Author and film historian Wayne Byrne talks to Mick Strawn, production designer on Renny Harlin’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Mick has written a book with Blake Best, Behind The Screams: The Dream Masters Revealed, chronicling the making of the Elm Street franchise’s fourth instalment.
In the age of YouTube, Netflix, and the blogosphere, there are endless avenues through which we can discover the histories of the movies we love. Over the last decade we have seen the rise of the epic, deep dive documentary film exploring and uncovering entire franchises one entry at a time. There are coffee table books, websites, and podcasts devoted to 1980s horror icons, all there and available at our fingertips to overload our senses with all the information we ever needed. But so often these contain much the same anecdotes and instances, perhaps offering a variation of the same story told elsewhere on talk shows, DVD featurettes, and at fan conventions. For the committed fan, it can be hard to hear something new and revelatory about a much-documented production. But every once in a while something comes along to offer a completely new perspective, an untold war story from the Hollywood trenches, and one such item is entitled Behind The Screams: The Dream Masters Revealed, a new book written by Hollywood production designer and special effects man, Mick Strawn, in collaboration with writer Blake Best.
This is a deeply comprehensive tome on the making of the hugely successful A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Simply put, this is one of the finest books on a single film you could wish to read. Yes, it does what it says on the tin but it is so much more than a mere “making of”. Strawn and Best have crafted a snapshot of that period in the mid-late 1980s when the maverick company New Line Cinema was at the forefront of producing edgy, original pictures as well pushing the boundaries of mainstream horror cinema with their studio icon, Freddy Krueger. It is an essential text on the intricacies of major feature filmmaking, documenting the sheer industrial effort that goes into producing your favourite horror sequels from both the production and post-production perspective, featuring interviews with the major players in front of the camera and unsung heroes from behind the scenes. Delving deeply into the laborious effects work as well as the cinematography, editing, and soundtrack, the authors have left no stone unturned in charting all the elements that made this acclaimed hit sequel the “MTV Nightmare”.
I got to speak with the book’s author Mick Strawn, a man whose name may be familiar to film aficionados thanks to his work on the likes of The Hidden, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Candyman, Blade, Boogie Nights, and many more!
Mick, congratulations on the book, it is certainly a most comprehensive piece of work and a gift to fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and in particular, fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. What made you want to tell this story?
There were a couple of things I wanted to do and one of those was to tell the stories that never get told. Another thing I wanted to do was I wanted everybody to feel like they were there.
So was this project something that you had been nurturing for a while?
Yeah, I had always been disappointed with myself for not writing a book, and then after that Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again came out, I decided I had to get this together. I’m quite opinionated and am known to express myself, and to be honest I felt left out when I was overlooked for that documentary.
I do wonder, “Where’s Mick?” when I watch that film. I mean everybody else is in there!
People always ask me why I wasn’t in it and I always say, “Well, it’s because I got cock-blocked by my sister!”
That’s not something you hear every day!
It’s only in certain rare situations!
Well my sister, C.J., who was also a production designer, is in the documentary and when she was approached about doing it she was also asked if I would be interested, but she had told the producers that I didn’t want to talk about the film. But here’s the thing: I didn’t even know it was happening. I could never have said “I don’t want to talk about A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 in a documentary” because I didn’t even know there was a documentary! So we got into this huge argument about it when I found that out, and then the day after we argued she died in a plane wreck. I had hired C.J. to do set dressing on A Nightmare on Elm Street parts 3 and 4, it wasn’t a case of her being a co-production designer but it was me who brought her in to help out because those are my films from a production design perspective. So I felt I had a right to be irked when I wasn’t asked to participate in the documentary. When I was talking to [Elm Street producer/director] Rachel Talalay about it she said, “Well, Mick, you’re quite the storyteller and that’s a tough thing to compete with.”
The book has certainly more than compensated for your absence from the documentary, and it’s a much larger canvas. And not only for your voice but that of many others who worked on the film.
That’s one of the things I wanted to do, because the problem is that behind-the-scenes people see all these wonderful, interesting things, are privy to everything that make it all happen, and have all these great stories to tell, but they rarely get a chance to tell those tales. But I always had a story to tell and given the whole situation with the documentary it was an impetus for me to finally write a book and set the record straight.
