When it comes to unconscious feelings evoked by a film that frightens or excites us, the horrorshows that crawl under our skin and play with our nerve endings, the notion of sadness or empathy usually doesn’t fall into the deck of emotions. We watch these psychologically disturbing and oft gruesome tales through the distance of the camera, knowing that there’s a lens between their demented mind and ours, their blood-spattered world far removed from our immediate sense of danger. But with Frank Khalfoun’s twisted and powerful remake of Maniac, he transports us right into the POV of a psychotic killer, who, despite his strongest desires, just cannot control his horrific thirst.
As a lost and tremendously tortured soul with an fetish for women’s scalps, Elijah Wood plays the leading role of Frank with a delicate mania that allows us to get inside his head and feel as though we’re right there behind his eyes committing these heinous acts. With his only companions the restored and bloody-wigged porcelain figures that populate his mannequin restoration shop, Frank resides in a desolate Los Angeles landscape that’s at once lush and deeply vacant.
Last week, I sat down with Wood and Khalfoun to discuss the nature of remaking classic films, the psychological effect of POV filmmaking, and finding the beauty between the blood.
Are you able to watch your own work or do you find it challenging to get through?
Elijah Wood: I don’t have any problem watching myself so much, I’m just so curious to see the final product. Certainly if you’ve made something your proud of it’s a gratifying experience. It’s a little overwhelming the first time because tied into the film is all the experience you had making it, so you can’t really be objective. I’ve seen this movie a few times now.
Well, at least with this one you don’t really have to watch yourself.
EW: That is a bonus, exactly.
Franck Khalfoun: It depends on the movie, really. Personally I enjoy watching it if other people are watching it. At home, no—maybe this one maybe because it’s weird and I like seeing little nuances—for the most part I like to do other things. In theaters it’s different, I like seeing how other people react and this one has been great. We have certain screenings where the genre people are there and they understand every joke, they understand everything in the film and it’s a real pleasure to watch them react. In this film, people have no idea what’s coming next and it’s always great for fresh people to see it because they have really wonderful reactions—whether they’re totally grossed out or they find the humor.
Why did you choose to make this, were you a huge fan of the original?
FK: I really liked the original, and the idea of making this was a terrifying for me because of the core audience and the idea that this movie’s so loved, and then just the idea of doing remakes in general. You’ve got to be real careful as a filmmaker to do something that’s already been done.
EW: He and I share the same perspective on that. I’m not a huge fan of remakes, it’s very daunting. More often than not—especially the horror genre’s mired with remakes now—they don’t really bring anything new to the table. If you’re going to remake something, you might as well make it your own.
FK: And that’s the lash back you get from the audience, that they think you’re just trying to squeeze money out of them without giving them a new experience, which is the case with a lot of films and the reason why a lot of remakes get made.
EW: It’s a built-in audience…
FK: Thinking they can make some money. But I’m thankful for Langmann and Aja who produced the film and are two daring characters and weren’t afraid to allow us to do something different—which is not the case with anybody. Very few people I’ve met have the balls to say, oh that’s really interesting let’s take a risk on it, let’s put millions of dollars into this risk. It’s a throwback to how Hollywood was—you took a risk, you know? So I think if you do take risks and you go out on a limb and try to do something new, the audiences will respond. I know for a fact that the genre audiences are the best film audiences and they don’t just like genre movies. They dissect movies and analyze movies, but they love all movies.
EW: They’re the most enthusiastic audiences.
FK: This was a good experience for me in particular because I always look at what’s the core of the film, what is it that we’re trying to remake or reconvey or redo and how can we do it in a cool, interesting way that’s not going to take audiences for fools?
Elijah, when and how did you become involved with the film?
