Rachel Talalay, UBC Film Production’s newest assistant professor, is an accomplished director and producer with an enviable portfolio.
She worked on six of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, producing Parts 3 (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) and 4 (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) and directing Part 6 (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare). Additionally, she has worked with filmmaker John Waters, producing his Cry-Baby (starring Johnny Depp), and Hairspray (starring Ricki Lake).
The Vancouver-based Talalay has also directed more than 50 hours of episodic television, including episodes of Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Supernatural and Cold Case.
Talalay is sharing her insights into one of the horror genre’s biggest series with a one-day course on Nov. 17 entitled Nightmare on Elm Street: The Anatomy of a Horror Movie Franchise.
ArtsWIRE spoke with Talalay about this course and her love of the horror genre.
Q: Though you’ve worked in several genres, you’re best known for your work on the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What were some of your favourite horror movies growing up?
Talalay: I’m not sure I’m best known for the Nightmare films. I think it may be 50-50 with the John Waters films (Hairspray and Cry-Baby). They couldn’t be more different, and I’m really proud of both, but also feel really lucky not to be pigeonholed in one genre.
I am often misquoted as saying I do not like horror films. What I did say was that when I was young, I didn’t like horror films because I was too sensitive and scared and that fear was what made me a good creative on the Nightmare films. I had a large numbers of fears and phobias from which to draw. These include not being able to sleep after I read the script for the first Nightmare film – it was such a brilliant idea and so well executed.
I love suspense and creativity – and teen genre. There are few films that tap into all of these in a way that Nightmare did. Sam Raimi is one of my favorite horror directors – total creativity and humor. “Evil Dead 2” and “Drag Me To Hell” are on my list.
Q: What is your first memory of picking up a camera and filming something? Why did it appeal to you?
Talalay: I wasn’t the Spielberg-style kid-with-a-movie-camera, I was more romantic and taken with Hollywood and its history and movie-star glamour. I just loved old movies – from the Capra screwball comedies to the epic Gone With the Wind to the British Hammer Horror. I had eclectic tastes but particularly loved musicals. I was also an incurable romantic and thought I was Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.
Q: You attended Yale as a math major, and were working as a computer analyst in Baltimore before your foray into Hollywood. What was the spark that led you to change your career path?
Talalay: It was really the other way around – I knew I wanted to be involved with movies from a young age, but as the daughter of academic parents in Baltimore, I didn’t have a lot of access to the entertainment world. When it was time to go to University, I didn’t think I was ready for Film School at 18, so when I was accepted to Yale, I knew it was important to get an education — and that Yale was not a film school. I have always loved math. In those days women hadn’t been accepted at Yale for very long and I was told there weren’t any women math majors, so, in a precursor to my fight for women in Hollywood, I decided to crack the glass ceiling (although in my year, there were several women math majors and I was a bit of a poseur compared to the others).
Q: You produced Parts 3 and 4 of Nightmare on Elm Street and directed Part 6. Which was the more rewarding experience, producing or directing?
Talalay: The truth is the boring answer: they were both rewarding. Producing Nightmare was phenomenal – the movies were incredibly complex. We often had 3 camera crews running at the same time – doing Mechanical, Makeup and Visual effects on the side while the main unit shot the actors. It was a bit like playing three-dimensional tic-tac-toe – just figuring out the scheduling. Many of the effects required weeks to figure out and an advanced engineering degree – effects that would now be done on a computer for $2.
Since Freddy’s Dead was my first directing job, it was incredible to work on something so complex and varied and challenging. I look at it and remember that I had no experience, made numerous mistakes, but am surprised to look back and be proud of some of the choices I made.
When moviegoers compare the movies in hindsight, they are so critical. But we made Nightmare 3-6 in about four years – four movies in four years — from writing to releasing. That’s a factory without the facilities. We made decisions that had more to do with that four-year period, the lack of time to write, the lack of money, and the prejudices of the times. Freddy’s Dead was highly influenced by Twin Peaks, for instance.
Q: Moviegoers attend horror movies knowing that they will be manipulated into being frightened. Why do we willingly do this?
Talalay: Conventional wisdom is that if we laugh at our fears, it helps us combat them. Other arguments are that horror films are for adrenaline junkies. My feeling regarding the Nightmare films was that we gave the audience great creativity and kids they could root for. They cheered Freddy, but they really cared about the kids fighting him. They tapped into the times, they tapped into helpless feelings all while being a surprisingly good time.
Q: Horror movies in the ‘80s and early ‘90s were all about a singular supernatural villain – Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Chucky the doll. When and why did the genre move away from this trend?
Talalay: Horror is cyclical. It can be cheap to make and so, if there’s one big success, it’s frequently copied to death. The cycle started to run dry and needed to be resurrected with something new. The horror audience is always looking for something legitimate and different, not copycat. They quickly smell a rat.
Q: The character of Freddy Krueger seems to have evolved over the series, from a wise-cracking, almost likeable villain to more of an unsettling, creepy terror. What was the reason for this change?
Talalay: Actually, it’s the opposite. In Nightmare 1, he was the unsettling, creepy terror. In Nightmare 3, we brought in the funnier, wise-cracking Freddy. In doing this, we doubled the audience and ensured the legacy of Freddy. However, at the same time, hard-core horror fans always go back to the classic terror of the first movie. So when the movie was remade by Michael Bay, the execs bragged that they would take the movie and Freddy back to the terror of the original. I don’t think they succeeded and do think they make some critical mistakes. But that’s material I’ll discuss in class.
Q: Tell us about this one-day course you’re teaching about the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What can attendees hope to learn?
Talalay: My plan is to go through all 9 of the movies and talk about the evolution of the series. It will start from concept, talk about writing and mis-writing and then about production and post-production.
It will be everything from anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories to explanation of the methods of special effects we used to discussing outtakes to talking about what makes an effective horror scene and script. I am big on talking about what doesn’t work and explaining what happened. I also hope to keep the class lively with lots of dialogue.
Q: You’ve directed episodes of a number of popular TV series, including Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Supernatural, Cold Case, and recently, Continuum. What advice would you give UBC film production students interested in following your footsteps?
Talalay: You have to pay tuition for that advice.
Nightmare on Elm Street: The Anatomy of a Horror Movie Franchise runs on Nov. 17 from 9:30 am to 4 pm at the Irving Barber Learning Centre. For more information on this course, please visit its page on UBC’s Continuing Studies site.