You worked on the book with another writer, Blake Best. How did the collaboration come about?
A couple of years ago I had a Facebook account that I just never looked at, but I kept getting these email notifications and I would try and ignore them but it got to the stage where I just started going through them to see what these notices were about and I realised I was getting messages from fans of the movies I worked on. I turned to my wife and said, “Oh look, hon…these people know who I am!” It just never occurred to me that anyone would want to reach out. When I’m oblivious to something, I can be very oblivious! But Blake was one of those fans who reached out and he’s also a writer, so we got working on this and it ended up sucking up about seven months of my life.
Did you start out with the intention of making it this massive overview of the film, or did you want to get your own story out there?
At first I thought it could be just my voice telling my story, so after some conversations between us Blake went and did some work on it and looking at the results I thought it didn’t sound right, so I kind of redefined what my voice should be in the book. I came to the realisation that I needed to hear everyone else’s voice in there as well. So I brought in many people from the production.
You interview so many people here, from Robert Englund to the editor of the film and everybody in-between. Actors, producers, and technicians, everybody!
Did you notice Renny Harlin isn’t in the book?
I did. But I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t get him for my Burt Reynolds book either.
It was a pain in the ass! When I finally did contact him he goes, “Well, are you going to say nice things about me?” I’m like, “goddamn it, Renny! I didn’t say nice things about you then, I’m not going to say nice things about you now!”
It doesn’t really matter that he isn’t present. The book is packed to the rafters with personalities and stories as it is.
I just thought, to hell with it, this book isn’t about him anyway. But tracking down everyone else took forever! Some people just didn’t want to be sought out. You’re a writer, so you’re going to give me an “amen” for this – when you are looking to contact someone for an interview in these days of mass communication, you have to find out how the person you’re looking for mass communicates. But the thing is some people don’t reply on messenger; other people only use Instagram, others won’t do DMs on Twitter but perhaps they will reply to you on Facebook. You have to go through all of this and find out the hard way. And those are the easy ones, because at least they have some kind of presence on one of the platforms, but then you have the people who are completely off the grid, not online or who don’t have social media, so you have to find a way to get to them within their realm of communication.
Right! You interview a lot of people for books, so you know all about it. It’s enough to drive you insane. It’s probably even harder for me because at least you know these people personally, you’ve worked with or already have an established relationship with them, whereas I’m coming in cold. It’s like that time I was trying to arrange an interview with Brad Pitt. Now that was a nightmare!
The interview would have been to talk about Tom DiCillo, but I would have asked him about Freddy’s Nightmares. Who gets the chance to bring up Freddy’s Nightmares to Brad Pitt, right?
Ha! He probably doesn’t remember working on that show any more than we remember working with him.
You chose not to overly editorialise, which is refreshing and which makes the conversations in the book flow more like real, genuine talks between you and your subjects.
They weren’t always like that, but that is how I wanted them to be. Sometimes when Blake would write something I thought it felt like it was too much from a fan’s perspective; it was written like a fan would write it, but I wanted it to have a sense of immediacy, like you’re standing there on set, completely honest and unfiltered. I didn’t want it smoothed over, I wanted people’s voice to be true to who they are. Blake would say, “Well, what does that sound like on paper?” and after I explained it he understood what I meant. Blake did about an eighth of the interviews and a lot of the time I would go back to the original tapes and transcribe it verbatim. On some of the interviews I didn’t correct anything. I laid it out like it was said on the first pass, no editing. I wanted the interviews to feel like real conversations.
There’s even one interview where you’re talking to one of your old colleagues from the film and it becomes evident to us that he’s travelling in his car while doing the interview and he has to go through multiple toll booths whilst talking to you…
I intentionally left that all in because I thought it was hilarious. The way that interview unfolded was actually more interesting than what we were saying! That’s an example of what I mean by not wanting it editorialised; when Blake transcribed that interview he took all that fumbling with the change for the toll booth out and he deleted all the stuff where you hear the toll booth operator, but I went back and put it in. Blake said “you want the toll booths and everything?!” I’m like “hell, yes!”
You were on the frontlines of horror filmmaking for a long time. Did the culture of horror fandom, with conventions and all that kind of thing, help you realise the appetite for this material is there?
I’ve done the convention circuit and have been able to see how big horror fandom really is, but when you are in the middle of making these films you tend not to notice that kind of thing. There’s an old saying in Hollywood, “what have you done for me today?” in other words you’re always looking forward, never looking back. But then when you’re not in the middle of all that you get a chance to step back and look around and it is only then you realise that there is this whole culture. And especially in horror, it’s huge, and the fans know all about you and the work you’ve done; it makes you think, “people know me?! That’s weird!” So eventually I decided I would intentionally use my personality and propensity for storytelling and step into that world, and so now I’m kind of a spokesman for the rest of us behind the scenes. That’s how I see my role in all of this.
You certainly have worked on your fair share of beloved horror movies, such as The Hidden, several Elm Street films, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, a lot of which were for New Line Cinema. Looking back, that era almost feels like a New Line golden age, with that slate of great edgy films and cult movies, before it became a major studio with Lord of the Rings.
I worked on some great movies for New Line. The Hidden was fantastic, done real quickly between A Nightmare on Elm Street parts 3 and 4, both of which exploded and were massive hits for the company, and by the time I got to Leatherface it was just another day at the office. Bob Shaye [head of New Line Cinema] really tapped into that group of artists that were going to replace the Old Hollywood guard. At that time you still had your union dramas like Ordinary People and the kind of films which were being made by what was left of the old studio system, but then you had the ultra-ultra-low budget work, most of which was horror and which was represented by Roger Corman with New World Pictures and Charles Band with Full Moon Productions. That was just a case of putting out schlock films that were proud to be schlock. But Bob Shaye had more of an eclectic taste and some of the films he produced at New Line were really high quality, it represented the middle ground between the indie underground and the major studios. Cannon Films was another company that rides into that same middle field at right about the same time.
Yes, and people often forget that New Line and Cannon were releasing both arthouse and exploitation films. I mean Cannon were making movies with John Cassavetes, Jean luc Godard, Franco Zeffirelli… and Chuck Norris!
Right, and it was the Chuck Norris films which were paying for the Cassevetes films, you know what I’m saying? And that’s what happened at New Line; A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was being made so they could fund other films. Horror movies were funding all the other genres, because they made the money to allow studios to thrive.
As the Friday The 13th films did for Paramount, who were fierce embarrassed about the fact, whereas Bob Shaye has always proudly admitted that New Line is “The House That Freddy Built”.
Exactly. New Line took chances and they had a tendency to hire people who were very talented and stood out but who hadn’t gotten a chance yet, and now the vast majority of those people who worked for them have gone on to become the new guard. People who started in New Line at the bottom are now major players in the industry, some of the top executives at the studios in Hollywood. Evidently, Bob Shaye knew how to nurture talent; he would be behind you 100%, and here’s the thing: Bob would be behind you 100% even if he didn’t understand a thing you were doing, and that takes big, iron balls!
And your book is an honest and candid document of the kind of bold filmmaking that Bob Shaye and New Line supported in the 1980s. You don’t shy away from the difficulties that you had to deal with daily and yet it is a story of triumph because you made this film which became a fan favourite, made a tonne of money at the box office, and made Freddy Krueger a pop-cultural icon.
Thanks! My intention was to show people the nuts and bolts of making a major horror sequel back then and what happens when you have these groups of crazy people working together with the one common goal of getting the film finished. It doesn’t read like any other book on the making of a movie that I’ve read, and that’s what I wanted, for it to be different and unique. You tend to hear a lot of the same stories repeated over time, but this was an opportunity to tell the story from my perspective and to tell it truthfully.
Behind The Scream: The Dream Masters Revealed is available at https://www.behindthescreamsbook.com/
Wayne Byrne is an author and film historian, his books include The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out, Burt Reynolds on Screen, and Nick McLean Behind The Camera: The Life and Works of a Hollywood Cinematographer.