You need a personal assistant to keep up with Guillermo del Toro’s latest projects. Let’s see….is the highly anticipated Hellboy 3 penned? What’s the latest on the rumor mill on The Incredible Hulk? These are just a few questions I had time to pose to the filmmaker when interviewing him for his latest supernatural thriller, Mama of which he serves as executive producer. (I really wanted to ask about Pacific Rim 2 and the dark Pinocchio 3D ‘supposedly’ in the works, but we had to stick to Mama questions).
Based on a short film, Mama tells the haunting tale of two little sisters, Victoria and Lilly, who disappear into the woods the day their parents are killed. Five years later, they are found alive in a derelict cabin, on a search headed by their Uncle Lucas (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). But all is not what it seems (is it ever?). Someone or some mysterious ‘thing’ still wants to come and tuck the girls in at night – a thing they call “Mama.”
In the film Jessica Chastain plays Annabel, the tattooed rock-chick girlfriend of Lucas – a role which may surprise you. She, along with Lucas, care for the girls by creating a new homelife in an attempt to acclimatize them into normal civilization. However, Annabel can feel an evil presence in their suburban house. Who is coming back to haunt them and drive them away?
We caught up with the quick-witted Guillermo del Toro and Mama writer/director Andrés Muschietti at a Beverly Hills hotel. Andy’s sister, Barbara Muschietti, co-wrote and produced the movie.
SR: This story began as a short film (WATCH IT HERE). What was it like building a feature length narrative?
AM: Basically you find a context and answer the questions the short film raises, but in a mysterious way. We had to translate that mystery into a full feature and make it compelling.
GDT: But we went all the way to complicating it and all the way back! I think the balance of us all working together (Andy and Barbara Muschietti – sibling producing team, and Neil Cross, the creator of TV show, ‘Luther‘) – the four forces – like at one point Podolski was a social worker and there was a mystery of the fortune the brother had lost and you swing all the way. But what is great with Andy is nothing fazes him. I can argue for half an hour on the merit of something and he’ll go: “No, I don’t like it.”(Laughs)
SR: Were you working on MAMA the same time you were on pre-production of Pacific Rim?
GDT: That is correct.
SR: So, how did you make the transition from one movie to the other?
GDT: We planned it very strategically from the beginning. Actually we gave a deadline to the studio where we said: “Either we start pre-production on these dates or we have to push the movie a year because I cannot be involved.”That helped us into making the movie (laughs). They triggered at the right time. I planned it so I could be with Andy and Barbara through the pre-production and through the first few weeks of shooting. As I said to the studio, if there is a problem after those few weeks of shooting, we are all in the poop! But if God willing, everything goes to plan in those few weeks of shooting, then they will be coming out of it when I will be coming out of ‘Pacific Rim’. We can then be present on color correction, editing, sound mixing, whatever is needed. Fortunate for me it worked. We had a great director, we had a great producing partner and it was a seamless experience.
SR: What about the logistics of working on two productions simultaneously?
GDT: I actually rented some of the sets for MAMA from ‘Pacific Rim!’ (laughs). And the offices were literally down the corridor. Like I could walk twenty steps and I was on MAMA. So we started the morning on MAMA, if the call was at seven, I would be on the MAMA set at six to go through the storyboards with Andy (Muschietti), go over the pre-production on ‘Pacific Rim’ and I would go back in the afternoon, see the dailies and go to the editing with MAMA. It was seamless, but it could have gone wrong! (Laughs)
SR: Did you double up with some of the set designs with the two films?
GDT: Actually, I borrowed a couple of props from MAMA. One is a tree and three walls on a hallway. I said, let’s paint them another color…it was like Roger Corman! (laughs)
SR: The two little girls are very believable. How much of this is casting and when they’re on the set how does a director draw out these ‘frightened’ performances from them?
AM: Casting is a big deal. One of the things that were in our minds from the very beginning was to find children who could act in a credible way. It was not easy finding the right actresses for the roles. We did a casting in Toronto and we didn’t find them so we expanded the search to New York, Los Angeles, Great Britain…. So finally we found these two little girls who each have completely different backgrounds. The older one has made films before so she mimics a grown up process and so my approach to her was like an actor but for the young one it was completely different. She hadn’t been in a movie before and so her performance was completely instinctive and wild. Those two approaches have reflection on their characters which as you will see in the movie, the older girl has memories of the real world and life in the city; and the other one is totally imprinted by the supernatural. Little Isabelle (Nelisse) who plays Lily didn’t speak a word of English and so there was a lot of mimicking until my French loosened up.
GDT: And by the end of the movie, she spoke perfect English! There are moments in the movie which have astonishing truth for me. There are two moments which stand out beautifully, one is the first encounter with Uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) where she doesn’t have the glasses and she puts them on and she says: “Dad.”I get chills every time I see it. And the second one is when Annabel gets a slap by Lilly and she warms her hands. There is a moment almost like out of a Helen Keller biography! It’s really intense and beautiful and it’s a moment of pure truth between the characters.
SR: So let’s talk about casting Jessica Chastain. Was she known at the time?
GDT: No, she was not yet a known commodity to the studio and on the other to her agents and managers, a thriller was not the safest bet for her as an actor. Fortunately because of Pan’s Labyrinth and Orphanage, we were able to say that we really want to make a movie artistically that has integrity and for the right reasons. She loved the script and she really wanted to do it and when she met Andy they bonded over ukuleles. And they both share a love of dancing the Lindy Hop to the point where it was like the drunken uncle with the lampshade.
AH: It wouldn’t have worked without the ukulele and the Lindy Hop!
SR: How was Jessica’s relationship with the young actresses as her character required that she slowly warms to them?
GDT: She was very protective of them in a good way. She was always talking about them as actors.
AM: She didn’t want to be left alone in the room with them as she knew she’d fall in love with them.
GDT: On the first dinner with all the cast, she said: “Please sit them opposite me, not next to me.”And they bonded. It was impossible to keep them apart. They bonded and she was super mindful of their school time. She would whisper to me: “They have to go to school, let’s make it the last take.”She’s a machine. She can go 25 takes and do better and better.
SR: So let’s talk about the design of MAMA. What is the inspiration behind her creation?
AH: I drew everything myself…
GDT: He’s a great artist. And a fabulous Lindy Hop dancer! (Laughs)
AH: I drew it with my feet…
GDT: Like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot.
AH: The character of MAMA is so ambitious in a way that everything I did was always on the verge of being almost funny. So you have to be very careful with that. It’s that sort of face that you don’t usually see in horror. When my sister (Barbara – producing partner) were kids there was a print on the wall which scared the crap out of me because of the stretched neck and the empty, sulky eyes. I was always terrified by that image. It wouldn’t be what it is without the combination of digital and practical.
SR: She looks as if she is tied to nature – the earthy colorings, like Mother Nature, was this intentional?
AH: Very much. Moist and water.
[WARNING - MAMA ENDING SPOILERS FOLLOW!]
SR: Can you talk about your choices for the ending without spoiling it of course? What led you to go the unconventional route?
AM: That’s the only ending possible. You the audience are thinking the girl can be recovered but there is nothing to be recovered from as she doesn’t know this world.
SR: Her attachment to MAMA is very strong. She doesn’t know what her sister Victoria knows about the outside world.
GDT: For that ending, I made sure I had final cut. We financed the movie in a way that we autonomy and we could make decisions to preserve the ending. And after all those preparations, we sent it to the studio and the studio goes: “We love it.”And we respond with: “Really?” Because in my experience that doesn’t normally happen. It was really super easy.
Mama will be in theaters on January 18, 2013.