You might be a little nervous meeting Wes Craven, even if you’re in the mood because it’s nearly Halloween. After all, he’s responsible for a string of successful horror films, including the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. What you probably don’t know is that he has been a bird lover since childhood and has a master’s degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.
Recently Audubon spoke with Craven about birds, films, Hollywood, and inspiring the next generation of Americans to embrace nature. He also discussed his upcoming film, which features a California condor in a cameo role. To some, these odd-looking scavengers might seem perfect for a horror movie, but Craven demurs. “I don’t find condors scary,” he says. “I find them beautiful. I like that they were hauled back from the brink of extinction. The world needs birds that eat dead things.”
Audubon: I think people would be surprised to learn you’re a birder.
Wes Craven: Well, people are surprised I don’t live in a cave. Unfortunately, long before they knew I was interested in birds, they didn’t believe I was the guy who made all those scary movies, because I don’t look scary.
Q: What’s your fascination with birds, and how did you start birding?
A: First of all, I don’t call myself a birder, because I think they’re much better than I am. I’ve been fascinated by them my whole life. To most kids, flight is just such a fantastic magical thing to watch. My mother and I used to sit out in the backyard in Cleveland and watch the purple martins and, in the evening, nighthawks come diving out of the sky with a screech and swoop by with an audible sound of wind through wings.
Q: Do birds ever figure in your films? Do they represent some kind of a motif or symbol?
A: I’ve done it extensively in some films. Like my first film,The Last House on the Left, I used them almost as orchestration—a long chase through the woods. As the tension rose and the action rose, I just brought up the blue jays. I’ve used the whip-poor-will a few times, probably inappropriately, but it’s such a haunting sound, and I do remember the sound from being a kid in the woods of Ohio and on camping trips. But yeah, I think they’re used a lot in Hollywood. I would be the first to confess that accuracy is probably not the first motivation.
Q: How can you, as a filmmaker, help connect the next generation with nature?
A: We just got the green light on a new film, which right now is called 25 Days.* The central character, this kid named Bug, is fascinated with birds, especially the California condor. That’s a central part of the plot, and that’s going to be seen by a gazillion teenagers. To me nature just needs to be a little cooler. Because most kids will look at these adults tricked out in their mosquito hats and khakis and $3,000 binoculars around their necks, and it looks kind of dorky. I think once kids get into birds and can see them wherever they are, it’s a different matter.
It seems like all the powerful people on earth just want to build condos and knock down all the trees. It happened in southern California recently—though it ended with a positive result. They wanted to build a freeway through, like, eight different nature preserves. The majority of wealthy people, the way they enjoy nature is to go out on a golf course. As somebody once said with wonderful succinctness, the golf course is man’s boot on the neck of nature.
*Upon its release in 2010, this movie was re-titled My Soul to Take.
Q: Why the fascination with condors?
A: These huge, magnificent birds are kind of like a bellwether. If we can’t allow these things to exist, it’s just a tragedy. But I just thought it was a great story. Some smart and dedicated people saw these birds were going to be extinct soon, daringly took these eggs out of their nests, every-body screaming at them—“You cannot do this!”—and succeeded in raising and reintroducing them. It’s a wonderful story. And within the context of the script, it’s like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, built on something that was hauled back from the brink of extinction. We even talk in the script about how some people think [condors] are ugly and how this kid just sees the beauty of them.
Q: Are there birds that speak to you the way purple martins did when you were a kid?
A: Oh, yeah, lots. I love watching the ravens—they’re such great soarers, very clever and very communal, and they play. You can see them hanging from one foot from the end of a pine tree branch, just kind of looking around, and then let go and go flying off. Or when they’re chasing redtails. They’re fantastic fliers.
Q: How will we reach the next generation, especially kids in urban communities?
A: That’s a tough one, because there’s tens of thousands of square miles of concrete. So kids are just used to being in the urban environment or on their computers, and you have to really go a distance to get them to go out and walk through trees and deal with bugs or whatever. Because they don’t feel like that’s their world. Anything to get them out there and walking around and having a sense that it’s kind of fun to find out what that bird is and what it does—that it’s well, well worth it. That’s the vital community, lower-income kids that are now here—they just have a higher energy and interest in everything. When I went to the Audubon Center at Debs Park [in Los Angeles] with my wife, we thought the whole thing was terrific. The green feel of how they built the place—that’s just a great example to kids and their parents. I found it very heartening that Audubon would do something that was so accessible to kids from the city.