Guillermo Del Toro Speaks On The Set Of ‘Mama’ – The State of Horror, Overextending Himself, Battling the MPAA, Frankenstein And Much More
Posted on Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 by Germain Lussier
In October of 2011, I was flown to Toronto, Canada to visit the set of Mama. Directed by Andy Muschietti (above left) and starring Jessica Chastain, the film promises to be a creepy, frightening story about two girls haunted by the ghost of their dead mother. There’s much more to that, and you can read all about it in my set visit report here. The film opens January 18.
One of the real treats of the trip, though, was getting to spend an extended time talking to Guillermo Del Toro. At the time, Del Toro was not only producing Mama, but prepping his massive 2013 film, Pacific Rim, at the same studio. That allowed him to interact with Muschietti numerous times throughout the day as each made their movie.
In our extended discussion, Del Toro talked about that relationship, what drew him to Mama, battling the MPAA, the state and evolution of the horror genre, working with new filmmakers, over extending himself across various projects (such as Haunted Mansion, Frankenstein and At the Mountain of Madness) and even some old Hollywood trivia. Fans of Del Toro will love this.
(Note: This was a roundtable discussion that included myself and several other outlets. Just to make things easier, I didn’t differentiate and all journalist quotes are in bold. Keep in mind, too, that the interview was conducted a year ago, and under embargo until now due to studio restrictions.)
Question: So are you doing anything these days? Have you got anything going on?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Taking it easy.
Have you taken over this entire studio area?
Yeah, we did.
It’s a “Mexican Coop.” [Laughs]
So how much time do you get to spend over here with prepping the other movie at the same time?
We started… 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, the central operation. We started over a year ago. We did some tests and you know, so when we came here it was easier to spend more time, like many hours in the day at the end of the day going to the Mama office and now as I start shooting in two weeks less so, 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, correct? But it’s being shot in Canada. Was there ever a discussion about shooting it in Spain?
We did. I actually asked Andy. I said to Andy early on, I said, “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. You’re not going to…” I said, “The other one, which I cannot fully prepare you for is through a studio, which means that you are going to get notes, you are going to… 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 form 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,” which… it’s different and he chose this model. He said, “I want to have he sets. I want to have the look and the time to shoot it.” And that’s what we went for, you know?
I saw the original Mama short at the New York Horror Film Festival two years ago amongst a broad array of longer films that were kind of boring. A lot of people were like unexcited by the features, but this film came on and in two or three minutes “boom,” everyone was really buying it at the end. What was your initial reaction to it? Why did you get involved?
You know, I tried to… Like literally we look at hundreds of shorts every year. I love producing first-time movies, because you bring voices to a genre that a lot of people come into for a different reason than a genuine love for it. So when you find someone like Andy, like Bayona, like Troy Nixey, you know you go “There’s a voice in there.” 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. 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. [Laughs]
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, meaning a couple, the daughter is reluctant, 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, who wrote and is writing a couple of screenplays… He created Luther, the BBC series…
With the original short what really is amazing about it is that it’s three minutes long. It’s really in and out and it’s got such an impact. 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.” “What is that? Who knows?” How do you balance that with telling a story that includes the back-story and the answers?
Horror is always better when nothing is explained. Frankly, if you can do [that in] features, which you can in Europe and you can do 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 it.
For example, to me the greater… The Ring, the two versions of The Ring, the original Nakata film and the remake, the difference is how much it is explained. And as much as I like Let Me In, again the more mystery, the less linear the backstory is, the better the movie is. We inevitably reveal the origin, but I think what we tried to do… For me, the notion is so powerful… I always, in my movies or the things I do, I always say “Family is either the greatest joy or the worst horror.” Like, “either your stepfather is a fascist or your stepfather is Professor Broom.” Family is always intrinsic too… I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever.” [Laughs]
Because it absolutely immediately, 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 you know? 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?
Yeah, that was really well done, Silent House, but no we didn’t. I think that because we created exactly a mystery, meaning we start like sort of a feral child film; you know two girls are found. “How did they survive?” “What kept them alive?” You are cutting between multiple tracks, so you know it’s not… The great thing about Silent House is a single way in and you follow it through. It’s really good, but this needed parallel investigative tracks.
We talked to Edward a little bit about the digital effects. Obviously we know you’re a big monster fan, so can you talk about your input on Mama’s look and the hair and the fingers and all of the stuff he talked with us about?
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 (Laughs) and my daughters run away. [Laughs]
“We don’t want to see that!” My wife is “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 with the ghost in The Devil’s Backbone, to have an underwater effect for the hair you know. It’s really very nice and have they shown you any of the movement tests?
