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Interview: Alexandre Aja Breaks Down the Inventive Filmmaking of ‘Oxygen’

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Streaming on Netflix now, Oxygen is a film that’s as tense as they come. Telling the story of Elizabeth Hansen (Mélanie Laurent), a woman in the near-future who wakes up in a pod that’s essentially a coffin that she can’t escape from, the film taps into our basic fears of knowing that we are in a situation that will kill us if we aren’t able to get out of it. With no memory of her life or how she got here, and a ticking clock on her oxygen supply, Elizabeth must fight for her own survival by putting together the pieces of her past before it’s too late. 

With one location and one main actor for the entire running time, Oxygen is the latest in a long line of simple concept thrillers from director Alexandre Aja, the man behind films such as High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, and Crawl, his most recent and most successful film to date. Aja sat down with me to discuss what compels him about these ideas of watching characters fight for survival when all of the elements are stripped down to their core essentials. 

We also take some time to praise the remarkable performances of Laurent and Mathieu Amalric, who plays the film’s medical artificial intelligence Milo, while digging into the labyrinthine narrative structure of Christie LeBlanc’s excellent script. It’s a spoiler-free discussion, for anyone who is reading this without having seen the film yet. However, with the film available on Netflix for all to watch, there’s no excuse to not check out one of the best films of the year, and a highlight in Aja’s impressive career. 

Check out my interview with Oxygen director Alexandre Aja below: 

Mitchell Beaupre: The script for Oxygen had been circulating around Hollywood for a while, with plenty of people interested. What drew you to the project, and what made now the right time for you to make it? 

Alexandre Aja: I was finishing Crawl and a producer friend of mine gave me this script without telling me anything about it. I started reading it and was completely immersed in this experience, thinking about waking up in that pod and wondering why I was there, if I was buried or if I was in the hospital, all of those questions. It gave me an experience similar to watching the movie Buried, which I love, but then I couldn’t have expected that the script would take me in this other direction as well. Beyond all of those twists and turns, it goes in this almost existential direction where you’re on this quest of finding who you are in order to hopefully be able to survive. 

I always have a very immediate gut answer when I read a script where I know if I want to make the movie. At the time though, I had a lot of other projects lined up, including one that I had been wanting to make for a long time and was actually already starting on. I was only going to produce Oxygen, which I was still happy about and was going to try to be as involved as I could, but then COVID happened and stopped everything. I had to come back to Paris for lockdown, and that’s when I started to think even more about Oxygen and realized that all of these things that were in the script took a completely different lighting with the pandemic going on. That’s when I knew that I needed to do it and I needed to do it as soon as possible. We sent it over to Netflix, and they answered right away and said they wanted to do it right now, in French, and so once the lockdown lifted we got to work. 

MB: This was your first movie in French since High Tension, right? How was it shooting back in your home language again? 

AA: Yeah, it was. At first I was a little anxious to go back. I’ve been developing a lot of other projects in French over the years that didn’t happen. It was never like I decided that I was never going to work in French again. It really just depends on the project, but I was never expecting this to be the one to bring me back there. However, I feel kind of lucky in a way to be able to turn this sci-fi thriller into a more grounded European sci-fi. It gave us the opportunity to focus more on the human being, the psychology of the character rather than the spectacle. I feel like that also gives the movie a sense of being more real in a strange way. 

MB: As an audience member I’m always drawn to movies which have simple concepts, minimal characters, and minimal locations. Almost all of your films fit that bill, whether it’s Mirrors or Crawl or The Hills Have Eyes and beyond. Is that something that really appeals to you? 

AA: I think there are two elements. First, the best survival movies for me, the movies with the most immersive experiences, are the ones where you’re working with a small amount of time. You need to be able to stay in a very short time so that you have that feeling of living with the character and what they are going through. Second, I think whether it’s the department store in Mirrors, the desert in The Hills Have Eyes, the lake in Piranha, all of them I guess, the one location is giving me a clear canvas to create a visual world, an atmosphere. I’m really attracted by the background as much as the story. I remember reading Crawl the first time and vividly imagining that atmosphere during a hurricane, where the clouds are so low and the daylight becomes almost like a blue light, a bright sort of nighttime. I just wanted to be in that universe, to be in that world. I’m equally attracted by the one location as an element of survival, but also as an artistic opportunity to create a very strong visual world. 

MB: In Oxygen you’re not only using one location, but also a very small location, which caused you to get inventive as a filmmaker. How were you able to use filmmaking techniques like lighting shifts and camera movement in order to keep the audience immersed, and prevent the film from ever plateauing? 

AA: It was a challenge, but a challenge that we turned into an opportunity. We had that one location, and that one character that was really the main landscape, so we had a very strong continuity in terms of telling the story. That allowed me to be able to do something I wouldn’t be able to do in other movies, which is to try a completely different style sequence after sequence. We really got to open the filmmaking toolbox and look at the different types of framing, of shooting with different kinds of lenses, of using different gadgets and movements. I started crafting my shot list around all of the different specific techniques, so that I could choose them based on the distinct emotions of the character and the journey that she is going through. I could really enhance that feeling by using the right technique. I love the way it turned out because we’re not only never repeating ourselves, but I’m also surprised by how seamless that change of style became as the continuity was established through the main character. 

