His movies — from his first, 1972's 'Last House on the Left,' through the franchises 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and 'Scream' — were unsettlingly violent. But the modern master of horror was, as Neve Campbell and more recall here, alternately playful and serious, joyful and kind.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The screenwriter recounts how even as a novice he was welcomed onto the set of Scream, where the director he so admired treated him to a master class
By Kevin Williamson
I remember my first Wes experience. It was watching A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was a kid from Goose Creek, N.C., in my freshman year of college. I had skipped classes and went to a matinee on opening day. It was early, and the theater was mostly empty. I sat there, scared out of my mind. I had to get up several times and walk around. I was so tense, my leg kept cramping. Finally, I just stood in the back, near the exit, watching. The movie was simply too scary. If anyone questioned it before, with this film Wes had clearly earned the title Master of Horror.
I would ask him years later, on set, how it felt to have that title. He joked, "I don't know. You should ask John Carpenter." Fair enough. But A Nightmare on Elm Street was revolutionary, and his work was astonishing and masterful.
I remember my first work meeting with Wes. I had been summoned to his home. He had just become the official director of Scream, and he had notes on my script. I got lost on my way to his house in the hills. I was late. I was so nervous, I was visibly shaking. This is the Master of Horror. What if he's a real horror? What if he hates my script? But he wasn't, and he didn't. His notes were production concerns and typos. He was very thoughtful, kind and sweet with a gentle, quiet nature. I remember the props he had around his house, little memories from his previous films. There was a stuffed dog from The People Under the Stairs, the Freddy gloves with finger blades enclosed under glass. I did everything I could do not to fan-boy freak on him. His house was a Wes Craven museum. I was in heaven. He said making a movie was a huge undertaking. Each project is comprised of blood, sweat and tears. The props were his memories of each unique experience.
Scream was my first film, my first set experience. I was a virgin. There's one on every show, and I was the one on Scream. And Wes embraced me from the start. He let me be a part of the process. I didn't know at the time that this was unheard of on a set. Most directors would have grown annoyed by the writer dogging their every step, asking questions, whispering constantly in the background — but Wes allowed it. He said it was exciting to see my enthusiasm, and it was always nice to have "set virgins" for this very reason. They're contagious. They remind everyone why we're here — to make magic. I've never forgotten that.
I remember the first day of shooting. It was raining and freezing. We were huddled in a video village outside a remote house in Northern California while Drew Barrymore was answering a phone inside. It was first-day chaos. I was soaking up every moment. I overheard a conversation Wes was having with the DP about a Dutch angle. He saw me listening, my face a question mark. He pulled me aside and explained. "First ring. Everything is in its proper place. But with the second ring it's time to give the audience their first moment of dread — with a slight shift in perspective. They shouldn't notice it. It needs to be subconscious at this point." So, here is the director of the movie, in the middle of his stressful, busy first day giving this novice kid from Goose Creek a master class in building tension. Beyond his filmmaking brilliance, it is his kind nature and quiet grace I will remember most.
As I sit at my desk, writing this, I look to my office shelves. I see the Scream mask on display. I keep props now, too. They're my memories.
Scream changed my life forever. Knowing Wes Craven changed my life forever. I am grateful. I am blessed. And I know the impact of his work will be with us forever. As the Master of Horror, he has made his mark in cinema. And, by knowing and working with him, I can also attest he is the master of kindness, grace, class and poise. Thank you, Wes. I will forever cherish the moments we spent together, the unique memories comprised of blood, sweat and tears. I will carry our memories always. Rest in peace, my friend.
For an actress, even one covered in corn syrup masquerading as blood, working with the director was like child's play
By Neve Campbell
I'm hidden in a closet, crouched down, covered in corn syrup, hyperventilating. I hear Wes Craven's normally soft voice boom through the wall behind me as he screams, "Action!" I leap out of the closet heaving my body toward Skeet Ulrich and dig the end of an umbrella into Skeet's chest as he flies backward, thumping to the floor seemingly dead while blood oozes out of a gaping hole in his ribs. We cut, and from behind the monitor I hear a childlike giggle. Wes is beside himself. He can't stop laughing. His over-6-foot-3 figure and long limbs float into the room like a gazelle as he chuckles away. "That was great," he says with a boyish excitement.
It comes from the top, the energy on a set. I've found that the energy of a director dictates whether the crew and cast are going to feel an excitement and enthusiasm about the project they are making and about the industry in which we are so very lucky to take part.