What the fuck have they shown you? [Laughs] Well 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]?
Yeah, no the DDT guys are… Javier is like one of the nicest guys on earth, but we had never met. I have had my eye… We call him jokingly “The thin Doug Jones.” [Laughs]
Because he makes Doug Jones look like John Candy. But we had never connected and the thing with him is Andy wanted him from the start. DDT are big fans of him, so you know 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.
Guillermo, can you talk about the casting of Jessica Chastain? I’ve interviewed two of her directors this year and they both say that she’s amazing, because she is so versatile and can do almost anything. Can you talk a little bit about her?
Well you know her movies hadn’t been released, any of the movies that have made her now so famous you know? I just saw… We were having many casting suggestions with big names and big stars and this and that and then I saw The Debt with probably an illegal copy, I don’t know. Bob Bernie was very surprised, “How did you get it?” “I don’t know…” But I saw The Debt and I was blown away by the fact that all of her choices as 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 sort of mannerisms and then 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 watch a lot of her movies.” I thought she was so smart and we went and said back then “We want this actress that has no movies released, because she is the perfect actress.” We went and fortunately we got the actress we wanted.
I’m wondering, when you are working with a first time filmmaker or even a writer is it important, especially if you first saw their work as a short, is it important if you are going to take some idea from the short that they have, [or if they have an idea already in place]?
Yeah, it helps a lot and it helps a lot when you know… The more hours they have under their belt the better, like Andy has shot hundreds of commercials and literally has shot so much stuff. 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…” [Laughs]
You know, it really is a marathon and I really love the way he works with the camera. I always say and people think it’s like a figure of speech that I learn from the really great first time directors, I go “Huh.” With Andy, it’s the same thing. His camerawork is very delicate and then when you see it assembled together it flows beautifully and is very delicate and I was like “Oh my God, this is…” I was learning stuff from him. He’s been really, really great. That said, 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?” But all with the respect that I am very, very conscious that he’s the real deal.
I just talked to Chris Miller from “Puss In Boots” yesterday and asked him about you. He was saying that you were always wanting to… You loved the project but you didn’t want to “drink the Kool-Aid.” That was his phrase, like you always wanted to be objective. How difficult is it to be objective when you’ve been involved with the project for a while?
Well that’s the great thing about being a producer, you seem smarter than when you are the director. (Laughs) When you are the director you are immersed, you are the guy lost in the maze. As a producer you are always a little more distanced. That doesn’t mean you are right, but you can offer a point of view that is very… a little more analytic or a little more objective. You can still screw up or give the wrong point of view, but you have the distance and you can come into something, for example that somebody labored for months on and go “It doesn’t work.” And be brutal and you hope as a director that you will have that come to you when the time comes, you know? And it does in the form of friends, like Alejandro and Alfonso do that to me.
Would you say this fits in as a companion piece to films that you have done, such as Pan’s Labyrinth, and Devil’s Backbone?
It does, but I tell you the thing is that when we came on board, 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, so little by little, but it’s very different. 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 really almost an eastern European style of the look and what fascinates me. 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. I go like “My life could be so much easier…” They find elegant solutions to things that I break my head over.
You said something about Andy doing some really revolutionary stuff and obviously don’t spoil some of the surprise, but what can you tell us about what surprised you?
The way he dealt with the movement of the actor is really, really smart. One of the things that is least surprising… 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 like literally a marionette coming to life. It looks almost digital, but it’s all caught on camera. He moves really disjointed, 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. If I say it, you will see it. John Landis told me a story that ruined The Blues Brothers for me. Shall I ruin it for you? He said when the explosion in their apartment happens, he shot… the small explosion didn’t work and he went to Albert Wedlock and Wedlock said, “No problem, give me a picture of the apartment.” He blew it up. He glued it into foam. He cut the windows out. He said, “It looked horrible” and the board moves a little bit and it’s completely fake and he said “No one has ever caught it.” [Laughs]
With that one I see The Blues Brothers and I go “There’s the foam core!” [Laughs]
Guillermo, is Mama like a villain? Is her character… How much empathy are we going to have for her in the classical tradition of Universal monster films?
I think that what it is, is 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.
There might be some mothers that identify with her after the movie.
Probably so. It’s the ultimate helicopter mom.
How have the two young girls dealt with all of the darkness, the dark subject matter?
You know having shot now, 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 is like you are bored and 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 they bring her in, she cannot see, they bring her in with a bunch of guys with walkie-talkies. 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 seen 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.”
