Instinctively creating sympathy for a seemingly deranged killer who commits horrific, violent crimes against women is not an easy job many people would rightfully consider taking. That task is even more difficult when it’s done through the reimagination of a famed cult horror thriller. But actor Elijah Wood and horror director Franck Fhalfoun did both with ‘Maniac,’ the new independent remake of the hit 1980 film of the same name by helmer William Lustig. Not only did Fhalfoun and Wood uniquely chronicle the emotions of a crazed serial killer through his point of view, the two also cleverly showcased the character’s motivations through clever cinematography and visual effects.
‘Maniac’ follows withdrawn mannequin store owner Frank (Wood), whose life changes when young photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) appears at his store’s doorstep. She asks him for help with her new exhibition at a gallery, and the two quickly begin to form a friendship. But Frank’s obsession with Anna soon begins to escalate, and it becomes clear that she has unleashed his long-repressed compulsion to stalk and kill women. The psychologically complex horror thriller explores Frank’s unstoppable need to unleash fear in young women in modern day Los Angeles, after continuously witnessing his mother’s sexually promiscuous ways growing up.
Wood and Fhalfoun generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview to talk about filming ‘Maniac’ together. Among other things, the actor and director discussed how the empathy that was created for the character of Frank in the script, even as he was committing violent murders, in part convinced them to take part in the remake; how they were intrigued at the prospect of working on a film in which the villain is primarily hidden; and the close working relationships they formed with the screenwriters, producers and cinematographer on the set.
ShockYa (SY): ‘Maniac’ is a remake of the acclaimed 1980 horror thriller of the same name from director William Lustig. Were you both fans of the original film before you signed on to work on the new film?
Elijah Wood (EW): I actually hadn’t seen the original, but I was familiar with it and knew it was a cult classic of sorts. I typically don’t love remakes, primarily because I find that most of the time unique things aren’t done with them, and they’re not made with a new perspective.
But what I found so fascinating with this was that it was going to be done entirely in the POV perspective. You would largely only see my character in reflections, which is really intriguing as an actor.
I also love genre and horror films. I thought this was an interesting and artful approach to what could be a typical slasher film. I thought there was a interesting emotional residence and a humanity with the character, which didn’t necessarily push sympathy too far, but felt believable. So I was excited at those things.
Franck Khalfoun (FK): For me, it’s exactly what he said about the character-I remember the character, and Joe Spinell’s portrayal of the character (in the original film). What I think touched me the most was this empathy for the character, even though he was doing these terrible and violent things.
I remember the character more so than the gore. Back then, it was the most remarkable thing, and people were grossed out at how far this movie pushed the envelope. It became the reference for violence, I think, for films, and really took it to the next level.
But I think the most important thing for me was the character; I’m a big character guy. To perhaps recreate this empathy that I felt for the character, who was doing terrible things, was an interesting take on it for me. I thought that was something we could redo. That’s the angle that I sort of chose, rather than focus on the violence and gore aspect.
I tried to focus on the human aspect, and I thought that’s what was required to touch today’s audience, who I think is much smarter. I knew how terribly challenging it would be to convince the core audience and our audience that this was worth remaking.
SY: Did you both feel any pressure to make the movie in a unique way, since the original is a cult film considered to be the most suspenseful slasher movie ever made?
FK: Yes and no. (Khalfoun and Wood laugh) I thought, they’re going to kill me and hate me forever. Then I remembered the character, and remembered there was something there. I like a challenge and to stay busy. (laughs)
But I also knew it was a big risk for me, in terms of the audience in the genre. So it was important that we found something interesting to do. I always say this, but I think this genre’s audience is the best audience in film, not just with this movie, but with all movies.
They want to see great movies, but I don’t think they care if it’s a remake or not. I think they just want to see good stuff. So whether it’s a remake or not, it doesn’t matter. If you make a good movie, they’ll appreciate it. If you try to be innovative and fresh and make something that they haven’t seen, and audiences can sit through the movie and not know what’s going to happen, they’ll love that. If you make a movie that’s unexpected and challenges and entertains them, I think they won’t care if it’s a remake.
EW: I think I also felt a certain amount of responsibility to do something interesting with the character. I hadn’t seen the original film prior to remaking it, and I watched (Lustig’s) film while we were making this movie. I quickly came to realize how beloved Joe Spinell’s performance is in the original film.
That puts a certain amount of pressure on me, too. It’s an iconic performance. I knew we were doing something very different, but I felt a certain responsibility to make this character come to life in a very realistic and believable way.
SY: What was the casting process like for the role of Frank? Elijah, how did you ultimately become involved in the film?
