Wes Craven died yesterday, on the losing end of a battle against brain cancer. He was 76. I’ve previously written all about his tortured history with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. However, there’s a funny story about how he ended up directing the first Scream movie I want to share with you.
When Dimension Films won the bidding war over Kevin Williamson’s spec script Scary Movie (later renamed Scream), the first person on their list of preferred directors was Nightmare on Elm Street genius Wes Craven. He was the perfect choice because more so than any other master of the horror genre he seemed most likely to be able to deliver the inherent thrills of a slasher movie without diluting the wit and ingenuity of Williamson’s script. That kind of thing is easier said than done because a self-referential, meta-horror comedy like Scream could have easily fall apart in anyone else’s hands much in the way the meta-action comedy Last Action Hero never quite worked despite having the man who made Die Hard, John McTiernan, behind the camera. You can’t simply hire a practitioner of the genre your film is mocking; you have to hire a practitioner who truly gets the joke and loves the script. For Dimension, it was Craven or bust.
Funny thing about that, though. Craven turned them down. Repeatedly.
Craven had tested the limits of what the MPAA would allow in a horror movie with Last House on the Left and thus gave the rest of the genre a yardstick to go by throughout the 1970s. He saved the slasher sub-genre from itself with Nightmare on Elm Street in the 1980s. Scream was his opportunity to make it three straight decades in a row directing a monumentally influential horror movie. However, by the mid-90s Craven longed for more. Seemingly destined to be shackled to the horror genre forever, he fought off boredom by continually stretching his legs, expanding the zombie genre into something closer to non-fiction in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), exploring class warfare and racial injustice in The People Under The Stairs (1991), taking a deep step back from Nightmare on Elm Street in his own meta-classic Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and trying for something with a comedic edge in Eddie Murphy’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995).
But New Nightmare and Vampire in Brooklyn both bombed, and suddenly Dimension was asking Craven to direct a self-aware horror comedy, as if someone had come along and combined New Nightmare and Vampire into one movie. He could be forgiven for not being interested. When he passed, he told the producers he just didn’t want to make another slasher movie.
Looking back on it for The Biography Channel’s Inside Story: Scream, Craven admitted, “I think the reason I passed on it was my usual stupidity. I have this career-long ambivalence towards doing genre films, and I don’t want to sound prissy but there is an element of the genre that could be said to be misogynistic, always carving up girls. There’s a part of me that always asks, ‘How much longer do you want to do this?’”
Dimension turned to George Romero and Sam Raimi. Both passed. So, Dimension kept going further down the list of horror directors, practically weeping while approaching the lesser talents forced on them due to Craven’s refusal to play ball. Still, they dragged their feet because they hoped Craven would change his mind.
Surely, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the former of whom is one of the biggest sharks in Hollywood history, could strong arm Craven into it. Not so much, but Bob did pull a neat trick when he informed Craven that Drew Berrymore had expressed in playing the main girl in Scream. That opened a lot of people’s eyes because while Berrymore was not yet the mega-star she’d become she was still a recognized name you wouldn’t expect to see in a horror movie. Her attachment gave Scream an instant boost of credibility and forced Craven to reconsider his stance.
Still, even Berrymore was not enough to change Craven’s mind because that did little to assuage his grief over putting out yet more scenes of men carving up women, particularly since the script’s opening scene ended with a poor girl gutted and hung from a tree. In the end, it was actually a nameless young naysayer at a convention who shamed Craven into taking the job, from the mouths of babes and all that.
As Craven told Inside Story:
“A little kid of around 12 came up to me and said, ‘You should do a real goddamn movie again because the movie’s you’ve been doing have been getting softer and softer.’ And that just stuck with me. I thought, ‘Look, you’ve been fighting this your whole career, but the movie’s you’ve made that have really been important have crossed the boundaries of decency and are scary because they are ruthless.’ I called up Bob Weinstein and said, ‘If that job’s still open I’ll take it.’”
Suddenly, the once floundering Scream project had all the momentum in the world with a name actress attached to star and one of the giants of the genre on board to direct. That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing from there. In fact, Berrymore decided just over a month prior to the start of shooting that she no longer wanted to be the main girl but instead the girl who dies in the opening scene, a stroke of genius on her part which worried the producers so much that Craven almost quit. Berrymore was a huge reason why agreed to take the job, and now he was only going to have her for the first 15 minutes of the movie. Luckily, he resisted the urge to quit, and that ended up really working out for everyone, particularly Neve Campbell who happily took the role Berrymore vacated.
Lesson of the day: If you ever see a director/actor in everyday life or at a convention don’t hesitate to tell them what you really think about their recent work because such an unsolicited opinion could directly lead to them making one of the best choices in their career. I guess. Just, you know, don’t be an overly obnoxious jerk about it.
Additional lesson of the day: Wes Craven was a man who knew how to listen to his fans, even when it was a 12-year-old technically too young to have seen any of Craven’s movies.
Source: Inside Story: Scream