Nick Simon (The Girl in the Photographs) Talks Being Mentored by Wes Craven

An emerging writer-director recalls being taken under the wing of the late master of horror.

I had just landed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a short layover when I received an email from the WGA. I had recently been inducted into the guild and was being contacted about a mentorship program offered to new members that paired them with working writers. I was reading the email quickly as I rushed to my next flight. My jaw dropped to the floor after reading one of the singular most life-changing sentences of my life: Wes Craven would be my mentor. I immediately forwarded the email to my wife, not believing what I had read. She called me seconds later and asked if I had read the whole thing. As I buckled my seatbelt on the plane, my head still spinning, I said no. She told me I was also invited to a dinner at his house, with four other new horror writers. For the next two hours, all I could think was, “I am going to dinner at Wes Craven’s house on Tuesday.” What. Was. Happening.

Now, you have to understand, I grew up in small town U.S.A. – Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As someone who is averse to sports, my whole life was movies – more accurately, horror movies. I’m part of the VHS generation that would rent every horror movie at the store that we could get our hands on. I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street at a probably inappropriate age, but it spoke to me like nothing else. I rented the VHS from the local video store so many times, I remember the cover of the tape like it was yesterday. Wes Craven was instrumental to my childhood and later to my voice as a filmmaker.

As I walked up the long driveway to his Hollywood Hills home, I’m pretty sure my hands were trembling. Wes answered the door casually and said hello with a friendly smile. I don’t remember what exactly I mumbled back, but I’m sure it was awkward as hell. His home was beautiful and pristine. He showed us to the kitchen, where he had Indian take-out prepared for us. As the night went on, we all started feeling more comfortable, thanks in great part to Wes’ ability to make us feel welcomed and heard. We spoke about horror movies, and to my great enjoyment, Wes even asked all of us, “What do you guys think is scary now?” He was interested in what we had to say and really listened. I’m sure Wes was aware of his own presence in front of a group of geeky horror writers, and he went out of his way to make us feel at ease around him.

We continued to have the dinners at Wes’ house over the next year, where we all got to know him very well. The excitement of going there never waned. We got to know Wes as a person and not just as an icon. He and his wife, Iya, were always so welcoming to us in their home. He was interested in each of our individual projects and our troubles getting started in the industry. No matter what movie business horror story we would share, Wes has already gone through something similar. He would tell us insider tales that you wouldn’t believe, and his advice was so honest and wise – it was invaluable to us. It was nice to know that we were not alone out there, and that all the crazy things we’d been through had happened before and will happen again.

One night towards the end of our year with Wes, I was talking to him about The Girl in the Photographs, a project I had been writing for four years. I didn’t know if I should stop working on it or not. It had been with me so long, I couldn’t tell if it was good or not. Wes said, “Send it over. I’ll take a look at it.” I couldn’t believe he said that, but that is the kind of person Wes was. He used to be a teacher, and that trait remained with him. I sent him the script, thinking, “What am I doing?” There is no way I could have prepared myself for his reply. He loved it, and ended his emailed response by asking, “What can I do to help you get this made?” Before I had the chance to throw up, I realized I had a real-life opportunity to bring Wes Craven into the making of this film. Here I was in front of a life-altering moment, and there was no choice but to ask him if he would come aboard as a producer.

Within seconds, he responded, “I would be happy to put my name on this.”

Over the next few years, our team began to take form, with me at the helm as director. We faced the struggles all independent films go through, but eventually (somehow) got the picture into production. Wes was instrumental throughout this entire process. His advice during some of my darkest moments will stay with me forever. “Stop apologizing. You’re a nice guy, but you apologize too much.” “Always be prepared to walk away and mean it.” He was in the trenches with us but, most importantly, he always – always – had my back.

We communicated constantly during the course of making the film. He gave me steady and constructive feedback as cast and shot, and then weekly updates during the edit. He sent us champagne when we found out we would premiere in Toronto. He was there every single step of the way.

Wes passed away on August 30, 2015, and the world lost the master of horror. This man not only touched my life in a way that I will never forget, he touched the world. Every horror fan would dream of having the opportunity I did with him, and I know how ridiculously lucky I am. I could never have imagined in a million years that I would be so fortunate to even meet the person who’d had such a huge impact on my life, let alone have him as a mentor and then turn that mentorship into a collaborative relationship. He is my godfather in film, something I never took for granted. I only hope that I can give the same gift to someone that Wes gave me.

William Friedkin summed it up best on his Twitter account: “To be clear, film for film, Wes Craven was the best horror director. Ever. And he did it with a sense of humor.” Wes Craven was also undoubtedly one of the best humans I will meet in my lifetime. I have always been told that you should be cautious of meeting your heroes, as you will always be disappointed. I have found that to be true a few times, but it was definitely not the case with Wes. I could not have imagined how kind and generous he would be, with an incredible, sinister wit. He changed my life forever. And I will be eternally grateful.

Nick Simon is a graduate of the American Film Institute Conservatory. He made his directorial debut with Removal (2010), starring Billy Burke, which he also co-wrote. Produced by the late Wes Craven, Nick’s second directorial feature, The Girl in the Photographs, starring Kal Penn, Claudia Lee, and Miranda Mayo, will be released in 2016. Simon also co-wrote the 2014 releases Cold Comes the Night, starring Bryan Cranston, Alice Eve, and Logan Marshall-Green, and 20th Century Fox’s The Pyramid.