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The Hills Have Eyes - Alexandre Aja interview

The Hills Have Eyes

Compiled by Jack Foley

Q: How does it feel to have the project in the can?
A: Wonderful; I had this moment when I first watched the film and the Fox logo appeared with the fanfare. It was like, ‘wow!’ I’ve fulfilled a dream. I just can’t believe that I managed to make the movie, and the movie is here today, and it’s exactly the movie I wanted to see. I didn’t have any pressure, the studio wasn’t on my back; they were very, very supportive. I don’t know, but I think that’s unusual.

Q: Scream King Wes Craven was so impressed with High Tension (Switchblade Romance) he approached you about remaking his 1977 cult classic – was that daunting?
A: It was funny, because we met him almost two years ago and during the meeting he asked us, “Do you know about The Hills Have Eyes?” Of course we knew, but we were very polite: “Yeah, we think we know it – we grew up watching your films!”
He asked us to come up with a way to remake the material; something to justify the remake. We brought this nuclear testing background forward as a way of developing the characters and making it more real and more brutal. Wes offered us his trust; from the beginning he said: “Look, I did my movie and I want you to do yours.” He was very supportive and very respectful – he was a perfect gentleman about that specific thing.

Q: What was it like working within the Hollywood system for the first time?
A: I was really scared about the American system going into The Hills Have Eyes. In France we’re very protective of the final cut; it’s not in the contract because it’s just a given, you don’t even have to ask for it. I’d heard so many bad things about the US system and everything is true, apparently. So, when I went over there I was ready to fight, I was ready to say, ‘Come on then, I’m ready for you!’ That’s why I fought for us to write the film. When you write you have a lot of control, but the reality was the opposite. I had exactly the same freedom as I had on High Tension (Switchblade Romance), because of Wes, mainly.
Wes was great on this film; he had the final cut for the first time in his life, and he didn’t really play with it, he was happy with what we delivered.

Q: Did you initially have any misgivings about remaking a movie that’s considered a cult classic?
A: Doing a remake is very, very tricky. I can tell you because I receive an offer every day to do a remake. Remakes are like the new religion of Hollywood. Someone came to me about three years ago offering me the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and I had to pass. Some movies are just masterpieces and that’s one of the best. The Hills Have Eyes was a quite different thing. First of all, it was made with a very low budget in extremely tough conditions. Wes was happy with the movie but not as happy as he should be. It wasn’t very easy for him to make a movie in those conditions; in the desert with a very tight budget. So he was very open to a remake. He understood the idea of it first of all. But the second point is; why do we love the original Hills Have Eyes so much? It’s not because it’s the scariest movie in the world. It’s because it’s almost fun. It’s because it’s cool, it’s because of Michael Berryman and because of the look of the characters and the way they’re dressed. I love the movie, I watch it again and again, and it never gets boring. Doing The Hills Have Eyes was a big challenge, yes, but also it was a potentially good remake to do, because it was possible to improve the subject, to go further with it and do something really extraordinary and different from the original. It was possible to do another The Hills Have Eyes which is not a remake of the original, but something that is a more realistic approach.

Q: You’ve said that as producer Wes Craven gave you complete creative freedom, but did he give you any pointers?
A: He’s not a teacher, he’s not like: “I’m going to tell you how to do the best movie possible.” He’s suffered so much working with studios. He suffered so much on Cursed, on all his movies. He suffered so much that he wasn’t ready to be a despot or to become Bob Weinstein overnight! He really wanted to be himself, so he was respectful and that’s great for us. We made exactly the movie we wanted.

Q: Michael Berryman’s Pluto in the original Hills Have Eyes is considered iconic by horror fans; did you consider casting him?
A: We wrote the character of Cyst for Michael Berryman. I can’t tell you the reason why, you’d have to ask him directly – but Wes wasn’t keen. We recognised the importance of Michael and we wanted to include him but, obviously, he couldn’t have played Pluto again so we thought of him for Cyst, as it was a good cameo for him. We came to Wes with the idea and I don’t know why, but he said: “No, I don’t want to see that.” I think it’s going behind the scenes, behind the movie, behind everything to speculate why – I just don’t know. That wasn’t about the movie it was about some other stuff.

Q: Did you have to cope with censorship issues in America?
A: Big issues. What they asked us to cut is basically a couple of minutes. But I think what they cut didn’t take anything from the horror and the brutality and the impact of the final film – they’re just too stupid to understand that! [But] the way they cut the movie was very stupid, and I had a big, big argument with them about it. It’s going beyond censorship, and it can really affect a movie. Why can’t we have a big catharsis of pleasure when you kill the bad guy? It’s crazy; it’s like you’re trying to censor something that’s the ABC of a movie, you’re censoring the drama. You ‘get’ revenge but apparently you can’t ‘have’ revenge!

