Alexandre Aja has quietly asserted himself as a master of gory horror over the past decade and a half or so with movies like High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. With his latest effort, Crawl, Aja stepped into the world of (relatively) high-budget creature features, and it worked out quite well, based on the general consensus. In a summer that was filled with many disappointing sequels and reboots, this alligator-infested, bloody ride proved to be a huge bright spot.
Crawl centers on a massive hurricane that hits Florida, leading Haley (Kaya Scodelario) to ignore evacuation orders and search for her missing father, Dave (Barry Pepper). Upon finding him in their family home, she discovers her father is gravely injured, as a pack of large alligators has found their way inside. To make matters worse, the two of them become trapped by the rapidly rising floodwaters, with little hope of rescue.
Scodelario and Pepper have to carry much of the movie on their shoulders alone. It's the kind of premise that takes a certain level of craft to accomplish. Luckily, the legendary Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) was along for the ride as a producer as well. I recently had the chance to speak with Alexandre Aja about Crawl in honor of its upcoming home video release.
Hi there Alex. How are you doing?
Alexandre Aja: I'm good. I'm good. What about you?
I'm great, man. Thank you so much for taking the time today. It's a genuine pleasure to get to talk to you.
Alexandre Aja: It's a pleasure to talk about the movie. Even more after following the movie everywhere in the world with the release. There's less pressure. It's nicer.
I know people probably say stuff like this all the time when they're talking to you, but Crawl was genuinely one of my favorite movies of the summer. I loved it so much, and I feel like the response was really good. Like you said, there's less pressure now because you know that people sort of received it well, but what was it like leading up to the release where you sort of didn't know how this was gonna go?
Alexandre Aja:Crawl is one of these movies where, when I received the script, I got the instant conviction that I have to make this movie. The story was so simple. All of the elements from the story of survival, to the daughter/father relationship. Everything felt so much like a crossroads between everything else I did or [was] trying to do over the years. But then I realized that conviction was not necessarily shared by everyone. A lot of people sort of go, "It's an alligator movie." And so we were pushing. And then when people are reading the script, to find a studio like Paramount to believe and give us the right budget and all the great toys to make the movie the way it is. That was also not an obvious thing. So when we talk about the movie now, after it turned out to be a success and got released everywhere and be successful, and has really good press from critics and all of that stuff, it is something.
It's funny you say that. An alligator movie, it's one of those things that feels like It's been done. But specifically this premise, it's one of those things that feels like it could have run out of steam really quick, but it didn't. There are so many layers to it, and it's awesome the way that it just keeps ratcheting up the tension. So how did you avoid the trappings of this kind of just becoming a gimmick?
Alexandre Aja: When I got the script, everything was taking place only in the crawlspace. It was just like two alligators. It was a very different type of suspense. It was more slow-moving. And I wanted to make it a one location picture, almost like a real-time experience. But I wanted the hurricane to become a presence. I wanted it to be intimate and the family home to being, you know, like the ticking clock with the water coming up from the basement up to the rooftop. The key was, can I make a movie that will not necessarily go into the gore and the bloody elements, but more like a suspense, high-tension kind of build-up. My work on the script with [Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen] was really to be sure that every scene was just building up. And also, it's a funny thing, I think it's a key of survival movies is when you expect something, something else happens and everything goes wrong every time. And so you really, really feel that they have no chance to make it to the end of the day.
Totally. And even though the hurricane becomes a bigger part of it, it is very much a one location kind of movie. Casting is everything for me with a movie like this, because Kaya [Scodelario] and Barry [Pepper] had to carry this whole thing on their shoulders. So how did you arrive at those two people for the roles of Hayey and Dave?
Alexandre Aja: It was very important that the movie remained the story of the character of Haley was off to save her dad. Most of the movies are usually the parents saving their kids. It's not very often the kids saving the parents. I really wanted this point of entrance. So I knew that the character of Haley was the key. I needed someone who could carry the movie on her shoulders. In a simple look, understand what was going through her mind when she had to turn around the corner in that crawl space. Not a lot of actresses are able to do that kind of thing because a lot of actors are just working off dialogue. There's just a little bit of dialogue in the movie. It's all about, how can you create that link with the audience to make that immersive experience?
