In the French grindhouse thriller High Tension, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn) are schoolmates and best friends. Hoping to prepare for their college exams in peace and quiet, they decide to spend a weekend in the country at Alexia’s parents' secluded — very secluded — farmhouse where there isn’t even a cell phone within 20 miles. In the dead of night, a stranger knocks on the front door, and with the first swing of his knife, the girls' idyllic weekend turns into an endless night of terror (or 91 minutes… but who’s counting?).
The movie hits theaters Stateside on June 10, 2005 and Horror.com was lucky enough to get this exclusive interview with writer/director Alexandre Aja over the phone while he was scouting locations in Morocco for his next picture.
Staci Wilson for Horror.Com: I imagine you must be pretty excited about all the attention your horror movie has been getting.
Aja: Yeah. On one hand I am very shy about that and at the same time, I am very excited. I’m so sorry to not be able [to be there in the U.S. for the premiere] because I’m in Morocco in the desert, in the middle of planning The Hills Have Eyes [remake]. We are shooting in two weeks. But it’s been great. It’s unexpected and really amazing.
Wilson: I realize High Tension has been out in Europe and quite a few people I know have seen it, but I just got my first look the other day. I really liked it, especially the beginning which reminded me very much of one of my favorite Dean Koontz books, Intensity. So I mist ask: was that story an influence on you when you and Grégory Levasseur wrote the screenplay?
Aja: When we started writing this story, years ago, we were working on our first feature film in 1998 or 99 and we tried to make this very simple, classical storyline which is: two girls, a house, one night and one killer. We made a tribute to all the movies and all the stories and all the different influences over the years. I know Intensity, I know Dean Koontz, and I am a big fan of his work.
We [my partner Grégory Levasseur and I] grew up with all these books, we grew up with Stephen King, and all these films. Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Dean Koontz, Stephen King — all these people are influences in a way, but this movie is really a tribute to all these different kinds of stories.
I was very surprised, reading on the Web, people saying “Oh, that’s Dean Kootz’s Intensity,” or “Oh, that is Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Yeah, we are making a movie which is classic. I mean, the storyline doesn’t get more classic than that. There are dozens and dozens of movies with this simple storyline, so what we tried was to make a tribute to all the people we like. Dean Koontz was not the first one to try this; he is just one of many. I’ll give you an example: Maniac, the William Lustig movie, is also set in… We tried to take the essence of what it is with [our] maniac. The scene in the gas station restroom [in High Tension] is exactly an homage, a tribute, to Maniac.
I’m happy at the same time, because people understand that we are making this film [as fans of the genre]. Before we became filmmakers we were the core audience, we were the ones who go out and watch all those movies.
Wilson: From what I’ve read, no one seems to be saying it’s a copy or a rip-off; they seem to ‘get’ that it’s an homage. When I saw it, I felt like you had brought something of yourself to what could have been a tired story — how do you see yourself in terms of having a style as a director?
Aja: I’m still very young. I’m 26. I don’t know if I really have a style; what I tried in High Tension was to make a kind of… It’s very hard to say in English [chuckles]… I tried to stay more distant. I don’t like when you’re watching a movie and you just see the movement of the camera.
You’re still watching a movie, but this movie is so strong it takes you out of your seat, into the screen and you are taking part in all the decisions of protagonist in the story. In High Tension [you ask] What are you going to do? Are you going to hide under the bed, are you going to jump out the window? That kind of stuff.
Wilson: I did appreciate how in the scene when Cécile is running through the woods you didn’t go for the shaking camera. That is so overused — and it makes me dizzy! You made it look realistic.
Wilson: I interviewed Cécile briefly when she was here doing press for Around the World in 80 Days [remake] and she struck me as being a very up and vibrant person; what was she like to work with?
Aja: She is amazing. She is the best French actress working right now. She can do everything, she can play anything. We shot High Tension before she did Around the World and you watch the two films, it’s hard to believe. I’ve told people, “You know the girl from High Tension, she is in Around the World,” and they go, “No. It’s impossible.” She is so different and that’s what makes her such a good actress. I think no one could play Marie like her, and I have to thank her everyday because brought so much to the movie. She brought something so real, so strong, and our collaboration was also a very, very strong one.
It was the perfect collaboration, and it was not so easy to find a girl to be able to play that because Marie in High Tension is 99% [of the time] on-screen. She plays so many different kinds of fear. We looked at all the young French actresses while casting and all of them were playing the fear the same way every time, but Cécile played the fear so differently. She is never repeating herself. She is always playing something different and that is very, very difficult.
Wilson: What was the atmosphere like on-set? I mean, you’re working with such dark material… was there a reverence, or an irreverent vibe when camera weren’t rolling?
Aja: When you are making this kind of movie, it’s actually very funny. On the screen, it’s scary, it’s traumatic, there is blood and violence. But when you’re on the set, it’s kind of a kindergarten spirit because you are playing with the prop blood like you’re painting, it’s sticky, and it’s very funny, in fact. Sometimes it’s very hard to start working and play the situation. We are having a lot of fun making this kind of movie, even if on the screen you get a scary feeling — it’s actually really funny to do.
Wilson: This is a pretty gory film; in order to get the R rating in America, did you have to cut anything?
Aja: What we cut is really nothing. It’s like a couple of minutes.
Wilson: I understand that Lion’s Gate asked that you make a change with the language, and you had some English dubbing put in?
Aja: In fact, when Lion’s Gate picked up the movie, they were facing two situations: One was to make the movie with subtitles in limited release, and the other was to release the movie in wide platform with dubbing. But the action is taking place in France, and the people are talking in French, and to dub them with American accents looks silly, like it’s comical. There is not a lot of dialogue in this movie, there is maybe nine minutes of dialogue.
Wilson: Is that really all?
Aja: Yeah, I think it’s nine or ten minutes. What we tried to do is, find a solution, making the action take place in France, Marie is French and she’s going to spend the weekend with her girlfriend who is an American girl with an American family living in France. So when she is talking with her girlfriend and the family, she is talking English through the first section and then during the rest of the film she is talking French with subtitles. When you watch the movie today, it looks like it was made that way. It works very well.
Wilson: How would you best describe High Tension for a potential audience who is not sure what to expect?
Aja: High Tension is a very real and scary roller-coaster inside the mind of a nightmare. I think it’s something that, at the end of the night, the protagonists of the movie are more than exhausted — they are barely alive, and what I like is watching the people coming out of the screening room and feeling that they are also barely alive. [chuckles]