We Visit the Set of 'Mama' With Producer Guillermo del Toro


One year ago - almost to the day - I was in Toronto, trying to believe that 40 degrees was “unseasonably warm,” as the locals informed me. But I was there for an actual reason: to visit the set of Mama, the first feature from director Andy Muschetti, based off his short film. Mama is produced by genre luminary Guillermo del Toro. Not content to just throw money at the project, del Toro was deeply involved in every aspect of the film, stopping by the set almost every day. This was possible because del Toro was already camped out at Toronto’s Pinewood Studios, working on his monsters vs. robots epic Pacific Rim. Being a gracious producer, del Toro “allowed” Muschetti a sound stage - while Pacific Rim occupied the rest of the entire studio.

Despite being one of the hardest working men in genre film (and possibly all of film in general) del Toro still found time to sit down with a small group of journalists to tell us about his involvement in the “classic” ghost story film.

So how much time do you get to spend over here with prepping Pacific Rim at the same time?

Del Toro: Well what happened is Mama obviously started shooting way earlier than us and we’ve been working on it for over two years more. We went through many drafts and developing the look of Mama. We started over a year ago. We did some tests, so when we came here it was easier to spend more time at the end of the day going to the Mama office and now I start shooting [Pacific Rim] in two weeks. But I do check Andy’s [Muschetti] homework every morning. We arrive like an hour before call; he walks me through his day. I give him my blessing. You know, we literally walk the setups, then at the end of the day I see the dailies. Any comment I have I talk to him. We meet on the weekends for the editing. I mean it’s very practical to have it shooting right here. If it wasn’t like that, I couldn’t do it.

This is a US-Spanish production, right? But it’s shot in Canada. Was there ever a notion to shoot it in Spain?

Del Toro: We did. I actually asked Andy. I said to Andy early on, “There are two models of how we can make this movie. One is we have no money, but we do it completely free. You are never going to get a note. The other one, which I cannot fully prepare you for is through a studio, which means that you are going to get notes. I’m going to be the Mexican buffer, so you’re not going to get as many. You are going to be well protected, but coming from the background you come from, they are going to feel like a lot.” He said, “I’ve done enough commercials and dealt with the clients,” and he chose this model. He said, “I want to have the sets. I want to have the look and the time to shoot it.” And that’s what we went for.

What was your initial reaction to “Mama,” the short film? Why did you get involved?

Del Toro: We look at hundreds of shorts every year. I love producing first time movies. When you find someone like Andy, like Bayona, like Troy Nixey, you know you go “There’s a voice in there” and you see a lot of horror shorts that are very well produced by first time directors and you see the person worried more about how polished the short looks, almost like they are calling cards and this one was a genuine… the form was very flashy, because it was a single shot apparently, but it was very, very coherent with the fact that the whole short was about building up… It was very, very smart and then we met… My reaction was I crapped my pants. My reaction was like “If it scares me, it should scare somebody else” and I think that we contacted Andy. We met about the concept of the story. We developed the screenplay together. He had a very clear notion of what he wanted to do with the characters, which strangely enough is very similar to the stuff we did in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but it was there before I came in. That notion was there and then we did a very good rewrite with Neil Cross who did a rewrite for me on Mountains of Madness, and he created Luther, the BBC series.

When you are making this into a movie, how do you balance that impact that the short had with telling a longer story? Part of what makes the short work is that level of mystery, that there is just this thing and they call it “Mama.” How do you balance that with telling a story that includes the backstory and the answers?

Del Toro: Horror is always better when nothing is explained. You can do that in Europe and you can do it in other countries, but in an American horror movie there will always be the moment where you reveal the origin of this or the origin of that and that inevitably diminishes [the horror.] For example, the two version of The Ring, the original Nakata film and the remake, the difference is how much it is explained. The more mystery, the less linear the backstory is, the better the movie is. We inevitably reveal the origin. I always say “Family is either the greatest joy or the worst horror.” Like “Either your stepfather is a fascist or your step father is Professor Broom.” I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever,” which, for me, made it something relatable, like All mothers turn into horrible things at some point and then you reconcile and it can be great or not. I thought the idea of that surpasses any origin. It’s such a strong thing that ultimately what this creature has is possessive love. A mother’s jealousy is really, really strong.

