Posted on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 by David Chen
I’ll be honest and say that when I first heard a music video director would be doing a remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the most beloved horror franchises of all time, I wasn’t too crazy about the idea. Sure, we’ve seen brilliant music video directors such as Fincher and Jonze go on to have very successful film careers, but just as often, we get overstylized filmmaking with no sense of how to make a 90-minute film cohere as a whole.
Then I read up a little bit more on director Samuel Bayer and I realized that the man has helped to define a generation of music videos, creating some of the most iconic images of all time. His music videos are stylish, visually interesting, bold, and unique. His commercials are attention-grabbing and beautifully shot and edited. If there are music video directors out there that can successfully make the transition into feature directing, Sam Bayer certainly has the potential to do so.
I had the chance to chat with Mr. Bayer for a lengthy interview. We discussed the making of his favorite music videos, what other movies he’s tried to direct over the years, why he’s remaking Nightmare, what he hopes to accomplish with his new take on Wes Craven’s classic, his next planned projects, and the legacy he hopes to leave behind. You can read the interview after the jump or download the interview via the /Filmcast below. A Nightmare on Elm Street is out in theaters on April 30, 2010.
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Samuel Bayer, thanks so much for speaking with us today at Slashfilm.com.
So, a lot of our listeners might know that you are going to be directing the new ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ film, but they might not know your music video work. I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about your career over the last 20 years, and how you got your start working in music videos.
Yeah, I was actually a painter, living in New York, and– this is back quite a few years ago– and to make ends meet, I worked on music video sets to make money. And this was back in the heyday of MTV, and music videos were very exciting, and this was when Fincher was doing stuff, and Michael Bay was doing commercial videos. And I don’t know, I just got it under my skin and got the idea that I could do videos, and moved out to Los Angeles in 1991, and knew somebody at a record company, and took them out to lunch, and bought lunch for them and didn’t buy it for myself. And when the person asked why I wasn’t eating any food and I said, “Because I can’t afford to eat, but I can afford to buy you lunch, and how about a job?” And so she gave me a music video to direct, and it was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That was the first thing I ever directed, and hopefully kids today remember what that is, and that started my career.
And I did a ton of commercials and music videos, and that went on for a while, and I think the last kind of hurrah I had with music videos was I did all the videos off of the Green Day record American Idiot, and we won a bunch of awards at the MTV Awards in 2005. And then I did– I think the very last video I did was with Justin Timberlake and Scarlett Johansson in 2007. So, long run.
Well, let me ask you. There is an urban legend of sorts that the reason you were chosen to direct “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is because your demo reel was the worst one. Can you talk about that experience?
Sometimes urban legends are true. That one’s true. Yeah, I had a pretty bad reel, and I think that Kurt Cobain decided that it was a very punk thing to do to pick the nonconformist to do his video. And I saw it as my big break. And actually, when he showed up on the set, he hated everything I did, and we fought like tooth and nail over the job, and it was a very intense experience, actually, and there’s all kinds of things about that video that are really cool. The cheerleaders were strippers; the janitor in the video was the janitor from my apartment complex in Venice, and he had an asthma attack from all the smoke on the stage. The kids I recruited from a show at the Whiskey A Go Go, and they were drinking, and they destroyed the set, and– just a really amazing day. But I think the video looks pretty cool.
Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people would agree. But it sounds like it was a combative relationship. I mean, did he tell you that that’s why he chose your video, like on the first day?
No, I think I heard it sort of secondhand. It’s an interesting thing the stories that happen behind things, the stories behind the movie projects, the stories behind the videos, the stories behind things that you hear. The truth of it is, because I was there, it’s like Kurt really was so unhappy with what I was doing, he refused to lip-sync the song. And I turned– my whole career was on the line– and I turned to the head of the record company and I said, “Look, you’re going to have an amazing video if you just let the guy sing the song one time. I don’t care how much he doesn’t like me, just sing the song one time.” And he gave this incredible performance that was kind of directed at me that was filled with venom and anger, and everything– and angst– and everything else, and it’s this weird thing of pushing people, whether they wanted to be pushed or not. It’s like he gave this incredible performance that really became the heart of the video.
You’ve created some of the most memorable and iconic images in all of music video history. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about your creative process. How do you come up with the premises of your videos? How do you conceive of them? What’s the thought process that you go through, and how do you feel that that’s changed over time?
Well, you know, first of all, I mean, I’m a huge music fan, and I think one of the things that I’ll always remember from my music video career is that I got a chance to work with a lot of my heroes, everyone from John Lee Hooker to the Rolling Stones, and Ozzy Osborne, and Nirvana, and Metallica. It was a very exciting thing to do– and David Bowie– just to get to meet and to hang out with people that you grew up with and listened to their music and everything else. And my thing was that I really approached music not from an intellectual place but an emotional place, which is– I don’t know if people today would remember some of these videos– but if I did a video for a band like Garbage, like “Stupid Girl,” the name of the band was Garbage, and the music sounded like beautiful garbage, and that’s how they described their music. It was like cut up and dissected. So I made a video that I actually cut up and dissected and put back together.
Blind Melon, “No Rain,” which was a really infamous video– they had this beautiful album cover with a girl dressed up as a bumblebee. And I talked to the band about how they got that picture, or why that picture was important, and I developed a whole story about the story of the bumblebee girl. And so the ideas kind of came from the– I don’t know– the emotion of the music. And sometimes I never even knew what the songs were really about. And I kind of didn’t want to know what the songs were about. That was just my interpretation, and that was the joy and the fun of music videos. And I think actually the sadness of a lost art form, because the days of big music videos are really kind of over. And about 10 years ago was a really exciting time, where there was a lot of cool stuff coming out.
Right. Just out of curiosity, I know you’ve done dozens of music videos. Are there any other ones that you want to name for our listeners to maybe find on YouTube or see on your website that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a few. I really like Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
Great music video. Great music video.
Yeah, thank you. I really like that video a lot. There’s a Rolling Stones video I did called “Anybody Seen My Baby,” that if you look closely, the beautiful girl in the video is Angelina Jolie, and I shot her back in 1997 when she hardly knew anybody, and I had her running through the streets of New York in her underwear, and that was kind of exciting. And, oh boy, what else? I like Metallica “Until It Sleeps.”
Let me just ask you about “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” How did you come up with the premise of that? Obviously you play around a lot with depth of field and with sort of the color palette. If you could just talk a little bit about the making of that video, I’d love to hear it.
I mean, first of all– I mean, the “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” it was a very big, anthemic album that came out. This was like an event. It was the first single off a double record that Smashing Pumpkins came out with. And you know, I think I had seen these photographs by Sebastiao Salgado of– who’s a wonderful still photographer of diamond mines in South Africa, and–
I actually thought about– I was watching the video the other day, and I actually was like, “This looks a lot like Salgado,” and I guess that’s no coincidence.
Yeah. And so I think I was very influenced by the Salgado images. And then I really liked giving the film– and then I shot– actually, it was very exciting. I had a set of lenses developed at Panavision, that they actually grinded off the– the whole thing that you learn about film is sometimes less is more, and one of the reasons why older films kind of have a beautiful kind of shallow depth of field and a very deliberate focus is because the way they used to machine glass on the lenses was a lot less exact than they can do these days. So in a very kind of organic, primitive way, I asked the guys at Panavision to develop some lenses for me, and they actually– I think they took something and they ground down some glass on some lenses, and I had a whole set of lenses that I used for the video that really kind of gave it a very cool look, and unfortunately those lenses got destroyed. But I used them for a while. They were really badass.
Awesome. Well, lets talk about your budding movie career. You’ve been a music video director for about two decades, and I’m wondering if during that time you’ve received any other offers to direct films.
Yeah. I mean, it’s been a– listen, it’s been a long road, and I think the first meeting– I’ve developed stuff or been attached to stuff for whatever reason didn’t happen. I was attached to ‘Monster’s Ball’ 10 years ago. I had a movie with Benicio Del Toro that was set up at MGM. Sean Penn was writing something. We were going to write something together. I was going to do a remake of ‘Vanishing Point.’ I had quite a few projects that I wanted to see happen, and for whatever reason they didn’t happen. And I’ve always wanted to make a movie. I think it’s very difficult for a first-time director to make the right choice, but you can also wait forever and never make a choice. So I think this was the right movie to make.
Well, speaking of this movie in particular– Nightmare on Elm Street– I’m wondering– I guess there’s a lot of reasons to remake a film, right? Maybe the original didn’t have the resources or the technology to make it work, or maybe present-day circumstances give the old story a new meaning. So why did you feel like the Nightmare on Elm Street story needed retelling?
Well, it’s a couple of things. I mean, first off, I really like the producers on the project a lot, and even though I think that they get a lot of flak from the horror community, they’re actually– they really enjoy what they do. They really like remaking horror films, and they like trying to reinvent something. And that’s interesting to me, and I like Michael Bay a lot, and there’s a history between all of us. And there’s other movies they’ve offered me that I’ve turned down. But this was the one that was really interesting to me, because– not that I think that every movie should be remade– but I do think you can reinvent something. And I’m a big fan of what Wes Craven did, and I’m a big fan of the first movie and the idea of Freddy, and I think Freddy should be scary.
And my thing is that I think the franchise kind of just lost a lot of its– I think they ran out of ideas. I think it lost some of its power. I think that Freddy kind of became a vaudevillian comedian rather than a really terrifying character. And when I talk to people about Nightmare on Elm Street, people say, “That guy scared the living hell out of me,” and I’d like to bring that to a new generation. And I think sometimes, in this delicate landscape when you talk about remaking things, I’d like to consider reimagining it, and reimagining it for a new generation, and reinventing it. And that’s why it’s exciting to me, because I don’t think certain movies should be remade, but this is one that I think you could cast differently, bring some different resources to it, shoot it differently, and still come up with something fresh and different.
You mentioned the produces, such as Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, who have done a lot of horror remakes, and they kind of put their stamp on each one of these remakes in several ways. In working with them, were there every any sort of creative constraints or requirements that were put upon you, or did you feel like you had complete creative freedom?
Well, when you work with Platinum Dunes, I think that there is a– I think that nobody could ever accuse them of not making beautiful films. I think all their films look really pretty, and I think that maybe it’s been a process for both of us to come to a kind of equilibrium, to come to an equal ground on how we both see things. And I think people are going to see something in this movie they may not have seen in another Platinum Dunes movie. I’ve tried to really push the characters and the acting and the performances and the cinematography in a certain way. And absolutely it’s got a Platinum Dunes stamp on it, but hopefully it’s got a Samuel Bayer stamp on it too, and people will see that.
Just out of curiosity, how involved is Michael Bay in the process?
Michael comes and goes, and he’s one of those guys that he really– he shoots from the cuff, and sees things in a very– he’s not the type of guy who’s going to sit on set or sit in the edit bay for hour after hour. But when you show him something, he knows what he likes and he knows what he doesn’t like, and why it is or isn’t working, and doesn’t want to hear all the reasons why somebody did something. He just wants to know why it isn’t working. And I really respect that. And I think Michael, just like Platinum Dunes, is someone who gets flak for some of the wrong reasons. And there’s a reason why he’s so successful, and he’s got really great instincts, to tell you the truth.
You mentioned that you really tried to push certain things in this newer version. What would you characterize as sort of the biggest differences between your version and, say, the 1984 Wes Craven version?
Well, I mean, I think that some of the elements– I mean, look. I think sometimes people have a revisionist history. It’s like, yes, they cherish this franchise, but please. I mean, look at some performances in the original movie. Might have looked great in 1984– I think that’s the year it came out– and they might have looked great then, but I think that sometimes the low budget, the caliber of talent that came to the table I think really shows itself, and I think that some of the– without saying anything bad about the movie. I mean, I think some of the performances border on camp. And I certainly don’t want to do another– and I also think that sometimes horror movies get relegated to the– I call it the “horror movie ghetto.” Like, “Okay, well that’s a horror movie.” The same way something’s a comedy. “Well that’s a low-budget comedy, and that’s a horror movie, and we can’t look at those movies the same way as we do with big-budget, star-driven projects.” And I’ve tried to tackle this movie as a real movie, in a different way. It’s not just a horror movie. I’ve tried to make it something bigger, and hopefully people will see that, that it appeals– I want this to appeal to diehard Nightmare fans, and I want to find new fans, and also find people that may not be necessarily fans before.
Well, you’re talking about how things have changed since then, like the acting style might be different today than it is back then. Obviously movie-making technology has also come a long way. What are some of the ways you’ve tried to take advantage of the special effects advancements that have happened in the last couple of decades?
You know, it’s interesting you should say that. I mean, I think that some people will be surprised that– I think this is a movie that’s actually– there’s a lack of technology in it. And I think there was two different versions of this movie. There’s the CG-heavy version, which tried to push every kind of post-effect you possibly could in it, and I think that my version is much more rooted in kind of gritty realism. It’s like sets are built, they’re art-directed. I don’t think people are going to look at this movie and say, “Oh, that’s a real showcase for 21st century technology.” I mean, maybe in certain places you’ll definitely see that, and I think you’ll see that with Freddy’s makeup, to be honest with you. On some elements of some of the dream sequences. But it’s pretty much organic filmmaking. What was shot is what we got.
I’m wondering if we can talk about the dream sequences, because for many Nightmare fans, including myself, those are probably the things that stick out the most, since they scared the hell out of us when we were younger. How did you approach those dream sequences in this film? How did you find the balance between sort of making something new versus paying respects to the dream sequences from the older film?
