All preconceived notions about the supernatural thriller Mama fly out the window when Jessica Chastain walks in the room. Before that moment, the film could be an archetypal supernatural thriller with little girls, a spectral being and a strong female lead like Naomi Watts in The Ring, Nicole Kidman in The Others or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. But when Chastain strolls into a conference room at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Canada in October 2011, it’s immediately clear Mama is not that.

Instead of her usual warm, blond or red head look, Chastain has a short black pixie haircut, tons of eye shadow, torn purple Mistfits t-shirt, faded black hot pants and a full sleeve octopus tattoo on her left arm. This not your typical heroine. This is a punk rock chick who’d usually be dead 20 minutes into a normal horror movie. But in director Andy Muschietti‘s Mama, based on an award-winning short film of the same name, she’s the star, a rebel unwillingly forced to look after two haunted girls who’ve been found fending for themselves after being missing for five years.

It’s day 18 of 46 on the Toronto set of Mama, a supernatural thriller produced by Guillermo Del Toro opening January 18, and the wardrobe of the star is just one of the pleasant surprises Mama has in store for us.

When Guillermo Del Toro saw Andy Muschietti’s short film, Mama, he nearly crapped his pants. He’s not the only one. The film, which showed two kids scared of a creepy, jittery being they called “mother,” played a few festivals and became a major talking point when Muschietti and his producing partner/co-writer/sister Barbara Muschietti were shopping around a new script. “People were asking how was it possible that those little girls are that thing’s daughters,” Andy said. “They were more interested in seeing what happened to the girls than in reading our screenplay,” Barbara added.

Del Toro was among those people. He sought the team out and over the course of two years, helped conceptualize the full story and develop the script. While Andy and Barbara are the credited writers, Del Toro revealed he did a small pass and Neil Cross (Luther) did a bigger one.

The expansion of the story is as follows. A father (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gets into a car accident and drives his two daughters, one a baby the other three years old, into the woods. Something happens and for five years, the whole family disappears. The father’s brother (Coster-Waldau, in a dual role) finds them five years later and begins to raise them as his own, to the disdain of his girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain). But as their lives move along it becomes obvious someone, or something, is jealous of Annabel’s de facto motherly relationship and beings to voice its displeasure with her.

“[Mama] is a character you don’t emphasize with, because [you don't have] the right perspective,” Andy said. “But if you could understand what’s going on, it’s the story of a mom trying to get her children back.” “She’s a horrible hero, really,” said Barbara.

And though Mama is the Muschietti’s movie, make no mistake, this isn’t a Guillermo Del Toro production in name only. Two times every day, before shooting begins and when the day is over, he sits in with Andy Muschietti to give feedback and suggestions. Del Toro’s own film, Pacific Rim, was shooting in every single building surrounding Mama’s stage so he’s readily available. “I mean it’s very practical to have it shooting right here,” he said. “If it wasn’t like that, I couldn’t do it.”

Monster Mama

It’s no spoiler to say this movie has a monster and that monster is Mama. The girls spent five years in the woods looked over by some mysterious, ghostly version of their dead mother. Mama is being created by blending on-set practical performance by Javier Botet ([Rec]), who Del Toro described as “A skinny Doug Jones,” and the digital effects of two companies: DDT and Mr. X. To prove they could pull it off, the filmmakers and DDT  shot a test in June 2011 to show the executives what they had in mind. They screened that test for us. Imagine one of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings, crawling up and down the walls like a fast spider, but with matronly human features. That’s Mama and she’ll be even scarier when the film is released.

“She needs to feel otherworldly, so how do you accomplish that?” asked Edward Taylor, a visual effects supervisor at Mr. X. “Speed is one thing. The way that she moves, we are going to warp time a little bit, maybe go in reverse with her motions. Almost all the shots with her will be shot on blue screen, so we can treat her later on; give her a special look and color treatment.”

On set, Muschietti literally operates Botet like a marionette to really get him moving in weird ways. “Javier has a bunch of cables coming out of his body, so he’s pulled into directions that are not normal and he has to counter the wire pull. Then we remove the wires and what it looks like is like literally a marionette coming to life,” Del Toro said. “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.” Later, DDT and Mr. X will add in creepy digital details such as flowing locks, weird hands and lots of bugs. Plus, Mama will materialize out of the walls preceded by moths. She conjures fruit out of nowhere. This is all very eerie stuff.

“If the soul is the whole of a human being, you leave it out to dry and desiccate and the only thing left is possession, that’s Mama,” Del Toro said.

Three weeks into shooting, Chastain hadn’t  worked with Mama much yet but was already dreading it.

