Why did you decide to remake Maniac?
Alexandre Aja: The film was revolutionary due to its gore effects, its radical production values, and the suspense and terror that it exuded, and the role as played by Joe Spinell, who was something of an underground actor, but had a cult following at the time, and whose performance remains unforgettable. This film had a huge influence on directors of this film genre; it was one of my main influences for High Tension, for instance. When Thomas Langmann, who is also a huge fan of Maniac, told me that he wanted to reinvent the film, my first reaction was to lean towards caution, because when I remade The Hills Have Eyes, it was because the original film was very bad. In contrast, I still watch Maniac and I still enjoy watching it as much, so I was a bit scared of taking on the adaptation of something that I view as a horror classic. And then we met William Lustig. He told me that he loved High Tension, and that he also really liked The Hills Have Eyes too, and that if I was doing it, he would feel confident, and he wanted me to oversee this venture.
And so we started writing, while looking for a way to reinvent the original story that was respectful, at the same time as making a film that would have a reason to exist independently of the original. We are not trying to erase the original film’s existence, on the contrary, we are trying to make another film in keeping with its spirit and radical nature, but we are adding the concept of the subjective standpoint (Ed: the scenes are viewed through the eyes of the main character), some depth to the character development, and plenty of other things too, which will hopefully mean that people will enjoy watching it as much as they enjoyed watching the original.
Franck Khalfoun: we wanted to do something as original as Maniac was in its time, because the film has been heavily copied since then.
What are the mistakes to avoid, exactly?
Alexandre Aja: We needed to find a powerful concept. Ultimately, the area where the story needed developing was obvious: Franck’s story, his sadness, his dismay, the almost desperate way he has of keeping the women that he loves, whatever the cost, his mannequin fetish…
Franck Khalfoun: this is what struck us in Joe Spinell’s performance: we like the character, even though he is a monster…
Alexandre Aja: he’s appalling, he is the worst kind of killer, but he creates empathy. It’s always interesting to see traits in our own personality that we never express in characters that are this dark – well, I hope that no one around this table plays at scalping women – but we have all experienced the fear of losing someone that we love, that that person may go, and the desire to keep them at any cost.
Franck Khalfoun: There’s also the scene where the girl tells him “that’s my boyfriend on the ‘phone” and we’ve all been there, as guys. It was important to recreate the moments that make us attached to the character.
Alexandre Aja: Although the story developed quite naturally, we had to work on the subjective concept quite a bit, and we needed something strong, because the original is truly unique.
Franck Khalfoun: and then we didn’t want to remake an umpteenth story about a serial killer; there’s been so many of those.
Alexandre Aja: we needed to find out why this film had to exist.
Franck Khalfoun: I am so close to this character that we said to ourselves that it was really interesting to have this intimate view.
Alexandre Aja: even if we don’t always understand why he does this. This is what’s interesting when you read books about serial killers, or even Killer on the Road, the excellent novel by James Ellroy, which is also written from a subjective standpoint. We are inside the character’s mind, we try to understand them, but ultimately, we will never manage to understand what’s in serial killers’ deepest thoughts, because we are dealing with twisted psychological behaviours. What interested us was this close connection with horror, with a kind of beast that is asleep, but has an extremely human side at the same time.
Franck Khalfoun: and it was disturbing! Even when I watched the film, I said to myself that it was too intimate, that I wanted to get out of this mindset, of this experience. It leaves you feeling sick.
Why did you choose this subjective viewpoint?
Alexandre Aja: to recreate this close connection with something that is so foreign to us: someone who is mentally ill, a serial killer, a coward, but who has this very human side of wanting to be loved at the same time.
Franck Khalfoun: and to do something radical, that was out of the ordinary.
Alexandre Aja: in the initial version of the film, there was something very intimate about Joe Spinell’s performance, and we absolutely wanted to reproduce that when writing the script. It’s true that the subjective standpoint adds that touch. But it’s a very natural subjective standpoint, not like in Enter the Void, with a very wide camera angle and sequence shots where you are award of the subjective standpoint all the time. What Franck tried to do, was to create a subjective standpoint that gets forgotten because you’re in a story.
Franck Khalfoun: The challenge was to find ways so that you could see Elijah, so that you could empathise with the character.
Technically, it must have been hard to shoot.
Franck Khalfoun: initially, we told ourselves that it would be easy, and we suddenly ended up with really complicated shots.
Alexandre Aja: every shot was a puzzle, every shot had its own formula, its little secret, and at the end of the day, there’s more than one technique. Sometimes there was a harness camera with just the main operator’s hands, sometimes there was a harness camera with Elijah’s hands, sometimes it was the main operator, Elijah’s hand, or someone else’s hand…
Franck Khalfoun: sometimes we had to coordinate three or four people at the same time, and we didn’t understand the shot’s secret before we tried everything. It was an incredible waste of time.
Alexandre Aja: the other problem was that you needed to see as much of Elijah as possible in all the mirror reflections.
How was Elijah Wood’s experience; how did he manage to get into the scene when he seldom appears on screen?
Franck Khalfoun: Elijah was always there behind the camera, glued to the main operator. The camera became Elijah.
Alexandre Aja: he was drawn to the film because of the concept, he really liked the challenge, and he was there throughout the 22 days of the shoot, from the first hour to the last, glued to the chief operator, giving feedback, and so he acted in all the scenes.
Franck Khalfoun: it was dreadful because you would turn around and see him acting. It was fabulous, but no one saw him, and it was frustrating!
Alexandre Aja: choosing Elijah Wood also meant casting someone who is not going to create a void, because we know his face, and especially his eyes.
The choice of Elijah Wood is surprising on paper, as he is physically very different from the character played by Joe Spinell.
Alexandre Aja: There are two categories of serial killers: the big brute, the ogre, the giant…and there is another school more like that of Anthony Perkins, of Norman Bates in Psycho, or Terence Stamp in The Collector.
Franck Khalfoun: the charming side, the neighbour…
Alexandre Aja: we also had to justify the fact that someone could be moved by him.
How did you choose the film’s great soundtrack?
Alexandre Aja: This intimacy that we share with the character, compassion, empathy, drama, all that needed to come from the music. We had the amazing luck of working with Rob, who had written some really beautiful music for Belle Epine, who is also the keyboard player for Phoenix, and who works with Sébastien Tellier. His musical background is extremely romantic, with a strong 1980s influence. Music really forms part of the film; it becomes an emotion, and that’s what he wanted, to add a romantic touch to the violence.
Franck Khalfoun: it was the same with the lighting and design; it’s very beautiful and very painful at the same time.