With each new project, director Alexandre Aja (Horns, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D, High Tension) continues to push his creative limits as one of the most dynamic filmmakers in the industry. His latest project, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” is no exception to the rule. Based on the best-selling novel by Liz Jensen, with a script by Max Minghella, the film centers around the world of one very unlucky little boy. After surviving eight near-death accidents throughout his unlucky life, Louis Drax [Aiden Longworth] plunges off a steep cliff on his ninth birthday. While police investigate the cause of Louis’ near-fatal fall and the whereabouts of his violent father Peter [Aaron Paul], acclaimed neurologist Dr. Allan Pascal [Jamie Dornan] uses unorthodox techniques to try to tap into the boy’s unconscious mind and reveal the truth about the events that led to his condition. But as he’s drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of Louis’ seeming ability to cheat death, the doctor finds himself falling for Louis’ mother, Natalie [Sarah Gadon]. As new clues emerge in the case, a shocking revelation changes the fates of Louis Drax and everyone around him. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Alexandre Aja to discuss his approach to the filmmaking process, the challenges involved in bringing the world of “Louis Drax” to the screen and where he sees himself headed in the future.
We became familiar with your work over the years and each new project takes you in new directions. What went into finding your creative voice early on as an artist?
It is something I try not to think about too much. I try to respond to material by finding a movie I would want to see as an audience member. I feel that you cannot really know what people want to see and when you stop thinking about that, you usually take a really dangerous path that leads you to making bad movies. I go forward with a very simple, common sense thing — “If I want to see this movie, other people might want to see it as well.” That was how I chose the subjects I have kind of gone for. Making them, I have always tried to be, and it’s a paradox, to be as invisible as I can but at the same time creating unique visuals that will make the movie personal to me. What I realized growing up watching all these movies is that the movies that I loved the most were the ones that gave me the feeling of an experience, a true experience where I was completely forgetting that I was watching something, a movie that took me on the other side of the mirror with a character and I was really involved and immersed in the story. Every time I was watching movies that had bad acting or bad effects, I was slipping out of that immersion and I never liked that feeling. A lot of people in the genre community have a tendency of liking movies for a scene, a gag or one element or another, instead of the global storytelling experience. That is something that is the key for me. On every movie, I am trying to create the best immersion for the audience.
Your latest project is “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” How did discover the material and what made it a film you wanted to bring to the screen?
While we were doing “Horns” and Max Minghella was co-starring with Daniel Radcliffe, he told me about this novel that his father, Anthony Minghella, was supposed to direct before he passed. He said that he was writing an adaptation of that novel and would like me to read it. I did! I was not expecting such a strong, emotional ride reading the script. From the first pages, following this boy who fell from a cliff in San Francisco, I found myself, like him, falling into the emptiness and not knowing where I was going to land. Page after page, I was discovering very complex characters that were hiding truths and were never like the character you think they are. All the psychological twists and turns of the story were very unexpected. What made me really want to direct it was the voice of Louis Drax. It is this little boy who claims to be the amazing accident prone boy, all the accidents that he went through and the lightness of tone in which he is taking it. Then you realize, in going through his recall, that there is something else. There is violence with his parents and his father, played by Aaron Paul, is on the run and involved in something much more sinister. All of those elements interested me and there was something very Hitchcockian in the script. I felt it was something new and fresh. As I said, it was something I wanted to see! Every time I was reading it, it was very emotional and echoing with me in a very personal way, so I knew I had to make this movie!
Did you have anything you wanted to accomplish with this film you may not have had the opportunity to try on previous projects?
What I wanted with this movie was to keep the focus on the boy’s perspective. I wanted to push even further the genre-bending that I started with “Piranha” and pushed even further in “Horns.” I wanted the movie to start in a very light way, almost like a Tim Burton type of storytelling and then continue to get darker, darker and darker following this journey through the comatose world and finding your way back to the surface following the sea monster and discovering facing the truth is the only way to come back to the surface. The fact that the twist was an emotional one instead of a more traditional plot twist in the story was something that made it very unique to my eyes. Visually, I wanted to translate that Hitchcockian vibe that I received when I read the script into the picture. That was my goal!
What went into finding the right cast to bring these characters to life and what did they bring to the table you might not have expected?
You know, there were a lot of very complex characters. The father, Peter Drax, who was played by Aaron Paul, is that violent figure at the beginning who is on the run. Then you realize through the flashbacks, when you go inside Louis’ mind in his comatose state, you learn he was a different father than you had expected and perhaps a more protective figure than you thought. Without revealing too much, he has a big evolution by the end of the movie. For me, I knew Aaron Paul was the obvious choice for this character and I had wanted to work with him for a long time. It was the perfect fit! To play the doctor who is trying to bring Louis to the surface and bring the audience, I wanted someone who could really carry the audience by the end and kind of experience falling in love with the mother of his patient, while protecting her from this violent husband who is on the run. I am a big fan of “The Fall” and the way Jamie Dornan interrupted the serial killer figure was a very interesting and unexpected one. Here it is not a serial killer part but he had something genuine and kind as someone who works with kids and wants to help them in a different way. He is almost the last hope when your son or daughter is in a coma and that is the person you hope to see because he has some resolve. I thought he was an interesting choice, not the expected one and I wanted to see him playing something different. The most complex character to find was the mother character. That Hitchcockian woman. The reason I went to Sarah Gadon was that I have always been very impressed with her work. With every movie that she has made, she has been so different each time. She has an amazing skillset of inventing characters and making them come to life. She looks like a different person almost! We met and talked about the script. She really responded to it and I knew right away that she had the Hitchcockian side but she had a complexity and ability to bring every nuance to the character that I needed for the part. That was not an obvious spot to play. There are a lot of things she is doing that is a lot like hunting. I don’t want to reveal too much, which makes it hard to talk about in this way, but even in the darker part of herself, she always brings a deep sense of empathy. You really feel for her. There is something that goes beyond her act. One of the biggest challenges on this film was finding the right Louis Drax. He has such a unique voice and it had such a nice melody in my head. I wanted him to be funny, smart and have this very sharp common sense on the adult world. Aiden Longworth, who plays Louis Drax, is definitely that kid! We saw a lot of them but he came into the room and read the cave scene with the sea monster and got very emotional. It was a magic moment where I instantly knew I had found the right Louis Drax!
What were some of the other challenges you faced in bringing the film to life?
The other challenges were trusting the script and the emotion you have in the beginning. At the same time you must stick to your guns to prove you can make a story with very intertwined storylines, while bending the genres together and creating an emotional journey.
Where do you see yourself headed next in a creative sense?
I am very curious about many genres and I am reading a lot of scripts and books. I would love to find the right horror movie in the more straightforward, scary story to come back to the genre at some point but I want to explore different fields. I am doing this period movie that has a lot of elements from “Horns” and everything I have done in my past but it is also very different. I just don’t want to do anything that is similar to what I have just done. I want to, as much as I can, find something new each time!
A lot of people can look to you as an inspiration with what you created. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
That is a big question and I appreciate it. What I am trying to do is trying to stay true to my tastes and never try to think too much for the audience. I think of myself as an audience member before being a filmmaker, always. I want to keep the same pleasure I have, still today, to be scared in a movie, be amazed or emotionally involved with a movie!
Thanks for your time today, Alexandre. I wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason!
Lionsgate’s ‘The 9th Life of Louis Drax’ hits theaters on September 2nd, 2016.