Over the past decade, director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D) has established himself as a dynamic filmmaker on the rise in Hollywood. A rarity when it comes to genre films, he isn’t afraid to take on new challenges and stretch as an artist. His latest film, ‘Horns,’ is a shining example of that mentality. The film is an amazing adaptation of Joe Hill’s original novel, which centers on Ig Perrish, small town guy who finds himself blamed for the brutal murder of his girlfriend. In light of that event, he finds himself ostracized by everyone he knows and hounded by the media. Matters are further complicated for Ig, played masterfully by Daniel Radcliffe, when he awakens one morning to find he’s grown a pair of horns. Armed with the supernatural powers they possess, he sets out to find the true killer. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Alexandre Aja to discuss what drew him to filmmaking, his evolution as an artist and the challenges involved in bringing “Horns’ to the silver screen.
What was it about filmmaking that initially intrigued you and made you want to pursue it as a career?
I had the chance to have a family that was working in the industry. My father was a director/producer and my mother was a film critic. I kind of grew up on movie sets. As far back as I can remember my father was writing scripts and taking me on sets. At the time, I thought it seemed to be a very fun job because it was always changing and they were always making something different. What really sucked me in was, when I was 10 years old, my best friend and I started going from video shop to video shop to rent everything we could find. We would watch them and start writing scripts. The writing process for me became such an exciting part of the process. You can imagine, when we were 12, the scripts were not very good but they were fun to do. We discovered the excitement of creating a story and characters. Everything was possible! The writing was always my first passion. It was when we were a little bit older we started writing short films. We had one short film that was financed by the French State. We started thinking about directing and we got our start. I have to say that I have been lucky to have never stopped working for the past 17 years now. When you are working on something and are passionate about it, there is never a day that is the same as the previous one. It has been pretty exciting and I am very grateful to be able to do these movies.
You experienced so many different aspects of the filmmaking process. Do you still gravitate toward the writing process or some other part of the process?
I think there is really three different parts of the process when it comes to filmmaking. Of course, there is the initial writing of the script, the collaboration with the actors and then the editing, which is maybe the most important one. I love the three of them. I enjoy more and more the directing part and I feel more and more confident. It excites me to work and collaborate with the actors and all of the departments. The writing is still a huge part of my life and I try to write every day. I have also discovered the pleasure of directing scripts that I did not write. It is very interesting and a different process. I really enjoy the entire experience these days!
Your latest film is “Horns,” which is an adaptation of Joe Hill’s amazing book. What was it about this story that made you want to pursue the project?
My agent and manager sent me the galley of the book when I was finishing “Piranha” at the time. I didn’t know anything about the novel or Joe Hill. I just started reading it and, from the very beginning, I was blown away by the way it went from a dark comedy to a suspenseful story to a dark drama to the supernatural. The mixing of all of those genres made it so interesting. Usually, when you make movies, you have to make something that fits in the box. Making this film was like making a film that fits in all those boxes together! I loved that! That was what got me! I felt, at the time, “If it works in the book, why wouldn’t it work on the big screen?” I knew I had to make this movie!
From what I read, Joe Hill was very involved with the project. What type of effect did working with him bring to this film?
I wanted him to be so involved. I wanted to make a movie that was as close to the experience that I had reading the book and I wanted to do it with his blessing. I was so happy that he was one of the producers on the project. It was so helpful to have him in the writing because he is someone who is really smart about the adaptation. He knew that an adaptation that was word by word would be boring, not interesting and a six-hour movie! We knew we had to find shortcuts and ways to hone the story but respect the DNA of the story. I wanted to make sure we respected what made the story so interesting. Having Joe next to me and being able to access his brain for solutions and shortcuts was terrific. The collaboration with Joe was really strong and I hope to work with him on another project very soon.
Was there anything you hoped to accomplish stylistically or technically with this film that you might not have attempted on your previous projects?
Yeah. When I was reading the pages, behind all the sheets of tone and emotional and scary measuring, I could read the lines. I could see so many important things I wanted to attempt for such a long time. I always wanted to find a story that would give me the opportunity to create a world that was a very hyper-real vision of America. I wanted to create a small American logging town in the Washington State that has a very “Twin Peaks” aspect to it and oppose that to a much more out of time measuring. I wanted to make those two worlds live together. This story gave me that opportunity.
The cast for the film is absolutely tremendous. What did they bring to these characters that made them jump from the screen?
I have to say that, when we finished the adaptation of the book and started with people in Los Angeles reading the script, we realized how much the story was a magnet for actors. People were really, really willing to be a part of it and excited about it. We were obviously excited about the project but to get such an amazing response from everyone involved was amazing. There are so many projects and scripts going around but this one was so exciting, original and singular. The material gave us the opportunity to have the characters start in a normal way but become very different when they are under the influence of the horns. It was a great challenge for the actors. Having the opportunity to cast whoever I wanted was the best thing possible. I am so happy with the cast of the movie. The collaboration with Daniel Radcliffe was amazing, obviously, but also with Joe Anderson, Juno Temple, Max Minghella and Kelli Garner were also great experiences. This film was definitely the best experience I have had working with actors in my career.
What was the biggest challenge of bringing “Horns” from script to screen?
I think the biggest challenge was linking all the genres together and making the movie feel like a journey. In the beginning, I was trying to explain the film to people by comparing it to other movies, because that is how you would usually do it. You would say, “It is like this movie meets this other movie.” With “Horns,” this was impossible! The only movie I could think of was a darker Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It is so different and has nothing to do with our story but it was the only supernatural fable I could think about that has a similar tone and elements of trying to figure out what has gone crazy in his life. I kind of felt right away the best way to make these genres blend together and meet the challenge was to get the right Ig Perrish. I think the reason why the movie is multi-genre and also has a love story is because we have an amazing actor in Daniel Radcliffe. He managed to sell these different emotions with such skill. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.
Looking back on your career so far, what is the biggest evolution you have gone through as a director?
That is a tough question. What I am trying to do every time is not choose something that would be a repetition of what I have done before. I try not to allow myself to take the easy path. In genre, that is something that can happen very fast because once you have done a slasher or a supernatural thriller, you can easily find yourself doing another one because you know the world, you improve and it becomes comfortable. I try to make different choices every time rather than doing the same thing again and again. If you look at “High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes” or now “Horns,” they are very different from one another. That is what I continue to try and do. It is not easy because people want you to repeat that thing when it is successful. That is what I am trying to keep as a guideline, to not let myself become repetitive.
Where do you see yourself headed in the future as a director?
I am starting a movie on Monday called “The Ninth Life of Louis Drax.” It is a very intense psychological thriller, very Hitchcockian with some supernatural elements. It is something very different from “Horns” and I am very excited about it. It is different from anything I have done previously, as we were just discussing, and it is a new challenge!
You serve as a huge inspiration to many aspiring filmmakers. What is the best advice you can pass along to someone looking to pursue a career in the industry?
I would say that it is all about the story. It is all about finding a story that makes you want to commit a full year of your life and makes you want to make it happen no matter what. It is a long process and every movie can take years. Some movies I have made took seven years in development and for some other filmmakers it can be even more. You need to have this starting point where you fall in love with the story and know that, no matter what happens, you have to tell that story. I think that is the most important thing to seek out.
Thank you for your time today, Alexandre. You are truly an inspiration and “Horns” is definitely a film to be proud of!
Thank you, Jason! Thank you very much!
‘Horns’ hits theaters on October 31st, 2014 and is available via VOD.