Wicked Horror recently had the occasion to sit down with famed production designer and art director, Mick Strawn. Strawn has worked on a number of noteworthy genre films, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Blade, as well as A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and 4.
We chatted Strawn up about his experience working on the Nightmare franchise and so much more. It was a true pleasure to get the chance to talk with the man who is responsible for creating so many of the iconic images and scenes in so many movies we love. We also got the low-down on his new book Behind the Screams. The following is a clean verbatim of the interview:
Wicked Horror: I’ve been a fan of Nightmare for the better part of thirty years– I’m 33 now. And the story goes, my aunt had me on her lap when I was three years old watching the first one. [Mick Laughs] She tells me, she thought I would be scared, but instead I was laughing. I don’t know what that says about me…
Mick Strawn: You’ve confused your sense of humor with your sense of horror.
Wicked Horror: I guess so! But, from the word go, Nightmare 4 has always been my favorite.
Mick Strawn: Yes! To me, Nightmare on Elm Street 3, the concept on it was very much “lets stop doing this on-location, lets bring it onto a stage. And let’s do this more like a carnival ride. And if Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was a carnival ride, than Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is Disneyland. [laughs]
Wicked Horror: One of the biggest things that hit me while reading Behind the Screams was, I was describing to my girlfriend what the book was about, and I explained it’s about your experience on the scenes, and the work you did. I explained, verbatim, “the fourth one– best way to describe it, was the MTV music video of the franchise”. I turn the page, and that’s exactly what was said, and I couldn’t believe that’s how it was said!
Mick Strawn: It’s always been: Nightmare 1 was the original, Nightmare 2 was the confusing one, Nightmare 3 was the religious one, Nightmare 4 was the MTV one. And on, and on down the line. They’ve all got a tag to them.
Wicked Horror: They’re all great! But, to address the book, how did you come about writing the book? What was your spark for writing this one?
Mick Strawn: Well, it’s part of the reason I will eventually do one for 3. All the stories that you hear, they’re the same stories that you hear, what’s interesting is all the behind the scenes of building– of putting these together. Because, Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and 4 were the most interesting films I ever did in the background [Laughs]. I mean, all the rest of the stuff that goes into them was so complicated, and so indicative of the time. I was thinking, those stories are the ones that need to come out.
Wicked Horror: And, you’re right. You ask anyone familiar with this franchise, it’s one of two that they say is their favorite. Mostly it’s 3, and, for me, it’s 4.
Mick Strawn: Yup.
Wicked Horror: There’s so much more I want to talk about. In the book, one of the things that struck me the most, the scene you say that never got shot with Tuesday Knight. Can you elaborate on that?
Mick Strawn: [Laughs] In front of the house, yeah. It was the amazing single shot. And one thing you always tried to do back then — we knew how difficult stuff was. And the audience did, too. They were thinking how you did that, as much waiting for the surprise itself. Which is not a modern way of thinking. But, back then you tried to blow them away in one shot. That’s what we did. And the idea of the shot was, we set up the Elm Street house. In fact, in the very beginning, when we see the house from the outside, that is our built facade. You had no backing on it — and we built that house, and we built a track over it, that was on a couple of huge stands on each side. And hanging over it was a facade of another house, and it was supposed to be Kristen’s house. and we put the whole thing on rollers. And then we built a very obvious Elm Street hallway, with a door that shuts down — all the way out on the sidewalk and across the street. The idea is that — [Kristen] comes out — she hears something outside of her room, and comes downstairs and out onto her front porch. And, the camera is sitting at her eye line, and she hears a clicking. The camera goes up over her head — now, when it’s over her head, we move her house out of the way. And the camera slams down almost to the ground looking up at her, and behind her is the Elm Street house. That was done in real time. And, she looks behind her and she starts to run forward. And the camera’s in front of her as she’s running, and she and the camera run into the hallway, and the door slams down behind her. And it’s the Elm Street door.
Wicked Horror: Now, the shot that we got in part 4, when we meet Tuesday Knight, is that the compromise? It sounds like the look is the same.
Mick Strawn: Right. We knew that — at the point that we shot it. I don’t want to say, and I kind of know why it didn’t work. I was told, and I know why- let’s just say that it didn’t work out [laughs]. So, now they wanted to kill her character off. So, we did that [the opening shot] on stage. We had the version of the house, that was the living room inside, and the copy of the living room on the other side. That was on stage, as well as another version of the house that was built upside down. And there were hallways everywhere. That was part of the fun working on the Nightmare on Elm Street house was to build hallways everywhere. And, after the third, we still had a lot of hallway left.
Wicked Horror: Where did your ideas come from?