Wes Craven loved to play! On set, he was like a kid in a candy store. He loved what he did, he was great at it, and he was grateful for it. You could feel that across the room from him — gratitude, elation, a childlike enthusiasm mixed with a quiet but steadfast confidence.
In 1995, the majority of our cast were nobodies. Apart from Drew Barrymore and Wes Craven, the names Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich and Rose McGowan were meaningless to most households. Even Courteney Cox was only on her second year of Friends and just about to skyrocket. Our now-hugely successful writer, Kevin Williamson, was just starting out.
Little did we know that our few months in the sleepy little town of Santa Rosa, Calif., would give birth to one of the highest-grossing films of that decade and bring about a resurgence in a genre that had been deemed dead for years. Little could we comprehend the great success each of us would be gifted from having the opportunity to make Scream with the great Wes Craven.
Our lives would not be what they are without having worked with Wes. The love and passion came from the top, and it shines through in the quality of his work. He was a true innovator. From The Last House on the Left to A Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream. Wes has horrified and entertained millions for decades. His films have been and will continue to be touted as some of the greatest of their genre, and his crews and cast will continue to remember him as one of the best.
Rest in peace, Wes! We'll continue to watch your films and not sleep peacefully at all.
Why the co-founder of New Line Cinema bet on Freddy Krueger: "The whole world understands nightmares"
By Bob Shaye, as told to Gregg Kilday
I was convinced to go out to Los Angeles for the first time by a friend of mine who was a producer. He thought I should call and meet some up-and-coming directors, and Wes was one of them. I called and introduced myself, asked what he was doing, and he told me the story of Nightmare on Elm Street, which I thought was completely fantastic. I said, “That sounds really great. Would you send it to me?” Of course, we [at New Line] were not very high on the pecking order of producers. So he said, “Yeah, let me see what happens,” and I didn't hear from him for six months. But eventually I followed up, and he kind of deigned to send it to me. I responded to it the same way I had responded to his pitch, because it was one of those things that you find in the movie business that is so marketable because everyone in the whole world understands nightmares — even if they are different from culture to culture — and also are very relieved when they wake up from them. So that was the beginning. We put a deal together to make Nightmare on Elm Street. We didn’t have any money; I think I convinced him to take $5,000 for an option. It didn’t matter to me that everyone else had turned it down, because that wasn’t the first time that happened to me. But still, you’re able to go over things other people had already picked over and find a gem, and that’s what this turned out to be.
I had found a guy who had produced a couple of successful American films, a hail-fellow-well-met Yugoslavian car sales executive who liked the story a lot and, probably more importantly, his girlfriend liked the story a lot. He initially put up an important part of the equity financing. Then he fell out, then other people fell out. We had a home video sale but that got sticky. We were in need of product that would bring us some income. We thought this would be a perfect Halloween picture, so we had a start date we had to adhere to. And so we started preproduction, and I was funding it out of my own pocket, trying desperately to put together the funding of the movie.
Wes had this quite brilliant idea to hire Shakespearean actor Robert Englund to play the villain, a Gollum actually, who wasn’t supposed to say too much. The tradition used to be you hired a stunt man to play the bad guy because they always got the crap beat out of them, and they knew how to take it. Instead, we hired Robert, who was a good guy and a terrific actor to boot. He didn’t mind a few bruises when it came down to that. The comedy one-liners, I think, were very much Robert’s idea. There was a lot of growth in the character from when we got started.
[For the Johnny Depp part], we originally tried to cast Charlie Sheen, but he wanted 3,000 bucks a week. Johnny was a young musician who came from Miami to be in a band. Annette Benson was the casting director. She proposed him. A good-looking guy, he looked like the right guy for the job. Wes said, “He’s going to be great.” I said, “Fine, let’s go with Johnny.”
One thing that really impressed me about Wes, he had a lot of confidence in himself, and it was justified. I really believed that he mostly knew what he was doing. Obviously, my ego didn’t allow me to say that he knew everything and I knew nothing. But, first of all, it was his idea — he was the writer. Secondly, I’d seen some of his other movies; The Last House on the Left scared the hell out of me. He actually scared me a little bit, too. I realized he had the production pretty much clear in his head, and he knew how to do it.
