac back to the screen.

Ryan Rotten: You’ve had a relationship with the Platinum Dunes fellas for a while, right? You almost directed a few of their projects.

Samuel Bayer: Yeah, we go all the way back to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For whatever reason, I just said no. I said no to that and no to Amityville Horror. I always liked the guys a lot and as I saw the success of different movies and what they were doing with titles, I think we developed a relationship. We had another title, a remake of Near Dark. I think when Twilight was coming out, that was the competing vampire movie. It was very hard to compete against that.

Rotten: Sure, but those two films are different beasts.

Bayer: Oh, I would have loved to have done that. I’m a big fan of Bigelow and The Hurt Locker. Near Dark is a very underrated cult movie. The first 45 minutes is insane. But, that fell apart. I was going to do another film with them called Fiasco Heights which is like a Sin City-type film. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Then Nightmare came about. Initially, I said no.

Rotten: Right, you passed on it twice and then Michael Bay approached you. What happened during that conversation?

Bayer: Michael sent me an e-mail and made a lot of sense. Just talking about the business and why this was a good movie to make. There was a lot of opportunities in doing this that might not have happened with another film. I think what he said made a lot of sense and I think it’s hard to argue with the richest guy in Hollywood.

Rotten: Had you ever been so vigorously pursued by another producer like that?

Bayer: Probably not, no.

Rotten: Why now break into features?

Bayer: I’ve been wanting to make a movie for a while and besides The Boys there’s other stuff I’ve had in production. I was going to make a movie with Benicio Del Toro at one time. I was attached to Monsters Ball ten years ago. Various projects came and went, years passed. Now I think what happened was was I thought whatever that first film was going to be, it better be the right one. Michael said I could wait forever and it might not ever happen. He definitely got my appetite whet and the more I thought about what could be done with this franchise, the more excited I got.

Rotten: How close was Near Dark to becoming a reality?

Bayer: We had various drafts. We certainly were not at the casting stage, nor did we have a finished script. Michael was looking at pages. It was an updated version of the original. In retrospect, that’s a tough one. Lance Henriksen did such an amazing job as the lead. Bill Paxton… Everything Bigelow did with the movie, I’m glad it didn’t happen. It was done pretty damn well the first time, you know?

Rotten: I agree. I never want to see a remake.

Bayer: The only thing I’ll say about Near Dark, it seemed liked if there was one thing we could have worked on is it feels like they rushed the third act of the movie. But the rest of it was amazing. Looking back, I’m glad it didn’t happen.

Rotten: When Nightmare came along, was it solely the Wesley Strick draft?

Bayer: I think it was a combination of Wesley’s draft and Eric’s draft.

Rotten: And was there stuff on the page that immediately made you satisfied with the decision you made to commit to the project? Or was there still plenty of tinkering, in your mind, that needed to be done?

Bayer: I think there was definitely stuff that needed to be tinkered with, but you can see the bones and the frame of it on the page. People are going to talk about the movie. We’ve gone in a slightly different direction with our take on Freddy and I like that. We delve a little deeper into him as a person. How he became the thing he was. That’s certainly attracted me to this character. He’s not a mindless guy with an axe. He’s a thinking, talking, psychologically disturbed character.

Rotten: Do you find any merits in the sequels or do you strictly dig the first film?

Bayer: I think the first one is really the one I look to as my inspiration. Freddy wasn’t a jokester, and if he did tell jokes, they were sick and dark. He scared people. That’s what I’m attracted to. That’s what Wes Craven created that we pay homage to. Hopefully, the fans will get that. I love what Robert Englund did with it and people remember different pieces of the franchise, but it really is the original that has the DNA of what the character is supposed to be which is really scary.

Rotten: Being a highly visual guy, was there anything attractive about the aesthetic of Craven’s original that you liked, too?

Bayer: Just the fact that he came up with the genius of that sweater and claw. The Fedora, burnt skin. I look at it like, there are overtones of Blue Velvet and David Lynch movies in there. There’s a strange quality to the original movie.

