Guillermo del Toro knows his way around the horror genre and when he watched the short film, Mama, he realized the filmmaking team of siblings Andy and Barbara Muschietti were onto something. He signed up to executive produce the film, with commercial director Andy making his feature film directorial debut with the project. The script came together by using the short film's characters and tone, with del Toro, Andy, and Barbara collaborating on the script and then bringing in Neil Cross to polish it up.
Universal Pictures is debuting Mama in theaters on January 18, 2013 with Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain and Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the lead roles of a couple whose lives are invaded by a supernatural entity. Coster-Waldau plays Lucas, uncle to two young girls who've finally been found years after disappearing into the woods following the death of their parents. Chastain plays Annabel, Lucas' bass-playing punk girlfriend who's been supportive during the search for the missing girls. But once the girls are settled in with Lucas and Annabel, another presence is felt in the house - that of a possessive ghost who's fixated on the girls.
On their approach to shooting Mama:
Andy Muschietti: "Well, I’m very much into the details. In the case of Mama, the opening of Mama, it was definitely something that should be gripping, from the very first frame, the accident sequence. It was very carefully planned, and I think it was successfully executed."
Barbara Muschietti: "And also I think Andy was very encouraged by Guillermo to always move the camera."
Guillermo del Toro: "Cattle prodded, but in an elegant way. Not the cattle prodding, but the moving of the camera. The cattle prodding was not elegant. But, Andy has a sense of style that you could feel from the short. Moving the camera gratuitously is terrible, but you want to move it with a sense of pace and action. I’m a big fan of his opening shot, which is gorgeous and ominous, in a really beautiful way. We open with the line, 'Once upon a time . . .,' and then you go to present day. It’s Hansel & Gretel. It’s a father that lost everything, taking his children to the woods to finish their lives. It’s exactly the opening of a fairy tale. They find a little cabin, it’s not made of chocolate in this case, but there’s a presence in there that’s going to transform their lives."
"Andy really is one of those guys that I found to have a style. That has happened twice for me, as a producer. It happened with [Juan Antonio] Bayona in The Orphanage. All I did on The Orphanage was suggest a couple of scares and then sit back and basically my jaw hit the floor, every time I got dailies. With Andy, it was about finding a guy who has a style and a sense of narrative that is way beyond a first-time director. Way beyond."
On having a female character who doesn't want to be a mother but eventually makes that sacrifice, as in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark:
Guillermo del Toro: "We came up with the story together, over a couple of sessions. That element, which is strange as hell, came from [the Muschiettis]. They didn’t know I was doing that in Don’t Be Afraid. I didn’t tell them I would love to do that. The big difference for me was that, from the moment we started - and Jessica [Chastain] was so happy about this - was that she never becomes a mother. She becomes a fellow female. There’s solidarity. But, she never becomes a possessive or mother figure. Literally, it’s the story of a woman struggling with motherhood, literally. Like hand-to-hand combat with motherhood. It’s the idea that there are other alternatives to the love of a mother in the way we see the world. Her making peace with the fact that she can love someone, and love in a protective way but not in a suffocating way. It’s really, really interesting that they have similarities, but I think it came from the fact that ultimately I produce only directors and movies that I have a lot in common with."
On working with the young actresses who play the children:
Guillermo del Toro: "Andy completely spearheaded the casting. He had an absolutely great relationship with the kids. Shooting with kids, I remember what Ivanna told me about Pan’s Labyrinth when we shot the Pale Man scene which is a very intense scene. She saw the movie and said, 'You know what’s funny? That scene was fun to shoot, hard to watch.' People confuse the two. Kids shooting horror, they love it. They’re having fun. They just don’t like watching it that much. Andy is the one that can talk about the dynamic."
Andy Muschietti: "I totally agree. The context of the movie, once it’s cut, it might be traumatic as hell, but the kids have a wonderful time [shooting it]. The first thing about getting great performances from kids is finding the right kids. It’s very disappointing, and it happens, when you see a movie that seems interesting, and then comes the kid and you don’t believe him. I think we achieved to get credible performances with the kids and getting them to emotions. Basically, what happened with these two is that they had very different schools. The older one had done some films before, so she was trained and she tried to mimic adult actors. So my relationship with her was different because I would speak to hear like I was talking to any of the actors because that’s what she wanted and that’s how she worked. The other one was completely instinctive. She had no experience. She was totally a feral actress. And the funny thing is that they related so much to their characters on screen. Victoria is a girl that knew about life, while the other one is totally imprinted."
