Elijah Wood on ‘Maniac,’ ‘Wilfred,’ and the Soothing Comforts of a Good Hug

By  · Published on June 20th, 2013

Elijah Wood really defies all Hollywood expectations. After making a graceful transition from child stardom, he became a pop culture icon as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings movies while balancing out all that box office mojo with equally great performances in smaller, more personal films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Everything Is Illuminated. He’s also now in his third season as the suicidal Ryan the darkly comic Wilfred, returning this week on F/X.

Wood takes his talents to more sinister depths in Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac (inspired by the 1980 film of the same name), in which he plays Frank, an isolated young man who restores antique mannequins in an industrial area of Los Angeles and freelances as a serial killer with a fetish for scalping his female victims. His murderous ways are spurred by an unhealthy relationship with his mother who exposed Frank to things as a child that he probably shouldn’t have seen. His dangerous dynamic with women gets a bit more complicated when he meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful artist who wants to use Frank’s mannequins in one of her installations. Frank develops true feelings for Anna, and these feelings are constantly at war with his deep-seeded urges to kill.

Generic plot synopsis aside, Maniac is hardly a run-of-the-mill horror film. Filmed almost entirely through Frank’s POV, the film truly gets inside the mind of a serial killer to the point where you are forced to empathize with him despite his horrific actions. The killer/POV format also has the chilling effect of directing the victim’s look of pure terror directly at the camera and at the audience. And while Wood is not always present onscreen because of this filming technique, he delivers a stunning performance through his haunted reflections and even the perfectly-choreographed movements of his hands. Wood sat down with Film School Rejects to discuss his role in Maniac, his experience shooting a film through his character’s POV, the new season of Wilfred, and the soothing comforts of a well-timed hug.

Maniac sets itself apart from pretty much all the rest by being filmed through your character’s POV. Can you talk about the POV filming process? I read, for instance, that you had two hand doubles, but it was so seamless that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Yeah, it was an interesting, very technical process. It was a real discovery on-set, in a way, because each of the sequences is effectively a single shot and we had limitations because we couldn’t rely on traditional editing. And then I had to figure out how to get involved. Most of the time, I was walking behind Maxime [Alexandre], who was our DP and operator, who effectively was me in the POV. And then, if it called for it, I would get my hands into frame to reach for something, and occasionally that would mean I would have to get two hands into frame. And, of course, I couldn’t do that by myself because there wasn’t enough space to get both arms around. So I had a double for that.

And that was interesting logistically, at times, because I remember there were moments when I would pass one thing off to another hand, which you can do almost seamlessly if it were both of your hands. But trying to do that with your hand and someone else’s hand was a little bit weird [laughs]. So there were things like that that were a little bit complicated, but really fun. It was fun to work all of those things out logistically. And like I said, it was a process of discovery more than I expected it to be. And I think that’s just the very nature of shooting something in POV.

And I’m assuming you were present on-set when you weren’t on camera?

Yeah, so I was obviously there in the reflections and during the kills when the camera leaves POV and turns into a third-person perspective. And during Frank’s memories that we filmed. But yeah, other than that, I was on-set standing behind Maxime.

A good example of what was discovered in the process was when [Frank and Anna] are leaving the movie theater, we had to block out all of the scenes traditionally. Maxime would watch and figure out where I would be involved, just the blocking of getting characters from Point A to Point B. And then the camera would work from there and I would have to figure out where to go with the camera. But there was a great moment, which was something we just found on the day, where the characters are walking out of the movie theater and Anna gets into a cab. And then we turn around, and there is a storefront with all of these televisions in the window with cameras recording them and Frank sees himself on the televisions.

And that was always planned, but there was a grate in front [of the store window] and Maxime had this idea to put his hand and my hand on the grate so you would see that on camera. We had to do that simultaneously so that when you’re watching that on the television screens, my hands go up at the same time that Maxime’s are. Things like that are just things that we discovered during the process, I guess, to remind you that you’re in the body of a man the whole time and to create an organic way to create those reminders. And also for me to be as physically involved as possible.

