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Set Visit: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

By Jeff Otto Monday February 22nd 2010 09:01AM

You just can’t keep a good man, or murderer, down. Long before the days of one-liners and product placement, the original Freddy Krueger was a pretty dark and demonic figure. He was a child murderer hunted down by the parents of his victims and burned alive. He returned to take his vengeance by tormenting and brutally slaying his captor’s children in their nightmares as they laid helpless, tucked into their beds.

To offer a little backstory, the Krueger character was first born out of the imagination of Wes Craven, who directed the first film and later returned for New Nightmare. Craven got the idea from a series of news stories about a young man from a Southeast Asia war camp who was suffering from intense nightmares, claiming someone was stalking him while he slept. He kept himself awake for days. When he finally did drift off, the family heard screaming and thrashing. They came rushing to his room and found him stone cold dead. Krueger’s look was based on a homeless man Craven had seen out his bedroom window as a child. The man turned when he felt someone watching him and locked eyes with a terrified young Wes.

Six sequels and a battle with Jason later, Freddy was a far cry from his dark origins. After being made into dolls, appearing on children’s lunch boxes and even VJ’ing for MTV, Krueger had grown into an icon of pop culture, less monster and more comedian, spouting catch phrases and cackling like a witch as fans cheered on his next kill. At a certain point, the question became, where exactly could Freddy go next?

After a long pursuit, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes finally acquired the rights to the next movie. Though the work of Dunes producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form (Texas Chainsaw, Amityville, Friday the 13th) has been uneven at times, the duo admitted to a certain passion for Mr. Krueger. Their plan was to bring Freddy back to his roots. “The first Nightmare on Elm Street was a scary, straight ahead horror movie,” said Form. “As they went on, they became more funny. We wanted ours to feel much more real.”

Dunes received the usual skepticism and outcries from fanboys, but they turned heads and silenced many critics by casting Jackie Earle Haley as Krueger. “Jackie brings something else to it that audiences will respond to,” said Fuller. “The fact that we have a guy who was nominated for an Academy Award playing Freddy Krueger is very exciting to us. It feels like it elevates our movie.”

Dark Horizons was amongst a select group of press invited to the Chicago sets of Elm Street last summer. As a longtime fan of the series, I went into the warehouse with an open mind, still a bit skeptical but also quite hopeful. Casting Haley meant they were taking this movie seriously, that they were going for a darker tone and stepping back from the cheesy grandstanding Freddy has become known for.

The visit took place on day 38 of the 46 day shoot. On arrival, we are greeted by Fuller and Form. Although they have always been receptive to online press, they seem noticeably more enthusiastic than past visits I’d done for Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning and Amityville Horror. Fuller, always the salesman of the two, grins widely, telling us the production has been going very, very well.

The first scene we observe occurs towards the end of the script. Nancy (Rooney Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) have discovered the basement where Freddy first did his dirty deeds. When Mara enters the room, Gallner sits in a chair looking dazed. He starts to shake and convulse before screaming in agony.

At this late point in the story, the characters have been sleep deprived for days and no amount of caffeine or energy drink is cutting it any longer. They’ve begun to experience a phenomenon called micro-naps in which the brain slips into a dream state for seconds at a time.

“This scene is way at the end of the movie,” Mara tells press. “We've found the preschool that we've been looking for. We go into the basement. I was just in Freddy's old bedroom. Basically at the end, there are so many micro-naps, you never know what's real and what's a micro-nap. What I just shot isn't real, it's still a part of a dream. And you'll see that when we film the second half.”

As director Samuel Bayer commands from behind a cluster of monitors, Gallner lets out a few more screeches and howls before the director is satisfied. “I think a couple more, I would have been fried,” says Gallner. Press commend the actor on his scream queen skills. “I think it helps because it echoes through the whole building, but thank you,” Gallner says, laughing.

As the crew sets up for the following take, we head to the cast trailers outside. It’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, meeting Mr. Krueger in the flesh. Up until this point, we hadn’t seen so much as a glimpse of Freddy’s new look, so we were more than a little taken aback when the slightly diminutive Jackie Earle Haley walked up to us, grinning and waving a polite hello. The detailed makeup covers his face and shoulders, though he was not yet in full costume. Instead, Freddy sported sneakers and gym clothing. Kind of hard to picture Freddy getting fit.

“It gets a little fuzzy in all of this makeup,” Haley tells press. “It gets kind of warm so hopefully I’ll make some sort of sense.”

By now you’ve probably gotten a glimpse of Krueger’s new look from the trailer and the shots of the forthcoming models and toys, but in person it is even more off-putting. Less the precise, symmetrical burns of the Robert Englund makeup, this look is that of a horribly charred burn victim. The burns are uneven, skin pulled taut and stretched out in all different directions. His ears are bent and burned, almost melted into the side of his head. The look is effective, even possibly making the observer feel a tad bit sympathetic. “It’s pretty encumbering,” says Haley. “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.” Haley added that the process took about three hours and 20 minutes.

The actor admits he was surprised when he was first approached for the role, but as the producers further explained their vision, he started to get into it. While he is not a fanatic about the series, he had a definite appreciation for the first film. “I actually saw the first one in the theater and I dug it,” says Haley. “The whole concept was just really neat. Of this group of monsters from the mid-‘80s, he was always the most interesting to me because there was some depth to him that drew me in. It made me curious what made this guy tick.”