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 and there’s no way of not threading some stuff that has been done, so as long as you don’t have a guy in a blanket you are doing quite alright. (Laughs)
I think the thing that we tried to do, one of the things I did in Devil’s Backbone is I was like “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. So, you know, I think the main thing is… The scariest thing about a ghost is the concept. The look is the second most interesting thing, but I remember one of the scariest operations ever is in a movie that is not really good, but is The Sentinel. [Spoiler] The moment she closes the door and her father is there is so scary, because we know her father is dead and yet he is there. I mean it’s just a very old guy in pale makeup with contact lenses, but it’s so scary. So the main thing is if the concept is really knew, it helps.
Right and 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, which seems to be catching on a lot more than a traditional ghost story?
A lot more and I understand why. I mean I’m a big sucker for all of the Ghost Hunters and you know Paranormal Witness… I watch all of that stuff. It’s very easy to get… first of all the look of the dilated eyes is really good, but I think there’s a value in the tradition. Sometimes like going very traditional is very hard for the hardcore, like using new devices makes people simply more interested. But I always think… the way I see it is there’s always a new generation being exposed to the genre.
For me the biggest tragedy inevitably was the Don’t Be Afraid rating R, I didn’t want to remove anything, but it was a kid’s movie. We made it for it to be the scariest Goosebumps episode ever made and I really still hope that younger audiences catch it you know, 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. (Laughs) So we are providing that for… and I think the traditional form is really important to preserve.
What are you taking from that R rating on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark into this experience? Obviously that’s a lesson in learning what you can and can’t do to kids.
Well you know it wasn’t so much that. They really just… We asked. We asked very concretely “Why do we have the R?” And they said, “No matter what you change, it’s an R” and they just said “Pervasive scariness” which is great… They said, “If you want to try, you should take out the moments of violence here, here, and here.” It was like “We might as well not make the movie…” “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” and you go “All right, 15,000,000 less at the box office…” Which is fine.
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. Again like now, so I guess I didn’t learn my fucking lesson, but what I did learn the lesson on is that no matter how much you pre-plan it, the MPAA will have a different point of view, because we literally… There’s no profanity in Don’t Be Afraid. 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. [Laughs]
They said “If you toned that down…” and I said “Why?” So with this we have no graphic violence, but we may still get in trouble, I don’t know.
Well that’s the thing. With the fact that it was about kids in peril, is that a situation that you are going to be facing here with Mama?
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 do you, at all when you are filming, think about “Is this going to go PG-13 or R?” or do you just kind of say “Fuck it, let the chips fall.”
Normally, like for example 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’ve never had to cut a frame. Blade 2 almost got NC-17. (Laughs) On the other hand we went and they were like “No fucking way.” 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?
I think they are like the kids from The Midwich Cuckoos you know, 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?
No, no you get them together and the thing is Andy is very independent thinking, like Andy really is creatively, but he hears her. It’s been really great to work with them.
I know that you have Pacific Rim just starting up, are you going to get a chance to get down to Disney and do the Haunted Mansion attraction now that it has added elements from “The Nightmare Before Christmas?”
I don’t think so. I did it so recently that… But no, on the Haunted Mansion movie front we are turning in the second draft soon enough. We turned in the first draft, the second draft is coming up. I’ll do [the attraction] at the end of Christmas season with my daughters, like we will go probably. We shoot two days in LA on Pacific Rim in January and then we come back to shoot the rest, so probably over that break.
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 keep everything going with all of these plates spinning?
Well Pacific Rim has been almost a year since I started working. I was working on it when I left The Hobbit; like a week later I was producing it with Legendary, so I’ve been there first as producer and so it was a very easy transition. The rest, the sad thing about our business is nothing happens at the same time and everything happens so slowly. Like it’s easier to go from the outside to go like “He’s doing all of this?” I wish. [Laughs]
“He signed a deal for this?” That doesn’t mean he’s going to ultimately get away with doing it. There’s a lot of stuff that 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.
If I was to tell you my life’s story, simply between Cronos and Mimic are four years, 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.
Look, 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) They would go “What is he thinking?” 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. My Bad Robot is also my name.
So are you hoping that by the time if and when you ever get around to doing Frankenstein for Universal that there is not audience fatigue from every single other Frankenstein movie that’s being developed now?
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? 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? What you do is you wait, you wait three or four years and then you come in, you know? I’m a fat man, I’m used to patience. 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.”
Mama opens January 18. Head here to read more about it.