ShockTillYouDrop.com is sitting with Aja on the arid, overcast Arizona set which is situated on a ranch tucked behind an Amblin film-esque neighborhood. The production has successfully made its mark on Lake Havasu, a popular tourist spot just a few miles away, quite literally turning its water red with spilled fake blood. Yes, it's hot. But not oppressive. No reason to go running for the three giant stacks of bottled water yet.
Today, Aja, this writer and the crew are perched on the edge of an in-ground tank, the largest of its kind in North America. For the purposes of the film, it's meant to resemble a section of Lake Victoria (Havasu's fictional name in the film) where the crew can do some underwater work. On the far end of the tank, 75 feet or so beneath the surface, is a set all its own: A cave where the film's titular nasty nibblers originate from and wreak havoc on Victoria's spring breakers.
And apparently I've missed something big. Before me, in the tank, is a small dock and two half-submerged boats - the result of a deadly piranha attack. The vessel farthest from us is named the "Barracuda." This afternoon's action is taking place on the closer party boat with a glass floor that Jerry O'Connell's character uses for his Girls Gone Wild-style program. Aja assures me the floor is put to good use with shots of naked swimming beauties (like Kelly Brooke and porn stars Riley Steele and Ashlynn Brooke) who will look like they're "swimming over the audience" in 3-D. Yee-haw.
Presently, the floor is a means of escape for McQueen who's tethered underwater and about to swim up through a hole in the glass and into the heart of the boat. Aja fires off a take, hindered briefly by a few problems: A stand-by scuba diver is conspicuously drifting into the shot and the line holding McQueen is being stubborn. The actor hits the surface and climbs onto the top of the boat. He's immediately met with a towel to cover up, but not before I spy the giant blotches of blood stains on his shirt.
Yes, it's a rather light and quiet day action-wise on the set. Busy work is happening all around, no doubt. Two crew members in one spot have a stunt jet-ski attached to a rig. An FX technician walks by with a fake head of Ashlynn Brooke, the back of her skull hollowed out.
The weather has affected the schedule forcing Aja to push much of the juicy stuff to the following day. Elsewhere, on Lake Havasu, his writing and producing partner Grégory Levasseur is waiting for the clouds to pass so he can begin the day's work on second unit. Levasseur isn't the only one on Piranha 3-D from Aja's High Tension days. Franck Khalfoun, who played that film's hapless gas station attendant, is sitting nearby. It's his last day of acting work playing a deputy for Shue's Sheriff Forester.
As McQueen saunters off to hop in the warming pool, Aja takes some time to talk about his third American remake after The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors...
ShockTilYouDrop: Is this your biggest picture yet?
Alexandre Aja: It's huge, it's nothing compared to Mirrors. It's completely a different movie, but it's also a different scale. Piranha is a big disaster movie and we have so many characters, so many actors, so many extras. Everything is taking place during the most crazy, insane spring break you can imagine.
Shock: How are you handling it stress-wise?
Aja:I was very stressed before because it was the most challenging hostile element that you can imagine, from shooting above the water, special effects, visual effects, special effects makeup, the heat - 120 - kids, animals, CG fish, everything. You name it, we have it. Finally, on set, I realized that making a movie on the water is one of the greatest things ever because you're in open space all the time. You can swim during the day, so when it's very hot, it's very great. [But] it's pretty intense. Yesterday was our last day really on the lake, it was very kind of moving. It was really hard, but we managed to get so much great stuff out of it.
Shock: How did you convince the powers that be, to do a sequence like we've been hearing about with 500 extras, a full-on massacre?
Aja: During the whole process the idea was to do a movie like "spring break under attack," so it was the whole idea. Of course any studio would have tried to "Less is more. We care about the characters, we don't care about spring break," because it was a huge scene, nine days of shooting. It was really big. I don't know how many hours, but I would guess around 25 or 30 hours of dailies, five cameras. It was, in every scale, really huge. The special effects guy told me [around] 5,000 gallons of blood. I think it's a little bit over because it's cutting the blood with the water, but it's pretty sick. Lake Havasu was completely red for a few days after. All of that together, it was the only reason why I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to have that huge scene. [I wanted to have] a movie that starts like a spring break where you can have some fantasy on it and then turns into a big nightmare.
Shock: The original Piranha had humor in it. Is this the first Aja film we're going to see with a funny bone?
Aja: It's completely different from anything else that I've ever done before and it's very, very dark funny. It's scary as well. We are much more on the The Frighteners, Braindead, Gremlins side than like the other movies before. We are completely throwing popcorn. We are going for the rollercoaster ride. We are here to spend an hour and half in the most insane world that we can imagine. The movie was funny even while writing. The first script I read five years ago was already that idea of "spring break under attack" and it was already something very iconoclastic with a kind of subtext about American culture. Like spring break being the incarnation of the American way of living in excess and the piranha being the unexpected dilemma, the uninvited guest that's going to just crash the party. It's so in the vain of all those guilty pleasure movies that we had in the '80s. Just the rewriting of the script was following in that direction. I think even directing the movie and shooting everyday those scenes together is exactly what we achieve. We achieve to create that kind of movie that you would have died to have seen when you were 12, 13, 14, 15, 16... monotonous
Shock: How much screen time is Richard Dreyfuss going to have in this?
Aja: You'll see. It's very funny because it's an unofficial, indirect sequel or spin-off [of his Jaws character]. So, it's funny.
Shock: Did it take much convincing to get him on board?
Aja: When you write a character and you think about an idea... When the idea for Richard Dreyfuss to play this part came to us, we couldn't imagine anyone else. The studio really supported us in that decision to get him. From the glasses, to the outfit, to everything you'll see.
Shock: That's awesome. You've also got Christopher Lloyd!
Aja:For our generation Christopher Lloyd is that kind of...I couldn't imagine anyone better than him to play that old adventurer that came back to Lake Victoria to open a pet store, but still passionate about preserving the species and stuff. We were shooting that scene last week and the way he lights up when he starts to be passionate about something, it's dark, there is no question. It just belongs to that kind of pop culture mix that we are trying to create here.
Shock: Did you reach out to Joe Dante at all?
Shock: Yeah, what did he have to say?
Aja:His only advice was, "Even if you go with CG fish get some puppets."
Shock: And did you take that advice?
Aja: We have some puppets in the truck.
Shock: Can you talk about the design of the piranha as well as what they're capable of in the movie?
Aja: For a few months we didn't have time because we pushed the shooting back with Neville Page, the designer of the fish. We went through all the deep sea and prehistoric species still alive, and all the different documents we could find about it. Then, we tried to think about the way they were two million years ago and how they were able to survive. The design that we were able to create is a good mix between all the old species without losing what makes it a piranha - the size, not too big, the tooth shape, and many other features. Then we were following some very logical elements like, they were [in this cave] for like a million years feeding on other species and killing each other. They would lose some senses like vision and give up some other ones. That's a little bit of direction. And then, when you study the piranha you have a piranha that can jump a meter out of the water, three feet out of the water. We used all the kind of different skills you can find in nature.
Shock: So no POV shots from the piranha ala Jaws?
Aja: They're mostly blind, but we'll follow them. We'll be in the middle of the school. We're working with amazing people. The guy who's doing our visual effects...I'm very confident about CG and what we're going to achieve with it.
Shock: Do you see this as having the potential for a series?
Aja: There are many stories and the movie ends in such a way that there are a few sequels possible. We'll see.
Shock: In some early photos of Elisabeth, she looked as if she had been doing a bit of training...
Aja: I wanted like a very tough sheriff for this town, someone believable and someone sexy at the same time. She had, at first, a very great physical condition. She's a big tennis player, but she really trained to be that new Linda Hamilton. She's impressed me in the situation and everything. [Steven McQueen] is the real leader of the movie because the whole story is about that guy Jake who is the older son of Elisabeth Shue. This guy, year after year is forced to do some babysitting over spring break, so he's missing all the fun every year and this year he just wants to have fun. That's the whole beginning. And he's really the guy who's carrying out through that fantasy of spring break that's going to turn into the blood bath.
Shock: What 3-D process are you using for this film?
Aja: It's very bizarre because we started the process by talking about using the new system that James Cameron used [for Avatar]. I realized along the way that those cameras were forcing me, first, to shoot in HD and then there were too many technical parameters that were not good. So, we heard about a new technique they were developing that nobody really used before which is the conversion. The conversion is more expensive, much more work in post-production. You're basically shooting the movie in the traditional way thinking 3-D and then the whole movie would be converted by computer. The camera in 35mm is shooting all of us here and then the computer is going to modelize each of us in 3-D and inside the computer you're going to screen, you're going to project the image on the 3-D model and you create that space and that whole style. It's very complicated. I was kind of like, "Oh, it's impossible it's not going to feel natural," and I saw 20 minutes of King Kong being converted and it's the best thing I've ever seen. When I see 20 minutes of that, I mean, I don't understand why the studio is not finishing the movie and releasing the movie again in 3-D. It's the best, best, best, best. I've also seen stuff from The Matrix and from Star Wars, the original.
Shock: Whoa. They're just converting it for 3-D?
Aja: Yeah, it's unbelievable. It's not like black and white convert in color where you see that it's stained and it's not natural. It's amazing, there is no word. It was great for us because we are shooting for real on cinemascope anamorphic on film, shooting it as a normal movie. So, it's much faster and we have a full control on the 3-D. Without being presumptuous, I think the 3-D experience on Piranha is going to be the best one that's ever made.
Piranha 3-D opens in theaters on March 19, 2010 from Dimension Films. Stay tuned for a full FX report with KNB's Greg Nicotero. It's gonna get messy!
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