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Interview: Wes Craven Talks ‘Scream 4,’ Challenges, and Learning from Failures

In 2011, we talked to Wes Craven about what would be his final movie ahead of its home video release.
Wes Craven Scream 4
By  · Published on October 6th, 2011

Scream 4 couldn’t have been an easy film to make. Rumored production issues aside ‐- and the fact that movies are just hard to make in general ‐- Wes Craven had to reignite a post-modern franchise after an eleven-year absence. What happened during all those years? Homages, rip-offs, and more self-loving meta-horror films. The Scream films have influenced many horror installments over the past decade, so what genre trope is left to make a snarky comment on?

Not many.

Besides that, being meta in itself is a gigantic hurdle to overcome. For one, there’s often a certain degree of smugness that’s attached to that type of tone. Watching a film that goes all, “Look how smart and clever we are!” is like listening to an annoying know-it-all. And, more often than not, those types of films become exactly what they were making fun of. Self-referential can easily turn into self-parody, as Wes Craven mentions below.

Here’s what he had to say about carefully deconstructing the genre, his young filmmaker sensibility versus his older one, and more:

Craven: [Laughs] I love that title, [Film School Rejects].

[Laughs] Thanks. Do you consider yourself a film school reject?

You know, I never went to film school, so I never had the chance to be rejected.

I think it also applies to outsiders as well. When you started off, did you see yourself that way?

Yes, I did, but I wasn’t even aware of film school when I started. [Laughs] The way we started, we were just a bunch of guys making films for the hell of it. We knew nobody in Hollywood, we knew nothing about Hollywood, and it was a shock to us we had to send our film off to this place called the MPAA. We were just doing movies. It was to all of our surprise that our films started playing nationally. I didn’t see many films until I was in college teaching. Looking back now, if I went to film school, it probably would have helped knowing what the best of the best of foreign films were, but that wasn’t the case. In some ways, I think that led to my originality, because I hadn’t seen anybody else.

It must be interesting for you, now looking back, how you didn’t know anything about Hollywood at first, but are now a notable part of it.

If I had been in film school and had those connections, I probably would have been better at working the town to my advantage. I’ve been very fortunate, been working almost continuously, and despite the occasional bumps of working with the Weinsteins, they’re really one-of-a-kind guys. They have a great love for film and make a great deal of films. I’ve had the chance to work and refine my craft with them.

I’m guessing you’ve learned a lot from those bumps, though.

Yeah, I’d say you learn a lot more from those bumps than from when things are going great.

How early on do you know when you’ve hit a “bump”? Can you look at your films objectively?

Yeah, I think so. There will always be times where you think, “What went wrong? Why wasn’t that one more popular?” You can’t always figure that out, especially if you think you’ve done the best job you can do and was interesting to you. I mean, My Soul to Take, I thought should have done much better, and I still like that film a lot. Sometimes you just have to say, “Well, you’ve done a film that you like a lot, let’s move on.” Other times you can see that you were too unoriginal, you listened to someone else instead of yourself, and there are a million lessons to learn in the course of making films. Everybody’s trying to grab the power, because everyone thinks they know more, or they just want to have that power. It’s always a struggle, and you’re toughened by struggle.

Do you miss those early days, where you didn’t have to deal with power, bloggers, or millions of people critiquing your work?

Well, I wouldn’t have minded millions of people seeing my films, but certainly, there was much less feedback, virtually none. You certainly didn’t have security problems like someone trying to get their hands on the script, and I think it was at the time of Scream 2 when that really hit us full-force. Kevin [Williamson] sent us the first 47 pages of a greatly anticipated version of what he had pitched to us, and those pages winded up on the internet that night.

It completely prevented us from using it, so we literally had to go back to square one. If a fan wants to step up and take credit for that, let him step up and take credit for it, because it caused us agony, for trying to come up with as good of an idea as what we [initially] had. Thereafter, we were printing scripts with big purple lines down the middle and were putting watermarks on them. The amount of aggravation it’s caused us is enormous. This Scream, there were no big spoilers. The fans respected my many requests to just not do that.

Did you ever consider not starting over, and just sticking with your initial ideas?

The Scream series is unique in that it’s an ongoing murder mystery, even though it’s a different killer, so if you know who that killer is, then half of the fun of the movie is gone. You know when someone says they’ll put a spoiler warning on it and people don’t have to read it? You know it’s going to get around. It has a devastating effect on the movie.

Speaking of another challenge, the franchise has always been about deconstructing the genre and poking fun at horror conventions, so are you always walking on that tightrope of not becoming what you’re making fun of?

There are a million tightropes in the Scream films. [Laughs] Because they all have a lot of humor, it could get goofy; you try to do a balance between comedy and horror. In a sense, you’re a satire on other films and the conventions of films, so you talk about the rules of films, and then break those rules and do something that hasn’t been done before. There are a lot of things going on in the making of any Scream film. You also have to be very careful that things tie together, so six months later you’re not like, “Oh my God, he couldn’t have been there at that time, because he did this and that!” You keep all these charts and things to show where characters are at any given moment. So, yeah, they’re very tricky films, but that keeps you on your toes.

I’d imagine it’d also be tough to make fresh statements on the genre since the first film did inspire a fair amount of self-commentating horror movies.

We skewered a lot of films in the making of the film ‐ mostly remakes, including one of my own. I think the most clever thing Kevin did was step away from films and that type of Randy character [from the first film], with always talking about movies. He made it more about internet stuff, and that was the most fascinating thing to these characters, which sets it apart from the other films.

Looking back on the first film, it went for serious and dramatic stakes when it came to the kills. There was a scene where they all talked about who’s going to call so-and-so’s parents, to tell them what happened. Is there always that constant balance of having those real stakes, but also fun with the kills?

Yeah, it’s a weird thing you do to an audience. In a way, you want them to enjoy a kill because it’s spectacular and they can’t predict what’s going to happen ‐- on the other hand, you’re depicting the killing of a human being. That is one of the other tightropes of this film: You try not to do it for the sake of blood and guts, so where people are laughing while they’re watching it. It’s a tricky moral compass that you’re following. You’re trying to do extreme violence, but you’re also doing it where the audience can enjoy the violent part of it. You always worry as a filmmaker that you’re not just doing the most violent thing you can imagine, but that’s the reason why people are going to see the movie. You try to think of issues as an adult, which are how trying to glorify yourself like you’re making a movie can actually hurt some people ‐ or taking a full look back on the major media of the country ‐ which is what the film does. We want the Scream films to scare people, make them jump, laugh, and also think. That thinking part is tough, and you can only do it in a way that the audience is actually impressed by.

So, your intent is never to just make a simple hack and slash horror movie?

That’s the whole reason I’m still doing this at my age. It’s not just about screams and sex, but matters that are serious to us as adults. I like to think I’m making films in the film business, where movies are making enough numbers for the studios to let me keep working, but you also want those films to have content that makes you proud you made the film. That’s not easy, but it’s a fun puzzle to figure out.

Scream 4 is now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.