Mama is Andrés Muschietti’s directorial debut. How did you discover him?
I look at a lot of shorts every year, and every now and then I discover something that is interesting and write to the director with the idea to produce. I had heard of Andy through my cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, who had done commercials with him. He told me: “This guy is the real deal! You should meet him.”
What did you think of his short film Mamá, which inspired this project?
I thought Guillermo Navarro was right and that Andy truly was the real deal. His short film was beautiful, well-produced and really scary. The storytelling was great, too.
What do you enjoy about producing?
I’m not sure because producing is almost like an addiction. It is really draining and takes a lot of energy out of me, but I just feel I have to do it. I think it’s important to protect the voices that are worth listening to on their first time out.
That’s what I did with Juan Antonio Bayona when he shot The Orphanage. I avoided going to a studio that would want to change the ending or the cast because he did it the way he wanted to.
The same thing happened to me when I directed The Devil’s Backbone, which was produced by Pedro Almodóvar. He saved my life and was completely generous with me by being involved but, at the same time, knowing how to give me all the freedom to make the movie I wanted to make. That’s what I try to do now, too.
How was your relationship with Muschietti during this shoot?
One of the rules I learnt from Pedro is that a producer should only be on the set when there is a problem. I think he only came during the shoot of The Devil’s Backbone a couple of times and it was only to say “hi”.
I tried to do the same with Mama. I helped more at the beginning with the conception, then later with the editing.
Jessica Chastain embraced the leading role of Annabel. What can you say about her?
Jessica is one of the best actresses I have worked with. The two or three times I visited the set I was able to see how amazing she is. At the core of these movies, there is always a great female performance because without real emotion they just do not work.
The two young girls who are in the story, Victoria and Lilly, were played by Canadians Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse. What can you say about them?
They were amazing! The only piece of advice I told Andy was that when you work with kids, you shouldn’t treat them like kids, but as real actors. They will respond that way.
In many ways, kids are more sophisticated than adults and capable of having conversations that are more emotionally sincere.
What did you think of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance in the double role of the girls’ father and their uncle, Lucas?
He did great in pulling off the role of someone like their uncle, whom the audience immediately likes, and also briefly as his twin brother at the beginning of the film.
You understand why Lucas wants the best for these girls and also why Annabel stays with him. You don’t leave that kind of guy.
Another key character in the movie is Dr Dreyfuss, who is the first person to realise there is a supernatural explanation to these girls’ behaviour, correct?
When we actually finished the movie, I asked Andy if we could write and shoot some more scenes for him because he is a great character, and we did.
How do Andrés and his sister Barbara, who wrote this film with him and is also his producing partner, work together as a team?
I can’t tear them apart. She protects him no matter what. They are totally committed to each other. I see a very bright future for them in the industry.
I think Andy is a new interesting voice in the genre who now, after this movie, is experienced enough. He has a lot to say and is very smart.
Do you enjoy helping young talent get their break?
Yes, I do. Sometimes it’s difficult because it takes a lot of time and effort, but artistically I feel I just have to do it. In this case, I thought that the most complicated thing would be to protect the dynamics of the story and the ending, but the truth is that Universal was a great partner from the start. I pitched it to the studio by showing the short first and telling them the poster should be the little girl holding Mama’s hand with a tagline that said, “A mother’s love is for ever.”
They quickly understood the movie. Then, it was important to make the film for the right budget, which we did.
What can you say about the design of the character of Mama, played by Spaniard Javier Botet?
It was Andy’s vision and he always had the final word. The only thing I added to it was the idea of making Mama’s teeth smaller and narrower because I think it’s creepier that way. Botet had worked with Andy and Barbara before, and he is just phenomenal.
Visually, the film is stunning. Can horror be beautiful?
Sometimes it can, but not always. The types of horror movie I try to do are scary and beautiful at the same time.
How would you describe Mama then?
I see the film as neo-classical horror, like The Orphanage, which does things differently. Mama follows some of the traditions of the genre, but then the way Andy orchestrates the shots and places the camera is amazing. How he resolves things is not typical.
How was the experience of shooting the film in Toronto?
I love Toronto, and I’m doing my next two projects there. I liked the crew and knew that they were going to protect Andy. It was important for them to be experienced so that he could be comfortable as a first-time director. They enjoyed shooting with us so much that, at the end, we were all crying and ended up singing in a karaoke bar.
The horror genre has been successful since the birth of cinema, and it still is today. Why do you believe we enjoy being scared in a movie theatre?
It is because of the same reason we like to scream on a roller-coaster. We enjoy being scared knowing that we are safe. It’s something purifying and almost cathartic for our soul.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Yes, and I have experienced two encounters with them. The first time was as a kid in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the room of my dead uncle when I heard him breathing and sighing.
The second time was in New Zealand, when I spent the night in this hotel in Waitomo that was haunted, and I heard a woman screaming and a man crying in my room.
Do you think it’s good to face one’s fears instead of shying away from them?
Yes, I think it is good to face our fears even though it’s not an easy thing to do and can be horrible at times.
What do you think scares us more: What we see or what we don’t see?
Both things scare us. It’s the same as in poker. You are scared of my hand, but at some moment I have to show it to you. At that point, it better be scary. It’s a fight between both impulses.
What scares you?
I’m scared of cruelty because I believe we live in unnecessarily cruel times. I think we have achieved so much, but are unhappy with it. The comedian Louis CK says that everything is wonderful and everyone is unhappy. He is right. We get upset if our flight is delayed by two hours when it used to take months to cross the country! I think we are becoming spoilt children. Being a father is scary, too.
How has being a father influenced your film-making?
Pan’s Labyrinth would not exist if I was not a father. I was not just talking about me anymore. I admired my daughters so much that I wanted to do a story about a very brave girl. My career is not GPS- guided. – Universal Pictures