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. The new mother will find that the whispers she hears at bedtime are coming from the lips of a deadly presence.
A few days ago I had a chance to sit with Guillermo del Toro and talk about the upcoming film.
What makes a good horror film for you?
Toro: Hopefully a good premise, a premise that is original and good characters, which I thought from the beginning that ‘Mama’ had both.
“Mama” depends heavily on the performance by the two young girls, how were you able to get this out of them?
Toro: We went through a huge process in which we were looking for them in the UK. We were looking for them in Los Angeles and New York and in Canada. We turned every stone, and we saw dozens, if not hundreds, of girls. We only found these ones, these four. Andy [Muschietti] was the one that said, ‘This is it. These are the girls,’ and I supported him. I think the only piece of advice that I gave him in directing kids is I said to him, ‘When you’re directing a child actor, direct the actor, not the child. Don’t talk to them like kids. Talk to them like actors.’
Is the process in casting a child actor different process?
Toro: Absolutely, because, look, a producer supports the director. It’s the difference between being the coach of a basketball team and being the guy playing the basketball. A producer is not a director, and he should never think he’s the director, and you should always at the end of the day do what is good for the movie, and the only person that knows is the filmmaker.
Do you believe in ghosts, in the supernatural?
Toro: Yeah, I do, a hundred percent. I’ve had a couple of experiences, not visual. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I heard two ghosts. I heard one ghost when I was a kid. I heard my uncle sighing, like heavy breathing and sighing with great sadness in his room, and when I was scouting for ‘The Hobbit’ we went to a haunted hotel that I knew was haunted from websites. I mean, I’m part of a thing in London called The Ghost Club. So I know what locations are haunted and where. So we went to the hotel and I took the haunted room, and I heard a woman screaming and a man crying right in the middle of the room.
Basically you did what John Cusack did in that movie “1408.”
Toro: Yeah. That’s what I do. I’ve been in six or seven haunted rooms and nothing happens. Nothing.
Every get scared?
Toro: No, none. I don’t give a fuck. I’m ultimately a skeptic, but in New Zealand, and even then I got really scared about the screaming and the crying, but what I did was watching ‘The Wire.’ I was watching the last season of ‘The Wire’ on the computer. So fuck the ghost. I was watching Stringer Bell.
How do you balance doing more than one project at a time, doing “Pacific Rim” and this?
Toro: I’ve said this many times, but it’s hard for me to say it any other way. Not all the stuff happens at the same time. Hollywood is the land of the slow no. Hollywood moves like a lizard. It doesn’t fucking move at all for six hours, and then it goes really fast. So for people to think that you’re toiling with twenty projects because twenty projects have been announced in the trades, it’s wrong. There’s a lot of the stuff in the trades that A) never fortifies, or B) they stop financing halfway.
It’s basically for just letting the word be out that this project would probably get made.
Toro: How many of the things they announce become true, in general? So that’s the same thing. Now that said, I’m a busy motherfucker and a fucking workaholic. So I do wakeup at five in the morning. I do work like crazy. I do go to bed late and I do work a lot, but that’s the only way that I understand it because when you do it any other way, things don’t happen. Look, I gave two years to ‘The Hobbit.’ One year to ‘Mountains of Madness’ and two years for ‘Pacific Rim.’ That’s five years for one movie between the others, but at least I’m super happy that I live the experience, and I’m really happy that ‘The Hobbit’ is out. What is heartbreaking is when things don’t happen, like with ‘Mountains.’ Nothing came out of that.
How close was “Mountains of Madness” from happening?
Toro: Very close. I was scouting in Alaska on a fucking helicopter, freezing my ass off, and it was a Thursday and we were opening the offices. They were paid. We had paid for the stages already. We were starting to pre-produce the movie Monday, and they called me and said, ‘They want to meet with you on Friday,’ and I knew that it was bad news. You never meet for good news. You only meet for bad news.
Jessica Chastain, how did you go about getting her?
Toro: Well, back in the day nobody had seen ‘The Debt’ or ‘The Help.’ I had seen ‘The Debt.’ She’s great in ‘The Help,’ but I saw ‘The Debt’ because it was in the same limbo of ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ because it was a part of the Miramax deal. So they gave me a DVD and I watched it and I absolutely loved her, and I told Andy, ‘She’s the real deal. She’s fantastic.’ My assistant back then, Russell Akerman, was a huge fan of hers and he got me ‘The Help’ and he championed her, and then what happened was that I went to her manager and her agent and they were very happy because they had seen ‘The Orphanage,’ and they loved the movie. I was able to convince them to let me meet with her, and I met with her and she instantly wanted to do it. She didn’t think about it twice. She jumped with both feet, and then we had to go to the studio and talk about an actress that everybody knew was very good, but she was not still yet famous. Literally, she was starting her career.
Are we going to see another Spanish film from you? Like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Devil’s Backbone’?
Toro: Yeah, of course, but I had to create that screenplay first. It’s not like I have it on the…like, ‘Yeah, let me look in my drawer of scripts like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and see which one.’ I don’t have a screenplay right now.
Do these things just pop into your head?
Toro: They write themselves in a different way than the commercial movies. Let me put it this way. I wrote the first twenty pages of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ for about eight months. I didn’t go past the first twenty pages. I wrote them over and over and over again, and then finally one day I was able to write the whole fucking thing, and with the movie that I want to do next, which is that type of movie, I have written about forty five pages that I can’t get past. So once I’m ready –
Is that writer’s block?
Toro: No. It has nothing to do with that. It literally means that I have to live with those movies longer and not hurry them. I mean, literally, I don’t want to have a deadline. I can’t have a deadline. They just live with me for a long time. ‘Devil’s Backbone,’ I wrote the first draft of ‘Devil’s Backbone’ in 1986. The movie was done in 2001. Sixteen years. ’86.
What would you advise an upcoming Latino director, someone who’s just starting?
Toro: Just to really go after the things that you really want to do. That’s all. I mean, I think the biggest mistake you can make is to think in Hollywood terms, or to think of in terms of career. I have said yes and I have said no. To the movies that I’ve said yes or no, never ever in forty eight years of life, never in terms of a career decision or a money decision, or being a mover or a shaker. I’ve always just for good or bad, you may like or hate the movies that I do, I don’t care, but it’s like I’ve done them for the same reasons all my life, because I believe in them. A movie I don’t do can be a multi-million dollar grossing movie or part of a seven part…like ‘The Harry Potter’ movies. That’s the only one that I regret not doing, ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban.’ That’s the only one, but I say no for the right reasons. I still think that I did it for the right reasons.
No more superhero movies for you?
Toro: I want to do the ‘Dark Universe’ movie for Warners, for sure. I would love to. I would love to do that one, and we are already talking to a writer who I think the fans are going to love, the way that we’re going with this.
How long will it take you now to ever finish ‘Hellboy III’?
Toro: Well, a couple of weeks ago or months ago, I did make a couple of phone calls to test, to gage the possibility of doing that because it’s a big movie. There’s no takers for a movie of that size. The two movies made their money back and a little bit. They were financially good, but one was fifty and the other one was eighty, eighty five. This is a hundred and forty. So no one wants to do that leap, from the financial side. So unless we find a way to do the mother of all kick starters.
“Mama” opens in theaters on January 18, 2012.