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Interview: Alexandre Aja talks “Maniac”, “Horns”

"Maniac" co-writer/producer Alexandre Aja and star Elijah Wood

“Maniac” co-writer/producer Alexandre Aja and star Elijah Wood

He’s dabbled in psychos, mutants, pre-historic fish and mirror-monstrosities, but now, filmmaker Alexandre Aja is taking on a full-fledged maniac. In anticipation for the release of IFC Midnight’s Maniac, directed by Franck Khalfoun and starring Elijah Wood, Diabolique got a chance to talk to Aja about writing and producing the hyperviolent film, the nature of studio remakes, and his further activity in the world of horror..

DIABOLIQUE: When writing Maniac, what kind of pressures were there between trying to keep the film faithful to the original cult classic and making something new and different?

AJA: I think, for Maniac (2013), to make something of my own was the only solution for me [in order] to accept the idea of remaking a movie I love the most. (Laughs) I mean, I grew up being scared but yet loving Maniac (1980). It was one of the movies that pushed me to do High Tension,  so much so that we even used [that films’] subway theme in High Tension. It was such an important movie for me that when they approached me to do the [remake], I thought, “Why?” The movie is so great, and so scary, and Joseph Spinell is a legend in it. Everything was so unique that I didn’t really feel the need to bring forth a new Maniac. We kept talking, and talking, and then we met with [Maniac (1980) director] Bill Lustig, and the idea of making the whole movie P.O.V.-style started to get me really excited. So we then got into rewriting the script. We started to dig deeper into the character of Frank Zito, and his motivations and origins, and we started to find a character that was much more like Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates than the big ogre that Joseph Spinell was. So, all of that was what moved us toward Elijah in the first place and, really, all of this together was what started to make the movie so different and original. In the end, I think that’s the only reason I can be proud of this movie, because it’s a different movie and allows the original movie to exist and still be there on its own.

DIABOLIQUE: Was there major importance to having the film located in an urban environment?

AJA: I have always felt that Maniac was the urban brother to Halloween. I felt that Halloween was about this scary house in the suburbs, whereas Maniac was about that shadow that follows you in the street of the big city. So, yes, the city, for me, was a very important character, overall. I wondered, “How can you reinvent New York?” The original film took place in New York, and it is no longer that awful, dirty, grimy place it used to be in the early ‘80s. So, to find something sinister, we didn’t have to look very far, because Downtown L.A. is one of the most strange and interesting places right now. It really looks like New York did back in the early ‘80s; where you have the dirtiness and the rats everywhere. (laughs) Also, there’s the weird life of all these demented people [who are] on the streets almost only at night, but then you have these hipsters who are now all moving into Downtown L.A. I thought it would be interesting to have this character who never moved out of Downtown L.A. and because the hipsters came to this neighborhood, he ended up looking like a hipster himself, even though he’s not; he’s just himself and he’s very dangerous.

DIABOLIQUE: You have been mostly involved in genre films over the past several years. What, if anything, did you take from your previous experiences in genre film that helped in making Maniac?

AJA: Because Maniac was such a source of inspiration for High Tension, this new film was also a way to push a little more into what we did with High Tension. To make a P.O.V. film means we get to be in the killer’s head all the time, but as a filmmaker, that was a bit of a handicap. To create fear and suspense, you have to cut away. You have to intercut the slow and creeping P.O.V. of the killer with the victim not knowing the killer is approaching; all that classic grammar that creates fear in movies. Since we were locked in his head, that [dynamic] had to be different, so we had to invent something completely new. That was the biggest challenge, but also the most exciting part about making this movie. Franck did an amazing job by delivering this film in only 23 days of shooting, and every day when we were on set, we would have to meet up with Maxime [Alexandre], the DP, and create new techniques to get make these shots possible. When the movie comes out on Blu-ray, it will have a great behind-the-scenes bit talking about how we were able to get that sense of P.O.V. It was our greatest challenge, because every day we had to invent a way to do something that had never been done before.

"Maniac" stars Elijah Wood and Jan Broberg

“Maniac” stars Elijah Wood and Jan Broberg

DIABOLIQUE: As a member of what genre fans and critics have deemed “The Splat Pack,” do you tend to visualize what kind of gore will be in a film as you write it? Subsequently, was there a drive to keep Maniac tamer and more realistic than some of your other films have been?

