(Above: ’MAMA’ director Andrés Muschietti and Guillermo Del Toro)
I’m not sure how I got switched from the comics/action/tentpole guy to the horror guy, but when you get offered a set visit for a Guillermo Del Toro produced film, you go. Not to mention that this movie was the premiere English language film from Andrés Muchietti a director who wouldn’t be on IMDB at all if it wasn’t for his original “MAMA” short and a position as a set production assistant on ‘Evita.’ Packing up for Toronto, I threw the short up on my laptop as I was packing. It was brief, it was creepy, it was insanely dark. I stopped packing, messed with my settings and found a brighter version.
‘MAMA,” the short film is what sold Guillermo Del Toro on Andrés and his sister/creative partner Barbara and it’s what got me interested in the potential of the project. The monster moved uniquely and really wanted those kids. Plus the general creepiness that the kids are aware of the Mama monster before this gave hints at an expanded backstory.
Up in Toronto, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small group of my respected peers also on set and though we hadn’t heard word one about ‘Mama,’ everyone was well aware that ‘Pacific Rim’ was occupying the other sound stages. The driver who took us from the hotel to set said one soundstage was a giant Kaiju head that the actors were crawling around on. You can bet I peeked through as many open doors as possible. I saw some sets, but no monsters….well, that’s not true. I didn’t see any Kaiju, but the titular mother of ‘MAMA’ is pretty darn terrifying.
It would take awhile to figure that out, though, as we were moved into a windowless room with coffee and snacks. Our first few interviews were disconcerting. The feature adaptation of ‘MAMA’ would also feature two children, like the short, but Jessica Chastain (‘The Help’) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (‘Game of Thrones’) had been cast. There was a house in the woods and a suburban house, but Jessica’s character and Nikolaj’s charater were bohemians. The children were feral, but had a bedroom. This is what happens when your set visit starts while the executive producer and director are working on bigger, more important things.
Poor Visual Effects Supervisor Ed Taylor was tasked with telling us about his work without giving away the plot, which lead to awkward moments like this:
Is Mama in the film pretty much the same as Mama in the short?
Ed Taylor: There have been dramatic changes. I don’t know which short you guys have seen – is that the original short made by Andy,with the two girls in it? No, she is quite different, but she will move in a similar way.
Is there another short?
ET: There was a test that they shot to get the ball rolling for visual effects, and to sell it. You haven’t seen that? It was pretty neat.
Trying to get my journalistic bearings was quickly becoming difficult. I knew I’d have to eventually describe this movie to you – the audience – about a year after I’d gotten out of that room, but it started to become clear that there was no plan to show us the creature/ghost/monster or give us any plotting beyond a basic outline of what sort of effects would be used.
Then, GDT shows up, forever the entertainer and a man that knows how to talk about his projects with passion. And he, luckily, also had the authority to blow it wide open:
We talked to Edward a little bit about the digital effects and obviously we know you’re a big monster fan, can you talk about your input on Mama’s look and the hair and the fingers and all of the stuff he talked with us about?
Guillermo Del Toro: Yeah, well we are starting with a very strong base. Have you seen the [Spanish VFX company] DDT makeup shop?
GDT: Holy shit. Literally I brought them to the house… We start with an amazing prosthetic work, amazing, and I bring them home and I put it on [Laughs] and my daughters run away.
GDT: “We don’t want to see that!” My wife is “Don’t show that to the girls!” It’s really cool and then my wife came and visited, because she used to do prosthetic makeup with me back in the day and she came in to see the application and the actor was immobile and he lifted his head and moved his jaw and she said, “I’m leaving.” So we started with a very strong base, but I think it’s great and we did it in a different way with the ghost in “Devil’s Backbone, to have an underwater effect for the hair you know. It’s really very nice and have they shown you any of the movement tests?
GDT: What the fuck have they shown you?
And with that, we were off the the races, getting a pretty good look at ‘MAMA’ the sets, actors and creatives. The good news is Del Toro didn not lie – the monster is pretty terrifying. Much like he was to us, I will let Mr. Del Toro be your guide.
Have you taken over this entire studio area?
GDT: Yeah, we did.
GDT: It’s a “Mexican Coup.” [Laughs]
So how much time do you get to spend over here with prepping the other movie [Pacific Rim] at the same time?
