Goodnight Mommy Director Matt Sobel Discusses The Horrors Of Family [Exclusive Interview]

This interview contains spoilers for both the original and remake of "Goodnight Mommy."

Director Matt Sobel doesn't really like remakes of foreign horror films for American audiences, but he wanted to try and do something a bit different. In his latest, "Goodnight Mommy," coming to Prime Video on September 16, 2022, the director tackled a new take on the 2016 Austrian film of the same name. The 2022 "Goodnight Mommy" stars Naomi Watts as a mother who has undergone some changes, and Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti as her twin sons who don't know if they trust her anymore. It's an intimate thriller with bits of family drama, following the boys as they try to figure out what happened to Mother.

I had the opportunity to chat via Zoom with Sobel, whose credits include "Take Me to the River" and two episodes of the Netflix series "Brand New Cherry Flavor." He opened up about the movie's theme, his hesitance to direct a remake for American audiences, and the visual inspiration behind the moody movie.

'Our film's a story about a boy who can't bear to be at fault.'

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and content.

What drew you towards remaking this particular film or tackling this particular project?

Actually, it was not my idea to remake it. And the first thing that happened is I passed on it. But yeah, I was an appreciator of the original film. I saw it when it came out. And then when this project was brought to me by the producers at Animal Kingdom, I said, "Good luck, God speed. Hit me up next time. Not for me." Because I'm really not a fan of remakes that are made for the sole purpose of catering to people who don't want to read subtitles. And I didn't yet have an idea of why a remake of this film would justify its existence.

But then I had a conversation with a friend of mine, Kyle Warren, who would be later become the writer on this movie about a different way to conceive of a remake, in which it was less about translating literally what happened German into English. [It was] more about, I'll use the word "transcribing," because I think it's kind of more like the way in which a melody could be transcribed into a different key and given all sorts of different emotional valances in the process of taking the kind of basic elements of the story in the original film and then reshaping them to give the story a new theme and perhaps even a different genre than the original film.

And I thought that, that's something that I'd see done in theater constantly because you have to re-stage things. And a re-staging of "Taming of the Shrew" that switches the genders of every character gives the original text a whole different meaning. But I don't see it done a lot in film. So I called back the producers and said, "I have an idea. Can we call it a re-imagining and can the story be about this theme?" Which is really most interesting to myself and Kyle, and that is the human tendency to try and always see ourselves as the heroes or the victims of our own stories and to avoid seeing ourselves as the villains and all of the ways in which we'll lie to ourself, or lie to other people, or change the way that we see the world, so that can always be true.

And where the theme of the original film, I would say, is about a boy who cannot bear to be alone, our film's a story about a boy who can't bear to be at fault. All of the differences between the films sprung out of this idea, and the original film is really about three characters. Everyone is shot at arm's length, observational, cold, austere, wonderful for that movie kind of way. Our film is much more about one boy and his perception of the world, and it's shot so as that we're seeing the world through his eyes. And that all came from this same idea of we want to see the movie playing in Elias' mind for the first 80% of the film. And he's imagining this situation to be a dark, twisted fantasy. Then only when he's shoved out of that story does he see that the reality is potentially even more horrifying than that.

'What would be the most fun environment to destroy?'

It's interesting you talk about the way that it's shot and how it's very personal and intimate with him, because this film has a very unique look to it visually, both in production design and then the cinematography. Can you tell me a little bit about maybe your influences or inspirations for that?

Yeah. Well, a couple different places. It started with, as you already mentioned, wanting this to seem like the movie inside Elias' mind. So we knew ways that we wanted to frame things that were going to be different from the original in that way. Some image references that were used were a lot of those old Vermeer paintings that had very strong light coming in from one side. And the reason we were thinking about that is a lot of discussion went into the spaces in the story that were light and dark and why [they looked like that]. We started thinking about the mother's bedroom and the barn as these dark spaces that were shut off from this cleansing, antiseptic force of light, and were kept kind of cold, dark, clammy, a place where a wound doesn't heal but festers. In discussions with the production designer [Mary Lena Colston], she thought of those spaces as being decorated with the colors of a bruise and very dark.

You'll notice Mother's room is all dark green and purple and brown, because it's like the color of a bruise. The barn is very dark, but the open spaces in the house, like the great room of the house, we wanted to seem the opposite of that. 

