The news that his slasher movie Maniac had been banned from theaters in New Zealand took director Franck Khalfoun completely by surprise on Wednesday, and like the movie itself, the French filmmaker was juggling a sense of outrage and perverse glee.
"I suppose they have to control people and not let them see things; I think censorship is completely bogus," he told BuzzFeed in a phone conversation late Wednesday. "I don't know how to take it. I guess as a genre filmmaker, it's a compliment."
New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature Classification announced that the movie, which stars Elijah Wood as a disturbed serial killer named Frank with major mommy issues, was not fit for public consumption — either in theaters or on DVD — because it is filmed in large part from Wood's first person point of view. It is based on the 1980 William Lustig-directed movie of the same name, with Joe Spinell in the role now occupied by Wood.
Yes, New Zealand banned a movie starring Frodo.
"While the feature does not actively promote or support this material, the tacit invitation to enjoy cruel and violent behavior through its first-person portrayal and packaging as entertainment is likely to lead to an erosion of empathy for some viewers," the agency wrote in a note that explained its decision. This is only the second movie it has banned; previously, it sidelined the documentary The Bridge from big screens in 2007.
"I saw the original [1980 version] and that's what touched me about it. It was the singular thing that motivated me to do this, that we can have compassion even for the most awful people because we're humans," Khalfoun said of his interest in the project. "And in the end, I think the message is enlightening and positive: If you love your children, they won't turn out to be crazy, and not only serial killers, but thieves and people who hurt other people. I think the message from the movie is always positive."
"I remember the Spinell character [the killer] and how terribly I felt for how he must have lived and what must have drawn him to this place," Khalfoun added. "I went further than just reacting to his violence, but to try and understand what has brought him to this place in life and I felt empathy, and I really wanted to create that with this one. So for those who say it creates empathy for a mad person, I think it's human to have empathy for others, no matter how crazy they are and no matter how bad they treat other people or how violent they are. We're all in society responsible for each other's actions, I feel, it takes a village."
While directors often cut objectionable content out of movies to attain a desired rating from the MPAA, the non-government body that rates movies in the United States, Maniac is fundamentally unable to be trimmed to satisfy the New Zealand board's requirements; it would require re-shooting the entire movie. Even if he had been able to make cuts, however, Khalfoun said he would absolutely object to doing so.
Maniac hit theaters in the United States in very limited release on June 21; it was largely a VOD title. As such, Khalfoun said that the ban has less teeth — laughing, he suggested that it'd be an easy movie to find pirated online.
The film will still screen on Saturday at the New Zealand International Film Festival, where it should receive even more attention, with Khalfoun speculating that the ban will give it "a little buzz."
In fact, marketers for the movie have already been working to capitalize off the ban, using it in promotional material to drum up interest; see the image below.
In all, Khalfoun is quite satisfied with the movie — and the reaction.
"The genre people really like the movie, and some people are pretty outraged. It does what it's supposed to, it titillates those who enjoy the genre and it completely shocks those who consider it gratuitous, the genre gratuitous," he reasoned. "I think it does what it's supposed to do. It's one of those few cases, however, the bad critiques are sometimes better than the good ones."