It isn't everyday that "disgusting," "gratuitous," and "over the top" are used as cinematic superlatives, but they qualify as the top three reasons to see Piranha 3D. Alexandre Aja, the fellow largely responsible for bringing French horror stateside (with High Tension) and subsequently reimagining both domestic (The Hills Have Eyes) and international (Mirrors) horror for America, makes what may literally be his biggest commercial splash to date with the 3D opus, a spectacle of nudity, gore and all-around excess for which the term grand guignol was practically invented. And though the film is undoubtedly best appreciated as camp, Aja has been head counselor since it was first conceived, and wants audiences to have as much fun watching it as he obviously had making it.
Cinematical spoke to Aja earlier this week via telephone to discuss Piranha 3D, which opens nationwide Friday, August 20. In addition to talking about the comedic tone of the film, Aja discussed his personal preferences for the sorts of sex and violence he likes to see on screen, and examined the challenges (and opportunities) of building a career for oneself in a Hollywood that's more interested in remakes, adaptations and sequels than something original.
Cinematical: The movie is a hell of a lot of fun, and campy – which seems like a departure from the horror-themed projects you've done in the past. Was it always meant to be that way, or is the tone a natural byproduct of the fact that it's tough to make a "serious" killer-fish movie in this day and age?
Alexandre Aja: No, it was always, always, always meant to be like this. With the script that I got like six years ago, it was the same storyline and it was [about] spring break people getting attacked by prehistoric piranha, and I felt like that was so campy and fun. I thought it was too great an opportunity to give up, and I couldn't help but keep thinking about the project [even] when I went to do The Hills Have Eyes. Years after that, a producer approached me and said, "are you still interested in making a Piranha movie?" I said yes, but as you described, he wanted to do a very serious creature movie – to try to redo something that no one can redo. I told him, no, we have to keep that spring break [stuff], because that's not what you want from a Piranha movie. A Piranha movie is campy fun – silly; it goes over the top. And that's the movie I wanted to do. That's the movie I would like to see as an audience member. So I managed to convince the studio to take that script and push it on all levels – take the sex and the gore over the top, and cross all of the lines that it could cross. I just wanted to go for it, and my frame of reference was to do something in the vein of Evil Dead or Dead Alive, or something in the vein of Gremlins but in an adult way. Or something in the vein of Weird Science – like all of those '80s movies I loved so much. And they gave me carte blanche to do it.
Cinematical: Jerry O'Connell said you have a really funny, interesting perspective on Americans and American culture. Do you think this story is sort of essentially American, or what was important about satirizing this particular phenomenon?
Aja: I grew up in Europe, and spring break outside of the U.S. just doesn't exist. It is just a very unique American phenomenon that doesn't exist in any form anywhere in the world. And at the same time, everyone in the world feels the influence of American culture, not only through movies but also through TV. Everyone grew up watching MTV and seeing "Spring Break" on MTV, and spring break became that kind of legendary week that happened only in the States where all of the college kids get together and get drunk, and all of the girls are [getting trashed]. I have always felt a little bit of that balance between attraction and repulsion of spring break, and doing more research, I thought it was a really good metaphor for American itself – that spring break, by being that week of excess in a very puritanical society, feels like America. In spring break you have so many contrasts where on one hand it's like fundamentalist Christians coming and trying to preach to girls not to show their boobs and not get drunk and not dance, and then on the other hand, you have the adult industry sending porn stars to coerce the college kids to do sexual acts on tape so they can sell that (laughs). So it's very wild, and I thought it was just the best set-up for a creature-monster movie. For Piranha, I couldn't imagine something better.
Cinematical: This might be a more appropriate question to ask for something like The Hills Have Eyes rather than something deliberately over the top like this, but how do you know where to draw the line between violence or gore that is appropriate for the story and stuff that's just gratuitous?
Aja: [In Piranha] it's completely gratuitous. It's funny because I was answering one of your colleagues who asked kind of the same question, and I found myself defending it the way I would The Hills Have Eyes. Because in this movie, I went for it – the over the top, dark humor and gore that's so funny to me. It might be more violent or bloody, but the truth is that at the end of the day it's fun. I'm not a huge proponent of "less is more;" I think when you do a movie, you have to create an immersion for the audience. You have to make a movie where the audience [members] feel like they are living the story and not only watching something. To do that, you need to see what your protagonist sees, and to feel their trauma, and that's what I tried to do in The Hills Have Eyes and High Tension. If something awful happens, I want the audience to be able to see it as the character is seeing it so they can react to it the same way. For me it was always finding the line between gratuitous violence and what is important to show to get the implication of the events inside the story. Piranha is completely different, obviously, because everything is so operatic somehow – so big, so crazy. But everything is different.
Cinematical: When you've got CGI monsters as opposed to physical ones, what if anything do you have to do differently to shoot the gore?
Aja: I would say that depends on the budget and it depends on who you're working with. This was a very, very tough and long process; we have the first 3D movie that's like a fourth of the budget of [other ones]. We had $25 million and 40 days to shoot, and making a CGI movie with a lot of creatures, that was the only way because that really gives you more of the 3D as well. In the water, that's also the only way to keep the reality of the fish and the way they move and everything. But it's challenging when you don't have the right people and when you don't have the right budget, and you can achieve miracles but you have to work very hard to get that; it's hard to do Jurassic Park when you don't have the same kind of budget. But at the same time, I couldn't imagine going practical with the fish. I needed to have them CG - that was the only way to make them fast and nasty and vicious, and I think it was the only way to make them work.
Cinematical: This is one of the most hard-R movies I've ever seen in theaters. Could there possibly be anything else that the MPAA said was too much or too far to make it into the movie?
Aja: I never think, for my own sanity, about what the MPAA is going to say, because that's not my job. My job is to write and direct something that will really make me laugh or scare me as an audience member, and then the MPAA says, "no, you crossed the line." Many times in the past I did kind of cross that line, pushing and negotiating with the MPAA to get on The Hills Have Eyes or High Tension, to get them to approve the movie. But here, I have to say that I was very happily surprised – it was so amazing that they gave us the R without asking us to cut anything from the movie. They got it; they understood that we were not going for a real tone, that we were going for the fun ride. We were not making a drama, everything was over the top, and we were having fun and the movie was more like a comedy than a straight horror movie.
Cinematical: Although '80s movies featured a lot of nudity and violence, subsequent horror movies and movies in general have become a lot more conservative about showing naked bodies. This film doesn't have a lot of sex, but it's got a lot of nudity.
Aja: That's spring break. Spring break has a lot of nudity but not a lot of sex (laughs).
Cinematical: Other than it maybe being appropriate for the setting of the film, was there any particular reason, such as pushing the envelope ratings-wise, that you especially wanted the movie to feature a lot of nudity?
Aja: It seems appropriate for the story. But then I also liked in the story the revival of this style or the vibes that I got from movies in the '80s that disappeared from our screens for a few decades now. So it was a little bit of both.
Cinematical: Having done three films that are remakes or reimaginings, what appeal is there in working from an existing text, even if you're going to change it, as opposed to doing something completely original?
Aja: First, it's not necessarily a choice. The world of Hollywood has changed a lot these last few years, and marketing took over, and now the only thing that goes into production now are remakes, prequels, adaptations of video games, and anything that has like a cult following. For filmmakers, they have to accept the rules or else they will not work, and have to find their own creativity within these parameters. You know, I think The Hills Have Eyes was a remake – same story, same characters, we were just reinventing everything and trying to bring something new to each scene. But it was really a remake. Mirrors wasn't, and Piranha was definitely not. It's a new kind of movie, but it's not even close or related to the first movie; it's almost like a sequel. But I just think this is the only way to make movies today, but also there are some advantages because there are concept titles, [and] filmmakers have a lot of freedom inside these concept titles to bring something new and make it completely original. That was the way I approached making this movie – I tried to not think about me remaking something, but about myself just making an original movie somehow, even if it's a patchwork of references and a lot of influences from many, many other movies. I just tried to bring a tone that people would appreciate as something new.
Cinematical: I know that your next project is Cobra, a manga adaptation. Having done several films based on previous texts, at a certain point can you say "I just have to make a good movie, and forget about the source material," or do you always have to keep it in mind?
Aja: In Cobra I have a very different thing, because Cobra was for me something related to my childhood, and something that I grew up with. It was something that I watched so many times that it's not just part of my own culture, it's part of my own personal development. So I know it so well that even if I tried to not be faithful to it, I would still be faithful to it. It's so much inside me, I'm not even thinking, oh, I'm going to be faithful to it; I'm just thinking about making the best movie I could do with it, and know it will be faithful because it is something that I love so much and I know so much and so well.