Exclusive interview: Alexandre Aja - The Hills Have Eyes
24th Feb 06
It's a tough life running a horror website in your spare time, so you've got to take the perks when you can. So when Fox Searchlight got in touch with us recently asking us if we would be interested in taking a trip to Paris to interview the French director of the upcoming The Hills Have Eyes remake, we leapt at the chance, especially as it was all paid for.
Ok, so this meant a 4am wake-up call to catch the first Eurostar to France, but a short trip and two cafe au laits later, I found myself in Paris and sitting down for my second preview screening of Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes. Myself and Zomblee had seen the film the week before (read his review here), but it has to be said that on a second viewing the film certainly holds up, and is indeed more enjoyable the second time around.
With a couple of hours free before our scheduled interview, there was time for a quick post-screening wander around France's capital and a spot of lunch at Boeuf Sur Le Toit (not pronounced Twat as one of my fellow jounros commented), which served one of the best steaks I've ever had the pleasure to devour. Throw in a couple of glasses de vin rouge, and it was time to meet the Switchblade Romance director Alexandre Aja to talk about his latest film, The Hills Have Eyes...
EMB: Hi Alex. When we last saw you at FrightFest for your Switchblade Romance screening, you announced that you were working on the Hills Have Eyes remake. How does it feel now that itís finally coming out?
Alexandre Aja: Wonderful - Iíve fulfilled a dream. I just canít believe that I managed to make the movie and the movie is here today and itís exactly the movie I wanted to see. Thatís the movie, you know. I didnít have any pressure, the studio wasnít on my back, they were very, very supportive. I donít know, but I think thatís unusual.
EMB: Well weíve just seen it for the second time and weíre completely disturbed. Again.
AA: *laughs* Iím sorry!
EMB: Did you have any second thoughts when you were offered the remake, or did you accept it straight away?
AA: Doing a remake is very, very tricky. I can tell you because I receive an offer every day to do a remake. Remakes are like the new religion of Hollywood. Someone came to me about three years ago offering me the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and I had to pass. Some movies are just masterpieces and thatís one of the best.
The Hills Have Eyes was a quite different thing. First of all, it was made with a very low budget in extremely tough conditions. Wes was happy with the movie but not as happy as he should have been. It wasnít very easy for him to make a movie in those conditions; in the desert with a very tight budget. So he was very open to a remake. He understood the idea of it first of all. But the second point is; why do we love the original Hills Have Eyes so much? Itís not because itís the scariest movie in the world. Itís because itís almost fun. Itís because itís cool. Itís because of Michael Berryman and because of the look of the characters and the way theyíre dressed. I love this movie, Iím watching it again and again, and it never gets boring.
Doing The Hills Have Eyes was a big challenge, yes, but also it was a potentially good remake to do because it was possible to improve the subject, to go further with it and do something really extraordinary and different from the original film. To do another The Hills Have Eyes, which is not a remake of the original, but something that is a more realistic approach.
EMB: Did Wes Craven give you any advice?
AA: It was funny because we met him almost two years ago and during the meeting he asked us, ďDo you know about The Hills Have Eyes?Ē Of course we knew but we were very polite, ďYeah, we think we know it, we grew up watching your films!Ē *laughs*
He asked us to come up with a way to remake the material; something to justify the remake. We brought this nuclear testing background forward as a way of developing the characters and making it more real and more brutal. Wes offered us his trust. From the beginning he said, ďLook, I did my movie and I want you to do yours.Ē He was very supportive and very respectful; he was a perfect gentleman about that specific thing. So for a year we were writing and we were trading some e-mails with him. But heís not a teacher. Heís not like, ďIím going to tell you how to do the best movie possible,Ē heís not like that at all. Heís much more respectful.
Heís suffered so much working with studios. Heís suffered so much on Cursed. On all his movies. He suffered so much that he wasnít ready to be a despot or to become Bob Weinstein overnight. That wasnít his goal - he really wanted to be himself so he was respectful and thatís great for us. We did exactly the movie we wanted.
EMB: It must have been really great waking up every day and knowing you were working on The Hills Have Eyes.
AA: Oh, it was amazing. I had this moment when I first watched the film and the Fox logo appeared with the fanfare. It was like, ďwow!Ē
EMB: You mentioned Michael Berryman and when you think of the original you think of him. Were you concerned about finding your own Michael Berryman? Did you talk to him about the film?
