Guillermo Del Toro owns the Pinewood Toronto Studios. Not fiscally, but certainly in an almost physical way. He has taken over the entire facility, using most of it for his giant monsters versus giant robots film Pacific Rim (a set visit story for another day). One stage, though, is kept for a smaller production, one that Guillermo is only producing: Mama.
In some ways Pinewood feels like a manifestation of how Guillermo’s career should be. There should always be a big, expensive, crazy movie happening for him - and there should also be something smaller and creepier that he’s either producing or directing. Del Toro straddles the big and the small with ease, bringing the small film’s sense of the personal to his big movies, and the big movie’s sense of grandeur to his small films.
Mama isn’t a Guillermo Del Toro movie. He’s very hands on with it - meeting twice daily with director Andres (Andy) Muschietti and producer sister Barbara - but his role here is much more mentor, giving Andy a chance to expand on his original vision. Mama began life as a short film, one which impacted Guillermo Del Toro deeply.
“I crapped my pants,” he said. “My reaction was like ‘If it scares me, it should scare somebody else.’”
But Mama was a short, and it was a short very specifically made to be a calling card.
“Mama the short was sort of a style exercise, to support [another] project,” said Andy. “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.”
I guess at this point you should take a look at the short film. It’s creepy as hell, and you can see why Muschietti’s style grabbed Del Toro so quickly.
At the same time you can also see that what Muschietti came up with was totally an exercise. He would need to really break a complete story around one creepy scene.
Andy said: “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.”
Even before Guillermo got involved the Muschiettis had famous friends willing to show support.
Barbara Muschietti: “It was our friend Juan Carlos Fresnadillo who 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.”
This is good a time as any to point out that talking to Barbara and Andy it’s kind of hard to believe they’re brother and sister. Barbara spent years and years in the US and London, while Andy was raised in Buenos Aires before moving to Spain; her English is impeccable, while his is... peccable. It’s like talking to Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, wondering how one guy has that posh English accent and the other guy sounds like you could meet him in a Wisconsin grocery store.
They spent ten years apart, but they’ve made up for lost time, working together closely for the last decade, writing together for the last eight years. Their interest in horror comes from their earliest childhood, when their parents took them to the drive-in and when they would watch classic horror movies on TV. At least that’s where Barbara’s interest comes from.
“I’m not a consumer of horror movies just because they're horror movies,” Andy admitted. “I don't like them all, to be honest. I'm kind of a baby.”
Which makes his ability to have Guillermo Del Toro crap his pants be all the more impressive.
The character of Mama comes from the sibling’s childhood, from a painting in their home.
“We had a Modigliani growing up, and it scared the shit out of us,” said Barbara. “When [Andy] started drawing Mama, it was very clear that there was a big, elongated Modigliani air to Mama. It's very scary visuals.”
Added Andy: “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.”
In the original short, Mama was played by a person, but Andy’s initial thought was to have her be CGI in the feature.
“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 [Botet] on [REC]. I don't know if you guys saw [REC], but at the end of [REC], I thought he was a CG character, 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.”
Here’s how Guillermo describes Botet: “We call him jokingly ‘The thin Doug Jones,’ because he makes Doug Jones look like John Candy.”
But just because there’s an actor playing Mama doesn’t mean Mushietti eschewed all digital trickery. After all, it’s all part of a good filmmaker’s arsenal these days.
“The way he dealt with the movement of the actor is really, really smart,” said Guillermo. “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.”
With Mama herself cast, there was one other truly vital role. In the expanded version of the story, two children are found living feral in the woods. They have one living relative, an uncle, and they stay with him and his girlfriend, an edgy punk type named Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain. With short black hair and tattoos Chastain looks nothing like the ethereal redhead who has become such a major part of movie culture. The Muschiettis found her before she became so known (it’s worth noting this set visit happened almost exactly one year ago).
Barbara says that the duo first saw her in “[t]he 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 agreed: “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.”
She has a great nose. And a three legged dog. But that’s for the next part of the set visit, where we visited Chastain’s trailer and got to be very won over by a friendly, lovely woman. And after that: Guillermo himself! Come back for the next two parts of this Mama set visit report.