Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to tales of abandoned children. His fascination with lonely young souls is partially why Andy Muschietti's haunting short film, "Mama," caught his attention. The story of two young girls trapped in the obsessive grip of a dangerous ghost, whom they call Mama, resonated with del Toro so much he decided to help Muschietti and his sister/producing partner Barbara develop it into a feature-length film.
The result of the collaboration is "Mama," a genuinely creepy psychological thriller starring Golden-Globe winner Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ("Game of Thrones"). The film follows two young girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) who are left to fend for themselves alone in a creepy cabin in the woods after their parents die. Their uncle, played by Coster-Waldau, frantically searches for them and eventually finds them five years later.
The girls, who are obviously traumatized, wind up living with their uncle and his heavily tattooed rocker girlfriend, Annabel, played by a raven-haired Chastain. Problems arise when Mama, the jealous ghost that protected the girls in the woods, follows them to their new home.
Moviefone caught up with del Toro to chat about bringing Mama to life (the movie and the ghost), the struggle to cast Chastain, and why he finds child actors "horrifying."
What was it about Mama [the short] that really resonated with you?
There are primal emotions to motherhood and family that I respond to. As producer or director, I have a proclivity towards orphans, father/son, father/daughter relationships. I think family is the source of all horrors and the source of all blessings. But horrors for sure! [Laughs] I'm very happy, I've never shied away from a fist-fight, thanks to my brothers. [Laughs] They trained me to be physically apt. At the same time, I curse the fact that I got the shit beaten out of me at my house plenty of times. It's like that. I think that a horror story needs to have a real emotion at the center for you to respond. And the fact that it's a ghost in love, that I love.
This is another director's movie, but this still feels like a Guillermo del Toro movie...
I've now produced 20 movies. The rule is very simple: Do unto others. Produce the way you want to be produced. If I see a choice that Andy is making that I don't agree with, but it's a choice, I shut my f***ing mouth. If I see him about to poke the child in the eye, I do have to say, dude, let's talk. But at the end of the day it's his decision. I'm 350 pounds and I've gone on my knees saying please, don't do this, but it's the director's movie. But I only produce things I have high affinity with. The reason why I wanted to help Vincenzo [Natali] do "Splice" is because the moment [Adrien Brody's character] f***s the monster, I was shocked. I was like holy f***ing shit, I've got to see this on the big screen. It's so against every fibre in my nature to see that scene, that I thought it needs to exist because it freaked me out.
Do you ever come in on the design side?
In some cases. Not in "Mama." In "Mama," Andy had everything figured out completely. He went for a completely different aesthetic than I would have. It's very real. The wardrobe design is very real. The house they moved to with Mama, it's not stylized. It's a real f***ing house. I would have stylized it.
What was process like of determining what Mama would look like?
Andy came up with her completely. 100 percent. She was just there. He's a great artist. He was freaked by Modigliani. He was freaked by the face. He drew her like a Modigliani ghost.
Did you know you'd be using [Javier Botet, of [Rec] to play Mama]?
Andy knew him. I plan to use him again in "The Strain" and "Crimson Peak." Andy came up with the whole puppetry of the actor, he came up with these bands for the wrist and the ankle. The actor would be walking, and we would have technicians pulling him. A lot of people think it's digital. Somebody said to me, 'The only effect I didn't buy was Mama, the body was too CGI.' It's a f***ing guy! [Laughs] The only CGI on Mama is the hair. This actor has a thing called Marfan syndrome, which is something that people think Abraham Lincoln also had, which probably helped him with killing vampires. [Laughs] But it's something that allows you to dislocate all of your joints.
What was the casting process like?
[Casting] Nikolaj is one of those moments in which I went to Andy and said that's the guy. Basically, he's playing the girlfriend. It's a very hard part to play. You need somebody that is able to be warm and casual and make the audience feel at home, but at the same time he has to be so good-looking and warm and accessible that you understand why she puts up with this shit. Andy was not as familiar with him, so I said, dude, trust me on this guy.
On Jessica, we showed [Andy] her footage. Back then, it was a very difficult moment because her representatives knew who she was and knew where she was going. They were like don't do a thriller, don't do a genre movie. At the same time, the studio didn't know who she was. We ended up meeting and she immediately wanted to play the part. She said look, I want to transform. I don't want to be the girl that I was in "The Help," or the girl that I was in "The Debt."
How does the Annabel as Jessica portrays her compare to the Annabel on the page?
A great actor can understand what's on the page and make it sing. When I'm doing a reading of a screenplay, if a good actor hits one of your lines, you go I'm a great writer. [Laughs] How good am I? When a bad actor hits that same line, you go holy f***, who's gonna deliver this shit? It's an alchemy. What I think is really great is an actor saying I'm going to service the part. The wrong thing for an actor in any movie, especially in a genre movie, is to have an agenda, to say this is not on the page, and I need it! Then the movie starts changing, balancing towards the actor instead of the story. All I can say is she's close to what's on the page, except it sings.
