Q & A with Director Alexandre Aja

Alexandre Aja — Director of “Piranha 3D”

Alexandre Aja — Director of “Piranha 3D”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Alexandre Aja, director of Dimension Films’ action thriller “Piranha 3D,” opening Aug. 20.

The Story (no spoilers): Every year the population of sleepy Lake Victoria explodes from 5,000 to 50,000 for Spring Break. This time around the kids have more to worry about than the usual hangovers because there’s something new terrorizing Lake Victoria. When an underwater tremor sets free scores of prehistoric man–eating fish, an unlikely group of strangers is forced to band together to keep from becoming fish food for the lake’s new razor–toothed residents.

Written by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg, “Piranha 3D” was produced by Mark Canton, Marc Toberoff, Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur. Starring are Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Jessica Szohr, Steven R. McQueen, Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames and Richard Dreyfuss.

Alexandre Aja is a passionate filmmaker with a talent for the art of fright and an impressive ability to evoke tension. At every turn Aja, a native of Paris, has pushed genre conventions in the style he first established with his 2003 thriller “Haute Tension.”

“Piranha 3D” is Aja’s sixth feature film. He spent three years developing the project with his long–time collaborator Gregory Levasseur. The movie’s unusual mix of humor and gore is Aja’s homage to the B movies of the past.

Wes Craven handpicked Aja to revitalize his own cult classic horror franchise “The Hills Have Eyes.” Aja’s critically acclaimed 2006 reboot of “Hills” was a great success, grossing over $100 million worldwide. Among his other features are the 1999 sci–fi film “Furia,” starring Marion Cotillard, and the 2008 horror thriller “Mirrors,” starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Q: How did “Piranha 3D” come about?
A: It happened like six years ago when “High Tension” was acquired by Lionsgate in the States. I started receiving a lot of scripts. I was looking for my next project — my first movie in English. It was before “The Hills Have Eyes.” I received a script that was so fun to read. It was a very simple concept — an earthquake releases prehistoric piranha during Spring Break at an Arizona lake. It was from beginning to end a really fun movie with a big potential of making it as a scary adventure (rather than as) a comedy. All the ingredients were here.

I went to do “The Hills Have Eyes.” A few years after, I received a call from Dimension asking if I was still interested in making it into a movie. They heard that I had really good feed–back on the script and was excited about it. I said, “Yes, of course. I am. It’s a movie that I cannot take out of my head. Every time I’m thinking about making a movie in the genre or in the vein of ‘Gremlins’ or ‘Jaws,’ I’m thinking about ‘Piranha.’”

So we had a great meeting. I explained to them what I would do with the script and they were very excited. We started the process of writing the script with my writing partner Gregory Levasseur for I would say almost a couple of years. And then we decided to do it in 3D and rewrote the script in that 3D direction.

Writing the script was like drawing the blueprint of a rollercoaster. It was everything that can make the experience really, really like a ride — not something traumatic, but more like an adventure.
Q: You aren’t credited as one of the film’s writers.
A: This is the Writers Guild system where they have arbitration, as you know, where they decide. I spent with my writing partner Greg like two years rewriting the script. I did much more than 50 percent of what’s required to be credited and I was kind of surprised by that decision. I mean, they gave the credit to the two writers that created the first story and we should have, I think, shared the credit with them since the script they had was very, very B movie. The movie, as it was, would have never been made. But it is what it is. (Since then the WGA’s threshold for a director to receive writing credit has been revised down to contributing 30 percent original material.)

You know, when I write in France I really want to always be able to write what I’m directing. I think the first step of directing a movie is to make the script yours by putting your directing sense in the writing. And that’s what I’m doing on every project. I did that on “Mirrors.” I did that on “The Hills Have Eyes.” And I consider that I did the same amount of work on “Piranha” that I did on the previous movies.
Q: When did you decide that 3D should be part of this project?
A: We were writing the script and I was thinking about how excited I was about “Avatar” coming with that new 3D technology. I saw some pieces of that new 3D technology before, but to see a world in James Cameron’s new movie with such a huge budget and such an ambitious scope was really so exciting. I couldn’t help thinking how exciting it would be, as well, to see a real R movie in 3D. When you’re making an R movie you’re trying to create a way to tell the story that (brings) the audience beyond the screen and be part of the experience of living the story, not watching it.

These kind of movies are a very visceral way of watching. If you’re not on the side of character you cannot be scared enough. So immersion (in the story) is a very, very important factor and 3D is one of the best tools invented to create a better immersion. So I was thinking that would be such fun to do in a genre movie. I thought “Piranha” was the perfect thing, something people would enjoy to see flying out of the screen.

