Exclusive Interview: P2’s Franck Khalfoun

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Director of the upcoming thriller opening November 9th

Franck Khalfoun isn’t a household horror name. In fact, only the nerdiest of the nerds (raise a hand, you know who you are) would note his involvement in Alexandre Aja’s High Tension as Jimmy, the unfortunate gas station attendant who takes an axe to the chest. But on November 9th, Khalfoun tries his hand at feature directing with the survival horror flick P2, starring Wes Bentley (American Beauty) as an unhinged parking lot security guard and Rachel Nichols (The Amityville Horror), the object of his affection. Set on Christmas eve, this potboiler that isn’t afraid to expose an intestine or two finds Nichol’s character, Angela, trapped within a parking structure with a psycho who has been crushin’ on her in crazy-mad unhealthy way. Khalfoun’s “Tension” pals Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur co-produced the film and Summit Entertainment is distributing.

Raised in Paris and Miami Beach at a young age, Khalfoun’s early days in the biz found him straddling jobs in New York City and Los Angeles directing hip hop music videos, “When we could still put guns and half-naked girls in them,” he notes during ShockTillYouDrop.com’s exclusive phone interview. Khalfoun is speaking to us from Ann Arbor, Michigan where he’s visiting friends and focusing on an unnamed book adaptation for Aja. “I also worked as a photographer doing album covers and became an editor in LA every so often. I just did a little of everything.”

Recognizing the noticeable rise in hard, stylistic horror fare coming from French colleagues like Aja and Ils helmers David Moreau and Xavier Palud, Khalfoun is more than ecstatic about joining this warped new wave that threatens to send U.S. genre filmmaker packin’ on a creative retreat. “Horror just translates, everybody’s afraid!” Khalfoun says with certain relish. “It’s a universal sentiment. There is such a small market in France, and to get out of there, you have to go international. To get out of these limitations, these directors are choosing to do horror.”

ShockTillYouDrop: Did your relationship with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur begin with “High Tension”?

Franck Khalfoun:
That’s right. I almost saved the girl in that, that would’ve turned the whole movie around. I was too slow.

Shock: So you set out to begin a career in acting, at first?

Khalfoun:
It was acting for me at first, really. I had gone to school for it and I was auditioning, wasn’t really liking it and getting the parts I wanted, so I figured I would start my own little things. First it was theater and I started directing – then it quickly started involving cameras and mixing media, film and theater. I wound up directing music videos for Bret Ratner’s company, actually. I met Alex Aja and Grégory when they were a lot younger and we stayed in touch and become close friends.

Shock: Then “High Tension” came around…

Khalfoun:
Yeah, they called me. They had done one movie and “Tension” was their second try. They thought they had a role for me and knew I had acted here and there. It was a lot of fun. That really is what sparked our relationship in terms of writing and producing “P2.”

Shock: And the origins of “P2” came from which side of the camp, yours or theirs?

Khalfoun:
It was their idea, they had heard of some girls getting attacked in parking lots in Paris and I think it flashed in them: What a perfect location for them to exploit? It’s such a terrifying place for women, practically anybody, really. They came to me with the concept, that was all. We sat together for a few days and came up with the storyline and I went and fleshed it out, came up with the characters, wrote the dialogue.

Shock: If that was the case, I’m surprised Summit hasn’t added a “inspired by true events” tag on the film’s marketing – a sort’ve fad these days.

Khalfoun:
It comes from actual headlines but the story itself is completely made up. It’s a good idea, though, but they always throw that shit in there anyway, so who knows? [laughs] But you have to find a story that’s justified and can hold your attention for an hour and a half in a single location, that was the challenge. Where do your characters go? How do you make it exciting? And when we sat down to do this, we came up with too many ideas. When you think of a parking garage and the amount of exits and avenues, crawl spaces, the amount of places you can hide in is endless. We had to hold back to create a movie within that time frame.

Shock: That’s interesting, because, visually, a parking garage is rather sparse. A lot of empty space. You just have to look deeper, I guess. Now, the two character leading cast must have presented something of a challenge as well.

