Filmmaker Alexandre Aja shares his director’s statement
Alexandre Aja – Director of Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple, based on Joe Hill’s novel. Alex likes to call it the inverse of It’s a Wonderful Life. Dark and funny. Alex is the only Gallic member of the Splat Pack (Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Zack Snyder are unofficial members too). The son of a French film director father and film critic mother, he made HIS bones (so to speak) in the horror genre – films like Mirrors, Maniac, Haute Tension, P-2, the very fun Piranha 2 and of course, anointed by Wes Craven to do the Hills Have Eyes. (Literally he handpicked him.) He also produces – his next is the feature film The Pyramid directed by his friend and fellow filmmaker Gregory Levasseur.
Alexandre grew up on American horror films, no doubt a little Gallic rebellion against The French Cinema (in caps on purpose) and his father Alexandre Arcady, a film director. (Interestingly while the son changed his last name, it’s a mash up of his father’s surname and his mother’s, film critic Marie-Jo Jouan.) Young Alexandre grew up on his father’s film sets so he knew his way around a camera at an early age – but his rebellion turned into a real passion for the horror genre.
Alex believes that horror is a great training ground for filmmakers – one has to do EVERYTHING in horror – dialogue, pacing, cinematography, music, vfx all contribute to the sensory experience. He says horror films are the ultimate collective immersive film experience and many “mainstream” filmmakers got their start in horror – Spielberg, Raimi, del Toro, Peter Jackson to name a few.
Here he shares his Director’s statement with The Fan Carpet.
“After having worked in horror for the last ten years, I felt that I became too familiar with the genre’s tropes and tricks and wanted to reinvent myself. It is only natural that my next film returned to the source of the genre- the gothic. When I first read Joe Hill’s cult novel, HORNS – I was intrigued by his modern-American allegory and found the mixture of tones to be incredibly fresh. I was moved by the love-story, humoured by the satire and morbidly amused by his absurd portrayal of human nature. Joe Hill wrote a gothic fable that touches on the motif of the double, the supernatural and the transgression of taboos. His gothic tale exposes and reaffirms society’s definition of normalcy and puts into question our modern addictions and contradictions. But what drew me most to the source material was the fact that it tapped into a universal mythology with a rock’n roll pop-culture edge. It was not just a parable about good vs. evil, but a supernatural thriller with a romantic quest at its heart.
Once Cathy Schulman from Mandalay brought me on board to direct, I spent months pouring over the book with our screenwriter Keith Bunin, and worked in developing the screenplay in order to make it as true to the novel as we could. There were so many layers, motifs and symbols that we brought back into the script in order to make the film as rich as possible. The story spanned more than a decade in scope as it moved between Ig’s childhood memories and the present day, and I wanted to pay homage to the “Stand By Me” Stephen King elements….
But the most important element for me was the story of the devil as the fallen angel.
Metaphorically Ig’s character was living in an idyllic Garden of Eden with Merrin, until her murder, after which Ig awakes with horns protruding from his skull. He discovers that they have the power to get people to confess their darkest secrets and so he uses these voiced temptations to piece together clues of Merrin’s murder while we flashback to their adolescent coming of age story. Love is his motivation for redemption, but he needs a dash of the devil in order to obtain the truth. In order to clear his name, he literally transforms into the devil and uses these confessions to unravel the mystery and plunges into the sinful depths of human nature of those around him.
It’s a reversal of Frank Capra’s A WONDERFUL LIFE with the tone of FIGHT CLUB.)”
Discussing the casting process, he said “When we began casting, I wanted to find an actor who could portray the dark and romantic side of the fallen angel – in other words, he had to be natural and charming with a pair of horns growing out of his head. The design of the horns almost preceded the casting in a way, and after researching the representation of the devil from Gustave Doré’s engravings in Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost to Gérôme and Goya’s 19th century paintings, I knew I wanted them to be organic, and resemble a satyr or a ram. Ig was in my mind closer to Shakespeare’s “Puck” or even the Greek Bacchus, in the way that he had to appeal to both genders in order to elicit compassion from them. As a result, Daniel Radcliffe became an obvious choice and happened to be a huge fan of the book as well. Ig’s character was an iconic role to play with an extreme emotional arc and it gave Daniel and opportunity to spotlight a side few had seen from him.
