Wes Craven Craved Mainstream Acceptance

Horror-meister switched genres to deliver one from the heart

by Glenn Lovell

Special to Los Angeles Times

WES CRAVEN was through making excuses for his macabre handiwork. After 25 years of raising grade-A gooseflesh, most recently with “Scream,” he had decided to go upbeat and up-market with a “low-budget art film.”

“What’s the point of doing more [horror films]?” he grumbled morosely. “Films about the violence of the human soul are looked down on as exploitative; they cause some great societal ill. So I’ve decided to try something different.”Craven2

But not just at the moment. . . .

Craven would make the crossover to what he facetiously called “legit cinema” after “Scream 2,” the college-set continuation of last year’s witty, phenomenally popular stalker parody, starring Neve Campbell and Drew Barrymore. The sequel, also with Campbell, was on location in Atlanta. Miramax’s Dimension Films, hoping lightning would strike twice, pushed for a December release.

So impressed were they when they saw the first “Scream,” Miramax bosses Bob and Harvey Weinstein offered the horror vet a three-picture deal. What made the offer especially attractive was Project No. 2, a non-genre story based on the Oscar-nominated documentary “Fiddlefest” (a.k.a. “Small Wonders”), about an inner-city music teacher who battles city hall to impart important life lessons.

“There’s that taint [on horror],” Craven acknowledged. “You’re dealing with things that are almost obscene, and this constricts your audience base. A large segment of the public just doesn’t go to them. They prejudge them as ‘too frightening, too weird.’ Eighty percent of the women I meet tell me, ‘I never go to that kind of movie.’ ”

 

During a recent European promotional tour for “Scream,” media response was even more PC. “Family values were cited endlessly and ad nauseum. The press asked, ‘Aren’t you worried that your antisocial movies will be harmful to children?’ And: ‘Don’t you have other stories to tell?’ ”

In Craven’s case, the answer has always been yes. Seven years ago, on location in Vancouver, he talked about someday doing “a full-blown love story.” And last year he signed a $1-million contract with Simon & Schuster to write his first novel, a scientific thriller called “The Fountain Society.” “My original aspirations were to be a writer, so it’s very exciting.”

“Fiddlefest” (released in 1999 as “Music of the Heart”), he promised, would be an even greater departure. The protagonist is a single mother who, reeling from a nasty divorce, pulls her life together by sharing her passion for classical music. Instructed to “just divert and amuse” her primarily black and Latino students, Guaspari-Tzavaras battles budget cuts and nasty administrators, and creates a music program that becomes the envy of the nation.

The budget, at this point, was a rock-bottom $7 million, but the good news was that Madonna had “expressed great interest” in playing the teacher, Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras. Harvey Weinstein reported back to Craven: “Madonna wants to do it right after ‘Chicago.’ She’s ready to start learning the violin.” (The role would eventually go to Meryl Streep, who received an Oscar nomination.)

“It’s an art film–completely out of the [horror] genre,” said Craven, whose horror perennials include “Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” “It’s about a woman who teaches classical violin to very young kids in East Harlem. It’s really about discipline and self-respect: You had better apply yourself or you’re out! She’s quite the drill sergeant. Her kids have played with the New York Symphony, and are now touring Europe. It’s a very inspiring story, not a genre film at all.”

A former high school and college teacher himself, Craven was immediately drawn to the material. He became aware of Guaspari-Tzavaras’ story while serving on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary-screening committee.

“I was raised in a working-class family [in Cleveland], I taught high school for a year, and I love classical music,” Craven said. “Roberta’s story stuck with me. It was positive and happy, and showed what happens when people do things right.”

Flash forward to the Secaucus, N.J., preview of “Scream” and the celebratory dinner afterward. The Weinsteins wanted to strike a deal. “They said, ‘We know you want to make something out of the horror genre. If you do two genre films for us at the level of ‘Scream,’ we’ll let you make a drama or a romance. They reeled off the projects they had, and I recognized the title ‘Fiddlefest.’ ”

Craven, 57, had no illusions as to why, after all this time, he’d been given his shot. “It means a great deal to me, but–hey, let’s be honest–it’s an artistic benefit of bringing [Miramax] a lot of money.” (The $13-million “Scream” recently passed $100 million in domestic grosses, putting it up there with “Psycho” and “The Exorcist” as the most lucrative fright films of all time.)

Truth be known, Craven–who holds a master’s degree in literature and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University–always intended to jettison the horror-meister mantle. And he almost did, with such quasi-genre offerings as “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a florid adaptation a la Val Lewton’s “I Walked With a Zombie”), “Swamp Thing” (a campy superhero number) and “Vampire in Brooklyn” (a horror comedy with Eddie Murphy).

The problem was, his “transition films” didn’t perform as well as his hard-core entries (“People Under the Stairs,” “Shockers,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”). Which meant he was doomed to repeat his successes.

Craven felt like the prototypical underworld character, usually played by Al Pacino, who’s trying to go straight but the mob won’t let him. “Just when I thought I got away from them, they dragged me back,” he mugs.

But it was a lucrative limbo, no?

“Yes, it was a two-edged sword,” Craven allowed from his “Scream 2” production office. “I’ve worked steadily making movies that made truckloads of money and were, for the most part, critically well-received.”

But they were still horror movies and, as Brian De Palma and John Carpenter can vouch, horror remains synonymous with “exploitative” and “sleazy.” Studio chiefs don’t mind cashing in on the Old Dark House as long as they don’t have to build next to it.

“There’s that taint [on horror],” Craven acknowledged. “You’re dealing with things that are almost obscene, and this constricts your audience base. A large segment of the public just doesn’t go to them. They prejudge them as ‘too frightening,’ ‘too weird.’ Eighty percent of the women I meet tell me, ‘I never go to that kind of movie.’ ”

During a recent European promotional tour for “Scream,” media response was even more PC. “Family values were cited endlessly and ad nauseum. The press asked, ‘Aren’t you worried that your antisocial movies will be harmful to children?’ And: ‘Don’t you have other stories to tell?’ ”

In Craven’s case, the answer has always been yes. Seven years ago, on location in Vancouver, he talked about someday doing “a full-blown love story.” And last year he signed a $1-million contract with Simon & Schuster to write his first novel, a scientific thriller called “The Fountain Society.” “My original aspirations were to be a writer, so it’s very exciting.”

“Fiddlefest,” he promised, will be an even greater departure. The protagonist is a single mother who, reeling from a nasty divorce, pulls her life together by sharing her passion for classical music. Instructed to “just divert and amuse” her primarily black and Latino students, Guaspari-Tzavaras battles budget cuts and nasty administrators, and creates a music program that becomes the envy of the nation.

Sounds familiar, like “Mr. Holland’s Opus Meets Dangerous Minds.”

Craven winced at the comparisons.

“I felt ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ was more manipulative of the audience than it needed to be,” he said.

What if this labor of love draws shrugs, and the critics carp, “Hey, Wes, stick to what you know”? Does that have him tossing and turning?

“I only have nightmares about never giving something a shot, not having my turn at bat,” Craven said. “I just want the chance to express another side of myself.”

Published June 11, 1997

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: