Accomplished theatre actor and director Franck Khalfoun appeared in Alexandre Aja’s slasherHigh Tension in 2003, and has now made his debut as director of the horror film P2. Set in a car-park, the film pits Rachel Nichols against her adoring – but extremely psychotic – admirer, played by Wes Bentley. We caught up with Franck for a chat about midnight in dark car-parks…
Have you been pleased with the critical reaction to P2?
I was very pleased with the critical reaction to the movie. I’m very proud that people are getting a kick out of it and find it thrilling and exciting….and somewhat realistic [laughs].
How did you overcome the problems of shooting a film in such a generic and confined space?
That was an incredible challenge. I think people make the mistake of thinking how simple it is to have one location, and it’s the opposite. It becomes quite tedious having to come up with creative shots every day in the same space. So it was a challenge, a real exercise in the basic technique of film-making for everyone.
What are the problems of maintaining tension in such a theatrical environment, from the point of view of editing and narrative pace?
In terms of the editing, Patrick McMahon – our editor – is an ‘old school’ guy who’d done lots of scary things and was very good at building the tension. Everything was overshot – tense moments were over-covered to be able to stretch time out and create the tension, which is how you do that. I think what’s most interesting in the process is the situation in which we were all plunged into, the actors and the crew; forced to shoot at night in a very dingy place, making for some very unhappy crew members and very unhappy actors. I was the only one that was happy to make my movie! Everyone else was miserable, so it was very tense. A very difficult shoot, and short, only 25 days, so that added to the tension as well.
So the old myth that making comedies is a very serious business and horror films an amusing one…didn’t apply for P2?
You know, I have friends who make comedies. I see their dailies and everybody’s laughing hahaha [laughs]…no, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife on this one. Nothing funny about it. It was very intense, very uncomfortable with very little time and shooting at night. And we had a very crazy character, and a character actor who got involved with his character and you couldn’t tell the difference. Couldn’t tell the difference between the psycho and the actor. All that combined made it a very unfair place!
And it shows up on film. I think Patrick did a wonderful job of cutting it together, but all of that was to the benefit of the movie in the end.
When making a claustrophobic film like this, with two characters in conflict for most of the film, is it necessary to control the actors’ relationship to each other, for authenticity? Or did it take care of itself?
It did take care of itself. I was a novice in terms of actors. My own experience with actors is in the theatre, and I think those actors are a lot happier to be involved in anything than film actors, and I had a tougher time. Doing it over again, I would exert more control of the actors outside the shoot, to better manipulate them inside the shoot. I think those are related, in a way.
I think you’re always directing them, whether you’re going to meet them after for a drink or whether you’re on the set with them, it’s always important to know where you are and to control that.
Do you think a two-hander like P2 might have daunted a director without your theatrical background? With the confined set, it was perhaps rather familiar territory for you?
Absolutely. It felt like a stage. The part of the movie that establishes the characters happens in the very beginning, and it was very helpful to have that theatre background to rely on and to be able to guide the actors and help them find the value and richness of their performances, if you will, and find those plot points in their characters at that moment – to really dig and have them search through it.
In the rehearsal process we were really able to define those moments when one character had the upper hand and when it switched, those nuances, when they finally look at each other and they knew they were going to switch there. The movie in itself is a typical cat-and-mouse, but also a psychological cat-and-mouse – a game between those two characters.
What attracted you to Wes Bentley and Rachel Nichols for the casting of the two leads?
With Rachel, she fit the profile of a woman who seemed intelligent and was a corporate climber, a woman living in that corporate world and with very little time to spend with her family. She needed to seem intelligent and well-spoken and at the same time when she down, literally and figuratively, someone who could look intense and vulnerable and at the same time could turn into this powerful figure who goes out for revenge. I think [Rachel Nichols] embodies all of those things. And she’s great to look at! [laughs]
For Thomas, we needed a guy who had range, since the character itself has a lot of range. He’s both compassionate and crazy, and he evokes compassion in the audience, and at the same time he makes them laugh. So with all these great elements we needed a real character actor to hit those high points. [Wes Bentley] is an incredibly talented and under-used actor, I think.
Do you think P2 fits in with the current cinematic interest in torture and extreme situations in horror movies?
A lot of the torture in P2 is psychological. There’s some physical stuff, obviously, and our villain loses it a couple of times, but it’s to protect [the Rachel Nichols character], so there’s some reasoning for it. It’s not just gratuitous violence. It’s done out of love. It makes it more interesting psychologically, and more twisted and entertaining, I think.
Do you think the accusations of misogyny in P2 miss the point of the movie?
I understand that that’s often the case [in horror movies], and I’m not re-inventing the wheel here. I did fight for Angela to be a very intelligent character, that was very important for me. She tries to use her wits to get out of that situation, and perhaps you gain a lesson on how to act in a situation like that – it empowers [women], rather than shows them as weak.
Are you a horror movie fan yourself, or is this something that fell into your lap as your first major project?
I’m a movie fan. My favourite movies can be horror movies or period films, like David Lean. I like good stories and interesting characters. I don’t like movies that are gratuitous or that are exploitative. I’m a big movie fan. It’s true that the horror genre is something that translates on a big scale worldwide, and is always a movie to do as a first movie. That happened with me – it’s an easier finance than some of the comedies or romances that I’ve written.
So not necessarily just horror, but all movies, if there’s tension and drama…I’m a big movie fan, but not particularly horror, no.
So your slate of future movies might well include comedies?
Funnily enough I tried in P2 to put some comedy in the characters. People come up to the character more if he has range, if somehow you associate with that character, who can make you laugh and make you cry and then scare you…that’s really people and that’s relationships that we have. You run into a crazy guy in the street and he’s gonna scare you, and your uncle’s going to tell you a funny joke…it humanises the characters.
In terms of my future, that’s what I want to do – to relate to people and tell them stories.
Where do you see the horror movie genre going in the next few years?
I think it’s still strong. I think there’s a wide audience for it, and they’ll always get made, whether the audience comes to see it or not. You can never tell whether an audience is going to go and see a movie or not. So whether or not a big studio puts $25 million behind it or you have two million to make your movie, or $100,000, they’re gonna continue to get made and they’ll continue to be exciting and there’s going to be an audience for them.
Have you left acting behind for good now?
Have you got a part for me? [laughs]
P2 is on general release.