John Luessenhop has never directed a horror movie before. He suddenly rose to prominence back in 2010, when a heist movie called Takers came out of nowhere to major financial success, but now he's entered the scary movie genre with Texas Chainsaw 3D, the first film in the franchise to stem Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate, the companies that brought you the Saw franchise. The remake of Texas Chain Saw and its prequel? They don't exist anymore. Heck, apart from the original 1974 horror classic, none of the other films exist anymore, at least not in the Texas Chainsaw 3D universe. It's a bold move for any filmmaker, particularly one without an existing resume in the horror genre, to make, for better or worse.
We talked about that, John Luessenhop and I, in the first half of our in-depth interview about Texas Chainsaw 3D. The second half of our very long discussion goes into extremely heavy spoilers (even this first part deserves a mild spoiler warning, but really, only mild). We discussed the origins of the project, including the early drafts that didn't pass muster at Lionsgate, his recent education in the horror genre and his tricky decision to post-convert some of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre footage to 3D.
Come back tomorrow for our full review of Texas Chainsaw 3D, and come back Monday for the rest of our interview, which goes into detail about scenes and plot points we don't want to spoil before you've had a chance to see the film for yourself.
CraveOnline: First off, this movie kicks ass.
John Luessenhop: I think it’s going to do great, I really do.
I do too. Well, I’m hoping that it does great, but I know for a fact that it is the best Texas Chainsaw we’ve had in a long while.
I’ll tell you, the approach that we had to this movie gave it its best chance. I’m not from the horror world. I’m more from the “man with a gun” kind of world. I went back and watched as much of the whole history of the Texas Chainsaw [as I could], and I kept coming back to Tobe [Hooper]’s original thing. There’s a reason why it’s in the pantheon of horror. So I started to distill that, and I didn’t want to rip it or whatever, but I said, these are the things I really thought he did great. I took these elements – the van, the armadillo, the freezer, there’s like five or ten of them – and I just said, let me just take these pages and sprinkle them in here, in a new, fresher way to look at it so it still had some nostalgia, but you don’t where I’m going to hit you differently. It’s a differently way of playing it. That approach, and to honor the original. That was really my approach to it.
I was fascinated by the way that you incorporated footage from the first film into the credits. For that footage, I’m wondering, it looked like it was subtly turned into 3D. Was it 3D, or was that just my eyes playing tricks on me?
Yes and no. Much of it is volumetric. You go, “What does that mean?” Say you had a big piece of light, when the guy’s knocking at the door, and looking before he comes in, I took the light and it went 3D. I didn’t do the whole thing. The shaft of light comes through. I didn’t think they were ready for it yet. The audience wants to get settled, sit down, you’re watching it differently. Let’s get them there. When [Marilyn Burns] crashes through the window, it starts 3D. On the driveway run and the rest of it, that goes 3D. But again, I thought that the window crash was the break point. The rest was done in a really cool way. We center punched different pieces of film and we put smoke around them, which is also dimensional, and then the shafts of light. You’re right. You’re pretty sensitive to pick up the effect. It’s not full 3D, it’s a different thing, and that’s the look we went for.
The first part of the film is taking place immediately after the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I imagine you shot this on digital?
How sensitive were you to how they shot the original film. Wasn’t it shot on Super 16mm?
It might have been regular 16… [Editor’s Note: It was.]
It might have been regular 16mm. It was shot on a very small…
Grainy, yeah. What’s amazing is that we got the original interpositive from the film and put it up, and it’s so much clearer than your DVD that’s been put out for the movie. So for us, using it, we cleaned the old footage and then we did our manipulation on the footage. I tried to match it, but to me, I wasn’t trying to fool the audience, because I think the real audience already knows, the minute she drives off in the truck, whatever you’re about to show me is not the same footage. Now what I did do is expand the aspect ratio. It went from a 1.85:1 to my 2.40:1 on the police car coming, on the shot that brings you into the shot that’s riding on top of the police car. I said, okay, that’s how I’ll bring you into it. I wanted to graduate you into the movie and still… I didn’t want to sit there and try to rip Tobe.
But I thought it was a wise move, to try to maintain the style at least through the prologue.
Yeah, yeah, we sepia-ed it slightly, to say this is an older look versus the vibrancy of the 2012/13 look.
One last part of the opening sequence, and then I want to move into the actual film…
Go ahead. Hit me.
Part of that is, you are making a very clear statement that this is its own sequel to Texas Chain Saw. Where does that leave all the other sequels, like Leatherface? I guess the remakes never happened?
In the dust.
They’re all gone. Every single one.
