LOS ANGELES — 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’m going to shove art down people’s 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.
“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.
How Bayer, after more than a decade of film flirtations, finally came to direct “Nightmare” is a twisty tale in its own right. At various points over the years, he has been committed to direct several remakes, including one for the ‘70s road movie “The Vanishing Point,” and has been courted for numerous genre films, as producers sought a fresh vision for a familiar form. But he wasn’t willing to make the leap.
“We tried to get him for ‘The Amityville Horror.’ We tried to get him for ‘Friday the 13th.’ We tried to get him for one of the ‘Texas Chainsaw’ movies,” says Brad Fuller, a partner at Platinum Dunes — founded and owned by “Transformers” director Michael Bay — and a producer on “Nightmare.” “When we decided to do ‘Nightmare,’ I went down to his office. I got down on one knee, begging him to do it.”
But it wasn’t until Bay himself took a run at Bayer, sending the auteur a long e-mail explaining that “Nightmare” would be a big commercial release, that the director began to relent. “There was an element of the e-mail that talked about this being a hit and that you don’t get that opportunity very often,” recounts Bayer.
Remaking “Nightmare” would be a challenge, with its rich mythology and high fan expectations. Bayer’s idea was to return the franchise to its more razor-edged roots.
“We got rid of a lot of jokes,” the director says. “I tried to make (Krueger) a really brutal character that relies less on the supernatural.” And he hoped to play on the parable aspects. “I always saw this as a fairy tale for teenagers: Freddy Krueger is going to kill you if you fall asleep. This was ‘Twilight’ before ‘Twilight.’”
Bayer has directed dozens of high-end commercials, including a memorable one in which people at landmarks around the world bat around a giant beach ball shaped like a Pepsi logo. So, directing a movie might seem to some like child’s play, especially after hearing tales of his international adventures on commercial and video shoots, such as when his crew was taken hostage in Morocco (apparently someone forgot to pay off the local city council).
But he admits finding it a particular form of taxing. “The hardest part about making a movie is stamina. When I do a music video or commercial, I do the whole thing in two weeks. With a film, it’s very difficult to stay objective and see the big picture.”
The experience still motivates him to try again — he says he wants to be like John Huston, “directing ‘The Dead’ when I’m in my 80s and in a wheelchair” — and his agents have been busily lining up his next project. “I got a taste for it, and now I’m hungry for more,” Bayer says.
But then, his choosiness and perfectionism creep in, and he pulls up.
“I want to wait and make sure it’s the right thing. Too many directors take on their next movie right after the first. It’s like a band — the first album is small and heartfelt and the next one (stinks). I want to make sure it’s right.”