Monday, Nov. 1, 1999 | 9:39 a.m.
LOS ANGELES -- Halloween? It must have been time for a Wes Craven movie.
Well, yes and no.
Craven, a nearly 30-year veteran of slice-and-dice horror flicks, opened his latest project on Friday, the start of the Halloween weekend, but it's no "Wes Craven movie."
"Music of the Heart" is a feel-good underdog triumph story with an A-list cast -- Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Aidan Quinn and Gloria Estefan -- and not a single corpse.
Craven, a gentle-looking bearded man who just turned 60, comes across more as the philosophy student and humanities professor he used to be than the "slashmeister" -- his term -- that he has since become. His Hollywood Hills home clearly is a haven for a lover of art, music, literature and peaceful reflection in its Japanese gardens.
Will the real Wes Craven please stand up?
"If I were given my druthers, I would probably stop doing horror films -- not that I regret for a minute any of those," said Craven, whose most famous titles are "Nightmare on Elm Street" and the very hot "Scream" franchise. "They have a mythic quality, and children and teenagers have a lot of fears, and I think it helps them deal with those fears when they see some young person overcoming the worst things imaginable.
"But with a film like 'Music of the Heart,' more people are willing to join you," he said. "It's nice to do a film nobody can't like. True, some may say it's too sentimental, but it's not like someone's going to say, 'I just can't look at that on the screen.' "
Craven had been wanting for years to break away, at least once, from the horror genre that has made him so well-known that, he notes with a smile, his name has cropped up five times in the New York Times crossword puzzle. But his successes with Freddie Krueger and all those shrieking victims kept getting in the way.
It was "Scream" in 1996 that finally paved the way for this very non-Craven film. "Scream" was a big hit at a test screening, and Craven was dining out that night with his longtime producer, Marianne Maddalena, when in walked the Weinstein brothers of Miramax Films.
"We were there celebrating, and it must have been a quarter to one in the morning, and Bob and Harvey came in and said, 'Excuse the interruption, but we have something we want to talk to you about.' And basically they offered a three-picture deal, including one outside the genre."
(The others in the package turned out to be the quickly made "Scream 2" and "Scream 3," the latter now being edited for a Feb. 4 release.)
The Weinsteins offered several choices for the mainstream movie, various projects they already owned rights to, but Craven says none captured his attention like the true story of Roberta Guaspari, a former Navy wife who, on the heels of her marriage collapse, moved with her sons to Harlem and launched a program to teach violin to elementary school students. She had been the subject of "Small Wonders," an Oscar-nominated documentary that impressed the director.
"It was so close to some of the strongest things in my own life," he said. "I come from a working-class family. When I first started listening to classical music I was very moved by its beauty, if that doesn't sound overly sentimental.
"I taught myself how to play classical guitar. I'm divorced from the mother of my children, so I knew the pain of that process. My father died when I was 4 so I knew what it was like to have a father leave and really wish he could come back. I taught high school and college before I got into the business. God, I thought, I know all of those things well."
It should have been relatively easy to get the film rolling, what with an experienced director and producer, a good story, the strong support of Miramax and the cooperation of Guaspari, but the project nearly fell apart.
Back when its title was "50 Violins," Madonna had signed to play the lead. She was three months into violin lessons, and Craven was knee-deep in pre-production, when "creative differences" caused a professional rift.
As Craven explains it, Madonna was adamant about focusing more on Guaspari's adult life and less on the time she spent with her students.
"I felt that if I were going to change a script significantly at an actress's request -- not just Madonna's but any actress's -- that it would be less my movie, and I would not be able to get up in the morning and be happy to be working on it," Craven said. "There was never a raised voice or anything. We just had different opinions."
So Craven pursued Streep, whom he wanted for Roberta in the first place. When he first tried to get her she had been busy working on two other films. Now she was getting set to promote those films and was concerned there wouldn't be enough time to prepare for the role, so she declined. Meanwhile Craven was feeling the movie slipping away from him. The pre-production staff had all but disappeared, and the rest of the cast was on standby but couldn't remain that way indefinitely.
After some strong persuasion Streep agreed to make the film, and the director arranged for the actress and Guaspari to meet.
"They went off (to the wardrobe department) and started trying on clothes, and I heard all this laughter as they talked and tried things on," he recalled. "About three hours later Roberta came out flushed with meeting this great woman, and Meryl came out walking and talking like Roberta. I think she downloaded Roberta."
With "Music of the Heart," Craven has made a film that features -- and could be enjoyed by -- grade-schoolers. It deals with overcoming adversity, aiming high, finding self-worth through hard work and appreciating the arts.
How will the legion of Craven's usual fans take it?
"We showed it to test audiences in the (horror) genre age, and they loved it, although some say, 'Please don't stop doing horror movies,' " he said.
People in the industry took notice of the project long ago. The fact that Craven was working on a non-genre movie already has had an impact on the nature of some of the scripts and treatments that hit his desk. "It's changed some, and I think it will change even more (now that the movie has opened)," he said.
It also seems to be changing the public's perception of Craven.
"I've been invited to the White House," he said. "They're not going to be thinking of me as the 'slashmeister' after I have my picture taken with Bill Clinton."
Craven says even his mother will see "Music of the Heart" -- "and she hasn't watched any of my movies."