INT: Alexandre Aja

After directing the film HIGH TENSION, French filmmaker Alexandre Aja became a director to watch. THE HILLS HAVE EYES, a remake of the old 1977 Wes Craven classic and his first American film, is what Aja decided to tackle next. He sat down and talked a little about the differences between his film and the original, his European sensibility, and his difficulties with the MPAA.

Alexandre Aja

When you got a call saying that Wes Craven wanted you to direct his movie, what was your first reaction?

The first time he asked to meet us (he and his co-writing/producing partner Gregory Levasseur) without saying exactly what was the purpose of that meeting. And it was to talk about the other script we were working on called The Waiting and during the meeting he said, in a very polite way, do you know my movie The Hills Have Eyes? Of course we grew up watching The Hills Have Eyes, we grew up watching Last House on the Left, it was a big influence on High Tension. And he said I would like maybe to remake that movie and I would like you to think about a new approach, a new take on the material, something to justify why there’s a new Hills Have Eyes today, 2006. So with my writing partner Gregory we thought about how to update the movie, reinvent the movie and we came back this idea of the nuclear testing background. And he was very excited about the idea. And we started writing, in French of course. (smiles)

Was there a language barrier while you were shooting?

I think maybe for this kind of film, a scary movie, it’s the same everywhere, you don’t care about the language. We are writing in French for reasons which is obvious, it’s our first language, that was for us the easy way to do it. And we supervised the adaptation and translation. I think it’s pretty accurate. I don’t have the feeling that watching the film people have the feeling it’s not accurate dialogue, which is people talking in a strange way.

In the opening credits all the footage of the nuclear testing and mutation, how much was archive footage that you guys found and how much was just filmed for it?

Everything was archive footage. When we started writing the script, we did research about the Chernobyl effect and about all the mutation of the kids after the tragedy. And we went looking for footage from after Hiroshima. And what we found is beyond everything…nobody can imagine the effect of the nuclear clouds on a human being. So everyone in the hills (monsters) were based on real footage. Like big brain by example was based on a picture of kids with a huge head. And in the end we decided to use all our reference footage for the opening titles just to show that we are not going over the top creating some monsters and that it was based on real stuff.

Can you talk about casting?

I wanted to do a real survival film, which means a movie that when you’re going to see it, it’s not a movie, it’s really an experience. Something that you’re going to live, instead of something that you’re going to watch. So that’s ninety percent casting because to make a great survival film you need to have great actors you’re going to believe in, you’re going to care for them, you’re going to be scared for them. And I wanted to find the new Dustin Hoffman’s Straw Dogs. Find someone with such an arc, someone able to play the whiny guy to become the savage beast at the end and we met a lot of people, a lot of actors.

And in the end we chose Aaron Stanford (to play Doug Bukowski) because I saw him in an indie movie Runaway where he was really, really good. And he was just amazing. Having so much fun in the first part of the film being the wimpy guy, the democratic against violence and to play with Ted Levine, brings a lot to the movie. And for Emilie De Ravin’s part, we met I think all the young actresses in town. And we asked them to play three different scenes, one screaming scene, one crying scene, and one real life scene. And she came in, and I hope we are going to have that footage in the DVD, and she played back to back three scenes without even a break. She was only changing personality in a split second, it was amazing.

Putting yourself in the shoes of your lead, if you were Doug, could you picture what you would do in that situation?

That’s exactly the way we started writing the script, putting ourselves in the position of Doug. I can’t say that I would be a strong at the end, but I can say I would be as wimpy.

Having made your own original film High Tension and then a remake, especially since you’re such a horror fan, do you have a preference?

It’s strange because when we started working on The Hills Have Eyes we stopped ourselves from watching the original film, just to have distance. (laughs) But we watched the movie so many times before that it was inside our head. And sometimes, I remember one shot when a guy was jumping from the roof of the trailer before the attack and I said there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong, why doesn’t it work? And I find out that because in the original film it was shot on the other side and I said that’s not a good reason. Sometimes walking on a remake it’s not as easy because you are a little bit trapped inside. And that’s why original stuff is always maybe, not better, but more like from scratch.

Actress Vinnesa Shaw said that you guys had very different takes on the scene where the mutant starts groping her. You had a very European take on that scene, but you ultimately agreed with her. What is the difference between a European idea of that and American?

Showing boobs. (laughs) No, no. That was an easy answer. We wanted something much more realistic, something much more scary, and even a little bit more violent. An idea is always much stronger then what you show. And I think the breast feeding scene is so disturbing, so hard to stand. The way we wrote the scene was to show him approaching with this cleft palate to the breast and start breast feeding. So that was the idea and it was very hard because we are in 2006 here in the US and it’s not so easy anymore.

What’s gonna be on the DVD?

I’m pushing right now to have a big behind the scenes. Very specific and very accurate of all the technical aspects and commentary and some other promotion stuff.

Someone mentioned there was an NC-17 cut?

Oh yes, the movie is going to be released Uncut on DVD. It’s going to be the same director’s cut, but with 2 more minutes. It’s not a different movie, it’s just as a filmmaker I regret that they cut that, cause we spent a lot of time to make certain shots. But the MPAA was a long, long, long experience.

What are you working on next?

Next is THE WAITING. It’s a supernatural ghost story. I would like to see if I am able to be scary without blood. Wes is going to produce the project.

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