Interview: Alexandre Aja on the Bloody Nature of ‘Piranha 3D’

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If you don’t know what type of film Piranha 3D is simply based on the title, there’s no helping you. It’s solely interested in over-the-top fun. The kills Alexandre Aja puts on-screen makes its R-rating mind boggling. Aja doesn’t pull his punches (similar to his previous films), but here the difference is Aja going more for pure fun rather than bleak horror.

Aja knows exactly what type of film he made. He was interested from the beginning in telling a comedic horror satire in the vein of the films he grew up on as a teen. Aja labels it as a “guilty pleasure” film, which many will agree with, but it’s something I question him on since one shouldn’t feel at all guilty for enjoying the epic bloodbath Aja has released. Here’s what Alexandre Aja had to say. Beware a few spoilers.

The film has been really well received so far. Were you at all surprised by the reviews?

You know, my attitude towards critics usually is that I want to be sure they think there are are super good ones and super bad ones [Laughs]. I want to be sure that the response is never warm or in-between. The most important thing when you do a movie is that you find an audience that really understands what you want to do and is really supportive of it. Of course if you find someone that saw what you did and understood it, you’ll always find someone that appreciates it. I was surprised to see such a great attitude and feedback [towards the film].

I’m really happy because a week ago I had a very tough conversation with the studio with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, which was about refusing to show the movie to press. I said, “Guys, we just finished it. We need to show the movie, because people will get it. People will get we went for a silly, guilty pleasure ride.” They were so scared. Finally, they accepted to show the movie to a couple of people. Now they were realizing what they weren’t expecting. You know, a lot of critics are really excited about the movie and have a great time watching it. They understood the tone of it and what we wanted to do. The studio wanted to present the movie as a straight type of serious movie, which is not the case. We are not remaking Jaws. We are like today’s Jaws Gone Wild [Laughs].

You just mentioned how each time around you want a different response. Do you consider this different from your previous films?

Oh, yeah. It’s very different, but I knew it was different and that’s the reason why I wanted to do it. I love the genre, but I’m always scared of doing the same movie again and again. When you do a slasher film you find yourself repeating the same kind of scene, then it becomes not very challenging and not very interesting. So I think so far I’ve done very different things. The Hills Have Eyes is very different than High Tension, which is very different from Mirrors. Piranha in the shape of it and everything is from another galaxy. It’s fun, it’s not serious, and it’s spring break under attack.

Would you say this is your most commercial film, as well? It’s bloody, but not in your face.

Yeah, that’s what I was trying to explain. Everyone is talking about the 100,000 gallons of blood in the movie, and yes, we might’ve used more blood than any other movie before. But we didn’t do it in a brutal way. I think the violence in The Hills Have Eyes and High Tension is much more traumatic than Piranha. Piranha is much more for a wider audience potential. I really wanted have Dimension tell that to the people. It’s very violent, but it’s always funny and always made with a dark humor and satirical attitude. It’s something that you don’t have in usual movies.

You’ve been labeling this as a “guilty pleasure” movie, but what do you think makes a film a guilty pleasure?

You know, growing up in the eighties you could go from one style in a movie to another style, and that was okay. In the nineties you had to obey your niche. You had to follow the code and never step outside of exactly what you’re doing. If you do a slasher movie, you need to make it serious and scary. You cannot have humor and you can’t have different styles. That was something that was really fun in the eighties. What I really tried to do with Piranha was I tried to navigate between the horror, the comedy, to the action and adventure, and just get the audience with me on that roller coaster and just go through the ride of a spring break attack.

Should you feel bad for enjoying something, especially a film that’s actually well done?

Yeah, I see what you mean. A guilty pleasure is something that’s, like, a direct-to-video film or just a B-movie. The term guilty pleasure is more for me as a filmmaker, not the audience. After Mirrors I could’ve gone for something more action-driven and serious, but I had to do this movie. I had to make that ode to my teenage years where we were watching movies and cheering whenever we saw a topless girl. I needed to go to that direction one more time. The guilty pleasure is more from my side. It’s fun because usually watching a movie three hundred times I get a bit bored, but this one I really had a lot of pleasure with rewatching it. It was like looking at a picture from a great party.

What made you finally want to go in that direction after Mirrors?

It’s something that was in the back of my mind for a long time. I received the script around six years go about when I was finishing The Hills Have Eyes. Dimension had approached me and asked if I was still interested in making the movie, and again, I wanted to do it and I wanted to something fun and crazy. It’s been so long since Evil Dead, Dead Alive, and all of that. I wanted to have fun with the risk of going in that direction.

I’d say the film is more like a big homage to Jaws.

Jaws is a masterpiece and you cannot equal it. It’s a perfect movie. I think the biggest problem with all the creature movies since Jaws was that they tried to redo Jaws. They tried to do the same thing. Every time it felt stupid because it felt like an intimation of Jaws. Here, we are so much into fun and following the teenager Jake Forester, who is so into spring break boobies, but has to babysit his brother and sisters. He has to escape and he does the wrong thing at the wrong moment. This is not Jaws. For me, it’s more like Gremlins meets Weird Science. It’s like the tone of Porkies. Porkies is such a great movie.

Just like Jaws, though, you had the great difficulty of shooting a lot on water…

You know, all those things you heard and read about the difficulty of shooting on water or underwater is all true. It’s absolutely insane. Everyday of making Piranha we were waiting two hours because of preparing the boats. The camera is on one boat and the actors are on other boats, and then you have the background location, which is absolutely beautiful and that takes another boat as well. By the time you set up your camera, everything moves and you have to start again. You end up standing around a couple of hours every day until you get it. It really drives you crazy.

How long did it take to shoot the big attack scene?

You mean, the spring break massacre scene? [Laughs] It was a very, very tough set up. We only had around nine days to do that whole twenty minutes. I didn’t just wanna have twenty kids screaming in the water and getting attacked, but I wanted to come up with new ways of killing them shot after shot. Of course, I had to restrain myself a little bit for a particular reason, but we still had a lot of deaths in the process.

When it comes to each one of those deaths, how detail oriented are you when it comes to planning them out?

Each death is on the page. You can read the script, look at the movie, and everything you see was really described on the page. After that, it’s getting it on storyboards. For me, making movies is a collaboration. I’m listening to everyone around me, because they could have a better idea or something different I could use. I have the say that when it comes to killing people [Laughs]. We had pretty good stuff on the page. In fact, it was more about choosing which ones we’d keep because of the budget.

Would you say this is the toughest film you’ve worked on?

Definitely. I should’ve realized that when reading the script. Reading a story shooting on water, underwater, in the heat, with kids, with CG creatures, the 3D, and with so many extras, it was a very challenging movie. There is something amazing with challenges. When you’re making something that’s difficult you’re coming to set everyday saying you’ll never be able to do it, but at the end of the day you realize you did overcome the challenge and you get something better than you expected. That really gets you addicted to that kind of shoot. It also creates a very strong bond between the crew and the actors, because everyone is surviving the shoot and everyone is on the same boat, so to speak. There is no favorite treatment and not even trailers. Everyone is waiting for the shot and getting ready to be in position.

When it comes to the tone of this type of film the actors are very important. Sometimes actors tend to go very over-the-top, but here it’s played pretty straight. What was the decision behind that?

You know, even if it’s a very funny movie and very gratuitous with gore and all that stuff, I wanted the movie to be believable. It’s not a spoof. It’s a real movie and I wanted the characters to be just as real as life can be. I did some research and a lot of studying during spring break to understand what’s going on. Everything I put in the movie I saw it somewhere. I tried to be very faithful to that insane atmosphere.

As for the piranhas themselves, were they all CG?

It’s like 97% CG. There’s a couple of shots where we were using puppets for insert shots.

Was it nearly all CG because they couldn’t be done practically?

Yeah. For close-ups it’s very easy to use puppets and to animate them a specific way, but as you get wider and see the fish swimming there is no mechanical feat that can achieve the reality of a pack of piranhas.

In the film we sadly don’t see Paul Scheer’s death, which I know was because of budget reasons, but what exactly was his death?

For the whole movie he’s wearing that sun protection on his nose, which makes his character look a little bit goofy. At the end he was managing to swim towards the shore and was just being chased by a couple of piranhas, and they were just biting him. Finally, one of them just jumps out of the water and bites off his nose. That was the scene. I put the scene in the deleted scenes, but it was very expensive and every shot had so much effects.

Lastly, there’s always been a political subtext in The Hills Have Eyes that I’m wondering whether or not it was intentional. At the beginning of the film the young democrat is made fun of for his anti-violence by obvious republicans, but at the end of the film he ends up fighting himself…

In The Hills Have Eyes that was definitely the subtext. I really liked the idea of these very conservative Americans being attacked by what they indirectly created. That was very important for me and I really had to fight the studio and Wes Craven to use the American flag and that reflection. Of course, you have that reflection of the hero. He’s kind of rejected by that family, who’s the only democrat in that family, and who’s very cowardly and resistant at the beginning. But at the end, he becomes that savage beast who’s going for revenge.

It’s really more about nature. I liked putting characters in extreme situations and wondering what I would do in that case. I really identify with the hero in The Hills Have Eyes as for what I would do if I was in that position. Would I have the strength to go after the mutants to get back the baby and become a beast like them? The subtext stops where they were fighting the people that they created and that were attacking. Besides that, it becomes more of an interpretation of what you should do and if you could become that hero. That vengeful person. That was intentional, yeah.

Have you had good relationships with studios, so far? You just mentioned the whole fight over the American flag in The Hills Have Eyes, but for the most part have your experiences been good ones?

I’m very lucky because any other American director who gets in fights with studios can be blacklisted and not find work easily, but I’m coming from France where there is a huge film industry there. I knew the day I would lose my freedom here, I could go back to France and make movies there with freedom. That gives me a confidence for my way of resisting them and fighting them. I really insisted on many things.

On Piranha, I didn’t lose a lot, but a few things I really wanted to have in the movie. For me, spring break is a metaphor for America and American culture. That one week where people go extreme and you have characters like Jerry O’Connell, and on the other hand, you have preachers with bibles trying to warn kids. I had a lot of different elements. I had an obese guy getting attacked by piranhas, and that was very important for me. I also had one guy dressed as the statue of liberty getting eaten, but I’ll have that added back into the Director’s Cut on the DVD. That was my little subtext.

Piranha 3D is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.