MB: Grounding everything in that main character of Elizabeth, and Mélanie Laurent’s phenomenal performance, is a crucial element of the film. What was the process of bringing Mélanie on board the project? 

AA: When we started adapting the project n French I knew that the most important thing was to find the right actress. I had been looking for something to do with Mélanie for a very long time, as I’ve been following her work for many years in English and in French, but I didn’t know that at the same time her being in lockdown was causing her to go through a lot of her own questioning about where she is in her life and her career. She was looking for an opportunity to do something challenging, something that was far from anything she had done before, but also something that was talking about the world in which we are living right now. She read it and right away called me the same day and said that she wanted to do it. I even told her to be careful, I almost tried to talk her out of it, because doing it would mean that she’d have to spend 5 weeks every day inside of this box, but she didn’t hesitate. 

MB: She’s also an excellent director in her own right. Did she get involved at all with wanting to explore that technical process of creating a film as unique as this? 

AA: No no no. She knows that when she’s an actress, then she’s an actress. You know, for me it was actually very nice to know that she was a director because I knew that she would understand how technical this shoot was going to be. She understood why she could not come out of the box between takes, because it would take so much time to reset everything. Having a filmmaker to filmmaker talk on set was a really nice thing to have there for sure. 

MB: The other key actor in the film is Mathieu Amalric, as the voice of the artificial intelligence Milo. I wanted to ask you about his work in the film, because I think this is a vocal performance that could have seemed really simple, and yet he manages to bring a lot of complexity to it.

AA: He brings so much subtle nuance, putting this humanity in the least human thing that exists. I remember watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and his voice from the beginning to the end, that voice in his head that we hear, was so comfortable and nice, so warm. Milo, the medical AI in Oxygen, is like a voice that is here to relax you, and there is nothing more stressful than someone telling you that everything is going to be fine when you are actually about to die at every twist and turn of the story. 

MB: There’s a great duality to that performance because on one hand his voice is so soothing, but then on the other there’s this HAL 9000 quality where we’re not sure if we can actually be trusting Milo. 

AA: Of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey for me is the masterpiece, and HAL is the reference of all references. It’s crazy how HAL came around so long ago, and now we’re seeing these things happening today. It’s not here quite yet, but we’re getting there. Maybe another decade and we’ll be exactly there. 

MB: Was that idea of the fear of science and technology and where it’s all going something that was on your mind while making the film? 

AA: There is something so obvious when it comes to AI, you know? If you have the right question it will give you the right answer, but if you’re not using the right word then it won’t understand. It’s not a human being that has the ability of interpreting or trying to understand. Speaking with me now, you can hear my very strong French accent, so imagine me trying to talk to Siri in English. Siri would never understand me. That gets taken to an extreme level in the movie, but it is something to explore that feels very universal to everyone today because we are living with this AI already. Sci-fi has never been so timely. 

MB: Another important aspect of Oxygen is the driving mystery of Elizabeth trying to figure out how she got here in this pod. Could you talk about utilizing that puzzle box narrative to keep the audience guessing?

AA: My idea of the movie was creating this mental labyrinth that the character needs to explore in order to escape. She was not just herself inside of a box, but there was like a mystery box within the box within the box within the box within the box. It made me think of the movie Cube. We’re not in that kind of a game, but we are in that quest for identity and meaning to try and find the answer, to find what triggers your memory, and why your memories are so important. I would think about Memento as well. It was very important to have that driving engine of the story. 

MB: Speaking of memory, as someone who is a huge fan of your work overall, I’d love to know what some of the first movies were that lit the spark for you that made you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

AA: The one that kind of first gave me that feeling of being on the other side of the mirror and living in the story on screen was the first time I watched The Shining. It was by accident, I was far too young, and I was so petrified. I felt like I was living in that space in the Overlook Hotel. Going back to childhood there’s also, of course Star Wars. It sounds really obvious, but for someone to make a world so believable, a place where you feel like you know it so well, that definitely made me realize that I wanted to grow up and have my job be to create a universe so real like that. I still have the ability to watch movies and forget that I’m watching them, to dive into the story. I hope I never have that thing where I’m watching a movie and I’m just seeing the shot and the camera movement and the crew off-screen reacting, you know? I really love to dive into fiction, whether it’s reading or watching or anything, so for me those kinds of movies were what really made me want to invent and tell stories. 

MB: Being in lockdown over the last year gave a lot of us more time than we’ve had in a while to be watching things. Has there been anything that you’ve watched lately that really made a mark on you? 

AA: I’ve been watching so much. I watch a lot of stuff usually anyway, but with the curfew and lockdown I definitely had a lot more time, even with making a movie. Plenty of new stuff, but also rewatching old favorites, which was really nice to have the time for. I rewatched Onibaba, which is one of my favorite movies of all-time. The Night of the Hunter as well. Going back to watch the classics has been so great. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries and TV shows as well. With my son I’ve been watching The Queen’s Gambit, which has been this amazing shared experience. 

Oxygen is streaming now on Netflix 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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