Maniac – Franck Khalfoun interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
FRANCK Khalfoun talks about some of the challenges of remaking Maniac and why he decided on a single camera point of view that relays the horror from the viewpoint of the killer.
He also talks about working with Elijah Wood, why he likes the horror genre and what he feels about the ongoing debate about the relationship between violence in movies and real-life.
Q. What was the appeal of remaking Maniac?
Franck Khalfoun: I think it’s the challenge of doing a remake and doing it correctly and taking the excellence of what is regarded as a classic in the genre and translating it to a modern audience. Certainly, it’s what’s scary about taking on the project as well [laughs]… because you know you’re going to enter into a world where these core fans hate you at first for even trying to attempt to do it. And then there’s also the challenge of coming up with a clever way of doing it so that it’s fresh.
Q. And I guess unlike the original you’re now also competing in a more crowded market-place…
Franck Khalfoun: Exactly, especially when doing something like Maniac because the original was the reference for all those movies… every single horror/slasher movie will copy some of the things that are in the original Maniac. So, not only was it important for me to try and do something that sort of paid homage to the original but also do something original within the genre itself, which I find oftentimes to be a little redundant. Apart from that, it was also about finding a clever way of telling the story and getting the chance to work with a long-time friend, Alexandre Aja and my new friend, Thomas Langmann [producer].
Q. How much did you collaborate with Alexandre on the script?
Franck Khalfoun: We collaborated a lot on the script. Originally, he and Gregory Levasseur had written a script that followed a lot of conventions within the genre, so when we decided to try and do something a little bit more daring and tell the story from a single point of view, I got to work on re-shaping the script so that it would fit into the format. And that meant it was a lot different since you’re no longer spending any time on the story with the victims. Basically, you’re with the killer the whole time. And this genre is built mostly around fear and being with the unsuspecting victim who walks around not knowing someone is stalking them. So, now those elements are gone and have to be re-invented.
Q. And does that also extend to where you’re putting the camera? How tricky was that?
Franck Khalfoun: Well yeah, because my only source of storytelling came from that one angle – his angle. So, it cuts down a lot of choices because all the choices were made to stay within that context and justify the creative choice that we made of being told from a single point of view. We also had to somehow not be deadly boring. It’s hard to sustain an audience’s attention for 90 or so minutes from one angle, so everything became essential about the choice of camera movement or the choreography, right down to being able to describe or convey an emotion using that point of view.
Q. Did you ever get to a point where you thought ‘why am I doing this’? Did you ever get stuck?
Franck Khalfoun: [Laughs] Yeah, that happens on every film. I didn’t really get stuck but I was very anxious about what it would all mean in the end and how it would all cut together because this really was an experimental style of filmmaking. And that’s why I’m grateful to have had some producers who were a little bit daring and ballsy enough to allow me to do it because that’s really not a given these days with the state of movie-making, especially not in Hollywood. So, the scariest thing was never being sure how it would all piece together. And while that’s certainly true of every film you make, this one in particular because of the stylistic choice we had made.
Q. I also would imagine that you don’t need an actor who is vain in any way given how little you see of him? What made you decide on Elijah Wood? Was he always in mind?
Franck Khalfoun: He wasn’t first choice because the character of Frank is so different in the original as played by Joe Spinell. So, you sort of tend to go in that direction. But then when you liberate yourself and delve deeper into the character and think about what different actors would embody and bring to it… after meeting Elijah it seemed like a very intelligent choice to make at the time. One of the main things that didn’t work for me in the original was the love story between Joe and the girl. It seemed unrealistic at the time and I remember it shocking me a bit, especially given his build and demeanour. Nowadays, women are so much smarter in terms of who they allow themselves to be alone with and close to, so if the character is not charming, it’s not going to work. And Elijah brought that because he’s not the most threatening kind of guy to look at.
Q. You also make audiences empathise with the character without ever sympathising with him. How easy was that to pull off?
Franck Khalfoun: Well, going back to the original, the way in which it made me feel empathy for the character is something that affected me more than the violence and visceral nature of the gore. My lasting memory of it was feeling empathy for this horrific character. I thought it was the strongest part of the original film, that I really felt bad for this greasy, violent man. It disturbed me that here I was thinking this guy just didn’t get a break and I feel bad for him… you forget he’s scalping women alive, which is terrifying. So, that was one of the main things I wanted to recreate. It was very important we feel close to him, feel bad for him and empathise with him. So, when you’re thrown into a point of view where you are the character, it feels like you’re participating. You feel bad for him, but it’s you. So, the emotions are all mixed up and it leaves you it with mixed emotions yourself. But I really wanted to move the audience, especially as I had no tools to create fear in the usual way – it had to come from a deeper emotional place and Elijah brought that, much as he does with each role that he plays.
Q. And yet when you show the violence, you don’t flinch. Was that a conscious decision to offset the empathy and pull you back into the horror taking place?
Franck Khalfoun: It’s funny you say that because I don’t find it as gory as some of the movies that are out there. I think it’s a combination of feeling close to the character and the way that the choice is made in terms of the art direction and lighting. It’s a beautiful movie to look at and I thought it was so important that everything we look at is beautiful and then we drench it in darkness. So, you get this eerie feeling even though it is beautiful to look at. And I think Elijah also brings this child-like quality to the film. So, to juxtapose that with the ultra-violence and gore… perhaps you think what you’re seeing is more violent than it really is. But in terms of some of the other movies that are out there now, Maniac is not nearly as graphic as some of the things I’ve seen. Certainly, when violence is treated in that way, in little does, and infused with real characters, it‘s that much more effective.
Q. But it’s a film for adults that treats its audience as adults… so much of modern horror feels sanitised…
Franck Khalfoun: Thank you. This is a movie for adults. It does some really, really horrific things to women. So, it’s not for young people who are still impressionable.
Q. You mention the word impressionable. Where do you stand on the whole movie violence informing real-life violence debate? I think that anyone who is affected by a movie and acts on it is halfway towards insane in the first place…
Franck Khalfoun: Right, you have to know what you’re getting into. Movies are not responsible for real-life violence. It all starts at home. It’s something that starts with education and the kind of way you raise your children and allow or don’t allow and whether you teach right from wrong. It’s not something that filmmakers have to teach, or any sort of artist for that matter. I know how to raise my kids and I know what they should see and shouldn’t. And they know right from wrong. We tend to, as a society, sort of not really take care of our children as much as we should and then we like to say it’s because they’re exposed to too much violence. But if you keep a tight family and you educate and make informed choices, then there wouldn’t be such a big problem.
Q. So, what draws you to horror in particular as a filmmaker?
Franck Khalfoun: It’s the visceral experience you can have. I love comedy too. Or things that make you cry. But it’s whatever emotion or experience you can get out of an hour and a half or so in a movie. To me, horror is dealing with death and aggression and it brings you close to it without having to experience it. We deal with death every day… it’s one of the only sure things we’ll confront one day. So, it brings you closer to it and allows you to have an adventure with it in a safe way.
Maniac is released in cinemas on Friday, March 15, 2013.