Producer Guillermo del Toro and Director Andy Muschietti Talk MAMA, Why You Secure Final Cut, and Del Toro’s Next Project CRIMSON PEAK

     January 17, 2013

guillermo del toro andy muschietti mama

From executive producer Guillermo del Toro and director Andy Muschietti comes the haunting supernatural thriller Mama, about two little girls who disappeared into the woods after their parents were killed, only to be rescued five years later.  As they begin a new life with their Uncle Lucas (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), the couple begins to question how they could have survived all those years alone.  For more on the film, here are four clips.

At the film’s press day, Guillermo del Toro and Andy Muschietti talked about the choices that were made in the way the movie was shot, working with young actors in a film with darker subject matter, balancing reality and supernatural, and whether there was ever any resistance from the studio to the film’s ending.  Del Toro also talked about what attracts him to ghost stories, the type of ghost story that Crimson Peak (which he’ll direct) will be, whether 48 fps was ever part of the discussions he had with Peter Jackson when he was going to direct The Hobbit, and how he decides which projects to produce versus which projects to direct.  Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some slight spoilers.

Question:  How did you approach the cinematography and decide the way you wanted to move the camera around the actors?

mama-posterANDY MUSCHIETTI:  Well, I’m very much into the details.  In the case of the opening of Mama, it was definitely something that should be gripping, from the very first frame.  The accident sequence was very carefully planned, and I think it was successfully executed. 

GUILLERMO DEL TORO:  I cattle-prodded him to always move the camera, 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 we go to present day.  It’s Hansel & Gretel.  It’s about a father who’s lost everything, taking his children to the woods to finish their lives.  That’s exactly the opening of a fairy tale.  They find a little cabin, that’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.  It has happened twice for me, as a producer.  It happened with [Juan Antonio] Bayona on The Orphanage.  All I did on The Orphanage was suggest a couple of scares, and then sit back and have 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. 

Like with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Mama has a female character who doesn’t want to be a mother, but by the end, she’s making a sacrifice for children.  Was that something that attracted you to Mama?

DEL TORO:  We came up with the story together, over a couple of sessions.  But 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 it, was that she never becomes a mother.  She becomes a fellow female.  There’s solidarity.  But, she never becomes a mother figure.  Literally, it’s the story of a woman struggling with motherhood.  It’s 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.  It’s about 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 only produce directors and movies that I have a lot in common with. 

mama-castWhat was it like to work with young actors, in a film like this?

DEL TORO:  That’s Andy.  Andy completely spearheaded the casting.  He had an absolutely great relationship with the kids.  Kids love shooting horror.  They have fun.  They just don’t like watching it that much. 

MUSCHIETTI:  The context of the movie, once it’s cut, might be traumatic, but the kids have a wonderful time on set.  The first thing about getting great performances from kids is finding the right kids.  It’s very disappointing when you see a movie that seems interesting, and then comes the kid and you don’t believe him.  And that happens.  I think we achieved credible performances with the kids and getting them to emotions.  What happened with these two is that they had very different schools.  The older one had done some films before, so she was trained.  My relationship with her was different because I would speak to hear like I was talking to any of the actors.  That’s what she wanted and that’s how she worked.  The other one was completely instinctive.  She had no experience.  She was a totally 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 Lilly is totally imprinted. 

DEL TORO:  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 with.”  There are two types of producing deals, and I’ve had both.  I’ve produced over 20 movies now.  You are either watching in horror, as the cars take the curve in the grand prix, or you’re enjoying it.  This movie was a, “Wow!,” experience where I was able to love watching the dailies and love going to the set.  We both had no ego about it.  We would argue.  He would drop ideas, and he would take ideas.  He would do something different from how I discussed it with him.  If you don’t take it personally, the partnership between producers and directors is very intimate. 

mama-nikolaj-coster-waldau-jessica-chastainGuillermo, how much input did you have into the design and look of Mama?

DEL TORO:  Mama was something Andy wanted to do, exactly the way he did it in 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.”  Otherwise, Andy came in with Mama fully formed, and I have great kinship with that type of ghost.  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. 

How did you decide on the balance between reality and supernatural for this film?

