Interview with Jack Sholder, Director of Nightmare on Elm Street 2

| April 13, 2015

Jack Sholder, the acclaimed director of such beloved genre classics as Alone in the Dark, The Hidden and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 will be making his first Chicago appearance at the Sci-Fi Spectacular (facebook.com/terrorintheaisles)—Saturday, April 18, 2015 at The Patio Theater—for a Q & A and a rare screening of one of the best films from the 80’s, The Hidden.

If you haven’t been to the Sci-Fi Spectacular, Chicago’s ultimate Sci-Fi/Horror 16-hour film marathon, it’s an outrageously fun festival where genre lovers can hang out, get free autographs and take pictures with guests, as well as check out a ton of vendors and see  incredible films like Alien, The Thing, The Hidden, Screamers, Labyrinth and more for the ultra-affordable price of $20 pre-sale (http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1257806).

In the buildup to the event, we were able to talk with Sholder, who shared with us some thoughts on his films and his creative process.

 

How did Alone in the Dark come about?

JS: I’d had a long association with New Line Cinema when I was working as an editor and they were  just doing distribution, mostly 16mm, a lot of it to colleges and universities.  Friday The 13th had recently come out and I was sitting around with Bob Shaye and a group of others from New Line after work, and they were saying that distribution was getting too competitive and if they could move into production and make a low budget horror film, they could definitely make money.  I thought about it and came up with the idea of a group of criminally insane guys escaping from a mental hospital during a blackout in NYC and creating mayhem and then getting rounded up by the mafia. There’d been a 3 day blackout in NYC a few years earlier that I’d experienced, and things broke down a it with some looting, etc. And I guess there was also some inspiration from Fritz Lang’s M, which is a favorite of mine.

New Line thought it would be too expensive to shoot in NYC and wanted me to drop the mafia thing.  I made a deal to write the script and, if they made it, I’d direct it.  I’d directed a number of shorts, the last of which was an adaptation of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” which is about as far from a horror film as you can get. But it was quite good and was on PBS and won a bunch of awards, so Shaye knew I could direct. Plus, he said since I was an editor at least I’d get all the pieces needed to cut a film together – I guess that’s where the bar was in low budget in those days.  Anyway, I wrote the script, they couldn’t find the money, and I got hired to edit The Burning—the first film the Weinstein brothers (who later started Miramax) produced.  I learned a lot about how suspense and horror worked from that and did a rewrite of Alone. And a year later New Line raised the money to make the film.

 

What did you do to make the film stand out?

JS: Well, everyone hopes their film will stand out, but you just do the best job you can.  I wrote it out of who I am and how I see the world, which is with a sense of irony.  The film is really social commentary. What is sanity, and what is society, and how do they relate?

 

What got you interested in making The Hidden?

JS: It was a terrific and original script with great dialogue and heart, and I also saw it as a police procedural, which is a genre I’d always loved, especially the films of Sidney Lumet.  As soon as I read it, I said, “I have to make this film.”  Fortunately, New Line agreed.

 

How did you go about finding the actors?

JS: Everyone who was cast came in to read for the part, unlike other films where you make a list and then you make offers and wait to see if they’re accepted or if you need to move on to the next on the list.  I’d never planned to use Michael Nouri, but he was simply the best person who came in for the role.  We couldn’t find anybody right to play Gallagher, so the week before shooting, the casting director brought in everyone she could.  Kyle [MacLachlan] was cast the Thursday before the Monday we started and was an inspired choice.

 

How was The Hidden received by audiences and how did you feel about the end result?

JS: When we tested The Hidden, the scores were through the roof, and everyone was expecting a big hit. There was a lot of buzz about the film, and it generated a lot of interest in me as a director.  But the film never found its audience and never really made much money.  I haven’t seen the film in maybe 10 years now, but the last time I saw it I felt like I got it pretty much right and had no regrets.

 

How did you get involved with Nightmare on Elm Street 2?