The production designer came up with this idea, she was thinking, "What would be the most fun environment to destroy?" And she said, "Well, what if this woman is hippie chic / Goop mom?" And she's really into these kind of holistic crystals and whole body healthy living stuff, but that it's all bulls*** and that she can't even ... Or it's all surface. She can't really do the right thing and heal herself in the right way, but she does have all of this stuff that would suggest otherwise. I remember she sent me a lot of photographs of that, and that was a jumping off point for what the home looked like. I was not so aware of what Goop moms decorate their houses with before that. But I was like, "That's great, just run at that."

'It's simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar'

Yeah, it's perfect. It's like Pinterest threw up in there. I love it. Your first film, "Take Me To the River," was also a very uncomfortable family story. Do you think there's something about familial horror that makes audiences feel more vulnerable?

Yes, well, because we all have them, right? But no, I find situations in which people will not or cannot say what they're really thinking to be the most compelling. If you're talking about the last film I made, I remember leaning very heavily into these situations that were covered over by this veneer of cordiality, but that there was something so clearly wrong here that was not being addressed, and relying on that to make audiences feel very squeamish.

I do think that what is unseen inside of people's heads is sometimes the most scary thing, scarier than monsters, scarier than the killer in a slasher film, or at least more suspenseful. I find it's always easier for me to make a scene in which someone is withholding something or we can't quite see something, we can't quite hear something, compelling than scenes in which we can see everything that we need to know.

I think with family it's established, and all the history that we have, and all of the things that we feel like we should be allowed to say, but feel like we, for some reason or other, can't, are really great breeding grounds for that.

The word "uncanny" was used a lot in my first film, and what it literally means is un-homelike, or it's simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Families are a great place to explore that because you feel like you should be close to these people. But if something is a bit off or a bit wrong, that dissonance between comfortable family and something really strange and off-putting, I find it makes people more uncomfortable than other environments.

'Maybe my therapist should answer that question'

You've done a little bit of horror, but this is about as different from "Brand New Cherry Flavor" as you can get while staying within the horror genre. How do you approach different elements from this genre, and why do you keep coming back to horror?

That's a great question. I don't think of myself as a horror aficionado actually at all. I appreciate great horror films, but "Brand New Cherry Flavor" was ... I really can't take credit for that. That was Nick Antosca's idea. I met him when I was pitching to direct his film, "Antlers," and I did not work with him on that. But for some reason, he decided when we met each other that I was going to be the guy to do this crazy body horror idea that he had. And I was like, "Are you sure?" And he said, "Yeah." So we just did it.

It was very much out of my wheelhouse, but I found it so fun, because it was also a bit ridiculous and a strange mix of body horror, eroticism and dark humor. And I really liked that tone mashup and I liked how different it was than the other things that I had done.

I consider this to be less of a horror film and more of a psychological thriller slash, even perhaps drama. But I do those kind of bending ideas, genre-bending films, tone-straddling films. As for why I keep coming back to horror, I don't know the answer to that. I don't know, maybe my therapist should answer that question.

'It was very rewarding for me to come back full circle'

What was it like working with Naomi Watts? She is a legend and also a horror legend at this point.

She was a legend in my life because I first was introduced to her when I saw "Mulholland Drive," when I was 14 in a little art house theater. I was definitely too young for that movie, but it so shook me. It became a sort of really seminal experience for myself. I already wanted to make movies before that, but as a budding little storyteller, I was making movies with my friends still at the time, and that became my everything at 14 years old.

There's actually one scene in this film near the very end, where I asked her to reprise a scene... when her character in that film arrives in LA, and she's in this kind of fantasy world, too good to be true. Nothing in this world could ever go wrong. Everything is perfect and sunny, and it never rains here kind of vibe. It was very rewarding for me to come back full circle with Naomi and actually be referencing a specific scene from "Mulholland Drive," because it was 20 years ago, I think I saw that.

What's your favorite scary movie?

Last question, I asked Naomi and the boys, I asked them what their favorite scary movie is and Naomi said "The Shining" and the boys said "Hereditary" and "The Shining." So, what is your favorite scary movie?

I mean, gosh, I have to be predictable and also say "The Shining. "Well, two movies that were probably more touchstones for this film, which are also some of my favorites, "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Babadook."

"Goodnight Mommy" will be streaming on Prime Video starting on September 16, 2022.