WRITERS ON WRITING: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

By Eric Heisserer

Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2010

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I’ve been to a thousand meetings in this town. You get some heat with a spec sale or a difficult assignment, so you take the Bottled Water Tour. It’s the business version of a dating service. You’re not pitching a take on an open assignment, you’re just meeting to test the waters and see if you and the producer/exec get along.

That’s how this project started for me. I went in for a general meeting with Dave Neustadter at New Line. That’s all it was supposed to be: A handshake, a bottle of water, and a chat about our favorite movies. But this was one of those rare, legendary meetings where I was the right guy with the right horror sample, and I walked out holding the keys to the house that Freddy built.


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The first challenge was time. I had four weeks to deliver a draft to the studio if we were to hit an ever-shrinking window of opportunity to launch the production. This schedule meant I’d be writing through Christmas and New Year’s, just pushing to hit FADE OUT. And it forced all of us to pay close attention to the type of movie we were making.

Rule One: Don’t be Tone Deaf

The franchise of A Nightmare on Elm Street is crowded with seven films, a crossover movie, novelizations, and comic books. Its core character is an icon of horror, and audiences recognize his glove, sweater, and fedora on sight. But a film franchise’s tone can often slip with each sequel, usually becoming more and more comedic. So, before I could begin with an outline or treatment, I had to first make sure that all of us (the producers, studio execs, and I) had the same Freddy Krueger in our heads. Starting out, tone is everything. The movie couldn’t hold itself together if one of us wanted the Krueger who spouted “Welcome to prime time, bitch,” while another sought a pure horror story of a man who brutalizes the children of his enemies in their dreams.


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Several hours of heated discussion were spent narrowing down the tone of this revival, until all of us were confident in the new Krueger. In many ways, we chose to be as faithful to the original as possible. Freddy would be scary as hell, but occasionally show a sadistic sense of humor. With this rule in mind, I attacked the outline.

Rule Two: Something About Babies and Bathwater

Despite the fact that we were starting over, I had a library of material from which to draw, most notably Wes Craven’s original script for the 1984 film and a draft from writer Wesley Strick who’d been commissioned to take a crack at the franchise before I came on board. Add on to that all the other movies and supplemental mythology for the Elm Street series and I was in danger of being overwhelmed. Every time I bumped against a character or story problem, I would worry that the solution was already covered somewhere before.

But, it’s too easy to get caught in a “research spiral” and procrastinate from the actual heavy lifting, and sometimes the most obvious questions are never asked by the characters or the audience. I tried my best to find a balance between research and intuitive writing. None of us involved in this remake wanted to throw out what already worked well. At the same time, we had to let go of elements that were outdated or problematic from the original, to try and sidestep those problems this time around.

What became clear as I constructed the bones of the story was this: Krueger needed to reclaim a sense of mystery. His motives and his very nature had to be a question for the viewer, or else there was no foundation upon which to build fear. A moviegoer who knows precisely what to expect from a villain in a scary movie is a moviegoer who won’t be scared. So, we needed some surprises up our sleeve without breaking the core character of this franchise.


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The surprises, we found, were already buried in Krueger’s origin story. He was killed for a horrible crime by a group of parents who took the law into their own hands, and he returns to seek revenge by torturing and killing their children in the dream world. But, what really happened? Is it possible Krueger was innocent, and so his return is really a tale of wicked vengeance? Or, did the parents burn him in righteous fury, only to make something evil stronger after death?

These questions aren’t new to horror. The mystery of Samara from The Ring is one rooted in motive: We believe, with our protagonist, that the creepy girl is ultimately a victim; that finding and rescuing the body from the well will end the curse, but that turns out to be precisely what Samara wanted us to think. What makes this question vital is that it establishes a line of investigation for the protagonist, and therefore a basic structure for reveals and reversals throughout the story.

Rule Three: Make it Scary

This doesn’t seem too hard at first blush. But, the scares in Nightmare are a particular kind of horror. What I learned that most surprised me: It’s difficult to sustain horror and dread once you reveal your characters are in a dream world, largely because 1) anything can happen, and 2) Krueger has control. There is no running away—the idea of distance, of even running itself, is just a fabrication in the dream that Krueger allows for his own entertainment. There is no fighting back—it’s like fighting Agent Smith in The Matrix. He will just emerge in some other form or re-integrate himself, because the man is a dream. While these revelations can be horrific on their own, they also instill a sense of helplessness, and part of what makes horror sustainable is the narrow hope that the character can make it out alive. Some avenue of escape or resistance.

Craven knew this, too, and employed a number of tricks in the original Nightmare that blurred the lines between reality and dream. The question you ask first is: Have they fallen asleep? And when it’s revealed they’re dreaming, the more foreboding question is: When did they fall asleep? How long ago?

This was a trick I employed in the remake. For example, in the middle of the story, when the heroine Nancy feels herself nodding off , she sets her phone to chime every 15 minutes as a precaution. But moments later, she steps into another room to find it’s snowing inside. She’s fallen asleep. Freddy corners her a page later:

NANCY
I set an alarm.
FREDDY
Yes you did… In your dream.

Freddy stands very, very close. Nancy cringes.

FREDDY (CONT’D)
We have plenty of time.

Nancy squeezes her eyes shut.

NANCY
You’re just a nightmare.
FREDDY
That’s right. No one can prove
I was ever here.

