There is no question that Guillermo del Toro is a visionary director. He has taken audiences to some of the most thrilling visceral places in his feature films. From the frightening dreamscapes and the real life violence of PAN'S LABYRINTH to the stunning world of HELLBOY, he continually amazes moviegoers everywhere. Yet it is his love of film and his faith in young and upcoming filmmakers that really reveal his dedication to the art of cinema.
With MAMA, he gave filmmaker Andrés Muschietti - who co-wrote the script with his sister Barbara based on their own horror short of the same name – the chance to tell their story. Well, del Toro may have made suggestions about the title character’s teeth, but Muschietti was left to create the tale he wanted to tell.
During a roundtable discussion regarding the new horror film, the three discussed shooting the feature and the aspects of fantasy versus reality and helping the two as they blend together. This modern day gothic “fairy tale” is a ghost story about women trying to protect those she loves. From the frightening thought of a father driven to the brink of despair to the undying love a mother has for her child, MAMA is an old-fashioned ghost story with a whole lot of fanciful and supernatural thrills thrown in.
While taking about MAMA, del Toro discussed Muschietti and his ability to shoot this ghostly endeavor. “Andrés has a sense of style that you can feel from the short. Moving the camera gratuitously is terrible, but 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 you go to present day and it is ‘Hansel and Gretel.’”
He went onto discuss the extremely haunting opening sequence… WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!
“It’s a father that lost everything, taking his children to the woods to finish their lives. It’s exactly the opening of a fairy tale. They find a little cabin - it’s not made of chocolate in this case – and there is a presence in there that will transform their lives.” About the director he added, “But Andrés is really 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 and THE ORPHANAGE… basically all I did in THE ORPHANAGE was suggest a couple of scares and sit back and basically my jaw hit the floor every time I saw dailies.” In MAMA, he clearly felt that Muschietti brought that same sort of haunting story to life as well.
When asked about the similarities to this film, dealing with children being haunted by a spirit to the recent other child-in-peril horror remake he was involved with, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, del Toro talked about how MAMA transpired, “We came up with the story together in a couple of sessions and that element, which is strange as hell, that came from them [Andrés and Barbara Muschietti]. They didn’t know I was doing that in DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. I didn’t tell them that I’d love to do that.”
He continued, “The big difference for me was from the moment we started – and Jessica [Chastain] was so happy about this – is she never becomes a mother. She becomes a fellow female in solidarity, but she never ‘becomes’ a mother figure. Literally it is the story of a woman struggling with motherhood. Like hand to hand combat with motherhood. And it is the idea that there are other alternatives to the love of a mother in the way we see the world. [It was] her making peace with the fact that she can love someone and love in a protective way but not in a suffocating way.”
While on the subject of children in horror films, Andrés talked about how important casting the young actor can be. “It is very disappointing when you see a movie and it seems interesting and then comes the kid and you don’t believe him.”
Yet clearly, the director found two very capable and talented actors in Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse. “I think we achieved getting incredible performances from the kids. With these two, they had very different schools. Charpentier [the ‘Red Queen’ from RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION] had done some films before and she was trained and she could mimic adults and grown up actors. My relationship to her was different because I would speak to her as I would to any of the actors. That is what she wanted and that is how she worked. [Nélisse] was completely instinctive.”
Yet to make this work, the filmmakers had to create a very real, and believable relationship between the two young actors and the ghostly presence known as “Mama” This balance began as what del Toro called“a great construction of a character” He added that there were “three stages of Mama” with each one they attempted to make the horror element all the more powerful. “We do the first stage where the girl’s talk about her [Mama] before you see her, like they did in the short, ‘Don’t look at her…’, ‘Mama is back…’ This implies a lot. It implied a will and a personality of the ghost before you show it. Second stage is the speech of the old lady saying, ‘A ghost is a twisted emotion…’ that is the second stage of construction. Then you do it through the process of action where you see a shadow or hear a noise, a closet door opens and then the doctor makes the investigation. By the time you reveal Mama, you already have so many emotions and ideas about her. When that is personified in that scarecrow of a figure, it is super scary because we are not dealing with just a scary figure. You are dealing with a full blown character. That is much more satisfying.”
As far as the ending is concerned, one journalist called it like it is, it took balls to end MAMA the way they do. In an effort to make sure they could tell the story they wanted, del Toro procured that he as producer had final cut. “That is why you secure final cut and as a first time director you can’t have final cut, but as a producer you can have final cut. And then you tell the director that you are protected from everyone except me [Laughing]. And if he pulls it off emotionally, then you are going to defend the ending. But we were all saying when we sent the finished movie to the studio, we were literally just waiting…” thankfully the studio loved it and they were able to tell the story they wanted to tell up until the very final scene.
Certainly Guillermo del Toro has a number of projects that he could have talked about, but he was there to lend his support to MAMA. When one journalist asked about how he felt about THE HOBBIT, he quickly dismissed the question saying that he hadn’t seen it yet. He did however mention that MAMA was shot in 24 frames per second.
MAMA opens on Friday, January 18 at a theatre near you.