Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


Wes Craven

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: April 13, 2020 | 0:26:01

Man: Action!



Narrator: This great Hollywood director loves to scare

the hell out of people.

His first film, "The Last House on the Left,"

caused riots in the theater and long lines around the block.

His next big hit, "A Nightmare on Elm Street,"

discovered Johnny Depp and spawned multiple sequels.

Among his other hit films are the zombie classic

"The Serpent and The Rainbow,"

the top thriller the "Red Eye" with Rachel McAdams

and Cillian Murphy, the spiritually uplifting

"Music of the Heart," earning Meryl Streep

an Oscar nomination for best actress,

and of course his crowning achievement

when he created the iconic character Ghostface

for his penultimate scary film franchise, "Scream."

Hi, I'm Wes Craven, and welcome

to Hollywood's best film directors.

This is the editing room now emptied out

for "Scream 4," where I spent the last five months

making it into the wonderful film it is

with my editor Peter McNulty.


My mother had a high-school education.

My father, I barely knew.

He left the house when I was 3.

He died when I was 4. He had a lot of jobs.

He died at the factory working -- just a working guy.

And my grandparents were, from one side of the family,

coal miners, on the other side of the family,

quarry workers in Vermont.

So, good preparation for being a director.

So, my mother was a widow. She raised three of us.

My brother Paul had just recently died,

and my sister Carol, and myself.

Nobody in the family had ever gone to college

or really left Cleveland.

And my mother had just begun when my father died

to get into this Baptist church that really became,

in many ways, the the base of our lives.

One of the things about the church

was that they believed movies were the work of the devil.

The only films we were allowed to see were Disney films,

so I think it's ironic, you know,

that, I mean, I have no history,

really, of watching films except that Disney films.

I went through all the way through Wheaton College

until the very end,

and then I went to graduate school where

The program was so intense, I never saw a movie.

I wrote a novel in one year. I got a master's degree.

Then it all started.

I went away to teach in a town in upstate New York, Potsdam,

and I was teaching humanities, history of civilization,

all those kind of courses,

and they had a an art-film house in town.

And, so, my wife and I started to go check out the movies,

and there I was, seeing Fellini and Truffaut,

Godard, and Bergman.

It was just like...

Just "Whoa!" you know?

And completely fell in love with movies.

Towards the end of the period, where I was

just kind of searching for what I was going to do.

Finally got a job syncing up dailies

on a small, little featurette being made by a guy

named Sean Cunningham, who happened to be my same age.

We had kids the same age, almost the same names.

And he was working with a filmmaker

named Roger Murphy, who was a great kind of cinematographer

with 16mm camera.

That came out and was made

for a group of theater owners in Boston.

And they next told John, "We want a scary movie

for our theaters" and I was basically out of work

as that first film had stopped, and John said,

"They want a scary movie. Go write something scary.

If they if they like it, you can direct it,

and you can cut it on my machine, and I'll produce it,

and we'll laugh and scratch and have a good time."

So, I went to Long Island,

I think on a Memorial Day weekend, at a friend's house,

and in four days, wrote "Last House on the Left."


We shot it like a documentary.

The building we were working on

was full of documentary filmmakers -- Richard Leacock,

was there who just died this week.

D.A. Pennebaker, who did "Don't Look Back,"

and a lot of other guys of that sort.

So, I knew those basic skills.

And we found a documentary cameraman, and we went out

and hot it just as we would stage the scene.

There'll be no cut from beginning to end,

and we shot it basically from three basic angles

and moved on and jumped over fences.

We had no permits.

It was all just totally, totally illegal

and without any sort of official existence.

And took it back to New York,

and over the course of I don't know how many months,

because it was very hard to put together,

made this film and sent it up to the guys the guys in Boston,

as we used to call them, and they open at their theaters,

and we immediately got reports that there were protests,

there were fistfights in the theater.

People tried to get at the projectionist

to destroy the print.

Projectionist themselves were cutting up the prints.

It caused a phenomenon, and, so, people started

to line up around the block.

And John and I were very nervous about it.

