French filmmaker Alexandre Aja’s newest film, Oxygen, finds Mélanie Laurent trapped inside a cryogenic chamber with a little less than 90 minutes of air left in her tank. A survival thriller set in the confines of a single pod, the Netflix feature is another entry into Aja’s single-location series, one that elevates into an expansive thrill ride of excitement and focused adrenaline.
Laurent gives all of herself as Elizabeth Hansen, a woman with no memory of how she got into the chamber, and with little resources at her disposal, outside of an AI assistant named M.I.L.O. As Aja’s first film shot in his home country in over a decade, Oxygen represents a leap in Aja’s filmmaking, combining the horror elements of his past films with a thrilling setup, a topsy-turvy script, and clear direction from the genre aficionado.
Aja chatted with The Film Stage about translating this film into French, about writing scripts in middle school, about growing up in the world of cinema, and his aversion to the idea of “less is more.” To him, we must see what the characters see in order to have those instant and innate reactions.
The Film Stage: How are you feeling with your film coming out on a streaming service for the first time, especially since most of your previous films have done so well at the box office?
Alexandre Aja: Yeah, I’m excited. It’s a first for me to have a movie released on Netflix. So it’s a pretty new setup. Usually when I was making movies in France, it was all about the Wednesday when we opened. It was about that one cinema in Paris. Where you have to be careful if you have more than 20 people, that was a good sign or not. That’s kind of a crazy thing. And then moving in the U.S., it’s about what New York is saying on Friday afternoon. I don’t know yet exactly what it means, the reviews on Netflix. It’s almost like a new material. I don’t know how many, maybe hundreds of millions of people being able to watch a movie. I know that the big algorithm is not going to give them the movie right away. But it’s still there.
How did you design the chamber itself? Was everyone just surrounding it?
I wanted to stay as much as I could into that hospital world. I also wanted it to be European and not too far away in the future, kind of just a few years from now. I worked with a production designer [Jean Rabasse], who did one of the biggest French movies in The City of Lost Children to older shows and movies, and he’s really the best one in France. And at first, I was surprised that he took this movie, but then I realized that he saw the same thing, right? Which is the opportunity of having full creative control on the simple little details and making a movie about all these small elements, and at the end, it was maybe one of the most difficult experiences for him. Because the details are more important than the macro.
This is your first French film in quite a few years. How was it making a film back in Paris, back in your first language?
I was a little surprised when Netflix suggested to do it in French, and then it got me really excited, because I thought maybe it was an opportunity to bring the script to a more adult [audience], make it a bit more mature to explore some of the themes that were already in the script that we could just develop more because of that European vibe. I had to adapt and rewrite the script in French. [I’ve] never done that. I always write my scripts in French, and work with a writer, or oversee the translation of the adaptation in English. This is the first time I had to do the reverse journey. And you realize that a lot of writing in English, because it’s like the only world language, when people talk to themselves, there’s a lot of convention. And then when you adapt them in French, it sounds a little off. Weird, different. And so that was interesting. And on set, the first couple days were weird because I kind of lost the things I remembered. At some point, the boom came in [the shot]. And so, my instinct was to just yell, “Boom, boom.” But that doesn’t mean anything in French, that maybe there was a bomb somewhere, maybe an explosion. That’s not the name of a mic and so no one was reacting. It was a very small detail.
So you grew up around film, around both filmmaking and critiquing. Did you want to make French movies right away, or did you have a desire to get out to America, and make films in Hollywood? What did you want to do?
I think I wanted to just write. That was my first instinct. I didn’t really want to be a director.
I don’t know, maybe because you reject what you your parents are doing. You want to do something different. And then I think it was in middle school that my best friend, who became my producer and my writing partner, we started spending all our free time just writing scripts that were easy to do. And, I mean, they were not good. We were just having so much fun inventing stories, and everything was possible. So we could write about everything we wanted that didn’t have to be French. Like sci-fi stories, or any type of thing that we were really looking for. At some point, it became obvious that we had to put them into film, so we did the short and then the feature, and then High Tension was almost like a patchwork of tributes to American cinema. But at that point, we were never in our lifetimes imagining that it would be possible to just go there and make movies. We were more trying to do kind of the ’70s American movies in France thing. And then we realized that it was almost impossible to do in France. And then because we did make one that was quite well received, we could maybe go there and do this in the US. I was dreaming about that. But I was not necessarily thinking it would be possible. I’m grateful every day for the situation.
Do you remember any of those first scripts? What were they about?
Yeah, of course. We wrote like a thriller about cloning. We wrote some end-of -the-world sci-fi. We wrote a modern film in this subway in Moscow.
Were they full scripts?
They were. They were full scripts, but they were bad. I still have them somewhere, but they’re not very good. From computer to computer over the last 30 years, saving a version in folders.
Have you revisited any of those scripts recently? Or even your first few films, like High Tension?
Well, I usually never watch my movies again. You see them so many times when you finish them, at least a couple hundred times. And there’s nothing you can really do about them after. So it always creates frustration. For High Tension, I had to watch it again last year because in a festival they did a retrospective of French auteur cinema and they had a film print. And so I went to see it and they had a 35mm print. For me the print was so bad that somehow it gave a full different experience. It was almost like watching a very, very old VHS. And it was fun. I kind of liked it.
I’ve noticed you’ve now made a few single-location films. What draws you to that sort of premise? What interests you about that?
I’m definitely going to admit that I have an attraction for that. For sure. High Tension was the house, the desert in The Hills Have Eyes, the parking lot in P2. I don’t know, I like the kind of feeling of being trapped somewhere and having to escape, like the night going into daybreak in deserts or on the road. I’m seeking to do these stories because I feel the style of the movie, the visual style of the movie, and the visual world of the movie will exist because of that universe being very defined. For Crawl, I was super excited by the story, for the theme and everything, but something about this hurricane weather and lighting, almost night during the day, was something that got me so excited creatively and visually. And the same here for Oxygen. I had a real desire to be in that close space with the neon lighting everywhere.
Looking back at your previous films, you’ve made slashers, horror, thrillers. There are a couple moments of blood in this film, but I actually was waiting for more gore. Why hold it back?
No, I understand that. But at the same time, my approach to stories is always the same. I am a big enemy of “less is more.” Usually, I hate that. I think that that kind of state of mind is usually killing all the world. And for me, it’s all about the experience of being with the character. And so if the character is witnessing something absolutely dreadful, I need to see what the character is seeing. Because that’s how I’m going to feel that. If I’m only staying on the face of the character, for me, it’s a showstopper. I get out of the experience. I am back in my seat. And so for me, that level or dosage of violence and shocking visuals is always induced by that approach. I will show it all. I don’t restrain myself, but the movie is not that violent. And that was the same with Oxygen. I thought it was a very intense survival thriller. There was no reason for me to invent more, because that’s not what usually I’m looking for. I know from a general audience perspective you create expectation, but in fact, I was not like, “I want to put more and more.”
For example, does that explain the choice for us to watch her take her IVs out of her body? That’s informed by this idea?
Yes, if I was with her, I would have to do that. And it’s something that’s even more like a nightmare if you have to do it again and again. And I have a big problem with needles, so this is something for me that was really really… even watching it and knowing it’s fake.
How did you land on Mélanie [Laurent] as the lead?
So Anne Hathaway was before me, before I read the script, after she was attached to produce and play in it. And then when I came on board, Noomi Rapace was the first one to respond. And she was such a perfect choice. She’s an amazing actress, and we worked together on the script, and we developed the story this way. She’s one of the executive producers on the movie, but then with COVID, everything kind of stopped and all the independent financing collapsed everywhere. So when Netflix came to us and said, “We love the script, we want to do it in French,” we knew that Noomi couldn’t play it in French. So I was thinking about who and for years have been trying to find something to do with Mélanie. And I think Mélanie has this kind of credibility as a researcher and as a scientist and is also very Parisian. And at the same time, all that range of emotion. And she’s pretty spectacular when it comes to playing the pure emotional arc. She was kind of nervous about the anger and the rage and all that stuff. We worked together to get there. I have to say that she was my first idea, and I was lucky because she responded to the script right away. Really, she responded in the two hours that he takes to read the script.
Did you know her previously? Were you two friends?
No, we just ran into each other once. And it just happened, and I couldn’t know that, but during that lockdown, she was really looking to go back on set, not with something comfortable that she did before. And she just happened to read the script, and she’s like, “It’s exactly what I want to do.” So it was this line up of the planets.
Oxygen is now on Netflix.