What do you look for [when casting] kids?
You look for kids that can play. Acting is just playing. When you're a kid you say I'm a cowboy and you play and never discuss it again. You never say what's my motivation? The worst thing you can do is cast a child actor. When they come into the audition and the mother is like don't forget dear, say hello, be courteous, that's horrible. And the kid goes into acting mode. It's horrifying.
Are you planning to keep juggling productions?
Less than I've done. I've come to the conclusion that I need to create a company, because I do it all myself. When you hear JJ Abrams has 10 projects, he has Bad Robot. When you hear that I have 10 projects, it's me. But it's worth continuing to produce first-time directors.
"Mama" opens in theaters on January 18.
‘Psycho’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Still maybe the all-time scariest movie mother is one that we never even see alive (until the under-appreciated made-for-Showtime movie "Psycho IV: The Beginning"). Instead she hangs over "Psycho" like a ghostly fog. When she does finally reveal herself, it ends up freaking everybody about. (One of the more memorable moments from this fall's "Hitchcock" was watching Anthony Hopkins as the director "conducting" an audience to scream from the lobby.) "Mother," as she's affectionately addressed by her cowardly, murderous son Norman (Anthony Perkins), was a controlling matron who was eventually killed by her son but not left to rest in peace. Instead, he dug her up, propped her back in her bedroom, and began assuming her personality to carry out a series of ghastly murders. (Mother doesn't like other women vying for Norman's affections.) Talk about mommy issues…
‘Mother’ (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
Bong Joon-ho is most famously known as the director of "The Host" -- the South Korean monster movie that is probably the best, most emotionally complex creature feature since "Jaws" -- but his follow up is just as much of a hoot. The titular mother is Kim Hye-ja. When her son is accused of murdering a young girl in town, she springs into action, becoming a kind of unscrupulous private detective. Not only is the relationship between mother and son explored in all of its sticky (sometimes icky) dimensions, but Hye-ja is willing to go to some pretty despicable depths to prove her son is innocent (including bending the law). "Mother" is an exhilarating triumph and easily one of the best movies of the past few years. Just don't cross her.
‘Friday the 13th’ (Sean Cunningham, 1980)
While the "Friday the 13th" franchise (which seems to have petered out… for the moment) was built around the hockey-mask-wearing madman Jason Voorhees, it's easy to forget that the first (and still the best) film featured an entirely different killer – Jason's mother, Mrs. Voorhees (veteran stage actress Betsy Palmer). The conceit behind "Friday the 13th" is so well-traveled that we can all quote it from verse -- a group of kids go to reopen a summer camp in the northeastern woods and get killed off, one by one, in spectacularly violent fashion. The reason that the summer camp was closed, however, is what makes "Friday the 13th" so spooky: decades earlier, camp counselors had neglected to save young Jason from drowning. Mrs. Voorhees had kept the camp from reopening and in an effort to keep it closed for good, killed off these new youngsters in some creative ways (poker through the neck, Kevin Bacon!). She gave new meaning to the term "smothering love."
‘Precious’ (Lee Daniels, 2009)
You think you had a rough childhood? Well, you probably weren't verbally abused and then beaten with a frying pan. The insults were made even worse by coming from the barbed tongue of Mo'nique, the fiendishly funny comedienne who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a monstrous mother in Lee Daniels' wildly divisive movie. However, if there's one word to describe "Precious," it's gritty. The film follows Gabourey Sidibe as a morbidly obese teenage mother with AIDS named Precious, who is abused, physically, verbally, or emotionally, by pretty much everybody in her life. But no one is as scary or as singularly intense as her mother, who doesn't speak as much as unleashes hellfire, taking out all of her failings on her poor daughter. It was a totally fearless performance and one that is easier to goggle at than it is to really enjoy. At the very least it makes you thankful that your mother was hopefully never <em>this</em> crazy.
‘Straight-Jacket’ (William Castle, 1964)
William Castle was a director who was part-carnie barker, part-genuine showman and all shameless huckster, cycling through a series of tired gimmicks (putting an electric buzzer under theater seats for "The Tingler," having "ghost viewers" let you choose whether or not to see the horrifying ghouls in "13 Ghosts") while trying to nab viewers who were more earnestly enthralled by the works of superior craftsman and artist Alfred Hitchcock. When Castle ran out of rubber skeletons and "fright breaks," he unleashed his most amazing gimmick yet: Joan Crawford. Following the minor comeback of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," Crawford played an axe murderess who, after being released from prison, might be up to her old tricks again. "Straight-Jacket" is a camp classic, complete with hammy performances from almost everyone (including the head of Pepsi, who has a small role thanks to Crawford's endorsement deal with the soda giant), and moments like the one where Crawford lights a cigarette off a spinning record. The movie gives lip service to the possibly psychopathic relationship between Crawford and her daughter (Diane Baker), but this is Crawford's show, through and through.
‘Mommie Dearest’ (Frank Perry, 1981)
Speaking of Joan Crawford… She was kind of a monster in real life, too! At least according to the over-the-top biopic "Mommie Dearest," based on an account by Joan's daughter Christina Crawford. Her eccentricities were legendary, as was her drinking, and both are brought to vivid, kitschy life by Faye Dunaway (as Joan) and Diana Scarwid (as Christina). While "Mommie Dearest" is an even-more-lurid TV movie version of Crawford's life, eventually the production reaches a point of hysteria that puts it so far over the top that it approaches brilliance. Critics and audiences were divided at the time of its release, but it has survived as a cult classic (thanks to lines like when Crawford screeches "No wire hangers, ever!" and the high-pitched performances); when John Waters does a commentary track for the special edition DVD, you know you've reached some kind of whacked-out immortality. Next time your mother gets on your case, just shoot back at her, "I'm not one of your fans!"
‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (John Frakenheimer, 1962 and Jonathan Demme, 2004)
The two variations on "The Manchurian Candidate," one awash in Cold War-era paranoia and assassination intrigue and the other coldly sealed inside War on Terror moral ambiguity, offer two wonderfully wicked mom. The first was played by Angela Lansbury (murder she <em>definitely</em> wrote), the other by Meryl Streep, stepping outside of her usual restrained refinement to get downright hammy. (Both actresses play against type and it works beautifully.) As the mother(s) of a political candidate brainwashed into nefariousness, Lansbury's performance is more nebulous (at least in terms of her relationship with her son, played by James Gregory), while Meryl more closely mimics Hilary Clinton, complete with the frosted hairstyle, and makes it pretty clear she's been sleeping with her son (this time played by a wounded Live Schrieber). There is glamour to both roles but also a willingness to dig deep into pure, unfiltered evil. The original is considered a classic (for good reason), which has caused people to dismiss the remake, even though it's got its own highly stylized vision (it's probably Demme's best, most balls-out movie since "Silence of the Lambs"). Mothers always want the best for their sons, even if it means plugging them into a vast international conspiracy.
‘Carrie’ (Brian De Palma, 1976)
De Palma clearly loves Alfred Hitchcock (and is also keenly interested in one-upping his hero), so he attempted to create a mom that out-evils Mother from "Psycho." Here, Piper Laurie plays a mother you can't wait to be psychically crucified in the movie's climax –--a religious zealot who takes every minor infraction out on her daughter, Carrie (Sissy Spacek), a girl who happens to possess unparalleled telekinetic powers. Prudish and isolated (she refers to Carrie's burgeoning breasts as "dirty pillows," which we hope to god author Stephen King came up with in his novel and not something people actually say), Mama White is the kind of close-minded woman who thinks she knows just about everything while actually understanding nothing. De Palma lights and frames Laurie like she's literally just busted out of hell, and that includes the climactic showdown, in which he fills the White house with innumerable candles, giving it an operatic, otherworldly glow. Ms. White also teaches us that bullies aren't just in the schoolyard, they're back at home, too.
‘What's The Matter With Helen?’ (Curtis Harrington, 1971)
Here's one from the vaults -- written by "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" scribe Henry Farrell and directed by journeyman filmmaker Curtis Harrington -- that focuses on the murderous urges of two mothers whose children are responsible for a reprehensible crime. The two moms (Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds) escape from Iowa and move to Hollywood to open a dance school for young girls. (Seriously.) Oh and it's also set in 1930's. As soon as they touch down in Hollywood, their behavior starts to rival their imprisoned children's crimes. "What's the Matter with Helen?" is one of the more bargain-basement entries on this list -- more exploitation than psychologically exploratory, it's so, so much fun, complete with a prologue that shifts from black-and-white to color, just like "Wizard of Oz!" If only Dorothy had a mother like Reynolds or Winters.
‘Serial Mom’ (John Waters, 1994)
Waters is clearly a fan of the "bad mom" genre (see also: his commentary track on "Mommie Dearest" and steadfast devotion to William Castle), so it's no surprise that he decided to make his own and give the plum role to none other than Kathleen Turner (in what still might be her most devilishly enjoyable performance to date). The central joke of "Serial Mom" is that Turner's June Cleaver-ish matriarch is, secretly, out murdering people who piss her off. Some of the funniest moments in the movie involve her getting up from the table, going out to murder kill and coming back. Setting a serial killer farce in the suburbs is a stroke of genius that could only be pulled off by Waters, who walks a fine tonal balance between horror and comedy, helped along by the entire cast, which includes Sam Waterson, Ricki Lake, and Matthew Lillard, who all seem to be in on the joke. The suburbs can be a stressful place; murder seems like a good way to blow off steam every once in a while. Waters wanted to join the pantheon of classic bad mom movies and he succeeded with flying colors.
Also on Moviefone: