Wes Craven Interview, Last House on the Left

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

We ask Wes Craven if bad people hurt someone you love, how far would you go to hurt them back?! MoviesOnline sat down recently with producer Wes Craven and director Dennis Iliadis to find out. At the Los Angeles press day for their new movie, “The Last House on the Left,” we talked about what it was like bringing one of the most notorious thrillers of all time to a new generation and revisiting the landmark movie that launched Craven’s directing career and influenced decades of horror films to follow. The contemporary re-imagining is helmed by director Dennis Iliadis, whose recent film “Hardcore” won acclaim and found controversy for its depiction of teenage prostitution in modern-day Greece.

With a career spanning more than three decades, Wes Craven has become a cultural phenomenon in film and television. He reinvented the horror genre in 1984 with the classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which he wrote and directed, and in the next decade he deconstructed the genre again with the successful Scream trilogy. Both franchises have earned nearly one billion dollars and reflect his profound understanding of the often unconscious fears roiling in the human psyche. But Craven’s success in probing the roots of terror began in 1972 with his first film, the shocker “The Last House on the Left,” which was produced by fellow horror master Sean Cunningham, who went on to launch a juggernaut franchise of his own with his monumentally successful “Friday the 13th.”

Flash forward 30-plus years. Intrigued by the astonishing success of such horror remakes as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Craven’s own “The Hills Have Eyes,” the producing partners pondered revisiting “The Last House on the Left.” Craven offers: “Because the original had been produced on such a minuscule budget, there were many aspects of the story I simply couldn’t afford to explore. Fortunately, the new version has a much bigger budget, so we were able to greatly expand the production’s scope and take more time and care in shooting.”

In order to reintroduce this classic to contemporary audiences, Craven and team began to look for a rising young director to bring a new perspective for the story
told 37 years later. It would require a visual innovator—someone with not only a dark imagination but also a talent capable of revisiting the action, gallows humor
and terror of the landmark film. Better yet, he needed to integrate the elements into a distinct, new experience.

The producers were impressed after they saw Greek director Dennis Iliadis’ film “Hardcore” and its provocative, fresh approach to the world’s oldest profession. “Hardcore” top-lined Variety’s Critics’ Choice awards as one of the best films by new European directors for 2005, and the film also won the prestigious German Independence Award. Moreover, the independently produced, low-budget film had exemplary production values, showing that Iliadis was a savvy filmmaker who could be highly creative within budgetary constraints.

“We knew the remake would only work if we could find someone who could create strong characters while handling the more extreme moments,” explains co-producer Cody Zwieg. “Hardcore wasn’t a genre or a horror film but showed completely believable characters in horrific, realistic situations. Many directors could handle the surface elements, the blood and shock moments of Last House, but Dennis proved that he could do it all without exploiting his characters and their situations.” 

Iliadis jumped at the chance to work with Craven on Last House and make the movie his American debut. “I’ve seen all of Wes’ films and loved them,” he states. “This film is based on a very archetypal story and primal story, which is a great foundation. I wanted to keep all the shock value and the power of Wes’ film and develop the story in my own way.” With “Hardcore,” Iliadis had elicited performances of depth and beauty, while working with mostly nonprofessional actors for a long rehearsal. He would bring those learned lessons to Last House.

Here’s what Wes Craven and Dennis Iliadis had to tell us about their creative collaboration on “The Last House on the Left”:

MoviesOnline: Wes, the actors said you weren’t on the set very much. Was that intentional so that you wouldn’t be an overshadowing figure?

CRAVEN: Dennis and I, we hate each other. (laughs) No, we shot our two films. I shot a film that I wrote called 25/8, which will be out later this year, so I was pretty much writing and then in pre-production while he was filming.

ILIADIS: He wanted to give me the freedom, but he was off shooting his own film so he had to.

CRAVEN: Alexandre (Aja), I didn’t go to that set either. Unless something goes extraordinarily wrong, I stay away. And nothing went extraordinarily wrong, and everything went extraordinarily right with this film. So I was happy to be able to concentrate on my film. I looked at all the dailies and all that. I wasn’t like, “So long, good luck.”

MoviesOnline: What did you both see in Sara that made you realize she was right for this role?

CRAVEN: Seriously, I was very much involved in the beginning, finding Dennis and everything else, and I was kind of involved at the end, but Dennis did all the casting.

