alexandre aja interview

Alexandre Aja learned firsthand the difficulties of making a water-based movie with 2010’s Piranha 3D, a well-received loose remake of 1978 horror classic. But nine years later, and the French filmmaker learned that all over again, the hard way.

“When I did Piranha, I got firsthand experience on…everything that was told about the making of Jaws was true and how like a nightmare it was to shoot with water on the water,” Aja said at the press junket for Crawl held at the Long Island Aquarium. “And I guess I forgot in between. And I went back, you know, and then as soon as I went back in the water, I was like, oh, what was I thinking about? And I’m sure we’ll forget again.”

Filming in water is notoriously difficult for any filmmaker — often it requires special custom-built equipment that can withstand water damage and tons of measures in place to ensure the crew and cast’s health. But Aja only made it more difficult for himself his second go-around by picking a film that was as uncomfortable and as physically grueling as possible. Crawl was shot over the course of eight weeks in Belgrade, Serbia, where the production built a huge reproduction of a small Florida town, complete with houses, floating cars, and a gas station. But the main location would be a claustrophobic crawlspace where the majority of the action takes place. Though there are only two characters trapped in the crawlspace underneath Florida house, a daughter and father played respectively by Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper, but Aja had to get around 50 people into the location, all of whom got to spend 12 hours a day in the water with Aja and his two stars.

“I mean, it was so difficult,” Aja said. “The rain and the wind were like maybe the most difficult part, more than just the water and but that was a difficult one for sure.”

But Aja couldn’t pass up a premise as compelling as that of Crawl‘s. Coming off of directing 2016’s The 9th Life of Louis Drax and before that, 2013’s Horns, Aja was looking for a return to his roots. “Piranha was more comedy, Horns was more like a psychological fable, Louis Drax was more like a drama,” Aja listed off. “So I really wanted to go back to high tension like [Aja’s breakout hit] The Hills Have Eyes and do something that was more straightforward.” And that’s when he stumbled upon the script for Crawl by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. “Along the script, I received that logline, and I fell in love with the logline,” Aja said. “Like that simple idea of this young woman who has to go save her dad during a hurricane category 5 in Florida in a flooded place infested with alligators. That was all I needed. That was for me.”

Crawl follows Haley and Dave, an estranged daughter and father who get stuck in the crawlspace with a bloodthirsty alligator in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane. With the entire town evacuated, Haley and Dave must rely on their own devices and tend to their horrible injuries sustained during the alligator attack. This would be difficult enough if, partway through the movie, the first alligator wasn’t joined by another. And another. And a few dozen more. The stakes keep rising throughout Crawl and the thrills come nonstop, though that wasn’t originally how it went in the first script, Aja revealed. The story initially took place entirely in the crawlspace, with a reveal of a second alligator coming in the last third of the script. But feeling that was too limiting, Aja changed it:

“It was just the crawlspace, and at the end, the reveal that it was a single alligator in the crawlspace. So I thought it was too small. I wanted to develop the story, the family story, the tie between her and her dad. But I also wanted to open the movie to the hurricane being the main location. And I have that ticking clock of water raising from the basement to the rooftop and the alligators coming more and more.”

A few other changes were made, and sometimes dropped, throughout the course of the film. Long stretches of heartfelt dialogue between Haley and Dave were trimmed to keep the tension tight, and several versions of the adorable dog Sugar’s fate were scrapped along the way. Aja revealed that there were a few versions where the dog does die, but he couldn’t go through with them. In the script, “we had a version where we were feeding the dog to save them. We had a version where the dog was sacrificing himself to save them. We had a version where the dog [leaves] the tail behind,” Aja said. “At the end of the day…to play with the expectation is the dog is going to live or not is more interesting. And also, if I want to get my citizenship, I was told that I cannot kill dogs anymore.”

But despite expanding the scope of the film, Crawl is still pretty small-scale. Running at a tight 87 minutes, the majority of those minutes take place within the space of the crawlspace, with a few minutes spent outside in the flooded streets and, later, in upper levels of the house. But that was intentional too — Aja wanted Crawl to be bigger, but he didn’t want to do a big monster movie that has become so common at the theater these days:

“I didn’t want to do a monster movie. I didn’t want to do a giant radioactive alligator. I didn’t want to do alligator flying in a tornado. That’s a few things, a set of rules that I was really trying to [implement]. I didn’t want to have the alligators having an agenda of revenge or any type of human projection thing. I wanted to try to make the movie as close as I can from the realm of possibilities, and somehow almost like as if based on a true story. And that was kind of the direction.”

However, Aja did allow himself a few liberties with the design of the actual alligators, which were all created in CG by Rodeo FX, supervised by Thomas Montminy Brodeur and Keith Kolder. “I did a selection,” Aja admitted. “You know, like you find thousands of hours of footage of crocodile and alligators online. I watched, I think all of them. And I did a selection of my favorite clips, of favorite moments, where there’s a move or an action. So the alligators that you have in the movie are more like the best of, of all crazy alligators could be.”

Two specimens of alligators specifically inspired Aja’s design: One, a stuffed Mississippi alligator sitting in the Natural History Museum in New York, and another aptly named “Godzilla” that is still alive and kicking in a shelter in Miami. “He is amazing,” Aja gushed. “He is like, so strong and he’s very agile and very brutal and violent.”

So could a Godzilla-type alligator be the main foe in a Crawl sequel, perhaps? Maybe, Aja said. “There is a lot of potential for other stories,” the director said, adding:

“I like the idea of a home invasion type of movie where the home invasion starts with the disaster coming inside your whole house, and then like the creature coming as well. So yes, like a sequel, why not, with different characters, a different story.”

These different stories may be explored in the bonus features for Crawl, which Aja revealed contains an opening scene “that we never shot that we’re doing as an animated storyboard” showing other victims during these events. But rather than alligators, for a sequel, Aja said he would “love to go back to explore maybe other creatures.” Aja’s done two aquatic creature features now: piranhas and alligators. Killer crabs next, maybe?

Crawl is playing in theaters now.

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