AJA: I’m not writing my scripts in red. (Laughs) No, I don’t look for gore for the sake of gore. I don’t tend to look for stories that will justify the maximum amount of it. It’s more like the opposite, in fact. I’m always trying to write with a character [in mind] and I try to put myself in a position where I wonder, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” I think that’s where we might find fun ideas for gore, but it is still always motivated by the characters. Maniac is very different from [my] usual [work] because all of the previous movies we have made are always on the side of the victim, and never really on the side of the killer. So, because we are with that person who is trying to survive and seeing all of the awful things the lead character is witnessing, that was how we were justifying the gore. Since we are in the head of the killer this time, it is different. It would have been easy to make a full bloodbath out of Maniac, because it is intense and brutal, but it’s not as gory as Piranha 3D was. It’s way more realistic and intense, which I think is so effective because you are in the head of someone who is doing the most awful and brutal things to his victims, and at the same time you kind of feel for him. That brings about this very weird thought that interested me. To make a movie about someone who is the most awful person you can imagine, but at the same time, you can not help yourself but to understand a little bit of him. What he is going through is something that everyone understands; to be alone, to be “not loved back,” the fear of being abandoned. All of those elements show that the character is just a version of ourselves. He is extremely violent and someone you do not want to know, but at the same time he is someone who is pushed to the far end of these feelings. I think that creates an intensity in this character that makes the violence feel very gory when, in fact, it’s not. It is still gory, but it’s not like The Hills Have Eyes or Piranha was.

DIABOLIQUE: Maniac is another film in a list of remakes or reimaginings on your résumé. What is it that draws you to a remake or does the studio seek you out for them?

AJA: It is, unfortunately, a result of the market. There hasn’t been much in original story or original material for years. I never stop writing original scripts with Greg Levasseur, and we always push something new, but the studios today are much more inclined to greenlight a movie that has a title that is very marketable. Piranha is a very interesting example because it was not a [straight] remake of the film from Joe Dante. It was an original script that was not based on the original Piranha at all, and the movie has nothing to do with the first Piranha, but they wanted that title because it was a better marketing tool in order to sell the movie. If we had called the movie something like Spring Break Massacre, it would have been a very different sell. The system in Hollywood right now is really about what your title can leave in the imagination of your audience. Most of the people in this recent generation haven’t actually seen the original Evil Dead, but they all know that title and that’s why they want to go and see it. That is a real remake, though. The Hills Have Eyes was one of those first three big remakes that started the whole trend, and at this point, I feel there are way too many. We have started to reboot classic movies that don’t need to be because they are already amazing movies. I wish the studios will be more open to go toward new material, because even the audience is craving for novelty.

Daniel Radcliffe on the set of Alexandre Aja's "Horns"

Daniel Radcliffe on the set of Alexandre Aja’s “Horns”

DIABOLIQUE: So, are you finished working in the realm of remakes?

AJA: I’m trying. I just finished working on this new movie called Horns with Daniel Radcliffe, and it is based on an amazing novel by Joe Hill that is truly original. Not only the book, but the story, the characters; everything. It’s really something that’s never been seen before, and that’s what got me excited for that project. I’m really looking forward to being able to present Horns to an audience because it’s very different. I’m trying as much as I can to bring something new. I could have gone the easy way and remake all of my favorite movies. I’d just have to take the DVD off the shelf, and go one after the other. (Laughs) I want to bring something to the table. It’s more challenging, but it is worth the fight.

DIABOLIQUE: Is Horns considered a genre film?

AJA: It definitely has a horrific side to it, but it is much more like a murder-mystery with a love story mixed into it.

DIABOLIQUE: Have you found your home in the horror genre or are you still looking to branch out?

AJA: It’s not so much about branching out. It’s about not doing the same thing you’ve already done. I feel all the films I have done are completely different movies, and each one was challenging for different reasons. I think it’s about the stories over all. If I find a great story that really hooks me, and if it’s in the horror genre, then that’s fine, but if its not, that won’t stop me. I’m not looking to be locked in a niche. I just want to keep telling stories, but tell a different one each time. I don’t want to be required, as a director, to do the same thing every time. I don’t want to end up doing the same kind of shots or to be on set and know exactly how to do this scene or this movie. I want to try something new each time.

Maniac will be released by IFC Midnight on June 21st in theatres, cable VOD, iTunes, XBox, Playstation, GooglePlay, YouTube and SundanceNow.com. For more information, visit the film’s official site here.

By Matthew Delhauer

Matt Delhauer is a graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey, with a degree in communications and digital filmmaking. As an avid fan of horror films since childhood, Matt has had years of exposure to the best, worst, and many in between. Outside of film Matt also holds knowledge in several fields of media and entertainment, from literature to television, which are all met with an eye for analysis and a love of entertainment. For more of Matt’s work take a look at his blog at www.gingergeekblogs.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter: @MattDelhauer

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Matt Delhauer

Matt Delhauer is a graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey, with a degree in communications and digital filmmaking. As an avid fan of horror films since childhood, Matt has had years of exposure to the best, worst, and many in between. Outside of film Matt also holds knowledge in several fields of media and entertainment, from literature to television, which are all met with an eye for analysis and a love of entertainment. For more of Matt’s work take a look at his blog at www.gingergeekblogs.blogspot.com or follow him on twitter: @MattDelhauer

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