ILIADIS: You know, I didn’t want the casting to be obvious. I didn’t want to go sexy in a very superficial way and make the hard scenes titillating or enjoyable in any way, and I think what made me choose Sara was sitting in the room with her for an hour. Her audition was good, but I felt this intelligence and this intensity which was great combined with this very innocent face she has. Ideally, I wanted a face that looked innocent, I wanted a face that looked wholesomely American, because Sara for me, as a European, she has this very American physique, and at the same time I wanted someone who you couldn’t in any way enjoy seeing going through those scenes. Sara has that. It’s just heartbreaking to see her in these situations and she does an amazing job too. She’s an extremely brave and intelligent actress, and she’s been amazing.

MoviesOnline: Dennis, what was your introduction to the original Last House? Were some of the changes in this remake your contributions or were they already in the script?

ILIADIS: My introduction was a sticky VHS that I saw in a basement.

MoviesOnline: Did you say sticky or stinky?

ILIADIS: Sticky

CRAVEN: After awhile it was stinky.

ILIADIS: I think the story is so powerful that the moment that you decide to do it there’s so much stuff there that you don’t really have time to look back. There was a specific scene that really inspired me in Wes’ film, which is what happens after they do the terrible stuff they do in the woods, where you have the feeling that time almost stops and these people you have perceived as monsters have this moment where they’re not sure about themselves. This was something that I really loved in the original and I tried to keep that same spirit while not totally sticking to the same plot. We changed many things trying to give it a more real time feeling, staying with the characters the whole time. That’s why we cut out some, not distractions, [but] some cutaways like the cops and the chicken lady and all that.

MoviesOnline: Another change in this version is making Mari a swimmer. What was the idea behind that?

ILIADIS: Well the idea was to find something where she channels all her energy, and that was a big character trait because her brother is dead. It’s like she’s carrying him on her back. She needs to perform for two people now. She has to compensate for him so all her energy is in the water. The only area where she feels slightly free is when she’s in the water swimming like crazy, so it’s interesting having that as a character trait, and then having that as a key element for her trying to escape.

MoviesOnline: Was it important to have Mari make it back to the house?

ILIADIS: There were two things. One, to me it was very interesting to see the family in the end in unison, and still feel that their lives will never be the same, and I think seeing them in that boat you’re still seeing the same characters you saw in the beginning, but you feel that their lives have changed forever. And the other was, it added an extra motivation and sense of survival, the fact that they had their daughter there and the killers too, and they had to save her. So it wasn’t just about revenge, it was organic survival and revenge.

MoviesOnline: When you were considering Garret for this role, did you know that he had played Jesus?

ILIADIS: Actually I hadn’t seen that, I had seen the other stuff he did and Jesse James and all that. He’s a phenomenal actor and he managed to bring all the subtleties and ambiguities that I wanted. We were casting for Krug and everyone was coming and doing the squinty eyes and (he growls) and Garret brought this intensity, this evil which is not premeditated, and when that evil emerges it’s even stronger because it comes from a real human being who’s very angry. It doesn’t come from someone who has just decided to be bad.

MoviesOnline: Did you encourage the cast not to go out and socialize or have dinner together so that the actors playing the bad guys would be more menacing?

ILIADIS: You mean keeping the cast separate? No, actually my biggest focus was to rehearse with them and to really get them into character, and we did one very intensive week of rehearsals where we really went deep. After that, it was very important to let them decompress in any way they wanted, and believe me, they gave so much of themselves that they could have dinner wherever they wanted after the scenes.

CRAVEN: Sara said something very interesting, that when she heard Garret was doing the [role of Krug], [she thought] oh it’s a friend, so there was this sense I think of mutual trust among them, where they felt like no matter how horrible what they were acting was, they were in the hands of somebody that in some tiny part of their brain they could go and say I’m here with a friend, so it made it bearable.

MoviesOnline: What are some of the challenges you face when you’re directing a film where you’re interweaving visceral thrills with complex characters?

ILIADIS: I don’t see that as a contradiction. To me making a good horror movie is exactly that. Working on the characters, making the darkness inside everyone believable, so that when this darkness is expressed it’s believable and it hits you even harder.

CRAVEN: There are many, many different kinds of horror films too. It’s quite a complex genre from almost pure drama to, I don’t know, Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, which is more this kind of tear down all the barriers to decency or just to put arrows through people’s eyes, which has its own delicious kind of iconoclastic-ism to it. So, I think it’s a wonderful genre and the fact that it can rise to this level and still survive and help studios survive is a great thing, because we get to do our work. We, myself, Dennis, I think will do many different kinds of films, and the studio’s going to make money and we can do something that we find interesting. It’s a great thing.

MoviesOnline: How hard was it to shoot the assault scenes in the house, particularly the one in the kitchen?

