The French slasher film High Tension opens in American theaters this week. I loved it – you can read my review right here.
Last week I had a chance to talk to director Alexandre Aja on the phone. He’s busy prepping his remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, bu the took some time out to talk about High Tension (and the new film as well, of course).
This interview contains spoilers about the film. I have made it so that you have to swipe the text to read it – don’t come crying to me if you read it and spoil the film for yourself!
Q: When Americans think about French films they don’t usually think about such scary, graphic slasher films. What was your inspiration?
Aja: We were watching American films from the 70s, like Wes Craven pictures like Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes to John Carpenter’s Halloween, of course. But also Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac… We grew up with this kind of film and after our first feature film we decided to take a very simple storyline of two girls, one night, one house, one killer and try to make a tribute to all these films. That’s why I think you can find within High Tension a lot of references to these films.
Q: How did you end up casting your lead actress, Cecile De France?
Aja: In fact we [looked at] all the young French actresses, all of them were very good in playing the fear without dialogues because there is only maybe 9 or 10 minutes in the whole film. When we cast Cecile she was ultimately the best lady in the spot because she was able to make the fear in so many different ways. I am sure that she has the same charisma as Jodi Foster – she is so good. She is really the best French actress.
Q: I had a chance to speak to her yesterday. She’s a really lovely in person.
Aja: She has a chance to play so many stuff. You know, she is the actress in Around the World in 80 Days with Jackie Chan. It is so different from High Tension. I hope she is going to do some huge international movie. Right now she is becoming a big star in France.
Spoiler ahoy! Swipe to read.
Q: One of the things that has been most controversial in the film has been the twist. How did you settle on that twist in the end?
Aja: In fact it was from the beginning the idea to make a survival love story, with this twist. With this psychological approach of the lead character. We shoot a lot of different things that we decided during editing not to put in the movie because it was too obvious. We were shuttling between too much indication in the film to the audience to – how to keep the audience with Marie and with Alex without giving any clues. It was a hard decision to make, but I was happy to take the decision as it was. If you stop too long to understand, it was love.
I know some people want a logical point but don’t forget that all the story is telling from the perspective of Marie. She is telling the story as she want it in a perfect world to happen. So who was driving the car, and who was – it’s really her telling the story.
Q: And as long as the scary parts work, who cares?
Aja: And that’s the difference with US audiences. Look at all the Asian movies. All the new wave of horror coming from Thailand, coming from Japan, coming from Korea, over there they have come back to the primary fears of childhood and they really don’t give a shit about logical. Because it’s not about narrative, it’s more about feeling. And when you watch The Tale of Two Sisters, when you watch even the original Ring or Grudge, you don’t care if the story is very logical or not because you are just feeling stuff. You are just feeling some situation that’s very strange, and that’s what we tried to do with High Tension.
Q: What’s kind of great about High Tension is how gory it is. In America our horror films have been watered down, aimed at younger kids almost. The PG-13 crowd. But I know you had to cut some stuff for the American release. How much did you have to edit?
Aja: First of all, I was not very happy when they came to me and said, “We are going to the MPAA because we want to put the movie in wide release so we want an R.” I had a very bad experience with Korea, where the movie is like 6, 7 minutes cut. For no reason. When the MPAA come back they said they just cut back a few shots but in fact they cut back 40 seconds of the movie, which doesn’t change the intention. It doesn’t change any fundamental element. They just cut a few bloody shots here and there. When you watch the two movies, the cut and uncut ones, they look the same, and the tension is the same in both movies. So I am quite happy with this R version.
Q: You’re working on The Hills Have Eyes right now. What do you think that you’ll bring to the remake that will be fresh?
Aja: When they did the original movie it was so little budget – the original movie cost like 300,000 dollars. We have a little more money! And we have a different approach to the story. We try to update the movie but also bring the movie in a more Deliverance, more Stray Dogs way.
For us The Hills Have Eyes is the best film after High Tension. It’s the best way to push further and improve what we did in High Tension without doing the same stuff. It’s really so exciting. It’s going to be so scary and so violent, and the same spirit of High Tension and the spirit of the original Hills Have Eyes movie – all that and more will be in the approach.
It’s very hard for me to talk about The Hills Have Eyes because we are in the middle of the process. I can’t wait to watch the movie when it’s done because I hope we manage to keep the spirit of the first one but at the same time I hope we manage to bring it to the level where it’s going to be so scary.
Q: So Wes Craven is involved in this as a producer. What’s his level of involvement – how often do you speak to him?
Aja: Wes Craven approached us a year and a half ago after he saw High Tension. He said, “You know, I would like to make a remake of The Hills Have Eyes and I would like you to think about taking it because I don’t want to make the exact same movie I already did, I want to make a movie with the same subject.”
We grew up with this film. So we came back to him with an original way to take the movie, then we wrote the script going back and forth with him. He was very supportive, he really pushed us. It was a perfect collaboration. He’s producing the movie, but at the same time he’s respecting our vision, and that’s so great.
Q: One of the things about the original Hills Have Eyes that’s so iconic is Michael Berryman. How will you replace him in this version?
Aja: In our remake we are more focused on this American family crossing the desert and being trapped in the hills, facing something unknown in this very ominous location. The original was more about Michael Berryman and his family, we are more on the other side. We thought about calling Michael Berryman and asking him to do a cameo in the movie but at the same time he was so linked to the other movie that it was to us impossible to make our own picture. So we decided to go on a new direction, with a whole new movie.
The original movie is here, and I love the original movie, I watch the original movie all the time making this one.