In Wes Craven’s newest film, there’s no blood, no demented creatures jumping out of dark corners, no lusty teenagers craving quick sex but paying for it with their lives. No, in Music of the Heart, the director of Scream, Scream 2 the upcoming Scream 3, A Nightmare on Elm Street and many more horror items, turns from scaring the bejeezus out of his viewers to warming their hearts.
Music of the Heart, until recently titled 50 Violins is the true story of Roberta Guaspari, the music teacher who fought the system and managed to convey her love for playing the violin to a group of schoolkids in East Harlem. Meryl Streep stars as a struggling but forward-thinking teacher and single mom, along with Angela Bassett, Aidan Quinn and Gloria Estefan.
Craven’s involvement with the film is one of those stories that long shots at the track are based on. It goes back to his pre-Scream days when he was writing his recently published first novel, Fountain Society.
“I was getting all these invitations from the [film] academies to volunteer for various things, and I perennially feel that I never see documentaries,” he says. “So I signed up for the Academy and was on one of three committees that prescreened documentaries for that year. Small Wonder, which at that time was called Fiddlefest, was one of them. And I was knocked out by it. I thought it was a terrific documentary. But then it just went back into the recesses of my mind.”
The film he’s talking about documented the story of Guaspari and her innovative program. It made a splash on the festival circuit, had a few theatrical showings and was even nominated for an Oscar. But few audiences saw it.
“When we did Scream we had a test screening in New York and [Miramax co-chairmen] Bob and Harvey Weinstein both happened to be at it,” says Craven. “And Harvey loved it. When the screening was over, my crew and I went to have dinner in the village to celebrate because the scores were very high. We’re half way through dinner and Bob and Harvey showed up, sort of nudged everybody out of the way, sat down next to me and said they wanted to offer me a three-picture deal.”
In his best gravel-throated imitation of Harvey Weinstein, Craven describes part of the offer: “‘We know you want to do something else beside horror pictures so we’ll give you a petticoat picture.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Ah, you know, it’s a costume drama, like I do, like Miramax.’”
The Weinsteins showed Craven a list of everything they owned the rights to and everything they were developing, and offered him anything that hadn’t been given to another director.
“It was a huge list,” remembers Craven. “But the one I said I wanted to do right away was [a feature based on] Fiddlefest. It just seemed right. I wanted to do something completely away from what I’d been doing. I had been a teacher, I’d gone through a divorce, I had two kids like Roberta, I loved classical music—it just felt perfect. So we went with that.”
But Craven admits Music of the Heart has been a tricky film to market.
“We found at test screenings that with Meryl Streep and the word violin in the original title, a lot of people thought it was going to be a very intellectual or high-end type of picture, and they didn’t want to see it. But everyone in the test screenings loved it and said thank God we came. But there was that fear.”
The Weinsteins obviously had faith in Craven’s talents, or at least in his ability to create some action at the box office. Scream 2 did so well, they signed him up for a new deal with Miramax and he currently owes them two more films.
Next up is another one from the list he was shown.
“It’s called Drowning Ruth,” says Craven. “They bought the rights to the novel. It’s a kind of Snow Falling on Cedars type of novel about a murder that takes place in the past and how it affects a family over two and a half generations. We’re reading other things, but that’s the first one we’re putting into development.”
But before that, Craven fans can relax with the knowledge that Scream 3, although finished and originally slated for Christmas release, now is pretty much firmly set for a Feb. 4 opening. All he’ll say about it is that it has a great script by Ehren Kruger, there’s a wonderful cast (David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Carrie Fisher, Lance Henriksen, Parker Posey), that Miramax has put even more money into it and that it’s about the making of Stab 3.
“There will be no Scream 4,“ says Craven sternly but with a smile. “Nobody believes me when I say this. But it truly is a trilogy, it’s wrapped up with this one. We’re all going our separate ways.”