Welcome to Hollywood's latest 'Nightmare'
Everyone knows that there's often less than six degrees of separation among most celebrities in Hollywood, but if you ever wanted to stump your film-buff friends with a great trivia question, just try this one on for size: What do writer-director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption"), Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Iggy Pop, writer-director Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential"), Hollywood novelist Bruce Wagner, director Chuck Russell ("The Mask") and producer Michael De Luca have in common?
They all, at one time or another, worked on one of the films in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, the low-budget 1980s horror franchise that transformed New Line Cinema from an obscure store-front film distributor into the movie industry's leading independent film studio. Having successfully relaunched two other classic franchises -- "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th" -- New Line, now an in-house production company at Warner Bros., is amid rebooting its seminal "Nightmare" series with a new film that just finished shooting in Chicago last Friday.
Using the same title as the original Wes Craven film, it is a revamped, souped-up version of the old series, with Jackie Earle Haley replacing Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, the menacing, disfigured and claw-gloved figure who had the power to stalk and kill his victims from within their own dreams. The film, slated for release in the first half of 2010, also marks another collaboration between New Line and Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production firm, which also partnered with New Line on the successful updating of "Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th."
The new film comes with its own set of built-in risks and challenges. The original "Nightmare" series, which was launched in 1984 and ended up -- if you count all the sequels and spin-offs -- spawning at least eight movies, was a low-budget, low-risk enterprise. All of the original films in the series cost under $8 million to make, with perhaps the most lucrative being 1987's "Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors," which cost $5 million and made nearly $45 million at the box office.
But much has changed in the horror movie landscape in the last two decades. The movies have become both more sophisticated, certainly in terms of visual effects, as well as more graphic in terms of "Saw"-like brutality and mayhem. For most of today's young horror moviegoers, the "Nightmare" series is something of a barely noticeable video store relic. So why does New Line believe it can make lightning strike twice? And what exactly did all those famous folks I mentioned before do for the franchise? Keep reading:
"I just think there's something incredibly ingenious and universally frightening about Wes Craven's idea for Freddy Krueger," said Toby Emmerich, New Line's production chief. "The 'Nightmare' films are profoundly disturbing on a deep, human level because they're about our dreams. It's why we thought that we could reach an especially broad audience with a new film, since the feeling of having your dreams being invaded was something that would translate to any country and any culture."
When Emmerich initially sat down several years ago with New Line founder Bob Shaye and longtime New Line production executive Richard Brenner, the questions everyone asked were: Could we do a new version? And should we do a new version? "And the answer we all had was ... 'Hell, yes,' " Emmerich says. "The whole idea was to find a way to reinvent the series and use contemporary filmmaking and storytelling to bring the series into the modern era."
Emmerich hired Wesley Strick (best known for penning Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear") to write the script for the new film, having been a big fan of a script Strick wrote for a un-produced prequel to "Seven," the David Fincher thriller that was a huge hit for New Line in the mid-1990s. The studio brought in another writer, Eric Heisserer, who did a rewrite before the studio was ready to move ahead with the project. It has a budget of roughly $27 million, modest by today's standards but more than the first four "Nightmare" films all put together.
All along, Emmerich relied heavily on Bay's expertise, especially in terms of key creative choices. The men have not only worked on various New Line film projects together, they went to Wesleyan University, graduating a year apart in the mid-1980s, right after the release of the first "Nightmare" film. Bay was a strong advocate in the hiring of "Nightmare" filmmaker Sam Bayer, a veteran music video and commercials director who despite nearly two decades of experience making rock videos and winning MTV Video Music Awards and Clios has never directed a feature film before. (He is best known for directing Nirvana's groundbreaking "Smells Like Teen Spirit," having also directed clips for the likes of the Offspring, Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, the Strokes and Justin Timberlake.)
"Michael was very passionate about Sam," Emmerich says. "When Michael and David Fincher came up as commercials directors, Sam was the other top young guy in the field -- they were the three real hot shots of their era." Even though Bayer has never managed to launch a film career, being involved with a number of projects that never got off the ground, Bay believed that he had the ability to capture the kind of seductive and unsettling imagery that would make "Nightmare" feel like a fresh, visually arresting moviegoing experience.
Initially, New Line had planned to hire a true unknown to assume the mantel of Freddy. But Emmerich was especially impressed by Haley's spooky performance in Todd Field's "Little Children," an art film that New Line had released in 2006. "I was watching especially closely," Emmerich says with a grin, "since some of his best scenes in the movie were opposite my brother, Noah. Freddy is this incredible stew of malevolence and anger, but he has also has a hint of vulnerability, and Jackie really has all of that and more -- he just seemed completely right for the part."
The horror movie field has been especially crowded -- you might say overcrowded in recent years, with a host of recent films grabbing an increasingly smaller chunk of the box office returns. With so much scary-movie clutter, is it possible that New Line might be coming too late to the party? Emmerich didn't dodge the issue.
"If we make a good movie and it fails, that will be the reason why -- the marketplace was just too crowded," he acknowledged. "But we think Freddy is the Coca-Cola of the horror market. There's always a lot of soda pop and vitamin water out there, but there's always room for Coke. You could say that when it comes to scaring people, Freddy is a pretty beloved brand."
The Who's Who of original "Nightmare on Elm Street" writers, actors, musicians and filmmakers:
Johnny Depp: His first movie role was playing a small part in the 1984 original "Nightmare on Elm Street." He didn't survive Freddy's onslaught.
Peter Jackson: During his first stay when he was still a total unknown, he wrote a script for "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare," which was rejected but helped him establish ties with New Line exec Mark Ordesky, who ended up helping Jackson get the job making the studio's "Lord of the Rings" franchise.
Frank Darabont: He co-wrote the script for "Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors."
Bruce Wagner: He also has a co-writing credit on "Dream Warriors."
Chuck Russell: Once partnered with Darabont, his first directing job was "NOES 3: Dream Warrior," which earned him the job making "The Mask."
Brian Helgeland: He has story and screenplay credit on "Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master."
Michael De Luca: Now a producer after spending nearly 15 years as a top New Line production executive, he wrote the screenplay for the 1991 sequel, "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare."
Iggy Pop: He wrote the title song for "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare."
Photo: Jackie Earle Haley. Credit: Kemp Davis.