Q & A with Director Samuel Bayer

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” — in theaters April 30

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” — in theaters April 30

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Samuel Bayer about his horror thriller “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a contemporary re-imagining of the seminal horror classic. The Platinum Dunes Production from New Line Cinema opens Apr. 30 via Warner Bros.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is directed by award-winning music video and commercial director Samuel Bayer (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) and marks his feature film directorial debut. It was produced by Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, whose company Platinum Dunes has scored with such re-booted horror franchises as “Friday the 13th,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror.” It was executive produced by Mike Drake, Robert Shaye, Michael Lynne, Richard Brener, Walter Hamada and Dave Neustadter.

The film’s screenplay by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer (story by Wesley Strick) is based on characters created by Wes Craven in the 1984 sleeper horror hit of the same name. That film went on to become one of the horror genre’s longest-running, most successful and innovative film series, catapulting New Line Cinema to success. The role of Freddy Krueger was originated by Robert Englund, who had done a lot of episodic television and minor movies over the previous 10 years.

The new “Nightmare’s” Freddy Krueger is Jackie Earle Haley, a best supporting actor Oscar nominee in 2007 for “Little Children.” Haley has since appeared in such films as “Watchmen” and “Shutter Island.” The ensemble of young actors playing the teenagers taking on Freddy Krueger is led by Rooney Mara (“Urban Legend: Bloody Mary”) as Nancy, Kyle Gallner (“The Haunting in Connecticut”) as Quentin, Katie Cassidy (“Taken,” TV’s “Supernatural” & “Melrose Place”) as Kris, Thomas Dekker (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) as Jesse and Kellan Lutz (“Twilight,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”) as Dean.

The Elm Street kids’ parents include Clancy Brown (“Highlander,” “The Shawshank Redemption”), Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”) and Lia D. Mortensen.

The Story (spoiler alert): Nancy, Kris, Quentin, Jesse and Dean all live on Elm Street. At night, they’re all having the same dream — of the same man, wearing a tattered red and green striped sweater, a beaten fedora half-concealing a disfigured face and a gardener’s glove with knives for fingers. And they’re all hearing the same frightening voice.

One by one, he terrorizes them within the curved walls of their dreams, where the rules are his, and the only way out is to wake up. But when one of their number dies a violent death, they soon realize that what happens in their dreams happens for real, and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake. Turning to each other, the four surviving friends try to uncover how they became part of this dark fairytale, hunted by this dark man. Functioning on little to no sleep, they struggle to understand why them, why now, and what their parents aren’t telling them. Buried in their past is a debt that has just come due, and to save themselves, they will have to plunge themselves into the mind of the most twisted nightmare of all… Freddy Krueger.

Samuel Bayer has directed and photographed hundreds of music videos and commercials over the last 15 years, firmly establishing himself as one of the industry’s most prolific and sought-after talents. Known for his vérité style and unique vision, Bayer’s talents transcend mediums as he carves out his place in film. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” marks his feature film directorial debut.

A graduate of New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Bayer was a painter who soon discovered that film and video were the perfect medium to deliver his art to a greater audience. A self-taught cinematographer who lights and shoots all his music videos and commercials, Bayer launched his career with Nirvana’s landmark video “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is consistently rated as one of the most influential music videos of all time.

Bayer’s hands-on approach to filmmaking infused the Nirvana video with his distinct style and attitude. He went on to collaborate on videos for such diverse artists as The Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow, John Lee Hooker, Marilyn Manson, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, David Bowie, Aerosmith, Lenny Kravitz, Green Day and Justin Timberlake.

Bayer’s commercial work includes campaigns for Nike, Coke, Pepsi, Nissan, Lexus, and Mountain Dew and has cemented his reputation as a visual revolutionary, garnering AICP Awards for Cinematography, Direction, and Production Design, and Clio Awards for Best Direction and Best Cinematography. Bayer’s commercials are showcased in the permanent film/video collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In 2005, he received the Kodak Lifetime Achievement Award for his work and cinematography in music videos. Bayer was honored in 2006 by the Music Video Producers Association with his second Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also won multiple MTV Moon Men for music videos over the years.

Q: Why did want to make this your first feature film?
A: It’s such a legendary franchise. Everybody knows who Freddy Krueger is. They’ve heard of the series. To reinvent this stuff for a new generation is truly exciting. That’s what made this an exciting movie to make. It’s a movie that had all the elements I was looking for as a first feature film.
Q: I suppose the key to making it work is casting Freddy Krueger and Jackie Earle Haley really is great casting. Did you know his work?
A: I’m a huge fan of his work. Look, I liked him in the “Bad News Bears,” for God’s sake. He was amazing. I liked him in “All the King’s Men.” I liked him in “Little Children.” He’s amazing in “Shutter Island.” When I took the project on and we discussed who would play Freddy Krueger, he was the only name we ever talked about. I was very much aware of his body of work.

