For some bonkers reason I’m embargoed on Piranha 3D until tomorrow at noon, meaning you can go see a screening at midnight before I can tell you how much fun I think the film is. Nuts.

I saw the film yesterday and then this morning got on the phone with director Alexandre Aja, who was previously known for pushing the envelope when it came to harrowing experiences like High Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes (and, in a very different way but no less harrowing, Mirrors). He’s still pushing the envelope, but this time in service of having fun. I was a little worried because other journalists had told me that Aja seemed to not quite be on board with the interpretation of Piranha 3D as a wacky blast, but right from the start he made it clear that the tone of the movie is no accident – he knew exactly what he wanted.

There are some minor spoilers in this interview, mostly for the clever opening scene with Richard Dreyfuss.

This film really goes right to the edge, and then over it. Was it tough to get the R rating? Was there a battle? 

I was very surprised with the MPAA. They got the movie right away. They understood we were having fun. It is, as you said, crazy and crosses many lines, but at the same time it’s made with a lot of a fun perspective. We are going for the ride, what a Piranha movie should be and what people expect from it, from the nudity to the gore to all that. It’s not like disgusting… I mean, it’s not as graphic or as radical as The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or that kind of very scary and violent movie. It might be more gore, but it’s more on the comedy angle. That makes the rules different. They got it. I was scared that when they screened the movie in 3D they would be reviewing their ratings, but finally they kept the R, and that’s so amazing. I’m so happy I didn’t have to lose my favorite moments. And I had even more than that – I had a few more minutes in the Spring Break attack that I will keep and present in the director’s cut. I wanted the style of the movie to be a huge vortex that sucks the audience right in, with the big attack and thousands of kids trying to survive the thousands of piranha.

Your previous films have been often very tough, the kind that people sending people out feeling shaken. With this one people walk out with a big grin on their faces. Is that refreshing?

The genre is multiple faces. There are so many different styles, with so many different kinds of storytelling. High Tension was very different from The Hills Have Eyes, and Mirrors is completely different. But when I arrived in the States I read a lot of scripts and I received the third draft of Piranha and it was more like a comedy than a normal movie. I couldn’t help myself to keep thinking about this project, and to keep thinking about how fun it would be to do that. America under attack through Spring Break. That kind of very strange mix between Jaws, Jurassic Park, Gremlins and Weird Science. I’m happy because when I was doing Piranha there wasn’t one day or one moment where I felt like I was doing something I had done in the past. It’s very important when you make movies to not repeat yourself, to not say ‘Oh I know that kind of scene, I did that before.’ It’s not interesting, it’s not challenging. What’s challenging is being forced every day to reinvent yourself. The movie is really different from anything I did before for sure.

You mentioned Jaws, and speaking of Jaws you have the greatest homage to that movie ever in the opening scene. Was that always in the script or was it contingent on getting Richard Dreyfuss involved?

Of course the shadow of Jaws is everywhere, and you cannot compete with Jaws. Jaws is the ultimate masterpiece, it’s a perfect movie. A lot of creature movies in the past tried to reproduce Jaws and they can’t – no one can. It’s one movie that happened at one point and that really created a line in our culture. It brought a fear of the water – it’s such a perfect movie. I wanted to have a reference to Jaws, but I didn’t want to make it like Jaws. The tone is completely different. We had that opening scene with another character and I was thinking how it cool it could be to have Matt Hooper retired on that lake, fishing and getting attacked at the beginning of the movie by the piranha. What the Great White in the other movie couldn’t do, the piranha will. When we got that idea I was so sure it was an amazing concept and I went to the studio and I went to Bob Weinstein and he was so excited. When Bob is excited he’ll really do whatever he can to get you what you need. He managed to convince Richard Dreyfuss to come play it. I was expecting Richard to say no, but he really got it. He really got the joke. He got the homage. He got the fact that he needed to be Matt Hooper, he needed to wear the same glasses, he needed to drink Amity Beer, he needed to sing ‘Show Me The Way Back Home.’ For the anniversary of Jaws I think it’s the best thing we could have.

Beyond Richard Dreyfuss you also have an incredible cast. You have terrific comedic actors who are bringing the right element to it. Adam Scott is surprising because he’s not just funny, he’s got great action hero chops as well.

I wanted to have actors in the movie not just because of their talent and acting skills but also because they were bringing something from our pop culture. Elizabeth Shue is bringing so much from the past and the 80s, just like Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss and Ving Rhames and Jerry O’Connell. But also a new generation – Adam Scott is a cult actor for so many people for all these shows and Funny or Die. I thought he was such an amazing actor and I went to him and asked him to play the Jerry O’Connell part and he said, ‘I don’t want to play that again, I want to play the action guy.’ He’s so convincing because he’s very funny with his dry dark humor but at the same time he’s believable in all the action. 

You can ask all of them – we went through sheer hell doing this movie. Shooting in a desert through the summer, on the water, underwater. Everything you heard about shooting on the water from Jaws documentaries or books is true! No lies! It’s very, very, very difficult. It created some very strong bonds between all of us. I would have never gotten through this movie without the cast to support me.

You mentioned you’ll have extra footage in the director’s cut. Will we see what happens to Paul Scheer? I don’t remember seeing his death in the theatrical cut.

You’re right! That’s the hard part of the budget. His death was very expensive. I shot his death, I cut his death, but it was requiring so much visual effects. But in the DVD the death will be there, without visual effects, but with an explanation of what was supposed to happen.

You shot this in 2D and converted, but you shot it with 3D in mind.

We decided to go 3D about three years ago, during the writing process. We were so excited to see Avatar in 3D. We decided we absolutely needed to do a horror movie in 3D, and it was before Final Destination, before My Bloody Valentine and everything. We convinced Bob and from that moment the writing of the script and everything else was going for the vision of the 3D. We had to readapt everything and think about what would be the  best 3D angle and everything. A few weeks before starting production we decided to not go with the real stereo shooting and that was only for technical conditions. I don’t want to get too technical, but when you shoot real 3D you have to have the right and left eye with the exact same lighting, and when you shoot on the water the sun’s reflection bouncing on the water is creating different lighting in each eye no matter what. It created an impossibility of shooting in real 3D. 

That’s really interesting. If 3D sticks around people will have to get over all these different, new technical hurdles.

We are creating language. You hear so many people say you cannot do smash cuts and that you cannot cut too fast, that you need time to register the shot, but the truth is that we are like trying to invent another language. Some movies need to gimmicks like Piranha is, flying out of the screen and in your face, but some others need to be more full and an open window to a new world, like Avatar. I think 3D is only here to enhance and create a better immersion tool. But the truth is, and the bottom line is, that the most important immersion tool is still the storytelling. The most important tool is the script and the actors and everything. And then 3D is only here to help a little bit.

You got the rights to Cobra: Space Pirate, a big epic science fiction story. What do you see the scope of this being? Will it be another indie movie where you get every dime on screen or will this be your first big, expensive project?

We managed to do something amazing with 25 million on Piranha. When you look at the movie it doesn’t feel like such a small budget. But Cobra: The Space Pirate being a real space opera in the vein of Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean in space, it’s impossible to do it on such a small budget. It’s definitely a 100 million dollar movie. I will have to find partners to go for the adventure with me.

Cobra is not well known in the United States at all – I hadn’t even heard of it before you signed on to it. What’s the best place for American audiences to start if they want to get into Cobra now?

As soon as you start typing Cobra online you realize that in a very strange way no one knows it in the US, but it’s such a huge phenomenon around the world. It was one of the most popular manga in Japan, and all through Europe my generation grew up watching it. It was as important as Star Wars. For me I’m not frightened by the fact that it’s not well known in the States because somehow I know that it can work. I saw how it was influencing me and my generation in France and all around the world. I know that for a new generation we can do the same thing here. I think the best place to start Cobra is that the manga is amazing, but start with the original animated series, which I hope they will dub in English soon. It’s the best you can have.

With this and TinTin it seems like Europe is standing up and saying that not everything cool comes from the US.

We are rescuing creativity! We are bringing content back to the table! I see what you mean. It’s always because Hollywood is at a place today where on the one hand marketing is taking over and only putting into production movies that are remakes or sequels or prequels or no-brainer marketing titles. At the same time they know that when someone comes with something unique and new people really love that. It’s a balance between finding the right thing to make it big. Europe, we have so many graphic novels, so many stories, so many books that have never been translated or imported to the States, and these are ways to bring new ideas to Hollywood.