Alexandre Aja is one of the few directors that I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt helped to shape the face of modern horror. He was at the forefront of the New French Extremity movement of the early 2000s with High Tension, one of my absolute favorite horror films of the past sixteen years. He then skyrocketed into the mainstream with the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which honestly rivals the original. From there, he directed Mirrors with Kiefer Sutherland and helmed the absurdly entertaining remake of Piranha and wrote and produced the remake of Maniac.
Horns marked a different kind of movie for him. Based on the novel by Joe Hill, it was a dramatic, funny, depressing, dark, serious horror/thriller/fantasy that was among the very best of its year. It showcased everything great about Aja’s style as a director, which is something so unique, something that just cannot be duplicated. It’s got echoes of Fincher and Del Toro all rolled into a single, inimitable package.
Now Aja returns with a movie that takes him even further into the realm of new things, of fantasy and drama and so many things that were present in his early work but not necessarily at the forefront, with The 9th Life of Louis Drax. We caught up with him to talk about the new film and how it defines this point of his career as a filmmaker.
Alexandre Aja: I discovered the story through the script, in fact. We were working on Horns and Max Minghella was co-starring with Daniel Radcliffe and he told me about this novel that his father Anthony Minghella was supposed to direct before he passed, and he told me a little bit about the story and it sounded really interesting. So he said “here’s the script that I wrote and I would love you to read it.” So I did and I was not expecting such an emotional ride, to be honest. I started the script and I followed this very unique boy falling from that cliff and I was like him, I was like the audience, I hope. Falling and not knowing where I was going to land.
Then I was really grabbed by the mystery of it. What is the truth, you know? What is hiding behind this amazing accident-prone boy, as he describes himself? His story really stayed with me and every time I was reading the script again I was getting emotional. The theme of the movie echoes a lot of personal stuff for me, as many other people. That’s basically the answer we got from everyone that came onboard.
It’s not often that you can say that everyone that works on the movie came with a passion for the material. That was really what held us all together, was the strength of the story, the script and the novel.
WH: You pulled together such an amazing cast for this movie, but in general, how difficult was it to find the right boy to embody Lois and encompass all the different things that he goes through on this journey?
Aja: It was not obvious because I always knew that Louis Drax was in the center of the story, but I think some of the financiers were more intrigued by the story of Dr. Pascal and Natalie Drax, which is important but not the main focus. And so I knew that the kid was the key. So we met a lot of different nine year old boys. And when Aiden came in for the first time to read he came in the room and he was very shy. He didn’t have a lot of experience. He read the scene in the cave with the sea monster and by the end of the scene we were almost crying.
I knew at the time that without direction, if that little boy could push the right buttons then he would do an amazing job once we were on set. And then I found out in talking to him that he was very similar. Not in the dramatic past, but his very, very sharp common sense of the adult world. A lot of things echoing between him and the character, it was a right choice.
WH: There’s a very strained relationship at the center of this movie. How do you work with actors like that, in terms of forming this relationship that has to sort of build connection but lose it at the same time?
Aja: What I think is a very interesting element of the movie is that you want to track the love story. And you don’t know which love story you’re tracking. There are very different ones through the whole movie. You think it’s Doctor Pascal, played by Jamie Dornan and Natalie Drax played by Sarah Gadon. You think it’s the son and his mother. Or you think it’s the son and his father. To play with those different things is how I think you get the audience involved in the story. It’s the same way Louis is in the coma and fantasy world trying to put the pieces together to get back to the surface. We as the audience are doing the same kind of journey.
WH: Right, and this is an interesting journey because there are times when it’s whimsical and fantastical and almost plays like a kid’s fantasy, but there’s a ton of emotional weight and some very dark moments. How hard was it to achieve that balance of tone?
Aja: It’s one of those movies where you have to trust your instinct. Reading the script I was imagining all these visuals and imagining that fantasy world and that kind of mystery told through it. You know, I went for it and I had the chance to have producers who were on board with me, with choices that were not necessarily the expected choices. I’m very happy with it and the movie is very much what I wanted to picture. I’m very happy that we wound up doing this one about Louis Drax and not just a love story between Dr. Pascal and the mother of his patient.
WH: With all of these elements, some of which haven’t been as present in your films before, do you think Louis Drax maybe marks a transition out of horror for you?
Aja: Not voluntarily. It was not my intention to make this movie to escape horror, I love horror. I always read scripts every week and always look for the right subject to go back and do something very scary and visceral. But this one came in the moment when I was doing Horns which was already quite different from what I’ve done in the past. You know a fable, supernatural dark comedy. And Louis Drax, looking back, it’s the movie that’s the furthest away from the pure horror experience as The Hills Have Eyes or High Tension.
WH: You’ve produced almost as many films as you’ve directed. What would you say are the different challenges between producing a film and directing a film?
Aja: You know, I think I became a producer as well because I was suffering from being away from set so long. [laughs] Because I usually write and develop my script and then between directing and post-production it’s a minimum of two years between movies. I wish I found the right formula to do a movie a year. I didn’t yet. So I decided to become a producer as well, so when I’m writing I can be on set and be in editing and be on prep, and I like that. I don’t really see it in a very different way. I like to be involved, I don’t put my name on a movie just to do it. I like to be on set, on prep, I like to be in the editing room. Of course as a producer I’m here to serve the vision of someone else but no one is making a movie on their own. It’s teamwork and I’m here to help the team and to help the director get the best version he can of his movie.
WH: When you’re reading a script, what is it that helps to determine whether you want to produce or direct it?
Aja: Sometimes I read a script where there is already a director attached, so I know I’m a producer. Sometimes I’m reading them and there is a great story but I have the feeling that I’ve kind of done them before. When I produced Maniac, which I wrote as well, I felt that High Tension was very close to Maniac, so I didn’t want to direct myself. But it was a movie that I really wanted to see in this new version. Every scenario is different.
WH: As exampled by so Maniac, Hills Have Eyes and others, you’ve been involved with some of the best remakes in the horror genre. Do you have a personal favorite remake?
Aja: Wow. I would say The Thing.
WH: I mean… yeah. Has to be.
Aja: Yeah, it’s a quite obvious one. It’s one of my favorite movies and definitely one of the best remakes ever.
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