Who is back for more MAMA?
Yesterday, I took you into a windowless set room with Guillermo Del Toro and Jessica Chastain (but neglected to give you details about her trailer) as they talked about different horror influences, building terror in performance and great praise for Andrés Muschietti, the first time director behind ‘MAMA.’
Andrés goes by Andy and he and his sister Barbara are a really laid-back, young duo with a seemingly infectious energy on set. Well, maybe “energy” isn’t the most accurate word, they certainly aren’t lazy, but they feel relaxed.
We meet up with Barbara out back of the soundstage in a trailer converted into a screening room for the dailies from each day of production. She’s been reclining on one of the sofas, watching the shots, gets up to welcome us then seems really excited to show us “the test” before taking her place on the frontmost couch.
The lights went down and suddenly we were looking at a hallway with patterned wall paper. The wallpaper looked bruised and at the end of the hall was an impossibly skinny and tale pale womanly figure with a mess of black hair seemingly floating around her head even though her clothing and nothing else in the room looked to be changed by the same wind.
MAMA lurched toward us and her movement was bizarre and unsettling. In my notes I wrote: “Like ghosts in The House On Haunted Hill remake but better, less-digital looking,” if that helps you few fans of the 1999 Geoffery Rush oddness. It’s similar to, but beyond what’s done with Mama in the short film.
The test reel was Javier Botet (‘[REC]’) in seemingly full Mama makeup walking and crawling down hallways with his body contorting like a marionette being jerked a few feet to the left or right.
Also in my notes at this point: “This [Mama] is going to work.” I think everyone had the same feeling, because when the lights came on after watching a few dailies, we all seemed to understand a bit more what the thrust of the movie was, especially more than we did in the morning with only the
Barbara came back with us to the windowless interview room where we were joined by her brother, the director of the film.
Are you only shooting inside for the house scenes, and otherwise you’re outdoors?
Andreés “Andy” Muschietti: We only have one stage.
Barbara Muschietti: Because Guillermo took all the others.
Andy: What we are doing is, we end up with the forest house, we bring it down, and the cliff which is the other set.
And what are you building on there?
Andy: It’s another– well the beginning of the movie takes place in–
The abandoned house?
Andy: In the cottage, yeah.
Barbara: The rubble that you guys see there is not rubble, it’s the cliff. So we have three sets, but only one stage, so we kind of have to take turns.
I’m curious, you did this amazing short film, and a lot of filmmakers go out and make a short film, they use it as a calling card, and they don’t have any kind of plan for what they want to do with the story. How much did you know story wise what you wanted to do with a feature film, before or during when you were doing the short film.
Andy: Actually it was a different story. We were writing a different screenplay, and Mama the short was sort of a style exercise, to support the project. The film. It was a ghost story, also a horror supernatural thriller, but the story was not Mama. But the short film, it wasn’t even a short. We did this as a support piece and it finally became a short film somehow, when we put the credits on and sent it to festivals. We started to raise interest, and a lot of people were asking what was the story behind it. It’s a big question mark. People usually were asking how was it possible that those little girls are that thing’s daughters. So that motivated us for writing the story. Usually they were more interested in seeing what happened to the girls–
Barbara: Than in reading our screenplay.
Andy: Which wasn’t bad at all.
Barbara: It’s good, it’s good! We’ll shoot it someday.
Andy: We stole so much from our previous screenplay that we’re not using it anymore. Including the wiener dog.
How long have you two been working creatively together?
Barbara: It’s been working together for 10 years, and writing together for about 8. But we’ve always been siblings.
Andy: We lived for 10 years in different countries– she started in L.A., and I was in Buenos Aires. And I moved to Spain while she was in London, and then together in Barcelona, where we started a company. And it was like that for 10 years.
At what point diid you feel ready to make a movie, or do you feel ready to make a movie? When did you feel ready to go from commercials to a movie?
