Friday, July 11, 2014

Jason Goes to Production Hell: The Making of Freddy vs. Jason

Film producer Gary Sales sums up the allure behind—and the success often had in—making cheap, exploitation films in a 1982 interview with Variety. He explains his commercial success with slasher films of the era saying, “we realized that you need a product for which there is a ready-made market” (“Horror Pics” 20). Though strictly formulaic, the teen slasher films of the 1980s proved that the genre film can be produced economically and rake in profits. Few franchises understood this better than Paramount Pictures’ Friday the 13th series and New Line Cinema’s A Nightmare on Elm Street: the former saw a worldwide box-office gross of over $226m from eight films in the 1980s with a combined production budget of $19.9m (Bracke 314-315),; the latter grossed nearly $172m from five films throughout the decade on a budget $28.8m, earning a deficient New Line Cinema the nickname “the house that Freddy built” (The House that Freddy Built).

The overwhelming franchise success is almost exclusively due to their iconographic villains, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and, as devoted fanbases financed the sequels, the concept of a crossover film began gestating in the late 1980s. After fifteen years of rumors, copyright exchanges, restructured production staffs, seventeen solicited scripts and massive rewrites, Freddy vs. Jason hit theaters in 2003 and became the highest grossing installment for either franchise.

The idea for a crossover film was not a new one. According to former Co-chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, “Paramount did, at one point [in the late 1980s], approach us with the idea of doing a Freddy and Jason movie. But they basically wanted what we wanted—to license them the rights to Freddy Krueger and go off and make their own movie, which we were not anxious to do” (“Genesis”). By the early 1990s, both franchises had waned in popularity and, following unsuccessful short-lived anthology television spin-offs, Paramount Pictures gave up their distribution rights to the Friday the 13th franchise. Creator and director of the first Friday the 13th film, Sean S. Cunningham states that by 1991 he “reapproached Phil Scuderi [to whom rights reverted after Jason Takes Manhattan] and the original backers from Boston about getting the rights back to Friday the 13th so I could control the property, and I could control the money, and I could go to New Line and try to make Freddy vs. Jason” (Bracke 218).

Cunningham established Crystal Lake Entertainment after securing the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise and made a deal with New Line Cinema to begin development on Freddy vs. Jason in 1994. New Line would own the rights to a reported 17 commissioned screenplays by a dozen screenwriters at a cost exceeding six million dollars (Bracke 267). Though Cunningham calculated the iron was hot for the monster mash-up as New Line seemed disinterested in resurrecting the Nightmare series, development on Freddy vs. Jason came screeching to a halt in 1994 when New Line announced that Wes Craven would return to helm a post-modern take on Freddy. Refusing to give up on the project, Cunningham conceded to put Freddy vs. Jason on the backburner and resurrecting Jason for a concurrent renewal of interest with Freddy Krueger. Though it was never his intention to form Crystal Lake Entertainment or partner with New Line Cinema to make another Friday the 13th film, Cunningham co-produced 1993’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday with his true mission in mind.

The single most memorable and oft-discussed scene from an otherwise forgettable Jason Goes to Hell is its epilogue. After Jason has been defeated and the film’s protagonists walk off into the sunrise with their baby, a dog unearths Jason’s hockey mask and, in a Carrie-like moment, the film ends with Freddy Krueger’s claw reaching out of hell to grab it. Narratively anachronistic and apropos of nothing, the moment is a carefully conceived gag by producer Cunningham and director Adam Marcus that generated massive amounts of buzz amongst the fanbase.

Marcus recalls, “I called Mark Ordesky and Michael De Luca at New Line and asked, ‘Can we have the claw?’ And it was very funny ‘cause they were a bit covetous of it. They asked nervously, ‘What are you going to do with it? And why?’ But when we told them out idea, they flipped” (Bracke 268). At the first test screening, the “entire test audience got up on their feet and cheered,” and Cunningham finally sparked the interest at New Line he fought for (Bracke 269). Development began, and scripts started coming in by 1994, but with them, a new list of challenges.

Freddy vs. Jason’s journey from concept to screen was long and unconventional. As existing franchises, the high-concept to be sold to a ready-made market creates a unique set of challenges: fan expectations for both franchises must be considered, and the internal story-worlds must coalesce. A website built as a companion to The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia DVD has made available five of the seventeen screenplays licensed by New Line Cinema, each by different screenwriters or teams, including the final draft by Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift which was chosen for Freddy vs. Jason.

Each version represents unique challenges faced by the screenwriters to bring these two characters into an acceptable world with a narrative fans would enjoy. Yet, despite drastic differences in story and tone, certain narrative elements—namely, the presence of a cult of “Fred Heads” trying to resurrect Freddy Krueger and the use of a sleep drug—find their way into many of these screenplays. The similarities suggest someone at New Line was very enthusiastic about—if not outright coaching—certain story ideas from early in the developmental stage.

