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Exclusive Interview: Director Alexandre Aja on the confined challenges of Netflix’s “OXYGEN”

Tuesday, May 11, 2021 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Filmmaker Alexandre Aja’s movies have largely tended toward the visceral and gritty, from HIGH TENSION to the HILLS HAVE EYES remake to CRAWL. For his latest film, the Netflix thriller OXYGEN, he ventures into different but no less intense territory, which he discusses, along with many other aspects of the production, with RUE MORGUE below.

The French-language OXYGEN stars Mélanie Laurent (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, ENEMY) as a woman who wakes up in a claustrophobic, hi-tech chamber with no memory of who she is and how she got there. With the assistance of an AI called MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), she attempts to both free herself from confinement and unlock the mystery of her identity, while dodging a few unpleasant surprises that emerge from the walls. As Christie LeBlanc’s script unfolds, OXYGEN takes surprising turns even deeper into the sci-fi realm, while Aja and Laurent keep us allied with the heroine’s emotional and physical struggle, while its theme of overcoming isolation (with references to a widespread pandemic) make it very relevant to our current times.

OXYGEN is a change of pace for you, so how did you come to the project?

It’s always the same: You read a lot of scripts, and then you just have a moment of falling in love. I was finishing CRAWL, and a producer friend gave me the OXYGEN screenplay without telling me anything about it. It really gave me that feeling of being buried and locked in, and then it went in a completely different direction I was not expecting. By the end of the read, I wanted to make this movie, but at the time I was already starting another project, an adaptation of Junji Ito’s TOMIE, and I couldn’t find a way to work out the schedule. I was just going to produce OXYGEN, and then COVID happened and everything stopped on TOMIE. I went back to Paris in lockdown, and the OXYGEN script took on another meaning. It became so timely and interesting in what it has to say about us. It was as if the sci-fi became real all of a sudden, so it became a necessity for me to make this movie, and it happened right at the end of the first lockdown in Paris.

Were the references to a pandemic already part of the script?

Yes, that was part of the story. You know, sci-fi at its best is always talking about who we are and the world in which we are living, and I guess Christie LeBlanc, who wrote the script, kind of saw that coming, and it just turned into something so grounded and real. It was quite impressive.

How did you go about finding the right actress for the lead?

When you’re doing a movie in a box like this, you know that everything is going to be through the main character’s eyes. From the first shot to the last, she’s going to be on screen, taking you by the hand and carrying you through to the other side. And from the moment we started to change and adapt the script into French, I saw an opportunity to work with Mélanie Laurent. I’ve wanted to find something to do with her for a very long time, and she was definitely my top choice.

She has the range of emotion and acting skill, but also that very European charisma. She was perfect for the part, and I was lucky because during that same lockdown, she went through a period, like all of us, of questioning, thinking and realizing she wanted to do something more challenging. I believe she was craving a part that could be unique, very far from what she’s done before, but also talking about where we are in the world. She’s also a filmmaker, and she made a documentary called TOMORROW where she went around the world asking people their solutions to saving the only planet we have. So I guess she read OXYGEN as something that talked about that in a different way, through the thriller genre.

So the script was originally written in English?

Yeah, it had ended up on the Black List, and I think for a moment, Anne Hathaway was going to produce and star in it. Then I read it and started to work on the project in English, and Noomi Rapace was at the time the first person attached. But then, during the pandemic, the idea was to find a way to do it fast, and shooting it in French seemed to be the right way. Usually I write in French and then adapt my own script into English, and this was the first time I was doing the reverse. And it gave me the opportunity to perhaps bring out the themes of OXYGEN in a way that was more like European sci-fi.

Where was the production set up?

It was shot outside Paris. It was my first movie in French since HIGH TENSION, but it was also the first one I was shooting at home there. Even my two first features, which were in French–HIGH TENSION was filmed in Romania, and my first movie FURIA, a small sci-fi drama, was shot in Morocco. So it was very nice and exciting to shoot near my home in Paris, on a stage.

How was it making OXYGEN under COVID protocols?

We were one of the first films to go back into production in the middle of the pandemic. We had to respect social distancing, which is very hard on a movie set, we had to of course wear masks all the time, and follow all the protocols. I think everyone on the crew was so grateful to be back to work, and knew that if anyone got sick, everything would stop again, so it was kind of the opposite effect. It got everyone’s creative flow going, from the frustration of months and months of being locked down, and OXYGEN drew from all that creativity.
Can you talk about keeping the visuals varied while shooting in such a confined setting?

I was able to do things I’d never done before with OXYGEN, because I had the one location for the whole movie, and inside that, I had the same actress for the whole movie. So I had that continuity in terms of storytelling, and wanted to take some risks. I didn’t want to repeat the same way of filming scene after scene, even if I was in a box, so we opened the toolbox and used all the different techniques of framing and shooting, and cameras and lenses and all the gadgets, and aligned them to different emotions. I knew changing styles in such drastic way would be very visible as you watch the movie, but somehow, because you’re in that box the whole time, you don’t really feel those big changes, from handheld to crane to macro. We tried in every sequence to just take it in a different way, and underline and fully push the performance Melanie was giving us as much as we could.

Did you take any inspiration from BURIED, in the way that film handled a similar scenario?

Yeah, BURIED is one of those movies I remember watching and asking myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s such a great movie and such a great concept, and when I read OXYGEN at first, I thought, “It’s starting like BURIED, great, but I hope it becomes something else.” And without spoiling too much, OXYGEN does become something very different. But we did learn a lot from what they did, and it was an interesting starting point for us to push the envelope and go even further with the directing.

Getting back to the casting, when it came to the voice of MILO, what were you looking for for that role?

I remember watching THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, where Mathieu Amalric was the lead actor [playing a man paralyzed by a stroke], and throughout that movie you’re inside his head and hear his voice, and that was so appealing and relaxing, even if the movie was a big drama. I wanted MILO, the AI that’s there to help her, to be that very soothing medical voice that’s there to calm her down. There would be nothing more stressful than someone trying to calm you down when you’re almost going to die at every twist and turn of the story, so Mathieu was the first person I thought about. Of course, you think about HAL 9000 and all the other great AI voices, but OXYGEN is more of a near-future sci-fi movie, so MILO is not a fully developed AI yet. It’s more like the grandchild of Siri or Alexa!

Since the movie has been dubbed into several languages for Netflix broadcast, did you oversee the dubbing or actor selection for MILO’s voices?

I tried to keep an ear on the English dubbing, but for the other countries, I had to trust the team. I really hope that people are going to watch OXYGEN with subtitles. I think there’s something happening right now, which started with PARASITE, where people are getting more and more open to subtitles, even in countries where dubbing is like a tradition, such as France or Spain or Italy or Germany. It feels like there’s a big evolution, so hopefully OXYGEN will be watched in French with subtitles, though I’m sure the dubbing will have some of the quality of the original.

What can you tell us about TOMIE and your plans for it?

I was going to do that for Quibi, and Quibi is gone [laughs], so I don’t know. If you’re familiar with the manga, Tomie cannot die, so we will find a way to bring her back.

Are you taking any inspiration from the Japanese film versions, or striking out in a different direction?

No, a completely different approach. I’m a huge fan of the manga; I cannot say the same about the movies!

Do you have any other genre projects coming up?

Yeah, I have a lot of other projects cooking; other creature movies, other survival movies, more hardcore films. I’m in a situation where I have no idea which one is going to start first, but I’m really excited about all of them.

It struck me recently that HIGH TENSION is one of the few popular foreign-language horror films of the 2000s that haven’t been remade in English. Did anyone ever approach you to do that?

Yeah, we had a few offers, and I always said that the movie has maybe seven or eight minutes of dialogue, so of course we could do a remake, but I don’t think it makes sense. I’d prefer to find another story and another subject. In fact, when I was making CRAWL, HIGH TENSION was in the back of my mind during the whole shoot, even though those two movies have nothing to do with each other. But there is something similar between them, for me at least.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.