Andy: I’m not ready yet. I guess it’s something that just happens, and you’re asking yourself. I guess I was more ready to make a film 10 years ago, when I thought it was easier. And now that I’m doing it I’m encountering all the little surprises and obstacles along the run. But I guess you never know when you are ready. You have to do it…
Guillermo told us that he has a meeting with you every morning and every afternoon. Can you tell us a little about those meetings and your relationship with him on this film?
Andy: It’s great because Guillermo is a big reference, and the good thing about him is he’s very demanding. When he feels OK about something, that means– he doesn’t have any problem to say “this is wrong,” or “I would have gone another way.” He’s very honest with that. So it’s great when you finally– we could always show the first edit of the film, he was very happy, and for us it was amazing–
Barbara: A little bit
Andy: Yeah, he’s very honest, he’s very generous when it comes to advice. And he surprised also by things… he apparently learns a lot, and that’s something he told us. He learns a lot from his proteges to say something. So it’s a kind of a feedback. It’s great to have him every day, and having his feedback. And sometimes along the way you can get lost with the confusion of what you’re doing. It’s a good thing having a response from a guy like him.
You mentioned that people were interested in what happened to the kids, and that you cannibalized another script, but how difficult was it to break this story? Because that original short is such a mood piece and such a great story, how hard was it to find the story that you wanted to go with?
Andy: It happened in one day. It wasn’t difficult. The outline of the story just happens. It was like a spark, you find the idea and say “Ah.” How do we turn this question mark into an interesting, long story? I think it can happen in an afternoon.
Barbara: We were in Madrid.
Andy: Yeah. Of course it became harder and harder when you start developing and seeing all the problems of that story out. I don’t know, it wasn’t really hard. It was harder to develop. And when you realize that, that there is a difficulty in– because of course, in the short film, it has this impact because it’s so short. It’s not surrounded by anything. There is a big deal of intrigue. In the movie you need to explain a lot of things and make a set-up and transit like common places, in order to tell a story with characters and drama. So I guess there’s a big deal of pressure that you have to let go when you make a feature film. But still, trying to maintain– one of the goals is to maintain the impact of the short. Because when that scene– that scene is in the movie. The idea is to make that scene as impacting as it is in the movie, and of course change it, for all the people who saw the short film, when they saw the movie it would be disappointing to see the same scene. So there’s a couple of twists in this version.
Barbara: But going back to the short, to writing the feature-length, it was our friend Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, he said– he was the guy that did the first part, he said “You have to do this into a feature length. This is ridiculous, you have to do it into a feature length.” So we sat down, we said “Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work for us, we’ll let it go, but let’s give it a try.” So we did, and we wrote a treatment in 10 days, because our agent was already showing people the short. And people were seeing the short, and the response we were getting was more toward the more graphic horror. We wanted to write a treatment to access interest from people like Guillermo that would embrace something different to a classic genre movie. We wanted to do something a little more complex with special characters. So we wrote the treatment really quickly, and after that Guillermo got in touch with us and that was it.
We’ve seen seeing this logo everywhere. Is there a significance to the way it’s scrawled like that?
Andy: It has to do with the point of view of the girls. It is written.
So it’s child’s writing?
Andy: Yeah. It was actually a 35-year-old child.
You mentioned Juan Carlos. But this is a movement of filmmakers coming out of Colombia, Argentina, Spain. Who else are you guys friends with? Do you have a little creative circle that you turn to for advice?
Andy: Well I studied in Buenos Aires in Argentina, so my film friends belong to that circle. Especially– I don’t know if you know Pablo Fendrik, he’s an Argentinean filmmaker, he’s my age, and we’re very close friends. Then there’s a lot of people who are friends, not as close as Pablo. There’s Pablo Trapero, we studied in the same school at the same time. There’s also Lucrecia Martel — these guys, it’s different because they are different talents, they belong to a different genre. Argentina is a bit tough to people, a mentality. You don’t embrace genre film in general. They are more like, in film community, we are a bit snobby. We think that we have to make like really compromised social statements. It makes sense because South America, and countries like Argentina, have gone through a lot of shit, and filmmakers think that they have to come in with important messages. But there’s nothing wrong about genre.
There’s a long tradition of social messages in genre films. It’s not exclusive.
Andy: It’s not exclusive, but somehow they don’t think so.
What’s your background as horror or genre fans? Were these films available growing up?
Barbara: Since we were like [gestures at small height]. That’s our first memories of films. We were very lucky that our parents allowed us to watch them. It had a great influence on us. Our parents would take us a lot to the drive-in, so we have amazing memories of– and what are horror stories to us maybe are not horror stories to other people, but we saw them at an age where they would scare us, like Close Encounters or Jaws. These were like films that marked us. And then on TV every Friday there was this TV show in which you would see a horror film, and we saw all the classic Vincent Price films, tons of B-movies, Michael Caine obscure English horror, and I think that had a huge influence on us.
Andy: But of course there’s the good ones and the good movies, and I’m not a consumer of horror movies just because they’re horror movies. I don’t like them all, to be honest. I’m kind of a baby.
Barbara: I’m not!
Andy: There’s some really bad horror that influenced me more than others, I guess.
I’m curious about the character of Annabel. She seems like she wouldn’t be the star of a movie like this– the punk rocker usually dies. Where did this character come from?
Andy: That was a chemistry need I guess. It’s a girl– for horror the needs of the story have to be first, and that is very unlikely to come in to have a family, or whatever, to become a parent. And this is a woman who by accident from one day to the next she has to take the responsibility of raising two little children who aren’t hers. It’s a reluctant hero, and you will notice when you see the movie– now you know it, but when you see the movie she’s not the hero at all. But there’s kind of a twist that makes her jump in the driver’s seat, just like that, and she’s the least apt person for the job. That’s where it comes from I guess.
Do you have specific artistic references for the film? Your producer was talking about Modigliani paintings that you had that kind of inspired you. What other paintings or films inspired Mama?
Babara: I think Modigliani, we had a Modigliani growing up, and it scared the shit out of us. When he started drawing Mama, it was very– Andy draws– it was very clear that there was a big, elongated Modigliani air to Mama. It’s very scary visuals.
Andy: Yes, especially for the character. There’s tons of influences that come together here. I’m a big fan of Edward Gorey, and I don’t think he has been portrayed in film. Well, Tim Burton is a fan too. But the horrific part of Edward Gorey, how he frames things is very disturbing. And I think that Mama will have a lot of that.
Do you know the name of the painting?
Barbara: The Modigliani? I don’t know the name.
Andy: But his portraits are all women with no eyes, the eyes are empty, they have a tendency of stretching the faces and the necks. I don’t know if it’s scary for everyone, but for a lot of people, it’s very scary.
Barbara: There’s also a lady that dies in the water, and I think something that had quite a bit of impact when we were younger was this painting of Ophelia in the water, floating.
Andy: We’re flipping her.
Barbara: Yeah, we flipped her. That’s the only thing with this victim woman.
Do you see the character of Mama as a monster or someone we can be empathetic toward?
Andy: It’s a mix. It’s funny, because it’s a character you don’t emphasize with, because you’re not on the right perspective. But if you could understand what’s going on, it’s the story of a mom trying to get her children book. I think we played with that. It’s the displacement of the bad positioning of the point of view, which makes you empathize with the human characters. If you asked the girls, actually–
Barbara: They love her. She’s a horrible hero, really. That’s what she is.
Andy: One of the elements of horror is that we are building a big question of what is the character. When you finally– it’s there, it’s horrifying. But you learn a lot of things, you see that the girls love this thing. You’re not sure if it’s real or not, but they follow her, they mimic her, you see a lot of traits from the mysterious character that is reflected on the girls. And when you see it, it doesn’t matter all you know about their love, because it’s so horrifying that you shit yourself. Ideally. So that’s the game we’re playing.
