Maniac-UK-Quad-PosterManiac hits cinemas today, a first-person remake of the 1980s cult horror flick, it’s either a really clever and tense tribute to a beloved original, or a horrible, exploitative, misogynist dirge supported by a trashy gimmick depending on your take.

Love it or hate it, filming an entire movie in the first person is a bold, even foolhardy choice. We spoke to the film’s director, Frank Khalfoun to find out why he chose to do it that way, and the effect that had on the production.

Why he chose to use first person

Because I was not really enthusiastic about doing a straight remake, and I wanted to try to do something a little more experimental, a little more fresh, a little newer, a little more exciting. Something that was perhaps a little more gripping for the audience, to provide an experience. I felt that when they asked me to do this movie that we’ve seen this movie so many times before – it’s been copied so many times, elements of the film have been copied so many times, the only way to really get involved was if myself and the producers were able to come up with a concept that felt new, and that was a fresh take. Whether or not it was horrific, I was willing to take a chance. And whether people love it or hate it, at least we tried to do something different. That’s the reason.

Avoiding motion sickness

I think one of the mistakes people make when they do things in the first person, or subjective, is they have this idea that the shot should be chaotic, that there’s movement. [But] when we walk around, we don’t – even when we run, when we jump – we’re pretty stable in our brains. So my idea was, we stay pretty stable, and allow the audience to get sucked into the movie, and this guy’s head. All the found footage stuff, and stuff where you do subjective, and it’s chaotic – I wanted it to be more stable. And also, it was important that we see this character, so there are a few tricks in there that keep us within the technique, or within the context, and allow us to pull out once in a while – to take a breather from it, but still get the idea that we’re still in his brain.

The justification for stepping out of first person

Reading about serial killers, I found that a lot of them experience the same thing, which is out of body experience when they were actually killing. That was the reason. For me it clicked in my brain, I was like, hey this is a perfect way, not only to provide something of the serial killer experience, but also to allow me to see my hero, and allow me to show my actor. And it still remained within the context. It was a nice way to pull out and see the character, but also be truthful to what we were doing.

The practical reasons for not seeing the protagonist

That was another positive. There were positives and negatives to doing it, but one of the positive reasons was that we could get Elijah and he doesn’t have to spend so much time on set. We could save some money; it was a coup for us. I was kind of scared of that at first, I understand why the producers wanted to do [it], but I also recognised quickly that Elijah’s character would have to live through the other characters, through the other performers, and if he wasn’t there to deliver lines and help, it would be a really difficult task to get the emotional resonance from the other actors.

I didn’t even have to mention that to him, he realised very quickly on the first day that he would have to be there every day if he was going to compose the character in the right manner. So that flew out of the window immediately, and he was gracious enough to show up all the time, and be there every step of the way, to make sure we crafted his character through the other characters, if you will.

So when we see “Frank’s hands”, are they Elijah’s, or a double’s?

There are multiple hands. There are hand doubles, because of the intricacies of camera movement, and the idea that the camera’s in his brain. That’s hard to pull off with the massive cameras that we have, so sometimes it’s both his hands, sometimes it’s one of his hands, sometimes it’s switching hands. It’s all choreography, which depends on the blocking.

The impact of shooting first person

The biggest challenge really, especially when you’re doing a horror film, or a film that has fear, is that you lose the biggest tools that are required. I’m no longer covering scenes from every angle to be able to create suspense, and so you have to come up with clever ways of how to get an emotion out of each scene. So each scene is shot in a different way, and each scene has its own complexities, but it’s something I would discover every day as we went along – You’d think because you’re not covering every angle you’re going to have an easier time, but the idea of telling stories from one angle and making it exciting, and making it fun is a real challenge.

Is it still a horror film when we see everything from the killer’s perspective?

You’re right about that. It’s gone across the world to a multitude of film festivals just for that reason: it’s not simply a horror film. A straight up horror film doesn’t necessarily get selected for Cannes. It’s much more of an auteur movie with some horror in it. It’s not a straight up horror film in the usual sense, when you’re on the side f the unsuspecting victim who has no idea where the killer, the aggressor’s going to come from, you don’t have that in this film, you’re always with the aggressor, so the fear has to come from somewhere else, and I think it comes from being trapped in this guy’s mind, and being complicit. That’s the horrific part of the movie. So in that sense, I think it’s horrific, but it’s horror but for the most part it’s more character driven and more auteur and artsy than just a straight up horror film.