GDT: We started… Well what happened is MAMA obviously started shooting way earlier than us and we’ve been working on it for over two years more. We went through many drafts and developing the look of MAMA, the central operation. We started over a year ago. We did some tests and you know, so when we came here it was easier to spend more time, like many hours in the day at the end of the day going to the MAMA office and now as I start shooting in two weeks (Laughs) less so, but I do check Andy’s [Muschetti] home work every morning. We arrive like an hour before call; he walks me through his day. I give him my blessing. You know, we literally walk the setups, then at the end of the day I see the dailies. Any comment I have I talk to him. We meet on the weekends for the editing. I mean it’s very practical to have it shooting right here. If it wasn’t like that, I couldn’t do it.
I was going to say, because this is a US-Spanish production, right? But it’s shot in Canada. Was there ever a notion to shoot it in Spain?
GDT: We did. I actually asked Andy. I said to Andy early on, I said, “There are two models of how we can make this movie. One is we have no money, but we do it completely free. You are never going to get a note. You’re not going to…” I said, “The other one, which I cannot fully prepare you for is through a studio, which means that you are going to get notes, you are going to… I’m going to be the Mexican buffer, so you’re not going to get as many. You are going to be well protected, but coming form the background you come from, they are going to feel like a lot.” He said, “I’ve done enough commercials and dealt with the clients,” which… it’s different and he chose this model. He said, “I want to have he sets. I want to have the look and the time to shoot it.” And that’s what we went for, you know?
What was your initial reaction to the original MAMA short? Why did you get involved?
GDT: You know, I tried to… Like literally we look at hundreds of shorts every year. I love producing first time movies, because you bring voices to a genre that a lot of people come into for a different reason than a genuine love for it, so when you find someone like Andy, like Bayona, like Troy Nixey, you know you go “There’s a voice in there” and you see a lot of horror shorts that are very well produced by first time directors and you see the person worried more about how polished the short looks almost like they are calling cards and this one was a genuine… the form was very flashy, because it was a single shot apparently, but it was very, very coherent with the fact that the whole short was about building up… It was very, very smart and then we met… My reaction was I crapped my pants.
GDT: My reaction was like “If it scares me, it should scare somebody else” and I think that we contacted Andy. We met about the concept of the story. We developed the screenplay together. He had a very clear notion of what he wanted to do with the characters, which strangely enough is very similar to the stuff we did in “Don’t Be Afraid,” meaning a couple, the daughter is reluctant, but it was there before I came in. That notion was there and then we did a very good rewrite with Neil Cross who did a rewrite for me on “Mountains of Madness,” who wrote and is writing a couple of screenplays… He created “Luther,” the BBC series…
When you are making this into a movie, obviously this can’t be a three minute long movie, how do you balance that impact that the short had with telling a longer story? How do you balance that with telling a story that includes the back-story and the answers?
GDT: Horror is always better when nothing is explained and frankly if you can do features, which you can in Europe and you can do in other countries, but an American horror movie there will always be the moment where you reveal the origin of this or the origin of that and that inevitably diminishes it. For example, to me the greater… “The Ring,” the two version of “The Ring,” the original Nakata film and the remake, the difference is how much it is explained and as much as I like “Let Me In,” again the more mystery, the less linear the backstory is, the better the movie is. We inevitably reveal the origin, but I think what we tried to do… For me, the notion is so powerful… I always, in my movies or the things I do, I always say “Family is either the greatest joy or the worst horror” like “Either your stepfather is a fascist or your step father is Professor Broom.” Family is always intrinsic too… I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever.”
GDT: Because it’s absolutely immediately, for me made it something relatable, like “All mothers turn into horrible things at some point” and then you reconcile and it can be great or not. I thought the idea of that surpasses any origin. It’s such a strong thing that ultimately what this creature has is possessive love you know? A mother’s jealousy is really, really strong.
When you are working with a first time filmmaker or even a writer is it important, especially if you first saw their work as a short, is it important if you are going to take some idea from the short that they have… Like when you met with Andy for the first time, did he have the idea kind of tentatively fleshed out about what happens before and after?