DEL TORO:  What I love about Mama, as a project, and it was there in the short, from the beginning, was the great construction of a character and not just a ghost.  We do three stages of Mama.  We do one where the girls talk about her, before you see her.  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.  By the time you reveal Mama, you already have so many emotions and ideas about her.  So, when that is personified in that scarecrow figure, it’s super scary.  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. 

Was there ever any resistance to the ending of the film?

mama-nikolaj-coster-waldauDEL TORO:  I thought there would be, but there wasn’t. 

MUSCHIETTI:  The ending was always something that I thought should be that way.  The impression that the audience thinks the ending should be different is just an illusion.  It’s a bittersweet experience. 

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.  But, if you pull it off, emotionally, then I’m going to defend that ending.”  When we sent the finished movie to the studio, we literally had to just wait.  We knew that it worked emotionally, so we hoped that people would find it bittersweet and moving.  So then, word came back that they loved it.  We financed the movie in a way that we kept a grand majority of the movie controlled by our decisions, so we had that weapon, on top of the final cut.  We armed ourselves to the teeth and we had dynamite.  Then, we knocked on the door and they said, “Come in.”  We were prepared to go to battle, but Andy was prepared to pull it off, emotionally. 

MUSCHIETTI:  If a sad ending would have been arbitrary, it would have been a different story from the studio.  But, it just makes so much sense. 

DEL TORO:  We had the same thing with The Orphanage.  When we were doing that film, the only possible ending was the ending of that movie.  We knew that was the thing that we were going to protect.  And then, Bayona showed that ending and the audience reacted the way they reacted.  It was the same thing with Pan’s Labyrinth.  It took me three years to find someone to finance it.  They said, “We like it, but can you make the girl live at the end?,” and I said, “No!”  It’s difficult to do those things, but it’s rewarding when you pull it off. 

Guillermo, what is it about ghost stories that attracts you, and how different of a ghost story is Crimson Peak to Mama?

jessica-chastain-mamaDEL TORO:  It’s very different.  I have my library separate from the family home, and every room is a different genre.  The only room that I can guarantee I’ve read everything is the horror room.  I’ve read most every horror and ghost story, 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, or brutal, scary ghost stories, or any of M.R. James’ stories.  There are so many flavors.  Ghosts are a metaphor that can be interpreted so many different ways.  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, The Haunting and The Innocents, which have three completely different tonalities in them.  Crimson Peak is very, very classic and, at the same time, very reverent.  I think Mama 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, has an aspect that really feels real.  I would go more fantastic and a little crazier.  Crimson Peak is a complete confection.  It’s a gothic romance confection.  It’s candy.  It’s a piece of cake.  Mama is a movie that depends, a lot, on being a slice of reality. 

When you were working with Peter Jackson, at the time you were going to direct The Hobbit, was 48 fps something you had talked about?

DEL TORO:  No, it was never on the table or on the horizon.  It was never discussed.  We never even quite discussed 3D.  That came later, in the process. 

What do you look for in a story you want to produce, and how do you decide what you want to direct?

guillermo-del-toroDEL TORO:  To direct is harder.  People think you’re like The Godfather, waiting for scripts to come in.  But, you’re hustling, you’re desperate, you’re panicked and you’re horrified.  The movie you think you’re going to do next, you don’t do.  The movie you think you’re never going to do, you make.  A career is what happens while you’re making other plans.  When people say, “Why did he choose this over that?,” you go, “Dude, really?!”  As a producer, it’s not an affair.  It’s a marriage.  You only marry after you date a little carefully, you talk and you make sure, as much as you can.  And you know if it’s working on the first week of dailies.  After the first week of dailies, you know you’re going to be helping, but you’re not panicked.  You know it, instantly.  I only produce things that have so much in common with what I like.  I wanna understand what I’m doing.  I wanna understand the instincts that are going to inform the story.  At the same time, I only produce movies that have something stylistically different, so that I can learn from the experience of producing.  With every movie I produce, I learn something.  I watch the directors.  It’s like the relationship you have with your children.  I’m there to learn from my daughters.  They are the perfect spirits.  What you do, as a parent, is ruin their sense of freedom and their sense of self.  If you are careful and you learn from them, you can enhance it.  It’s the same thing with directors who produce, especially with first-time directors.  That adventure and that kinship is what makes you commit to produce. 

Mama opens in theaters on January 18, 2013.  For all our previous coverage click here.

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