It was like, you know, we had done something

that we starting to realize was very powerful

and offended a lot of people.

And those of our friends that saw it in New York

never looked at us the same again.

I mean, certainly, I was very aware

that people kept their children away from me for one thing.

So, it was like we were kind of pariahs.

And then Sam Arkoff of American International Pictures,

one of the great old timers, heard about it

and bought it and took it national.

So, this thing that we'd kind of done

and thought nobody would ever see it

suddenly was national, and with the exception of Roger Ebert,

who, at that time, was relatively unknown,

and a critic named Robin Wood, everybody hated the film,

thought it was despicable.

I remember one review, "Why don't they crawl back

under the rock they crawled out from under."

So, that was, you know, I had come to New York

on a teacher's salary, then I had been supporting

myself and my family with driving a cab, basically,

and the first time I got a check on that film was $50,000.

And I didn't have a credit card to my name.

We had to sell our cars, and we were just totally dead broke.

And I had to go down. I remember going to the bank in New York

and walking in there with a $50,000 check

'cause I didn't know what to do with it.

"We'll start you an account, sir.

We'll issue you an American Express card,

and we're just going to set you up."

That film, I think, returned maybe $100,000

over the course of the next two years.

And both John and I lived off of that for almost five years

writing all sorts of other things

not wanting to ever do another movie

like "Last House on the Left."


Man: Action!



Well, the attraction read it wasn't a horror film.

And I was wanting to branch out and be --

and maybe this should be first --

Is that it was a great script, and it was all there.

You know, there were very, very few things things

that needed to be changed.

Like, my pitch when I went in the studio was

I thought the third act in it was fought in a house

that was not her own and not in her family, and the film

ended up with the character going back to her childhood home

where her father was living

and having the final fight in that home.

But I just thought grounded it much more

and she was defending her childhood home.

It was in great shape from the get-go,

and I had just come off of 'Cursed,"

which was a film I did with The Weinstein Company.

That took two and a half years, went through four major scripts,

and ended up coming out and dying.

So, it was a horrible experience,

and I actually started on 'Red Eye"

while I was still finishing post-production on "Cursed"

just to get my hands on a script that was good and together

and, in a way, away from the Weinsteins

for a while, you know?

We've had some rough times. We're in great condition now.

But, you know, it's a very volatile company.

But they're very passionate about their films.

So, anyway, that was the "Red Eye" experience,

and it just went very fast.

I think we did the entire film in nine months

from beginning to end.



"A Nightmare on Elm Street" was an idea that I had,

basically, just based on the idea of somebody kind of

being able to touch you in your dreams.

And I had this kind of an image of this person

just kind of leaning out of the ether of the air

and touching the sleeper, and that was it, you know?

So, I had done two films back-to-back.

I'd done "Deadly Blessing" and "Swamp Thing."

I had some money -- enough money to live for a year,

and I said, "Okay, I'm going to commit myself to write this.

So, took about a year on and off

Of writing and trying it out on friends.

Everybody thought the idea was really scary

and wonderful in a way.

And, so, when I had a script, I started sending around town,

and nobody was interested.

But there had been one guy, Bob Shaye,

the head of a very small company at the time, New Line Cinema,

that had a small storefront office

in New York on 8th Avenue.

And I'd met him a couple of years before,

and he'd always said, "I love your films.

If you ever do anything, you know, give me a call."

So, I sent it to him, and he really liked it.

But he was not in a position of power that he later was in,

and he was not able to find the money for those three years.

So, those three years, I went through

all my savings, had to sell my house.

I was making lists --

"How much can I get for my guitar, I wonder."

Stuff like that.

And borrowed money from Sean Cunningham to pay my taxes,

and then I had nothing, and right about that time,

a friend of mine found money to do "The Hills Have Eyes 2,"

which we went out and did under very cheap circumstances.

And right after that, Bob Shaye found the money to do

"Nightmare on Elm Street."


Genesis of "Scream" is it wasn't me sitting down

and writing, you know?

All the credit goes to Kevin Williamson here.

He was a kid that had been in town

I think for about four years

writing tiny little things, and nothing much had happened.

