Gorber's Epic Guillermo del Toro Interview, Part 3: On LUTHER, Casting MAMA, and Music in Film

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

Scheduled to last a mere 15 minutes, the famously loquacious and erudite filmmaker spent 90 minutes at our roundtable discussion. In this, the third part of our five part series, he talked about the British television show Luther, on the casting of the film Mama, and a discussion about the use of music in film

Click for Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5
Please Note: There may be spoilers below for Mama and other works.

The British Television show LUTHER seems to be the sort of keystone of your current and future projects!

Yeah, in many ways.

You got the show's star Idris Elba in PACIFIC RIM, you got the show creator Neil Cross as a writer for MAMA, you got your next project...

[interrupts]...And Neil Cross re-wrote incredibly well [the] At The Mountains of Madness [script]. And he wrote Midnight Delivery for Brian Kirk...

Is this coincidental or is there something about LUTHER in particular that really spoke to you?

No, what happened was there was a series in the UK called Spooks, and Neal created a couple of the best episodes. My assistant at the time said to me, you know, that guy lives in New Zealand, in Wellington.

And you happened to be down in New Zealand for a few years working on some little film project...

Yeah! I thought, "Oh, I found the perfect guy to have lunch with!"

Neil and I started just as lunch dates.  We would talk, and I realized there was somebody very fucking twisted in there. 

When Luther came out, and I was blown away. I was amazed at the level of humanity and darkness, and [Neil and I] started collaborating.  I knew Idris from Stringer Bell on The Wire, but I always thought he was an American actor. I see him in Luther and I go, "No. Fucking. Way!"

I love his North London accent, and when he came in for Pacific Rim he said "what accent do you want me to do?", and I said "just do your north London!", and I wrote the character [that way]. The backstory is not in the movie, but I write the backstories of the characters and I wrote it so he could be North London comfortably.

A great actor.

Can you talk about landing Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for MAMA?

Nikolai is one of those moments in which I went to Andy and said "That's the guy".  Andy was thinking this, thinking that, I said, "no, you need a guy!", so that the audience understands why she is sticking with him.

You knew him from GAME OF THRONES? HEADHUNTERS?

Well, I knew him from [both] GoT and Headhunters.

I think he has great warmth and that's impossible to predict from GoT, and I thought it would be great to show that side of him. He is super because basically he's playing "the girlfriend" and it's a very hard part to play. I know it because it was super hard for Guy Pearce to play the girlfriend in Don't be Afraid, so 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 so warm and accessible that you understand why she puts up with this shit.

It's one of those [things] where Andy was not as familiar with him and I said "Dude, trust me on this guy."

On Jessica, we showed him her footage.

What did you have?

Back then, literally it was a very difficult moment because her representatives knew who she was and knew where she was going to be, so they were like "don't do a thriller! Don't do a genre movie!" And at the same time, the studio didn't know who she was. 

So we saw The Debt, which was frozen in the same hell as Don't be Afraid of the Dark. [Chastain] was not a logical choice back then, it was a lot of effort to convince the studio she was the one, and a lot of effort to convince her camp for her to do the movie.

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, I don't want to be the girl that I was in The Debt, I want to be completely different."

I think that [Jessica] is close to the personality of Annabel in the sense that she is incredibly accessible as a person, easy to read, what you see is what you get. She is very "non-actory" in that way. In dealing with her she is very non-actory every day and then snap, she is on, the camera rolls and she goes bang, completely on.

Chastain is also physically looser in MAMA. So many of her roles are about being solid and physically fixed in place, giving very little emotionally and mentally. With the tattoos and the guitar she just has this really interesting interaction with everything that's around her, and it sort of eventually extends to the young girls.

Andy cast the girls, and the chemistry that developed between [Chastain] and the girls was fantastic. She came in and she said "I don't want to meet the girls because I want to go through the same distance," but by the end of the first day they were just piling up and having donuts. It was a love fest.

That allowed Jessica to go to a scene that I consider beautiful, when she starts blowing warmth into the hand of the girl. The only mother that girl has known is cold, the only flesh that that girl has touched is the flesh of a ghost. The girl discovers the warmth of the breath and it is so beautiful. [Chastain] allowed the girl to really smack the shit out of her, and that's unique.

[Chastain] had the intelligence... I tell you this because an actor can panic and say "oh, it's a genre [film], so I'm going to make my character super complex and I want a scene where I talk about where I come from and my childhood was this and my father didn't understand," whatever. Jessica's method is fantastic, she goes, "the moment I walk in, what I'm wearing, the way I am tattoos, is going to tell the story". She knows she doesn't want a family but she doesn't need to explain why, and she was smart about that.

She wanted an octopus on her arm because she said "if one of its arms gets trapped, it just leaves it behind, so I'm like that. My character's like that, if I get trapped in a relationship, I just fucking leave my arm behind".  She rationalized every part of the wardrobe and the costume and everything, she knew what was her favourite band, we knew what records she listened to, we knew what LPs she had in the box. We didn't need her to, but she was smart about that. Rare.

I think that in these movies a lot of people forget that they need a great lady at the core. You need somebody that is not just a scream-Queen. You need somebody that understands the character in all three dimensions.

The character is very important in the movie because one thing we all agreed upon is that we didn't want her to become a mother. It would be completely hypocritical to make a movie that says motherhood is monstrous and then have her become a mother. She literally bonds with one of the girls, bonds with the other one, but she bonds woman to woman, you know? She never mothers them.

She actively resists it.

Yes, even when she's feeding them, it's like "oh yeah!" [throwing food]

She even slaps them on the head

She's like a pal. But she's nevertheless heroic at the end.

What do you look for in casting kids?

In this case, Andy narrowed it down to 7 or 8 kids, and then we narrowed it down even further. Even then, I would have gone very different with the kids. I would have gone with kids that looked more like kids from the short - dark hair, dark eyes, because I find dark eyes and dark hair have a mystery. Andy wanted them to be blonde and be physically very different from each other.

I always thought they should be like twins, so you know, completely different.

You like Kubrick too much. That's your problem!

Probably! [Laughs] Only in the fact that I have a beard!

The thing with [casting] kids, you look for [those] that can play. Acting is just playing. 

When you're a kid you say "I'm a cowboy, I'm an Indian," and you never discuss it again.  You never say "What's my motivation? Am I the chief of the Indians or am I the hunter?" You play. 

With kid [actors] it's the same, [those] that can physically feel like they're there. With these kids you physically feel like they're there and these kids are remarkable. They feel like they are real. 

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 and be courteous" and all that. it's horrible. When the kid goes into acting mode, it's horrifying. 

Just going back to Jessica, it's so interesting that she really made the role her own. How does Annabel as she portrays her compare to what was on the page?

A great actor can understand what's on the page and make it sing. 

When we do a read-through of a screenplay, if a good actor hits one of your lines, you say "I'm a great writer! Oh my god, how good am I?" But when a bad actor hits the same line or a different line and you go "holy fuck, who's going to deliver this shit!?" It's like that.  It's an alchemy. 

What I think is really great is an actor trying to say, "look, I'm going to serve the part".  The wrong thing for an actor in any movie, especially a genre movie, is to have an agenda, to say "OK, this is what is not on the page, and I need it." The movie starts changing, balancing towards the actor rather than the story.  So, all I can say is she's close to what is on the page, except [with her] it sings.

I want to talk to you about music in your films. In your own works, it's there, but tends not to be as showy as in other works.

I think with Pacific Rim I'm doing stuff a little different because I caught myself doing stuff in the movies I've done that I'm not happy with. I like the idea of starting with no music and designing the sound, and then you go to the mixing room, and that's when both of them live together and you end up realizing that it's not a waltz, it's a tango.  One of them needs to lead, and it's very hard to bet.

It's very easy to fall on the side of music and let music lead.  Curiously enough on Pacific Rim, I'm very consciously making those choices now, before I'm in the mixing room, where I let sound design lead on this one scene to make it real.

