What's that coming over the hill?
For many, he is the face of horror, staring out from behind a chainsaw as he has done since 1974: Jedidiah Sawyer, or Leatherface. His is an iconic presence that has survived legions of imitators, thrilling fans and convincing many others that The Texas Chainaw Massacre must be too frightening for them to watch. Naturally, he has appeared in a legion of sequels, but last year's prequel, which premiered at Frightfest, takes a very different approach.
Itself named Leatherface, this prequel is an origin story with a lot of its own ideas to explore. It's helmed by French team Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, who created 2011 standout Livid, with which it shares its richly saturated visual aesthetic. I caught up with them during their time at Frightfest to ask how they felt about taking on a series with such a powerful legacy.
I love you, Honeybunny
"It's a pleasure," said Julien. "It's a present, it feels like a present to us. We are huge horror fans since our youngest age."
Alexandre concurs. They don't detail their friendship but it's obvious from their easy rapport that they have known each other for a long time.
"I went 'Yes!' as soon as we read the script," Julien adds. "We thought we could do something with it to bring it into our universe. It's the eighth film [im the franchise] and it's the first one that's not the same story as the others, not just a bunch of strangers getting lost on their land. It's more of a road movie. We love the bad guys in horror movies - the villains and monsters."
So they wanted to tell a story about villains and monsters?
"Yeah," he says. "Of course, that whole aspect is quite interesting because in this story the villains are not the bad guys. The most odious violence is from people that represent institutions. They are becoming the threat so it's turning upside down the usual balance between good and bad."
He references an earlier conversation about The Devil's Rejects, which was one of their inspirations in approaching the film. Like its director, Rob Zombie, they felt that the challenge facing them was to seduce the audience "into having feelings towards really evil killer guys and psychopaths. It's complicated as a director." He and Alexandre both stress the need to strike a balance, eliciting sympathy but not making viewers think that murder is actually cool.
On the wrong side of the law
This task must have been made easier, I suggest, by the acting talent available to them.
"It was a dream to work with this cast and to have a great actress like Lili Taylor on board," says Alexandre. "I was a big fan of Stephen Dorff. Before being directors we are big, big geeks and every time we make a film we are very happy to meet people.
"As for the young cast, they are all from England, from the UK, and they were great. It was really, really simple to work with them and they gave so much."
Was it hard to film a quintessentially American story in Eastern Europe?
"It's funny because when we learned we were going to shoot in Eastern Europe and Bulgaria our first reaction was to be worried because we thought the landscape would be far away from the image we have in mind when we thought about Texas," says Julien. "We checked on the internet and we found that Texas is much more green than we thought, with forests and valleys and lakes. They have many different landscapes there so we were okay. We also had a DoP [Antoine Sanier] who had shot in Bulgaria so kind of knew the place quite well, and we worked with a scout team who helped us find the right locations. It was all shot around Sofia. We always looked for landscapes that could be balanced between having in mind Texas and what the story required for horror."
I ask about their working process.
"We always work in the same way," he says. "It's been ten years since we shot our first movie now but it's the same. The thing is that we are preparing a lot so that we don't have to discuss together on set. There are always hundreds and thousands of questions that come of everyone when you're directing and you have to have the answer in a second, so the more prepared you are the more ready you are on set. Sometimes Alex can be more close to an actor so he's going to talk to him while I do other things, sometimes it's me, so we really split up the work on set but it's not that one of us is more about technical work and one about actors ."
Finally, how did they feel about the screening at Frightfest?
"We are very happy," says Alexandre. "It's a big thing! So we are afraid but very, very excited too."
Julien agrees. "We shot the movie for audiences and especially for horror fans."
Leatherface is available on digital download and DVD now.