Your hands are a main extension of your character. How much thought was put into how their movements were choreographed, how they looked? The fingernails, for instance, were really bitten down, and you washed your hands with Brillo pads…

Yeah, well, the thought process behind the Brillo pad washing…

I don’t know what this says about me, but I found Brillo pad washing was more disturbing than some of the murders…

It’s disturbing though! It’s like a self-flogging, a compulsion. It’s a cleanliness thing, but I think it has more to do with punishment for his behavior. I think what’s interesting about the character is, on some level, he is at odds with himself. He doesn’t want to do these things, and he really does want to connect, but he can’t. He’s totally incapable and he does these horrible things that get out of control and he’s compelled to kill. And [the washing] was just an idea of physically showing guilt or remorse, or just self-punishment.

There is a lot of film theory that I’ve had to read over the years about the “patriarchal male gaze,” but Frank’s POV hardly reads as “patriarchal.” In addition to his obvious mommy issues, can you talk about the correlation between his POV perspective and his relationship with women in the film?

I guess we’re seeing women the way he sees them. I think the [POV] device is for the audience to experience what is in his head as much as anything. I think that’s one of the elements that I was most intrigued about in this remake, the prospect of being made to be uncomfortable by living out this guy’s day-to-day activities. That was really exciting.

The way he sees women, I think initially, is not objectifying in the same way as some men do. I think he kind of wants to connect and it goes horribly wrong [laughs]. He even talks to himself, as he is connected to his mother, and how she makes him do all of these horrible things. So he’s got this internal dialogue that you hear him express.

But when it comes to Nora’s character, everything kind of changes. He sees her in a really romantic way and I think the camera work at that moment really reflects that. He has a hope that she will fall in love with him and that’s incredibly naive, obviously. He’s looking at women almost as a connection to his mother and idealizes them to a certain extent. I think some of that is reflected in the way that the women are captured.

Frank is seen on a dating site, through which he meets one of his victims in the film. Do you think he has the intention of finding a human connection, or is it just a means for him trolling for his next victim?

That is part of his compulsion. I think he’s looking for something and he can’t help himself and he ends up going in a direction that he can’t help himself from going to. But yeah, I guess the impetus of going on the dating site is to troll for victims. And I guess he’s looking, potentially, for women who evoke his mom. So that goes to the more overtly sexual aspects of where the second victim would be coming from. Because that’s what his mom was like. I think he attaches his mom to everything.

The 1980s-style score by Rob adds a lot to the film in terms setting an overall unsettling mood. Did you have an idea of what the score would be as you were filming, or was that all added in post?

It was done in post, yeah. I knew [Rob] was going to be doing the music while we were shooting, but I didn’t start hearing the music until we were in post-production. I’m sure they were already thinking about it, but I remember early on thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be great to get an all-electronic score?” Because I love electronic scores from the ’70s and ‘80s.

Yeah, like Tangerine Dream!

Totally, totally! And even John Carpenter’s scores from his early films. It’s an element that hasn’t really existed in horror movies in a long time, so I was really excited about the prospect of that. And especially that Rob was going to do it, I was really excited [laughs]. It helps to create a different atmosphere for the movie.

You know, the original is set in New York, and ours is in Los Angeles. Partially, where we shot and how we shot the movie, but also that score, served to make Los Angeles not feel like Los Angeles.

I agree! When I was watching the film ‐ and I live in Brooklyn ‐ I thought that the more industrial buildings were on the Gowanus for a while.

That’s cool! I know they were really excited about seeing a version of Los Angeles that doesn’t often get filmed anymore, that is a little bit darker and seedier. In which you can imagine a character like this would exist. The art design was really, really wonderful. The whole team did an incredible job and the locations were really wonderful as well.

Yes, and the music worked so well also in creating that disconnect between Frank and other people.

Totally. I think one of my favorite scenes in the film is where the music really comes into play, in terms of the score, is where Frank is just out driving and seeing people and following people. It’s great, it’s one of the only times that it’s not that specific to the individual, but just him trolling. It’s very disturbing!