I couldn’t help it. I admired the original so much that, for me, I watched the second one where they go to the radio station and all that stuff, and I thought they had some great kitsch to it and some humor, but I said let me go back and let me do my own one. It’s a larger thing, I’ll say. I came into, just this project even, I wasn’t the biggest horror guy. For me, horror was The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, okay?
The really classy stuff.
The big stuff. I was so used to it. So for me it was really great to even go back and watch a Rob Zombie movie…
What did you watch? The Devil’s Rejects?
Okay, that’s the good one.
What I realized is that these guys all put their own imprimatur on these projects. They put their own politics, they put their own sexuality, put whatever they want, and it’s within these things that I found that it’s a really great medium. So that’s why I said, look, what I want to do is take the original… And the producer was for it all the way. There were no battles there. I think that we were very aligned with, we wanted to honor the original, even bring back the original cast so that we had that curtain call, and then tell a story that takes place today, so that it was accessible to the kids, or to a younger audience, and that we do our own thing with.
Was the script in place when you got there, or was that developed with you, specifically?
Man, that’s a story… I got a call. I got a call late at night from a producer that’s distraught, Carl [Mazzocone], who’s my friend, and they had not evolved the script to the point that the studio was happy. He says, what do you think? I’m like, dude… I’m an action guy. You know that. So I read it, I said what I thought about it, and I gave him what I would do to bring it to today. And then he brought me into Lionsgate and I relayed those same thoughts. They said, “We agree. This is a good way to approach this movie.” They hired a girl to execute this, and then she ended up getting credit – Kirsten Elms – and then I went behind it and then wrote my version based on all these loose parts laying around the yard.
That original version: was the problem the tone? Was the plot entirely different?
That I got started with?
I felt like it was a 90s New Line movie. That’s what it felt like.
[Laughs] There are worse things…
They had this sequence where there was this girl in her twenties, and there’s an underground moat and she’s dragged through unbelievably gross stuff, and body parts and this… and then she’s supposed to be around for the rest of the movie! I’m going, I can’t do this to a lead. I’m not going to cast someone like Alexandra Daddario and then, you know, have her run around with gook on her for a whole movie. It defeats it, for me. So it was all that.
The iPhone, which… Can we talk about that?
No, we’re going to talk about that, because that’s a great scene.
That was one of the… We selected that, or used it, because it brought the movie into today, and it gave you this other suspense of a third party watching, going “What’s going on?” It puts you where the police were, in a way, in your own way, that to me made it fun. That was not in any [earlier] script.
That was a great sequence, and we’re not going to go into too much detail because I don’t want to ruin it, but what I love about that sequence is… What I’ve found about cellular phones is that they tend to be the antithesis of suspense. Now you can just call someone, “The killer is Dave.” “Oh, sh*t! Get away from Dave!” So they always have to write them out of the script. You found a way to make a working cell phone an additional part of the suspense. I thought that was a very clever sequence.
I’m very proud of it. I also liked that you get to mix up cinema, too. You’ve got the iPhone footage, you have this [other] footage, that gives it a little of energy every time you make cut to it. I thought it was clever. For me, that whole sequence has the right amount of kitsch and humor too. When we wrote that line, “I don’t know about this, Burt,” we all fell over laughing. But we knew it was relief more than anything, and that it would work. Keeping it just a total tight line wasn’t Texas Chainsaw to me, so we put in a few of those funny lines with the guy going through the…
You talked about not wanting to put Alexandra Daddario through too much grime and gook. Here’s how I imagine her audition went… She comes in, she shows you her stomach, and then it’s done. Her stomach is the star of this movie.
First off, she’s “Tomb Raider.” She’s built for speed and comfort. She’s got it all! I mean, she’s beautiful. When I thought to cast her, I said, let’s bend you towards Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as much as makes sense to us.
There’s a darkness to her.
We changed her hair. We roughed her up. I wanted her to be available to the audience, but she still has space from them. Like, where is she going? What is she thinking?
She has a very cynical character arc, which I like. From an outside perspective, not necessarily from inside her.
Right, that’s where I wanted to go. I’ll come back to that thought. Alex, she had just been the princess in the Percy Jackson movies. I said, that’s what you can’t do. This is your chance. Trust me to not go too far, where you’re not startling to look at, but at the same we’ve got to put an edge to you, and a little bit of broodingness, a darkness that’s there underneath that may not exist in your everyday life. She was great with it. I mean, she does a lot of her stunts. She rode the Ferris Wheel, hanging from a thing. That’s her. That’s not a stunt person.
No wire or nothing, huh?
Still cool though.
To go up 40 feet? You try it. Your heart’ll pound.
No, I think Ferris Wheels are uncomfortable to begin with.
Right. And you’re in the chair! She’s hanging!
Yeah, I’m always afraid I’m going to get stuck. Can you imagine if she got stuck? That would be hell.