Alexandre Aja is one of the easiest interviews in which a genre journalist can take part. The man's love of horror movies is so unapologetic, so open – and so contagious – that he reminds interviewers why they first fell in love with movies. Aja is also, thankfully, one-hundred-and-eighty degrees removed from the sort of director that seems embarrassed by horror, or somehow convinced their films "transcend" it. That's not to say he doesn't have some smart ideas wedged into movies like High Tension and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes, but he's not one to get pretentious about them. He's too busy doing his job of making scary-ass fright flicks.
Aja's next movie will be his most down-to-earth yet. In fact, he's going below the earth (or at least sea level) – with a reimagining of Joe Dante's debut horror film Piranha. This time around, the director seems as focused on generating laughs as he is screams, and on crafting a spectacle that recalls the American horror films he grew up on in the ‘80s. We recently caught up with Aja on the Laka Havasu, Arizona set of Piranha 3D, where we joined a couple of other horror journos in picking his brains between takes…
Is [Piranha 3D] bigger than Mirrors?
It's huge. It's nothing compared to Mirrors. It's not only a completely different movie but it's also a different scale. I mean this is a big disaster movie. We have so many characters, so many actors, so many extras. Everything is taking place during the most insane spring break you can imagine. So it's big.
How are you handling it stress-wise?
I was very stressed before because it pressed the most challenging elements, from shooting above the water, special effects, visual effects, the heat – 120 except for today – kids, animals, CG fish, everything. I mean, you name it, we have it. Even with all of [that], I was still very excited. I was excited about the movie. Finally, on set I realized that making a movie on the water, underwater, is one of the greatest things ever. Because you're in open space all the time. You can swim during the day. So when it's very hot, it's very great. You bond with your crew because you feel like you are in a Midnight Express jail all together. [Laughs.] It's pretty intense. Yesterday was the last day on the lake, and it was very…kind of moving. So I guess we were pressed really hard but managed to get so much great stuff out of it.
How did you convince the studio, the powers that be, to do a sequence like the one we've been hearing about, with 500 extras, a full massacre?
During the whole process, the idea was to do a movie with spring break under attack. So of course the studio, any studio, was saying, "Less is more. We care about the characters, we don't care about the whole spring break." Because it was a huge scene – nine days of shooting. It was really big. I mean it was really, in every scale, huge. Especially the guys getting me like 5,000 gallons of blood. It's pretty insane. We had Lake Havasu completely red for a few days after. But all that together, it was the only reason why I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to have that huge scene, and that movie of spring break, and… you know, you can have some fantasy of it. Then turn it into a big nightmare.
There are moments of humor in your films, but you're principally known for some pretty intense dramatic horror. But the original Piranha, of course, had humor in it. So is it safe to say we'll be seeing more humor in this than in a typical Alexandre Aja film?
It's completely different from anything else that I have done before, and it's very funny. It's very, very, dark funny. It's scary as well, but we are much more on The Frighteners/Gremlins side than other movies before. I mean we are going for the rollercoaster, no doubt. We are here to spend an hour and a half in the most insane world that you can imagine. The movie was funny, even though the first script I read, like five years ago, was already that idea – of spring break and the attack – and [there] was already some kind of subtext deciphering American culture. Kind of like spring break being the inclination of the American way of living, and the Piranha being the unexpected dilemma, the unexpected guest, that's gonna crash the party.
The original had an eclectic cast – everyone from Barbara Steele to Kevin McCarthy. It looks like you're going for a similarly diverse group of actors – Elizabeth Shue, Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry O'Connell…
Jerry did such an amazing job. He just portrayed the most sleezy, funny, dark guy. I mean people are going to be very, very surprised. Everyone, the whole cast, is just amazing. Like, Adam Scott came to play the kind of new Richard Dreyfuss; and to have the real Richard Dreyfuss in the movie, to have that real funny cameo…
How much screen time will Richard's character receive?
You'll see. It's very funny because it is the unofficial and indirect sequel or spin-off [of Jaws].
Did it take any heavy convincing to get him?
When you write a character, and you think about an idea, you think about casting. And when the idea for Richard Dreyfuss to play this part came to us, we couldn't imagine something else. And the studio really supported that decision to get him – and from the glasses to the outfit, to everything… you'll see.
How about Christopher Lloyd?
