[Interview] ‘Mama’ Filmmakers Discuss Retaining Their Original Vision

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Universal releases Mama tomorrow, January 18th. The Guillermo del Toro-produced horror thriller is based on a short of the same name and was directed by Andres Muschietti from a script he wrote with Barbara Muschietti.

Along with some fellow journalists, I caught up with Del Toro and the Muschiettis last month to talk about the film’s journey from short to screen. We also touch on the intensive casting process, retaining autonomy on such an original vision, and finally just a tiny update on Hellboy 3.

In the film, “Five years ago, sisters Victoria and Lilly vanished from their suburban neighborhood without a trace. Since then, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), have been madly searching for them. But when, incredibly, the kids are found alive in a decrepit cabin, the couple wonders if the girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home. As Annabel tries to introduce the children to a normal life, she grows convinced of an evil presence in their house. Are the sisters experiencing traumatic stress, or is a ghost coming to visit them? How did the broken girls survive those years all alone? As she answers these disturbing questions, the new mother will find that the whispers she hears at bedtime are coming from the lips of a deadly presence.” Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse and Daniel Kash all star.

Head inside for the interview!

Guillermo Del Toro was producing Mama while working on Pacific Rim, how did he juggle the two projects? “We planned it very specifically. We actually gave a deadline to the studio and said ‘we have to start pre-production on this date or we have to push the movie a year’ because I couldn’t be in production on both at the same time. That helped us a lot. I actually rented some of my stages for ‘Pacific Rim’ to them and I rented some of the sets from ‘Mama’ for ‘Pacific Rim’ and our offices were literally around the corner.

In films like this, the key is believing the children. Andres Muschietti talks about getting what he needs from his younger performers. “Casting is a big deal. One of the things that was in our minds from the very beginning was getting something credible. So it was basically about finding the right actresses. It was not easy. We initially cast in Toronto and we didn’t find them so we expanded the search to New York and Los Angeles.” Del Toro interjects, “and Great Britain.” Muschietti continues, “and the two we found have completely different backgrounds and schools. The older one has made films before so I approached her like an actor. The young one, she was completely different. She hadn’t been in a movie before and she was completely instinctive and wild. Which works because the older one has memories of life in the city, and the younger one was totally feral.

The film started out as a short. What was it like building a feature length narrative out of that? Barbara Mushcietti speaks up, “I feel that it was kind of like a reverse process. Logically you would have a larger story and then just pick a piece of that story and make a short. But we just had that short. We were left with a lot of questions, and that’s what inspired us. Guillermo pushing us to make a movie out of it, that was the process. Figuring out how to develop it, that was the difficult part.” Andres chimes in, “To find a context we had to answer the questions that the short film raises but in a mysterious way. We had to translate that mystery into a full feature.

Mama has a bit of a surprising ending. Without spoiling anything, Andres notes, “That was the only ending possible.” Del Toro adds, “I made sure I had final cut. The financing was set up so we could have autonomy and protect the ending. But the studio loved it anyway, and I was like, ‘really?!’

Del Toro delves into Jessica Chastain’s relationship with the child actors, “She was protective of them in a good way. She had a great partnership with them as actors.” Andres adds, “Just like in the movie she connected very fast with the young one.” “At first,” Barbara says, “she tried very hard [not to interact with them], she said please don’t leave me alone in a room because I’ll fall in love with them. BUt we couldn’t stop it because they wanted to be with her!

Someone asks if Del Toro has written the script for Hellboy 3. He shakes his head, “No, no I haven’t. Up until a few months ago there were three or four parts to the equation that could not agree on doing it. Then we finally agreed but we haven’t found anyone who wants to finance it because it’s the most expensive of the three and it’s not the happiest ending. It’s not an easy task. The only thing I can say is that we do it right or we don’t do it. Either we leave those beautifully juicy questions unanswered or we answer them properly. It’s not a project that’s going to happen haphazardly.