The LRM Interview: Horror Master Alexandre Aja on Thriller, The 9th Life of Louis Drax

It’s hard to say much about director’s Alexandre Aja’s latest movie The 9th Life of Louis Drax without spoiling some of its many twists.

Based on Liz Jensen’s novel and adapted by actor Max Minghella (who appeared in Aja’s previous movie Horns), the thriller stars Aiden Longworth as the title character, a young accident-prone boy who has survived numerous near-death experiences only to fall off a cliff while picnicking with his parents (Aaron Paul and Sarah Gadon). The fall puts Louis into a coma and as his father, the prime suspect, goes on the run, Louis’ mother starts to have feelings for his doctor (Jamie Dornan), who also wonders if there’s more to what happened than what he’s being told.

Although there are some classic horror elements within Louis Drax, it’s a very different beast from the more grotesque and violent films Aja made earlier in his career, like High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, and you can get some idea of the tone in the trailer below:

LRM sat down with Aja at the New York junket for his movie and learned all sorts of things about him, including his love for director Brian De Palma’s psychological thrillers, which he said have been a huge influence on all of his work, but especially this movie. He also told us briefly that he’s still hoping to adapt the Japanese manga space epic Space Adventure Cobra, although they have to find ways for it to be different from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.   

LRM: Do you feel this movie is very different from the other movies you’ve made?

Alexandre Aja: Yeah, it wasn’t deliberate. I wasn’t looking for a way to escape horror in one way or another. It just happened. Piranha was already, for me, a horror-comedy, so it was already a movie that was not supposed to be scary, but was more of a run rollercoaster ride. Then I read Joe Hill’s book Horns, and it was even further pushing the dark comedy with a supernatural love story fable. And then I was on set of this movie, and directing Daniel Radcliffe and Max Miinghella, and Max told me about this book that his father was supposed to direct, The 9th Life of Louis Drax. He told me about the script he was writing based on the book. He gave me the script, and I have to say it was one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read. It was a very emotional, suspenseful mystery. When you work in fear, you always seek to find a good way to create immersion for the audience. In fact, the best way to create immersion is the mystery. When you have the right mystery. When you really have everyone on the cliffhanger of “Who pushed that boy? What happened to this young boy and why?” you know that they’re with you for the ride.

I had that feeling when I was reading the script. I felt that it was some post-modern Hitchcockian mystery that was really interesting, and its emotional twist caught me by surprise. Yes, it was somehow a way to expand a little bit what I was trying to do with Horns, and by doing that, it was also taking a step even further away from horror. I realize that now, but it was not on purpose. I love horror movies, and I’ve been reading a lot of scripts and looking at a lot of projects, trying to find something that’s very different from everything I’ve done before that would be very scary.

LRM: There are horror elements in this…

Aja: No, there is.

 LRM: There’s a moment when Louis’ mother and doctor are kissing and Louis sits up glaring at them, which is right out of one of those movies about possessed kids or “The Omen.”

Aja: Yeah, like Brian De Palma. I mean, I love this Brian De Palma period. He’s one of the most influential directors on my work—that Dressed to Kill period, for me, is the perfect way of controlling the suspense and extending it, and that’s somehow what I wanted to try and do with this one as well.

LRM: Had Max written the script in hopes of playing one of the roles in it? I know when actors write stuff, they often are writing for themselves.

Aja: No, Max never mentioned any interest in being in the movie. He really wrote the script, and he put a lot of his own personal feelings into it, and I think that’s why the piece is so beautiful. Then he wanted to produce it and he was a great producer. We were all together on set, talking, and it was an amazing cruise to make this movie. 

LRM: Did you go back and read the novel yourself or did you trust what Max saw in it?

Of course I read the novel, and I really love every choice he made. Strangely enough, the book is an English novel, but it’s set-up in France. I thought that to set-up the story in San Francisco was so much more interesting, to go back to that Hitchcockian vibe. There was something that was so obvious in the script that going back to the book, I knew that he had made the right choices.

LRM: A movie like this can be challenging, partially because it’s non-linear, but also, there are a lot of moving parts and you have to make sure they fit together. Did you find that to be a challenge?

Aja: It didn’t feel challenging to me, because I read the script as a viewer and everything was in the script, and I really loved that. I even pushed Max during the period we worked together to go further in that deconstruction of the storytelling. So yes, I was happy to see that  all the pieces coming together was working actually.  Of course, there’s always people who say, “Oh, it’s confusing—we don’t know where we’re going,” but that’s the beauty of cinema, where you don’t know where you’re going. You’re like that boy falling from that cliff. You don’t know where you’re going to land.  

LRM: Let’s talk about Aiden, because he’s obviously a great find. His scenes with Oliver Platt were especially fun. How did you go about finding Aiden and know that he could carry so much of the movie?

Aja: We looked into a lot of different kids. I have to say that Aiden came and the first casting session, he read the cave scene with the sea monster, and we were all very emotional by the end of his read. I thought that if he could move us in the most boring white room, without direction or anything, on the day it would be spectacular, and I think I was right. He’s a really, really great actor, and he matched exactly the voice I had in my head reading the script. 

LRM: When I talk to other directors who work with kids, they often say that they don’t want kids who are trained actors who don’t come across as natural, but the character of Louis Drax has to be a kid who can deliver that very specific way he speaks, which is deliberately not very natural.

Aja: But he wasn’t that trained. He participated in a couple of things, but he was quite green. It was the first big thing that he had done. I saw a lot of kids who were WAY more trained, but he didn’t have that fresh approach. It’s very important that Aiden was a little bit the character—not that he has accidents—but he was very curious about everything. He was asking questions all the time.  He had that very smart way of thinking and common sense in the adult world that was very important for the character.

LRM: I mentioned “The Omen” earlier, and it gets a little into that realm of horror—“The Bad Seed” is another one…

Aja: Yes, you feel at some point that he’s hiding something. It’s all about who’s hiding what, and all about why is she protecting her violent husband? Why is he protecting his parents? It’s all of that until you find out the truth. 

LRM:  I also thought it was a revelation for Aaron Paul to play a father, because I don’t think he had done so before. He’s great in his scenes with Aiden, and it’s not something you’d expect.

Aja: He was amazing. He played this very violent figure in the beginning that’s the prime suspect for the cops, and he’s on the run. And then you start seeing through flashback that he was a different type of father, that he’s more than you expect. And without spoiling too much, I think people who like Aaron Paul will love him in this movie. 

LRM: I noticed that you worked on this with the same DP you used for “High Tension,” so do you generally try to use the same crews?

Aja: There are some people… like this was my 9th movie with Maxime Alexandre. We did High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors, Maniac and other movies I produced—The Other Side of the Door—a lot of different things together, so it’s someone I know very well. Unfortunately, he was not available on Piranha, that’s why I went with someone else, and the same happened with Horns. But usually I like to work with the same group of people. I always work with the same editor, Baxter. I love to work with K&B—Mike Kruper and Greg Nicotero. There is a lot of people that are coming back, and it’s a family. You like to see them, and you’re excited to share a new adventure every time with them.

LRM: You mentioned earlier wanting to do another horror movie that would be very scary, so how do you feel about the state of horror at this point? You came through the French wave and then went into the remake wave and then you got out of that. How do you feel about it now?

Aja: I’ve been reading so much and looking into original ideas and remakes. I dream to find the right piece. I want to make something that’s so unique and scary and come back to it, but I just need to find the rightmaterial. I read some very good stuff recently. Friday the 13th, I would have loved to do this one—the new one they’re going to make. They chose someone else, but it was a really great one to be doing.

LRM: Is there more pressure to doing movies like that? I think both the ones you did—“Piranha” and “Hills Have Eyes”—they were cult movies. It wasn’t like remaking “The Omen”…

Aja: The Hills Have Eyes was a cult movie, and Maniac was cult, but when I look at Maniac, Piranha and The Hills Have Eyes, I think that we managed to reboot these movies in a very different way, and I think that’s why they exist and why they were successful for that reason. 

LRM: I think when I saw your version of “Hills Have Eyes” I wasn’t sure about it, but I recently went back and watched Wes’ movie, and your movie is definitely in the same vein. On IMDB, I saw your name on a thing called “Space Adventure Cobra” based on a manga, so is that something you’re still developing?

Aja: It’s a dream project. It’s a very ambitious, big Star Wars, pirates in space, Guardians of the Galaxy kind of… we had done a lot. We were ready to go before they did the movie, and in many aspects, it’s very, very similar, the tone and the jokes and the characters. We’re trying to find a new way to do it in a different way. It’s maybe one of the first huge Japanese comics—any Japanese person would know Cobra. Many French people know Cobra—it was a huge success in France—but in Japan in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, it was the first huge mega-blockbuster in the manga world. I would say that it’s like nothing here. Basically, if you look at the number of manga that have been sold. A success in the manga world is 20 to 30 million copies in Japan. Here, it’s 100,000 copies. Even in France, a million copies is usual. Here, I don’t know why. It’s the culture of the comic book that no one is buying. 

LRM: It’s getting better. When something like the first issue of a “Star Wars” comic sells a million copies, you wonder how come the second issue only sells a couple hundred thousand, and you wonder who is actually reading them and not just putting them away to collect them.

Aja: I don’t really understand why France is so big in graphic novels and comic books, and why the U.S. has that culture but without the number that goes along with it. 

Aja’s new film The 9th Life of Louis Drax will be released in select theaters on Friday, September 2.

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