Continuing with our Mama set visit series (read interviews with Guillermo del Toro and Jessica Chastain to catch up) we speak with director Andy Muschietti and his sister, producer, and writing partner Barbara. They talk about making the transition from commercials to narratives, adapting a short into a feature, and casting the film.
Are you only shooting inside for the house scenes, and otherwise you're outdoors?
Andy: We only have one stage.
Barbara: Because Guillermo took all the others.
And what are you building there?
Andy: It's another-- well the beginning of the movie takes place in the cottage.
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.
A lot of filmmakers make a short film and use it as a calling card. 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?
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. 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 into 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.
When did you feel ready to go from commercials to a movie?
Andy: I'm not ready yet. 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 way. 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. He doesn't have any problems saying "This is wrong," or "I would have gone another way." He's very honest with that. He's very generous when it comes to advice. He apparently learns a lot, too, and that's something he told us. He learns a lot from his proteges. 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? 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 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 great deal of intrigue. In the movie you need to explain a lot of things in order to tell a story with characters and drama. So I guess there's a great deal of pressure that you have to let go of when you make a feature film. One of the goals is to maintain the impact of the short. That scene is in the movie. The idea is to make that scene as impactful as it is in the movie, and of course change it, for all the people who saw the short film. When they see 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, "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 ten days, because our agent was already showing people the short and the response we were getting was toward the more graphic horror. We wanted to write a treatment to access interest from people like Guillermo that would embrace something different than 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.
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 to the drive-in, so we have amazing memories of what are horror stories to us - maybe 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 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: 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. For horror the needs of the story have to be first, and this is a woman who [is a mother] by accident. 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 into the driver's seat, just like that, and she's the least apt person for the job.
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?
Barbara: 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 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.
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 back. 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. 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 what 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… even then, I think I still thought of doing CG. But as good as the CG is, there's always something that tells you it's CG.
Barbara: And also 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.
How did you come to Jessica Chastain for Annabelle? 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 intrigued. Especially - and 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. She's insanely good and insanely nice and helpful. I mean, we thank our lucky stars every day.
Andy: There's something about her that, for me, was perfect. The character has an arc, and at 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 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.
Does Mama talk?
Andy: I can't tell you. It's going to be like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. [Laughs] 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 filled 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 grew up isolated, 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.