Based on a three-minute short by Andres "Andy" Muschietti, the story follows two young sisters who've gone missing. Five years later, they are discovered in the wilderness, miraculously all safe, but not quite sound. Having desperately searched for them, their uncle Lucas ("Game of Thrones"' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and his current girlfriend Annabel ("Zero Dark Thirty"'s Jessica Chastain), take on the task of raising them. What the couple didn't count on is there's a strong entity attached to the girls and it's getting angry that its maternal role is being replaced.
Muschietti directed the short in 2006, having made it with his sister, Barbara. Now, for the feature, Andy has directed and co-written, with Barbara as co-writer and producer, and del Toro as their champion; he executive-produced the film, helped them write it, was on set during much of the production and ensured that they could make their debut feature their way.
Back in November, 2011, Chastain, director Muschietti and del Toro sat down with Moviefone on the Toronto set to discuss bringing "Mama" and their vision to life.
Can you introduce us to your character and her predicament?
Chastain: I play Annabel, and she plays bass guitar in a punk band. She's very much living the life of never really wanting to grow up and have responsibility. She has a great boyfriend and I don't think Annabel will ever be at the stage where she's like, "OK, I'm going to settle down and have a family." She's kind of just in this holding pattern. Against her own wishes, she gets stuck with the responsibility of caring for two young girls. She doesn't know anything about dealing with kids. And then the young girls come with something else. She has to contend with that as well.
Something happens to Annabel's boyfriend and then I'm stuck with these kids. The idea of ghosts is that when they die, if they are in a heightened state, like a woman protecting her child or something, there is this really intense maternal state. The ghost is this representation of whatever the state was when they moved on, or didn't move on. So we have Mama, who is this maternal energy starting to feel threatened because there's another maternal energy coming into play.
It sounds like you're the point-of-view character and the audience is seeing this film through your eyes.
Chastain: When I first met with Andy and he was talking to me about the character, I wanted to make sure we weren't doing a movie about a woman who didn't want to be a mom and then, "Look how wonderful it is to be a mom." He was like, "No, no, no. It's not like that. It's Annabel becomes a hero of people." It's this woman who is not necessarily likeable ... maybe she starts off a bit self-centered and not a very compassionate person, but through the relationship she develops with these girls, Annabel actually learns to be a good person and put herself at risk to save others. You actually have the making of a hero.
What about the concept for Mama's character -- did you find it frightening?
Chastain: The most dangerous animal is a mother protecting her cubs, like the grizzly bear. If you see a female animal with her children, that's when they are most dangerous. That probably goes across the board for everything. That's probably the most dangerous emotion, that protective mother instinct.
Del Toro: When we went to Universal, to me, it was so clear that I said to them, "Look, the tagline is "A Mother's Love is Forever." It is absolutely horrifying. I love this idea it's something that everybody can relate to. Everybody at some point or another had a mother.
Was there a full script when you got involved or just the short you saw?
Del Toro: It was the short. We started developing the screenplay from scratch. We talked about the ideas and they [Andy and his sister Barbara, who co-wrote the script] had a few ideas. Then I took a stab at the screenplay and then Neil Cross was brought in and he did a big big revamping of the screenplay. We developed it all the way.
Narratively, is this going to be a lot of slow reveals and scares?
Del Toro: Fear is literally a catch-and-release. You have to reel in and then give a little up. Andy is very good at that. I'm very surprised because the dailies, separate, every shot seems a bit mellow. Then he cuts them together and they are beautiful. You start seeing more of the design you saw in the storyboards in the morning. Francis Coppola says, "Never as good as the dailies. Never as bad as the first cut." This has been the opposite. I love the dailies, but the first cut is better.
How do you go about making a three-minute short into a full-length feature, while still keeping the elements that made that short so exciting in the first place?
Muschietti: How you go from a short to a long story is very simple: it's about answering the questions the short suggests. Everybody asks "Why do these two girls have a ghost mother?" When you start thinking about it, there's really not many possibilities. So, when the answer came, it was simple to establish what the outline would be. Of course, from that moment to now, it grew a lot and there were lots of development and lots of ideas that came in.
Mama is such a visual creature. Can you talk about the inspiration for her look?
Muschietti: At the very bottom of the idea, there's a very scary image that I have. At home, when we were children, there were Modigliani paintings. Modigliani made these stretched faces and the empty eyes in the wrong angle. That always scared me a lot. It's a place generally monsters don't go. I realized this kind of monster, or kind of scary, I've never seen before.
"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.
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