Wes Craven has been making people jump out of their skins for some three decades, with classics such as “The Hills Have Eyes” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, to the popular “Scream” franchise. It is a career defined by both resounding success and regrettable disappointment. Now, Craven has returned with the less horrific “Red Eye”, his foray into the pure suspense thriller genre. A fascinating and well respected filmmaker, he talked candidly about his work to Garth Franklin.
Question: Do you look at a film like Red Eye, as a career move, or do you look at it as simply a different challenge for you as a filmmaker?
Craven: No, there’s two or three very important things for me. One is just artistically to just personally be able to take that kind of material that’s really quite difficult and make it work – it’s great. for a long time I’ve sort of been chasing with the notion just being a horror director so – to make something that’s clearly a thriller and has, all sorts of psychological complexity to it and yet keeps the popular audience on the edge of their seats is – was very, very important.
Question: Do you use existing tricks in your repertoire to create that sense of fear, or do you learn new ones?
Craven: I think it’s just a general attitude of not – first of all not allowing yourself to do anything that you’ve seen before, unless you do it so differently that it actually startles the audience, like the head butt. You know everybody is head butting everybody’s heads now, but to make it actually hurt and have the guy bleed and almost get caught up because of it, puts it in a whole new kind of category because it shows a lot about the character losing his temper, and endangering his whole scheme by just getting so mad. it’s little details like that and it’s like, some of it is like you know what parts the audience are expecting from you, so like in the chase upstairs when she locks the door to the other bedroom and, I put the camera inside the top area looking out through the curtain – everybody immediately thinks oh the fellows going to jump out of the shower curtain, which is like, what horror films portray, and she stops and she thinks of that and, pulls back the curtain and there’s nothing there, and then the audience, oh I’m not smarter than he is, what the hell’s he going to do, I don’t know! So it’s like that kind of teasing and playing with the audience, in a way that you – I think the audience knows I know who they are and likes them and likes having kind of mental gymnastics with them to see who can figure out who.
Question: You’ve been making, you’ve been scaring audiences for some thirty odd years, I mean, is it kind of harder to come up with ways to create – especially since the audience has become so much more sophisticated since Elm Street – I mean what are the challenges for you to make, sort of, new ways of doing it?
Craven: I think you just have to put people in new territory, like with this film it’s – I can’t think of another film quite like it, where you have two people who are just in this locked-in situation and a killer who’s, a killer but he also can kind of be very charming and sometimes almost tender, and the next minute be just heinous, and you know … that kind of – it puts people in a consciousness of I don’t know where this thing’s going to go, or what this guy’s going to do, and, I don’t know whether this woman is going to stand up to him at all, and then what’s going on with her, I don’t know, there’s something about her I don’t know either, and you get all that stuff going in a way that’s sort of a complexity that – you just don’t see that in most horror films, it’s like they don’t have for the most part that kind of personal detail, those little mysteries and anomalies about people that, for me, makes them alive.
Question: When you started making films and you did the Nightmare on Elm Street, did you ever see yourself still as a working filmmaker still getting the job done, or was it very much a time of just let’s get this thing done and hope for the best?
Craven: Most of the time – there’s been – honestly – there’s been two periods in my life – film life – where I wasn’t able to get a picture going for a fairly long period of time. One was after Last House when both myself and my partner at the time wanted to do something very different so we weren’t stuck in the perception of being the kind of people that made that kind of film again. We tried for almost three years and both went broke and then I took an offer from a friend to do another scary movie and that kind of locked me into that. And then I worked very solidly through Deadly Blessing – the Deadly Blessing/ Swamp Thing era and right after Swamp Thing I had enough money in the bank to sit down and write a script and I wrote, a Nightmare on Elm Street, which I thought given the fact that I’d done these two horror films back to back and I wouldn’t be able to get money for them right away, and that took three years and I lost everything in the three years, to keep the show running I sold everything I had and, I was literally down to a tax bill for $5000 and my accountant said to me well we don’t have money to pay it and I borrowed the money from my friend, John Kinnear and right after that Bob Schaeffer lent me money to do Nightmare on Elm Street and then from Nightmare on Elm Street it’s just kind of been just work, pretty much as much as I wanted in that genre with an occasional chance to do something outside, like Music of the Heart or maybe, Serpent and the Rainbow.
Question: When you do a film like Music of the Heart and that doesn’t kind of take off as well as you hoped, do you get – do people then look back at you and say well you know what, you didn’t really do this one thing and –
Craven: I’m sure that has happened. I think it’s been rather than a great leap out of horror and other things, I think it’s been kind of a slow step by step, proving by putting a lot more into even a horror film than people might expect to be in it, earning the right to be considered, capable of a lot more, especially with actors, then so at the same time you take one step away from it and you’re doing a thriller instead of a horror film and now we’re starting to get, especially with smaller studios that are willing to take risks, offers to do things that are completely out of the genre, so, it’s taken a long, long time. Romantic comedy, costume drama, road pictures – those are the three that we have.