EW: Actually, I’m friends with one of the producers, who’ve I known for years. She offered to send me the script, and she said, “We’re making a horror movie. We’re doing a remake of ‘Maniac.’ (laughs) We want you to play the killer, and you’d only have to work for two weeks and shoot reflection shots.” (laughs) That’s how it was proposed.
FK: That was our whole plan.
EW: But I was really intrigued at the prospect of also working on a film that you primarily don’t see the villain. I also loved the idea that if we did our job right, it could provide a very uncomfortable, disturbing experience for an audience, in the fact that they could be seeing everything from the killer’s perspective. It’s not something you often see in horror films. So it was really that simple, really. (laughs) I was just excited about all those elements.
SY: Franck, you directed the horror thriller remake. How did you become involved in the project?
FK: I was approached by (screenwriter and producer) Alexandre Aja and (producer) Thomas Langmann, who had just come off ‘The Artist.’ (laughs) I thought, “Wow, really, you want to do this crazy little slasher remake after ‘The Artist?’” It was baffling and so interesting at the same time.
EW: (laughs) It’s hilarious.
FK: It’s like, this is your follow-up movie? (laughs)
The producer and Alexandre Aja are people I’ve known and collaborated with for years, and they approached me. But I think the person who initiated the whole thing was Langmann, who saw the film as a kid. It marked him growing up, as it was very successful in France. (Langmann was born in Paris and grew up in France.) He remembered the movie and how terrified he was watching it, so he’s been wanting to redo it for years.
EW: Oh wow, I didn’t realize that.
FK: He was really affected by it. He’s known Alex and approached him, and Alex approached me. So we all met and sat down and discussed remaking the film. I expressed my concerns with redoing the film, and how we needed to do something a little innovative and interesting. They were both open to that. I’m grateful for that, because not every producer’s willing to take risks and do something’s that different.
They possessed the rights to the film and the name and the brand, and they could have done all kinds of things with it. But they chose to stay somewhat creative. They allowed us to make a more creative film, rather than make a remake for the benefit of making money.
We were lucky we had them, and they were behind us. They had ideas and they found us money and gave us their blessings. They said, “Let’s make something really cool. Who cares what happens, as long as we believe that it’s going to be cool, and we’re all on board together.” That’s great, and how it should be.
SY: Speaking of Alexandre, who’s known for directing and writing such hit horror films as ‘The Hills Have Eyes (2006),’ ‘High Tension’ and ‘P2,’ wrote and produced ‘Maniac.’ What was the process for the both of you working with him as the writer and producer on the film?
EW: Well, Franck’s worked with him before. You’ve known him since you were a child, right?
FK: Yeah, and I’ve worked with him on five or movies.
EW: Right. (laughs) It’s great to see the two of them together, they’re very close.
FK: My collaboration with him is very open. We have a very open dialogue. We’re very cool but also very truthful; we have a very clear, collaborative relationship, where we’re going to be truthful. We’re going to tell each other what we really think. You have to when you’re going to work on creative stuff together.
EW: Of course.
FK: It allows you to dig further and explore, and that’s the way I think it should be. You collaborate with people, and you have to be very careful on how you approach and describe things.
But we’re not really about that. It can be nice, but ultimately, there can be arguments and fights, but it’s all guided by passion for what we do. At the end of the day, we remain friends, and we have for years.
Alex is the same way with his (producing) partner, Grég Levasseur, who he’s been working with for years. The three of us have a wonderful working relationship. So I’ve done a bunch of things with him, and it’s easy. We have shorthand on the set, when we’re deciding what we’re doing.
We were very excited to work with Elijah. Elijah’s a true filmmaker, not just an actor. I think he not only understands his characters, but the whole film, as he loves movies. So it was wonderful to be collaborative with him.
Also, Maxime (Alexandre), our DP (Director of Photography), was very collaborative. It was a wonderful sharing of ideas. As a director, I’m not in the school of dictating. I’m in the school of surrounding yourself with creative people you trust and who have a good intention, and who really want to see good work. You take their ideas ultimately and put them under my name, so it’s smart for a director to get as many good ideas from as many people as you trust.
EW: Of course.
FK: You use that to make a good film. The worst is when that collaboration comes from studio people.
EW: Or people who don’t have very good ideas.
FK: Their ideas are guided by the markets.
FK: That’s not the way you want to make movies.
EW: It feels like making a movie by committee.
FK: Which it is. Which is okay, but committee is my crew.
EW: Yes, absolutely.
FK: It’s not the marketing people. )laughs) Their intentions are very different.
EW: Their agenda’s different.
