Horror has a new director in France’s Alexandre Aja, a fan, a filmmaker and an artist. Asked by maestro Wes Craven to step into his shoes, the French director has made his own version of Craven’s classic Hills Have Eyes, a scary prospect even with Craven’s blessing, as he revealed to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: Now first of all, was there any degree of reluctance on your part to take on a remake of a Wes Craven classic?
Aja: Yeah, I mean, of course; because first of all after watching High Tension Wes asked to meet us and talk about the idea of remaking one of his cult movies, The Hills Have Eyes. And, you know, we grew up watching The Hills Have Eyes. I’m 27, I’m born in ’78, so I was too young, I was not even born when the movie released the first time. But I grew up in the 80s and the 90s and I was so frustrated of movies that were like available to see at the time. So all my pleasure as a film addict came from all the video clip and all the rental tape that we can find. And that’s, you know, when we were like 10, 11 years old and we were out discovering The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, and, I mean, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween – all these films. And we grew up watching and watching and watching those films, and after High Tension, which is already a tribute to all those films, to have like one of the masters saying, ‘would you like to think about like a new approach, a new take on the film’, it was like, okay, so what I’m supposed to do, he’s asking me that, but at the same time I’m so a big fan of the original and I know it so well, why we remaking it, you know. I have to find the answer of that question before starting to write anything.
Question: So what did you come up with when you asked the question?
Aja: I mean, first of all I was thinking about, okay, why I like so much the original film, and I realised that the reason why I was so much attached to that film was not the same reason that I’m attached to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left. Those film are really scary and really disturbing and really interesting and very serious and very realistic, which is not the case of The Hills Have Eyes, why I’m loving so much The Hills Have Eyes because of Michael Berryman, because of, ah, the look of the villains, because of the wild world like the 70s feeling, the way they act, the low budget feeling, and all that put together that give this very kitsch dark humour aspect of the film. So I realised that, you know, it was maybe possible to return, reinvent the film in such a way that it’s going to be much more scary and much more disturbing and violent and realistic than the original film.
Question: Do you have to look at what a 21st century audience is likely to go for when you make those decisions?
Aja: I mean it was just like… what I’m telling you right now was really just among my writing partner and myself. And then we came back to Wes with this idea of the nuclear testing background and Wes was very excited and decided to let us try to write the script. That’s where everything started.
Question: Where does your script completely depart from the original?
Aja: We tried to keep the plot, the story, the characters, to do a real remake, but in the same time try to reinvent everything; and with this simple idea of the nuclear testing background, everything came in a very obvious way – the look of the people from the hills, the mannequins, everything is linked to the idea of the testing area.
Question: Why do you think horror has become such a more respectable art form than it might have been 10 or 15 years ago – or do you think it’s a more respectable art form than it used to be?
Aja: I’m way convinced that if you play the rules, which are basically scaring the audience and scaring people with a film, you can do whatever you want with your artistic expression. You know, it’s a genre of film where if you want to shoot in black and white, they’re going to let you shoot in black and white. If you want to shoot like to do a silent movie with only music, you can do whatever you want if you manage to scare the audience. It’s the only thing that people that put the money out are caring for, and that’s great because you can hide under the genre and you can really express whatever you want to express. And it’s also because fear is not only in your mind, it’s really in your guts. It’s a very visceral feeling. And you can really use all the element of the filmmaking – music, picture, editing, acting – everything is… you can really develop everything. You take a movie like Alien. Alien is such a film; it’s a masterpiece. It looks like a piece of art. It’s amazing and it’s an old movie. People are respecting more the genre than it was like in the 90s.
Question: Fear is such a subjective feeling. So when you craft a horror movie, how do you know that you’re going to be successful in scaring an audience?
Aja: It’s very difficult, and if you try to think for the audience you’ve failed. I’m a very good audience member. I’m still scared when I’m going to see a very good scary movie. I watched like recently The Descent. I love movies. Before being a filmmaker I’m really a movie audience member and so I’m trying to think about what’s going to scare me as an audience member and I’m saying, okay, if it works on me it should works on other people, and that’s basically the only way to, to have an opinion of how to scare the audience. If it works on you it has to works on other people also.
Question: Do you bring a European sensibility to the genre do you think?
Aja: I think the European sensibility will be more like trying to be as realistic as you can.
Question: How surprised were you that High Tension kind of paved the way for you to make a Hollywood movie?
Aja: That’s funny because the idea at the beginning of High Tension was let’s make a movie and let’s pay a tribute to all the films that influenced us and made us want to be filmmakers. So that was like the idea at the beginning, to make like a patchwork of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Last House on the Left, and it’s funny because that movie was very well received here in U.S. and allowed us to come. So that’s great. I mean we paid a tribute and in a way they are, like, welcoming us now. I mean I’m living a dream. I’m living a dream. I’m living the dream that, you know, started when I was 10 – like being able to make movie, to make really scary movie.
Question: Why do you want to make scary movies as opposed to other kinds of movies? I mean what is it about the genre that really interests you?
Aja: I can tell for myself as an audience member, what I love in a movie is when I go in the screening room watching a good horror movie I’m not watching a film I’m living something. I’m living an experience.
Question: Is it important for you to continue working in Europe and to go back and forth?
Aja: I have to say, you know, I’m coming from France where the system is made in such a way that it’s really protecting the filmmakers. We don’t even have to fight to get that. We can do everything we want and I was expecting in my first Hollywood film to be conformed to the cliché of the American producer on my back all the time asking me to do that and recut and re-shoot and all that nightmare and it was exactly the opposite. I mean Wes Craven, since the beginning of the process, protected us and allowed us to make… As he said, he said, I did my movie I want you to do yours. I respect your vision – go. And until the final cut of the film he really protected our vision. And the movie that’s going to open is the director’s cut, so that’s great. I mean that’s something I know that’s not happening often here in the U.S.
Question: So are you wary about taking on another Hollywood film which may not offer you that same degree of protection?
Aja: That’s true. I’m really scared of the next project being not as hands-off as that one was.
Question: Any idea what that project is going to be?
Aja: Yeah, we are working right now on the movie where Wes Craven is also executive producer, which is The Waiting and it’s a supernatural psychological story. It’s basically about a young couple who has to face the loss of a child, and about a husband who’s watching his wife sliding into craziness day after day, It’s a very interesting film and a very smart script.
Question: It sounds very different from this one…
Aja: It’s the opposite. I mean for me it’s a challenge to try to experiment some other fear expression without blood and without effects so we’ll see…
Question: So it’s much more internal?
Aja: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why we are like right now in the middle of the casting, and everything’s in the casting. If we find good actresses the movie will be great.