Rotten: The small town portrayal?

Bayer: Exactly. You can’t describe it as camp. There’s a deliberate sensibility and that’s what we tried to do with this one. It takes place in Springwood, Ohio, this fictitious universe that’s a microcosm of the American experience. Craven is a smart guy and there’s a deeper meaning in his movies. It’s definitely not a standard slasher film. This is a movie that you can mention to people and their jaws drop. And not because I’m redoing it, but because of that franchise, that character, had a profound effect on their childhood. And not just for horror fans. I hear things like, “Freddy scared the hell out of me.” I think what I want to do and what everyone involved wants to do is re-invent the character for a new generation, I think I’d be happy if people welcome this and at the same time see we’re going off on a slightly different path, but if you follow the DNA of it, it goes all the way back to the first movie.

Rotten: I’m surprised to see so many of the iconic moments from the original resurface, like the glove in the bathtub…

Bayer: We had a screening where I heard people clapping when she gets in the bathtub. I heard people clapping when Kris floats up in the air. We did it for the fans, ultimately. You might not remember these scenes, but my God, if you do, we tried to honor them. I really hope the kids who are fans of this franchise get it, we did it for them.

Rotten: What have you, personally, brought to the table?

Bayer: I certainly think there’s a deliberate looking and feeling to this. I’m proud of the performances we’ve gotten. I think we made an intelligent horror movie. I said to a friend during a discussion, you can either pretend and try and put style into something, or your style speaks for itself and you’re not pretending. That’s where I am. If anyone does know me or my music videos, you’ll see this movie is connected to that style. The way I see the world is part of this movie.

Rotten: You’re fresh off a second test screening. Do you like that part of the process?

Bayer: All I can say is I find that process to be like going to the proctologist and you hope he doesn’t find anything. But if he does find something, because they found it soon enough, they can cure you. The last test went well. It’s an interesting process because what you think works in a dark room at 3am may not necessarily work with 300 people in a dark room two weeks later. After going through this, I definitely believe in the process. Doesn’t mean that it’s pleasant or fun. Doesn’t mean listening to a focus group of wannabe filmmakers dissect your work is fun, but sometimes they’re right.

Rotten: Was Jackie Earle Haley’s involvement already being mulled over when you were brought in?

Bayer: It was definitely not a decision made before I came on board, but he was the first name that Andrew, Brad and myself got excited about. We got our hands on a screen test for Rorschach that he gave to Zack Snyder that was unbelievable. It blew my mind. He’s the real deal. He becomes that character. I appreciate his craft and how much he cares about what he does. You have got to convince someone that you’re a psychopathic character with a burned face and a claw. I don’t know how much research you can do for that, but you’ve got an Academy Award-nominated actor that has to go deep to find that and not do it in a silly way. I hope people see and respect what he did with the movie because he worked hard. The glove he wears is a really heavy, nasty object. There’s something empowering about it when you put it on. We did a couple of scenes with him and Nancy where he’s threatening her with it and it’s just creepy.

Rotten: Any close calls with the glove?

Bayer: Thankfully, no. Luckily nobody got hurt.

Rotten: The recent test screening was with the footage you shot in December?

Bayer: We re-shot a couple of scenes over the holiday, I think it helped the movie. There are good scares.

Rotten: You told me that the scene we saw on the day we visited the set has been cut out of the movie. Take me into the editing room, between a couple of deleted scenes I’m hearing about and the reshoots, what balance were you trying to find?

Bayer: I think we found that some stuff that we thought worked really well, didn’t work as well as it did. We were in a really lucky position to re-think some stuff. I think some of it has to do with scares, some of it has to do with how much you saw Freddy. Some character stuff. It’s all tiny pieces of a puzzle, like the scene you mentioned and saw. It’s not that it didn’t work great, it just means it’s a better movie without the scenes we cut. You can’t be precious about stuff.

Rotten: Being new to the feature film game what horror film inspired you?