For all generations, Christopher Lloyd is… I couldn't imagine anyone better than him to play that old adventurer that came back to Lake Victoria, but still passionate about species and stuff. We were shooting that scene last week, and the way he lights up when he starts to be passionate about something… It's dark, there is no question, and then it's just below that kind of pop-culture mix that we are trying to create here.
It seems like this project is perfectly suited for 3D. Because 3D is such a toy box, and this film seems to have a sense of fun that matches the medium perfectly.
I really wanted to play this movie as a popcorn rollercoaster. And the 3D was the missing element, the thing that's going to make it all different.
Did you get a chance to show this to Joe Dante at all?
What did he have to say?
His only direct advice was, "Even if you go with CG fish, get some puppets."
And did you go with that?
We had some puppets. [Laughs.]
Do you think that it's at all difficult to draw audiences with horror-comedy today? Some people speculate that Drag Me to Hell didn't do so well because it was a horror-comedy. What are your thoughts?
I read that script five years ago. I was working on another project called Dark Hill, which was sort of a scarecrow movie and the same thing. I was following the origins of Drag Me to Hell and the other film…what is the name of it… the Dawn of the Dead writer…Slither. Two years ago that didn't even do… I don't know. The difference with now is first the [treatment] and the fact that when the movie is released we will have access to 3,000 screens, which is a huge difference, but also the ride. If you also want the disaster-action aspect of it, it's not only super-gore, but it's beyond anything imaginable [in] gore. The fact that it is a monster movie, it's open [to] the audience much more. Even a slasher like My Bloody Valentine can bring people back. But it's a monster movie, so there is something very obvious in the recipe.
Can you talk about the design of the piranha and what they're capable of in the movie?
We moved the shooting back for the design of the fish, and we went through all of the different documents we could find about it. We tried to think about the way they were two million years ago and how they were to survive. So I think the design created is a good mix of those prehistoric species without losing what makes a piranha: the size – you know, not too big – and tooth shape, and many other features. Then we included something very logical, elements like… Okay, so they were for, like, millions of years feeding on other species and killing each other. So they will grow up and have lost some senses, like vision, give up some other ones. So that's a little bit of the direction. Then when you go and study… the piranha can jump like a meter out of the water. I mean, like three feet out of the water. So we used all of the different kinds of skills that you can find in nature.
Will we see that kind of iconic Jaws/Piranha vision, where we see the POV shots from the actual fish?
They are mostly blind, but we'll be in the middle of the school. We are working with amazing people, and the guy that was doing our visual effects… I'm very confident about the CGI.
Do you see the potential for a series? James Cameron's career spun off of the sequel to the original Piranha.
There are many stories. And the movie ends in such a way that there are a few sequels possible. We'll see.
Can you talk about working with Elizabeth Shue?
I wanted a very tough sheriff for this town, someone believable and sexy at the same time. And she had a great physical condition. She's a big tennis player, but she really trained and she impressed me. She is amazing. She is the real meat of the movie. I mean, the whole story is about this guy Jake, the older son of Elizabeth Shue. And this guy, year after year, is forced to do some babysitting over spring break. So he is missing all the fun every year. This year he just wants to have fun. He's really the guy who's carrying us through that fantasy of spring break, which turns into the bloody bath.
Were there any particular scenes that turned out to the most challenging, besides the massacre?
It's very bizarre because we started process by deciding to use the new [camera] system. And I realized along the way that there many technical problems that were not good. So we heard about a new technique that no one really used before, which was the conversion. And the conversion is more expensive, much more work in post. Basically you're shooting the movie in the traditional way, thinking in 3-D, and then it's converted by computer. The camera is shooting all of us here and then the computer is going to utilize each of us in 3-D. Inside the computer you're going to create this space. It's very complicated. I was kind of like, "Oh, is it possible? Is it going to look natural?" Then I saw twenty minutes of King Kong being converted; and it's just the best thing I've ever seen. When I see twenty minutes of that, I don't understand why the studio is not finishing the movie and releasing the movie again in 3-D. It's the best, best, best… I've also seen some from Matrix, from Star Wars, the original. It's unbelievable. It's not like [colorization], where you see that it's faint and it's not natural. It's amazing…there is no word… It was great for us because we were in real cinemascope anamorphic, on film, shooting like a normal movie, so that it's much faster and we have full control. Without being presumptuous, I think that the experience on Piranha is going to be the best one ever made. Because of that process – and because King Kong didn't release in 3-D [laughs] – it's going to be perfect.