I was the kindergarten God of our jungle gym, a boxy structure with an elevated dome in the middle, and a fire pole running from the center of the dome to the sandbox below. I stood at the top watching friends slide down the pole, when suddenly one of my classmates slipped between the arched bars and fell all the way to the hard-packed sand, smashing into several of the horizontal framing bars on his way down. He had the wind knocked out of him and a nasty bump on his forehead; the lump swelled up so suddenly it looked like a cartoon goose egg. The egg remained for years, inspiring a cruel childhood nickname. Either advances in medical science or nature eventually cured Goose’s affliction by the time we were in middle school. In my ensuing nightmare, my face is pressed against the cold steel pipes at the pinnacle of the jungle gym dome, and I watch as my friend falls in slow motion, and hear his head hit each steel bar on the way down.
I WAS FUCKING EXHAUSTED. PHYSICALLY, mentally, emotionally, and creatively, I was wiped. Anybody who’d abused himself with my schedule would’ve been.
Phantom had wrapped, and by now I’d shot close to forty episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares. I needed a break; I mean, it’s not as if I’d been on location in Hawaii guest-starring on Magnum, P.I. with a goddamn basket of fruit waiting for me back at the hotel. Nooooo, I’d been up to my ass in makeup behind the rusty Iron Curtain, surviving on a steady diet of goulash and Tokay.
So when I was approached to do A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, I was on the fence. The thought of that uncomfortable makeup chair waiting for me, waking up every morning to latex Freddy boogers on my pillow, endless night shoots beating up my still jet-lagged body clock, and the obligatory soggy craft-services pizza was utterly unappealing. Actually, working period was unappealing to me; I had some movie and television offers on the back burner, but I was so fried that, for the first time in my Hollywood career, I considered taking a break and using some of my Phantom money to treat Nancy and myself to a romantic escape. Baja? No. Bali? Nah. Bob Shaye? Yes.
Bob pestered me to make a decision, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t. I wasn’t playing hard to get, nor was I trying to leverage a bigger salary—I didn’t legitimately know whether I wanted to play Freddy again. This had nothing to do with me being tired of the character or the franchise or the horror genre. It was just about me being tired, period. But New Line, putting on the full-court press, sent me the script and begged me to meet with the latest gentleman who would sit in the Nightmare director’s chair, Stephen Hopkins.
Born in Jamaica, Stephen’s most impressive credential at that point was as assistant director on the Sean Connery vehicle Highlander, a film that began one of the more enduring fantasy franchises. I met Stephen at a Thai restaurant in Culver City, and the first thing that struck me was that this kid looked like a Hollywood leading man. He should be in front of the camera, I thought, not behind it. (And this is coming from a guy who worked with a young Jan-Michael Vincent and Johnny Depp.) After a steaming bowl of tom ka kai, Stephen pulled out a pen, grabbed a napkin, and started doodling, practically storyboarding the movie right in front of my eyes, and those rough drawings looked like the first draft of some kind of Freddy Krueger graphic novel. Not only was he movie-star handsome, but this guy could draw.
Stephen said, “There’s one scene where I’d like to do an M. C. Escher sort of thing,” then he illustrated an Escher-like sequence on the back of his place mat, and I was hooked. Just looking at his sketches, I was pretty confident I would be in good hands, and The Dream Child would be something unique.
(I know I have an eye for spotting acting talent, but, boy, did I get it right when I told the press that Stephen was going places. Of all our directors, he’s arguably had the most impressive post-Nightmare career, having directed Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer in one of my favorite films, The Ghost and the Darkness, coproducing every episode from the premier season of 24 and directing half of them, and winning an Emmy for his work on one of the most original biopics you’ll ever see, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. And I called it. Thank you very much.)
As usual, a handful of writers worked on the screenplay, but I believe Leslie Bohem had the biggest hand in it. In 2002 he was the writer behind some ten episodes of Stephen Spielberg’s Taken, for my money the best science fiction on television since V. Leslie and his writing team didn’t have quite the firepower of the Frank Darabont/Bruce Wagner gang on Nightmare 3, but I believed enough in Stephen and his vision to go into the film with confidence.