Kaya had that because she has that kind of commitment. She had this kind of strength. I remember discovering The Maze Runner and thinking, "She has something." And so she was one of the first I thought about and when she said, "Yes," I knew I had the heart of the movie. Then for the dad, I had a lot of different ideas. And I wanted someone who kind of had this very classic American dad. Someone who could be very independent, almost like the coach, the one that can be very annoying sometimes. Barry really got that. He got that kind of dynamic. It was interesting because on set, the fact that he couldn't really be the hero and save her was a very frustrating part for him as an actor and as a father. But I was creating that perfect balance between the two of them that was feeding the story.
I think they were awesome together. Sam Raimi worked with you on this, and he is obviously a complete master of this genre. What I loved about it is I think both of your styles were infused in it perfectly. So what was it like collaborating with Sam on this? And how involved was he?
Alexandre Aja: I mean, I always wanted to work with Sam. I had a meeting very early on in 2003 to make a movie that he was producing called The Messengers and I went on to make The Hills Have Eyes. I always, it's not that I regret making The Hills Have Eyes but I regret not being able to work with Sam. When we wrote the script, Crawl, we went to him and he kind of said right away, Yes. I feel the same. I feel that we have very similar tastes. To work with him on a project that was so straightforward was the perfect opportunity because he could see clearly what could be improved, what could be tied up, anything at all. Can we build up the suspense? We were really working together toward the same goal. It was a really great collaboration. Sam is the kind of producer you dream to haven when you're a director.
Another thing that I noticed just though your movies because I've really been a fan for a long time, and this solidified it for me, you are a complete master of tone. Everything you do is very different. There's themes of violence, but everything is so nailed down in terms of being the exact tone that that thing needs to be. So how do you accomplish that from thing to thing? Because Piranha needs a very different tone than this needs. So how do you manage that is a filmmaker?
Alexandre Aja: I really, really appreciate what you just said, because that was a lot of the thing that came back to me so many times. The tone is too different. This is like too many films together. So I really appreciate what you're saying. I kind of have this approach of making a movie I want to see and when I receive a script I sometimes prefer to, before reading the script just have the logline and just start dreaming about that logline. It's really in that moment when you sometimes have this dream about the movie, you get the tone. You know exactly the kind of movie you want to see. And then sometimes you read the script and it's not exactly that, sometimes it's right on stuff. I remember with Piranha one of the reasons why I absolutely wanted to make the movie seven years before I actually did the movie was because of the film, and I remember meeting with a producer at the time that changed and went away. Of course, we pitched a lot of producers. That first producer of Piranha was like, "Oh, you know what? We need to remove all that stupid comedy and that campiness, and we need to make it very, very serious and straightforward." And at that time I knew it was not the right people to make the movie with. So I think that when you know exactly the tone you want to go for, you need to be sure that the people around, and especially the people that have the financing, the people that are like financing the movie, will support your vision because to make Crawl in such a straightforward way and so serious, but at the same time expect that the sun will come by the escalation of the tension and suspense, was a challenge. I know a lot of other producers would have said, "No, it's too serious. You have to make it way more campy. You have to make it way more fun. You have to make it way more over the top." And I think I would have been a mistake.
I do too. Piranha needed the campiness, but this works so much better serious. One thing again that I think that you've done very well is, between The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, you seem to know really well if a movie is going to be remade, how to remake it and how to make it fit the modern context. Are there any other horror movies that you've looked at and thought, "Oh, I would really like to remake that or put my stamp on that?"
Alexandre Aja: Should I be the remaker? Or should I try to find more original material? It's tempting, you know? Usually, I try to attach myself to the remake of a movie when I have a clear idea of how to make it very different. Sometimes, maybe better. I try to do something that's faithful and at the same time that could be watched on the side of the other movie. There are some movies that are just so good that it's so hard to imagine them in a different way, You take a movie like Robocop. Robocop is like a masterpiece. And yes, there is a way to tell the story. We're living in a time today where Robocop should be told even more and then when Paul Verhoeven did it. But at the same time, you will confront yourself with such a masterpiece, with such a perfect film. So to just repeat the same thing. It's not enough if you just reinventing. It needs more than that. So Yes, every remake is a challenge.
Alex it has been absolute pleasure talking to you. Do you know what's next? Do you know what's coming up for you? Do you have the next thing lined up?
Alexandre Aja: Yes. We're working on this new technology only for theatrical experience called the CtrlMovie. A haunted house project where you actually decide, like choose your own adventure. And it's a different type of immersive experience and smoking that's so exciting for us. We're doing that with Amblin.
Crawl is available on Digital HD now and Blu-ray/DVD on October 15 from Paramount Pictures.