One of the first commissioned scripts, Lewis Abernathy’s Nightmare 13: Freddy Meets Jason, makes an earnest attempt at merging the two universes. The central conflict revolves around a “Fred Head” cult attempting to resurrect Freddy and a group of teenagers needing to resurrect Jason to battle him. Some coincidences are a little too convenient—Elm Street and Camp Crystal Lake are within driving distance, and any old teenager can easily bring the fiends back from the dead—but the ideas gained momentum. Of the several incarnations that followed, the basic premise from Abernathy’s original script is the closest of the runners-up to the final product.

Its problems, those New Line likely had irreconcilable issues with, are in tone and character. The screenplay’s third act resembles a later Nightmare on Elm Street picture in that its horror is traded for cartoonish humor. Future screenwriters like Peter Briggs were afraid to approach the material because its premise sounded like a WWE fight, and Abernathy’s version fuels this fear. Freddy and Jason have a physical boxing match in hell, officiated by Ted Bundy and attended by Lee Harvey Oswald, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Popeye. Another character battles a giant booger named “Boogerman” in “Freddy’s nostril cavern”: a far cry from the dark tone in the first act in which a mentally handicapped thirteen-year old girl is kidnapped with the intention of being raped (Abernathy 84).

Furthermore, his Jason Voorhees is not the Jason fans love. He becomes a pawn for the teenagers to defeat Freddy and is sympathetic toward their cause. He interacts with people and, though he doesn’t speak, drives an ambulance at one point and is much more approachable than his historical representation. Twisted humor is an important element to both franchises, but New Line wisely decided to move in a direction more snarky than slapstick.

One of the stranger early screenplays was conceived by Peter Briggs. Briggs gained notoriety after selling his adaptation of Dark Horse Comics’ Alien vs. Predator to Twentieth Century Fox (another multi-franchise “versus” concept which spent years in production hell) and was hunted down by New Line producer Michael De Luca in early 1995 to take a stab at the material. Though reluctant, Briggs accepted the proposal and wrote a treatment and eventually a screenplay not much interested in the existing Nightmare or Friday universes.

Briggs’s version of the story is that development worker at New Line, Wyck Godfrey told him “’what we want to do is something that is kind of like The Omen in tone, we want it to be dark and heavy’” (Diggle). And dark it is, if convoluted. His version of Freddy vs. Jason is something of a sequel to Jason Goes To Hell in that its protagonists defeated Jason ten years earlier. The tone juxtaposes millennial tension with fantasy horror elements as a centuries-old cult uses prophecies to resurrect Freddy and Jason who are now ancient evils. The screenplay is rife with hell imagery (one slug line reads “EXT. “PLAIN OF BONES” – HELL – ZERO HOUR”) and its stakes bring about the end of the universe (Briggs 12). When De Luca passed the screenplay up to Co-chairman Robert Shaye, Briggs was met with silence and was eventually told, “’it’ll cost twice as much as we’re prepared to spend,’” but one questions if a combination of Briggs’ tone and lack of interest in the franchise hurt his chances (Diggle).

New Line was closer to the formula they were looking for by 1998, as thematic devices and narrative events in Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s third draft of Freddy vs. Jason coincide with those in the final product. Unlike the attempts by Abernathy and Briggs, the Aibel/Berger screenplay doesn’t spend much of its narrative focus on outside characters (the “Fred Heads” of the former) or creating its own mythology (Freddy and Jason as puppets being controlled by an ancient underworld demon of the latter). The Freddy cult is still prevalent (just as it is in the Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift version which was eventually adapted), but it is a catalyst rather than the antagonist of central action.

Tonally, too, this version of the screenplay respects its fans and brandishes a similar humorous voice to the one the film eventually took on. Though the Aibel/Berger screenplay is also wise to respect franchise history without being a direct narrative sequel, what may have hurt its chances was that it is a little too post-modern in tone. Owing something to the meta tendencies of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and the self-referential treatment of Scream (1996), what is unique about Freddy and Jason in the Aibel/Berger screenplay is that they are understood as movie characters.

One character tells us in obvious dialogue, “Jason Voorhees is just a movie character. He isn’t real.” (Aibel 58) while another tells us, “I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Frederic J. Krueger. I’ve seen all the movies” (Aibel 19). It’s all a little too tongue-in-cheek, and presents logical anachronisms when they turn out to be real life characters with no explanation (David Goyer and James D. Robinson would run into similar problems with their version, A Nightmare on the 13th, in which Jason and Freddy are villains with established motives, but exist only in the protagonist’s head, later materializing).