I believe he came up with the script that was

an immediate bidding war.

I got a look at it, but my little company

that I had at the time couldn't afford to compete

with the big boys, and the Weinstein brothers,

then head of Miramax, out-bid everybody else,

as they often do.

And, so, Bob picked up the phone and called me,

thank God, and said, "I'm gonna send you a script.

I think you're right for it," and I read it,

and there's two things you're aware of.

First, that the humor and the dialogue and everything else,

it's dangerous in a way, you know,

and it has a deep sort of cynical humor to it that --

It's visceral.

I actually passed on it, and I had been having my usual qualms

about I'm doing this for too long,

and making films about people being cut up,

and I should go do another "Music of the Heart," whatever.

And, so, I passed.

And, at that time, Drew Barrymore was going to star.

And then I went to -- I was signing autographs

at a comic convention or something like that,

and a little kid came up to me, and I gave him my autograph,

and he says, "Sir, I love your your early films,

but you've gone soft, and you need to make

a kick-ass film again like 'Last House.'"

I said, "Okay, thank you." [ Laughs ]

And, you know, it was almost like you look back on that,

that was either a little demon or a little angel

because it really made me realize

that you can't be squeamish and do what I do.

And there's always a part of me that's kind of liberal,

and "I shouldn't be doing this," and blah, blah, blah,

but this was a powerful script, and I knew it.

So, I called Bob back up, and he said, "I knew you'd call back.

By the way, Drew doesn't want to star,

but she wants to play the opening."

And I thought that was a catastrophe.

"No. No. No. It's got to be great."

Stay with him, but just give a little bit more room.

I've found over the years

that one of the key elements -- there's two key, key elements --

one is the script. It has to be really [clicks tongue].

And the other is casting.

And you have to find extraordinary people

and follow your deepest instincts about things.

We had cast most of the major roles.

We still had Nancy's boyfriend,

and we're seeing all kinds of guys.

I remember somebody bringing in Johnny Depp.

I think it was the guy who played the coroner,

and we had casted him, and he says,

"Listen -- I have a friend, Johnny Depp.

He's in a band. They're playing at the Viper Room,

and he's interested in acting, and what do you think?

And I said, "Well, send him in."

So, he came in. He had had a head shot made.

And I was looking at two other guys,

typically handsome young Hollywood teens,

and I went home that night with three, you know, 8x10s,

the pictures that all actors present to you

when they're coming in.

And my daughter, Jessica, was 14 at the time.

I was saying, "What do you think, Jessica?

This guy, he's a surfer," and blah, blah, blah.

"This guy's got kind of" --

She says, "Dad, Johnny Depp --

Who is he? Johnny Depp," you know?

I said "Really?" because I thought, you know,

Johnny came in, he chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes,

his fingers were all yellow from nicotine,

and he looked kind of pale and sickly.

And I said "Why him?"

She says, "He's beautiful." [ Laughs ]

And that was it. I said, "Okay."

And, you know, the role wasn't huge,

and his friend said, "I'll take care of him,"

and, so, every time guy was gonna go on,

his friend would be running his lines with him.

Remember, I've only seen this with a couple actors

where you actually could see their skin trembling.

You know, he was just always sweaty palms

and everything else, but he pulled it off.

You know, he had that natural ability to do it

without acting like he was acting.

Obviously, very quickly when on to "21 Jump Street"

and other great things,

but that was certainly one of my best finds.


The most wonderful person to work with.

She's very funny.

She's, obviously, supremely talented.

She's very professional.

One of the directors of her early films,

I think "Sophie's Choice," was killed in a freak accident

on a Long Island freeway during filming.

She asked for half an hour to just get herself together,

came back right back to work.


Man: Here we go. And...roll sound.

She also stayed in character between takes

so that we had all these rambunctious kids

that were always wanting to saw on their violins

and make this cacophony.

She would stay the teacher, say, "Hey! Hey!

Hey! Keep it quiet over there," you know?

So, she kept that whole shoot together with those kids

and just no way that I, as a director, could say,

"Hey, quiet down over there."

And she just had a great time doing it.

