At the age of 48, Samuel Bayer (pictured, left) finally has a feature film under his belt. The director of this weekend’s A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Bayer has spent the past 20 years helming one hit music video after another. His debut video was for Nirvana’s 1991 anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and from there, Bayer has crafted videos for everyone from Melissa Etheridge and The Cranberries to Green Day and Justin Timberlake. Although the story of a music video director transitioning into a film career isn’t a new one (see Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and David Fincher), the jump from three-minute exercises in style to 100-minute motion pictures is an intimidating one. Bayer called EW.com to chat about his first stab at the silver screen, and why he felt it was time that someone revisited the 1984 horror classic.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what is the transition from music videos to feature films like?
SAMUEL BAYER: It is a marathon compared to a sprint. If I ever read people saying the movie feels like a music video, then I failed miserably. I really tried to concentrate on story and make the characters as dimensional as I possibly could. It’s a very different discipline.
What about A Nightmare on Elm Street made you feel it would be appropriate to be your debut film?
There’s something very appealing, and yet very terrifying, about the prospect of rebooting a franchise. What really appealed to me, and what Michael Bay, one of the producers, explained to me when I took this on, is you’ve got a movie that’s got a very wide release. You’ve got a studio behind it. A decent budget. It’s a really nice support system for a director on his first feature film. I think the terrifying part about this is you’re remaking a beloved franchise and you’re recasting an actor to play the lead.
You were daunted by the fact that you were taking on such a cult classic?
I really think the franchise had lost a lot of its power. I think the original is a classic movie, a classic horror film, but I also think it’s showing its age.
Over the years, Freddy Krueger had become almost a wisecracking comedian.
I think Wes Craven’s original intention was not to make him a jokester. In the original movie, he is a boogeyman who doesn’t have that many one-liners. That’s what this movie is. It’s a return to its roots. I never “got” the jokester Freddy. I think that was a Freddy made for kids. That wasn’t what I was interested in doing. I wanted to portray him as a real monster and something you could actually be frightened of.
Why do you think Freddy’s held up all these years? What makes him so scary?
For a lot of these iconic horror characters, I don’t know what their motivations are. It seems like they want to kill kids because the kids had sex for the first time or something like that. Freddy was always more cerebral. He existed in your dreams. That in itself makes him more interesting — that he got under your skin, and that dreaming is a universal phenomenon that we can all identify with. Look, if somebody comes home from a screening of this movie and has a nightmare, then I’ve done my job well.
You want to induce nightmares in people?
[Laughs] Yeah, I want to induce nightmares… for the right reasons. Listening to some of the film critics, I think I’ve given them nightmares for the wrong reasons. But the fans seem to like it.
Did the dream sequences give you the opportunity to stretch your wings and experiment with the visuals?
I tried to make the dreams indistinguishable from reality. At the same time, I certainly put a lot of work into this movie to give it a very rich feeling. We really wanted to treat this as an event movie. We didn’t want it relegated to the horror movie ghetto, where movies have cheap production values and don’t look like they were made for very much money. We actually tried to do something that felt very expensive.
Of course, the original Nightmare on Elm Street was made rather cheaply.
I have the greatest amount of respect for what they did with not very much money. I will never be able to replicate the charm of that movie. That, in its way, is our Achilles’ heel. At the same time, this is a new Nightmare. I’ve certainly made this movie for fans as much as I’ve made it for a new audience. What I’ve really tried to do is reinvent the mythology. I’ve tried to make him a boogeyman again — the kind of character that, in olden times, you’d talk about around the campfire.
Did Jackie Earle Haley relish the opportunity to play such a nasty baddie?
I’m not so sure he relished it. I think that it was more of a cross to bear. You’ve got a very intelligent and well-respected actor taking something that, in the wrong hands, could be a very bad parody. Jackie’s experiencing a little renaissance in his career. I don’t know how you do the research to find your way into this character. And not only that, but he had to suffer through hours of makeup and the grueling nature of the film shoot. To come up with this character, I think he had to go to dark places that you and I should be very lucky that we don’t have to go to.
Jackie’s talked about how once he put Freddy’s clawed glove on, it’d take forever to get it off. So, he’d be stuck having to do things like going to the bathroom with it on.
And he asked to take the glove home with him. He would practice using it like a real weapon. When you watch the movie, he really does treat that thing like a beautiful martial arts weapon. Even the stunt people could not manipulate it the way that Jackie did. That’s a small element of the character that goes a long way.
What’s next for you?
Honestly, it’s been a whirlwind. It’s terrifying and wonderful and all that stuff put together. I need the movie to play this weekend, talk to agents on Monday, and then it’s on to the next movie.
Would you do a sequel?
Never say never. I’m open to anything.
And do you plan to return to music videos?
I really don’t make music videos anymore. MTV used to actually play music videos. They didn’t play The Hills. It’s not a world for me to live in anymore. I’m only interested in making something if people can see it. For me, there’s no reason to make music videos anymore. I personally don’t think people care or watch them anymore.