ILIADIS: I really enjoy choreographing scenes like that, and also it’s very much about rehearsal. You rehearse all the basic and physical stuff so that performance can shine through. You don’t want your actors to be worried about the technical bits. You want the characters to shine through whatever is happening. So it was really rehearsing and we had a great stunt coordinator, his name was Mo in South Africa, and the actors were really willing to get into it and get dirty and painful and all that, and they did most of the fights. There’s very little stunt double work. You get good actors who are willing to get into it, and you work hard. You rehearse enough so that they can still act while they’re doing all this complex stuff, and that’s what you get.

MoviesOnline: In interviews you said the original source of The Last House on the Left was a Nordic folktale.

CRAVEN: Which Bergman knew about and based Virgin Spring on.

MoviesOnline: Is this version of the story based on the original folktale or does it take its inspiration from the original movie?

ILIADIS: It’s very interesting what you’re saying. It shows how strong this story is because it’s based on a medieval tale. It was done by Bergman, it was done by Wes. It’s a story that’s so strong and talks so about human nature that it’s so much work that you can’t just revisit it by being referential to another movie. It’s a full-on thing which you need to give your whole heart and soul in.

CRAVEN: I think it was kind of based on – I think the Bergman, Craven, [the] two films were kind of similar. I haven’t had access to the medieval tale, but I just have read that it does exist too, which was interesting. I think both of us thought it was a core story that was so powerful, and was relevant way back then and it’s relevant now, that I think we both felt like we weren’t doing a remake so much as a re-imagination by another director of this story basically, which freed Dennis from having to think [that] I was worrying about how he was going to do my film. It was more like, do that story, but make it totally your own.

MoviesOnline: If the original Last House on the Left were to be released now, what kind of rating would it receive?

CRAVEN: Oh it would be a triple, quadruple X if it was the original version. We actually cut it back ourselves. Sean Cunningham said it was too powerful. We were having people faint and get in fistfights, we were having to lock the projection booths because people were trying to get at it to destroy it, and then we found that projectionists and theatre managers were destroying it, so we pulled it back a little bit.

MoviesOnline: When you were writing the script, did you give any thought to the rating you’d get for the movie?

ILIADIS: It’s not that simple because we’ve had problems with ratings for this too, you know.

CRAVEN: Oh yeah.

ILIADIS: We tried to make this a bit more psychological and more of a real time movie where you’re thrown into this situation and there’s nowhere to go. But we’ve had a lot of problems and the basic thing they kept telling us is it’s too real.

CRAVEN: The odd thing was that the more cartoonish  - 300 is a great example, where the blood flies off and disappears halfway to the ground, and everything - or like in a Terminator film where there’s gunshots and everybody’s falling out of buildings and everything else, but you never believe really – you don’t see anybody suffer or land on the ground and then groan for an hour. So when you do something, when you say, well, violence is ugly and hard and when it happens to somebody, the truth is watching them for awhile when they’re going through it, they don’t like that. I think within the MPAA mentality this is all entertainment. It’s supposed to be entertaining and therefore shouldn’t hurt anybody’s psyches, and in case the mythological child wanders into the theatre, they should be able to not be damaged and become Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s a totally different mindset from we who feel like we’re dealing with a tough subject and it’s fair to make a tough film and that the truth ultimately never hurts so much as illusion does.

MoviesOnline: Do you have a non-rated version on the DVD?

CRAVEN: Yup, it’s already playing in Taiwan. (joking) We don’t know who has it, but –

MoviesOnline: One of the interesting things about this version is I actually found myself thinking they have a chance of getting away, how did you create that feeling?

ILIADIS: I think it’s going for that real time approach, keeping the characters ambiguous so that you feel that at any given moment if Paige had done something different, or if Mari had done something different, or if Sadie had done something different, things could have turned out differently. You’re not playing by the rules where, okay, these are my bad guys and these are my good guys, so I think having this real time ambiguity and investing in the reality of things rather than going (growls) and the girls just scream, I think that’s what makes it so powerful. I think that’s what will surprise people, because many people think they’ve seen it and they know what’s happening, but there are some surprises and we’ve upped the suspense in some areas.

MoviesOnline: How fulfilling was it to have a budget this time to retell the story?

CRAVEN: We had $90,000 and a crew of seven or something like that. [referring to the original film]

MoviesOnline: Were you happy now to have more to tell the story with?

CRAVEN: Dennis had that, but I think on the scale of any Hollywood film it was miniscule. Still, he did a huge amount with a very little budget.

MoviesOnline: Is that one of the disadvantages of the genre?

