After decades of being known as the country that reveres film as a serious art form that they call “cinema” (usually while chain-smoking, wearing sunglasses, and speeding off on a moped), France has unexpectedly become the premiere country for hardcore horror movies. Titles like Haute Tension, Martyrs, and Le Sheitan have giving the French filmmaking community a reputation for creating some of the most intense horror movies in the world these days. Anyone who saw the untraviolent and claustrophobic 2007 pregnancy horror flick Inside will know that co-directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo are absolute masters of this particular blood-soaked form. I’ll never forget seeing the film at a early morning TIFF press screening in 2007 with a group of cynical and exhausted critics who viscerally hooted and screamed along with the movie like a collection of drunken horror loving teenagers.
Now four years, later the filmmakers have returned to The Toronto Film Festival with their sophomore effort Livid, a deeply bizarre tale of struggling teens who decide to rob an old woman’s house only to learn that they wandered into a supernatural death trap. The directors employ a surreal dreamlike logic that is reminiscent of vintage Italian horror movies without sacrificing any the gooey red stuff. The film is one of the wildest rides to appear in TIFF’s midnight movie lineup this year and confirms the co-directors as major figures in the genre. Collider got a chance to chat with Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo about their influences, working methods and an their abandoned Hellraiser remake.
Alexandre Bustillo: Yes, we are big fans of old school horror movies like Hammer Horror stuff or Dario Argento’s early work. For our second movie we didn’t want to shoot another hardcore horror movie or a torture porn movie. We didn’t want to shoot Inside 2. We are absolutely big fans of the horror genre in general, so with the second movie we wanted to explore more of the genre. To be honest we are a little bit fed up with realistic horror movies. There are too many of them now and horror filmmakers have forgotten the fantasy or the supernatural brand of horror.
Did you see this movie as a sort of dark fairy tale at all?
Julien Maury: Yes, we love all kinds of subgenres so the fairy tale aspect was very important to us. We had some really wild and crazy ideas for the movie, so it was important for us to give the audience the feeling that we start from a realistic place and slowly fall into a brand new world. All of that was necessary to accept the ending. You have to release yourself when you see the movie. You have to open your Chakras. So, that’s why this part was very important.
Since this film particular is so image based and large portions pass without dialogue, how do you approach that from the writing stage? Do you start storyboarding and layout those sequences while you’re still working through the script?
Maury: No. The visual scenes came just through the story.
Did that change much when you started creating it in a physical space then?
Maury: Yes. What you see on screen is very different from what we wrote. There were many changes. Livid was the same budget than Inside. It’s actually lower even.
Bustillo: No money.
Maury: In France it’s really hard to raise funds for that kind of movie. That was our first problem. This movie was much more ambitious than Inside in terms of action and special effects. It was for us a really painful experience because we wanted to put so much into it. And we are young filmmakers. It’s only our second movie. We always have the feeling that it could be our last movie. So as with Inside, we tried to put lots of things into it that we love like Rob Zombie’s influence and stuff like that. In this movie, it’s the same. We wanted to explore many aspects of the fantasy subgenre at once. I think it’s very dense and we tried to do the best we could with the budget that we had.
What do you consider Livid’s monster Anna to be? Some form of vampire? She’s a very unique creature.
Bustillo: She is a vampire, but to be honest we have tried to do some things differently with the mythology of the vampire. There is no garlic, no cross. We wanted to change things in vampire mythology, like for example how they react to the sun. We really loved the vampires in Blade II and how when the vampires go into the sun they explode. For us it’s the opposite. They die so, so slowly in the sun. You know the children who have the rare disease where they can’t go into the sun? We tried to play on that with our vampires. And then of course there’s the way the house floats in limo at night. They’re cursed. They can’t go outside their home in the day because she’ll be burned under the sun and become light like a leaf and float slowly away with the wind. By night, the house does not belong to earth, it belongs to limbo. Maybe it’s too complicated, but we have tried to do something different because we were tired of always seeing the same thing.
Bustillo: 50/50. Two bodies one brain.
Maury: Our relationship is the same as it was 4 years ago on Inside. We try to work together and share all of the aspects of making a film.
Are you always on the same page?
Maury: Yeah. We’ve never had a fight, we never argue. That’s not something that we have to put effort into. It’s very natural. It’s very important on set that we be one the same page. Imagine if you had two directors not agreeing on something?
Bustillo: It would be a nightmare.
Maury: We work together a lot before shooting and prepare everything so that we can answer any question on set without having to refer to each other. It works, for the moment.
Is there any sort of community forming between the current wave of French Horror directors that popped up over the last decade? I noticed that both your cinematographer and editor on Livid had worked on a few of those films.
Bustillo: To be honest there is no French community of horror. For foreign cultures France seems like the new El Dorado of horror, but it’s not true. In France, there are only a few guys who try to shoot horror movies with a low budget. It’s so difficult to raise the money to shoot that kind of movie, but with in spite of those low budgets we have tried to work with the best artists in France. Baxter is maybe the best editor for that kind of movie. We are big fans of Alexandre Aja features like High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes. He was the best to do that kind of movie. But despite that example there is no community.
Maury: It’s funny because it must be disappointing to hear.
A little bit.
Maury: It’s very hard to do a horror movie in France. Nobody cares about it. Nobody wants to hear about French fantasy or horror because it doesn’t work in theaters there. It always flops. It’s really strange and curious. It’s as if the French audience doesn’t trust in French horror cinema and says, “oh if it’s French, it’s going to be crap.” But, paradoxically the big American franchises like Saw are big hits in France. I think we suffer from our French identity and the fact that the dialogue is in French, but the audience is rough on it. They hear all the subtleties of the language. So like Alex said, we are all directors in our own corner fighting to raise funds. In France, even the media doesn’t talk about it much. Of course we have the French Fangoria or Rue Morgue called Mad Movies and a few producers and Canal Plus as well, which helps a lot. But it’s really, really, really, hard. For each French horror movie released, we’ve heard it will be the last one. Everyone says, ”it’s the last one guys, horror is finished in France.” We always say, “no it’s not possible we must fight, so we’ll see in the future where it goes.
Bustillo: I think our next movie will be in English because like Julien said, it’s so difficult to find money. We searched for 4 years to the find money for Livid in France. During this time Hollywood sent us maybe 60 or 70 projects with a high budget. For example Platinum Dunes offered us to direct the new Nightmare On Elm Street. We were at the top of the list when they finished the script. They sent it to us immediately, but we said no because we prefer to have no money and freedom. A low budget is the price of freedom.
What’s going on with the Hellraiser remake that you were attached to?
Maury: It was one of the first projects we were sent from America and we were really excited about it. We met with Clive Barker and he’s one of our gods. We went to his house in LA and it was really terrific. We talked about the possibility of the remake and he had so many good ideas that were really exciting. The problem was that we couldn’t agree on the script with the studio. It’s kind of obvious why. We are hardcore fans of the original and we wanted to be respectful to Clive Barker’s universe. Without his greenlight, we never would have done it. We wouldn’t have even considered it. But Bob Weinstein of course had his own vision of the movie and wants to have a movie that can appeal to the largest possible audience. We tried really hard to work with that and he was aware of who we are and what we do. It wasn’t a random choice. He flew to France just to meet us and he wanted to have our vision for the movie, something really new. But he also wanted to have a wide mainstream audience. For us, it wasn’t possible to make something that could be both. We tried hard, almost for a year. But we couldn’t find anything, so we decided to step down. We thought we wouldn’t be proud of the movie that would be made and Bob understood that perfectly. He said, Ok I understand. Your position makes sense. So for the moment the project is in limbo.
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