Interview: Alexandre Aja

It’s that time of year as the ghosts, the ghouls and the goblins are out in full swing right now and all of our movie theatres are getting into the swing of things.  For one night only this Monday as a part of the Cineplex Front Row Events series, Horns (based on the bestselling novel by Joe Hill) starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young man who gains some very perceptive and persuasive powers after being wrongfully accused in the disappearance and murder of his long time girlfriend (Juno Temple).

The movie is playing for audiences at Cineplex locations before it launches on UVOD on Tuesday and in other select theatres on Friday the 31st.  I got the chance to sit down with director Alexandre Aja last fall during the film’s debut at TIFF about the pressures of work on a beloved book, working with an iconic star, and how much he loves dark humor in horror.

 Alexandre Aja - Horns 

Dork Shelf: So what was the genesis of you getting involved with Horns?

Alexandre Aja: Well I was actually here in Toronto a few years ago when I was doing post production on Piranha and I read the book.  It was experience, just one of those novels where from one chapter to the next you were getting this complete ride from drama, to comedy to horror and back again.  I really hadn’t felt that way since I read Fight Club.

DS: What was the biggest challenge for you tackling this book?

AA: It really was to convince producer Cathy Schuman, who had the rights to the book, to let me direct the movie.  Then when we started working on the script and start to look at casting because it is a movie that traverses so many genres. We just had to be sure to get the right people for the job and financing was tough as well as it is the kind of story that we wanted to make sure wouldn’t get pigeonholed and we had to be certain that we could tell it the right way and eventually it all came together.

DS: How did you come to cast Daniel Radcliffe, as he is certainly making some very different choices for his roles in his post Harry Potter career? It almost seems that he is trying to distance himself from the part that made him a star and go in the exact opposite direction.

AA: You know I almost have the exact opposite feeling. I understand how people can see that, but especially here with Horns, it’s almost a continuation of that.  Granted it’s very obviously NOT Harry Potter , but we watched Daniel grow up on screen from a very young age, and now in his early to mid twenties we see a guy who is confronted with his first love and  getting  into the realities of life.  Obviously we are skipping all the magical elements, but at its heart the movie is about a young man finding himself and it isn’t a huge evolution and not that far off from something like the Harry Potter franchise where we see all these young wizards growing up.  We see a new Daniel Radcliffe in this supernatural fable, & it is different because he is all grown up now and he is this genuinely good person who has to deal with this story of a fallen angel while trying to determine what happened to the love of his life.

DS: So it wasn’t a question of trying to cast ‘against the grain’ and do something different?

AA: Oh no not at all. It wasn’t a question of me thinking about him while I read the book or anything like that, but it’s ironic because there ‘s a line in the book where he and Merrin and talking about having kids and how they’ll be reading them Harry Potter. (laughs) It really was just pure coincidence that we came to cast Daniel.  The book is a pretty good seller and has this cult following, so I was very aware and very conscience of trying to find the right actor who could play all the complexities of Ig.

When I met Daniel, he loved the script and I was sold, not only because he was the big movie star but because he was actually the character and found all the layers of the character.  I look at Horns like it’s the inverse of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s a very different movie but that fable type of tone is still there.  Somehow Daniel has that Jimmy Stewart type of quality that made it all work it just made a lot of sense.

DS: Was there one element of the book that stood out for you?

AA:   There are so many things, like the dirty little secrets that we all keep, but I think it comes down to the dark comedy and humor that’s throughout author Joe Hill’s work that really drew me into the book and I think it is one of the stronger elements of the movie.  Plus, I really love the quest element and using the religious elements in it as an allegory for our day to day lives.  It’s not a religious film but it adds to the mythology.

DS: Was it a challenge to keep all these elements in balance while making the movie?

AA: Oh, absolutely, because you never want to make a movie where it feels like they are changing the channel on you. (laughs) You have to create links through the photograph,y and through the characters, and the actors themselves to make it all work.  The line of it all is this love triangle crime investigation movie, but in the editing room we had to be very careful to not cross that line too much and have it veer too far off into a comedy or a straight drama and keep it all moving.

DS: Do you run the risk of alienating or disappointing the audience when you have so many different types of emotions and genres all together in one movie?

AA: Not if the story makes sense, then everything is possible.  I mean, this guy wakes up with horns and the power to figure out who killed his girlfriend.  You don’t to have believe in it, but I mean, let’s face it, the movie is called Horns, and when you do buy into Ig’s struggle and his journey it’s all logical and everything makes sense as he tries to discover all of these peoples insane secrets.

DS: The horns themselves are such a key component of the film, can you talk about how you ultimately decided on their design with your makeup team?

AA: It was a big question because in the book they are described in much more of a “Hollywood” type of fashion with these big looming things sticking out his head.  While I was thinking about it, I decided I want to go with something a little bit more subtle, almost something with more of a 19th century romantics type of feel to it.  I mean, I am from Paris so I see all these gorgeous gargoyles around me that feels more organic and realistic because  it plays so much better when people just forget about them.  We were working with some amazing effects team as well, and before long it only took Daniel about a half an hour to actually get them on his head.

DS: How was it for you to tackle a story that has more of a traditional love story angle to it?

AA: Well, High Tension is a love story too. (smiles and laughs) It was definitely different, but it let me look into a different kind of fear as well, dealing with the loss of someone you love which is an interesting concept.  And really, at the end of the day, it is probably one of the more terrifying things that any of us could ever actually imagine.

DS: It’s a story that has a lot of religious connotation to it but it also plays very much like a fairy tale.

AA: Yeah my goal on this really was to find some kind of a bridge between the two, and while I certainly don’t hold any religious beliefs myself, it serves as a great allegorical element in which to tell the story.  Plus the idea and the story of a fallen angel is always one that has really fascinated me for a long time.  That journey going from heaven to the darkest place possible has always held great interest for me.

DS: Were your drawing from any specific inspiration or visual reference when making the film and the look of this fallen angel/demon?

AA: There is one American photographer  that I really love whose name is Gregory Crewdson, who makes these hyper real photographs and really works with the light,;an almost biblical lighting in this very American setting  and with my DP we really managed to capture that.

DS:  Would you say your films just have more humor these days?

AA: Oh, I’d say yes.  Piranha really gave me that chance to open up and here as well.  I just love dark humor.