Set Visit: A Nightmare on Elm Street!
The creepiest thing I saw on the set of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET didn't involve the scene of a nightmare, a grotesquely disfigured boogeyman, or a helpless and struggling victim - although those are all things I actually did witness. No, the moment that sent a chill down my spine centered on a young blonde girl, probably no older than eight, being examined by her mother in a bedroom. They stand before a mirror, and the mother carefully lifts the back of the fragile girl's shirt... and sees long, thin, reddish wounds there. The girl is clearly uncomfortable, and the mother is disgusted and horrified. It's the kind of image that makes you suck in your breath through your teeth, that makes you physically anxious, that makes you kinda wish you were looking at something else...
Welcome to the new Elm Street, boys and girls.
In the two and a half years I've been writing for JoBlo.com and Arrow in the Head, I've had the pleasure of visiting more than a few movie sets. Of course, it's always a treat, but some cause a greater amount of glee and anticipation than others. And when I was invited to the Chicago set of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, my glee took the form of a genuine fist pump and a comical utterance of "f*ck yeah!" There may have even been an enthusiastic jig; the memory is hazy...
Who among us wouldn't be excited? I'm going to assume the majority of you grew up watching old Fred Krueger slay teens and crack wise; those who didn't are still familiar with the grotesque monster's demented shtick, and probably well-versed in the trappings of a NIGHTMARE film (kid nods off, kid realizes they're in a dream, kid gets murdered by an evil cretin who happily mocks their suffering). And while a large percentage of Freddy's fanbase is dubious about a Platinum Dunes-masterminded re-imagining of NIGHTMARE, can anybody say (with conviction) that they're not the least bit curious about what a new, dead-serious take on the Springwood Slasher might look like?
A NEW "NIGHTMARE"
Fittingly, the visit to the set of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is at night - even though it's inside. It's Day 27 of the production, and the majority of their shooting days have been night exteriors. To keep everybody's body beating the same drum, they're sticking with the evening schedule, which can run anywhere from 5 p.m. to 5 or 6 in the morning. This is a warehouse a few miles outside of Chicago proper (amusingly, there's a sign outside the warehouse announcing, clear as day, that this is the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET SET! So much for keeping things covert.) and once we enter we're almost immediately introduced to the scene I described above. It always strikes me just how fake a bedroom looks on a soundstage. No doubt, it will be completely convincing when the final product is unveiled, but to my eyes in that context it's just a large-scale dollhouse. Of course, the little girl's back is convincing, right then and there, and I think all of us (a large contingent of journalists) are immediately surprised to find how unnerving the sequence appears to be. Later, producer Brad Fuller will agree that it's an uncomfortable visual, and that the movie is filled with cringe-inducing moments like that.
After all, the intent isn't to make a fun, "sex, drugs, and rock & roll" horror movie in the same vein as the company's last project, FRIDAY THE 13th. They're aiming for gruesome and disturbing with this one; a visceral experience to obliterate any preconceived notions Freddy fans might have going in. Fuller says, without irony, "With this, its more about terrifying and unsettling and, if were lucky, making people have horrible nightmares." That's quite a goal for the namebrand, which people have long ago disassociated with anything genuinely terrifying. Of course that's mostly due to Freddy Krueger himself, who became more and more of a (bad) nightclub act with every sequel. (Culminating in the truly awful FREDDY'S DEAD, which threw out all pretense of Freddy being a scary character.) Freddy's effectiveness as a horrifying villain is crucial to this reboot's success, which is why his face is now a skin-crawlingly grotesque creation. The familiar "pizza-face" look of Robert Englund's Freddy is gone; Krueger now looks like he literally just stepped out of a burning building. A walking nightmare.
But don't worry. Freddy will still get in a few funnies - they just might be a bit more on the mean-spirited side. "Its not like 'Are you ready for primetime?'" Form explains. "He doesnt say stuff like that, but he definitely screws with the kids."
