The quiet, well-mannered directors are always the ones that throw you for a loop. Argento. Romero. Hooper. All respected, all intelligent and all totally out of their mind, as far as their movies are concerned. They’ve shocked us with their films; montages of jaw-dropping imagery strung together to terrify and stimulate you on a cerebral level. You always get a good chuckle when you see a film then meet the man pulling the strings…and he’s like your neighbor Ted. Normal in every respect. The kind of guy who wakes up to coffee, pets the dog, reads the morning paper, mows the lawn.
Alexendra Aja’s the same way, except he prefers to watch people abuse power tools just like the rest of the horror genre’s fandom. The director of High Tension is about as collected – if not a bit weary from the usual press circuit questioning – as they come when I’m connected to him via phone. Funny, since I expected the personality behind Tension‘s brutality to be slightly more excessive. But Aja, who’s calling from Morocco where he’s helming a remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes for Fox Searchlight, is timid and pleasant as I try to slip him as many questions as I can in the ten minutes I have allotted to speak with him…
Ryan Rotten: The bloodshed in Tension is realistically extreme. Argento was always criticized for his approach to violence and women, Tension is almost the antithesis of all that as the men in this film get done in some pretty damn messy ways. What’s your whole approach to cinematic violence?
Alexandre Aja: When we started writing the film, the idea was to make a survival movie and when you do that, you need to be as real as possible. The key for a survival movie is to have the audience not in the screening room but in the movie, experiencing the decisions all of the protagonists in the movie are taking. What door am I going to open? Am I going to hide under the bed? Jump out the window? Save my friend downstairs? So, we tried to get the violence as real as possible and I think it’s a good way to scare and make the audience feel they are inside the movie. Right now I’m working on ‘The Hills Have Eyes,’ I like these kinds of movies, so I’m not gonna say I have a straight position on violence, but I prefer when you’re on the side of the victim, than on the side of the killer, I like to be with the protagonist facing something. I think it’s very hard to make a scary movie when you’re on the side of the killer than on the side of the victim.
RR: You snagged Giannetto De Rossi to pull off the disturbing effects. Was it an obvious choice for you to turn to him?
AA: Yeah, from the beginning, even when it was a very low budget movie we knew it was necessary to get the master of makeup. So, through our line producer we managed to get Gianetto De Rossi. We asked him if he would agree to come even though we had a little money. He liked the script very much and he came along with us to Bucharest. It was amazing. He was just one guy in the crew, but he was the most inventive and creative guy. Every morning he was coming in with ideas and it was just amazing to work with him. I’m really sorry because we’re making ‘Hills Have Eyes’ and he’s on another picture, and I’m looking forward to working with him again.
RR: Who’s doing the Hills makeup then?
AA: KNB. Greg Nicotero’s a great guy.
RR: Going back to your approach, you mention it’s a survival picture. Others say it’s a new spin on the slasher film. Tension comes from a lot of different places: slasher, revenge, that kind of stuff. During the scripting process did you know exactly what category you wanted it to slip into?
AA: We took all of those into consideration. Me and my partner Greg Levasseur grew up watching all of those types of films and the idea was to take a very simple, classical plot like two girls, one night, one killer and to make a tribute to all the movies we watched.
RR: Luc Besson (The Professional) played a big part in helping you get the film made, right?
AA: Yes and no. We were supposed to produce the film by ourselves when there was a bad story in France, like a guy stabbed his girlfriend or something – it was a violent, real-life story. Because of that we lost a television partner when were close to pre-production. So we went to Luc Besson and he helped produce the movie. He loved the script and pushed us in many directions. From the beginning he said, ‘It’s your movie so you can go as far as you want.’
RR: Tension‘s release in the States is going to be edited and dubbed, did you suspect that would eventually happen?
AA: When we were shooting the movie I asked Besson if it was possible to make an English version of the movie. To make a better dubbing. And he said, ‘No, we’re making a French movie.’ Then, when we sold it to Lions Gate, we talked about releasing it on a small platform with subtitles or a wide platform with the dubbing. And, you know, I wasn’t happy with the subtitles because that would mean it’d only get a art house release in the US, or very specific theatres. Dubbing was very strange because the action takes place in France, so to see the French cops talking in an American accent is very strange. Then Lions Gate came up with a very good idea which was to make a hybrid film where the action takes place in France, but one of the protagonists is an American girl with an American family on a farm in France. I thought that was a great idea and I’m happy with this cut.
RR: Let’s turn to the future… What’s your take on The Hills Have Eyes remake? It’s funny because the recent slate of remakes has been met with disapproval. With Hills there hasn’t been all that much bitching because the fans know you’re behind it…
AA: When we met Craven for the first time, he asked if we even knew of ‘Hills’ was! You just have to watch ‘High Tension,’ it’s already a reference to ‘Last House on the Left’ and ‘Hills.’ So, what we’re trying to do is keep the spirit of those films again and update it, first of all, but then also focus on the family facing something in the hills instead of the feral ‘Hills’ family versus and American family.
Many thanks to Alex for taking the time to chat with Dread Central and to the folks at Lions Gate Films for connecting us! And be sure to get your ass in the theater when High Tension arrives June 10th!