Craven: So it’s trying to deal with the fact that I have a very negotiable bond in a way with the Wes Craven brand, so I don’t want to be so stupid that I destroy that and throw it away, but at the other hand – not just materially, I’m in many different places than scaring people, to me it’s almost like this anonymous god of ability I have that, I can kind of do it with my eyes closed but it really doesn’t have that much to do with who I am.
Question: It saddens me, that you feel that you have to prove yourself after all this time in showing yourself as being a really accomplished filmmaker. Does it get to you that you still have to do that – that you still have things to prove?
Craven: Yeah. But not so much that it drags me down, you know … it’s just a pain in the butt, you wish you were, I don’t know, working in a studio where there’s a guy who says okay Craven, you’ve got to do a western next month, and in three months I want you over here doing this, Key Largo or something, and you’re just a working director, that’s – I always felt like just – just to be working with the best where you’re out doing a lot of different things using that basic toolkit of skills and cinematic, talent, to do a wide range of things, all of which makes money for the studio to the point where they feel like okay about giving you the money to do one more.
Question: What did the whole Cursed experience teach you about the business side of movie-making?
Craven: I tell you what, the thing that I did that I shouldn’t have done, because you know we were preparing another film and we were just virtually about to shoot it when the plug was pulled on it and I was so much in shock and all the people working with me were suddenly out of a job and I made the mistake of saying, okay I’ll do this – this script about something I thought was really horrible and I told them so, I said this is why I don’t want to do the film and they sent it back to me, I’ve read all your notes, I agree with everything, let’s go. And so, kind of, because I wanted to be making a film and I said okay and it was like two years of hell, so .. I think I will never ever, hopefully ever, make the mistake of starting off on something that I’m really not passionate about, just because I want to be working and I want to have everybody around me that I love working – it’s not worth it.
Question: So you – are you much more aware of getting the script right before you start?
Craven: Yeah. And it was a stupid mistake, you know –
Question: Was this one pretty good?
Craven: It was great. That was the big difference and that’s why I did it because I was really kind of exhausted but – but, towards the end of Cursed, but the script was so good and it was a thriller and I had been wanting to make a thriller and I said, okay, and the studio was very enthusiastic and they literally were fans – I mean half of the guys that were my bosses so to speak had been kids that, had grown up on Nightmare on Elm Street.
Question: Can you look back at all to your earlier work and see it objectively and think of where you were at the time you made those films, and are they things that you feel close to, or that you feel protected from?
Craven: Ah, depending on how much control I had and how much it was kind of out of my own mind – I’m very happy with, Last House, Nightmare on Elm Street, People on the Stairs, Shocker, although Shocker is really hurt by bad special effects. I like all those films. I’m very proud of them. There is a couple, Deadly Friend or something like that, that was just like a nightmare from the beginning and there were, I think, eight different producers with eight different ideas about that – that’s horrible.
Question: What other films that you mentioned that you’re going to do?
Craven: Maybe the smallest which was the little road picture because it could be done really inexpensively.
Question: Would that be inde?
Craven: Yes a very small inde – inde-type studio, a Fox Searchlight size, you know … but right now, to bring the conversation back to Red Eye, I really literally I feel so positive. After the premier – I haven’t spoken to anybody about this – but I woke up at 5.00 in the morning and I should have been totally exhausted, and I woke up with this incredible sense of just peaceful energy, like I had just come out of – I don’t know what – a long, long struggle, you know – I mean Cursed was really hard and then before that there was a very difficult writing period on the film I was going to make and before that I had quadruple by-pass, so it’s like, I had gone through a lot and suddenly I just felt like I had gotten it right and -like it was just the best feeling – I just got up – I did Friday’s crossword puzzle in fifteen minutes and had a cup of black coffee and just felt like on top of the world …
Question: Well you’ve done a thriller …. where you can balance the kind of plot and character and do it in a really nice way … and, I’m amazed that you’re able to – to do so much in a confined space and create that sense of fear …
Craven: Well they’re a pair of great actors, yeah not to be disingenuous, you know but they really, really are good, so as much as I had I never was impeded by what they didn’t have – they brought so much to the table, so, it was one of those really happy experiences.
Question: Are you looking forward to getting – having the critics on side? Not that they’ve treated you particularly badly over the period of time.
Craven: No, no I feel I’ve been treated very fairly, but, just the response has been incredible – I mean every interview we’ve done, people start by saying they really, really liked the picture, so it’s like wow – yeah that’s like – like Geddes, everybody, it’s like oh my god, because the reaction has just been universally a happy pleasure with the film. That’s – there’s nothing much better as a filmmaker than to have an audience that really feels like they got their money’s worth and they want to see the next thing you do. So that’s great.