How the new Freddy gets reborn in Nightmare on Elm Street

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

For fans who have seen their favorite films and franchises re-imagined time and again in recent years, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the few remaining "holy grail" horror remakes. Freddy Krueger, much like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees before him, already enjoys a considerable cinematic legacy.

But under the auspices of Platinum Dunes, the studio responsible for 2009's hit Friday the 13th reboot—as well as remakes of The Amityville Horror and Texas Chain Saw Massacre—Freddy is poised to reclaim his spot atop the list of the genre's greatest monsters.

That is, if actor Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) can not only get into—but get underneath—all of the latex and makeup that transforms him into the homicidal child killer. (Spoilers ahead!)

"I'm still kind of trying to figure this stuff out," Haley said last June from the film's Chicago set. "It's kind of torturous for me. It's just a long time in the chair and then wearing this stuff: My ears are killing me, and it pulls down on the back of my neck. I have to eat Advil. But, at the same time, it's kind of odd, man. It's almost like I'm wondering if I can even, like, play this character if it wasn't on. You know what I mean?"

Haley, of course, is no stranger to difficult roles, having tackled a child molester in 2006's Little Children before playing the tortured hero Rorschach in Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen, one of the standout performances in that film.

Katie Cassidy as Kris in another scene that mirrors the origina; click to enlarge

According to Brad Fuller—who is producing the new Nightmare with his partner, Andrew Form—Haley was their first and only choice to play Freddy. "He was always the guy we wanted to play Freddy, and I think that New Line knew it also," Fuller said. "As soon as we got the job, we said, 'This is the guy that we want.'

Fuller adds: "We probably shouldn't have done that, but in our mind, it's not like Jackie was in first place and these two other guys in second and third. It was Jackie, or there's no movie in our mind. And New Line ultimately felt the same way."

(That also meant that Robert Englund, the guy who first played Freddy in the original 1984 Nightmare and its sequels, would not be invited to return. "[He was] never discussed for this movie," Fuller insisted.)

SCI FI Wire joined a small group of journalists to visit the set last June and saw only a few short scenes being shot. In one, a mother comforts her daughter after she has a nightmare that leaves the little girl with scratch marks down her back. In the other, Freddy pursues one of his victims (played by Katie Cassidy) through a shrinking maze of filthy tunnels.

Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger; click to enlarge

In addition to watching filming and speaking with Haley, Fuller and Form, we toured the production offices, the makeup trailer and a handful of other sets that director Samuel Bayer hadn't filmed yet.

As we settled into a small room just a few doors away from the main set, the first question posed to Form and Fuller was: What are you calling this film? A remake? A franchise reboot? Or something else entirely?

"You know, the way we answer that question is the same thing we've done with the other titles we've been lucky enough to have, where we take certain things about the original title that we liked," Fuller said, adding: "We just kind of went off the same general story and made some changes to it."

Referencing some of their past successes, Form added, "This one's more like Chainsaw. It's not like Friday the 13th, where we picked through a whole bunch of movies. I think this one holds truer to the original Nightmare. Because [the new] Friday the 13th was not a remake of the original. That was one, two, three pieces from a bunch of movies."

Fuller had the final word: "We're not borrowing, liberally, from all the movies to make this one. This is not going to be the best of Nightmare on Elm Street."

That of course begs the question what kind of film it will be, and what kind of Freddy audiences are going to see. By the end of the original film series, Freddy was as quick with a joke as he was with his claws, a mellowing of the character that Fuller revealed would not be part of their interpretation of him.

"He wasn't that way, really, in the first couple, and that's what we're sticking to," Fuller said. "We've never been attracted to a jokey antagonist, because it feels less scary and less real. As you guys will see tonight, Freddy Krueger looks very different. He looks like a real burn victim, and that's what's important to us. And he's not witty. He's a f--ked-up guy."

Fuller said that a big part of Freddy's effectiveness as a real monster is his backstory, which goes darker than ever before in this new film. "We're starting over from the very beginning, and I think that when parents are confronted with the notion that their child might or might not have been molested, that's an interesting part of the story for us," he said. "Our Freddy is definitely—and I don't think I'm letting the cat out of the bag—not a child killer. He probably has killed, but that's not our angle. Our angle is more of the molestation. And that makes it different, and more horrifying, I think."