Was there consideration during the development process of Andy shooting the feature as a single shot, like what they just recently did with Silent House and stuff like that?

Del Toro: Yeah, that was really well done, Silent House, but no, we didn’t. We start a sort of feral child film: two girls are found. How did they survive? What kept them alive? The great thing about Silent House is it is a single way in and you follow it through. It’s really good, but this needed parallel investigative tracks.

We know you’re a big monster fan. Can you talk about your input on Mama’s look and the hair and the fingers and all of that stuff?

Del Toro: Yeah, well we are starting with a very strong base. Have you seen the DDT makeup shop? Holy shit. Literally I brought them to the house… We start with an amazing prosthetic work, amazing, and I bring them home and I put it on and my daughters run away. “We don’t want to see that!” My wife says, “Don’t show that to the girls!” It’s really cool and then my wife came and visited, because she used to do prosthetic makeup with me back in the day and she came in to see the application and the actor was immobile and he lifted his head and moved his jaw and she said, “I’m leaving.” So we started with a very strong base, but I think it’s great and we did it in a different way than the ghost in Devil’s Backbone, to have an underwater effect for the hair you know. It’s really very nice. The tests are really, really promising.

Was it your idea to bring Javier [Botet] in to play Mama since he played a creepy old girl in [REC]?

Del Toro: Javier is like one of the nicest guys on earth, but we had never met. We call him jokingly “The thin Doug Jones,” because he makes Doug Jones look like John Candy. But we had never connected and Andy wanted him from the start. DDT are big fans of him, so we just went for it. We did some stuff with him in the tests that are really simple, but it’s freaky weird. I mean really, the movement becomes so strange. Andy came up with some ideas that are really revolutionary, I think.

Can you talk about the casting of Jessica Chastain? 

Del Toro: We were having many casting suggestions with big names and big stars and this and that and then I saw The Debt - probably an illegal copy, because none of her films had been released yet, I don’t know. I was blown away by the fact that all of her choices as an actress were so smart, you know like scenes that played counter point to the way they would normally be played. The way she seemed to absorb Helen Mirren’s mannerisms and I talked to her and she said, “Actually Helen Mirren did some stuff I did, because we met after I finished my performance.” I said, “Well how did you get all of her…” “I watched a lot of her movies.” I thought she was so smart and we went back and said “We want this actress that has no movies released, because she is the perfect actress.” Fortunately we got the actress we wanted.

When you are working with a first time filmmaker, how important is it that they have the full idea fleshed out?

Del Toro: Yeah, it helps a lot. The more hours they have under their belt the better. Like Andy has shot hundreds of commercials. He’s been in every situation. The fact that he has used every trick, every technical piece of equipment, that’s very comforting and yet the main thing is for them to be prepared. Nothing prepares you for a feature, nothing. I mean you could have shot fifty shorts and then you go and do the feature and it’s a completely different beast, because in the short you just know “Okay, if I can hold another week…” But in the feature it’s “If I can hold another month…”  You know, it really is a marathon and I really love the way he works with the camera. I always say that I learn from the really great first time directors. Andy’s camera work is very delicate and then when you see it assembled together it flows beautifully. I was learning stuff from him. He’s been really, really great. It is my duty to torture him a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the afternoon. “You’ve got to make your day.” “You did ten more takes than you needed.” “What about doing this or that?” I am very, very conscious that he’s the real deal.

Do you see this as a companion piece to films that you have done, like Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone?

Del Toro: When I came on board the short, his storyline was something I had a great communion with. At some point I did a little pass on the screenplay and then Neil did a big pass. It’s like The Orphanage. The Orphanage and I have many things in common, but it’s a movie that is done in such a completely different style. Julia’s Eyes, if you saw it, is almost Eastern European-style and what fascinates me is yes, there are many things I have in common with Mama, but the style he is shooting it in, the color palette, the design elements are very different than how I would do it and I’m fascinated by that. They find elegant solutions to things that I break my head over.

You said something about Andy doing some really revolutionary stuff. What can you tell us about what surprised you?

Del Toro: The way he dealt with the movement of the actor is really, really smart. There is one that I use like a test. I showed it to friends and was like “Tell me how we did it” and with the first try nobody succeeds, but there are other ones where he has Javier with a bunch of cables coming out of the body, so he’s pulled into directions that are not normal and he has to counter the wire pull and then we remove the wires and what it looks like is literally a marionette coming to life. It looks almost digital, but it’s all caught on camera. He moves really disjointedly, because they are trying to trip him essentially. It’s really, really cool. The other one he did is really crazy, but is so simple. 

Is Mama like a villain? How much empathy are we going to have for her in the classical tradition of Universal monster films?

Del Toro: I think that a possessive mother is very hard to sympathize with for me. She is sheer possession, but Andy is doing stuff with her backstory that is moving. I think that what you have is if you let a human… If the soul is the whole of a human being and you leave out to dry and desiccate and the only thing left is possession, that’s Mama.

How have the two young girls dealt with the dark subject matter?

Del Toro: I think out of the movies I’ve shot, I think six or seven have kids, it’s always the same with the kids. The girl from Pan’s Labyrinth said it the best. She saw the pale man scene and she said, “It was really fun to shoot, but really scary to watch.” To shoot it, you have Mama sitting next to you with a Kleenex on her nose and she is sipping on a cup through a straw, later she removes her teeth to eat a donut… It’s very hard to take it seriously and then guys with walkie-talkies bring her in, because she cannot see. It’s not like “Ahh!” So it’s very easy. The girls really don’t seem to react to any of that in any negative way.

How important is it to make sure that the ghost stuff in this is different from what we’ve see before? You have encyclopedic knowledge of this genre, so are you just saying to Andy, “That’s great, but that really is an awful lot like what we’ve already seen.”

Del Toro: Well I think he is very aware of it. I mean I there are moments where if you trace the lineage of ghosts in film, there’s a moment where Mario Bava intersects with J Horror, J Horror intersects with Devil’s Backbone, so as long as you don’t have a guy in a blanket you are doing quite alright. [Laughs] One of the things I said in Devil’s Backbone was: “Let’s not just change the ghosts, let’s change the atmosphere around it, so that there’s something that the ghost brings into our world” and we are doing stuff like that in Mama that is interesting. The scariest thing about a ghost is the concept. The look is the second most interesting thing.

Do you see that there is a struggle between filmmakers who are trying to tell a traditional ghost story versus those who are kind of adapting to the Paranormal Activity found footage-style ghost story?

Del Toro:  I’m a big sucker for all of those Ghost Hunters and Paranormal Witness. I watch all of that stuff. I think there’s a value in the traditional. Sometimes going very traditional is very hard for the hardcore, like new devices make people simply more interested, but the way I see it is there’s always a new generation being exposed to the genre. For me the biggest tragedy inevitably was Don’t Be Afraid being rated R. I didn’t want to remove anything, but it was a kid’s movie. We made it to be the scariest Goosebumps episode ever made and I really still hope that younger audiences catch it. So you have to remember that, if you are making these movies for guys that are going to go “Oh my God, I saw Mama when I was ten and I shit my pants,” which is what you and I say about The Omen or The Exorcist or movies we were not supposed to see. So we are providing that, and I think the traditional form is really important to preserve.

What are you taking with you from that R rating on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark into this? Obviously that’s a lesson in learning what you can and can’t do to kids.

Del Toro: We asked very concretely “Why do we have the R?” And they said, “No matter what you change, it’s an R.” They just said “Pervasive scariness.” They said, “If you want to try, you should take out the moments of violence here, here, and here. We don’t want to see the girl near a knife. We don’t want to see the moment where the creature takes a swipe with the blade at her feet.” It was like, we might as well not make the movie. I think the lesson is frankly if I had to go back and change it to a PG-13 and make it more successful, I would not do it, so I guess I didn’t learn my fucking lesson. What I did learn was that no matter how much you pre-plan it, the MPAA will have a different point of view. For me it’s one of the most deserving PG-13 movies. The opening is what freaked them out also with the teeth, which I must admit I was very happy with.