FK: Yeah, their agenda’s different, and they don’t think of the whole thing. They’re not in the process, and considering where the characters are going or what’s happening in the film.
They’ll often push things on you, and not realize the domino effect that it can have on a movie. If you do this that way, do you realize what it’s going to do and how it’s going to affect the rest of the movie. But as long as they have their trailer, they don’t care. They’re not a part of the committee (laughs), as far as I’m concerned.
The committee includes the artist and costume designers and make-up artist. Those people have input, obviously, because they put in their time and they care. That’s how I like to think.
SY: Elijah, like you mentioned earlier, the movie is told entirely from the killer’s point of view, which no horror film had done before. Did the technique influence the way you portrayed the character at all, or help you get into Frank’s mindset?
EW: Well, I often say the character was done in three parts. Maxime, who’s our DP and camera operator, was effectively me, as he was (holding) the camera. There are these reflection shots and memories where you see the character on camera.
Then we basically re-recorded all of the dialogue from the film in a voice-over stage when we were finished. All of these elements together make the character.
So a lot of the character was technical, such as walking behind Maxime, and trying to fit myself in to get an arm in a frame. It was also making interesting discoveries along the way with that process everyday.
Then these very reflective, focused moments, where the character sees himself in a mirror, which were really fun. They were very specific character moments, which allowed me to express the character in a more pure way.
I always knew that recording the dialogue at the end would really be where the character comes to life, in a way. It’s because you don’t see the character very often, you have to feel the character. I think a lot of the nuance and color and tones of the character were really established and played around with in the voice-over stage. I really enjoyed that process, as that’s really where the majority of my work as an actor came into play, in terms of defining the character and giving him a voice.
But what I found so interesting about the process is that I think we had an idea about what we were doing, going into it. But the limitations that were there, and the fact that we couldn’t rely on traditional coverage, created a puzzle everyday for these scenes. We had to figure out how we were going to shoot them.
That created a sense of discovery along the way, too. We sort of discovered moments we hadn’t planned on. I think all of that added to the tone of what the film became. It was exciting on a daily basis.
Like when the character walks out of the theater and turns a corner, and ends up seeing himself on all the television screens, it wasn’t until that moment that we decided to put the hands up. What a fantastic, organic way to get hands in. Maxime was putting his hands in, and we were choreographing our hands to put on the grate. Things like that were just sort of discovered on the day. It was a really fun process.
FK: I think it’s rare when you not really get to improvise, but really get to discover things throughout the entire production of the film. We weren’t done writing and coming up with things until the very end, when we were getting ready to shoot. We were discovering new things as we were shooting. Like Elijah said, in ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording), we were finding things with the characters.
EW: Yeah, totally.
FK: It was great fun to be creative throughout the entire process, and to discover things and to adapt. So it was one of the more creative processes for me, for sure.
SY: Elijah, what was your overall working relationship with Maxime throughout the filming process? Was that a different experience for you, working so closely with the DP?
EW: Oh, absolutely, I’ve never worked so closely with a DP before.
EW: Yeah! (laughs) I was standing right behind him. It was fantastic; Maxime was wonderful and extremely talented. He was Frank, too. What was so wonderful about him was that he didn’t approach his work as a camera operator; he approached it as an actor.
There were moments where the character’s stalking someone, and it’s an intense moment. Maxime would breathe heavily and get into it emotionally, which was really fantastic. It showed his level of commitment to sell himself and the camera as an extension of the character.
FK: He was dressed, too.
EW: Occasionally he would be, because he would have to break frame.
FW: He wore the character’s clothing, like his boots and his pants, in case we caught a piece of him.
EW: In the apartment with Lucie, I was actually going to wear the wig at one stage, and we decided against it. So he ended up having to wear Frank’s outfit. He was the one who had to grab Megan’s breasts (laughs) and strangle her.
To your question of what it was like working so closely with him, we were working together. I was helping to inform him of what I wanted, because they were his hands. So I had to figure out what I wanted the character to do and impart that to him, so he would make the right moves at the right time. We’d cue each other, and I’d cue him at times to move forward.
It was really fun looking at the character from a very different perspective, and also being a part of the filmmaking process. It was a joy.
FM: Completely. I’ve never seen an actor and a cameraman be so close. (Wood laughs) But it was fitting because the movie’s in POV, and it sort of worked out that way. We didn’t even start off by say, “You two be close.” We never even talked about that.
EW: No, we never did.
FK: It sort of morphed and you realize, hey, you have to be there all the time. Eventually I’d see you take the lead and point things out. They really morphed together, and it was really interesting.
Written by: Karen Benardello