With Franck Khalfoun’s remake of horror-thriller MANIAC in UK cinemas today, we’ve got this very special Q+A with Maniac’s lead actor, Elijah Wood, who stars as the film’s antagonist, Frank.
Can you sum up what this film is about?
It’s about a psychotic named Frank who runs and operates a mannequin store that had previously been owned by his mother. We get some idea that he was abused and had a very complicated relationship with his mother. This is manifested in some kind of madness which has led him to kill women and scalp them. He has fantasies with these women that are kind of emblematic of his relationship with his mother and potentially of the relationship that he’d love to have with women but that he doesn’t have. So it’s a journey that we literally take through the character’s eyes.
As he goes on this rampage of killing women, he ultimately falls in love with this woman named Anna who visits his shop and who’s an artist. He seems to connect with her in a way that he doesn’t with other women. So Anna almost becomes a potential redemption for him – we see a side of Frank that is more human and that has the capacity for compassion and love.
How much of a genre film is MANIAC exactly?
It’s a genre film but there’s much more to it, because the tone of the film is uncomfortable. I think we feel that we sat in the mind of the killer and that we exist in the headspace of this individual during the length of the movie. What we’re driven to do is take part in the killings, and that is uncomfortable and disturbing.
What drew you to making MANIAC?
A lot of why I was interested in being a part of the film was the fact that it was taking the original idea of the movie and transposing it into this POV perspective. And I was just so intrigued, as you’d largely be experiencing this character subjectively. You’d only really be seeing him in these reflections [in mirrors]. For me, that was just so intriguing.
Let’s talk about the POV process. Were you physically always present on set?
I’ve been around all the time except for two days. I’ve never worked so closely with the DOP and the camera operator before, and the cinematography has never been so important to me – because what Maxime [the cinematographer] was doing was what Frank was doing. I also had a counterpart who could “be” my left or my right hand because I couldn’t always use both hands in a natural way, depending on where the camera was. So we literally held things together and handed things off as if it were the same person. It was a lot of choreography!
Never before have you probably made a film where your hands have been so vital, if that makes any sense…
Yeah, totally. And we actually had a double. Most of the time I couldn’t get both of my hands on either side of the camera, because the rig was too big. So there’d be times when I’d be on one side with my right hand, and then my double would be on the left side with his left hand, so we’d have to work together a lot, like moving an object from one hand to another. And if you’re trying to do that with two different hands, it’s pretty challenging to make that look pretty natural.
His hands are also constantly bruised and battered, and he’s often washing them. You see the scars of his killings…
Yeah. Some of the thinking too behind the scars on his hands…it was almost like a self-flogging activity that he would take part in. He would scrub his hands with this steel wool almost as a punishment for what he was doing. It’s kind of an indication of the internal conflict that he’s going through. He knows he’s doing these horrible things, and he doesn’t want to do these things. He articulates that a couple of times in the movie. So this idea that his hands would be bloody and scarred really came from this idea that he was torturing himself in a way, for the things that he’s been doing.
How much did you delve into Frank’s psychology? Is he a schizophrenic?
I suppose he is a bit schizophrenic. He’s a man in conflict. He has no social skills. He has no ability to connect with the outside world, and yet he deeply yearns to connect. And that’s just something that I understood immediately. A lot of the real character work for me actually occurred after we shot the movie. I knew that was going to happen. So much of the shooting of the film was technical, outside of the very specific character moments that were reflection shots. So the rest of the film, I knew that the character had to come alive when you didn’t see him. So most of that was done in the ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording] stage in post-production; I felt the character was kind of created there, for the most part.
Was the original movie helpful in any way to you?
Not really. I hadn’t seen it until we started shooting, and I certainly wasn’t looking to that film as inspiration, because I knew we were doing something so different. And the characterisation was quite different. But also I didn’t really want to try and do what Joe Spinell had done. He had created a very visceral and intriguing character – his performance is pretty remarkable in that movie. And it was never my intention to try and use that as inspiration. But I did love the movie. It’s a pretty incredible, gritty character study. There’s actually a sequence in the original movie that I’d hoped we could shoot, and it was apparently in an early draft. He shoots Tom Savini in the car with a shotgun – it’s a pretty intense scene! And it would’ve been quite cool to shoot that in our movie, but I don’t think there was really much of a place for it.
You obviously have a love of horror movies. Did you grow up watching them?
The first horror movies that I saw were when I was five or six – and I’ve loved the genre ever since. It all started with seeing movies that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing that my brother would rent with his friends, that I would get to see unbeknownst to my parents! And it made an impression on me, and I’ve loved the genre ever since.
Can you say why horror has had such a renaissance over the last decade?
It feels like there are a lot of people taking it seriously now. I think Insidious is a good example, and a movie like Let The Right One In. Typically, a foreign horror movie would not really get legs in the US, or find an audience – primarily because it’s not in the English language. And that movie was really successful here. So great genre cinema is being made worldwide, and it seems to be inspiring people here to make similarly high quality horror films as well, which is the kind of thing we want to be doing.
How was it working with Franck Khalfoun?
Franck is hilarious! He’s incredibly passionate and he has a sensitivity that I love. His appreciation for the hard work everyone has put into the project is wonderful.
Can you tell me about Alexandre Aja?
He’s just great. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while – ever since I saw HIGH TENSION. So I felt this project was in good hands. It was wonderful having him on set – he came up with great ideas and he has an eye for this kind of storytelling. Sometimes, he’ll have the most subtle, simple idea that’ll make all the difference. I also loved the collaboration between him and Franck. They understand and appreciate each other.
Maniac is in cinemas NOW!