“My design for Mama was mainly based on a print of a Modigliani painting we had at home when I was a kid… It scared the crap out of me.” – director Andres Muschietti
Here’s one way to jumpstart a film career: make a brilliant short that gets you noticed by a filmmaking giant in Hollywood. That’s exactly what happened to Spanish filmmaker Andres (“Andy”) Muschietti, whose three-minute short Mama (2008) caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro. While shooting Pacific Rim in Toronto, del Toro shepherded Muschietti on a feature length version of Mama, a supernatural thriller starring Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain and Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. We’ve also seen this career-making magic happen to Neill Blomkamp with District 9 and Fede Alvarez with his short Panic Attack! – a five-minute Youtube sensation that scored him a gig directing the upcoming remake of Evil Dead, produced by Sam Raimi. Like Blomkamp and Alvarez, Muscheitti had never made a feature film before, and now has one in wide release. In an interview conducted for Revolver Magazine, Muscheitti and I discuss the creative challenges in expanding a short into a feature, what it was like making a film next door to the Pacific Rim set and, most importantly, how to make ghosts scary in film.
I’ve seen the short film upon which your feature is based. One of its strongest aspects is ambiguity: not knowing whether “Mama” is actually their mother possessed, back from the grave, or perhaps even an entity that they have named “Mama.”
I totally agree with you on the ambiguity fact and of course it was an important matter when we first started developing the story. To some extent, there are a number of things you can get away in a short film that you just can’t do in a feature. In one aspect, Mama the movie is an ANSWER to Mama the short because the short film only raises questions. How do the girls have a mother like that? Why do they run away from her? What is the story behind this? If a feature film of two hours left you wondering the same things that the short did, it would be a huge disappointment for the audience. The challenge when we wrote the storyline was to actually set up a credible scenario where this situation would happen. So basically, in the movie, all the questions are answered as the story unfolds. Having said that, ambiguity is still a quality in the film. Tension builds up as the mystery of Mama grows bigger in the story. The plot that slowly illuminates the story of Mama only helps to build up suspense and lead you to a nightmarish resolution. You could say the irrational fear you feel in the short is replaced by a context-rich story that builds up tension in a more complex way, reaching the same levels of intensity than the short does. No, actually more.
Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabel (Jessica Chastain) get more than they bargained for when they take in their feral nieces.
In the short “Mama” herself is reminiscent of Japanese horror apparitions such as Ringu‘s raven-haired Sadako or even The Devil’s Backbone‘s Santi. And the feature feels thematically more like Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Were you at all inspired by these films?
The Ring and The Devil’s Backbone are two amazing genre movies I like. But I did not take either as a reference or influence – at least not in a conscious way, ha! My idea of what’s scary goes back in time further than these masterpieces. I instinctively stay away from things that have been made in film before. Also Mama from the movie looks different than Mama from the short. The problem in the short was we didn’t have enough money to post the creature the way I wanted it, so when I had the chance to make the feature, I designed the character in a way I knew we could achieve with VFX. My design for Mama was mainly based on a print of a Modigliani painting we had at home when I was a kid with my sister/producer barbara. It scared the crap out of me. The Innocents is a great classic ghost film I love, it was an obvious influence for Amenabar’s The Others, another movie I deeply admire.
The Innocents is a masterpiece.
Guillermo loves The Innocents too, and we would bring up the subject of its phenomenal camera work and choreographies more than once in the course of pre-production and even on the set. Guillermo would remind me in amazement: “and they did all that with a camera the size of a car!”
From the mythological Medea to Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Beowulf and Coraline, the the monstrous or cruel mother has been a recurring theme in the fantasy and horror genres. What is it about this motif that interests you specifically as a storyteller?
I was fascinated by the idea of imprint more than anything else: the fact that, in the absence of a mother, a small child could basically attach to anything that takes care of them, even an animal, in a strange survival instinct. In isolation, this child would start behaving like the creature that nurtures them. Following it, mimicking it, and eventually loving it. There are several real stories of lost children that became imprinted by animals, such as dogs, wolves and monkeys. In literature, Greystoke‘s Tarzan and The Jungle Book‘s Mowgli. Mama takes this idea of imprint and takes it to a darker, supernatural ground.
Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) in Mama.
In an time where moviegoers have seen everything, how does one make a ghost scary again?
There is so much to explore, believe me. I personally feel I have still much to give to this genre. And the good thing is now we have the technology to make anything happen. VFX are getting better and better, new codes are developed and now we can make things look more realistic than ever before. But of course, there is no use in having amazing VFX without original and fresh concepts for stories and for characters. I do agree that sometimes the genre seems to go stale. But that’s not a result of filmmakers lack of imagination as much as it is the prevalence of industrial products. Many of the genre films we see are no more than marketing products conceived from the start as that. Hopefully we can differentiate those from the other kind – the genuine, more authentic genre movies.
But how do you make a ghost scary?
Stick to your inner child. As we grow up, we rationalize things and tend to lose touch with our irrational fears and our ability to imagine things in the dark. If you keep your fears alive, you’ll be better at translating them onto screen. As we become older we learn more about storytelling and film techniques and so on, but if you are not scared of strange things in the dark yourself, the way a child is, how can you succeed in scaring others?
What was it like making your first feature at Pinewood, just a few floors below Guillermo, who was doing Pacific Rim?
Guillermo was actually next door, literally. He was shooting on the set next to ours. Actually we were surrounded by Pacific Rim sets! Guillermo had eight stages at Pinewood, we were using only one. We were Pacific Rim‘s poor little children. But it was like a dream. In the mornings Guillermo would come to visit our set an hour before shooting and we would go through the storyboards and scenes. I would sometimes sneak out at lunch time and visit Guillermo’s shoot. His sets were giant, breathtaking. On my last visit there was a real size ship hanging in the air.
Was there enormous pressure from the studio or were you given room to breathe creatively due to del Toro’s buffering presence?
I never felt any kind of pressure from the studio. We openly discussed notes and comments that came from their part, but creatively we felt very free to do the movie we wanted. Guillermo was very probably a buffering presence but in a good way. He would trust my instinct and the studio would trust Guillermo on his trust. I have no idea what this experience would be like without him being involved but we’re very happy he was on board. Without him we wouldn’t have been able to make Mama this big. On the other hand Guillermo would also be a very protective presence, recommending me as a director both creatively and strategically. He ‘s a very generous mentor and his knowledge of film and the industry is very impressive. He had all kind of experiences in moviemaking and he’s very willing to share it. Plus he’s one hell of a funny guy.
For more, read my horror column Splatter Matters in Revolver Magazine: