“I think what’s really original about The 9th Life of Louis Drax is that the twist is an emotional one. It’s what turns the story from pure psychological thriller into a powerful drama. And that’s something you don’t usually see.”
When best-selling author Liz Jensen completed her fifth novel, The 9th Life of Louis Drax, she was certain the book — a thriller centered around a boy in a coma — would never be made into a movie.
Fortunately, one of her agents saw the story’s filmic potential, as did Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (Best Director, The English Patient, 1996), who optioned it with his producing partner, Oscar winner Sydney Pollack (Best Picture, Out of Africa, 1985). Minghella died in 2008, before he had a chance to make the film. But when producer and longtime Minghella associate Timothy Bricknell joined forces with Minghella’s son, actor Max Minghella, to form production company Blank Tape, they decided to make The 9th Life of Louis Drax their first project.According to Jensen, the book was inspired in part by an unsolved mystery in her own family, the death of her maternal grandmother, who fell off a cliff in Switzerland while searching for her lost son. “I think in a way, because there was a mystery in my family about two people disappearing almost simultaneously, I felt the need to solve it somehow. And my way of doing that was to create another mystery, which ran kind of parallel to the real one, and could be solved.”
Jensen describes the book as a kind of ghost story in which the comatose young boy, Louis, is the ghost. “He’s half alive and half dead,” explains the author. “He’s in this weird borderline area where he’s not conscious, nor is he completely unconscious. There’s a lot going on in that clever little head of his, including solving the mystery of why he’s there. So he is a ghost who desperately wants to be alive again. But at the same time, he’s scared to be alive again, for reasons that will become clear.”
The novel had such a powerful impact on Max Minghella that he started writing an adaptation almost as soon as he finished reading it. “The universe and imagery that Liz created were so instantly cinematic to me,” he says. “I could also immediately identify ways to make it personal, which I think is an important piece of the puzzle when you’re adapting material. You want to feel there is something you can contribute. Something that is unique to you.”
Jensen says she was thrilled when she read Minghella’s screenplay of her book. “I was extremely impressed by the way he managed to capture the spirit of the novel while adding his own fantastic twists. There is something about this version that will send shivers down your spine. All those years ago when Max’s father intended to write and direct it but tragically wasn’t able to, he asked me, ‘If you could write the book all over again, what would you do differently?’ I remember saying immediately, ‘I would make it scarier.’ And that’s what Max has done.”
In 2013, when Minghella was cast opposite Daniel Radcliffe in the Alexandre Aja-directed fantasy thriller Horns, he took the opportunity to see if Aja might be a good fit for The 9th Life of Louis Drax. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Alex’s,” notes Minghella. “He’s an exciting director and I felt he was capable of making any kind of film. I had him in the back of my mind early on, but when we were talking on the set of Horns I asked him about the stories that interested him and the kind of films he wanted to make. Many of his ideas and themes directly correlated with The 9th Life of Louis Drax. It just felt like it was meant to be.”
Aja remembers their conversation well. “Max mentioned a story he was working on and I was intrigued because on many levels it was something I was looking for at the time — a mystery, a psychological thriller — that incorporated themes of childhood and the secrets that the human mind can hide.”
When he read the script, Aja says he found it at once original and touching. “It explored the power of childhood imagination, probed the world of the conscious, the unconscious and the supernatural, as well as the compelling intrigue of a love triangle. It’s such an unusual piece because there are several love stories going on at once: the doctor falling in love with the mother of his patient, the love of the mother for her child, the love between a violent, imperfect husband and his son. There is something very sophisticated in all the layers of this film that makes it unique.”
Casting The film
When it came to assembling the cast of The 9th Life of Louis Drax, the filmmakers knew that finding a young actor to play the title role, the 9-year-old at the center of the story, would be the biggest challenge. “Louis Drax is the most important of all the characters,” says Aja. “He’s a very smart little boy who has a peculiar way of speaking and a sharp view of the adults around him. He may also be the most mature person in the film.”
Louis is fascinated by the adult world, but also justifiably scared of it, according to Jensen. “He’s got an old head on his shoulders in many ways because he’s been through so much. He’s intuitive of the adults around him, what they want and the way they behave. He’s very aware of conflict and, as many children do, he fears growing up.”
The filmmakers embarked on a long and exhaustive search to find a young actor who could convey Louis’ precocious brilliance as well as the vulnerability beneath his prickly exterior. Vancouver-born Aiden Longworth was one of the first to audition and although more than 100 other boys from throughout North America and England were considered over the ensuing months, the filmmakers were drawn back to Aiden by his acting skill as well as his openness, cheery disposition and keen interest in science and technology.
The complex character of Dr. Allan Pascal serves as the audience’s eyes and ears. A celebrated pediatric neurologist and author, he oversees a renowned coma clinic and research center exclusively for the treatment of children. He believes that no matter how the brain has been injured, there is still a way to connect with a coma victim and bring him back to the surface.
When Louis is admitted into his care, Pascal is immediately intrigued by the unusual and tragic nature of his patient’s past medical history. But over time, he is also drawn to Louis’ mysterious and beautiful mother, Natalie. To portray the renowned and passionate doctor, the filmmakers turned to Jamie Dornan, best known for his mesmerizing performances as a serial killer in the hit BBC television series “The Fall” and more recently, as Christian Grey, a tormented business magnate in the box office-smash Fifty Shades of Grey.
“Dr. Allan Pascal is our way into the story,” says Minghella. “He is very charismatic, very handsome, very smart, and on the cutting edge of new technology and research in his field. But he ultimately falls prey to the enigmatic power of Natalie Drax, and that, for me, is the thrust of the film. All of Jamie’s work that I’ve seen has been extraordinary and I knew he would bring this character to life in a compelling way.”
Dornan says it was the exceptional quality of the writing and the complexity of Pascal’s character that persuaded him to take on the role. “Max has written such a brilliant, genre-bending script,” he says. “I hadn’t read anything like it before. It has both mystery and heart, two things you don’t see put together very often, and I genuinely fell in love with it.”
Dornan likens Natalie’s allure to that of the Sirens of Greek mythology: gorgeous creatures whose sad, sweet songs lured passing sailors to their deaths. “Natalie Drax has a Sirenesque quality that Allan Pascal cannot see,” says the actor. “Against his better judgment, he can’t do anything but fall for her. She has this effect on him that is beyond a simple attraction.”
Equally crucial was the casting of Natalie, a brittle woman who has endured Louis’ multiple near-death experiences and a marriage to a violent drinker, only to find herself alone, with her son in a vegetative state and her husband — a suspect in Louis’ fall — missing. “We needed an actress who could convincingly portray both an innocent and a seductress, and effortlessly transition between the two,” explains Bricknell.
Canadian actress Sarah Gadon was the filmmakers’ hands-down favorite for the role, both because of her chameleon-like quality as an actor and her delicate beauty. “Natalie Drax is the mother of a boy who, since he was born, has gone from one unlucky accident to another,” says Aja. “And she’s always been there for him, trying to save him. But she hides another side of herself, something darker. When I looked at Sarah’s previous work on screen, I was really struck by the fact that she played a very different character in every film and was almost impossible to recognize. After talking to her about the complexity of her character, I knew she was our Natalie Drax.”
Gadon says she was attracted to the multi-layered aspect of the role. “At the beginning of the film you read her as this very stoic, loving young mother. But as the story unfolds, you realize she’s a deeply troubled woman. Her son, Louis, is the number one man in her life and part of the reason why her marriage falls apart. When she first meets Dr. Pascal, it’s all about Louis’ condition, but their interactions soon escalate to another level, until she really starts to look at him as a kind of savior.”
Playing Gadon’s husband and Louis’ stepfather, Peter Drax, is Aaron Paul, best known for his Emmy®-winning performance as Jesse Pinkman in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” A heavy drinker given to occasional violent outbursts, Peter loves his stepson. But at a picnic celebrating Louis’ 9th birthday, the boy falls off a cliff and nearly dies. After the incident, Peter, the prime suspect, is nowhere to be found.
Paul says he found himself engrossed by the mysterious story from page one of Minghella’s screenplay. “It’s rare for me to sit down and read a script in one sitting — it has to be that good — and this is that good,” says Paul. “I was excited to jump on board.”
Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated actor Oliver Platt plays the pivotal supporting role of child psychiatrist Dr. Michael Perez, who treats Louis at Peter’s insistence. Dr. Perez recognizes that there are deeper problems that his patient is not willing to discuss. “It’s a crucial relationship within the story,” says Platt. “On a lot of different levels, Louis is a psychiatrist’s dream because he’s so complex and so smart. Perez understands that the boy has a complicated relationship with authority and affection. He needs to make a safe place for him in order to get him to talk. And I think that’s why Louis becomes attached to him.”
Although Jensen set her novel in France, screenwriter and producer Max Minghella chose to set the film adaptation closer to home in San Francisco. Director Alexandre Aja wanted the film to have a timeless feeling, says production designer Rachel O’Toole. “He didn’t want it to feel overly contemporary or overly retro. He definitely likes a lot of layering and a lot of texture. And he’s not afraid of color or richness. He provided a lot of input, which is great, but he also gave me a lot of freedom.”
Aja praises O’Toole for her role in realizing the visual elements of Minghella’s highly imaginative script. “Rachel created absolutely amazing sets,” he says. “Every location has some kind of singularity that is visually striking and that belongs to the story and the way that Max wrote the script. I have never read such a visual script before. And my role as the director was to take that and make it even more spectacular somehow.”
One of the themes the director weaves throughout the film is water in its many forms. “It’s a great way to describe the sort of bobbing up above the surface into the real world and then below the surface into the unconscious that Louis experiences,” observes producer Timothy Bricknell. “I think it will really help carry the audience from one world into the other.”
The 9th Life of Louis Drax marks cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s ninth collaboration with Aja. “I am extremely thankful to work with someone who believes 100 percent in what I am doing and gives me the freedom to share unconventional ideas,” says the director of photography, whose numerous credits also include P2 and The Crazies.
Bricknell believes that the appeal of The 9th Life of Louis Drax is that it tells a story that is at once strange and universal. “For me, it’s the choices the characters make that are very human and relatable,” says the producer. “The idea of a successful and genuinely good-hearted married man being blinded by a beautiful young woman who appears to need him so desperately is a compelling, if not unusual, problem. The other part of the story that is fascinating is the continual shifting between Louis’ unconscious and the real world, how the two reflect each other, and how they ultimately collide.”
Director Alexandre Aja adds that the film’s ending — like the story itself — is satisfying both as a mystery and a love story. “I think what’s really original about The 9th Life of Louis Drax is that the twist is an emotional one. It’s what turns the story from pure psychological thriller into a powerful drama. And that’s something you don’t usually see.”