As confident as Fuller is about the image and identity of Freddy in their film, he revealed that they had been making minor changes on the fly over the course of filming to ensure that their vision suited the mythology of the character that the original studio, New Line, laid out. "The character is so important to [New Line] that I would say to you that we're on our fifth week of shooting, and we were making refinements on the Freddy character up till last week. Wardrobe stuff, makeup stuff; we collectively are scrutinizing it to the nth degree. It's not coming from a legal standpoint. It's from a quality standpoint, and they've been all over us."

The most important aspect of Freddy, perhaps obviously, was the way he looked. Form indicated that they were going for something more authentic to the character's background as a burn victim, but wanted to make sure first that he didn't look too disturbing, and then leave it to Haley to offer enough of a performance to really flesh the makeup out, so to speak.

"We had reference photos that we were going off of, and you start with a bunch of pictures about how far you want to go," Form said. "Even with skin color of a burn victim, how white the face looks or the pigmentation you have in it. I mean, there was definitely too far, where I don't think you would even look at Freddy. You would turn away when he came on the screen. So you dial it back a little bit."

Fuller continued, "It's just so grisly it's hard to look at. And it still is, [but] we wanted to make it so you could see Jackie's eyes a little bit better. I think some of the earlier versions had the skin so burnt you couldn't really see his eyes and see him emoting. We did some work with that."

With their lead actor and his frightening look in place, the last component needed to bring the series back to life was a director ready to realize the film's nightmares. Fuller said that Samuel Bayer, best known for directing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video, was someone who they pursued for years before securing him as the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

"We have pursued Sam Bayer forever," Fuller explained. "We offered him this, and he passed. And then we offered it to him again, and then he passed, and then we sat down with [Platinum Dunes partner] Michael [Bay, who is also a producer,] and we talked about it. Michael said to me and Drew, 'I want to reach out to Sam Bayer,' which usually doesn't happen. Bay and Sam had a conversation or some kind of exchange where I think Michael made a very intelligent reason for Sam to do this movie and get behind it, and, literally, as soon as that happened, Sam got on board."

Further describing the qualities that they saw in Bayer's work that made him their main choice, Fuller continued, "His work is visually astonishing, and it's varied. He has a handle on the technical aspects of making these dreams work, and he cares a tremendous amount about performance. It's the look, but also you need a director who can really talk to the actors. This is a much more nuanced directing job, and we always felt that Sam had the ability to get that done."

"It's a difficult thing to communicate what they feel like, and I think that that's what Sam is really doing an amazing job with," Fuller beamed. "When I'm watching it, I've had nightmares that feel this horrible, and he's bringing that to film—which is a really hard thing to do."

Meanwhile, Haley said that he had to come to terms with the fact that he was playing "a boogeyman," even if he was trying to inject him with greater substance and depth. "In this version of Freddy, I think we're focusing more on the less camp and a little bit more of the scarier side. There's definitely, I think, a little more focus on what makes this guy who he is. But at the same time, it's like in my research I really started to delve into serial killers, and I was looking at all this kind of stuff, and I remember I found one on Ed Kemper. They did a movie on him, so I went to it, and I'm looking at it, and it was a total slasher movie. And that's when I realized I'm playing a boogeyman."

"So that's what I'm really trying to embrace," Haley continued, "but at the same time find out what makes this boogeyman tick. So there is room to kind of look at his past and to see what's happened and to see what makes him who he is—to see what's made him the boogeyman that he is."

Appropriately for a killer who preys on his victims through their dreams, Haley explained that his key to unlocking the character was getting inside his own head. "There's a process," he said. "In terms of posture and voice and things like that, it's not about sitting down and 'let's try voices,' although sometimes you do that. But it's just about working with the material, thinking about it, and sometimes things will happen while you're just driving your car. It's when you're not thinking about it, all of a sudden stuff bubbles up. So the process for me is really making sure I'm feeding that conscious level and giving it time for the subconscious to brew and to put things in front of me. I don't know if that makes any sense or if I sound like a madman."

Haley's intense physical and mental preparation notwithstanding, the actor admitted that his decision to play the character—much like fans' interest in the forthcoming remake—came largely down to the coolness factor of a new Nightmare on Elm Street film. "It just kind of all boiled down to how do you not play Freddy Krueger, you know what I mean?" he said. "It was just like such a cool project—such an iconic character and such a cool challenge. Clearly I wasn't thinking about all this s--t glued to my head, but, yeah, it was too cool to not do, man."

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