Few directors’ careers begin as auspiciously as that of Samuel Bayer, whose very first gig was 1991’s anarchic pep-rally video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Though Bayer’s output since that Gen-X touchstone — dozens of videos (Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Justin Timberlake) and award-winning ads (Nike, Mountain Dew) — has been noteworthy, big-screen directorial work has eluded him until very recently. Tomorrow sees the release of Bayer’s first feature film — a darker, camp-averse reboot of the Nightmare on Elm Street horror franchise, with Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley taking over as razor-gloved, dream-invading sociopath Freddy Krueger. Bayer recently spoke to us about working with Michael Bay, bucking the 3-D trend, and having Freddy haunt his dreams for real.
You directed Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video back in 1991. Why did it take until now to make a feature film?
I was stuck in development hell for about a decade. And I kept looking for the really special vehicle that I wanted to launch my film career with. I was attached to Monster’s Ball 10 years ago. Sean Penn was going to do a movie with me. Benecio Del Toro was going to do a movie with me. The years passed, and I started running out of time. Nightmare seemed like the type of movie that could reach a really broad audience and that I could add something to that maybe people aren’t accustomed to in horror films.
Like a lot of reboots, this one explores the back story of the franchise’s main character. How do you strike a balance between catering to filmgoers interested in the underpinnings of Freddy Krueger’s psyche and those who just want to see some teenagers get sliced up in their dreams?
If people are coming to this movie to see teenagers sliced up in their dreams, they might be disappointed. It’s definitely got the graphic violence. But I’m not a big fan of torture porn like Saw. There’s got to be something cerebral behind it. I am a big fan of the idea of rebooting a franchise. They needed to make Batman Begins before they made The Dark Knight. They had to go back to the mythology of the character; they had to reintroduce the character to audiences as if he never existed before. That’s the way we’ve approached Freddy Krueger.
You’ve kept Freddy’s famed fedora/sweater/glove ensemble, but made him look more like a real burn victim. What went into rethinking the character’s look?
You certainly couldn’t make Freddy Krueger without the striped sweater, the hat, the glove — those are like Batman’s cape and his utility belt. If you look at images of burn victims, it really is pretty frightening what happens to the skin, the features that get burned off: your eyelids, your nose, your lips, your ears. I don’t think the original character looked like a burn victim. I always thought he looked like a witch.
How many of the eight previous Nightmare movies have you seen? Any favorites?
I gotta be honest — I have a very difficult time watching some of the later films. The best one, and the one that I really looked at, was the original Nightmare. In the original, Freddy doesn’t crack a lot of wisecracks. There’s a reason why that movie haunted a lot of people growing up. In the later films, Freddy became a vaudevillian, comedic character that you’re not really scared of, and I don’t think that’s what [original director and franchise creator] Wes Craven intended.
The studio was pushing to convert Nightmare to 3-D, but you refused. Given that everything is in 3-D these days, how did you win that argument?
It wasn’t that hard of a fight. All the film’s creators and Michael Bay, as a producer, felt that we should’ve shot the movie in 3-D if they wanted to release it in 3-D. Movies shot in 2-D and converted to 3-D don’t look like Avatar, and people are going to be really disappointed.
What are the biggest misconceptions about Michael Bay?
He certainly likes to blow things up — I don’t think there’s a misconception about that [laughs]. I’ll say this about Michael: He’s a really smart cat. He took 15 seconds out of this movie that made a profound influence on how audiences responded to the film, and that blew my mind. The guy gets a really rough time in the trades, but believe me, nobody gets that successful just ’cause they’re lucky.
You’ve already said you won’t direct a Nightmare sequel. What if the studio offered you a James Cameron-sized paycheck?
I would take that in a heartbeat. What I said got misconstrued in the press. I was trying to say that I did not want to make a horror movie as my next movie, to show people what else I could do. But if the script was right and the conditions were right, I would do the next one. Never say never.
Did working on such a dark movie affect your own nightmares?
My nightmares were all about not finishing the film. That’s all they became — about a day of bad photography or something not working.
Did Freddy appear in any of them?
Yeah, he was in every one of them. Somehow Freddy was directing me, and I was screwing up badly. They were pretty horrific nightmares.