Champing at the Bit: Alexandre Aja’s Crawl Floods into Theaters

Among all the films previewed at Paramount’s CinemaCon presentation, none elicited a more gleeful reaction from press row than Alexandre Aja’s Crawl. The high-concept creature feature pits Haley (Kaya Scodelario), a young woman who ignores an evacuation order to look for her missing father during a Category 5 hurricane, against a gang of gigantic alligators who rush in with the rising water levels. The footage shown at CinemaCon was reminiscent of the grind house horror flicks of the 1980s. Boxoffice caught up with the French director ahead of the film’s release to talk about his approach to the film and why he fell in love with a project that hearkens back to his childhood fears.

How did you get involved with the project? 

When you make movies and, very specifically, when you try to make movies that are really scary and suspenseful, you always read scripts with the expectation that fear starts on the page. For this one, everything started in the log line. I remember when Craig Flores, the producer, sent me the script over the weekend; I remember falling in love with the log line, with that simple idea of a young woman going into a Category 5 hurricane to save her dad in a flooded area full of alligators. I thought it was just the most simple and efficient starting point to build a roller-coaster ride of a movie. 

Were there any other movies you had in mind in your approach to this one?

There are a lot of crocodile and alligator movies, specifically from the early ‘80s. There are some very fun ones, but there’s not really a reference movie the way Jaws is a reference for shark movies. I really wanted to do a creature feature because alligators can be some of the scariest and most terrifying creatures when you learn a little bit more about them. They are perfect predators. That’s why for the last 16 million years they have barely changed. They’re the perfect killing machine, the last dinosaurs alive. We wanted to do something that was somewhat realistic, yes, but that also pushed the edges of that reality. Jaws is always the blueprint, Alien is another great reference. 

How did you mold the script into the film you wanted to make?

The script was way more claustrophobic, taking place inside the house, and I wanted to open up that world. I wanted the storm itself to be the one location, a place that simply doesn’t let you escape.

How much did you have to balance it tonally? You want it to be fun but have to be careful not to steer too closely to camp.

In some of my other movies like The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension, or Maniac, I was really aiming for fear. When I did Piranha, it was much more like an all-gore comedy. For this one, I really wanted to go back to the fear; I didn’t want it to be funny or camp. I wanted a real survival thriller. Our character is trapped in this house, trapped in a neighborhood that’s flooding with water, with a ticking clock of water rising and all these creatures trying to hunt her.

You mentioned Jaws, a movie that struggled a lot behind the scenes to have its shark effects work properly. What were some of the technical challenges you had to contend with in the making of Crawl?

It was one of the most challenging movies I have ever done. When you do a movie that takes place over one day, inside a Category 5 hurricane with flooding water, you cannot shoot on location. You cannot go into a storm and shoot the movie. Alligators aside, you have to build and rebuild eight different things all inside a blue screen with all the CGI in the world to re-create the setting, re-create that storm. The crew and actors, we were always in the water, all day long for 40 days with rain, wind, and sound effects. We also had the challenge of these alligators, that are fully CGI creatures, and we wanted them to be so real that we didn’t have to hide them in the movie. You know that Hollywood saying, “Less is more”? I think that sometimes you should do the opposite. That’s what we aimed for with this movie; we want you to see the creatures our characters are fighting.

Why is a movie like Crawl ideally suited for cinemas?

There is a reason why really good scary movies are the only ones that are challenging these amazing superhero movies at the box office. They offer an experience that you share with the people around you. There is nothing better than watching a very good suspenseful thriller or very good horror movie with people you don’t know. You all jump together and can feel the temperature in the auditorium rising. It’s like everyone is frozen, unable to move because they’re too scared about what’s going to happen next. It’s the most communal experience that you can get in a theater. I’m still happy that Crawl is getting such a wide theatrical release because anywhere you are, anywhere in the world, even if you don’t come from Florida or you haven’t seen an alligator in your backyard, I think everyone will relate to this experience.

Having lived in South Florida, I know it’s not odd to encounter an alligator in a suburban setting. They seem to love golf courses and swimming pools in the suburbs. How much experience did you have with alligators personally before you took on this project? 

I was a child actor growing up, and I had the chance to go to Florida a few times, because, as you can imagine, in Paris there are not that many alligators around. But when I was in Florida, in the Everglades, each time I was fascinated and obsessed with them. I remember making a movie in the early ’90s where I had to spend almost a year in Miami. I remember seeing them everywhere. There is something fascinating about the way they look; they’re like the original monster. I think it’s something that is rooted in the minds of a lot of people, almost like a subconscious memory of an ancient time when we were dealing with them on a daily basis. I asked Sam Raimi, who was a producer on the movie, what was his favorite alligator or crocodile movie. He told me, Jurassic Park.

ALEXANDRE AJA AT THE MOVIES

I grew up in the ’80s and remember watching Pet Sematary in a movie theater and being traumatized. I wasn’t even able to finish it; I wanted to leave the auditorium. I remember watching Nightmare on Elm Street and having the feeling that this fear would stay with me no matter what, no matter if I closed my eyes or blocked my ears.

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