He begins as a sensitive and unlikely hero, tarnished and defamed by society. As we flashback to Ig’s younger self, we delve into the adolescent coming of age story that shaped who he has become today. But Ig has to overcome his innocence and embody the duality of sin and temptation with goodness. The role of Ig morphs into a dark and refreshing take on the devil myth as he becomes both manipulative and charming in an unnerving way. Continually haunted by his loss, Ig desperately tries to reconcile his desire for normalcy, with his compulsion to tempt people around him. The most ordinary situations become tormenting for him, as he discovers the harrowing truth about what his loved ones think, and reveals their every desire and frustration. It is a continual battle between good and evil, a rollercoaster ride that violates all expectations in a sardonic and yet heart-wrenching way.
In casting Merrin’s character, we wanted an actress who would be able to embody the archetype of Eve. Merrin represents the first mythological woman in all her innate goodness, purity and light in an otherwise dark and macabre world. But while she appears delicate, and her spirit drives Ig’s quest to avenge her death – we discover a haunting altruism and armor hidden underneath to protect Ig from the loss and pain she endured after her mother’s death. Juno Temple had this dualism of beauty and strength. Playing the role of Merrin gave her not only an opportunity to play a sensual lead as an ingénue – but to contradict that with a modern realism. She anchors the film as Ig’s muse, and pushes Ig forward to fight for his first love.”
Discussing the style, lighting and production design “The setting of the film was almost a character in and of itself, and it was important to me to find the ideal location for our abundant forest and our metaphorical Garden of Eden. We had considered Savannah and Louisiana as options, but Vancouver had more of a grunge feel to it that felt more in tune with the novel’s references. I wanted to avoid the overused forests that other teen franchise films were shot in, and so set out to find something unique. We spent weeks scouting in the mountains, parks and between glacial fjords to find our treehouse location. We found one dense area that had the most incredible moss I’ve ever seen, which covered the paths, hung from the trees and was naturally overgrown. It almost looked like a set because it was too perfect. Our production designer, Allan Cameron and I were sold and this became our treehouse location and the most important visual in the film, to which we return to over and over again. It’s where the characters of Ig and Merrin first make love as teenagers, where they find refuge from the world and finally where Merrin is murdered. Just as we began shooting the season was transforming from summer to fall, which worked out perfectly to mirror the storyline. The idyllic childhood past was green and full of life, whereas the dark present was bleak, with the leaves beginning to lose color and fall.
Gregory Crewdson’s photography really inspired me, as a way to heighten the supernatural in the mundane. I wanted to recreate this façade of sublime nature and peace in rural America juxtaposed with a scene of death and disaster. We found the perfect blue-collar setting in a lumberjack town nestled between the mountains that gave the grit I was looking for. It also ended up to be an indirect homage to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” which I loved and found many parallels with in our own story. Despite the harsh truths that HORNS paints, I wanted to echo the hyper-real stylized quality that I admired in Crewdson’s work, and so in order to achieve such a look we brought Frederick Elmes on board. As the cinematographer on “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart” he definitely had a Lynchian influence and helped us find a new visual language to enhance the surreal aspect of our story.
Another character, perhaps even more important than the visual imagery is the music and sound of the film. It underscores the novel, as devil mythology is rich and pervasive in rock and roll history. It is not without coincidence that Ig’s family is a family of musicians, and that Terry is a trumpet player. (In fact the town name, Gideon is a reference to a trumpet playing angel in the Bible.) Ig is a DJ and a black swan or outcast in a way that he cannot play an instrument but can only re-interpret, re-mix and connect us to a better past. As the independent music world has co-opted and assimilated the mainstream into its sound, we had to look to the classics, which are forever timeless. And who better to accentuate the literary romanticism and defiance of the fallen angel than David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and the Pixies? As our story moves between teenage angst and adulthood, I wanted to appeal to the grunge aesthetic of adolescence and of my generation. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were a big influence on the film not only lyrically but stylistically as well. Kurt Cobain was himself a certain gothic icon of despair, addiction and self-dissolution, which many of the characters in the film represent. Terry’s costume design draws heavily from Cobain’s iconic grunge imagery, he even plays a Daniel Johnston song on his trumpet (who Cobain brought to the public’s attention.) Just as rock and roll history is tainted with the musician’s death wish, so does Ig’s character embark on a dangerously destructive path to justice, and in the end sacrifice himself for love. Literally and metaphorically “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” The music has a voice of its own in the film, both source and score. I wanted not only our visual world to have a dualistic gritty and magical feel, but the music as well. The source echoes the rock, the edge- and the score is a beautiful cross between Angelo Badalamenti and Philip Glass. My composer, Rob, is a musical genius – and he wrote something grandiose that is haunting, lyrical, nostalgic and classic at the same time. He really transports us to “dream of places where lovers have wings.”
HORNS HITS CINEMAS ON OCTOBER 29 COURTESY OF LIONSGATE