With the fact that it was about kids in peril, is that a situation that you are going to be facing with Mama?

Del Toro: Probably. I think we will take it step by step. I think that the spirit of the opening in Don’t Be Afraid was so mean. We don’t have anything like that. This is much more classical like The Orphanage, but The Orphanage got an R also. I don’t know, I can’t figure it out. I can’t play chess with the MPAA.

So when you are filming, do you think about “Is this going to go PG-13 or R?” or do you just kind of say, “Fuck it, let the chips fall.”

Del Toro: The opposite has been true on the Hellboy movies. We calculated the Hellboy movies to be PG-13 and we got it first try. I never had to cut a frame. Blade 2 almost got NC-17. We literally negotiated frame by frame. We took very little, but they literally were saying “Six frames less on the exit wound” and we went like “All right, six frames off the exit wound.” Some people use the tricks of going extreme and then dialing it back, I don’t do that.

What’s the dynamic like between Andy and Barbara, brother and sister?

Del Toro: I think they are like the kids from The Midwich Cuckoos - they have like a psychic bond of an unholy kind. They really are a great tag team. Between the two, they approximate my body weight. [Laughs] I tag wrestle them both together, but it’s been a really… She is really, really what a producer should be, which is very protective of the first instinct of Andy and then everything else comes second, the schedule, this, that… She is truly the first line of defense without a doubt.

You have to get through her to get to him?

Del Toro: No, no you get them together and the thing is Andy is very independent thinking, but he hears her. It’s been really great to work with them.

How do you keep everything straight? You are producing this, you have other movies that you have planning, you have Pacific Rim which is the biggest movie you have ever done. How do you sort of keep everything going with all of these plates spinning?

Del Toro: It has been almost a year since I started working on Pacific Rim. I was working on it when I left The Hobbit, so I’ve been there first as producer and it was a very easy transition. The sad thing about our business is nothing happens at the same time and everything happens so slowly. It’s easier to be on the outside to say “He’s doing all of this?” I wish. “He signed a deal for this?” That doesn’t mean he’s going to ultimately get away with doing it. I’ve found out if you develop seven things, one becomes real and if you develop one single thing and I’ve done it and you stick with it, chances are it’s like 60/40 it won’t happen. It’s very sad, but it’s true. In the four years between Cronos and Mimic, but I developed Monte Cristo, I developed List of Seven, I developed Devil’s Backbone, I developed Spanky or Mavisto’s Bridge. Great screenplays, but most of them never happened and I stuck with them until the very bitter end and then I really started carrying them and that’s how it goes. The last two years which have been my inactive years as a director, I’ve produced five movies, put out three novels, developed screenplays for three TV series, one that is known, two that mercifully no one knows about. [Laughs] But you know you keep it like that. If my name was not my name, but the name of my company, people wouldn’t even think about it, like if it was Dreamworks, because then you are hiding behind a name, but in reality it’s like JJ [Abrams] is equally overloaded for example, but he has Bad Robot. 

Question: So are you hoping that by the time if and when you ever get around to doing Frankenstein for Universal that there isn’t audience fatigue from every single fucking Frankenstein movie that’s being developed now?

Del Toro: That is never going to go away. I mean I have a Frankenstein fetish to a degree that is unhealthy and I’ve been talking with Sara Karloff about other projects. I’m just a Boris Karloff super fan and fan of Frankenstein the story. It’s the most important book of my life, so you know if I get to it, whenever I get to it, it will be the right way. It’s like Mountains. What is going to happen next year if all of the rumors are true about Prometheus, that it’s essentially Mountains of Madness in a number of ways, you know? Which is alien creatures created life on earth, including man. What are you going to do?  You wait three or four years and then you come in, you know? I’m a fat man, I’m used to patience. [Laughs] How many nights at the disco do you think I waited until they said “yes?” You go again and again until one goes “The red light makes you look okay… I’ll say yes.”

Come back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Guillermo del Toro, when he will be joined by the film's star, Jessica Chastain.