Khalfoun:
That’s it. Bare minimums. It’s an exercise in basics and technique. How much can you stretch your knowledge of filmmaking and exploit nothing. How far can you go with lighting a wall? It’s the same wall everywhere. But how can you make it live and give it its own vibe? You ask that of a production designer, or a director of photography or an actor for that matter. How deep can you go into yourself? How many emotions can you bring out? It was really an exercise for everyone – how can you exploit this and make it exciting? You also hear, How much fun can that be? The film is all in one place? It’s a thrill ride when you have to exploit every corner of a parking lot and you realize it’s endless, scary and there’s no way out.

Shock: I can imagine it would take some creative and confident prep work to pull it off, especially for someone making their feature directorial debut.

Khalfoun:
Completely, what I experienced for the first time was how to contain and wrangle a story in. That was timing. It was about making the rhythm right so you can start off calmly and end on the speed of a freight train. By the end this movie is non-stop action. It’s a horror film with tons of action and gags, a little comedy. It was my job to create valleys and ridges throughout the whole thing.

Shock: Some of those gags are pretty gory. The car and body slam is a favorite here.

Khalfoun:
[laughs] Yeah, there’s a couple of good murders. Or, as Wes’ character would call it, protecting Rachel, the woman he loves, from the bad elements.

Shock: With a core concept that was so malleable and could have pretty much veered in any direction you wanted, what other ideas did you come up for “P2” before settling on the one you have?

Khalfoun:
There was a dialogue about whether we would make a classic sorta masked killer villain or a guy-next-door villain. The charming guy that would become a monster. And I thought the charming guy idea was better because we all know him and it’s more terrifying to realize he’s a monster. That was interesting to me. Wes is a good looking guy with tons of charm. It was interesting to see his demented side.

Shock: And naturally you were looking for someone with strength and found that in Rachel.

Khalfoun:
For her it was intelligence, actually, and obviously beautiful. You see her at the beginning working late at night, displaying that intelligence. And she’s able to use this to get her way out of the situation she’s in, calculate and manipulate things mentally. At the end, when there’s no other solution to get physical, she does become the brute, the bad-ass. She also had to be totally nice to look at! [laughs] That’s why we picked Rachel.

Shock: How did she take to that physicality at the end?

Khalfoun:
It was very hard on her. I praise her for that. She gave a lot of herself because she’s basically handcuffed and barefoot for the whole run of the production – in a disgusting place, running on that floor and slipping. It was uncomfortable. It wore her down and I think the picture benefits from it! I said to her once, Wow, the makeup department did an awesome job with those bruises all over your leg. And she says, That’s not makeup! As much as we tried to make sure she was safe, it was a demanding role.

Shock: Was most of principal photography in a real parking lot? Or did you get into a little stage work…

Khalfoun:
Nope, it was a real parking lot in Toronto, Canada. Our production designer did a wonderful job. The amount of time that we had and the constraints – which is not news – he was able to do something great. We were constantly trying to shift back and forth creating floors. What we benefited from was the control of the environment. We weren’t going to get flooded or have rain. It was easier for us. We couldn’t find a parking lot that wasn’t working, because those things make a fortune, so we had to work at night – another thing that added to the intensity of the film. After a while, working in that lot, at night, it becomes very heavy on everybody.

Shock: Creatively, what did you take away from your time watching Alex and Grégory on set?

Khalfoun:
They’re very efficient. There’s no waste. They were very helpful on “P2.” When time is running out, it was great to be able to look at scenes with them and figure out what we were able to cut out or substitute so the whole thing will flow together properly. We only had 25 days and there were a ton of scenes and tons of gags to shoot. Having them there to be able to do some edits on the fly was great. They’re very good storytellers. Plus, I had Alex and Greg shooting 2nd unit, so I couldn’t ask for anything more. If I needed something, they’d go and shoot it.

Shock: Was it on Alex’s recommendation to have Tomandandy (“The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Mothman Prophecies”) for the soundtrack?

Khalfoun: It was. I really liked them. A lot of their stuff was electronic, though, and I wanted something very classical. The parking lot in itself was so urban that putting an urban soundtrack over it was overkill. We needed something more Bernard Herrmann-esque, we wanted something in that vein. Plus, I think “P2” is classic storytelling. Hopefully, the directing and editing is invisible and will just let the story play, it makes it that much scary and real. I’m not a big fan of over-directing or over-lighting. I like things to move naturally. A movie for me is about telling a story, if there’s any technical aspect that’s bigger than the story, it jars me.

Source: Ryan Rotten