Bayer: I think the success of Paranormal Activity certainly influenced me. I looked back – and I’ve said this in other interviews, but I think it comes out wrong – I appreciate what’s out there. I don’t personally like torture porn, but real horror comes out of believing in your characters. I think a movie like The Strangers works. It’s what you don’t see that makes you scared. If I’m influenced by something, it’s trying to create real flesh and blood characters that you’re invested in emotionally. What I’ve learned, especially with Andrew and Brad, some of it is just timing issues. Cutting something a certain way to make it scarier.

Rotten: Your dynamic with those two was good?

Bayer: I think we’ve had a good relationship.

Rotten: I’m just curious because they’ve been courting you for so long.

Bayer: It’s like any relationship. I think there were times they threw the engagement ring back at me and said they never wanted to see me again. There are other times we were madly in love with each other.

Rotten: One of the things hinted at during our set visit was something called the “Nightmare Map,” can you explain what that is in the film?

Bayer: We had something, at one time, one of the characters – every time he went into a dream – he’d come back out and write down where he had been and that would be a clue for the other characters. It’s just something that didn’t translate. It’s this wonderful idea that meant more on paper than it did on the screen. But I’ll be selling my Nightmare Maps on Sunset Blvd. for a dollar a piece. [laughs]

Rotten: Now, after this you’re off to work on the score. Who’s doing it?

Bayer: Steve Jablonsky. We’re still in the midst of post-production.

Rotten: Is Jablonsky working in the Nightmare themes?

Bayer: I think it’s pretty cool what he did. I don’t want to give anything away, but you’ll hear. You’ll see. I think he did a great job and is very talented.

Rotten: We’re talking on the day the full trailer is released. Are you reading what people say online?

Bayer: I do read what they say. I think everybody has to realize this is a movie made by fans of the genre. Platinum Dunes respects the genre. People should understand this was made for the fans and not to disrespect the series. I read stuff and there’s a lot of venom. Some people can’t wait to see it and others…they want Platinum Dunes to burn in hell.

Rotten: Or get cancer. That’s the worst one…

Bayer: Or, why don’t they get a real director to do this? Listen, for every one of those, there’s something really clue. I read a lot of great responses to the new trailer. I don’t think people get it’s a big movie. Sometimes horror movies feel like they weren’t made on big budgets, we tried to make a movie that looks and feels really big.

Rotten: Doing this, obviously you have no qualms against the idea of Hollywood doing remakes…

Bayer: People think Hollywood does remakes because we’re out of ideas. I think it’s less we’re out of ideas, it’s more: If something’s done cool one way, maybe there’s another way to do it really cool. I get criticized for this, I’m not Chris Nolan, but I like what he did with Batman. That’s not to knock the TV show, Burton’s vision or the Val Kilmer version, but there are ways to reinvent stuff. I don’t think everything needs to be remade. The Exorcist, Citizen Kane, I don’t think they all need to be redone.

Rotten: To me, it seems like some characters or properties refuse to die but their franchises hit a creative wall and there’s nothing left to do but hit the restart button.

Bayer: I love that. You almost have to wipe the slate clean.

Rotten: Spider-Man is the most recent, but I think they could have gotten away with a fourth film if they played it right.

Bayer: Or The Hulk, there should be a proper time period.

Rotten: Are you lining up projects now that you’re in the home stretch with Nightmare?

Bayer: Yeah, I’m catching my breath but I’ve been offered some stuff. There’s one comic book I really dig that I want to go after that’s bad-ass. I’d like to get it, it’s called The Boys. It’s about a group of mercenaries and they’re job is to kick the shit out of superheroes who get out of line. It doesn’t get any better than that. In the world of The Boys, superheroes are scumbags. My youngest brother is a comic book historian and he introduced me to a lot of graphic novels like “The Dark Knight.” There are some great books I don’t think people have tapped into yet.

Rotten: Do you think you have a future with Krueger?

Bayer: I think we’ve had our run. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.

For more coverage: Set Report | Jackie Earle Haley Interview | Trailers & Photo Gallery

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor