In discussing the career of Wes Craven, who died on Sunday at 76, you have to start with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, horror classics that will still be watched by terrified teens for decades to come. Craven himself embraced the success he found in the horror genre, but he does have one major directing credit that’s nowhere near the gore and terror that characterizes the rest of his body of work. (And when we say “body,” you should picture it covered in goopy fake blood, of course.)
In 1999, Craven directed the drama Music of the Heart, which starred Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari, a real-life violinist who in 1981 founded Opus 118, a Harlem, New York, music school for children. The film details how Guaspari fought hard to save the program after budget cuts threatened to take it away. She does, and the film has a heartwarming ending.
If you’re thinking that this summary sounds about as far as possible from Craven’s other films, you’re right. Craven discussed this unusual break between Scream 2 and Scream 3 during a 2014 interview, saying that the success of the first Scream led to a three-picture deal with Miramax, including one film that he could handpick. He chose Music of the Heart, which was initially titled 50 Violins.
“It just appealed to so many things,” Craven recalls in the interview. “I’d been a teacher. I’d been divorced. I’d lived in New York and loved New York. I love all sorts of music, including classical music. It was a great story, and I thought I could get an actress who was top-notch.”
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Craven’s interviewer, Mick Garris, jokes that he had to settle for Meryl Streep. That’s true. The actress initially attached to the role was Madonna, who had studied the violin for months in preparation for the role but ultimately bowed out. (According to a 1998 Variety article, she and Craven disagreed over how the lead character would be portrayed.) The film would have been Madonna’s first starring role after Evita. In the end, Craven himself convinced Streep to play the part.
“I had to have a very long, very erudite conversation with Meryl before she’d consider doing [Music of the Heart],” Craven said. “On the set the first day I met her, she said, ‘We live in a house in Connecticut, down at the end of this long road, in the middle of the woods, and my daughters watched Scream on our television set, and they were terrified to sleep in the house after that.’ I got busted by her right away.”
Towards the end of the interview, Craven offers an interesting answer when he’s asked about how he feels about being pigeonholed as a “horror guy.”
“I come from a blue-collar family. I’m just glad for the work,” he says. “If I have to do the rest of my films in the genre, no problem. I’ll take every opportunity to get out, but if I am going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can.”
Music of the Heart ended up being the only film of Craven’s to earn an Academy Award nomination for acting: Streep, of course, was nominated for Best Actress, though she lost to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. The film costars Cloris Leachman as Guaspari’s mother but also a few actors who had appeared in other Craven works, including Angela Bassett (A Vampire in Brooklyn) and Josh Pais, who’d go on to appear in Scream 3.
Craven also directed one segment of the 2006 anthology film Paris, je t’aime, and though it features a ghost – specifically that of Oscar Wilde, played by Election director Alexander Payne – the segment plays out as a romantic comedy. Wilde advises a tourist (Rufus Sewell) how to win back the affections of his girlfriend, Emily Mortimer (Scream 3).
It’s sweet and funny and touching, and it suggests what other songs Craven might have sung had he the opportunity.