EW: It was proposed to me from one of the producers. She said, we’d love for you to play the killer in this remake of Maniac that Alex Aja has written and you will be only seen in reflection because the entire movie will be shot in POV. That pitch fuckin sold me. Initially I wasn’t psyched at the notion of doing a remake because like he said, I’m not a huge fan of them in general. But I was so intrigued by the notion of doing something from the POV perspective and playing a character you don’t really see was exacting for me as an actor. Her proposal was like, well it’s about two weeks of work shooting your reflections, which was a little naive because I needed to be there everyday and my hands break frame a lot and I had to make choices in those regards. But I loved the script and the idea of working in a horror film is exciting, I love the genre. Getting to play a villain and delve into something dark that was a well-rounded, not a one-dimensional character felt like there was a lot to work with and it was four awesome weeks at night in downtown LA.
FK: It was one of the more pleasant shoots I’ve been on.
EW: It was super pleasant! It was great.
FK: It took a while to figure out, first you think, oh we’re only POV, we’re not covering scenes it’s going to be easy, but then it’s never what you expect. Then you get into the rhythm and you understand what things are allowed and how things will come off. I remember some days we had to figure out a rig to make this work, it was so hard technically with the choreography and the blocking and we’d end up spending half the day just figuring out how we were going to get this thing off. So that ends up taking time, but it was fun.
Using POV not only felt very unique and new, but for this film specifically and this character, it made you feel for him so much more. You understood that what he was doing was really something he couldn’t control, and I feel like if you had seen it from an outside perspective you wouldn’t have sympathized for him. Even though he does these horrific things, you’re with him inside his head.
EW: You’re spending time with his internal life.
And you see him try to control it and how quickly he escalates into being out of control. POV was a great way to give you another side to him.
FK: That was exactly the goal, so, good. However, my worry was that because you don’t see him, you might not empathize with him. But I think the little doses that you do get to see him throughout the movie—whether it’s a reflection or a dream or an out of body experience—you’re getting a glimpse and, without even thinking about it, the audience starts wondering when you’ll see him next. So you’re getting attached to the next time you’re going to see the character and that is exciting because it’s always different and keeps you engaged.
EW: It’s also a reminder that it’s POV too, because it’s shot so beautifully and so gracefully that at times you forget it’s POV and I really like that. Maxime didn’t go overboard with making the camera feel like it was attached t a body at all times and it was totally a stylistic choice, but it works so wonderfully.Even shots when he’s walking, he’s on a segue so he’s just floating and it adds a really interesting equality to the film. I like that you occasionally forget and you’re not being barraged by it being POV for first person.
FK: We had long discussions about how erratic it would be and how it would take you out of the film, which is what a lot o these found footage, behind the camera movies do. They start shaking so much for no reason. The wonderful thing about what we do, every frame tells a story—not just the movie, every frame—and the way that camera’s handled and the lens you pick, everything really is specific. Now with young filmmakers who have such access to making movies, they don’t really study the technique and what emotion images are going to create, and they think you can just shoot and do whatever and it works. Often it does, but for the majority of the time there’s a real technique.
EW: There’s definitely a cinema language.
FK: Of course, and people relate to it but it also evolves. Seeing a film in POV fifteen years ago would have been too distracting for people, but now culturally with all these found footage movies and first player video games, a language has opened up—but it still changes.
What else did you discuss cinematography-wise for film’s aesthetic and also the landscape in which you shot it.
FK: I wanted it to be lush and beautiful. There’s a thing about downtown LA, it’s beautiful but you don’t realize it and especially at night when it’s all covered in darkness and you really stop and look at a building and look up, you’re like wow, these old buildings from the 20s and 30s are spectacular. And right next to them are these modern buildings, so it’s the old and the new connected—the rich and the poor, the duality of downtown. The movie needed to be really beautiful but dark and if you were to raise the lights in the movie you would see how plush the sets are.
Like his bedroom and the wallpaper.
FK: Yeah. I just wanted it to be on the edge of darkness, I told Maxime everything should be just on the edge, just the way he is. And the city is like that and mostly he’s out at night in the city. I thought also the beauty of the film—the serenity and the elegance of the film—would be important in juxtaposition to the graphic horror. The first ten or fifteen minutes is beautiful to look at, and it sucks you in and then lets you have it with the violence. And the same with the music. The whole movie seduces you into this false sense of security and then it lets you have it and that’s very close to the character too. There’s an innate beauty about him.