Even though we had our biggest budget to date—a whopping $6 million—we shot in a funky building on the inland border of Venice, California. Surrounded by freeway off-ramps and encampments of the homeless, the production was housed in an old A-1 Spaghetti warehouse. On the plus side, it was right down the street from the best Cuban food in L.A., and only about twenty minutes away from my house. And thank God for that last part; after those brutal drives out to the high desert for Nightmare 4, the easy commute from my digs in Laurel Canyon was a blessing.
Again, the shooting schedule was exhausting, so most of the filming was a blur of makeup sessions and chasing our heroine, Lisa Wilcox, around the set. However, Stephen Hopkins’s Escher-esque sequence did stand out. This complicated series of shots took us a couple of days to film, which, on a Nightmare movie, is a luxury. It was a bitch for me, however, because I had to hang upside down for the majority of the scenes. The crew was sympathetic to my plight, and every time Stephen called “Cut,” three grips would sprint over, grab my back, and support me so the blood could flow out of my head and down into my lower extremities. The converted soundstage at the spaghetti warehouse was as hot as a real boiler room, and my makeup was extra-itchy and thus required more touch-ups than usual. Between the heat, the melting makeup, and spending far too much time with my toes pointed toward the ceiling, that was arguably one of my most difficult experiences on any of the Nightmare shoots. Whenever I think about it, I get the whirlies.
One of the more colorful, descriptive lines of dialogue used to reference Freddy’s backstory was “Freddy Krueger, bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” and in Nightmare 5 we explored that poetic image. We went back in prequel time, and we got to see me as Fred Krueger’s father, the maniac who in the backstory rapes little Fred’s mommy-to-be, the nun Amanda, who has accidentally been locked in the asylum overnight. For that scene, the casting department recruited virtually every psycho-looking performance-art theater actor in Los Angeles, herded them all together inside the insane-asylum set with me, and locked the door.
Stephen wanted us to have as much freedom as possible to improvise within the confines of the crowded set, so he filmed using a remote-control camera crane. This meant no crew in the room. The inmates would be running the asylum. This was the first time I’d worked with one of those cameras, and the thrill of working alone without the crew right there, surrounded by drooling, wild-eyed actors, dancing with the camera, if you will, put Renny’s video assist unit from Nightmare 4 to shame. We’d rehearsed the choreographed camera moves seemingly forever, but when the camera finally floated around the room filming, it gave the sequence a dangerous, improvisatory, documentary feel that was as trippy and weird as any of our dream sequences.
Because this was my fifth film as Freddy, I’d developed what I believed to be an unerring instinct as to what was right and wrong for the character. At some point an actor actually knows more about his character than anybody else, except perhaps the original writer. This is especially true on long-running television series, where oftentimes cast members have to deal with guest directors who aren’t that familiar with the show’s characters. Directors may understand the style and formula of a particular show and be efficient visual storytellers, but actors acquire a sixth sense about what makes their characters tick and recognize when they are asked to do something that violates that character’s reality. They know they have to protect and defend their character, and this effort by an actor can sometimes be misconstrued by producers and directors as selfish, vain, or egotistical behavior. It’s not. It’s actually what we’re paid to know.
Even though Nightmare 5 wasn’t exactly the critics’ favorite, and our domestic box office was slightly disappointing, New Line realized that the franchise would survive. By this time, video rental was a huge business, and now an entire generation who’d missed the Nightmare films in movie theaters was getting a chance to discover them at home. Which, fortunately for us, they embraced with all their good ol’ American consumerism gusto. Kids of all ages would have Nightmare marathons, memorize the plots and the characters, and collect the multiplying Freddy-abilia being churned out by the growing merchandizing machine. My fan mail increased tenfold, and I could barely keep up. To help me, I drafted my wife, Nancy, whose actual given name has confused more than one fan over the years—if you’ll recall, the lead character in A Nightmare on Elm Street was named Nancy—and she became the official Freddy Krueger aide-de-camp.
So for the record, I did not marry Heather Langenkamp. Or Nancy Thompson. Just regular ol’ Nancy Englund. Get it? Got it? Good!