“I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever,” Chastain says. “We have one scene where I just kind of look in a mirror and I just kind of catch a glimpse of him and that’s all we shot. It’s like two seconds together and it’s so… it really makes your skin hurt.”

A Rising Star

When the actress was cast, it was June 2011 and most people didn’t know who she was. Some months later, due to films like The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Lawless, she’s now a household name. The Muschietti’s saw the trailer for The Debt on iTunes, were captivated and flew to Los Angeles to meet her.

“We felt super lucky to get Jessica, obviously. She’s as big as it gets right now,” said producer Miles Dale. “While we still respect the genre, we want to try and rise above it and find a chance to do some different things. She’s an amazing actress, from The Debt to The Help to Tree of Life, she’s a chameleon and so we feel really lucky to have her in this part.”

That’s an understatement. On set, Chastain is simultaneously magnetic to watch and the sweetest person ever. One moment we’re watching dailies of her scaring the crap out of us as she goes into the girl’s closet (more on that in a second) and ten minutes later, we’re in her trailer with her three legged dog named Chaplin, looking at the fan letters she has taped to her mirror, pictures of her co-stars, punk posters to get into character and a stack of horror movies she’s been attempting to make it though. She even revealed that, during filming, she borrowed a page out of Johnny Depp’s book and put a small ear bud in her ear to blare creepy music helping keep her in character. But the main inspiration was an old childhood memory concerning The Exorcist:

I remember when I was really, really young watching “The Exorcist” with my mom and my sister downstairs and it was so intense for me watching that film. I remember like halfway through I was like “Okay, can I turn it off?” My mom was like “No, you could just go upstairs.” Then the feeling of walking up the stairs… So I try to pull that feeling… Every time we did a scene yesterday where I’m opening the closet door and it’s like me ten years old walking up the stairs. I really love it.

Later we were privy to that footage shot the day before and it was certainly working.

What’s In The Closet?

In the scene, we saw shots of Annabel barely tucking the girls into bed, walking down a hallway with blinking lights, but most of the dailies were coverage of what was a frightening exchanged between Annabel and the two girls about that closet. Late at night, she hears the girls still up and walks into their room. They’re just standing there, blankly staring and the closet is open.

“Don’t,” stars one of girls. “Don’t what?” Annabel asks. “Go into the closet.” “Why not, what’s in the closet?” “Nothing.”A slow push in and just when you think she’s going to open the closet for the big scare…she closes it. “It’s been a long day you need your rest…do you want me to keep the door open?” Annabel asks. The girls say nothing. End of scene.

Besides Chastain’s performance, a few other things are evident in the footage. First of all, the little girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) are phenomenal. Being as these are dailies we hear Muschietti talking to them during the take to change subtle things here and there and they respond beautifully. A different delivery of one line, a longer pause on another or, in the creepiest bit, a knowing, spine-chilling smile by Nélisse while her sister talks about the closet. We also get the sense that Muschietti will be toying with the audience and, at least attempting to go against conventions. Annabel closes the closet, she doesn’t open it. It’s almost a scarier gesture because there’s no assurance nothing was in there.

The film will also feature the scene from the short film in some way, but with a bigger budget and creepier effects. Everything about the film is taking the creep factor and turning it up, from the designs we saw of an institution, to the Evil Dead type cabin the girls live in for years to the creepy test footage of Mama herself, proving this won’t be your average monster movie.

The Unlikely Hero

And Annabel is not your average heroine. In addition to her look, she’s not the star of the first half of the movie. She only becomes that as the film moves along, largely because shes the kind of person who would never have kids. These two girls are forced on her and she could care less about them. “ It’s not like I think Annabel is fighting because she wants to be the best mom,” Chastain says. “I think it’s just she becomes a threat, because in any way that the children start to connect with Annabel who’s actually alive and warm, then it pulls them away from Mama.”

It’s a very interesting, different dichotomy for a horror movie and plays into the fact that these girls will, eventually, become the object of desire for two women – the once-uninterested Annabel and the once-alive Mama. “This is a woman who, by accident, from one day to the next,  has to take the responsibility of raising two little children who aren’t hers,” Muschietti said. “[She's] a reluctant hero, and when you see the movie, she’s not the hero at all.”

That’s just one of the many things that seems to set apart Mama from other films in the genre: the unlikely hero, the practical monster, unconventional scares. The producers, director and stars are well-aware that it might seem like other movies. “You have to remember 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,”’ Del Toro said. “Which is what you and I say about The Omen or The Exorcist. We are providing that and I think the traditional form is really important to preserve.”

With Mama, hopefully that traditional form will help inform something scary, fun and memorable. The set visit was certainly that.

Check back later this week for our full discussion with Guillermo Del Toro. Mama opens on January 18. Watch the latest trailer here and the original short film here.

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