Another faux pas that would surely have been worked out in a rewrite, but couldn’t have boded well with New Line development, is that this screenplay has Jason speak: a severe misunderstanding of the character. Nevertheless, the screenplay presents us with many elements in such a successful fashion that they would serve as an outline for the Shannon/Swift version: Freddy is trying to reenter the modern world by public consciousness, pharmaceuticals are developed for dream sharing, and the showdown eventually takes place at Camp Crystal Lake so that Jason can “pull” Freddy into the real world. Shannon and Swift would run with these elements, but construct them around a convincing universe rife with consistency of story logic. Perhaps too much story logic.

The first draft of Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift’s Freddy vs. Jason clocked at 148 minutes and is careful to establish a credible universe heavy on expositional back story. “It was overly long and overly complicated and very, very dense,” says senior V.P. of Production at New Line, Stokely Chaffin. “This may be the American Beauty of horror films, but it’s not American Beauty and it probably shouldn’t be two-and-a-half hours long” (“Genesis”). New Line brought in David Goyer (who was already paid for a draft of his own vision of Freddy vs. Jason) to write an uncredited revision of the Shannon & Swift screenplay. 

Goyer was able to collapse scenes and characters which subsequently escalated the drama and intensity. Goyer’s consolidation brings the runtime down to 97 minutes without sacrificing Shannon and Swift’s vision. One of the expositional cuts, however, eliminated the much-explored “Fred Head” cult so popular in the project’s developmental stages. The backstory is established in a couple minutes of Freddy Krueger voiceover which establishes the premise that Freddy has been publically forgotten and can’t rise to power without people being scared of him. In Goyer’s rewrite it is Freddy himself who scours the depths of hell to find Jason to instill fear back into Elm Street’s populace. Unlike Shannon and Swift’s screenplay, Goyer’s rewritten prologue establishes this by minute three. Goyer’s revision of the Shannon/Swift screenplay was something that both New Line’s developmental team liked in terms of story, and Cunningham’s camp at Crystal Lake Entertainment found acceptable in terms of universe consistency, but the script wouldn’t be the only obstacle between concept and screen.

In 2000, New Line Cinema would undergo a shake-up in the upper ranks of executive production. Michael De Luca, longtime proponent of the project and friend of Sean Cunningham stepped down as President of Production at New Line, and it fell onto Co-chairman Robert Shaye to find a new production executive to tackle the project with enthusiasm. Shaye explains, “when we changed our head of production, we renewed this imperative to [new President of Production] Toby Emmerich that we had to find someone who is going to get behind this” (Bracke 271-2). The project fell to new hire Stokely Chaffin who nurtured the promise De Luca saw in Shannon and Swift’s treatment, and would be the keystone in connecting with David Goyer to polish the project. Chaffin also interviewed dozens of directors before finding the perfect match of enthusiasm and experience in Ronny Yu.

Principal photography began in September 2002, and the film was released in August 2003. The production budget of $32 million was restrictive, though helped by much of the film being shot in Vancouver, Canada. Highly unusual and the source of much of the production hell Freddy vs. Jason experienced is the fact that nearly $7 million—over twenty percent—of its $32m budget was spent on ten years of script development. 

The investment would pay off for New Line, as the film’s nearly $115 million worldwide box-office pull outperformed every film from either franchise by leaps and bounds. Freddy vs. Jason is a unique Hollywood success story which spent years in development hell despite an early green-lit concept, iconic characters and a built-in audience. Ultimately it is the push and pull between Sean Cunningham’s rulebook of unbreakable universe rules and New Line’s commitment to story which met the expectations of fans from both franchises. The iconic pop culture status of Freddy and Jason exponentially compound the built-in audience of the typical slasher film and, though the road to bringing the two together was far from smooth, the box-office receipts prove the developmental investment was worthwhile.

Works Cited

Abernathy, Lewis. Nightmare 13: Freddy Meets Jason. Film script. 12 Feb. 2014.

Aibel, Jonathan and Glenn Berger. Freddy vs. Jason (third draft). Film script. 1998. 30 Jan. 2014.

Bracke, Peter M. Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. London: Titan Books, 2005.

Briggs, Peter. Freddy vs. Jason. Film script. 15 Feb. 2014.

Diggle, Andy. Peter Briggs Interview., 1996. Web. 17 Feb. 2014. <>

“Genesis: Development Hell” (supplementary material on DVD release of Freddy vs. Jason). 2003. DVD. New Line Home Video, 2004.

“Horror Pics a Crowded Path to Boxoffice, But Lucrative.” Variety March 3, 1982: p. 20.

The House that Freddy Built. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. New Line Home Video, 2006. DVD.

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