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Piranha 3D Director Alexandre Aja on Putting 80,000 Gallons of Blood to Good Use

This Friday, Piranha 3D, the year’s biggest B-movie masquerading as a late-summer blockbuster, opens nationwide. But unlike the straight-to-TV hokum that airs weekly on the SyFy Network, Piranha 3D boasts a surprisingly famous cast (Adam Scott! Elisabeth Shue!? Christopher Lloyd?), and some expensive 3-D effects work. The film’s exuberant Parisian director, Alexandre Aja, is also no bargain-bin helmer: His 2003 French horror flick, the gripping, blood-drenched High Tension, paved the way for American thrillers Mirrors and The Hills Have Eyes. But Aja has never done anything quite like this. The director spoke with Vulture about the difficulties of lake-bound shooting, following in James Cameron's footsteps with the Piranha legacy, and threading the needle on an action-adventure-horror-comedy.

How exactly did this movie happen?
After High Tension, I was looking for my first English-speaking movie, reading scripts. I received one script, about six years ago, that was called Piranha: Lake Havasu. [It had] a very fun story line: an earthquake released a deadly piranha during spring break in Arizona. The script was written as a comedy. I had so much fun reading it, I couldn’t help think about what I could do if I brought character development and suspense and tension and make it not a comedy, but a real suspenseful movie with some comedy moments. Time passed. But two years ago they re-approached me and asked how I was feeling about the project. I was really excited to write and make it as well.

It’s surprising that the studio originally came to you with a comedy — High Tension isn’t exactly a comedic masterpiece.
I was misunderstood — High Tension was a comedy! [Laughs.] No, you’re right, it was not at all a comedy, it was very dark. I think they approached me because they knew that making a straight comedy with piranha would be just a spoof. They needed it more like Jaws. And in the vein of a more serious movie.

Joe Dante directed the first Piranha, Cameron worked on the second one. They’re both really accomplished filmmakers, but piranha movies seem like a strange entry point. It doesn’t have prestige, necessarily, but it seems to attract talent.
It’s a very strange franchise — so many talented people have been involved. Somehow, it keeps giving a chance to young people who are really, really inventive that can work with a very limited budget. I’m very lucky to put my name among those names. Joe Dante and James Cameron are major inspirations. But my Piranha is not inspired by the original Piranha, it’s more like a Gremlins for adults, with some Indiana Jones action-adventure.

There’s a report that you used 7,000 gallons of blood on the set. Is that accurate?
More than that. That’s what Eli [Roth] said when he arrived. I don’t want to give you a wrong number, but — did you say 7,000? Multiply by ten. It was somewhere around 80,000. We were using very dense blood and we had to put that in the water. The amount of blood we had to pour in the lake was around that number.

Is that some sort of record?
It may be the most blood ever used, and it is violent and graphic somehow, but it’s never, I hope, disgusting or over-the-top. I didn’t make this movie to use that much blood. Because 20,000 kids getting attacked at spring break is a lot of blood in the water. I just respect the medical rules: one gallon equals one person.

Why did you decide to go 3-D?
It became an obvious choice: To create an even bigger immersion for the audience inside the water, with piranha coming at you, flying at you, we needed 3-D. It was a very quick, five-minute phone call to Bob Weinstein. Shooting on the water made the real 3-D shoot impossible. The reflection of the sun on the water creates a different lighting, which breaks 3-D. So we had to change to conversion, which is still amazing because you have full freedom. We started converting in November, and when we stop talking I’ll still be working. Conversion has a bad rep because of the marketing, but it’s a good process.

There’s been a lot of talk on the web about the wet T-shirt contest and the 3-D.
Yeah, we have a lot of 3-D, not only on the fish side, but on the bikini-girl side, too. We’re delivering.

The cast is incredible, and varied. How did you get so many people of note involved in this movie?
I didn’t want to do this movie with unknown people. Every actor should bring something else to it. It’s a popcorn movie. I wanted to do some postmodern casting. I wanted Elisabeth Shue because she’s not only coming with her acting skill, but she’s also bringing part of the pop-culture-movie story with her. And the same with Jerry O’Connell, Christopher Lloyd, and Ving Rhames. And even the same with the new generation — Jessica Szohr, Steven R. McQueen, or Adam Scott. Kelly Brook is some kind of icon in the U.K. They bring some friendly faces that you grew up with or know well.

Why do you think this sort of thing isn’t done more often for films like this?
The studio really helped me. For example, to get Richard Dreyfus, with the Jaws connection, to come back and play the same part and being in the opening scene — it was Bob Weinstein who managed to convince him and explain how great it would be for fans around the world to see Matt Hooper coming back.

Are you nervous about audiences getting what you’re going for?
Sometimes when [a movie’s] supposed to be serious and there are funny moments, they don’t know if they’re supposed to laugh. That’s a strange feeling. The Gremlins spirit is the best way to describe. It’s not jokes; it’s dark humor meeting a real situation. You can laugh and be scared in the same movie.

Photo: Charley Gallay/LEP/Splash