Good horror remakes are few and far between, but Franck Khalfoun's update of the 1980 cult grindhouse slasher Maniac is the real deal. We spoke with Khalfoun about how he kept the project fresh, the challenges of shooting in first person POV, the film's throwback prog rock soundtrack, and Elijah Wood's impressive work ethic. Maniac screens as part of our Scary Movies series on Saturday, October 27 with Khalfoun in person for Q&A and again on Halloween.
How did you come to this project?
It was Thomas Langman, the producer of The Artist, and Alexandre Aja, whom I've worked with on many projects including High Tension, that came to me with the idea. They wanted to do a remake of Maniac, a movie that we all grew up watching. Especially Thomas, he was a real fan and he'd had the rights to the remake for years and I think because of the nature of the original, how groundbreaking it was, he was finding it difficult to find the right person or the right way to do it. I think I came with some ideas that made it clear to everybody that we could do something on par with the original.
I've always wanted to ask this of someone who's remade a film: How many times did you watch the original?
Well, I had known the movie from before and it had had a real impact on me when I was younger and, obviously, I watched it again when I started talking about making it. Then I started doing the research and I saw that, wow, it had a huge cult following, and that it was considered a groundbreaking film at the time because of its use of ultra-violence and gore. So that's how I came to really understand the project later on.
At what point in the process did you make the decision to shoot almost entirely from the killer's point of view? Was that in the script you got?
No, when I got the script it wasn't like that at all. My initial reaction to the remake was: no, I'm not touching it. It's a mountain to climb considering the impact that the original had and because it's considered such a classic in the horror genre. It's been copied so many times in other movies and now they're asking me to actually copy the movie, you know? So I said, unless we can figure out a way to do something original, I'm not going to do it. So I wracked my brain and came up with that idea. I figured that the timing was right to pull something like that off because I think audiences today are very used to the first person, either in video games or pornography. It's in our psyche now to be able to see something from the camera's point of view. I mean, we all have cameras on our phone, so I think it's easier to swallow this kind of direction in a film today than it would have been 10 years ago, let's say.
It's funny, in terms of copying the film, we did it in High Tension. We stole the bathroom scene from the original Maniac in Aja's film. So I'd actually been in movies that had stolen from it. [Laughs] So I wasn't going to do it unless I could come up with something completely original and something that would recreate the feeling of the film rather than trying to up the gore. I don't think you could have upped the gore, the original was so sophisticated, so you have to find a way to capture the feeling of the film rather than the shock value. The shock will be there anyway.
You and your cinematographer Maxime Alexandre pull it off very impressively. What were some of the technical difficulties or logistical ramifications of shooting it that way? I'm particularly thinking of all the mirror scenes…
You know, all the mirrors are practical. Everything is practical; it's all done with in-camera tricks. Obviously, it was important we had a high quality-looking film. When you're trying to submerge an audience into your world, it's important to have something that looks good and feels comfortable. So to do that you need to have the right equipment and it usually requires big cameras, big lenses, and here you're asking to put all of that in the place of somebody's head—in someone's eyes. I mean, it's easy to do a POV with your phone but it's going to look like shit. Doing it with the right equipment requires a technically savvy crew, which we had.
Maxime is incredible; he's very gifted not only in terms of lighting but in figuring out how to get shots. You can imagine what it's like to put a huge camera where somebody's head should be and then to have to work around it; the pans and the drives and all these things become very difficult. I thought: hey look, we can do this on a budget because we no longer have to cover the scenes as highly since it's all from one perspective, and yet it brought a whole set of new challenges that we had to tackle. It was fun! It was by far my favorite film I've made.
And how was it working with the actors like that, especially the actresses who had to, essentially, be murdered by the camera?
It's funny, I would always say to the actors: don't stare in the camera. You don't stare at me when you talk to me, don't stare at the camera too much. It's hard for actors to act into a lens and to have someone off to the side reading lines. It takes a little bit of adjustment from everybody, but I think the result is pretty effective. Especially the scenes with Lucie (Megan Duffy), when they're at dinner and then he takes her home and dances with her. All of that is really enticing and she plays to the camera extremely well. And Elijah Wood was fabulous because he was there all the time and he really became the camera. He'd guide us in a lot of the movement and I wanted Elijah's character and Elijah's creativity to impact the camera as well. It was an interesting experiment.
That's cool to hear, I had wondered how much of the filming he was around for since he's off-camera so much…
Yeah, and to his credit he didn't have to come. He was scheduled for not even half of the shoots and he came every day, regardless. He understood that his performance was going to be reflected off the other actors, so it's smart not to have somebody else deliver the lines. A lot of things he said got reactions out of the other actors and it was important to the film. He's a filmmaker, not just an actor.
Obviously the prog rock soundtrack is just great and so evocative, was that your idea or did it come from the music director Rob?
It was all of us, we all talked with the producers about what direction to take the music and we felt that it was not only an homage to the 80s but it's very hip today, too. It also sort of threw our character back in time, which is what we wanted. He's stuck in another time, specifically the 80s. It was definitely a group idea, but Rob's compositions were just fantastic… and endless! There was so much wonderful music that he provided to us and only maybe a tenth of it made it into the movie, so we had a lot of good things to choose from and we chose the best. I think it really functions for the movie and it hypnotizes you and brings you into this place, this frame of mind.
Definitely, and it also captured the urban landscape, which is something I wanted to ask you about. Your last movie P2 was also a very urban story and I was wondering if there was something that attracted you to tell these urban horror tales.
Well, I lived in New York for years and years and I always wanted to make movies there. P2 was supposed to be in New York but it was shot in Toronto. I mean, all we needed was a parking lot. [Laughs] And for this film we wanted to do it in New York again but when I got the original script it was like: “Lower East Side. Girl walks alone in the streets.” And I said: “Have you guys been to the Lower East Side in the last 20 years? It's packed with people, how is that going to work?” We've had to find a different place that evokes the vibe of New York in the 70s and early 80s. I had a theater in downtown Los Angeles years ago and it's perfect because downtown still has the right mix. There's money and there's all the homeless people and there's danger; it's all there. To me it more resembles New York in the 70s and 80s than anywhere in New York now. But yeah, I do love urban settings and I do love the concrete jungle, for certain.
Another change you made was introducing more flashbacks of Frank's mother and introducing her earlier in the film…
With the mother, too, we changed the era. In the original it was a 50s mother. It wasn't so much about showing the mother more but creating a mother that was more relatable to someone Frank's age—to today's audiences. The big difference was that you had a cigarette burning mother and an abused child in the original and in this one it's more about neglect and drugs and prostitution or sexual deviance. So it was really about adapting it to something more relatable. Does that answer your question?
It does and it also brings up my last question. Another update was, obviously, the use of technology, especially the dating website and the kinds of female characters on display, which were very different than the original. Was that in the script you got or did you have a hand in that?
Yeah, that was in the script I got from Alex and Greg and it makes sense that Frank would use some technology to be out there and hunt for women. Mostly the thing I did with the script was take a classic script and restructure it and rewrite so we could do the POV, because obviously when you do that you're no longer on the side of the victim. A lot of things have to change and you no longer have access to some of the filmmaking tools you'd have in a straight film. Making tension movies and horror movies is very technical and there are a lot of tools and techniques you typically use, and all that sort of went out the window. So my work on the script was to try to create a tense movie from one point of view.
Maniac screens Saturday, October 17 with director Franck Khalfoun in person for Q&A and again on Wednesday, October 31 a.k.a. Halloween! Our Scary Movies series runs from October 26 – 31 in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.