TIFF Director's Cut: Alexandre Aja ('Horns')

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Director Alexandre Aja has spent the last decade-plus proving himself as one of France’s most promising genre filmmakers, heading up the New French Extremity movement at home before making a seamless transition to Hollywood horror with a couple of big-budget remakes in the mid-2000s. But with the Daniel Radcliffe-starring “Horns”, his much-hyped latest, Aja wants to show the world that there’s more to his sensibility than blood and high body counts. We sat down with the director following his film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about “Twin Peaks”, allegories, and why “Horns” is basically “It’s a Wonderful Life” in reverse.

Film.com’s Calum Marsh: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like this before.

ALEXANDRE AJA: That’s good, because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. That’s exactly the feeling I had when I read the book, by Joe Hill, when I was here in Toronto four years ago finishing “Piranha”. I had that feeling of like, “Wow, this book is going everywhere.” I love it. I love the dark humor, the romance, the tragedy, the drama, the revenge—everything was so organic and put together, even if it was going from one genre to the other. I wanted to bring that to the screen, even though that’s unusual. Usually you do something that can be pigeonholed in some way, so that they can say it’s a straight comedy, or a straight horror movie. It’s very hard to move genres in that way.

CM: And the tone of the film changes drastically, even from scene to scene. How did you handle those marked tonal shifts?

Well, you’re always walking a fine line, because you don’t want the movie to turn into, say, just a comedy, you know? So you just have to follow the story, which is actually pretty simple. The story is about a guy who wakes up with horns on his head and the power of the devil in order to find out who killed his girlfriend. It’s kind of like a crime mystery, with a bit of a love triangle kind of thing happening too. But if you follow that story, and if you follow your character and you are with him as he is discovering the absurdity of that world, it’s funny and it’s naturally comic in the story. It was more in the editing room where we had to navigate that fine line and not stay too long with each joke, to make it less of a comedy. We tried to use everything—the tone, the music, the look of the film—to make it feel like we’re not just changing the channel from one thing to the next as you’re watching it.

The one thing it reminded me of in that way was “Twin Peaks”, and in fact specifically the film, “Fire Walk With Me”. 

Absolutely. It’s funny that you mention the “Twin Peaks” film, because it was really more the TV show that I had in mind, but I recently watched “Fire Walk With Me”. I had seen it when I was a teenager in France, and I had always had kind of mixed feelings about it. But I had forgotten how similar the set up is to this, with the forest and the small town and everything. I was looking for reference points when making this movie, just to anchor myself a bit to the place, and I had a very different kind of feel. Definitely “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart” were among them, and “Twin Peaks” too. They had a strong influence on the movie. Frederick Elmes, who did the cinematography on this movie, was the cinematographer for “Blue Velvet”.

Right, yes, and “Eraserhead”. 

Yes, so there is a connection there. David Lynch managed to get this dark humor to work with this very strong love story and melodrama, and I wanted to have that feeling. The other influences were very different. I wanted a kind of “Fight Club” vibe, too, something very rock n’ roll. Something sarcastic. I like the tone of that film. The most unexpected one, I think, but one that I think is very similar if you look at it in kind of a reverse way, is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s a fable about love with a supernatural twist. I mean, it’s the opposite—here we’re dealing with the devil instead of an angel. But there’s something about a very good person facing a darker aspect of his life that’s interesting.

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I suppose, too, there’s the sense that something fantastic is happening even though it isn’t really explained or regarded as an especially big deal. 

Well, that’s the fable. That’s what the fable always did. I know people who grew up with the guidance of religion, and for them the religious aspect of this film might seem very real. But I see this as a very mythological kind of movie. It’s about mythology, a religious concept that you use to illustrate our own choices and our own life. I approached this movie as a fable about true love and revenge—that was really the idea. I wanted to bring the story of the fallen angel to the screen as an allegory for an ordinary life.

I feel like all of your films have an allegorical dimension. Do you find that you gravitate to allegory instinctively? 

It isn’t intentional, but I always wind up getting around to the same topics. I like the journey into our own dark side, something that can be at the same time dark but also lead to salvation at the end. I mean, something like “Maniac” is very bleak, and it’s about an awful person doing awful things. But at the same time, I understand that character—he doesn’t want to be alone. He’s a victim. I like that fine line between good and evil. There is an interpretation of the minotaur story in the labyrinth in which the minotaur doesn’t actually exist. After days and days of wandering inside the labyrinth, lost, you finally come across a mirror, and you’re so distraught that you cannot even recognize yourself.  You think the image of yourself is a beast. I like the idea that when we are seeing a villain in a movie, it’s really about ourselves. I like that dimension.

And in “High Tension”, of course, the hero turns out to be the villain. 

Yes.

One thing I wanted to go back to briefly: you’d mention this as a rock n’ roll film. I thought the soundtrack was great—you had The Knife, Sunset Rubdown, the Flaming Lips. Was the music central to the film for you?

Definitely, yes. From the beginning, when I got on board and was working on the script, one of the first things I tried to do was drop songs everywhere. And the other thing I did was ask all of my cast members to make me a playlist. And it’s really strange, because a lot of the songs that they gave me were also on my original playlist. There is definitely a subtext in the movie with Washington State and Kurt Cobain. Music is important to it, and also there’s this idea that you never really know when the film takes place—it’s a kind of weird place somewhere in the last twenty to thirty years.

Yeah, plus the environment has a kind of otherworldly feeling, as if it’s an unspecified limbo. Nobody even mentions anything outside of the town, except for Juno Temple referring to California as if it’s this weird beacon in the distance. 

Yeah, definitely the Washington State location had that quality to it, which brought something to the story. One of my other major influences was the photographer Gregory Crewdson, a hyper-realist who did these amazing things with American settings. I wanted to capture that aspect of America and make it all seem a little strange.

"Horns" will be released in the US in 2014.