I remember the first day of filming, we doing the graveyard scene. I was freaked out because we’d just barely gotten the money together by the skin of our teeth, and it was only an $800,000 initial budget, maybe a little less. He was doing a shot of a car pulling away. There wasn’t supposed to be a reflection in the rear windshield. So we did it three or four times. I said, “Don’t you think we’ve got enough?” He said, "Let’s take five," and he pulled me aside and said, “You’re the producer, but you’re not telling me how to make this movie. Just calm down and let me do what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to give you a good movie.”
I wanted a twist ending. That was our big falling-out and disagreement. He wanted to have Ronee Blakley open the door and Heather [Langenkamp] walks out into the sunlight, and that was the end of it. But I understood the convention of having a big scare at the end. Wes was against it, but we shot two or three different things. We still didn’t know how to end it. We tried different tests. None of them really worked. Finally Wes just decided, let’s use them all and see what happens.
His agent hadn’t negotiated any carried interest in sequels and remakes. Wes felt a little abused by it. We agreed frankly it was wrong, so we renegotiated our deal with him so he got a decent ongoing participation in any of the sequels. But he kind of thumbed his nose at them. Then he came up with the idea of reconstructing Nightmare [for 1994’s New Nightmare] with me and all the other people at New Line being in the movie, too. It was probably a little before its time, but it was a lot of fun to do.
Was Scream comedy? Horror? The one thing the head of Dimension Films knew is he wanted Craven to direct it
By Bob Weinstein, as told to Gregg Kilday
Craven and Weinstein in 2000.
I had never met Wes. I knew him from movies only, but I was a big fan of The Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street scared the hell out of me. So when Scream came along, he was most definitely my first choice to direct. But it’s a funny thing: As careers go Wes had just come off a picture called Vampire in Brooklyn, starring Eddie Murphy. It was a horror-comedy, and at the time Wes wanted to stay away from anything that was funny within the genre of horror. It wasn’t so much his assessment of the script as an assessment of where he was coming from career-wise that made him reticent to even look at something that gave him a flashback nightmare of his last film experience.
Over time, though, Wes and I kept the dialogue open. And over the next several weeks and months, we got to know each other on a professional level and somewhat personally, until he decided Scream was something he could put his heart and soul into.
One of things Wes and Kevin [Williamson] and I spoke about: When the script first went around, a lot of people who read it looked it as a comedy with elements of horror, because it was so damn funny. I remember asking Wes and Kevin whether I bought the right script or not, so I said, "Tell me: Is this a comedy with horror, or is it scary movie that has elements of wit and sarcasm?" They said, "Don’t worry, Bob, you bought the right movie." Wes promised me he’d scare the hell out of everybody, and he delivered.
I have to say, Wes and Kevin were great collaborators — and they certainly collaborated against me in opposing the title change I wanted to make. It’s so easy to get attached to any title that’s on the page. But when they said, "It’s first and foremost a horror movie," somehow calling it Scary Movie felt to me a little bit tongue-in-cheek, which it was. But I felt that would be leading marketing-wise with the wrong thought. I said to my brother, "Harvey, I don’t know about this title Scary Movie. It seems like the wrong idea." He said, "I agree." Michael Jackson had a song out at the time called "Scream." So Harvey called me and said, "I’ve got the title of that for that movie of yours — Scream." I called the guys, and I have to say they were less than thrilled. I would love to find this — there is a slate from the first week of shooting [that reads] "Scary Movie," before we changed the slate to Scream. But the rest is history, and it was the right title. Here’s the irony: When we then spoofed the genre, I humbled myself and called Kevin Williamson, and said, "Remember that movie you wrote called Scary Movie, which ended up being called Scream. Well, can I use that title?" And he got a great laugh out of and so did Wes.
The true fans can tell how great Wes was and what an artist he was. It’s no aspersion against the rest of the industry, but horror is looked at as the bastard stepchild of the art of moviemaking, and it’s anything but. That’s a shame [horror is seen that way], but I think other directors and the fans — and they’re the ones that matter most — knew he scared the hell out of a hell of a lot of people during his lifetime. And that gave him an endless amount of joy. He was a student of the art of that genre and what it meant, from a very intellectual level. It was just a joy to sit and listen to him talk about fear and psychology and what makes people afraid of things.
He always approached everything as if it were just as real as it could be. In the Nightmare series he was dealing with something that was very surreal, but he approached it with seriousness. I think that was his gift. You bought it 100 percent, and that’s why you took the ride with him. How he knew how to do it — that’s his art.