Moving on from the child's bedroom, we see a few more sets, which bring to mind some moments in early NIGHTMARE movies: a burned classroom, black and filled with soot; things crackle underfoot. There are some disturbingly drawn characters on the chalkboard. "Maybe Freddy's teaching a lesson", Form says. Apparently the room will be flooded later on; in context of the movie, this is one of the many locations "Kris" (played by Katie Cassidy) will visit in her nightmare. Another classroom connects to the burnt one, this one more docile. Kris will be running from one to the other, in a sequence that the creators certainly hope is one of the film's major set-pieces. After the classrooms, we're led into "Freddy's Cave", which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. A black, grimy subterranean cavern. Roots jut out from the cave's ceiling, candles litter the floor. It looks like it should smell something terrible. The guys are mum on what goes down in here; whatever it ends up being, it'll be dark and spilling over with bad intentions.
But before she gets there, Kris will have to wiggle her way through a cave, which is the next thing we're led to. It's actually half a cave - necessary of course so that the cameras can document Kris' journey through the crumbling, gloomy crawlway. Samuel Bayer seems immensely concerned about the dirt being poured on Cassidy as she struggles to excavate the thing. Men stand above the tunnel and pour boxes of the stuff on top of her. Apparently, more and more dirt is needed, and Cassidy is game. (The actress is always smiling when the filthy take is over.) This goes on for hours: more than a few times we're called away to look at something else, and each time we return to the tunnel set, Cassidy is still grasping her way through it, the dirt heaped upon her in obscene amounts.
At one point, Brad Fuller asks us if we recognize what she's wearing, which looks to be a football jersey. All of us - ELM STREET fans, mind you - are stumped. With a smile, Fuller tells us it's the same jersey Johnny Depp wore in his famous death scene from the original NIGHTMARE. The point is clear: these guys are fans, too.
PLATINUM DUNES and SAMUEL BAYER
There's a line in François Truffaut's great film about films, DAY FOR NIGHT, that goes: "A producer should stay out of sight." It's safe to say the Platinum Dunes guys feel quite differently.
If it was a secret or somehow not understood before, let's put it out there in the open right now: Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, whom with Michael Bay make up the production entity that is Platinum Dunes, are very involved with their projects. It's obvious from the way the set runs, to the way the final products play: their fingerprints are always visible on these films. It wasn't, however, so completely certain to me until Brad Fuller himself, in an off-hand sort of way, said exactly that while I was chatting with him during the Katie Cassidy dream sequence. "Look", Fuller said, his eyes focused on the tunnel, "we're extremely hands-on. Some directors are wary of that."
Fuller also admits to me that they've had difficulties getting directors on board with with their particular way of running the show. I bring up Marcus Nispel, who teamed up with the production company twice (2003's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and again six years later for FRIDAY THE 13th), and Fuller makes a face and a kind of "ehhhhh" sound, which I take to mean that even that relationship is a bit frosty. Most of the directors they recruit, Nispel and NIGHTMARE director Samuel Bayer included, primarily come from music video and television commercial backgrounds. You could say this is to bring new, edgy visions - at discount prices - to the table. You might also speculate that this gives Fuller, Form, and Bay ample opportunity to mold the films in their own image... (If you're asking my opinion, it's probably a little of each.)
An interesting note: We never speak to Bayer. Of course, it was late and the production was running at a steady clip, but it's often common practice on these set visits to spend at least five or ten minutes with the director, pick his brain a little... Doesn't happen here. I may be a conspiracy theorist, but I have to wonder if that's by design. When we sat down with Fuller and Form - who were very open and congenial, it must be said - were we actually sitting down with the real filmmakers?
To hear them tell it, Bayer is a director they've been after for a long while. "We offered him AMITYVILLE HORROR, that far back," Form says. Fuller is quick to add, "And we offered him this and he passed." Apparently, Bayer passed a number of times before Michael Bay stepped in and talked with him one on one. Obviously, he made a convincing case...
Whatever the truth, the producers insist that this is a film unlike any other they've made before. Fuller: "Im not taking a run at Marcus [Nispel] or any of the other guys weve worked with, but a lot of that was 'Run from here to here and lets make sure that weve got the shot and make sure that the jump works.' This is a much more nuanced directing job and we always felt that Sam had the ability to get that done."
(Look for the entire interview with Brad Fuller and Andrew Form in the coming days.)