And we had a great time working together.

Drew was spectacular to work with,

and she just totally threw herself into it

and went through all the casting

and finding just the right people for everything.

But that that was -- I think in all the "Screams,"

it was because it was completely written.

The only thing I had to figure out was how to make it work

in certain locations.

So, some of the chases and set pieces changed that way.

Kevin had just written "a figure in a ghost mask,"

so, as soon as a director, since you're dealing with

a visual medium as opposed to a print,

you know that you can't just put a mask on somebody.

If I put a mask on you,

I'd still be able to know it was you, you know,

as opposed to the other people in the room.

So, we started devising this costume that ended up a costume

that would basically cover every square inch of the person.

But it even went farther than that.

Black shoes for the killer.

Okay, everybody that could be a suspect wore black shoes.

And they all had to be basically the same height.

So, you know, there were a lot of things like that

that were very tricky to keep the suspense up and not make it

that at the end you reveal it's a 300-pound character,

but they somehow look thin for the rest of the movie

in the Ghostface costume.

So, you know there was a lot of stuff

that a director does that --

The script itself, the story was was there,

and there was none of that agony of, you know,

trying to make script notes, get the script right.

And then you leave.


Ghostface, my buddy.

This mask or one very very like it --

Was much older, actually --

Was on the bed in the upstairs of a house

that we were looking at in Santa Rosa.

It was sitting on the on two pillars

in this very, very nice, little grandma's house.

And, you know, I'd been looking for a mask

that was a ghost mask.

We didn't really know what it would or should look like,

but we were getting close to production.

And I said, "Where did you get this?

This is amazing, and we're doing a film

about a ghost-face guy.

Can we borrow this?" She said, "Yeah, sure"

It turns out her husband had collected Halloween masks.

And the mask clearly was old

and had been worn around the edges and everything else,

but we couldn't find any brand on it.

So, called Bob Weinstein.

He said, [gruff voice] "Well, get your art department

to make you something like it,

but not too close that we get sued."

[ Normal voice ] I probably do the worst Bob imitation of anybody.

So, we went through a period of trying to devise

a mask that was scary but didn't look like this

so we would get sued,

but, also, the studio was trying to find who made it.

And right towards the end -- in fact, I shot the first day

using the mask against studio orders

because the other mask just looked terrible.

And the next day, we got word that the studio had found --

I don't know whether it's still there,

but on the original, they found right along

the edge of the mask,

there was just embossed the words "Fun World."

And then did a global search of that

and found this little mom and pop company in New England

that probably their entire capital intake

in a year was $10,000,

but it was part of their inventory,

and they'd had it since the 50s, I think.

So, a deal was quickly made, as they say.

So, that's how it came to be.


"Music of the Heart" came about this way.

I had made "Scream 1."

Nobody knew whether it was gonna work or not.

We had a test screening in Secaucus, New Jersey.

And it went through the roof -- just through the roof.

And I remembered Bob Weinstein was sitting at the end of my row

and behind him, coming in late, was Harvey Weinstein

who sat two rows behind, and had a big bag of M&Ms,

and through the whole movie, he was throwing them

and hitting Bob in the back of the head and chuckling

because I don't think he had ever seen

an audience react like that.

At the end, the scores were just --

It was the best test score they'd ever had.

Okay, so, they disappear, and my editorial staff and I,

a producer at that time, said, "Let's get something to eat."

So, we went back into New York and down in the village

where there was a restaurant that served late,

and we were sitting there, kind of celebrating, you know,

thinking what will we change, and, you know,

we couldn't think of anything, really, that needed to change,

when the Weinstein brothers reappeared

and kind of shouldered everybody all the way

and came up next to me and said,

"We're gonna offer you a three picture deal right now."

And "Scream 2" and "Scream 3" are two of those movies.

And..."Yet the third movie

will be something that you can choose from anything

that we own the rights to."

At a certain point, Harvey was saying,

[gruff voice] "Wes, what do you think about Madonna?

I know her. She's great.

She's going to be in Chicago for us.

Why don't we just have a meeting

and just get to know each other?"