Mick Strawn: I can give the things that were absolutely my ideas. The look of the junkyard was my idea. The idea of the truck hitting nothing was all my idea from the beginning. The church, the concept of how to shoot the church was my concept, and it was from my dealing with Tales from the Darkside. And, the funny thing is that, you don’t know how little there is in the church, as far as a set. What it is, is a bunch of pieces floating in the air, and you [the viewer] put it together in your head as being a space. We had that stone frame around the door, and that was standing as one piece itself. The distances are bigger than you think, and there’s a lot less in there. When you’re watching that fight, the only thing you’re seeing is a few columns. And the out frame of Gothic style windows, but those are just pieces of plywood painted and hung in the space.
Wicked Horror: Apart from that whole climax, the other elaborate shot that looked like hell to make, was Debbie’s nightmare, when she turned into a cockroach. that looked like a nightmare in itself, no pun intended.
Mick Strawn: It was [laughs]. It was hard to comprehend from the beginning- from the point of view of working with Screaming Man George. Cause I had the liaison with him in order to build the sets. He was a creative genius, and he did something really interesting. But the thing was, he was not very good at explaining it to people. But there’s a story in the book about mixing the goo, about how I almost lost an employee to it! [In mixing the goo] he turned the drill on, and the energy of the rod and the drill sent all 50 gallons of the goo up the rod, and the drill and around his arms, and most of his neck.
Wicked Horror: Like The Blob?
Mick Strawn: It was exactly like The Blob!
Wicked Horror: What is your favorite of your effects?
Mick Strawn: I love the junkyard. I do. It’s just something you wouldn’t — it was just so visually stunning to be around. And, it was just junky cars. The first time [Part 3] it was very small. And, I was walking away thinking “Boy, I’d love to do this set again. Do it very big,” and, here it comes! And, you see, some of my favorites are probably not of the other people’s favorites. I also love the snake sequence from Nightmare 3. But, the truth, there is a set that was so cool when it was done — the metal staircase [from Part 3] that was in forced perspective. That was an amazingly difficult to make.
Wicked Horror: The one that goes into Freddy’s Hell?
Mick Strawn: Right. There was no opticals involved, it’s just forced perspective. It’s an old trick, and it was very difficult to make.
Wicked Horror: What would you think the most challenging effect for you was?
Mick Strawn: We had a lot of trouble with Andras’ scene. Because that was just a throw away in the end. His sequence was one of the most complicated at one point. It wasn’t written that way [how it’s seen], it was written several different ways. At one point in the elevator, he’s in the elevator, and we mounted it in the air, and had put a bottom on it that was made out of tempered glass. And the idea was, he was going to be in the elevator, and we were going to break the glass. And there was going to be a new hell for him to deal with. But, for some reason, it kept changing, and then finally, we shot the sequence of him just getting out of the elevator, and we had to figure out what to do with him. And, he wasn’t standing in a dojo, because that concept wasn’t even there. We didn’t know where he was going to go. And, I have to hand it to Andras, because he had little rolls to his character. Cool, charisma — the nerd with swagger.
Wicked Horror: You say, in the book, you worked some days more than 24 hours?
Mick Strawn: Oh, absolutely! Both Nightmare 3 and 4, just crazy, crazy hours. And, I have this thing of not going to sleep on the set. I do not want to pull up a cot and wake up here again. You have to remember, I was the head of one of the busiest departments that could be. And, I was a main player in how the effects worked, and how everything else looked.
Wicked Horror: On one of the biggest projects of the time.
Mick Strawn: Yeah. It’s not like it wasn’t the most stressful — don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t do anything else — it’s just the most stressful thing you can do in the world. In writing the book, my main goal was to make it seem like you were on the project.
Wicked Horror: Oh, definitely. It gives a very unique perspective of the hardships that went into it. And the friendships that were made. What are your thoughts on the industry today? Being a hands-on kind of guy.
Mick Strawn: I think there’s a medium range that some films are starting too learn. Part of the problem is that the studios themselves that tend to know the most about putting films together are hoarding the information. We have this, all of a sudden, huge business. I think small films are amazing now, I think that’s where the future is.
Wicked Horror: I’ve always looked at CG as a helping hand.
Mick Strawn: It is. It’s another tool in the tool box. And, the thing is, as soon as we approach it that way, and some of the smaller films are. It’ll be a great tool.
Wicked Horror: The worlds you and you team created are second to none. Any final words? What are you up to these days?
Mick Strawn: I’ll be working on writing a book on Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Also, I have a podcast, Dream Warrior Review. And, I am going to be first AD and Production Designer on Vengeance. The new Friday the 13th film. And, I guess that’s about it.
Wicked Horror: Mick, I can’t thank you enough.
Mick Strawn: Thank you!
You can catch the full interview here.