High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) director Alexandre Aja makes one hell of a return to horror with Crawl. Set during a Category 5 hurricane in Florida, the film finds an estranged daughter (Kaya Scodelario) and father (Barry Pepper) fighting off a blood-thirsty congregation of alligators. As the waters rise, safe ground rapidly disappears and their old family home becomes an infested alligator nest with no escape in sight.
It’s a lean, relentless, absolutely gripping survival horror that will have you jumping out of your seat with some of the best “holy shit” movie-going moments of the year. If you’re looking for the blood-drenched nightmares of Aja’s celebrated early-aughts work, you’re not going to find it here — at least not as much — but you can absolutely count on the same non-stop breathless, kinetic tension and horror.
With the film now in theaters, I recently had the opportunity to hop on the phone for an interview with Aja to talk about the challenges of shooting the ambitious film and making his return to horror. He discussed how they built a set that continuously floods, how he restructured the script when he started the project, why they decided to make the alligators 100% CGI (and what they gave the actors to work with on set,) how he approached Crawl as a home-invasion horror, nailing the casting, and why he thinks it’s such a strong time for horror movies.
Congratulations on the movie, I loved it. I have to say it’s definitely one of the most intense times I’ve had in a theater.
ALEXANDRE AJA: Oh, thank you very much.
It looked like it was probably also a pretty intense thing to shoot and I’m just curious about the technical requirements of filming something in a set that’s increasingly filling with water.
AJA: It was definitely one of the biggest challenges of the movie. You have to think that every set is built on a different tank. I think all together we built seven tanks. The biggest one was 80 meters by 60 meters.
With the control of the water but you never have the control so we had to organize set by set. Like the water coming up but then all this… everything first was in the script. We spent quite a big amount of time working on the script and being sure that we were actually having the timing right, because you cannot cheat that much with the level of the water going up. That was something that was really important for me, is the idea of that ticking clock of the water coming up from the basement, up to the rooftop.
When you talk about that time you spent on the script, did it ever go through any significant changes? Or was it just a process of fine-tuning the exact beats?
AJA: Oh, it came with a lot of changes, to be honest. When I received the script two years ago, I, in fact, fell in love with the logline. The logline is really what got me here. The idea of the woman saving her dad during a hurricane, Category 5, in a flooded place and infested with alligators. That was everything I was looking for, and a great opportunity for me to go back to something really scary. And then I read the script, and the script was really good and very intense, but very maximally contained within the crawl space. The whole movie was actually just in the crawl space.
Before I read the script I had my mind like kind of wondering and kind of, almost like fantasizing about what I would love to see. Something that came to my mind right away between the logline was the idea for a home-invasion movie. Something where you have the disaster, you have no food, you have the water coming inside your house, and with the water comes the alligators. And I saw that the domestic setting was a very interesting take on the genre. That’s what we just loved on the script. I spent some time working with the Rassmussens on the script [screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rassmussen]. Then I did a few rounds of writing myself to get it to that place.
The story, the starting point was there, it just needed to be developed, the same way with the family and the relationship between the dad and his daughter, the family house, and all this needed some work. But that’s the case on every movie. You get into a project and most of the time you have to develop it to make it like yours and also take it to where you want the movie to be.
It’s interesting to hear you refer this to a home-invasion film because, obviously, you directed one of the most beloved home-invasion films. What was it like for you sort of returning to that through a whole new lens?
AJA: I was doing Horns and Louis Drax — They were very… you know, they were movies for me, but they were always on the frontier of the genre; they were not very scary. While I was doing them, I was keeping up as a movie-goer to all those crazy amazing films that the new generation of directors were making. I was kind of like, “Oh, I want to make something scary again. I want to go back”. I was looking for the right story. I was looking for the right subject matter and it took me some time. Then I found that script. The moment I read the logline, I knew it was for me.
Can you talk a little bit about getting the alligators right on screen? Because you pulled something off nice, which is that I didn’t really think about how they were made while I was watching the movie. They never distracted me either way. Are they 100% CGI? And if they are, what did you give the actors to work with on set?
AJA: Very early on I wanted the alligators to be as real as they could be, compared to the real world. We did a lot of research and watching those hundreds of hours of footage that you can find online, I realized that there was no animatronics, no puppeteer, or anything that could be good enough to replicate that movement. And so, very, very soon we knew that we had to make them CGI. We had to make them fully CGI.
We just spent a lot of time creating the right assets. Finding the right body proportion for the alligators. They are all based on real specimens. They all base on real behavior — Let’s say that they are based on the “best-of” of the real ones. That’s why they fee so vicious and real at the same time.