AA: We wrote the character of Cyst for Michael Berryman. I canít tell you the reason why and youíd have to ask him directly but Wes wasnít keen. We recognised the importance of Michael and we wanted to include him but, obviously, he couldnít have played Pluto again so we thought of him for Cyst as it was a good cameo for him. We came to Wes with the idea and I donít know why but he said, ďNo, I donít want to see that.Ē I think itís going behind the scenes, behind the movie, behind everything to speculate why, but I donít know. That wasnít about the movie, it was about some other stuff.
EMB: This film seems more violent than it is. Switchblade Romance is the same; there seems to be more violence than you show. But you had some censorship issues in America?
AA: Big issues. What they asked us to cut is basically a couple of minutes. But, youíre right, I think what they cut didnít take anything from the horror and the brutality and the impact of the final film. Theyíre just too stupid to understand that.
EMB: What did they cut exactly?
*SPOILER AHEAD Ė Highlight hidden text to read the answer*
AA: They cut some close-ups of Big Bob (Ted Levine) burning and his eyes turning white. They cut a close-up of Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) being shot in the head; the muzzle-flash and the direct impact. Itís very brutal. And they cut a shot of the gun being pointed at the baby. They cut half a minute of the rape scene with Brenda (Emilie De Ravin).
And this is really stupid. This is a real a spoiler, so be careful with this; at the end they cut a bit of Lizard being shot. Heís supposed to have been shot three times but they cut one of him being shot in the throat. Right now heís only shooting two times and he was also hitting him in the face much more. In the original it was more like he was dead so it was something when you see him stand up again. And now, the way they cut the movie, you can tell that heís going to stand up again. Thatís very stupid and I had a big, big argument with them about that.
Itís going beyond censorship, and it really affects the movie. Since when canít we have big catharses of pleasure when you kill the bad guy? *laughs* Itís crazy. Itís like youíre trying to censor something thatís the A-B-C of a movie. Youíre censoring the drama. You get revenge but apparently you canít have revenge.
EMB: But on the plus-side, though, it gives us something to look forward to come the DVD!
AA: *laughs* Yeah, of course! The DVD will be completely uncut.
EMB: Thereís a line in the film where one of the characters says, ďYou did this to us, You made us what we areĒ, and with democrat and republican thing, there seems to be a strong political thread in this filmÖ
AA: Yes, of course, Iím French! *laughs* Itís funny because I was sure when we were writing the script that all of the political stuff would be cut. We were sure we were going to get cut on the dialogue about being a democrat and him being a republican. I was convinced they were going to cut the American flag and all of that. But everything got through.
Itís amazing because thatís one of the key themes of the whole thing. The fact that they allowed us to make not just bad guys against good guys but something more contrasting. On the one side you have the Carter family who are going to be the victims but on the other side you have the dwellers who are not only the bad guys but the victims of the United States. Theyíre as much victims as the others. Itís two societies confronting themselves and one of them doesnít know that theyíre also the bad guys. Itís very interesting and I love the way it comes around.
The way Big Bob has the magnum thatís going to become the weapon that will kill his wife and his daughter and then at the end the guy who has the shotgun has the weapon thatís going to kill his sons. I like the dark irony of that background. Big Brain singing the national anthem. *laughs* The way he kills Pluto with the American flag and... *laughs* Iím really happy with all of those parts and really satisfied with the politics of it. Itís fun and at the same time it gives something more.
EMB: You worked with Giannetto De Rossi on Switchblade Romance and now Greg Nicotero on The Hills Have Eyes, the two of them massive names in special effects make-up...
AA: Giannetto wasnít free for The Hills Have Eyes and I approached him to make the film with me, but not to design the hill dwellers but to work only on the Carter family. Since he wasnít available we used someone who was really close to Giannetto to do that. On the other hand, Greg Nicotero is just the best. KNB are just the best special effects make-up designers today.
Bringing in the background of the nuclear testing we also did a lot of research into the effects of nuclear testing on humans. We found some absolutely awful, unwatchable, terrible stuff that we used as reference to create all of the designs. Big Brain was based on a picture that Greenpeace used for campaigning in Italy during the eighties. Itís really the same. They are really freaks but at the same time theyíre based on the real footage we used in the opening credits. Realism was the key word on that movie. There were two ways to make the movie; one was, ďOk itís a radioactive mutant cannibal movie,Ē and that was something else, and our way was, ďLetís try to make Deliverance.Ē That was the difference and we tried to stay as real as we could.
EMB: Staying on effects, I was reading the production notes and discovered, to my surprise, that there is CG in the film. Watching it for the second time this morning I was trying to spot it, but I couldnít do it. And I pride myself on being able to pick it up...
