A "NUCLEAR" FAMILY: THE RESIDENTS OF THE HILLS
While casting the Carters was essential to this reinterpretation of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, equally careful consideration was taken with the casting of their frightful nemeses: the mutant clan of irradiated miners. Once again, the filmmakers found themselves looking for actors who could meet a highly unusual set of criteria. "For the mutants, we needed to find actors who could not only perform the stunt work, handle the extensive makeup and perform in that makeup, but who truly could embody the fierce, primal nature of the mutants' way of life," explains associate producer Cody Zwieg; "That's a tall order."
To play Pluto, perhaps the most horrifically voracious of the mutants, Aja began by going straight to one of the horror genre's most veteran stars: Michael Bailey Smith, who also appeared in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD. Aja was thrilled with the results. "What Michael brings to the role is amazing. He is one of the very, very best bad guys there is," says the director.
Smith knew well Wes Craven's story of mutants in the hills, but he was impressed by Aja and Levasseur's reworking - especially their deeper probing of the mutant family's unusual history, which makes them almost as poignant as they are gruesomely depraved. "It really interested me to know that these malformed mutants are the descendants of people who wouldn't leave during the atomic tests and that they are, in a sense, actually a really close-knit loving family," he says. "But, of course, they're always looking for their next meal in some unfortunate traveling family coming down the road!"
As for Pluto, Smith describes him as "incredibly vicious yet at the same time a kind of childlike, innocent character. At one moment he's ripping off a leg and eating it like a drumstick and at another he's got these very gentle, childlike movements and bouts of laughter. It was a joy to play him."
For Smith, a large part of the inspiration for the role came from the innovative makeup that made the characters so visually ghastly. "My character is so deformed that it doesn't even look like me," he observes. "The guys from K.N.B. EFX did such a great job bringing the characters to life and making them real that I just loved being transformed. I love evoking any strong emotion in people, whether it's laughter or terror - and this character definitely evokes some pretty powerful emotions."
Joining Smith's Pluto in the mutant family is the reptilian-minded Lizard, who is spurred into evil by the beauty of the Carter family's women. Lizard is portrayed by another horror film veteran: Robert Joy who has appeared in such films as George Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD and AMITYVILLE HORROR 3D.
Joy saw bringing the beastly impulses of Lizard to life in a realistic way as a fantastic challenge. "I was immediately tempted by this character because he is so intense and so nightmarish, with such vivid colors - but at the same time he is part of a real family, a literally subterranean family that might be very dark but is still in some way a closely connected group," he says. "What's great about this new version of HILLS is that you realize that there is a reason behind not only the massive physical deformities of the mutants but also their equally grave psychological, mental and spiritual deformities. They might be disfigured, depraved and deformed, but they're doing what they need to do to survive in a hellish world not of their making."
Robert Joy further sees the film as cleverly revealing three different shadings of the American family. "You have the mannequin families in the atomic test village who are kind of the impossible, optimistic ideal of the American family, a sort of perfect 1950s Life Magazine version. Then you have the Carters who are much more recognizable as a typical, flawed family with lots of tension and dysfunction but also love among them. And then finally you get to the mutants, Papa Jupiter and his brood, who have degenerated and regressed to the point that they are simply about the hunger for food and sex and darker things," he observes. "However, in the end, you also see that heroes can also come from strange places, because there's the character of Ruby -- who might be the most heroic character in the entire film, yet is also one of the mutants."
Having worked in horror films for years, Joy was also thrilled to work with Aja and Levasseur who he sees as part of a new breed. "They're very original and, this might be a bad way to put it, but they definitely bring fresh blood to the genre," he laughs.
Also impressed with Aja and Levasseur was Ezra Buzzington who portrays the feral mutant Goggle, and prepared in part for the role by studying a documentary about human cultures that have engaged in the taboo of cannibalism. Says Buzzington: "There was a real unusual depth in the script for HILLS and what really moved me to want to do the piece is that I think it's about this idea that what we create in our lives and in our world can come back to destroy us if we're not careful - and it does with a vengeance in the case of the desert mutants."
Playing the head mutant, the literally twisted Papa Jupiter, is Billy Drago, who has also been seen in a number of horror films as well as in Brian De Palma's classic THE UNTOUCHABLES. Drago had been a fan of the original film but, like his castmates, saw an opportunity to tell more of the story with this remake. "I really liked the idea of giving more perspective to the unique family dynamic of the mutants," he says. "And I was interested in Papa Jupiter because he put himself in charge of taking care of them and making sure that even in the mayhem they follow certain rules."
In taking on one of the most shocking scenes - when Papa Jupiter ravenously consumes a human heart - Drago had a little insight from his own life. "As a youth I worked in a mortuary and I learned there that human blood is said to taste very sweet so when I was eating the heart, which was very sweet and chewy, there was a certain realism to it," he admits.
While Drago found himself intrigued by all of his mutant co-stars, there is one that truly moved him: Laura Ortiz as Ruby, who breaks the mutant mold. "The beauty of Ruby's character is that she's the lone remaining connection between this clan of mutants and civilization," notes Drago. "She expresses the tenderness that they can't express so that's why she is the one Papa Jupiter loves and cares for the most."
Casting Ruby was one of the biggest challenges of the production, as the filmmakers sought out someone who could bring an original touch of sweetness to the madness of the mutants. Ultimately, they found Laura Ortiz who makes her feature film debut in THE HILLS HAVE EYES, having previously starred on Showtime's "Sleeper Cell." "Laura is extremely effective as Ruby," says Alexandre Aja. "It's hard to create a believable mutant and even harder to create one who is capable of such moving acts."
MAKING UP THE MUTANTS
Even as the actors were being cast for the mutant family, the filmmakers were simultaneously conducting painstaking research to begin creating their disturbing appearance and behavior. Aja and Levasseur began with a dread-inspiring vision of what atomic radiation might have wrought upon a family of miners hidden away in a cave during the atomic testing era that shook the deserts of the American West in the 1950s.
"Alex and Gregory came in with their own ideas for the make-up, prosthetics and CGI. They brought in books of real human anomalies, and ultimately created a completely unique mutant family that was the result of this nuclear testing in a remote desert mining town," explains producer Peter Locke.
For Aja, this almost scientific authenticity was key to bringing the film into the modern cinematic era. "A lot of our ideas for the mutants came from this background idea that they were the result of a family that never left what became a devastated nuclear testing site," he explains. "We based all our descriptions and directions on real documents, pictures and footage that we found on the effects of nuclear fallout in Chernobyl and Hiroshima. Everything was created around real facts about radiation's effects."
But it is one thing to describe genetic mutations and another thing to turn them into flesh and blood renderings that chill to the bone. To tackle this demanding task, the filmmakers brought in renowned special effects and makeup house K.N.B. EFX Group Inc., whose lengthy list of credits includes some of the most technologically imaginative films of the last few years, among them CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, LEMONY SNICKET, MINORITY REPORT and SIN CITY.
K.N.B. spent over six grueling months creating the look of the mutant family in a drastically realistic manner. After going over Aja and Levasseru's reality-based mutant designs, they first turned to 3-D design tools -- tools that allow traditional sculptors to sculpt and paint their characters on a computer - in order to forge models of each individual mutant family member. From these digital models, molds were made of each horrific face. Finally, the makeup team took casts of all the actor's bodies and heads so as to custom fit the resulting prosthetics and makeup. "It was a very involved process," K.N.B. artist Scott Patton reveals, "and we knew that the more prep we did beforehand, the better the results would be."
For some of the most harrowing horror sequences, state-of-the-art animatronic replicas of the actors were utilized so that they could be literally torn from limb to limb. To create these, each of the actors had to submit to a "full body cyber scan." Explains Patton: "For the cyber scan, the actor stands on a platform, and a laser scans every inch of their bodies. Exact measurements are fed to a multiple axis mill, which acts like a drill of sorts and carves a piece of foam based on the measurements. This way you get an exact representation of each actor's body. Unfortunately, the details aren't good enough for lasering the face, so we have to do those by hand."
For the actors, getting scanned was just the beginning of an arduous process that involved, on average, about four hours of torturous makeup preparation per mutant family member each and every day. Even after their extensive facial makeup was applied, the actors had to be spray painted with an array of decrepit colors to make their every inch of flesh look even closer to death and deterioration.
It wasn't easy, yet the actors developed a profound respect for the special effects makeup workers who helped to bring their nearly unimaginable characters to life. Says Robert Joy, who plays Lizard: "Every day, these amazing artists took more than three hours to transform me into something that could only be found in a nightmare. Their work was so real, it gives you a deeper glimpse into the mutants' lives. You realize that it's not only their bodies that are so deformed, it's their souls, too."
Alexandre Aja has nothing but praise for the K.N.B. makeup department. "Greg Nicotero, Kevin Wasner and Scott Patton did an amazing job and worked really hard to make our vision of the characters come alive. With this film, I think we have helped to push K.N.B to take their special makeup effects to the next level and have gotten some very unsettlingly gory results," he says.
Meanwhile, innovative visual effects supervisor Jamison Goei, (HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER, HANSEL AND GRETEL, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION) and his team of high-tech artists were feverishly crafting over 130 visual effects shots for the film - effects so remarkably subtle that they never compromise the raw realism of the film.
One of Goei's most monumental challenges was recreating the atomic test village . . . inside a computer. "The idea was that the audience would be wondering 'where is this town?' because it looks so real when in fact we only constructed one street and filled the rest in with computers," he notes.
Goei's work also involved warping actor's faces into mutant shapes. "For example with Ruby we took her facial scan and warped her eyes, then expanded the bridge of her nose and her forehead to give it a kind of subtle mutant freakiness. Parts of her look correct but something's just a little off so that it feels very real -- which of course, is what makes it so scary," he says.
Comments Alexandre Aja: "I think people are going to be really impressed with what we've done with facial manipulation and other effects that have never been seen before in this way. We wanted to create integrated visual effects so seamless that the audience might not notice them yet they add to the overall experience. I think we've done that very well with HILLS."
FINDING HILLS THAT HAVE EYES
There remained one final element essential to the film's relentless tale of terror: finding a set of desert hills so remote and so eerie that anything could happen once you entered them. Explains director Alexandre Aja: "The hills of THE HILLS HAVE EYES are a character themselves. In a sense they are the lead bad guy of the movie. So we had to find a place that was truly creepy, strange and scary."
Rather than return to the Victorville location of the original shoot, the filmmakers broadened their location search across the globe. Their quest took them to Namibia, South Africa, New Mexico, Mexico, California and finally to Morocco, where at last they found the necessary combination of affordability and unusually haunting landscapes. There, they found their stand-in for an atomic wasteland in Ouarzazate, known as "the gateway to the Sahara Desert." "It really was the best location," says Aja. "With 360 degree views of nothing but jagged rock it was perfect for the movie. As soon as we arrived, we knew this was it."
Though the cast and crew were excited about traveling to this exotic desert location for the 45-day shoot, it turned out to be a grueling undertaking in which they faced extreme wind and heat along with typical Third World conditions. Temperatures soared to 120 degrees at times - high enough to melt latex makeup -- and daily sandstorms whipped the production into a frenzy. But the sweat, grime and daily rigors also became an advantage -- only adding to the actors' sense of being in an all-out fight for survival.
Comments Kathleen Quinlan: "Many days on the set it was 115 and the wind was whipping this red fine dust all over us and we realized that we didn't have to act overwhelmed because we already were. The elements turned out to really add to the experience." Adds Aaron Stanford: "Shooting in Ouarzazate also helped to create the realistic family dynamic among the cast because in such an isolated place with such tough conditions we had to bond together."
Indeed, sixteen different nationalities came together to make the film, and despite language barriers and cultural differences, the international crew also brought a tremendous exchange of ideas and creativity to the set. Marianne Maddalena summarizes: "Everybody had one thing in common which is that they wanted to do a great job. Alex and Gregory inspired us all."
DESIGNING THE HILLS WITH EYES
A large part of the thrill of THE HILLS HAVE EYES is its extraordinary visual energy - as it creates a fully realized desert environment so lonely, desolate and ravaged by atomic testing that it makes perfect sense as the hiding place for a ravenous clan of ferocious mutants. For director Alexandre Aja, forging a sharp look and visceral feeling of mounting tension for the film were always a priority - which is why he recruited cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, whose kinetically shocking work on HIGH TENSION had previously garnered acclaim, to the film. Alexandre's close, organic working relationship with Aja and Levasseur was key to the film's visual style.
"We've developed a real shorthand with Maxime - and we know we can 100 percent rely on his cinematography and will always be pleased," says Aja. Adds Marianne Maddalena: "Maxime is an incredible collaborator with Alex and Greg, and he brings both a tension and intensity to their vision that is both original and effective."
Alexandre was very familiar with the gritty, handheld look of Wes Craven's micro-budget original, but knew that Aja and Levasseur would want to bring their own more explosive point-of-view to it. "I think Alex and Greg saw a chance to bring a very modern touch to what is a classic horror story. It's a story people know already so what's new is this style that we bring to it," he says.
Alexandre faced numerous challenges in his work on the film, not the least of which was trying to shoot a film of escalating fear and gruesome revelations not in the usual darkness of most horror stories but in the blindingly bright light of the desert sun. "A big part of this movie takes place in daylight and that's not easy at all when you are trying to create a sense of the unknown," he says. "We wanted to create an atmosphere in which any given rock or piece of brush could be hiding something terrifying behind it. It was an exciting challenge. For me the interesting part was finding ways to communicate fear, and painting a haunting portrait with light."
Further bringing the desert world of the mutants to life is the work of production designer Joseph Nemec, whose credits include the tornado-whipped sets of TWISTER and the thriller PATRIOT GAMES. Nemec based his designs for THE HILLS HAVE EYES on specific emotions that he and the filmmakers hoped to evoke scene by scene. "For each individual scene, I would sit down with Alex and Greg to talk first and foremost about what we wanted the audience to feel - fear, compassion, anxiety, et cetera -- and then we built the designs from those discussions," he explains. "The common characteristic all three of us agreed upon is that the key to everything would be found in the details. It didn't matter whether we were talking about a single prop, the overall set dressing, the architectural detailing or the natural backgrounds -- whatever it was, we all were focused on making the smallest details viscerally real and true."
Nemec worked especially closely with the filmmakers in designing the Carter family trailer, which serves as their only place of refuge throughout the first part of the film, as terror slowly builds to a crescendo around them. Some four different versions of the trailer were used during filming, including three actual vintage Airstreams wrangled for the film and one mock-up of the trailer interior, built 33 percent bigger to allow extra space for the camera to maneuver at wild angles in the scenes where the trailer is invaded by mutants.
Intriguingly, the Airstreams were acquired from the King of Morocco himself, who had previously used them for hunting excursions. Then, the interiors were completely overhauled by Nemec to reflect Ethel and Big Bob Carter's middle class tastes and values. "The Airstream trailer becomes the bright and shiny antithesis of everything else in the film which is largely decaying and trapped in another time," notes Nemec. "It's the one place in the film I used modern day fabrics, textures and colors. It was important to show that before they arrived in the hills, the Carter family had a structure, an order to their lives, a certain amount of success and privilege and that had to come across in the design."
The Carter trailer makes a stark counterpoint to Nemec's designs for the mutants' living quarters, which also involved one of the film's most dramatic and original sets: the atomic test village. "The mutants are stuck," Nemec says. "They are stuck in this devastating time, stuck in the only way of life they've ever known, stuck in their depraved savagery. So, for their world, we used coarser textures, darker colors and rougher surfaces. I wanted to show as accurately as possible what can happen in the wake of nuclear explosions; what an environment might look like that had been preserved in that moment, which leads you to see how the mutants are, in a way, rebelling against their awful circumstances."
For Alexandre Aja, and Gregroy Levassseur, Nemec's sets became part of a whole design matrix that was created with the intent of instilling anxiety, morbid fascination and cold fear into every frame of film. "We knew this film was going to be a tremendous challenge right from the beginning," says Aja. "We had a very tight schedule, a lot of action, a lot of difficult scenes, a lot of prosthetics, a lot of special effects, a lot of CGI - but we knew every single element was important to telling the story."
He sums it all up with this: "Wes Craven's original THE HILLS HAVE EYES will always be around and always be a great influence. I will watch that movie again and again in the future. Our film is not so much a remake as it is a new approach, another take on the story that we hope will be really, really scary in its own way."
French director/writer Alexandre Aja makes his American film debut with THE HILLS HAVE EYES. His 2004 French horror/slasher film HIGH TENSION produced such a sensation at the Toronto International Film Festival that Lion's Gate Films swiftly decided to give the film a wide release in the United States. The film was nominated for grand prize at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival and earned Aja awards for best direction and best fantasy film at the Catalonian International Film Festival. In 2004, Aja was named to the Variety -- Ten Directors To Watch list.
His first feature, FURIA, was nominated for a Fantasporto International Fantasy Award for best film. When Aja was 18, his short film OVER THE RAINBOW received a Cannes Film Festival Golden Palm Award nomination for best short film.
Aja is the son of director Alexandre Arcady and French cinema critic Marie-Jo Jouan. His wife is Moroccan filmmaker Laila Marrakchi (MAROCK).
Boyhood friends with Alexandre Aja since the age of 10, the two bonded over their passion for horror films. Levasseur co-wrote and performed the duties of second unit director on HIGH TENSION. He co-wrote FURIA and BREAK OF DAWN.
Wes Craven's SCREAM Trilogy virtually redefined the horror genre for an entire generation of moviegoers. The trilogy went on to gross close to half a billion dollars worldwide and inspired a host of imitators. Similarly, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and his creation of Freddy Kreuger sent millions to their local cineplexes and created a franchise for New Line Cinema with six sequels to date. Craven wrote and directed the last, 10th-anniversary outing, called WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE, which invented a new style of self-referential horror that blossomed for the next decade.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Craven holds a Master's degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University. Craven left a secure job in academia to follow his passion for cinema. On a shoestring budget, he wrote, directed and edited his first film, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which generated enormous controversy and attention and helped launch the resurgence of fright films in the 70s that put horror back on the map. He then went on to write, direct and edit the critically acclaimed 1977 cult classic THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Other notable titles include SHOCKER, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, CURSED, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, DEADLY FRIEND, SWAMP THING and VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN. In 1999, Craven directed Meryl Streep in MUSIC OF THE HEART, for which she received an Academy Award Nomination.
Craven recently helmed the hit thriller RED-EYE for DreamWorks starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy.
For television, Craven helped create and produce the series "Nightmare Cafe" for NBC. He directed the telefilms "Night Visions," "A Stranger in the House," Invitation to Hell," "Chiller," and "Casebusters." He also directed seven episodes of the 1980's revival of "The Twilight Zone."
In 1999, Craven published his first novel, The Fountain Society, for Simon and Schuster Press. In 2005, Craven, along with such notable filmmakers as Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, Walter Salles and Gus Van Sant, wrote and directed a five-minute love story for the film PARIS, JE T'AIME segment "20 arrondissement," starring Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell.
Finally, Craven is working on a major project for Las Vegas named "Magick Macabre," a scary, funny and compelling show of illusions featuring Irish magician Joe Daly, and co-produced by John McCulgan of "Riverdance" fame. It will be Craven's first work for the stage, and, as he says with a wry smile, hopefully not his last.
Back to main page