GDT: Yeah, it helps a lot and it helps a lot when you know… The more hours they have under their belt the better, like Andy has shot hundreds of commercials and literally has shot so much stuff. He’s been in every situation. The fact that he has used every trick, every technical piece of equipment, that’s very comforting and yet the main thing is for them to be prepared. Nothing prepares you for a feature, nothing. I mean you could have shot fifty shorts and then you go and do the feature and it’s a completely different beast, because in the short you just know “Okay, if I can hold another week…” But in the feature it’s “If I can hold another month…”
GDT: You know, it really is a marathon and I really love the way he works with the camera. I always say and people think it’s like a figure of speech that I learn from the really great first time directors, I go “Huh.” With Andy, it’s the same thing. His camera work is very delicate and then when you see it assembled together it flows beautifully and is very delicate and I was like “Oh my God, this is…” I was learning stuff from him. He’s been really, really great and you know that said it is my duty to torture him a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the afternoon. “You’ve got to make your day.” “You did ten more takes than you needed.” “What about doing this or that?” But all with the respect that I am very, very conscious that he’s the real deal.
Do you see that there is a struggle between filmmakers who are trying to tell a traditional ghost story versus those who are kind of adapting to the “Paranormal Activity” found footage faux documentary style which seems to be catching on a lot more than a traditional ghost story?
GDT: A lot more and I understand why. I mean I’m a big sucker for all of the “Ghost Hunters” and you know “Paranormal Witness”… I watch all of that stuff. It’s very easy to get… first of all the look of the dilated eyes is really good, but I think there’s a value in the tradition. Sometimes like going very traditional is very hard for the hardcore, like us new devices make people simply more interested, but I always think… the way I see it is there’s always a new generation being exposed to the genre. For me the biggest tragedy inevitably was the “Don’t Be Afraid” rating R, I didn’t want to remove anything, but it was a kid’s movie. We made it for it to be the scariest “Goosebumps” episode ever made and I really still hope that younger audiences catch it you know, so you have to remember that, if you are making these movies for guys that are going to go “Oh my God, I saw MAMA when I was ten and I shit my pants,” which is what you and I say about “The Omen” or “The Exorcist” or movies we were not supposed to see. (Laughs) So we are providing that for… and I think the traditional form is really important to preserve.
Can you talk about the casting of Jessica Chastain? I’ve interviewed two of her directors this year and they both say that she’s amazing, because she is so versatile and can do almost anything.
GDT: Well you know her movies haven’t been released, any of the movies that have made her now so famous you know? I just saw… We were having many casting suggestions with big names and big stars and this and that and then I saw “The Debt” with probably an illegal copy, I don’t know. Bob Bernie was very surprised, “How did you get it?” “I don’t know…” But I saw “The Debt” and I was blown away by the fact that all of her choices as actress were so smart, you know like scenes that played counter point to the way they would normally be played. The way she seemed to absorb Helen Mirren’s sort of mannerisms and then I talked to her and she said, “Actually Helen Mirren did some stuff I did, because we met after I finished my performance.” I said, “Well how did you get all of her…” “I watch a lot of her movies.” I thought she was so smart and we went and said back then “We want this actress that has no movies released, because she is the perfect actress.” We went and fortunately we got the actress we wanted.
At this point, Jessica Chastain walked in and I didn’t notice until she sat down next to me. Which is weird, because what you don’t know is I did a whole video interview with Jessica for ‘The Debt’ that didn’t make it on this site, I’m convinced, because we mostly talked about what kind of tea she likes. Jessica Chastain in her natural state basically moon-blinks me (if you’ve see the Owls of Ga’Hool), so I was surprised to not notice the short-haired, brunette, tattoo’d bass-player version of her.
I’m breaking this up so you don’t yell at me for ridiculously long posts. I’ll bring you Part 2 in an hour or so and come back to see what Ms. Chastain had to say about her brilliance and her gnarly tattoos.
Guillermo del Toro presents Mama, a supernatural thriller that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night.
Five years ago, sisters Victoria and Lilly vanished from their suburban neighborhood without a trace. Since then, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), have been madly searching for them. But when, incredibly, the kids are found alive in a decrepit cabin, the couple wonders if the girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home.
As Annabel tries to introduce the children to a normal life, she grows convinced of an evil presence in their house. Are the sisters experiencing traumatic stress, or is a ghost coming to visit them? How did the broken girls survive those years all alone? As she answers these disturbing questions, the new mother will find that the whispers she hears at bedtime are coming from the lips of a deadly presence.
MAMA hits January 18th.