Do you think that Maniac is more analogous to Psycho or Peeping Tom? Because Norman Bates shares similar sexually-driven mommy issues with Frank, though Peeping Tom shares a lot of the POV shots and psychology…

More Peeping Tom, definitely. Unlike with Norman Bates in Psycho, I don’t think Frank is embodying his mother. I think he’s damaged by his mother and is angry at his mother for probably neglect and exposing him to things that she shouldn’t have. And probably not loving him like she should have loved him. And I think that’s why, in part, he’s looking for that through other women and also why he’s punishing other women, if you want to get psychologically involved. So yeah, I think it has more to do with Peeping Tom, a movie that I love, by the way. Such an awesome film.

With Peeping Tom, also, you see the fear of the victims directed at the killer, at his camera, which is really what struck a chord with me with Maniac. In both films, the victims are exposing their ultimate fear right at the audience.

Yeah, up until Peeping Tom, I don’t know another movie that really utilized POV in that way before. So it’s cool to revisit a similar style.

Was working with Frank Khalfoun more of a collaborative process?

I felt like it was collaborative. I feel that filmmaking at its best is collaborative. He definitely had a vision for the movie, certainly, and for the character. He had specific ideas that we definitely saw through, but it was also very much a collaboration on-set. Like I said, there was a real sense of discovery as all of us were looking at each individual scene and trying to figure out how to logistically work it out. And sometimes it was just figuring out where the camera was supposed to go. There were all sorts of daily challenges that we were all sort of working through together.

And Alexandre Aja, who produced it and wrote it, was on the set a great deal of the time as well, so he was very helpful. It definitely felt like a collaboration, but I think Franck very much had a vision for the movie that he wanted to make and a lot of that came down to the locations we shot in, the way the character’s bedroom looked, there were a lot of details that he was involved in, in terms of this world that was so important because you’re seeing that world through the character’s eyes.

Yes, even down to the growing amount of flies on the victim’s scalps atop the mannequins in Frank’s apartment…

Totally, and while Alex wrote it into the script, Franck loved that idea that my character was self-flogging too. There were elements of deep psychological pain that I think he really attached to it as well. And I think something that was really intriguing to Franck too was the sexuality of the character, and even in some ways, the lack there of. The “knife as sexual object,” all of those sorts of things were interesting tableaux for him.

It’s cool, I think there’s depth to the film and I think there’s a lot in the film to analyze and look at. It doesn’t feel like just simply a slasher film, which was what was exciting about it.

Wilfred’s third season debuts this week. Was there much of an adjustment to working with the new showrunners now that David Zuckerman has stepped down?

Well, the [new] showrunners, Reed [Agnew] and Eli [Jorné] were writers on the show since the beginning, so they’ve always been a part of the process. They have been a real influence and are some of our best writers on the show and very much are in line with the show that we were making and wanted to make. So it wasn’t actually a huge adjustment at all. They’re wonderful and have always been around. They are just around a lot more now. And it was great, they did a fantastic job! And they’ve never showrun before.

It was a very collaborative process this season and I think we’ve had some of the most fun we’ve had on the show. I certainly don’t remember laughing as much, making the show, as this season. [Laughs] I don’t know if that means it’s going to be the funniest season, or if I was just laughing more, but we have a blast. It’s so much fun to make and I’m really excited to see how people will respond to this season. I think it’s going to be really good.

I watched the first episode of the Australian version of the show, which is very similar to the American one, but differed a lot tonally…

Yeah, it’s similar but very different. Our show gets a little bit deeper psychologically with what’s going on with the character. There’s a reason for Wilfred’s manifest and why he’s in Ryan’s life. As you saw, the reason for Wilfred’s existence is because Ryan tries to commit suicide in the first episode, hitting a wall that makes Wilfred come into his life.

This is somewhat of a random one, but I really loved your episode of Mike O’Brien’s 7 Minutes in Heaven. In the episode, he asks if people exclaim “Your eyes are killing it!” to make you feel better when you’re down. Though if you are feeling blue, what compliment would provide the best mood enhancer?

[Laughs] I don’t know, I think if I were feeling sad, I would just want to be given a hug. I don’t know if I would want to be complimented. I don’t know if enhancing my ego makes me feel better…

[Laughs] That’s true!

I think that just being comforted, or someone smiling at me or making me laugh, would make me feel better.

Maniac opens theatrically and on VOD on June 21st