CRAVEN: Well I don’t look at it that way so much as it forces us to be very original and that’s probably why so many films are filmed out in the middle of the woods. (Laughs) You don’t have to pay for location permits and things like that.

MoviesOnline: Wes, how gratifying was it to see the success Patrick Lussier has had with My Bloody Valentine, and what do you see for Dennis in the future?

CRAVEN: I’ve been very happy for both. I loved Patrick’s directing now though I’ve lost a fantastic editor. This film is just – you know, we had high expectations for Dennis having seen his film, but it has succeeded our projections just by an element of total surprise of how powerful and beautiful it is at the same time. And the responses have been enormously positive, so I’m very, very happy.

MoviesOnline: Have you guys had a screening for fans and what do you anticipate the reaction will be from those who liked the original movie?

CRAVEN: Well, there was, I think, during the making of it, the first word was, “Oh God, why are they remaking that?” But somebody told me fairly recently that The Maltese Falcon was a third remake of an original film, so it kind of liberated me from the feeling like there’s something bad about a remake. And it’s the way Dennis and I are talking about the material. It’s the material. The story is so powerful that it’s alright. Look, in theatre, people, new directors, take on the same material all the time. Death of a Salesman has been done ten billion times and it’s still powerful. So it’s much more of a feeling like that. It’s just a really good piece of material and you can take it and apply it to probably a hundred good directors, except there aren’t a hundred that are operating at the level that Dennis is. It’s very rare but it feels good.

ILIADIS: The response in the screenings has been amazing.

CRAVEN: And across a wide [spectrum] -- from the fanboys to people who [don’t usually like films like this].

ILIADIS: And people who were skeptical are really digging this film, and also people who don’t like movies like that, because they engage on a dramatic level.

CRAVEN: Or on the level of a parent.

ILIADIS: They enjoy this film

MoviesOnline: Are you going to use the same tagline:  It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie?

CRAVEN: No, not using it at all. I think that would be a mistake, because that’s saying it’s the same movie and it’s not.

MoviesOnline: What do you think about the mystique of a title and a story that really don’t have much to do with each other?

CRAVEN: Well there’s an interesting origin on that. I’ll tell you a quick story. Sean Cunningham came into the office one day. The writing title was Night of Vengeance, and then we were kicking around Sex Crime of the Century and Krug and Company. And then he came in and he’d been talking to a publicist from Broadway, and the guy had said, “How about The Last House on the Left?” And I was outraged. What business is it of his? And he said, “Well, the guy told me, he says, last, think about that, last, it’s like death, it’s like the end of it, then house, everybody knows house, it brings back all these memories of being in your house, the place is yours, and then left, everything in the world is left, left, sinister and heraldry and everything. So, we tried it in three towns with equal demographics under three titles and in the town with The Last House on the Left, people lined up around the block just from the newspaper ads.

ILIADIS: And in the movie, in the shooting, we were very careful that the car turned to the left, that the driveway was on the left. We were very respectful of that.

MoviesOnline: Did you test it against The First House on the Right?

CRAVEN: (laughs) No! Would you go see First House on the Right? Of course not!

MoviesOnline: Dennis, what are you doing next?

ILIADIS: Well, this film is getting a good response so far, so what happens is I’ve been getting a lot of attention. I’m discussing a number of things, but we’ll see.

MoviesOnline: Are they genre or are you going to do horror again?

ILIADIS: Thank God I’m getting some different scripts too. It’s not all genre. I mean everything does border on genre a bit, but it’s not your straightforward horror movie. One I’m especially interested in is very romantic. I’d love to do a very romantic movie that borders on the horror genre.

MoviesOnline: Wes, you’re an icon of the genre and considered a master of horror, where do you feel more comfortable, directing or producing?

CRAVEN: Well, producing is relatively easy. It’s more of a search to find the right people and then you can step back. I’m just finishing a film that I wrote and directed. It’s the first time I’ve written since New Nightmare which was ’94. That’s really hard, really hard because three hours of sleep a night was a luxury, because you’re just up rewriting all night and then you direct all day, so that’s very, very hard. Producing is a pleasure, especially if you find somebody who can take the weight and run with it. It’s just a pleasure looking at dailies and sort of keeping the bad guys away from them.

MoviesOnline: And what about the title of Master of Horror?

CRAVEN: You know, I have a lot of friends – there’s an unscheduled dinner every once and awhile here in Los Angeles of the Masters of Horror. I like that idea much more. I’m one of the guys who have kind of figured it out, but there are many, many. I’m not just the Master of Horror.

“The Last House on the Left” opens in theaters on March 13th.

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