Music will make it emotionally real in a way that if you have a good composer it doesn't qualify, but if you have anything less it qualifies, and really it's a hard choice. I think the perfect scores in all the movies I've the done are the scores for Pan's Labyrinth and [laughs] the one in Mimic

The others, they have good, great parts, and parts where I shouldn't have used music, so I'm not as happy.

The Devil's Backbone has a great score, but I think [Javier Navarrete] wrote a better score for Pan's.  That's the one thing where I love, the only thing I can remember in Devil's Backbone is the part [sings]  "la de da", the ghost's voice.  But Mimic was also a perfect score, it's I think one of the best Marco [Beltrami] ever wrote

Was the scoring the happiest part of that whole production of MIMIC?

There was no happy part.

Even then, I really I find it is difficult because I am fan of music. I'm a soundtrack lover, so I sometimes, as a director, end up being a soundtrack lover when I shouldn't be, so that's a mea culpa. I really don't think this is an area where I can go that I'm proud of.

I think soundtracks are still the last part of modern filmmaking that use other people's works in lieu of the own work during the editing process. When Lucas is cutting Star Wars he's was using WWII footage as a placeholder, but now you'd do that with your own animatics. Temping in music with existing scores has resulted in the charge from some that a lot of film scores sound the same, as you plop the same Zimmer track from X movie in, and then get your composer to mimic it.

Yeah, but that's a trap, as if everybody is having an affair and a marriage on the side.

This is a bizarre piece of trivia. Ridley Scott bought a cue from Blade II that is in Kingdom of Heaven! If you see Kingdom of Heaven and wait for the credits you'll see that there is a cue [Ridley Scott] fell in love with to the point of buying it. Michael Mann bought a cue from an [Alejandro González] Iñárritu movie for The Insider. You end up falling in love with a piece of music.

Almodóvar bought a piece from I think it was Ryûichi Sakamoto for Kika [1993].  I think sometimes you cannot even get over it because the affair was so strong with that piece of music, but what you try to do is actually when you know who you're working with, you try to temp with that.

The most famous, the most brutal case of this that we're talking about is Kubrick temping 2001: A Space Odyssey while Alex North was writing [the eventually unused score].

I'll give you a real geeky piece of trivia:  The track called "Docking" from the 2001 [North] score is actually later put to good use in Dragon's Lair

The video game?

No, not the video game, the Matthew Robbins movie

Ah, DRAGONSLAYER!

With Ennio Morricone, the rhythm base of an Italian movie called Revolver [Sergio Sollima, 1973] Revolver, which is amazing and with Oliver Reed. There's this rhythm [sings "ta.... tatatat a, ta tata"] which is The Untouchables.

This becomes a geeky pursuit.

If you rip off a shot, or pay homage to a shot, it's made much more explicit, whereas scores tend to be either incredibly bombastic or incredibly repetitive and derivative

Yeah.

Tarantino gets around this through his use of source music, for the most part, although in DJANGO UNCHAINED he changed that slightly.

Yeah, and also in Inglorious Basterds he just put soundtrack [cues from other films]. I think that's valid because you're talking somebody for who every movie is a love letter to cinema, period. He is is the only case I think that is not just doing meta, that's life for him. I think cinema is life, there's no distinction.

There's not a guy that's escaping...cinema is life, end of discussion. Therefore, I think without cinema the world would not make sense for Quentin. It's beyond a wink and a nod or a post-modern approach, that's coming completely from the gut.

You should get Goblin back together, now that Dario's not using them.

The other day I was listening to the score of Zombie, the Fulci movie, it's Goblin-esque, without a doubt.

Did you get to see Looper?

Fuck yeah!

There's my every movie movie.

Well, I'll tell you this, Rian came to see Pacific Rim, he saw the whole thing, because we may be doing a project together. "The Fly" [episode of Breaking Bad] is the best "bottle episode" ever! A cool guy, he said about PacRim "I felt exactly as a kid playing with my robots and my monsters, clashing..."

Click here for Part 4

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