Yeah, Rob was telling me wanted to convey and innocence and beauty, which is not what you’d expect.
FK: But it’s humanity, it’s the beauty of all people that have been scarred and that are stuck between light and dark.
EW: Rob did a fantastic job with the music, it’s really wonderful. I was so excited at the prospect of an electronic score because the 70s and 80s were filled with those kind of scores for horror films, which are typically not employed anymore. So it was really exciting, the prospect of doing something that had that sense of being a little bit of throwback and nostalgic for that time period. He did such a beautiful job. It’s haunting but it does convey an innocence too, it’s really lovely. In tandem with the way the film is shot and also the environment of downtown LA, it just creates such an interesting atmosphere. It’s almost a character in and of itself.
With horror films, the music often tends to feel so manipulative and this was not in any way, this just wove its way through the story on its own. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack quite a lot and you can really separate it from the film as well.
FK: It’s certainly unorthodox in every way in terms of being a genre or scary movie. Besides for the one little cheap scare we tried to put in there, for the most part really it creeps up on you, it doesn’t jump at you, it’s a slow creep into this mind.
So even though so much of your work is outside the shot, were you still on set the whole time? And how much were the women just playing to the camera?
EW: Almost entirely, If it wasn’t a dream sequence or a memory, it was entirely to camera—which is interesting because they had a much different experience than I did. I was behind camera and had the benefit of looking at them even though they weren’t looking at me. But they were looking at the lens, which I hadn’t really thought about until recently but that’s a total abstraction as well. We would block every scene out traditionally so we at least had moments as actors working with each other and from there they certainly felt my presence, but it’s still a funny thing. I just did a film where the majority of the film I’m looking at a camera and it’s bizarre, it’s a weird abstract thing.
Besides the original, did you have any other films you looked to for tone or feeling?
FK: Wow, no. No, I mean maybe a little bit of the way The Shining is poised—
And how it creeps up on you.
FK: My focus was on trying to create a world where you were just swallowed up into it, and a character that you felt compassion for. That’s what struck me the most from the original, was how I really felt bad for this guy and it marked me at the end of the movie. Like, wait a second this guy just killed a bunch of women and I feel bad for him? That was a statement in itself. I don’t know about me as a man, but I was with him and so that’s very dangerous. A movie not recommended for young minds.
That’s why the ending felt like a happy one to me—it was a relief for him.
FK: That’s interesting. It’s true. He does have this almost very satisfied or peace to him at the end finally—which I find tragic.
You changed the flashback scenes, how did you want them to be different or more modern?
FK: When I first read the script he had cigarette scars and burns. It was very sort of 1950s, like keeping you locked up in your closet. So rather than physical abuse, I think an audience would connect more to neglect.
EW: Physical abuse would have come off as a bit of a cliche.
FK: As opposed to neglect, which to me, a lot of people can relate to nowadays. Your parents didn’t hit you but they weren’t there, it’s kind of the same thing.
EW: That can be as emotionally scarring.
And the way his mother was, it would make sense why he might end up with these psychosexual issues.
FK: Somebody said to me, "Oh, it’s always about the mom, it’s always the women!" I was like, I don’t know.
Well, the father wasn’t there so that’s his fault too.
FK: Yeah, I don’t want to say his mother’s responsible for him turning out the way that he did, but she certainly didn’t lay the best foundation. I think parents can be the blame somewhat. We forget to nurture our children and to love them, and maybe if that can come across in this film we’ve done a little something for humanity—which is always something I think about no matter the subject matter. I go, what really in the end can we say, what is it that we can pull out of this? Yes, we had fun and it was cool but did we make a statement about something, can somebody find something else in here that’s useful and insightful?
You’ve played so many different kinds of roles throughout your career, but this certainly seemed like a challenge. Was doing something more dangerous and violent an attraction for you?
EW: That was definitely part of the intrigue I had for the project, because it’s not a character I’ve ever played before and as an actor I’m always looking for something new and challenging to delve into that. And there’s also the horror film fan in me loved the idea that we got to work with prosthetics and scalps and blood, I love all that shit. Especially the end death set pieces, it was awesome and really fun.