As you say, then on set, we had to give the actors a way to actually feel that they were interacting with alligators. That was really important for me. So we have a full range of toys [laughs], from the one with the foam head to interact with the actors, from the stuntmen a green spandex suit like she’s crawling towards the actor, with the swimmers and the divers swimming on the surface to create the perfect ridge on the surface of the water as we filmed. Every time they was an alligator, we’d have something’s for the actors to actually see and relate to and understand.
That duo, Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper, have really, really, good chemistry. For Kaya, it’s not necessarily the kind of role I have seen her in before or would’ve expected from her. So how did you find those two? Did they come along early and audition processes? Did you go out directly to either of them?
AJA: I knew that I needed to get the two people perfect, the idea that it needed to be believable for this to be the immersive experience I wanted it to be. I knew without the right characters, I will have the same problem. You need to believe in your characters, you want to be scared for them.
I wanted someone… the character of Ellie is the character who has a lot of things to deal with through the movie, but also someone that doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to express. I wanted someone who could actually take the audience by the hand and carry them through every step of those choices and resourceful ideas that she will have to try to survive another minute, another hour, to the day.
I’ve always been a big fan of Kaya from Skins, but also from the Maze Runner. Something that really struck me with her was always the determination in her eyes. So she has something of the warrior and I thought it was perfect for this movie. So when she said yes, I knew it was the right thing, but then I had to be very honest with her. I wanted to be sure that she knew she was stepping into a very difficult, very challenging, physically exhausting shoot. And she told me, “Yeah, yeah, I want to do it for my son, when he’ll be older to see how badass his mom was.” [Laughs] And I think she did it. It was, I think, beyond the expectation of difficulty, but at the end we got it.
So did you find her first and then cast the father part around her performance?
AJA: Yes, in fact, it’s together that we came to the idea of Barry. I was picturing first, a dad that would be slightly older. Then I thought it was very interesting that, in fact, they were closer in age.
In fact, Barry has a daughter that’s the same age as the character in the movie. It was interesting the way they were interacting on set, because Barry first became almost the character. They worked together on the Maze Runner sometime before but also then they had this difference, and really began like that father figure and she was really here to save him. And he was proud to be saved. I was recreating like a very interesting dynamic within the movie.
Something I really adore about this film is that it is incredibly tightly paced and there’s no fat on it. It’s a tight 90-minute movie. How much does that require finessing through all the processes? Like in the script, in the edit, how much do you have to work that down to be as tight as it is
AJA: It’s really on the script, we spent a lot of time. This is my eighth movie, I think. I did worry a lot about suspense, so I know within a script how much work and how much detail, but even when you have the perfect balance of storytelling structure, then it’s all about the shoot and about the timing. What do you do with the water? Nothing is really coming the way you expect, so you need to… it’s another patience thing, and then comes editing.
In the editing, I have to say that Sam Raimi was also like an amazing help. He had this kind of long-distance look to help us make the best… like, clockwork mechanism that will just deliver and keep the pace. I didn’t want to make an action movie. I wanted to make a suspenseful thriller that was based as a rollercoaster. So that was a challenge to find a point of balance between drama and survival, but also within the attacks to not fall into the action and keep the suspense going.
In terms of people you want to help you, Sam Raimi’s a pretty good one to have on your team.
AJA: Yes, he is the producer that every director would dream to have. It’s definitely someone that’s here to understand your vision and how to protect it and help you just love it. He was a blessing to have him by my side.
I’m so thrilled about this movie so while I have you, I have to ask what you’re working on now.
AJA: This movie was definitely for me was a step back into making something scary and that’s the story I want to tell. It’s an amazing time to be making these kinds of movies. It’s an amazing time because they are by definition a theatrical experience. Right now they are the only movies that are managing to stay in the movie theaters, challenging the biggest Avenger, and Star Wars, and great Disney movies.
There is a reason for that. It’s really because it’s the type of movie that you want to see with people; the type of movie that you want to see on the big screen and be inside. There are so many stories that I want to do. It’s a great time to do that kind of movies.
Since you are sort of, as you’re saying, making this return to horror — you made some of the most influential horror films of the early 2000s, what do you think is different about making horror movies now after your experience with this film?
AJA: You know, it’s interesting because when we started making movies, we all came from the same place of being very frustrated with the 90s and wanted to kind of bring back that spirit from the 70s early 80s that was a visceral type of cinema, that was really scary and brutal. And then like years after years, we thought it would stop, we thought it would stop, but then it keeps going and people were more and more into it.
Unfortunately, I really think that success comes because we’re living in a world that’s very uncertain and very scary in many, many aspects and those movies are a way to kind of confronting our fear and having fun in the same time. So they exist in society as a mirror, and I think that unfortunately, nothing is getting really better right now, so there is a lot of great horror movies to make in the next years.