FREDDY KRUEGER AND THE GLOVE
As cool as everything else had been, I knew we were really there for one thing, and one thing only: A look at the bad man himself.
We head on over to the make-up trailer, where Jackie Earle Haley is in the middle of a three hour and twenty minute process that transforms him from a mild-mannered, quiet fellow into, you-know-who. When we walk inside, we immediately crowd around the chair Haley has been sitting in for over an hour, while make-up guru Andrew Clement applies latex to his face. Clement's assistant, Bart Mixon, works on turning Haley's hand into just as morbid a sight to behold. At the moment, Haley isn't in full Freddy form. His neck and mouth are getting there though...
We ask Clement about the design faze, and how they came to settle on the particular look that Freddy has this time around. "We spent months in the design faze," he says. "As were finalizing the sculpture, the design is still changing. I have a hard-drive full of hundreds of iterations of different things."
Jackie is asked if there's a temptation to just run out screaming into the neighborhood. Taking his time, he deadpans: "No... Theres a strong temptation to just rip it off my face though." Later, he will admit that it's a borderline unbearable process. "Its kind of torturous for me. Its just a long time in the chair and then wearing this stuff my ears are killing me and it pulls down on the back of my neck. I have to eat Advil, but, at the same time, its kind of odd, man. Its almost like Im wondering if I can even like play this character if it wasnt on."
It should be noted that, when he was speaking to us the second time around, he was in full Freddy make-up. Indeed, it's next to impossible to describe. In a way, it's very recognizably Krueger... Put the hat on him, shroud him in shadows and eerie lighting, sure, I can imagine it. But it's definitely not the Freddy we grew up with. His face does indeed resemble that of a burn victim. It's a sickly shade of white, as opposed to the more garish orange and red that we're used to. His eyes are small, reptilian within the twisted visage. His ears little more than holes poked through the sides of his head. His hand (his free hand) is a peeling, ugly thing. It's a disturbing creation, and Haley is all but lost within it. (There are also little pieces of what look like green latex on his cheeks - I imagine this is where they will digitally create gaping holes in his face.)
"...its like the best Freddy research and motivation shit I could do is sit in that torturous chair for 3 1/2 hours and come and Im pretty ready to throw the glove on and start slicing just about anybody," Haley says, perhaps smiling, perhaps not.
(Keep an eye out for the entire interview with Jackie Earle Haley, coming your way soon.)
About that glove... Allow me to just geek out for a moment, maybe boast a little. At one point, the glove is unveiled for us, coming in its own special box, like some fragile cargo. We are among the first to see the thing, outside of the crew, of course. Truth be told, it's not too different from what you'd expect. It looks like something a demented man has constructed out of his garage (or cellar) - a bit unwieldy, a bit raw. After a few minutes, it's handed to me, and I put it on... The fingers are heavy, the temptation is to let all of them just bunch together. When you spread them out, though, and you're looking at the mean bastard on your hand, feeling its weight and recognizing its nasty authority... Well, damn if you don't just want to start... using it.
Of course, seeing Jackie Earle Haley in his Freddy make-up was cool in the extreme, but what I really wanted to see was Freddy in action. And I did. Well, a little. That tunnel sequence I told you about earlier? There's a reason Kris is crawling through that dirty hell like her life depended on it: Freddy is right behind her. We get to watch Haley crawl into the tunnel and make his way through, which is no easy task when he's got that glove on.
But we don't get the real goods, unfortunately. No cackling, no taunting, no threats. I'm left to imagine what Haley's interpretation of the slasher might look and sound like. And that's okay. I don't mind waiting to be surprised, as my hopes are actually fairly high for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Naturally, it's always difficult to predict how a movie will turn out based on visiting the set for one day (too often have I thought "this will be a cool movie!" while on set, only to proven quite wrong), but I'm buying what the Platinum Dunes guys are selling. Maybe I'll just be another in a long line of rancorous horror fans ultimately outraged by a shoddy remake.
But my honest guess? NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET will be a deeply - surprisingly - unsettling movie-going experience.
We won't know for sure until APRIL 30, 2010.
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