Alexandre Aja is best known as one of the more prolific directors working in the horror genre this past decade or so. Part of a wave of extreme French horror filmmakers who came along in the early 2000s, his breakout film was Haute Tension (High Tension), a cat-and-mouse/slasher film released in 2003. That got him a ticket to Hollywood, where he’s directed films like Horns (based on the Joe Hill novel), Mirrors and well-received remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha.
He’s also produced movies like P2 and The Pyramid, and he’s wearing his producer hat on The Other Side of the Door, which went into limited release this past weekend. Set in India, the film follows an American couple (Sarah Wayne Callies of The Walking Dead fame and Jeremy Sisto) who are lost in grief following the death of their son. But when the mother learns about an ancient, abandoned temple where one can allegedly speak with the dead, she is compelled to go — but warned not to open the temple door no matter what she hears.
The movie, directed by Johannes Roberts (Storage 24), benefits from the real-life Indian locations in and around Mumbai as well as the eerie power of the culture’s attachment to its spiritual and supernatural folklore. Den Of Geek sat down with Aja recently to discuss India, making the film there and other upcoming projects including a TV series based on David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
Den Of Geek: What are the aspects that you want to be sure are in place when you decide to put your name on a movie as a producer?
Alexandre Aja: What I’m trying to do as a producer and when I have to put my name on something is to be sure that the script — it’s really about the story. It’s the script, and then to be sure that the filmmaker…Usually I always work with the people I know. So it was a first for me also to come on a movie where I never met the director yet. And so I needed some time to be able to be sure that he was sharing the same vision, even if the script was so good that I knew that’s something that I could have been directing as well.
So we met. We worked together in going back to the original story that he wanted to do, and tried to avoid the Hollywood development that kind of sometimes takes a movie apart without people realizing because there is too much involvement. I just spent time with him to understand if we could work together, if he could take some of my input, which is always here to help, and not to impose. But I cannot help myself either. I am also a director, so I don’t see the point if he is not here to say, “Oh, I will do things differently. I will do things such a way.”
But in a bigger sense, what I want is that the movie needs to be real. That’s a weird adjective, but, at the same time, it means a lot for me. For me, a movie is an experience. And if there is anything that stops me from the experience, I don’t like that.
A lot of the genre community are huge fans of the old Italian horror movies and stuff like that. And I understand. There are some great moments, great scenes. But some of those classic movies are just not cohesive. You just don’t believe in the acting. You don’t believe in the directing. Everything feels tacked on and just there for those payoff moments, which I don’t understand. Every movie I need to be able to actually forget that I’m watching (a movie). So to create that immersion, I want to be sure that there is the right budget, there is the right crew, and that there is the right people to make a movie as real as possible. That’s what I’m trying to find, besides the fact that I need to fall in love with the story and the subject, that’s what I’m trying to do as a producer.
What impressed you the most about Johannes?
I didn’t see any of his movies when I read the script. And then I asked him what I should be watching because he had made a few of them. He sent me F and Storage. I felt that F was really interesting. In the filmmaking there are some very good ideas. Storage as well was a good concept. Of course I was watching them knowing these movies were made with such a small budget, that it was very hard to judge. But at least they were something. And I think at that point in his life he wanted to step up and give himself the opportunity as a filmmaker to do a real movie.
The Other Side of the Door is not a giant budget either. But it’s a comfortable number. And, going in India, of course, gives you huge production value. So we had the tools and we had the crew members to actually make something that would look way bigger than what we had.
There is something that’s inherently eerie about dealing with the supernatural in other cultures. You can set horror movies in America, but we’re only 250 years old here. There’s not that kind of back history, except among Native Americans. But if you go to a place like India where there’s thousands of years of history and these huge mythologies, it’s just so much more to draw on.
There is so much more spirituality. In the Indian culture, the relation between the dead and the living is a much bigger part of something that they embrace. In our culture, we are so scared about death that we kind of keep it away and it’s kind of taboo. Living, by definition, is resisting death. So it’s the concept of life. But we’re not really embracing it in the same way that I think the Indian culture is doing. Of course it brings a lot of opportunity to create fear and a better grounded supernatural background. Because you step into Mumbai and it’s so chaotic and beautiful at the same time. It’s so scary and mesmerizing. You feel that everything is possible. I think that belief helps to create that fear.
Did you find that the Indian film crews all responded in a spiritual way to the material as well?
I don’t know. For them it was definitely different. Most of the crew were local and very, very experienced people who had done tons of Bollywood movies. But if you look at Bollywood, even when they make horror movies, because there is a lot of them, they don’t try to be realistic. They are always very baroque and over-exaggerated. The kind of naturalistic approach of what we were doing was very interesting for them to work on.
I think we had a really good time altogether because we were doing something new. But in terms of superstition, I didn’t feel that from the crew. I felt that from the Indian authorities. At some point we were pushing the script toward more use of (Hindu goddess) Kali. And they were not very comfortable of us using a proper goddess. So we had to name the creature and call it something else. But in the movie no one is really talking about the creature by name. I think that was one of the elements.
The other element is the Aghori (an Indian death cult) were a very big part of the story. When we tried to approach real Aghoris, everyone became very nervous, because even the Indian people are quite scared in a superstitious way from them. The Aghori are a real group of people. They live in burial grounds. They cover themselves with ashes. To become an Aghori I think you have to spend at least seven years in the burial ground without moving. So you have to come so close to death that you actually can experience the beyond.
That was one of the things where, watching the movie, I was thinking, “OK. Are these guys real or is it something that’s enhanced?”
Each of them are based on real photos. There’s a lot of journalist work on them and documentary work on them. But we couldn’t use any of (the real ones). They are very respected by the population, but they are very feared by the population. They are considered bad luck. So we had to recreate them. And if we had shot with the real ones, I think people would have been very uncomfortable.
You came out of the French film industry. You’ve worked the Hollywood system now for a decade or so. Do you feel like you know how to work the system? Or every time you do a movie is it something new?
It’s always difficult. I think I know now where the boundary is. But I keep pushing them somehow, or I protect the director when I’m a producer, or protect myself when I’m directing. But it’s always very hard. People have a lot of opinions and unfortunately a lot of people here are always thinking that they know what the audience wants instead of just focusing on what they want as an audience member. We all are audience members or we would not be working in this industry.
So, instead of just saying, “Oh, I would like to see that as an audience member,” they always say “No. This category of people, they like that. They like this.” That’s where everything gets really weird, because there are no such rules. You cannot think for the others. It’s an interesting thing. It keeps you on the tip of your toes always.
You were part of a group of filmmakers that came up doing horror. What are your thoughts on where the horror genre stands today?
It’s a fascinating thing. Among all the genres, it seems over the last few decades that the horror genre is a real phoenix. It can’t die. Weirdly enough, the only movies that get a wide release now and are successful are blockbusters or horror movies, which usually have at least a $100 million difference in budget. I think the only common thing that they have is both are like riding a roller coaster. They are a very physical experience. The spectacle in one hand, the fear in the other hand that can only compete with the spectacle.
I think this is an interesting thing, because before the representation of different types of movies in general were much more even. And for the last few years you have the Oscar bait movie, the blockbuster, and the horror movies and, right now, nothing really in between.
So it’s a great opportunity to make horror movies. But, in the same time, people watch so much of them that they get very, very critical. The bullshit detector has never been so strong in the audience’s mind and all of our minds, because, myself, I watch more genre than I’ve ever watched, because I was a teenager in the ‘90s and that was such a poor decade of scary movies. So I watched all the movies, but it was kind of clear what needed to be done to get back to scary stuff.
Today, to find something that’s really scary, it’s so difficult because there are so many things going on and now TV is doing genre big time. It’s a really challenging thing. I’m reading a lot of scripts. The number of directors that are doing genre has also increased a lot. It’s a very competitive space now. But, at the end, it always comes back to the two hours you spend in that dark screening room and if you were scared or not.
It’s also a genre that needs to be reinvented to be able to work, because you cannot repeat the same thing again and again. People know what’s going to happen. That’s the genius of a James Wan, to play with the code and be able to use it to delay, and delay, and delay, and delay the payoff and then, boom, it’s happening. It’s challenging but exciting in the same time.
I know you’ve got a film in post-production which is a different type of film. Tell me a little bit about that. And also tell me about Scanners because that is also in the works.
I have a few different things happening. One of them is I finished this movie, The 9th Life of Louis Drax, for Miramax. I’m so proud and so happy with the movie. I can’t wait for people to be able to see it. We finished it a few months ago. It’s a real psychological mystery/drama. It’s not scary. It’s not horror at all. But it’s very emotional. Aaron Paul is amazing. Sarah Gadon and Jamie Dornan are great.
The movie, it’s really, really original and unique, the story is. And it was a movie that Anthony Minghella was supposed to do before he passed. I’m really proud to have been part of it. I cannot wait for the movie to come out. It’s really different from anything I’ve been doing.
Meanwhile, I really love what we call the genre. I love that kind of story. So I’ve been developing this TV show Scanners for a very, very long time. But it’s hard, Again, TV is so competitive. And there is so much going on. But I’m working on other TV projects too because it’s also an interesting place to push the boundary. I feel that somehow TV now is a more open space to go into places that are darker where you will never go with movies.
So I’m also looking into that. And I’m getting ready for my next one. We’ll see.
What’s your next film project?
I cannot say. But it’s coming very soon.
The Other Side of the Door is in theaters now.