A remake of the infamous, Joe Spinell-starring 1980 horror movie, Maniac stars Elijah Wood as a serial killer terrorising Los Angeles.
If anything, the murders are even more disturbing than the original's because of director Franck Khalfoun's outstanding achievement: his film is shot from the killer's point of view.
Here the director explains to Harry Guerin why he wanted to make the movie - and the challenges it presented.
Harry Guerin: Why did you want to remake one of the grimmest films ever made?
Franck Khalfoun: I suppose it's a challenge and at the same time [to] expose that movie to a new audience and to create my own version of it. I found the original movie to be captivating, principally because of Joe Spinell's performance. More than actually being revolted by the amount of gore and violence in it, I was more intrigued by the idea that I felt empathy for a character who could do such things. That's what captivated me the most, so that's the angle that I took. 'Am I able to convey this sort of feeling to an audience today?' In essence, I'm trying to do a movie where I go so far from condoning this violence that it makes you sick. I think it creeps up on you and it doesn't leave you feeling so good, this movie – sort of in the same way the original did.
I think one of the things that unsettled people so much about the original was that Joe Spinell was such a good actor. And similarly, Elijah Wood is a good actor.
That was so important for me; to have a great actor that could allow the audience to feel empathy for the character. So now I'm confronted with creating empathy for a character that I might not see very much of because of the technical choices that I made, so there was another challenge that arose from that.
When you met Elijah Wood, what were his reasons for wanting to do this film? He's been in some of the biggest movies of all time, so why was he drawn to this?
First of all, Elijah loves genre films; he loves horror films. He has a very macabre side where he's fascinated by serial killers, like a lot of us are. On top of that, when I explained to him the choice of doing the film in a POVP [Point of View Principle] and strictly from a first-person perspective he was sold. He knew that this was a fresh way of trying to tell the story and a new way for people to experience the serial killer. He was sold by the content and the technique.
It's very unusual to say to a big star 'I'm shooting this POVP, so you're not going to be seen'.
I think he saw that as a challenge and he was attracted to it because it was a challenge. He's also done animation and he knew there was a way of creating a character beyond seeing him on screen. I figure after making so many movies it's nice to be involved in something a little bit different once in a while.
Did you debate with yourself whether the violence in the film should be suggested rather than seen and whether that would have more impact?
Absolutely. I think audiences are a lot more sophisticated [today] and there's a fine line between keeping them engaged and losing them and making them laugh. I didn't want these set pieces in the movie to be laughable. I didn't want people to take it lightly. Since we're in the first person we're in this guy's brain and we're trying to be complicit in what he's doing. It was important that we stay serious about it and that we really participate in the anguish that he is going through while he's doing these things. You see him killing but when we pull out of his body and watch him he's not rejoicing in it; it's a painful experience for him. If you're going to experience this movie with him, from his mind it should be painful for you as well.
One thing people have said about the original Maniac is that the character had limitations: it's very hard to have empathy for him. Did you feel that with your own film?
I thought it was a challenge. I think we surmounted that and we were able to successfully build empathy for the character. It was absolutely a challenge and a worry for me from the beginning. You make movies because you want to feel empathy for the characters and if you don't see them [on screen] it's a real challenge. That's why sometimes you see us pulling out of it [POVP]: I had to find clever ways to be able to see our character and at the same time stay within the strict rules of being in the subjective point of view.
In terms of the technical challenges, how hard was it to get right?
Funny enough, you think that you're not going to take so much time because you don't have to cover scenes. But then quickly we realised it was a real challenge to pull off these shots. You would try one rig and it wouldn't work and sometimes you would spend half a day trying to figure out the shot and building rigs until you finally got something that worked. You want the movie to look good so you have to use Panaglide and those tend to be a lot bigger than HD cameras. So now the challenge is putting arms around it and hands around it and to actually make it look like he's driving, for example. It became a very technical shoot.
Do you think in some ways your technical accomplishments might get lost because people will get hung up on the violence?
That's why you have to dose the violence and be very careful about how much violence you give an audience because they can lose the character; they can lose the film. Of course it always worries you, so you try to establish some sort of balance. I hope the technical aspect gets lost in the film because the audience needs to get lost in the film. I don't want the technical aspect – no matter how challenging or clever it is – to take away from the movie experience. I don't want people to think about it; I want people to be immersed in the story. For me it's about fully experiencing the story and what the characters are going through. And if for some reason you're pulled out of that experience I haven't done my job.
I'm hoping to see something a bit cheerier from you on your next job.
[Laughs] You wouldn't be the first one to say so!
Maniac is in cinemas from Friday March 15.