[ Normal voice ] So, next thing I know,

we're in a meeting with Madonna in our offices,

and, you know, she's very sweet, and she's read the script,

and she likes it.

And very quickly, Harvey said, "So...Madonna,

you want to do the film?" and she said, "Yes."

"So, Wes, you want to do the film with Madonna?"

It's like, what are you gonna say, no?

So, then began the process of working with Madonna

to learn the role, learn how to play violin.

And I have to say that Madonna is very smart

and was incredibly dedicated

to learning to play the violin properly.

But she also was very opinionated

by where she wanted to take the script,

and it wasn't in the direction I wanted to go.

So, at a certain point,

I said, "Harvey, it's not gonna work out."

He said, "I can't fire Madonna!

We're going to use her in Chicago.

She'll kill me! She won't be in it!

You're gonna have to do it."

So, I had to go in Madonna's apartment

and say it wasn't working.

And that was stunning.

So, then we were in a situation, "Well, who's gonna play her?"

And we said, "How about Meryl Streep?"

And Harvey will kill me, but he said, "Meryl Streep?

She can't sell tickets.

She's always dying. She's always sad. She's always crying.

Nobody wants to see that."

So, we went through a long list of actresses,

and it reached the point where there was no more money --

Seems to be a familiar story in my career.

We had to close our production offices we were down

just to a few secretaries.

We had already sold all the office equipment,

the wardrobe was in boxes.

And I said, "Harvey, give me give me just a shot

with Meryl Streep," and, so, they approached her,

and she said, "I've just done 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

and one other film back to back.

I don't want to do a film for at least a year.

I want to be around my kids."

So, I, on my own, sat down and wrote, I think,

one of the most successful letters in my career,

and I just poured out my heart to her

and said how much this meant to me

and how I thought she was born for the role,

and blah, blah, blah.

And two days later, I got a call from her agent,

who said, "Meryl wants to talk to you."

So, let's give her the number, call up, suddenly,

"Hello?" "Hello," and I'm talking to Meryl Streep.

She said "I want you to know that you scared my daughter

so much with the "Scream" series

because we live at the end of a long, quiet road in the woods."

So, I just laid out what I thought this film could be,

and there's a long pause at the end,

probably a 20-minute conversation, mostly me talking.

And then she said, "Okay, I'll do it."

Man: Action!



I don't have a favorite film of all the films I made.

I think some succeeded on both a commercial

and a artistic level more than others.

Needless to say, "Last House,"

I think was by far my hardest-hitting film.

It's not a film I go back and watch.

"The Hills Have Eyes," I could go back and watch

and have some fun with it.

"Nightmare on Elm Street," I think,

because it was the first film I just wrote

completely on my own without even a friend,

producer, saying, "Go write something."

To me, it was a composite character

that got whittled down to the core character

by the end of the film.

People say, "Why do you enjoy killing teenagers?"

and I say I don't.

I enjoy killing characters that don't make it in life, you know?

Because it's fiction, and it's a composite.

It's talking about what works in life

and what doesn't, ultimately.

Terrific. Cut. Very nice.


I have a hard time at this point thinking

that I'll find something that will be quite so engaging

and that I can do so well.

I've been doing this for 40 years now.

So, it is what I do in a way, is make movies,

and, most often, scary movies.

But, you know, I know how to make a movie.

It touches me deeply.

I can't think of another thing that I can do this well

that I would care to do.

We all have particular talents.

We all have particular strengths and weaknesses.

I certainly have a deep appreciation for the guys

who are doing the same thing I do -- and women --

because it's hard, and it's not rewarded

the way "standard films" are.

Cut it!

[ Applause ]

If I were just think of something I'd say to the fans,

I would say thank you.

Thank you for being there,

appreciate what I do,

sometimes give me a little rap on my head

to get me going back in the right direction.

But most of all, I think that you are

the proof that everything that people say

that don't like horror movies,

everything they say that horror movies do to people

is disproved by you because you've turned out to be

some of the greatest people I've met

and the most gentle souls and get all the humor

and everything else in my films, too.

So, thank you.

Thank you for all you've given.





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