This sense of not knowing where the marker is, not knowing when or if the characters have fallen asleep, was one of my most useful tools in maintaining fear and tension throughout the script.

Rule Four: Escalation is Important

Monsters have working hours. Some of the best horror villains are the ones constrained to a particular time of day, and this clock is a great device for building tension. In a vampire story, it’s the agonizing wait until dawn. Werewolf? Keep your eye on that moon.

Jackie Earle Haley stars as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street

Krueger works differently because the characters have some control over when they go to sleep. The vigilant teenager can stay awake for days. As I constructed the last half of the screenplay, I realized this power on the heroes’ side made Krueger oddly absent at a time when he should be even more of a threat. This absence was a problem, and one that couldn’t be solved by studying Craven’s original 1984 movie (where Nancy spends a great length of the final half-hour awake and preparing to ambush Krueger).

I found my solution in research. As I worked on the outline and watched the early Nightmare movies, I also delved into as much reading as I could retain on the subjects of dreams, sleep disorders, and insomnia. And since Quentin—one of the troubled teens stalked by Krueger in the story—is a bookish kid, I allowed him to find the same bit of trivia during his research, adjusted a little for dramatic stakes:

Quentin riffles through the books to find one he’s bookmarked:

“Mastering Sleep.”
QUENTIN
(reading)
“At the seventy-hour mark, an insomniac will begin to experience ‘micronaps’ every eight to 10 minutes. These are periods where the brain will shut down some of its cognitive function for several seconds in an attempt to recharge itself. Clinically, the subject is asleep for those brief moments.”

Micronaps became my access to Krueger in the prelude to the third act. They allowed me to keep my characters awake and in the real world while still having to deal with the horrific escalation of his appearances. Nancy is the first to experience micronaps in the script, and in a panic urges Quentin to find her “something, anything” to boost her adrenaline in an effort to mitigate the dips into half-sleep. Here is an example of a micronap while she waits in Quentin’s car in the parking lot of a pharmacy:

ON NANCY, sitting in the car. Breathing. Beat.

She checks the time on her phone and just as she’s distracted

Freddy opens her door and yanks her out of the car—

He drags her onto the parking lot, now dark and foggy—

Nancy SCREAMS and struggles against Freddy—

And suddenly she snaps AWAKE back in the passenger seat of the car, catching her breath.

Tears streaming down her cheeks now. She looks around. Alone again. Zeroes in on the in-dash cigarette lighter.

She punches it in.

Beat. Looking out toward the door to the pharmacy.

Pop! The lighter ejects.

Nancy grabs it and turns it over to look at the burner.

It glows orange-hot.

Still shedding tears, Nancy takes the lighter and holds it close to her forearm. Sucks in a breath. Two.

Then she mashes the lighter against her flesh.

This sequence escalates when Nancy goes into the pharmacy after Quentin, and the micronaps hit her rapid-fire—in one moment she’s in the first aid aisle in the pharmacy, next she’s in Krueger’s boiler room, and the two worlds continue shifting as Krueger chases her. This sequence was arguably one of my favorite to script because it let me play with the awake/ asleep states of my heroine as if they were on a light switch.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer

Ironically, in a movie where nightmare worlds come to life, the most rewarding moments for me were the quiet ones that suggested a transformation in the characters. Nancy’s moment came after a particularly brutal micronap caused Quentin to crash the car. Now, with a possible concussion and still a half-mile to the location that will solve Krueger’s mystery once and for all, Nancy and Quentin are at their most vulnerable:

EXT. ROADSIDE — CONTINUOUS

Nancy and Quentin hold on to each other as they stumble back onto the road.

Nancy’s head is swimming. She’s lost and unfocused.

QUENTIN
Hold tight. I’m calling nine-one-one.

He dials and puts the phone up to his ear.

Nancy grabs it from him and disconnects the call.

With a teardrop of blood leaking down her face from her forehead, she looks in desperate need of a paramedic.

NANCY
We can’t go back to the hospital.
Not yet.
QUENTIN
Then what!

Nancy turns and looks out the way they were driving.

And she starts walking. Nothing will stop her.

After a few steps, Quentin catches up to her and walks alongside. If Nancy won’t give up, neither will he.

That was the point Nancy stopped running from the monster and steeled herself to fight back. It helped me earn the moment in the climax, 15 pages later, when Krueger tries to terrorize her, and she doesn’t fl inch.

Rule Number Whatever: Get a Thick Skin

The harsh lesson: When it comes to a beloved franchise, everyone will hate the new writer. You can’t try to appeal to the masses. My advice to anyone tackling a project like this is simply to hunker down. Listen to the people making the movie with you. And listen to your own ideas. Try and get as much of your own material on the page as you possibly can.

Oh, and take every general meeting that comes your way. You never know.

*****

ERIC HEISSERER was hired to re-envision and rewrite the script for the franchise reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street for New Line Cinema. The script went on to land director Samuel Bayer and actor Jackie Earle Haley. From this assignment, Eric was hired to rewrite the prequel to the John Carpenter 1982 adaptation of The Thing. His professional screenwriting career was launched with the sale of The Dionaea House to Warner Bros. in 2005, based on an online epistolary story of the same name that he wrote in October 2004. Eric’s most recent film is Arrival, starring Amy Adams. Follow Eric on Twitter: @HIGHzurrer

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