Q: But on the plus-side, it means there’s more to look forward to on the DVD?
A: Yeah, of course, the DVD will be completely uncut!

Q: There’s a strong political thread in this film, as in corporate America versus the little guy – would that be an accurate observation?
A: Of course it is, I’m French! It’s funny because I was sure when we were writing the script that all of the political stuff would be cut. We were sure we were going to get cut on the dialogue about being a Democrat and being a Republican. I was convinced they were going to cut the American flag and all of that. But everything got through. It’s amazing because that’s one of the key themes of the whole thing. The fact that they allowed us to make, not just bad guys against good guys, but something more contrasting, something more in-between. On the one side you have the Carter family who are the victims, but on the other side you have the dwellers who are not only the bad guys, but the victims of the United States. They’re as much victims as the others; it’s two societies confronting each other and one of them doesn’t know that they’re also the bad guys. It’s fascinating and I love the way it comes around.

Q: There’s pretty graphic use of the American flag though?
A: The way Big Bob has the Magnum that’s going to become the weapon that’ll kill his wife and his daughter, and then at the end the guy who has the shotgun has the weapon that’s going to kill his sons – I like the dark irony of that. And Big Brain singing the national anthem, and the way he kills Pluto with the American flag – I’m really happy with all of those parts and really satisfied with the politics of it. It’s fun and at the same time it gives something more.

Q: What research did you do on the physical effects of nuclear testing?
A: We did a lot of research into the effects of nuclear testing on humans. We found some absolutely awful, unwatchable, terrible stuff that we used as reference to create all of the designs. Big Brain was based on a picture that Greenpeace used for campaigning in Italy during the eighties. It’s really the same; they are freaks but at the same time they’re based on the real footage we used in the opening credits. Realism was the key word on this movie. There were two ways to make the movie; one was: “Ok it’s a radioactive mutant cannibal movie.” Our way was: “Let’s try to make Deliverance.” That was the difference and we tried to stay as real as we could.

Q: Their tends to be over-use of CGI in the horror genre were you cautious?
A: Absolutely. We worked very closely with the guys and we were cautious about everything that can bring you out of the movie and make you feel an audience member. We try to avoid that. What we want is to have you feeling the story with the Carter family and going through the nightmare with them. Myself, when I’m watching a film and I can see the CG, I just step out.

Q: Can you describe your creative partnership with screenwriter/ art director Gregory Levasseur? Most people are under the impression that the two of you are inseparable!
A: We write together and on The Hills Have Eyes I direct, he does the second unit and the Art Direction. He’s my best friend, we grew up together, we went to film school together, we’d watch films together and write scripts together. I direct but he’s more like a producer, ensuring we have the best things possible, working with the production designers to motivate them and everything. And on this he’s done six weeks of second unit which was great. He did the scientist opening scene and the entire dog fighting sequences, which was very hard. Shooting with dogs in the desert during the summer is nearly impossible, even the best trained dog in the world can’t stand the heat.

Q: You’ve collaborated on five productions with Gregory Levasseur, do you intend maintaining your partnership, or do can you envisage striking out on your own?
A: You know that partnership works really well. I think the more we work together the more we find the best way to collaborate. He’s becoming step after step a better producer. We develop each other – it works, and I hope it’s going to work for many, many years to come.

Q: What’s your next project?
A: We’re in the middle of casting a project called The Waiting. It’s something close to Don’t Look Now and The Vanishing; it’s much more psychological and supernatural. It’s very different from High Tension (Switchblade Romance) and The Hills Have Eyes. It’s not survival, it’s not gory or anything, it’s psychological. But it depends on the casting, it depends on the next week or two as to whether it’s definitely going ahead.

Q: Which horror movies are you inspired by?
A: The Shining is still my favourite film, and even though it’s very different, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But, I’ll be honest; The Descent was the last film that really scared me in the cinema. The Descent was the biggest surprise of the last few years. I wasn’t a big fan of Dog Soldiers and even though I don’t understand the motivations of some of the decisions towards the end of The Descent, it was still fantastic – that was the last movie I found really, really scary.

Q: Can you see yourself branching out from the horror genre?
A: I hope I will do something different. There are so many kinds of films I like – I’m young, I’m 27 and I want to be able to explore other things. I don’t want to find that I’m repeating myself, that I’m doing another The Hills Have Eyes or High Tension (Switchblade Romance) in the next few years. I really want to try to do some other stuff.

Q: Which scenes are you most proud of in The Hills Have Eyes?
A: It’s got to be the deserted village; when he arrives in the deserted village and you get this feeling of a kind of Western. But it’s not just the Western thing, it’s a retro thing. I love the fight in the house with Pluto; all of that part of the movie. We were talking about mirrors in the two sides’ relationships, and the dummies do that too. They’re perfect, and the link between that and the hill-dwellers – I like very much.

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