Brandon's Report: On the Set of A Nightmare on Elm Street
by Brandon Lee Tenney
February 22, 2010
So, I moved to Elm Street; it didn't last. But let me start at the beginning.
Last June, I took a little trip to Chicago. Just outside the city, in a large, dank warehouse, Platinum Dune's latest re-imagining of a classic horror movie was being filmed--part of it, at least. And the setting begot the proper mood. That early in the morning, it's as if I was either just coming out of a dream, or was being tricked by Freddy himself, still dreaming under his power. Either way, the journey had only just begun.
Before my trip, I made a point of re-watching the first five films in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in order to refresh myself on all things Freddy Krueger. He's kind of a dick, by the way. And that was my biggest question going in: will Jackie Earle Haley's Freddy Krueger retain the sardonic, sadistic humor of Robert Englund's. Another question: will Platinum Dunes reinvigorate the franchise and capture a familiar but fresh spirit, as I think they did with Friday the 13th, or will this reboot be another bland night at the movies for American horror. These questions, though, were only in the back of my mind upon walking on set. Especially when, bright and early, the first thing I saw was a full-scale, practical model of three dogs burnt to a crisp. Who knows what they were for. But I liked it.
The warehouse could very well have been a set in and of itself. But housed within it was the set of a dark, mildewy basement only Freddy would find habitable. In his nightmares. Strolling around set were Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner, who'll be taking over the roles of Nancy and Quentin, producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, and director Samuel Bayer. Missing, though, was Jackie Earle Haley. For then.
Later in the day, when we were able to sit down with Fuller and Form, I asked them about Platinum Dune's trademark use of backstory. In Wes Craven's original, Freddy's past is merely inferred and hinted at; in this film, however, we'll be seeing a lot of it on screen. Here's how that conversation played out:
Fuller: I think when we're making a movie, one of the first questions we ask ourselves is who's our audience? For the most part we felt, whether we're right or wrong, that our audience is really two groups of people. They're the people who are going to go see the movie because they are fans of the original, and then there are groups of people who've heard of the title, but have never seen the films and who are not familiar with the legacy necessarily. When you have to balance those two groups and attempt to satiate both, which I don't know that we're ever successful in doing it, but you can't turn your back on either of those two groups. So we try to figure out a way to get the back story in there so that everyone's up to speed by about ten to fifteen minutes into the movie. Everyone has the same amount of backstory knowledge going forward. Does that make sense?
I understand the plan, yeah.
Fuller: So what's your problem with it?
No, no. No problem. I'm just asking what do you like about it? Why do you think that's a necessary element?
Form: I don't think he was trying to necessarily tell a backstory for every one of these monsters.
Fuller: I'll tell you a story. On Friday the 13th, when we tested the movie, there was no backstory really in it necessarily. The first time we tested the movie it didn't have that in it. We all felt that the movie would benefit story wise from having that there.
Form: The audience told us they wanted it.
Is that a product of this generation, though, because you look at the original Nightmare, and, I mean, it just starts. It's Freddy and you kind of find out about him along with Nancy. I think there's something to be said about that type of horror movie. Why do we need to know everything?
Fuller: I don't know that you need to know everything, but we feel in telling the story that in order to understand how scary he is, you have to understand some of the background. It's a creative choice. We didn't necessarily go into the back story on the first Chainsaw.
Form: We didn't think we needed it there.
Fuller: No we didn't, and we didn't front load Nightmare either with backstory. On this movie you go on a journey with Nancy also. We don't open the movie with here's everything you need to know about Freddy and here you go. It's throughout the film. You learn about him.
So, in essence, this Nightmare on Elm Street will be an origin tale. We'll see Freddy as the gardener of a pre-school, pre-facial burns and dream jumping, as much as we'll be seeing those iconic gloves--which, after holding them, are 10 times as terrifying--and that green & red sweater. But after seeing the work Andrew Clement--the special effects make-up artist--put into Jackie Earle Haley's face, there's no question there will be plenty of that nightmare. The make-up is fantastic. It's a more realistic take on the burns, drawing inspiration from actual burn victims rather than the original make-up, which feature more stylized, deeper divots. There's also going to be a CG component to the makeup akin to Two-Face's in The Dark Knight.
But even without the CG, sitting in front of Jackie Earle Haley in full make-up was seriously creepy. Even more so because he's such a genuinely nice guy. Someone so sweet speaking out of such a fucked up face is, to say the least, unsettling. When asked how he felt underneath all that make-up, he had a quite a lot to say.
"It's pretty encumbering. All of this stuff is just glued, from here all the way to the back, every square inch of my back has got appliances glued to it. It feels like crap when you're sitting around, but it's kind of oddly motivating for the character between action and cut because it's just such a weird feeling. You know, I've got fake fingertips over here and the glove over here. I've got a cloudy contact and I can't see out of this eye at all and this one's bloody and I can kind of see out of it and of course I don't have my glasses so the whole experience is just this weird thing, but it oddly helps for Freddy once we're moving. Whenever I perform Freddy, all of this is going on so I'm able to, I don't know, it's part of the experience; I don't even know how to describe it."
There's definitely a method to Haley's madness. When he walked on set later in the day, he was Freddy Krueger. Sweater, fedora, glove and all. And despite his small stature, he commands the camera. In one of the last scenes we watched unfold--and the only one featuring Krueger--we watched him slit a man's throat while reveling in every bloody moment. This Freddy may have lost the majority of that sardonic humor, but he's got all the fright and deadly tendencies. As Haley put it, "It's probably a little darker, a little more seriousness. There's some of that gleefulness, but it's probably a little more serious. A little more pissed."
Before watching Freddy slice and dice, we were privy to a few scenes where, at this point, both Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner had been awake for a long, long while. When shooting intense scenes, she and Kyle both didn't like to get more than three hours of sleep. And this was an intense scene. Their sallow faces and posture said more of their exhaustion than words ever could. Both characters were falling in and out of micro-naps, unsure of what's real and what's a nightmare. Let's just say that this was a nightmare. And someone's face literally unzips to reveal Freddy hiding inside the body as if he's an ear of corn using that skin as a husk. That Freddy Krueger is at least still a dick. Maybe even more so.
Overall, I felt like the mood was exactly right on set. There was a definite, undeniable creepiness factor. And although the film is being approached from a more serious, more realistic angle, the heart of Wes Craven's creation is there. The entire cast and crew had imbibed it. All I know is that there's no way you could pay me enough to move to Elm Street. But visiting was anything but a nightmare. A Nightmare on Elm Street arrives in theaters on April 30th just before the summer kicks off. I plan on seeing it.