Guillermo del Toro: "It’s very flattering that in every interview, everybody says you found two actresses. It’s very flattering because we found four. Everybody looks at the young kids and it’s a given that it’s the same character. That’s Andy casting it. The only piece of advice I gave to Andy was something he already knew. I said to him, 'Just treat them like actors, not like kids. Direct them with the respect you would direct other actors.' Throughout the process with Andy, there are two types of producing deals, and I’ve had both. I’ve produced over 20 movies by now. You are either watching in horror as the cars take the curve in the Grand Prix, or you’re enjoying, going, 'Wow, wow.' This movie was a wow experience where I was able to love watching the dailies and love coming in the morning, and Andy had laid out the sequence. We both had no ego about it. We would argue. He would drop ideas, take ideas. He would do things different than I’d discussed it with him. If you don’t take it personally, the partnership between producers and directors is very intimate."
On Guillermo's input into the design of Mama:
Guillermo del Toro: "Mama is something [Andy] wanted to do, exactly the way he did it from the short. The only thing I said about Mama was the teeth. I said, 'Make them thin and long and small ‘cause that’s creepier.' That’s the only thing I can say. The rest, Andy came in with Mama fully formed, and I have great kinship with that type of ghost but I wish I could proudly say there was that moment with Andy, but there isn’t. When you work with a great director, you can have a great partnership and, in this case, we were on the level, the whole time."
On the balance between reality and supernatural elements in Mama:
Guillermo del Toro: "What I love about Mama as a project, and it was there in the short from the beginning, is a great construction of a character, not just a ghost. We do three stages of Mama. We do one where the girls talk about her, before you see her like they did in the short. 'Don’t look at her. Mama is back.' It implies a lot. It implies a will and a personality on the ghost, before you show it. The second stage is the speech with the old lady saying, 'A ghost is a twisted emotion, like a corpse desecrated in the sun.' That is the second stage of construction of Mama. Then, you do it through the process of action, where you see a shadow, you hear a noise, a closet door opens. And then the doctor makes the investigation, she was a mother... By the time you reveal Mama, you already have so many emotions and ideas about her, when that is personified in that scarecrow figure, it’s super scary because you’re not just dealing with a scary figure, you’re dealing with a full-blown character. That’s much more satisfying. And Andy had the wisdom to show just enough. Myself, I probably would have [shown much more]. But, Argentinians are much more controlled than Mexicans, and I think he made the right choice."
Without disclosing any spoilers, was there any resistance to the ending?
Guillermo del Toro: "I thought there would be, but there wasn’t."
Andy Muschietti: "The ending was always something that should be that way. The impression of the audience that the ending should be different is just an illusion. It’s also a bittersweet experience."
Guillermo del Toro: "That’s why you secure final cut. As a first-time director, you cannot have final cut. But as a producer, you can have final cut. And then, you tell the director, 'You’re protected from everyone, except me.' And if he pulls it off, emotionally, then you’re going to defend that ending. But I must say, when we sent the movie finished to the studio, we literally were just waiting. We knew emotionally it worked, so we were hoping people would find it bittersweet and moving. When word came back that they loved it, I said, 'What about the ending?', and they said they loved it."
"The way we financed the movie was part of that. We financed it in a way that we kept a grand majority of the movie controlled by our decisions, literally the three of us, so we would have that weapon on top of the final cut. We armed ourselves to the teeth, had an M16, ammo, grabbed the dynamite. Then, we knocked on the door and they said, 'Come in.' We were prepared to go to battle, but he was able to pull it off, emotionally."
On the appeal of ghost stories and how different Crimson Peak is to Mama:
Guillermo del Toro:: Very different. I have my library separate from the family home, and every room is a different room. The only room that I can guarantee I’ve read everything is the horror room. I’ve read, I would say, most every horror and ghost story, let’s say from 10 years back. I don’t read as much of the new stuff anymore. Within that world, you can find as subtle a ghost story as The Friends of My Friends by Henry James, to brutal, scary ghost story, or an antiquarian feeling ghost story like any of M.R. James’ stories. There are so many flavors. Ghosts are a metaphor that is so polyvalent, can be interpreted so many ways that there’s no ending to what you can do. You can make it a fun ghost story. You can make it a deeply disturbing, psychological ghost story. You can have The Shining, even things that are close by like The Haunting and The Innocents, they are three completely different tonalities in those films. So very different. Crimson Peak is very, very classic and, at the same time, very irreverent with the classic."
"Mama, I think, is a movie that does something that I am amazed at, but is very different from what I do. Mama has an incredibly strong base of reality. The emotional reality, and even the art direction, there’s an aspect where the house feels real. I would go more fantastic. I would go a little crazier to the point where we would joke about lamps on the night table. I hate those lamps. Too real, but he knows that he needs them based on reality. So Crimson Peak is a complete confection. It’s like a gothic romance confection. It’s candy. It’s a piece of cake. This is a movie that depends, a lot, on being a slice of reality."
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Mama is rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements.