Samuel Bayer: "The hardest part about making a movie is stamina. When… (MCT )
No matter how fierce your devotion to popular culture, odds are you've never heard of Samuel Bayer, who makes his feature directing debut Friday with the reboot of "A Nightmare on Elm Street." But you're almost certainly familiar with his work.
A prolific commercial and music-video director, Bayer has been responsible for some of the most memorable images of the last 20 years: Kurt Cobain thrashing around a gym in Nirvana's music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; the bespectacled girl in a bumblebee tutu finding elusive companionship in Blind Melon's "No Rain" video.
Yet as Bayer, who was born and raised in upstate New York, hopscotched around the world shooting his distinct brand of pop art, he had never done what so many directors have dreamed of since the moment they first pressed record on the family video camera: made a movie. "I was like a virgin talking about sex in his 40s," Bayer says about jumping into the feature-film game. "I had shot all these commercials and videos, but I had never done the deed."
That all changes when "Nightmare," Hollywood's latest attempt to bring back the 1980s — in this case, the creepy nihilism of the dream-stalking, teenager-murdering, one-liner-spewing Freddy Krueger — is released around the country. "I made this movie because I think franchises can run out of steam," Bayer says. "They need to be destroyed before they can be created again."
Sitting in his storefront studio in a poetically gritty section of downtown Los Angeles, Bayer, with his surfer-boy curls and dark T-shirt, gives off the vibe of a particular kind of entrepreneur as much as a fitful artist. A giant room with vaulted ceilings, the office features a gang of MTV Video Award statuettes sequestered unobtrusively in a display case, books about artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel packing the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a few assistants elegantly scattered throughout. It has the visual perfection of, well, a Samuel Bayer video.
Bayer's decision to make his feature debut with "Elm Street" wasn't, at least to him, the most obvious choice. Although he has directed commercials for some of the biggest brands, his work has also been the subject of museum exhibitions. . The 48-year-old is known for an auteur's precision, for obsessive reshooting, for studying the technical aspects of filmmaking (contrast ratios, anyone?) the way a scholar might scrutinize the Talmud.
As Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Krueger in the new film, recalls, there wasn't a lot of time to kick back on the "Nightmare" set in Chicago. "We'd do a scene, and I'd feel like it was really dialed in, and then Sam says, 'Let's do it again and move the camera four inches,' " Haley says.
In an era when all but a handful of filmmakers are hired guns whose primary mandate — and talent — is executing a studio's will, "Nightmare" offers an unusual combination: a marriage of eccentric vision and straightforward commerce. "I don't think Sam ever thought an '80's horror remake would be his first film," says Brad Fuller a partner at Platinum Dunes -- founded and owned by "Transformers" director Michael Bay -- and a producer on "Nightmare."
"I'm going to shove art down people throats, without them even being aware of it," Bayer says. You get the sense that the director, who is known for pitching fanciful film ideas such as a reimagining of "Hamlet" in an Ohio junkyard, means it, , even if his producers may have wanted him to keep the Fellini touches to a minimum. There was never a moment, Fuller says, when the parties disagreed on creative choices. "Sam knew what he was getting into and what we were asking of him."
"Nightmare" is the latest in a line of horror remakes — following "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th" — meant to simultaneously introduce the franchise to a new generation and cash in on 1980s nostalgia. The original, a low-budget movie from genre pioneer Wes Craven about a psychotic, child-killer burn victim who stalks teenagers in their dreams with a knife-fingered glove, made a tidy sum of $25 million at the U.S. box office and spawned seven other films. And it did that with a fair amount of humor, as Krueger, initially incarnated by Robert Englund, offered black-hearted comedy that diverged from the often overwrought seriousness of other '80s horror classics.
Warner Bros., which is releasing the new "Nightmare," declined to screen it for the purposes of this story. "I guess they have their own agendas," Bayer says, shrugging, as he cues up some footage from the film on his laptop. Even the few scenes he shows reflect a meticulously crafted visual palette. The movie's opening segment, set in a darkened diner on a rainy night, plays with light, sound and shadow in a manner more befitting an art installation than a Friday night at the multiplex — before segueing to the requisite scenes of scared teenagers on the run.