A Conversation With Alexandre Aja
It’s hard sometimes keeping things in perspective, especially when you get the opportunity to speak with someone whose work you really admire.
The delicate balance between professional journalist and fanatical fanboy is often tricky to navigate. Two sides of the same personality separated by the thinnest sliver of fabric, which can easily be torn.
Maybe it’s because he’s French, and therefore more reserved. Maybe he’s just immune to compliments after so many years receiving them.
Whatever the reason, when BVB: Blood Violence and Babes recently spoke by phone with writer-director-producer Alexandre Aja, he coolly accepted our effusive praise in the most humble, almost embarrassed manner, which was both unexpected and, honestly, refreshing.
Aja doesn’t need to be told he’s awesome. His work speaks for itself. From 2003’s “High Tension,” which immediately filled genre fans with buzzy excitement, to his marvelous reimagining of both “The Hills Have Eyes” in 2006 and “Piranha 3D” in 2010, to his brilliant script for 2012’s “Maniac,” which refashioned William Lustig’s cult classic as a POV exploration of madness, Aja has wowed horror fans over and over and over.
As a producer, Aja has picked projects that suit his creative sensibilities, often working with Grégory Levasseur, his longtime writing and creative partner. In 2007, Aja produced “P2,” a survival thriller from director Franck Khalfoun, who also helmed the “Maniac” remake. In 2014, Aja produced Levasseur’s directorial debut, “The Pyramid.” And now, in 2016, Aja is back with the latest film he’s picked to produce and help ferry into theaters and on to home video, “The Other Side of the Door,” a spooky paranormal thriller from director Johannes Roberts, which owes much of its success to the film’s setting in the exotic wilds of India.
It’s a film that Aja is particularly proud of, and for good reason. The story, as he tells BVB, is one that he long hoped to see unfold on a big screen.
Discovering The Other Side of the Door
BVB: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me for my column. My column is called Blood Violence and Babes, and I have to tell you, I am just a huge fan. This literally counts as a bucket list interview for me so I couldn’t be more thrilled to be talking to you.
AA: Thank you so much.
BVB: You’re so welcome. I know we don’t have much time so I want to jump right in. I was able to watch The Other Side of the Door last night and I have to tell you I was impressed. It’s a different kind of horror movie and I want to say – you may disagree with me – but a different style film for you to be attached to. But I thought it made really great use of an exotic locale. Not enough films that I can recall use India as a backdrop. And the creature effects were spectacular. I was wondering, to start off with, what drew you to this story and made you want to serve as a producer?
AA: It is – always when you meet a story, when you fall in love with a subject and a story, but me falling in love with that story didn’t start with The Other Side of the Door. To be honest, it started years ago on another project that I was kind of intrigued by about a couple that was pining the love of a child and the woman was getting obsessed with the idea that the kid was coming back in the house. That was a very different story, but it was the same topic, the same type of drama leading to the supernatural world. And that was a movie I was supposed to do with Wes Craven producing at the time.
BVB: Oh wow.
AA: And we couldn’t get it. We didn’t do it back in the day, years ago. And then, a few years after, I had been approached by Paramount to do a “Pet Sematary” re-adaptation…
AA: And we were working on the script. But again, “Pet Sematary” is one of my favorite books by Stephen King and something that is very [inaudible]…
AA: So when I received a few years ago, Johannes Roberts script, “The Other Side of the Door,” I was, you know, getting exactly the story I was kind of dreaming about for a very, very long time. So I read the script, I called him back and I said, ‘I want to be in.’ There’s a lot of reason for the last decade I have been sitting around with the same story, the same drama, and I think you – meaning Johanne – did an amazing job by creating that story, creating a world where you manage to really make a drama and from that drama, from that story, from that household situation where every one of us who wonders, you know, are you going to be able to leave if you have to choose between your daughter or your son to save when the car is going over the bridge and into the water…
AA: And facing that Sophie’s Choice, what should we be doing? And I think that drama starting point, very strong emotional and very strong human person, was a great way to start a really scary and haunting story. And then of course, the choice of India was really – was so fresh and so new – and also a way, when there’s so many haunted house movies, to make something a bit more original and unique. And to use India, the background of India, the mythology, the beliefs, and the beauty, the absolute beauty of this country, altogether to serve such a story was just an [inaudible] I couldn’t as a producer.
Creating the perfect set design and finding the perfect location
BVB: It was fantastic. I thought the scenes of the Indian countryside and especially going to the temple, and then the house itself, the family home, was almost a character in and of itself. It was such a fabulous set design and just really helped to kind of make the hair on the back of your neck stand up even if nothing bad was happening. You just had this kind of sense of dread. It was fantastic.
AA: The house, as you said, is a very important character in the story. And we looked into a lot of different places in India and we scouted a lot of different towns. It’s in the old part of Mumbai that we found this house that happened to be the real Rudyard Kipling house.