AA: *laughs* Iím very happy to hear that, because that convinces me that I managed to do it! We built most of the village but we had some digital houses and the first shot, the overview, is a matte painting. And we added some mountains here and there. Jami Scott Goei did most of the CGI and itís very good, Iím very proud of him for it.
But the effect Iím most happy with is Ruby. Ruby had make-up Ė dirt and teeth Ė but everything was made with three dots on her face that we scanned and moved digitally. That was cool and Iím really happy because it was a big challenge and no one believed in it. We had to do tests for the studio so they knew it was going to be very disturbing and creepy.
EMB: Particularly the horror remake genre has seen some terrible applications of CGI recently, the theory being that it wasnít there for the original so throw it in and no matter what youíve got a hit, but youíve been very careful in its useÖ
AA: Absolutely. We worked very closely with the guys and we were being cautious about everything that can bring you out of the movie and makes you feel an audience member again. We try to avoid that. What we want is to have you feeling the story with the Carter family and going through the nightmare with them.
Myself, when Iím watching a film and I can see the CG, I just step out.
EMB: In Switchblade Romance you played Alexís fatherís legs in one shot. Did you play a cameo in this?
AA: I didnít... Yes! I have a cameo! *laughs* The close-up on the radio, when he hears the baby crying, that is my hand. When he picks up the radio from the ground and says, ďWhy are you doing this to us?Ē the hand that picks up the radio is my hand. That was a close-up we shot three weeks later, and it was my hand. So yes, I had one. I had to think about that a little bit!
EMB: Whereís Gregory today? Until we met you just now we were getting the impression the two of you were inseparable!
AA: *laughs* Heís not here today Ė heís enjoying a few days off! Holidays! We write together and on The Hills Have Eyes I directed and he did the second unit and he did the Art Direction. Heís my best friend. We grew up together, we went to film school together, and weíd watch films together and write scripts together. I direct but heís more like a producer, ensuring we have the best things possible, working with the production designers to motivate them and everything.
And on this heís done three weeks of second unit, which was great. He did the scientist opening scene and the entire dog fighting sequences, which was very hard, because shooting with dogs in the desert during the summer is nearly impossible. Even the best-trained dog in the world canít stand it.
EMB: Youíve had such a history working together, can you ever see yourselves branching out on your own or is there a connection that keeps you both at the top of your game?
AA: You know, that partnership works really well. I think the more we work together the more we find the best way to collaborate. Heís becoming step after step a better producer. We develop each other together. That works and I hope itís going to work for many, many years to come.
EMB: Do you have any other projects happening in Hollywood?
AA: Yeah, weíre in the middle of casting a project at the moment called The Waiting. Itís something close to Donít Look Now and The Vanishing. Itís much more psychological and supernatural.
EMB: So youíre keen to stay in this genre for the moment?
AA: Yes, but this is very different from Switchblade Romance and The Hills Have Eyes. Itís not a survival; itís not gory or anything. Itís more psychological. But it depends on the casting. Really it depends on the next week or two as to whether itís definitely going ahead or not.
But on the Hollywood thing, I was really scared going into The Hills Have Eyes about the American system. In France weíre very protective of final cut. Itís not in the contract because itís just a given, you donít even have to ask for it. Iíd heard so many bad things about the US system and everything is true, apparently, so when I went over there I was ready to fight. I was ready to say, ďCome on then, Iím ready for you!Ē *laughs* Thatís why I fought for us to write the film. When youíre writing you have a lot of control.
But the reality was the opposite. I had exactly the same freedom as I had on Switchblade Romance, because of Wes, mainly. Wes was great on this film. He was happy with what we delivered.
EMB: What films scare you?
AA: The Shining is still my favourite film. And even though itís very different, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But, Iíll be honest; The Descent was the last film that really scared me in the cinema. The Descent was the biggest surprise of the last few years. Itís amazing. Wow! I wasnít a big fan of Dog Soldiers and even though I donít understand the motivations of some of the decisions towards the end, it was still fantastic. That was the last movie I found really, really scary.
EMB: I think Iím with you on all counts. Can you see yourself branching away from horror in the future? Youíre becoming known as one of the great horror directors...
AA: I hope I will do something different. There are so many kinds of films I like. Iím young, Iím 27, and I want to be able to explore other things. I donít want to find that Iím repeating myself, that Iím doing another The Hills Have Eyes or Switchblade Romance in the next few years. I really want to try to do some other stuff.