Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury talk Leatherface, horror remakes and dead cows

The duo behind Inside and Livid tell us about taking on Leatherface and why they were “doomed with an iconic boogeyman”

Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have been making films together since their breakout feature, the claustrophobic pregnancy panicfest Inside (2007). This was followed by home invasion fairytale Livid (2011), small-town kids-vs-killers thriller Among The Living (2014), and ‘X is for Xylophone’, their contribution to ABCs Of Death 2 (2014). Their trademarks are the mixing of subgenres, and an uncompromising approach to on-screen depravity – so I was surprised, when I sat down with Bustillo and Maury at FrightFest 2017, to hear them say that they toned down the violence in Seth M. Sherwood’s original screenplay for Leatherface – a prequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre mythos, and the first film they have made that they have not also written.

How does your collaboration work? How do you divide your labours?

Julien Maury: It’s more than ten years now that we have been working together. We don’t really divide the work – we work on everything together, like, for example, Alex can be writing a script and I can be working on another script, and then we send each other what we wrote, and we comment and we correct, so it’s really a mix of everything. And on the set it’s the same. Since Inside, we try to prepare lots beforehand together, and we really want to be on the same page when we arrive on set, because you always have to answer thousands of questions from everyone on set, and you have to have the answer really quick, and if we know perfectly in what direction we are going, we don’t have to ask each other. If Alex answers something, I trust him 100%, and I think it’s the same for him, and that’s how we do it.

So sometimes an actor requires attention, and it depends on the relationship we have with the actor, so sometimes it’s Alex and sometimes it’s me going to talk to the actor, and during this time the other one is talking to the DoP to prepare the next shot. We know – we tell each other – what we are doing. It’s a way to work faster, and for us it’s a very natural way to do it.

Leatherface is the first film you have made together working from a screenplay by someone else. Was this constraining to your art, or liberating?

Alexandre Bustillo: It was liberating, because it was like holidays for us. We didn’t write the script but of course we brought our touch to it. For example, when we received it, we read it, we liked it, we liked the structure of it, and maybe the first thing we liked in this script was that it was not a survival-slasher like the other Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, but it was closer to a road movie.

We just asked to rewrite all the violent sequences, because it was a little bit different, it was over-the-top. We are absolutely clearly fans of gore movies, as you know, but it was a little bit too much. For example the final sequence was a bloodbath with 20 or 30 people slaughtered. It was too much, we don’t need that, you know. So we just added our touch on the violence and mood of the movie, but not on the global structure.

Julien Maury: It was in a way less pressure. When you’re writing a script, you’re getting naked in a way. You are offering the world something that is coming from you. Here it was really different, but quite exciting to be just directors. Even if, as Alex said, we rewrote some stuff and we wrote it into our universe and we gave our vision to it, it was really cool just to focus on how to direct.

Although all your films show a real awareness of, and passion for, the history of horror cinema, Leatherface is the first time you have actually worked on what is a known property – you’re joining a franchise. How did you come to be involved in the prequel? 

Alexandre Bustillo: They found us. We were attached to a lot of sagas after our first movie. We were supposed to do the new Hellraiser, and after that we were supposed to do Halloween 2, New Line offered us the new Nightmare On Elm Street to direct – and each time it was a failure.

But one day Millennium sent us Leatherface. “Oh god, it’s a new Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it can be a good idea – so ok, we’ll read it.” As I told you, we liked the script, so we said, “Yes! Let’s go, we can try, but you must know that we are doomed with an iconic boogeyman, because we failed to do a movie with Pinhead, we failed to do a movie with Michael Myers, and we failed to do a movie with Freddy Krueger.” But we succeeded.

Although there are references to Texas Chainsaw 3D (2003), it does play very much as a prequel to Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film. Was that part of the draw for you? Would you have been less interested in a prequel to the recent run of the franchise?

Julien Maury: We don’t know, but for sure what was really interesting for us here was the fact that this movie could stand alone. Ok, it’s an original movie, but as you say, it’s linked to the original, and we just had to deal with insignificant details linked to the 3D movie, like Verna Sawyer, or the Sheriff, but that’s pretty much it.

What we loved about it is the fact that it’s not explaining everything, it’s not giving all the keys to understanding the Leatherface character. It’s just a part of his youth – moments in his life – we are not explaining everything, and I think it’s cool for the audience, because you still have blank moments, and you still can use your imagination. In the end of that phase, you don’t find the character as he is in the Tobe Hooper movie. It’s just a moment. So it was very important to us.

To me, the film is partly like Badlands, only with genre elements – and it’s a bit like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in parts – and it is a kind of coming-of-age film, about the becoming of Leatherface – and most interestingly it’s in part a sort-of whodunnit, or whydunnit, because as the film goes on, we need to work out which of the teen runaways it is who will become Leatherface. How would you characterise the film, and what drew you to this material?

Julien Maury: That’s funny that you are quoting Badlands, because that is what we said to the producers on maybe the second phone call we had with them. We said we wanted this movie to be a crossover between Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides – two movies very far away from the mood of a horror movie, and from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre especially, but this was for us a way to raise the bar at that level. We wanted to do a naturalistic movie, and we wanted to take time with our characters, and we wanted to show things that have never been shown in the saga. I don’t know if we succeeded.

I think, as with all our movies, we’ve done a difficult-to-qualify movie. It’s full of different things and different influences. We tried our best to surprise the audience. It’s very difficult with that kind of movie. Horror fans know all the tricks and all the codes – and here we are in a franchise, so we have to deal with the character that people know, and they have expectations – but as I said earlier, we wanted to have this movie as a standalone movie.

We wanted the audience, even if they haven’t seen any of the Texas Chainsaw franchise movies, to be able to enjoy this and not to get lost – not, you know, just doing a fan service movie, just giving fans what they are expecting, so that in the end they are disappointed, because they have been fantasising this world for decades. And we have no pretensions to arrive at everything and say, No no no, it’s like that – that’s a revision, that’s why he has become that. We just wanted to do a cool rollercoaster during a short period of his time, and that’s it.

I think I read somewhere that a significant portion of your budget went on the cow carcass that they hide in. Is that true?

Alexandre Bustillo: No no no.

Julien Maury: This is fake news.

Alexandre Bustillo: We wanted to shoot that sequence with the real corpse of a real dead cow, and the production guys told us, “You’re fucking crazy” – with the bacteria and so on. But because it was real meat on the set of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so we thought, “yeah of course, we’ve got to have some dead meat on the set” – and we saw that the SFX coordinator – he’s French too – had a dead cow in his workshop, so we were saved. But it absolutely wasn’t the most expensive thing on this movie.

Leatherface is available from Lionsgate Home Entertainment on DVD and digital download now.