Dreaming up 'Nightmare' as latest horror reboot

First-time director Samuel Bayer tackles horror franchise

A vivid imagination has always come in handy in Hollywood, but these days it's re-imaginations that are running wild.

For Samuel Bayer, an award-winning director of music videos (Nirvana, Green Day) and commercials (Nike, Coke), dreaming up the new "A Nightmare on Elm Street" was the ticket to launching his feature directing career.

Opening April 30 from New Line and Warner Bros., "Nightmare" stars Jackie Earle Haley, a 2007 best supporting actor Oscar nominee for "Little Children," as iconic slasher Freddy Krueger.

"Nightmare" producers Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller previously scored with their Platinum Dunes rebooting of "Friday the 13th," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Amityville Horror."

Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's screenplay is based on characters created by Wes Craven in the 1984 hit that catapulted New Line to success. The role of Freddy was originated by Robert Englund, who then starred in five more features and 41 episodes of the late 80's TV spin-off "Freddy's Nightmares."

"Everybody knows who Freddy Krueger is," Bayer explained. "To reinvent this stuff for a new generation is truly exciting."

Casting the right Freddy was essential for the new film to work. When Platinum Dunes asked Bayer to come on board in early 2009, the only actor he envisioned for the role was Haley. Bayer had admired his work from 1976's "The Bad News Bears" through recent hits like "Watchmen" and "Shutter Island."

"There was an audition tape he'd made for 'Watchmen' that I got my hands on, which just blew my mind. That was really helpful in deciding that he was the right guy for the job."

In fact, he adds, Haley stole that movie: "He was the one character you really remembered and that you had empathy for."

It's remarkable, he said, how quickly "Nightmare" came together, considering he's "someone who has been locked in development hell for so many different projects in the last decade.

Fifty days of shooting began in late April 2009 in Chicago with a budget Bayer puts at about $30 million.

"There is a great community of people in Chicago. They're not too cynical. They're very enthusiastic when the Hollywood crowd comes down there to make a film."

It also helped that there are tax incentives for shooting in the Windy City and that crews there had worked on big films like "Public Enemies" and "The Dark Knight."

"They're hungry for the work and regardless of the tax incentive that means a lot -- that you've got really passionate crews that want to work hard."

Bayer treated "Nightmare" like a much bigger film, observing, "It's like here's a low-budget horror movie and people don't look at it the same way as a mainstream star-driven project with a big budget. We really approached the movie very ambitiously -- whether it's the stunt work or the number of locations we went to or the sets we built."

So it was a tough shoot, but he says that wound up working to the film's advantage.

"When we were shooting at 5 o'clock in the morning in an abandoned factory we'd been shooting in for two weeks and nobody had slept and Jackie'd been wearing the makeup for 18 hours, there was a lot of pain involved. And that pain, I think, translated on the screen.

Was his background in music videos and commercials helpful in directing his first feature?

"I feel like a virgin that's finally had sex and I can finally talk about it," he laughed.

"In music videos and commercials we have a very, very fast turnaround. From start to finish, it might be two to three weeks, including prep and post. This was a year of my life and nothing can quite prepare you for how much focus it takes to see a project all the way through. It's a different mindset."

His knowing how to work quickly and be well organized was a big help, "Anything with stunt work we pretty much storyboarded," he pointed out. "There was a fair level of improvisation with the actors. When we came onto a set I would block it with the actors, but I would also try to give them the freedom to come up with their own interpretation of what the scene was about or what their character would do."

Bayer believes a director should sometimes just get out of the way and let the actors practice their craft. On the other hand, when it came to elaborate stunt sequences like "lighting something on fire, we storyboarded it."

Unlike many first time directors who are digital fans, Bayer prefers working on film: "I would never shoot HD. It would be like cheating on my wife. That's how I feel about film. I'm old-fashioned. I like hearing the sound of the motor of a film camera."

With "Nightmare" about to open, Bayer's ready for action again.

"I put my heart and soul into this and now that this is really over I'm going to set meetings up and find the next thing."

Any ideas? "You know, I think I've spent so much time with Michael Bay I really want to blow something up."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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