Jessica Alba can still make a man melt… even if she is blind. Devoid of vision for the scene under our observation, at least, when we journey into downtown Los Angeles to the set of The Eye, one of the latest J-horror imports undergoing Americanization. The 25-year-old stunner, who made adolescent comic book fanboys purr in Fantastic Four and Frank Miller’s faithful collapse to their knees – clutching their hearts like a suffering Detective Hartigan – during Sin City, is poised in the back of a taxi cab, clunky black sunglasses eclipsing a fraction of her face.
Film extras in business attire stand on a nearby sidewalk clinging tight to their umbrellas and a little over twenty cars sit idle in this closed off section of L.A.’s commerce district, their drivers waiting for an action cue. Near Alba circles a young, energetic Frenchman puffing away on who-the-hell-knows-what-number-cigarette as he surveys the scene. He closes in on his leading lady – wearing the casual combo of blue Converse and jeans, a t-shirt and a Panavision cap – speaks to the camera operator in the front seat of the cab, issues some direction to Alba and saunters off approvingly. “Picture’s up!” is bellowed, echoing from production assistant to production assistant down the street. The cab moves to its starting position, cameras roll, the rain towers deliver a deluge and a take is shot.
The Eye may be nearing its production wrap within a week, and the scene (a moment from the opening of the film) may feel inconsequential but its directors, aforementioned chatterbox David Moreau and his quiet counterpart, Xavier Palud, remain focused and determined to make their day – as is evident when we catch up to the duo on the rooftop of the Standard Hotel (where Jason Statham made his last stand in Crank) for an all-too-brief, but informative discussion about their remake of the Pang Bros.’ 2002 ghost story.
Palud and Moreau made an impression on U.S. production execs with their debut French feature film, Ils (Them), last year. That picture, based on the true events of a couple terrorized in their cottage by unknown attackers, scored them a number of meetings including one with Wes Craven where they considered tackling an update of the infamous benchmark in soul-corrupting entertainment The Last House on the Left. “[‘Ils’] was a movie about the unseen and never seeing what’s outside the door,” Moreau explains to us. “It was more about what people can imagine than showing. ‘Last House on the Left’ was a great subject but really violent.” The pair eventually came to The Eye on recommendation from producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner who had been developing the project for a number of years. “We tried to work on [‘The Eye’] to make it a little less violent because we’re more interested in playing on your nerves than shocking the audience.”
To root that approach in someone the audience can empathize with, Alba was cast as Sydney Wells, a young blind woman (played in the original by Angelica Lee) who gets the supernatural whammy put on her when a successful operation grants her a new pair of paranormal peepers. Sebastian Gutierrez (Snakes on a Plane, Gothika) penned the U.S. translation and, as Moreau explains, the script remains true to the source material, however, some pivotal plot details needed to be altered to reflect the American culture. “Asian ghost stories are really striking to their culture. We don’t live with ghosts like they live with ghosts, so the challenge was to make it less a ghost story,” he says. “In working with Sebastian on the script, we decided the story today is to play more with what’s inside her head. Instead of telling it’s obviously ghosts, [Wells’ predicament] is: Is it ghosts? Maybe. Is it real? Maybe. And they won’t be obvious ghosts in the way we’re telling the story, it’s gonna be figuring out if she’s insane or not.”
Obviously, the locale of the story has been shifted to Los Angeles, with some scenes in Mexico, but another significant change will arrive in Alessandro Nivola’s character. The Jurassic Park III co-star plays opposite Alba, furthermore, Wells’ love interest. Yet, unlike the original film, in which leading man Lawrence Chou played a neuro-opthamologist, “I’m a neuro-psychologist because we realized opthamologists don’t do any of the things that this guy does in the movie,” Nivola candidly reveals trying to keep warm with the rest of us atop the Standard. “I went around meeting neuro-opthamologists when we first got to Albuquerque and nothing that they said about their job bore any resemblance to the script.”
“The nice thing about the character is that he’s the most skeptical of everyone in the film in terms of supernatural phenomena,” the actor adds. “He refuses to accept its existence from start to finish. I pretty much watched [the original] and used the character as a model for everything I didn’t want to be in this movie. There’s not too much resemblance between my character and the original.”
Alba’s Wells, on the other hand, is analogous to the Pang Bros.’ original heroine through a number of traits – such as the fact that her character is a musician. This made Alba’s challenges on the film manifold. “I’ve had to learn how to play violin and have spent a lot of time with people who are blind,” says Alba. Like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark and countless other actresses before her, “I’ve learned how to adjust and live as someone who is blind and there are a lot of anxieties that go with that. But then also having to play a classical violinist is impossible pretty much. [The directors have] me playing Beethoven and Mozart, it’s not simple ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ it’s really complicated, beautiful music.”
Since starring in 1999’s Idle Hands, Alba has long been absent from the horror genre. It’s not for lack of love; she’s just been waiting for an opportune moment to make her return. “I appreciate cult movie fans and people who like specific genres more than people who are just told to go to a movie because they have a character in their McDonald’s bag,” she asserts. “I wanted to do something that was classy, that transcended the genre hopefully. That’s what [Moreau and Palud] want to do, they want to make this more than just a horror movie they could to take their girlfriend to. It’s really going to look beautiful and different. And it’s more of a psychological thriller than just a horror movie. You really go into the character’s head and you live with her from the very beginning of the movie to the end of the movie. There are just not a lot of movies that star women that are smart and really tell the story through her eyes.”
Nivola agrees that the directing duo is vying to deliver some fright fare that’s a cut above the lucrative, torture-heavy flicks we’re getting today. “They’re trying to bring a reality to the world of the film that sometimes these kinds of movies don’t have – scary movies are scarier when it’s harder to disassociate yourself from the world of the film. If you can make a movie that’s scary that also has believable relationships and characters then that hopefully makes the difference in terms of making it something that appeals on different levels at once.”