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Wes Craven on Behind-the-Scenes Controversy and How Online Spoilers Have Shaped Scream

The fourth Scream arrives Friday, with a reliably meta script (the plot hinges on the characters' knowledge of new slasher-film conventions, which include the recent trend of franchise reboots) and a few fresh horrors of its own. Still, despite the reunited cast and crew, it wasn't all smooth sailing: Reports of behind-the-scenes squabbling escalated after screenwriter Kevin Williamson was replaced, as he had been on Scream 3, by Ehren Kruger. We asked Wes Craven, director of all four Screams, about that — and about how you keep a whodunit from being spoiled in the age of Twitter.

Does it worry you that so much of the essence of a Scream movie is that it's a whodunnit, but now Twitter can spoil those secrets on the very first day of release?
It does bother me, but that's the facts of life. I think it's always been true of any whodunnit — it's just that the information can spread so much more rapidly now.

The Scream 2 script actually leaked onto the Internet way back in the day, right?
We weren't very far along in the process, but it was the very first pages Kevin sent us, the first 40 pages of the first draft of his script. They were terrific and we were celebrating, and then someone called up later that day and said, "They're on the Internet." And the only place they'd been was at his agency, so we figured it was someone in the Xerox room, that somebody decided it would be cool to put it on the Internet. It totally ruined that version of the script, frankly. We had to go back and change everything, and it set us back about two months. Kind of a pain in the neck, and thereafter, we had scripts with a big purple stripe down the middle that covered the dialogue so you could barely read it and if you Xeroxed it, it would turn out black.

Have you become more sanguine about spoilers since then? No pun intended.
Sanguine … that's my job! [Laughs.] We do have a positive approach to it now. When I make appearances, I tell the fans that this is not cool, that it hurts the process. We also are very, very careful. For the first time on this movie, we did all the auditions without using actual pages from the script.

Because the casting sides leak on the Internet?
An actor could not get the role and say, "Screw them, I'm putting it on the Internet!" So [the actors] only read scenes from Scream 1, and then you had to extrapolate from that, "I think they can do this role." But yeah, those are sort of significant dings in the process.

How satisfied were you with the franchise after making Scream 3?
I felt pretty good. I enjoyed Scream 3, even if a lot of critics said that they didn't think it was as good as the other two. Part of that may have been Kevin's availability, and part of that was that Neve wasn't available to be in as much of it as normally. She really is the heart and soul of it, so that hurt it a bit. I did feel that it would be good to come back and do a real hard-hitting one that was serious and had the core characters in it.

You have made a lot of movies with not just these actors, but with these producers, and this writer. So why did the movie go through such behind-the-scenes turmoil? Why did Ehren Kruger replace Kevin Williamson, and why did you say that this wasn't your movie?
Well, I never said that it wasn't my movie — I said there was trouble with the writing process, and that's just a fact. Certainly, I had an enormous amount of input into it, and didn't do anything I didn't want to do. For one reason or another, Bob [Weinstein] kept ultimate control of the script, and he had much more contact with Ehren Kruger, but then they're close friends. By the time Ehren was writing, I was already kind of shooting. It was a difficult script to figure out, but Kevin was the one who laid out the master plan and all the characters and scenes, the beginning and almost all of the ending. What we had to figure out was the relationships of the characters, how Courteney and David would intermingle with the kids. That was the tricky thing. I also didn't have Courteney for more than a month, so I had to figure out how to use all of her time in places where we didn't even know what was going to happen yet, like in the ending. But you know, that's not unusual for the Scream series, with the exception of the first one. There was always a process of working on the script all the way through the picture.

I know that Kevin Williamson was very, very unhappy when Ehren Kruger was brought in to write Scream 3. It can't have been a happy thing for Kevin to get replaced again by Ehren on this movie.
I don't think he was replaced. It came to a position where Kevin literally had to get back to his show, where he was legally bound to get back to his show.

There were rumors that Kevin was leaking word to the site Zap2It that he had been fired and that the actors were unhappy with the script changes.
I wasn't privy to that at all. And I wouldn't lie about that.

The Saw movies seem to be trending down at the same time as ghost stories like Paranormal Activity are coming back into vogue. You've been at this for a long time. Are certain types of horror movies cyclical?
Part of it is that when there's a very successful horror movie, it'll sort of launch a new wave. Since Paranormal Activity was so successful and cheap to make, there will be a lot more of those, and the Saw movies are sort of nearing the end after a tremendous run. I mean, how many limbs can you separate from somebody? [Laughs.] I think that ghost stories like Paranormal Activity are much, much safer for studios to make, because the problems with censorship are lower. People may die or dissolve into goo, but normally, there's not a knife involved. But yeah, I think the horror genre's very cyclical. There's usually a brilliant idea, and then there's a series of sequels that get farther and farther from the originality of the first one. When I made Nightmare on Elm Street, Bob Shaye said to me, "You know, Wes, there's a formula for sequels: They should have a budget that's two-thirds of the original, and then the next sequel should be two-thirds of that."

Things have definitely changed since then!
No, it doesn't work that way anymore. The nice thing about doing the Screams is that Bob [Weinstein] actually increased the budgets, so we always had really good casts and serious production values.

Did you see the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street?
No.

Was that by design?
Yeah, basically. Nobody called me, and I wouldn't have wanted them to have. In a way, I think it's appropriate that they did it on their own. When I sold the film to New Line, basically the deal was that they owned it forever, as opposed to Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, where we found out after 30 years that our original contracts called for them to come back to us. I was like, "Really?" [Laughs.] We went into storage and dug up the old contracts and said, "My God, we own it again!" So that was a whole different thing because we were able to control the process of the remakes and had an interesting time with the young directors.

You mentioned the ratings board earlier. Did you run into any trouble getting an R for Scream 4?
No! I certainly didn't pull any punches, and I did things that I thought would get us into trouble, like [a particularly bloody] death, for instance. And then I went to them, and we got an R without any contest. I think that's the first time that's ever happened to me. I can only think that after the Saw films and everything, ours suddenly seemed acceptable.

Photo: Patrick McMullan