BVB: Oh wow.
AA: And its kind of a collapsing, absolutely beautiful Colonial mansion in the middle of the park in the [inaudible] in the center of Mumbai. We got the [inaudible] of shooting there but we couldn’t get inside because everything was collapsing so we had to build everything inside on stage. But the house is such a special touch to the movie, and I’m glad that you’re talking about it because it was something that was really important for us.
BVB: It was a stellar centerpiece of the film. I loved how the natural world and the manmade world kind of combined because you had, and I’m assuming, it was kind of like a courtyard, almost in the middle of the home where you had trees and vegetation and such.
AA: It’s very interesting because it was not a gigantic budget. We were a small budget movie. But in India, we could afford to build that whole house, almost like a full piece. We build all the different floors and the courtyard inside and the trees so the camera, Johannes’ camera could go everywhere on a crane, and just scintillate through the corridors. That was really nice for him.
BVB: It was. It worked wonderfully. Had you known Johannes Roberts, the writer and director, previously? Had you worked with him before?
AA: No. You know, when I received the script, when I was first reading his words, was my first encounter with him. I had never worked with him before, and usually as a producer, I try to – usually I don’t go with people I don’t know because it’s a very big commitment producing a movie. But I loved the script so much I decide to meet him and we worked on the script together and I understood very fast that we share the same reference and love for this kind of very involving story/experience movie and so it was a great – and then India, shooting was very hard right before the monsoon season. It was really hot and pretty tough and sometimes [inaudible] and unexpected in many, many ways. We made it and now we see working together, we’re [inaudible] at other projects together.
BVB: Oh that’s great.
AA: Yeah. It’s a real friendship that started with this one.
BVB: That’s wonderful. And then to find the story and, you know,
About those remakes that Aja has become known for
BVB: I know we’re about out of time, but I really want to ask you about this because this is kind of where it becomes a bucket list interview for me. You have been involved in what I consider to be three of the best remakes – not just horror remakes, but re-imaginings – of classic films that have ever been done. I’m talking about “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha,” which you directed both of those, and “Maniac,” which you produced and I think also had a screenplay credit. All three of those are among my favorite horror movies in the last 10 to 15 years, and I wanted to ask you – what’s the secret, in your opinion, to developing a successful remake? Is it about identifying a property that’s either beloved or kind of a cult classic that could use some updating and improvement? And I was also curious if you were a fan first of the original versions of those three films?
AA: So, yeah, it’s a really good question because I think it’s really about finding the project that can get the [inaudible] and also find a way to make a movie that will stand alongside of this original. The idea is never to erase the original or to replace the original, but to do something very different.
AA: And then to find the story and then, you know, every time I look at a remake the same way I look at the adaptation of a book, meaning that I need to understand what really works in the book or what really works in the original movie and then from there build out to what would be my new one but [inaudible] keeping the elements or protecting what works. That’s very important. And then to answer the last part of your question, I was a huge fan of “Maniac.” “Maniac” was one of my favorites. The only reason why I didn’t direct “Maniac” is because I saw that “High Tension” was already somehow an homage or tribute to “Maniac,” but I was really more on “Maniac.” I wrote the script, I produced it, I was in charge of finding the director and I was in post-production during the whole time. It’s really a movie that I am absolutely – I am very happy with. But “Maniac,” until I found this idea of making everything point-of-view and changing the character to a very different type of character profile, if you would, I couldn’t make my mind. I cannot go to this [inaudible]. But that wasn’t the case with “Piranha” because I think it’s a very different story and the [inaudible] is very, very different. Even more with “The Hills Have Eyes” because from all the Wes Craven movies, “The Hills Have Eyes” was an amazing story but not the most, you know, the best movie that Wes Craven did. Even Wes knew it. Even Wes was aware of that. And that was what was great about working on “The Hills Have Eyes” because we were working together to make a movie that was kind of the way for him as well to make a better version of the movie he wanted to do and that he couldn’t do because of budget, actors, you know, a lot of things at the time.
BVB: Yeah, I would totally agree with you. I felt like your version of “The Hills Have Eyes” was the definitive version and I can see where you would say Wes would realize that too because he was very hamstrung back in the ‘80s with what he was trying to do with the resources he had, but your film took all the elements he had present and amplified them in a way that – I was blown away. And with “Maniac,” I, like you, the 1980 version by William Lustig is one of my favorite all-time horror films. Joe Spinell was just incredible. And you found a way to make that your own yet also, in many ways, exceed the original and make it an even more psychologically chilling experience. You had a perfect foil in Elijah Wood, but your script was phenomenal. The way you envisioned that, it was a wonderful companion to the original but it also surpassed it in many ways in my opinion.