Hopefully we’ve– I’m proud of what we’ve done. I think we’ve done a very delicate balance. And you can’t please everybody. I think some people are going to say, “Okay, well why did they lift sequences from the original movie? Why couldn’t they come up with something different?” And we did come up with things different, and sometimes we did pay homage to the original movie and take iconic– I mean, I just don’t know how you could reinvent this without having the hand in the bathtub, or maybe the character in the original, Tina, flying in the air. We’ve got our version of that. And I really don’t want to give too much away, but we had a screening, and people were clapping when some of those things came up, and we did that for the diehard fans. And I think what’s cool about it is I think there’s some new scares in there that were not there 25 years ago, because we did try and reinvent it. And then there’s definitely some new stuff going on. One of the coolest things about the movie is we have the concept of micro-naps, which is based on real stuff that goes on. If you stay awake for 72 hours, you start dreaming with your eyes open, which is a terrifying concept that we make a big part of our story. Which, now it’s no longer you can’t fall asleep, but you might fall asleep whether you like it or not.
Let me ask you: as a director, in general, I guess big-picture-wise, what were the biggest challenges of going to directing a film versus directing a music video for you personally?
I think the biggest challenge is– and I heard there’s another director that I heard this quote from. I do a lot of commercials and music videos– well, I do basically commercials now, but I did do a lot of music videos. And doing commercials and music videos are a sprint. When I do a project, the beginning and the end of it’s within three weeks. This is a year of my life. It’s been a marathon. So the biggest challenge is just endurance. Can you be fresh and objective with something after you’ve looked at it week after week after week? And I can honestly say, after doing a movie, I know why bad movies are done. Because I think that people are hypnotized by what they’re looking at, and they’re not– it’s impossible to see clearly after you’re looking at the same thing day after day after day.
So what were some ways you tried to avoid that, if any?
I think to walk away from it, or not let things be precious, or show it to enough people that you take the criticism or the confusion about the story. And it’s always that it’s never– I think it’s also something that I think Michael’s not afraid, is like, it’s never right. There is no right answer. It’s never perfect. You’ve got to keep– whether you’re cutting away or adding something, or adding an ADR line. It’s like, there might be a better solution to something. And that’s very difficult, especially when you think you nailed something, to try screwing it up to make it even better. It’s definitely an exercise.
That sounds really challenging compared to doing music videos. I’m wondering what is something that you’ve really enjoyed that working in music videos doesn’t have.
You know, to be very honest with you, what I enjoy about it is that there’s nothing permanent about my legacy of making music videos, and it’s very sad in a way, because I did it for a really long time and I’ve made some– I think some memorable music videos, and I did some huge commercials that I’m not so sure people would know today. They just get forgotten about. And making a movie’s forever, and that’s the most important thing to me, that you can’t take it away. Your name goes on and it goes into someone’s library. You can download it. It goes on iTunes. You can go get it from Netflix or something. It’s like it’s there forever. And I cannot compare that to doing music videos or commercials or any other sort of element of the business. It’s like being a writer and saying you’ve never published a book, . And I think it’s like being a composer, or being in the music business and not doing a record. It’s like everything has something that I think has a level of permanence to it that you aspire to.
If the film does well, do you think there’s going to be a sequel? Would you be interested in directing the sequel? What are your thoughts on that?
I really hope the film does well. I will not be involved in a sequel…I don’t want to have my next movie be a horror movie. I’m already looking at stuff and I think I’m probably going to do a– it might be an action movie, or there’s a comic book they want to make into a film I’m very attracted to. But I think I’m going to move on and let someone else handle the next one, and it’ll be great.
Yeah, that was going to be my last question, which is what do you think you’re going to be doing next, and I guess you just described some of the possibilities. Can you elaborate on any of those?
There’s a comic– I’m sure my agent would kill me for this, because I’m sure I’m not supposed to talk about it or whatever, but I don’t really care, is that– no, my assistant is shaking her head. No. No? No? I was going to mention a project. Shut up? Okay. I’m doing what people tell me. Yeah, I’ll bury myself with this one. There’s some very, very cool stuff out there. I’m really into graphic novels and really into the superhero genre, and I really think there’s some interesting stuff going on, and I think that’s what I’m leaning towards.
All right. Well, sounds really exciting, and when that happens, we’ll be sure to report on it. But in the meantime–
Awesome. And listen, I do know your site very well, and I’m really excited to do this.
Well, Mr. Bayer, we thank you so much for your generous time here today, and we wish you the best of luck with the film.
Thank you so much.