JS: Wes [Craven] was going to direct it but was never happy with the script that Dave Chaskin wrote.  He backed out about 6 weeks before they were scheduled to shoot, and New Line asked me if I’d do it.  Initially, I really wasn’t interested in doing a sequel to someone else’s horror film—sequels were looked down upon at that time.  A friend said, “You’re crazy. It’ll make a lot of money and you’ll have a career.”  He was right on both counts.  It grossed more than the original, and the next thing I knew the phone was ringing.

 

Were you given much creative freedom with Nightmare on Elm Street 2? Did the studio have a set of guidelines you had to follow with the character of Freddy or the script?

JS: New Line didn’t understand at that time why the original had made so much money.  They thought it was scary and clearly struck a nerve, but they didn’t think it was a great film and they were hoping to squeeze a few more bucks out of it with a sequel. In fact, they didn’t want to bring back Robert Englund because his agent wanted more money for the sequel, and they didn’t think he was worth it! I told them I thought Robert was key to the first film’s success, and they eventually worked out a deal with him. Unfortunately, he was unavailable until week two of the shoot, so the scene in the shower was done with an extra.  I’d also seen the original script before they shot it, and had seen various cuts during the editing, so I had a pretty good handle on the film.  The only thing I was told was to make sure we never saw Freddy too clearly.

 

What new things did you want to bring to the Freddy character or did you feel that he was where he needed to be already?

JS: Honestly, aside from the concept, the best thing Wes did was cast Robert, who is a great character actor.  So Robert knew what to do and was great at it and he didn’t need much directing.  Really, the only thing we added was to improve the make-up, which I did by hiring Kevin Yagher to do his first big film.  I felt he was a real artist rather than a goremeister, and he did a great job.

 

When directing action scenes, what kind of preparation do you do?

JS: I’m very big on prep.  I have shot-listed every movie I’ve ever made before we start shooting it.  I’d say I stick to it about 80%, but doing the shotlist means I have to make the movie in my head: figure out what the story and characters are about, what each scene is about, how I’ll then block it and finally where I’ll put the camera. So it really is how I prepare.  In the case of effects or action sequences, I’ll storyboard since sometimes it’s the 2nd unit that’s shooting some of those scenes and I want to make sure they shoot it the way I want. It also helps the effects guys know, for instance, what side of the face they can hide the wires or tubes on based on those storyboard, or how much I want to see and from what angle.

I know some directors storyboard the whole film – and others refuse to do a shotlist at all because they feel it saps their creativity on set – but I find storyboarding to be a chore. First, I’ve got to do the shotlist anyway. Then I have to describe what I have in mind to the storyboard artist who makes a storyboard that may or may not be what I had in mind. If not, we have to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and it takes a lot of time.  Plus, it ties you down to a very specific look and framing, as opposed to a shotlist which is more conceptual.

 

What’s the best way to deal with a difficult actor? Do you have any examples of rough scenarios you had to work through?

JS: I think my travails with Michael Nouri on The Hidden are pretty much public. After the first week or so he was almost impossible for me to control. I think he thought I didn’t know what I was doing and would make him look bad. Ironically, what happened in the end was the opposite. But I was extremely angry about it for a long time. One day, years later, we ran into each other and talked it through, and that was it. What happened happened, but it was another time.

I’ve directed 15 features or TV features plus some episodic, and I’ve gotten pretty good with actors. So first of all, the actors can sense that I know what I’m doing and I can help them to be good, which is ultimately what they want if they’re sane (which isn’t always the case). And secondly, I’ve had enough experience to know when things might be getting out of hand and can head it off. And I don’t let it get to me.  So some potentially difficult situations have turned out fine, and everyone has pretty much parted friends.

 

Knowing what you know after making many films, what kind of advice would you give your starting self?

JS: Hang in there. Believe in yourself. Understand that every actor is different and what works with one will not necessarily work with another. And you’re the luckiest guy in the world to get to direct a movie (which I knew at the time)!

 

[This interview may not be republished without expressed written permission from the author.]

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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