I called Bob Weinstein to explain that and he got it right away — right on the spot. It took me five minutes on the phone to convince him that the movie should be in 3D. That was almost two years ago. It was before “Avatar” was released and before “Final Destination 3D” and before “My Bloody Valentine.” He went for that and from that moment the movie began to be in 3D. We wrote the script including the 3D and focusing on what elements would be flying off the screen. I thought because “Piranha” was such a pop culture movie it would be great doing the opposite of “Avatar” and really having as much as we could flying off the screen.
Q: You converted the film to 3D rather than shooting it in 3D. Why was that?
A: We were prepping the movie with James Cameron’s system and were supposed to do the movie in complete 3D. But we were facing two big problems. One was shooting in the heat of Arizona during summer with 110 or 120 degrees when all the electronics just melt. I’ve been there with “The Hills Have Eyes” in the same condition and I saw all the electronic equipment breaking down like every two hours because of the heat. And there’s nothing you can do.

But the biggest issue was that when you shoot stereo you have to be sure your left eye and your right eye have exactly the same lighting. It’s very important (to have) the same color and the same lighting if you want 3D that works. When you shoot above the water, the sun’s reflection on the surface of the water is changing. So whatever you do, the reflection on the surface of the water is creating a different light for the left and the right eye. So that’s something that in post–production needs to be fixed shot by shot, which means for all the movie.

The third thing has nothing to do with 3D — the way colors are treated with the HD cam under bright sunlight. You know, every time you’re (working) nights or in a control stage it can do amazing things, but unless you’re in very strong bright light you lose so much dynamic range. Everything looks very harsh and I don’t like that. So I was wondering what I should do. I saw 20 minutes of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” footage converted into 3D and I was blown away. For me, converting to 3D made no sense in the beginning. I was like, “Can you imagine the amount of work to create that?” And I saw 20 minutes of “King Kong” and I was like, “Wow! This is the best 3D I’ve seen so far.” So we started to think in that direction and we decided to go with the converting process, which means that we shot in 75 anamorphic and then converted everything. (A few minutes of 3D “Kong” footage were used in the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park attraction “King Kong 360 3D” that opened earlier this year.)

We were preparing ourselves for that during the shooting. We had a conversion supervisor with us at all times. We started the process of converting in early November (of 2009) and as I speak to you right now (in late July 2010) I’m still working on it. And I will still be working on it till they take the movie off my hands in a few days.
Q: What does converting to 3D mean in terms of added costs?
A: I remember an interview with Michael Bay a few months ago when he was saying that a good minute of conversion cost at least $200,000. I think it’s maybe (a very high estimate), but he is not completely wrong. If you want perfect 3D, it requires so much work and so much time. When I said we started in November and I didn’t finish yet, I didn’t stop one day to work on that conversion with the production house. I can tell you, of course, that “Piranha 3D” is not “Transformers.” We don’t have $200,000 a minute. We’re really, really far from that number.

You know, we are working with a new technique that no one really has applied yet. So we are discovering as we fly. Whatever we will achieve with this one will definitely help the next movie that will go for the conversion system.
Q: Some of the films that have been converted into 3D received very bad publicity because of how their 3D turned out.
A: It was completely different. We were supposed to be the first live action movie to be converted into 3D. The other one was “Alice in Wonderland,” but “Alice in Wonderland” being like half of the movie in full CG was not really like a full conversion movie. What happened with “Clash of the Titans” and “The Last Airbender” was really like an afterthought process. I understand studios pushing, but at the same time it’s making bad publicity for 3D and it’s making people not very happy with the 3D experience.
Q: It sounds like your film is a good fit for 3D effects.
A: Completely. That was the goal and everything has gone in that direction. We could have worked another six months on that conversion, but I think what we’ll have is definitely a thousand times better than anything that’s been converted before. The beauty of the conversion process is you have full control of the 3D and what you’re doing in it. You can really choose where the different planes are. You can choose what’s flying out and what’s flying in. You can choose what kind of effects you want. You can use whatever kind of lens you want, which is not possible with real stereo shooting. So for different reasons it’s very interesting.
Q: What was the budget you had to work with for 3D conversion and for making the movie?
A: I don’t know exactly. I think a couple million (dollars) for the conversion. We are between $25 million and $30 million (for the full budget, including 3D conversion costs).
Q: As you look back at production, what were some of the challenges you faced?
A: When I was writing the script, that little voice in my head was telling me, “Are you aware of what you’re putting on the page? You’re going to shoot in the desert during summer on the water with a thousand extras, a thousand gallons of blood, hundreds of prosthetics, make–up that’s going to melt in the sun, CGI piranha, kids and everything in 3D?” You can try to name it, but I don’t see any other challenge you can add to that list.

The only thing we avoided was, maybe, training animals. If we had a German Shepherd as one of the protagonists it would have been like the last thing I could have added to the gig. It was such a challenge, but I really like the fact that every morning you wake up and you have the feeling that you will never, never make the day and overcome your challenges. And at the end of the day you realize that you did better than you wanted and you’re happy with that.