Electroshocker

Adam L. Penenberg
Forbes.com, 11.29.99

In 1893, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) painted “The Scream,” a visual protest against encroaching industrialization. I’m sure you’ve seen it: A frantic, bewildered man on a bridge running from technology, clenching his head in his hands, screaming madly, the sky and river swirling behind him. One hundred and three years later, Wes Craven directed the slasher flick “Scream,” which featured a group of frantic, bewildered teen girls running from a serial killer, clenching their heads in their hands, screaming madly, blood swirling behind them. My, how times change.

But that’s where the similarities end. Because unlike Munch, Craven, whose latest film, “Music of the Heart” (starring Meryl Streep), is now in theaters, is unafraid of technology. (I’m not sure how Munch felt about serial killers.) Here’s what the man who created the 1984 surreal-slasher hit “A Nightmare on Elm Street” had to say about E-mail, word processing, the Internet, casting movies and “neural pathways to planet consciousness.”

Q Although you specialize in the horror genre, not sci-fi, you’ve always had a geek streak, right?

A I’ve been working with computers since 1979, when I began writing movie scripts in BASIC [a computer language]. I wanted to be able to move blocks of words around and you couldn’t do that on a typewriter. Today I use Microsoft Word for outlines and a special software program for creating scripts, which I buy from The Writers Store [in Los Angeles]. All of them allow me to plug in the name of a character to find out where in the story she’s killed, move whole scenes around, instantly change the name of a character if I feel like it, automatically format. This makes the creative process much more efficient.

Another great thing is that physical boundaries don’t have meaning anymore. I worked closely with the screenwriter for “Scream 3” (release date Feb. 4, 2000), who was drafting three scripts at once, splitting time between Vancouver and San Francisco. Before the Internet, we would have had to FedEx drafts back and forth, which takes a lot of time and can be a nuisance. Now we just use E-mail.

Q Do you, as an artist, have one grand metaphor that reflects your vision of technology?

I look at computers and their growing global linkage as the beginning of neural pathways to planet consciousness. It began with the telegraph, the foundation for using numbers to convey information, to the computers of today. The way that computers are growing closer together, linked by the Internet, creates a digital central nervous system. There’s a brain forming around the skin of the planet.

Q That’s pretty trippy. On a less ethereal note, has this closer global community changed the film business?

A As it relates to the bottom line? Yes. I’m more aware that I’m speaking to a global audience. Often half the box office comes from abroad. So nowadays you have to ask yourself, will this translate well to foreign audiences? Is there too much American vernacular in the script, like Rap, things relating to high school, or teen language too slangy, too specific to American culture, that might get lost on Europeans?

TV has also had an immense impact. Now I use TV stars that appeal to European audiences from shows that are popular over there–like “Friends.” I did a press junket in Paris for “Scream 2” and (“Friends” star) Courteney Cox was absolutely mobbed. TV stardom wasn’t a factor in the casting of my earlier films.

Q The film editing process has undergone revolutionary change in recent years as well, hasn’t it?

A Absolutely. It’s completely computerized. We have a room dedicated to this–computer after computer, hard disc after hard disc, gigabyte after gigabyte. I don’t even see film anymore in the editing room. I use a system called Lightworks. With it you can quickly make cuts, restore previous versions, which is an enormous advantage, and store different versions of the same movie. We have something like 15 versions of “Scream 3” sitting in the system, plus all takes and out-takes, which we can summon in an instant. You can even send different versions of your movie to the film company.

Q Sounds pretty ideal. Is there a downside to any of this?

A Sure. Since the editing process is so much faster, studios have moved up their release dates. When I did “Scream,” I had two months to edit. On “Scream 2” we took 11 days. That means as a director you are making decisions every 30 seconds when in the past you had 15 minutes, because it takes a lot of time with film–it breaks, you have to make splices, etc. Unfortunately the time for reflection isn’t there anymore. The whole process has become one of stamina, which is perhaps not the best way to make a film.

Q In the past, special effects have been very expensive and used to add splash to a film. Are they used differently now?

A Visual effects are being done digitally, not chemically or photographically anymore. The price has dropped and more things are now possible. You can use them to add subtle changes in texture and mood. For example, falling leaves could imbue a scene with a different mood, which you wouldn’t have done in the past because it would have been too expensive.

Q Any regrets over technology taking over the film biz?

A I used to love the feeling of film between my fingers, the whole physical process of editing, the splicing and re-splicing and cutting, but you can’t do that anymore and be in the same game with everyone else. If I weren’t flexible enough I’d be a dinosaur.

Copyright 1999 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)