Did you look at a couple of different actresses or actors before settling on Javier for Mama?
Andy: No. Well, we went through a phase where I was sure that she wouldn’t be human, that there would be CG, because I wanted to do very strange motion, and the proportions of the character couldn’t be portrayed by any human. Then I saw Javier on [REC]. I don’t know if you guys saw [REC], but at the end of [REC], I thought he was a CG characters, because the proportions were not real. You see this thing swaying around… But even then, I think I still thought of doing CG. But then, I don’t know, I realized that it just wouldn’t be– as good as the CG is, there’s always something that tells you it’s CG.
Barbara: And also when you, and this is a bit on how we’ve done our commercials in the past year, when you give something so important as this character, Mama, to a company to do, even if it’s with your supervision, even if you’re on it, it becomes a very different thing, and you lose the ability to really mold it during your shoot. That’s why we did the test that we showed you, and that’s why we did other tests prior to that.
Andy: They saw the test? [Barbara nods] Well that was purely practical. There’s no CG there. Well, there was stains on the wall and stuff. It was all practical elements. It was the actor and then the hair shot separately, and clothes shot separately. And it shows, it’s not perfect. The effect is not really perfect. But there’s something very creepy about it.
Can you talk about Annabel– I would not have thought Jessica Chastain, because of all the things I’ve seen her in this year, none of them look like who we saw today. How did you come to her, and had you seen in anything before that made you think she could handle this?
Andy: I had only seen Jolene.
Which a lot of people haven’t seen
Andy: Yeah. But we first thought of her when saw a trailer–
Barbara: The trailer for The Debt, about a year and a half ago on iTunes. And we were like, What is? Especially, this sounds ridiculous, but the gynecologist scene, where she catches him with her legs. We were like, “We like her.” This was before this explosion that’s happened in the past month. Then they told us she liked the script, we scheduled a Skype meeting with her, and literally 24 hours before the Skype meeting we said “Let’s go meet her. Fuck the Skype.” We went to meet her and we were with her in a room for two hours, and she was incredible, and she’s insanely good and insanely nice and helpful. I mean, we thank our lucky stars every day.
Andy: And she has– there’s something about her that, for me, was perfect. The character has an arc, and the beginning of that arc she should be not only an unlikely person, a reluctant hero, but she should be distant and not empathetic to the audience. I saw her and she has this, she can be really distant. She has these features where she barely has the eyebrows. But then–
Andy: –no, but it’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t think it was beautiful. She has a porcelain thing going on there. Of course, when I saw Jolene, I saw all the emotional stages and moods she had, and she was perfect. And I love her nose. We are doing so much of this [makes some kind of gesture that gets a laugh] Much more than Terrence Malick. We shot in profile on her nose.
Does Mama talk?
Andy: I can’t tell you. It’s going to be like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. [laughter] I don’t know if she does, but she does sing. It’s one of those reflections on the girls. You see the girls singing, and it’s something they learned from Mama. There is sort of a leitmotif, which is a handprint on the girls– how much we can attach to anything that is there.
Barbara: And if you’re young and open enough, which is Lily’s case.
Andy: I don’t know how much you know about the story.
You just fill in the blanks.
Andy: There is sort of a fracture there, because when the girls were abandoned, one was three years and a half and the other was a baby. They grow up in this isolated, ambient, dominated by an…entity, and they get even. But when they go back to normal, one of them is recovered by society, and the other has been raised by Mama. So there is a fracture there.
A bit more MAMA to come for me today!
I’ll wrap everything up, give you some context and now that we’ve gotten a peek at the ‘MAMA’ monster and what makes her tick, I can loop around and add more context to the earlier special effects interview.
How to make a ghost that moves in an inhuman way using mostly practical effects coming up, right here at Latino-Review.
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.