Though this Nightmare remake is by no means a prequel, it promises to dig deeper into the Freddy origins than we’ve seen before in the series. “We delve in a little bit more and we learn a little bit more,” says Haley. “But it’s very based on stuff that we’ve learned prior. I think he’s a bit more serious than what we’ve seen before. [Freddy’s] a little more pissed.”

Heading back to set, it’s time for part two of the scene we witnessed earlier. The moment is a highly technical one requiring side-by-side monitors to match up shots. A large dummy head of Kyle Gallner will be placed over Jackie Earle Haley’s head. He will unzip the head and pop out at Nancy. When the scene finally plays out after some post production artistry, it should seamlessly transition from Gallner’s convulsing to Freddy tearing out of his body from the inside.

The moment proves more logistically difficult than first planned. Haley struggles to open the zipper on multiple takes. When he finally does get the head off, it never quite falls in the right way. “[That] was horrible,” admits Fuller. “That’s not going to be like that. It will be amazing in the movie. We were shooting different elements of it and the whole thing.”

There’s one more scene to be shot during our visit. It will take a little setup, but we are promised it will include Freddy in full costume and plenty of bloodletting. In the meantime, we speak a little more to the cast and crew to find out all we could about Freddy’s big return.

One thing you have to respect about Fuller and Form is they are always happy to address their critics. They are fans themselves and they really do want to make movies both fans and laymen will love. “When we’re making a movie, one of the first questions we ask ourselves is who’s our audience?” says Fuller. “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.”

“We always loved the character,” Fuller tells press. “We wanted it for a long time. We pursued it for a really long time. Our company, for the most part, has been making these remakes, and we find ourselves always attracted to a very charismatic antagonist; charismatic either in their weaponry or their personality. I feel like Freddy is the jewel in the ground, really. Personally growing up, I loved those movies, and Michael [Bay] loved those movies, and Drew loved those movies.”

After casting Freddy, the other character fans were most concerned about was Nancy. Heather Langenkamp brought a wholesomeness to the original girl next door character and fans were worried that Dunes might go for the standard hot Hollywood bimbo to fill the role. “I think the worst possible thing we could have done for Nancy was to get a girl who had big boobs and blonde hair,” says Fuller. “We would have been annihilated for doing that. I think one of the things that made the character of Nancy so great in the original films is that she feels like a real person. Rooney was someone who, to us, embodied that kind of natural, real girl thing that Nancy had in the original.”

Fans initially freaked when an early script leaked described Nancy as goth. Although this new Nancy is more of a loner than the Langenkamp version, she is definitely not goth. Mara clarifies: “She's not at all goth, except for the fact that goths are usually coined as disturbed.” When one journalist points to her dark nail polish, Mara laughs and says, “It’s purple!” adding that Nancy is “disturbed” and “alone in the world” because of things that happened in her past.

One outlet for the demons of her past is her artwork. “She'll just literally paint all night long,” explains Mara. “And the things she’s painting are repressed memories that she can't understand or remember. Her art’s quite dark and she keeps painting the same things, but doesn't know where they're coming from or what they mean, and she sort of starts to figure it out throughout the movie.

One of the most important elements of an Elm Street movie in comparison to other slasher flicks like Friday the 13th or Halloween are the visuals. Since so much of the movie is occurring in the dream landscape, almost anything can happen. The wilder your imagination, the better. Fuller and Form had spoken to music video director Samuel Bayer about some of their past projects, but they say Elm Street really felt like the right fit. “Because so much of it is about dreaming and creating a visual landscape where people are going to get scared, we feel like he is the perfect guy to do it,” says Fuller.

Although Bayer was not a particular fan of the original films, he saw the film as an opportunity to meld his sense of visual flair with a dark, truly scary story line. “I look at the old movies and I think the dream sequences aren't that interesting,” says Bayer. “I think they feel like bad Broadway musicals or something. I've looked at everything from German expressionistic film to Tim Burton movies to all kinds of disparate influences and the one thing this movie is going to have is a vision when it comes to the dream sequences. And I think they're beautiful and macabre and scary.”

“A Nightmare on Elm Street is absolute a great first film to do,” continues Bayer. “I wasn't really a fan of the original series. “I'm a fan of the idea of Freddy, not the movies. “I'm starting with the glove and the sweater and the hat and the legacy of Freddy, the story of Freddy, but I'm reinterpreting it my way and the way that Platinum Dunes sees it and I think that's really exciting.”

Speaking of that infamous glove, hat and sweater, the next time we see Jackie Earle Haley on set he is in full costume. The look of his new facial prosthetics combined with that dirty red and green sweater, the tattered fedora and, of course, that glistening glove of knived fingers is a sight to behold. Haley smiles and says hello when we see him again, but this time there’s something about his greeting that doesn’t feel so friendly. He just looks, well, evil.

Haley has multiple gloves for all different kinds of scenes. The one he is wearing now has rubber blades and one is partially missing so that it will look like it has been stabbed into his forthcoming victim’s throat. “This is a little lighter, but I’ve kind of gotten used to the ones with blades,” says Haley. “They’ve kind of gotten second nature.”

The final scene involves a flashback sequence in which Freddy will kill Jesse’s (Thomas Dekker) father. The dream scene takes place in Jesse’s childhood play room. Bayer yells “action!” Freddy grabs actor Christian Stolte from behind and runs a blade across his throat. Stolte gurgles in pain as blood pours to the floor with a splatter. Unlike the earlier zipper trials and tribulations, the scene is an immediate success. Bayer yells “cut!” and everyone applauds.

A good bloodletting feels like a fitting end to a day spent on Elm Street.

A Nightmare on Elm Street opens nationwide on April 30, 2010.

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