In the likes of “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds or “Locke” with Tom Hardy, the entire film takes place in one medical cryo unit no longer than a coffin. Our protagonist, Liz (Mélanie Laurent), wakes up in this confined space with a limited supply of oxygen and must quickly restore her memory before time runs out.
Aja directed his first film “Over the Rainbow” in 1997, which featured an apartment building caretaker with cannibalistic tendencies feasting on his residents. The filmmaker said he further developed this theme in “The Hills Have Eyes” — a remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic that follows a family fighting off a group of cannibalistic mutants after their car breaks down in the desert.
“At first, I wasn’t looking into what was attracting me or what style,” Aja said. “I was going with my gut instinct and my appetite as an audience member more than a filmmaker.”
Looking back at his filmography, Aja said he has always responded to the same thing: an intense survival story. He said the real common ground between his last two films, 2019’s gator-filled summer blockbuster “Crawl” and “Oxygen,” was his attraction to filming in one location.
These ideas of isolation and claustrophobia emanated in his mind after watching “The Shining” for the first time as a child, which he said changed his whole way of thinking.
“That type of strong emotion was one of the biggest visual and emotional shocks where I was just traumatized by it,” Aja said.
When Aja worked on his first feature film, 2003’s “High Tension,” he said the idea was to have the viewer locked into that one night at an isolated farmhouse. He said a big part of his job as a filmmaker is to create a world that the viewer can live in while earning every showstopper along the way. Aja describes a showstopper as a “moment where the acting, visual effects, a shot” instantly throws the viewer back in their seat.
Describing “Oxygen” as “a real emotional escape game,” Aja turned the challenge of filming in one single space into an opportunity. Using a toolbox of cinematic tools, the director said he was able to change the style in almost every sequence.
Another one of Aja’s goals was to craft a world of sci-fi that wasn’t too far away from our reality, although some of the sci-fi elements of the story became reality. The film, which started shooting in July 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, hints at a virus that has plagued mankind. Aja said these real-life circumstances caused him to change his film in a subtle way.
“We didn’t need to explain that much anymore,” Aja said. “It was on everyone’s mind, so some of the exposition and a lot of dialogue were not necessary anymore and we could just focus on what she was going through.”
Aja said everyone on his crew was filled with monstrous frustration after not being able to work during quarantine, which he attributed to the great kinetic energy behind the project.
A more substantial shift was deciding to make the film in French. Aja said Laurent was the first person that came to mind to play the lead role due to her “very rich range of acting skills.”
“The film is all about that mental labyrinth of exploring who she is and trying to trigger a memory to remember who she is,” Aja said. “She’s going to find out about herself that she has a very strong scientific background, so I needed someone that could have that feels real in that field.”
Aja said that Laurent, who starred in “Inglourious Basterds” and “6 Underground,” was already contemplating where she wanted her career to go when he sent over the script for “Oxygen.”
“She wanted to go back to something that was really challenging, something far from anything she did before and also something that was talking about the world as it is today,” Aja said. “So somehow I had the perfect project for her.”
Laurent’s upcoming thriller, “Le bal des folles,” will follow a young woman who discovers she has a supernatural ability to hear the dead. On top of co-writing and directing the film, Laurent will headline the project. Her historical deal with Amazon marks the studio’s first original French film.
Aja, on the other hand, is working on multiple projects that he’s “absolutely passionate” about. Expanding on the idea of confined space, he’s currently working on an untitled choose-your-own-adventure-style haunted house film for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners. The interactive horror project will feature a branched narrative in the realm of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” which Aja said he hopes audiences can watch in a movie theater. He is also working on a “very intense and scary” supernatural film for Searchlight Pictures.
After winning best foreign film at the Golden Globes, “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho famously said, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Aja said that “Parasite” and its domination over awards season “created a full, different world” for international filmmakers.
Combined with an international powerhouse like Netflix, which streams films like “Oxygen” in over 190 countries, Aja felt more confident that he could make his film in French and still reach a larger audience.
“When I had the opportunity of doing “The Hills Have Eyes” in the US, I knew that walking in English was the only way to make the type of movies that will get seen all around the world,” Aja said. “Today, everything has changed.”
Now, according to the filmmaker, there is a greater sense of freedom in terms of respecting the language of each story.
“It doesn’t have to be in English no matter what,” Aja said. “You can stay very ambitious and imagine that they will be released in other countries, even if they are in a different language.”
When Aja first started making genre movies back in the early 2000s, he said he was worried that the audience’s craving for “something intense and suspenseful” would collapse after a number of years. To his relief, the genre only kept growing.
“Maybe it’s because our society needs these movies to exercise our deepest fear,” Aja said. “It’s an amazing time to make movies and to open dialogue about who we are and if there’s a way out of the situation we are in today.”