There was an audition tape he’d made for “Watchmen” for the role of Rorschach that I got my hands on, which just blew my mind. That was really helpful in deciding that he was the right guy for the job. I thought that he stole the movie. He was the one character you really remembered and that you had empathy for. This role was challenging. This is not for everybody, the idea of playing Freddy Kreuger. Jackie was definitely the right guy to do it.
Q: How did you come to direct the film?
A: I have a bit of a bit of a history with the producers on the project, Platinum Dunes. Michael Bay is an executive producer on the project. They had come to me for a few different movies that I ended up not doing. This is the one they offered to me that seemed like the right fit. That’s really how it happened. They’ve had an amazing amount of success with rebooting legendary horror franchises. “Friday the 13th,” “Amityville Horror” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been really big successes. Then we became friends and it was the right movie to make.
Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger

Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger

Q: When did you sign on to do it?
A: It was right at the beginning of 2009. As someone who has been locked in development hell for so many different projects in the last decade, it was remarkable how quickly it happened. I signed on and we were off and going. Our first day of principal photography was right around the end of April 2009.
Q: How long did you shoot and what sort of budget did you have?
A: About 50 days. (The budget) was about $30 million. Principal photography was in Chicago, a great place to make a movie. There is a great community of people in Chicago. They’re not too cynical in Chicago. They’re very enthusiastic when the Hollywood crowd comes down there to make a film.
Q: Were there any production incentives or tax breaks to film there?
A: I know that that’s a big part of it. I will say yes, there had to be. Some of the crew members that we used had worked on Michael Mann’s movie, “Public Enemies,” or had come off “Dark Knight.” They’re hungry for the work and regardless of the tax incentive, that means a lot — that you’ve got really passionate crews that want to work hard.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in production?
A: We were very ambitious in making this movie. I took a lot of time. Maybe a horror movie is relegated to a certain place in cinema. It’s like here’s a low budget horror movie and people don’t look at it the same way as a mainstream star driven project with a big budget. We really approached the movie very ambitiously — whether it’s the stunt work or the amount of locations we went to or the sets we built. So it was a difficult shoot.

When we were shooting at 5 o’clock in the morning in an abandoned factory that we’d been shooting in for two weeks and nobody had slept and Jackie’d been wearing the makeup for 18 hours, there was a lot of pain involved. And that pain, I think, translated on the screen. I think the kids were really exhausted. We worked difficult locations and we had a difficult schedule. In some ways, that added an element of tension to the movie.
Q: Was your background as an artist and as a director of music videos and commercials helpful in making your first movie?
A: Until you’ve made a movie I don’t think you really know everything that goes into it. I feel like a virgin that’s finally had sex and I can finally talk about it. In many respects, there are similarities. In music videos and commercials we have a very, very fast turnaround. From start to finish, on a commercial or music video it might be two to three weeks, including prep and post. This was a year of my life and nothing can quite prepare you for how much focus it takes to see a project all the way through. It’s a different mindset. It’s something I really respect and am really glad I got a chance to do it.
Q: How did you work? Did you storyboard? Did you rehearse with the actors?
A: We storyboarded the action sequences. Anything with stunt work we pretty much storyboarded. We really had to. There was a fair level of improvisation with the actors. When we came onto a set I would block it with the actors, but I would also try to give them the freedom to come up with their own interpretation of what the scene was about or what their character would do in a scene. I think sometimes a director’s job is just to get out of the way and let an actor practice their craft. When it came to a stunt sequence, when it came to action, when it came to lighting something on fire, we storyboarded it. When it came to other stuff, we were kind of loose with it.
Q: And you were shooting on film?
A: Oh, yeah.
Q: I saw an interesting quote from you about shooting on film vs. HD.
A: Something like, “I would never shoot HD. It would be like cheating on my wife.” That’s how I feel about film. I’m old fashioned. I’m a film buff cinematographer. I’m a photographer. I like hearing the sound of the motor of a film camera. I like the heaviness of a can of film. I don’t think anybody shoots film to look like HD. I do think that people shoot HD to look like film. I guess my attitude is why even take a chance? Just do film. I like the legacy of it. I like the look of it. I really like shooting film.
Q: Directors who favor HD sometimes say they like the fact that you don’t have to worry about the film running out during a long scene.
A: I think that’s actually a really good point. If this was the type of movie that required really long drawn out takes, I think that would be a very useful tool. The way it stands, with a thousand foot mag of film, I certainly had more than enough time to play out my takes. I can understand how that could be a very useful tool if you had designed a movie and you were just going to let it run and see what happens. There’s a power to a film camera, too. I think the actors like seeing a film camera. It’s really cool.
Q: You’re opening Apr. 30, which is about a month from when we’re talking now.. How close are you to completing it?
A: We’re done. There are a last couple of special effects shots that are being perfected up until the very last minute. But we are done and it looks fantastic.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m really kind of open. I’m looking for the next great project. I think I put my heart and soul into this and now that this is really over I’m going to set meetings up and find the next thing. I just want to make sure the next project’s the right project.
Q: Do you have any sense of what you want to do?
A: You know, I think I’ve spent so much time with Michael Bay I really want to blow something up. I would always work with them again. They’re great.