Guillermo del Toro and Jessica Chastain on the Making of MAMA

Mama, opening in the U.S. on January 18, is a supernatural horror film that deals with two little girls rescued from the woods following their parents' death. The sisters are placed in the care of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), after which it becomes clear they have brought a spectral presence with them.

Mama is directed by Andy Muschietti, and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro. Muschietti, del Toro, producer and co-writer Barbara Muschietti (Andy's sister), Chastain and Coster-Waldau recently visited New York City to speak with the press about the film. 

Below are some remarks from executive producer Guillermo del Toro and actress Jessica Chastain about their experiences on making Mama. [Editor's note: We'll have much more from another, epic talk with del Toro in a separate series of posts. Consider this a teaser!]

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Guillermo del Toro:

On the basic elements of horror

I want to believe that there's only two things that work in horror, I mean the very, very basic, is the things that shouldn't be but are, and the things that should be but are not. For example, you walk into your living room, and you see your dad watching TV. That's not scary. But if I tell you your dad died three years ago, it's scary. So that's the thing that shouldn't be but is. And the opposite is, for example, you walk out of your house, you open the door, and the street is not there. You're in the middle of nowhere, just black space. That's scary, too. It's something that should be but is not. And so on and so forth, but basically you can derive every example in every horror movie from these two little simple rules. The rest is really playing with the logic of the world as we know it, and dislocating it. 

On whether there's anything he won't do in the horror genre

Horror works very much like humor. It's a matter of taste. So it's very hard to say what I would not do, because I think the horror film should have no limits. I do not look down on movies that have graphic violence or gore, because it's one aspect of the genre that is needed. I don't do them, I don't make movies like that, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't exist. There are really, really good movies in that category. So I think that in humor, as in horror, you can never go too far.

On what determines his choice to produce or direct projects

I obviously produce things that I normally don't generate, things that I can be a partner with someone. I can be a functional partner that is just there for the financing, like I did on Splice with Vincenzo Natali, where it's more a friend helping a friend. Or I can be as involved as I was in Mama, or The Orphanage, or Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. And in those cases, I try to only produce things that I believe in and that I have an interest in seeing. Because really, most of the time it's what I call my UNICEF work, because really, little comes out of it but moral satisfaction, and artistic satisfaction. And now and then, the movies, you see them flourish, and you help them exist in the world, and that's great. Like The Orphanage and Mama, I'm super proud that they exist, I'm very proud to have helped Vincenzo create Splice. But it really is about doing something for the genre. 

And directing is the opposite rule - I normally don't direct things that I don't write. The only exception - and even then I did a lot of rewrites - was Blade II. The rest of the movies I have co-written, including Pacific Rim. It's very hard for me to read somebody else's screenplay and go, I gotta do this. It hasn't happened so far. 

On how he worked with director Andy Muschietti

It was really a matter of collaboration. I have now produced nearly 20 films, in Mexico, Latin America, Europe, and so forth. And by now I know, I hope, how to produce in a way that is supportive and strong, but unobtrusive. And the rule is very simple for me: I produce the way I would like to be produced. Do unto others, you know? I've been produced really well, and I've been produced really bad, so I know the difference. I collaborate with the director, knowing I'm not the director, I'm a producer. So I push and push and push, but finally, if he says no, I go OK, fuck you. (Laughs)

On the genesis and development of MAMA

I saw the short that Andy and Barbara did together, I saw it in '07 or '08, and I met with them around 2009. I called them first, I said, look, I saw the short, I love it, I want to come on board as producer for the feature version. I met with them, and I asked Andy and Barbara both, I said, look, we can produce it as a small European movie. Zero interference, you can have the girls played by sock puppets, and nobody will tell you anything. Or we can do it as an American movie, and there will be a lot more opinions. I'll be your bodyguard, but still the process gets politically more complicated. But you get a bigger exposure. I said, those are the two flavors I can offer you. And they chose the bigger format. I tried to act as a buffer to preserve the idiosyncrasies of what Andy wanted to do. Andy's style is very European. The ending of the movie is not an ending that is normal or common in a commercial movie. 

The financing was done in a way that we get control of the picture. We knew that if we co-produced between Canada and Spain, we would allow the portion of Universal's investment to be small enough that we could be creatively more free. And we delineated that very strongly. I was very, very clear, and Barbara was very clear, that we needed this movie on time and budget in order to be left alone. Like they say in Barton Fink, "They took an interest." You don't want them to take an interest. So fortunately for us, the partnership with Universal was so good, that at the end of the process, we showed them the film with that ending. And we prepared arguments for the defense, we were all loaded with a pistol in the sock, and a knife under the belt. And they came out and said, we love it. We love the ending, we love everything about it. 

On the concept of motherhood in MAMA

I have two daughters, and I constantly try to show other ways of portraying women rather than the usual role. And I find that most of the time, motherhood is portrayed only in the most sanctimonious way. And there is a motherhood that is asphyxiating, and possessive, and horrifying, that is real, just as real as the other one. I really was interested in seeing a female character that was literally struggling, fighting motherhood, or the idea that the only role you can have with a child is that of a mother. And Jessica was very much on board on portraying more like a solidarity between the three women in the movie. She doesn't become the mother of the kids, she becomes a hero, a friend, a protector, and responsible, but not in a motherly way. She's not helicoptering around them, she has an equal relationship, which I love. When she talks to them, she talks to them like women. They have a really horizontal relationship. I really love the idea of portraying that, and portraying the different options in that, and do it through a fable, through a horror fairytale. 

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Jessica Chastain:

On how she became involved with MAMA

This script was sent to me right after Tree of Life came out. So Tree of Life was at Cannes with Take Shelter. And all of a sudden, I started getting all these scripts sent to me with these really devoted wives and mothers. (Laughs) In Tree of Life, she's the most graceful, perfect mother in the world. So I realized that there is typing in Hollywood. And this got sent to me. I mean, this couldn't be further from The Tree of Life, the character of Annabel. She's definitely the reluctant mother, wants nothing to do with children. She's a bass guitarist in a punk band, who's not even that good that she'll ever be famous. (Laughs) She'd be happy going to community college her whole life, living with her sexy boyfriend in their loft, and just hanging out. And then she's forced to deal with the responsibility of these children. I was really moved by the hero's journey, this woman becoming a hero, becoming a selfless person. And I kind of liked that in the beginning, she's a bit of a bitch. She's a little unlikable, she's a little selfish. And she grows a heart of gold by the end.

On watching horror films

I had never done a horror film before. I really like horror films. I don't like slasher films, but I really like the tension of horror films. So I just got as many as I could, and filled my dressing room with them, and would play them whenever I was hanging out in there. Even if I was doing something else, it would just kind of always be on. It took me three times to watch the movie REC. It's tough, man. I like horror films, but I realized I like watching horror films when I'm with other people. And watching one by yourself is no fun. 

On working with the Muschiettis and del Toro

My favorite thing was just like the family stuff, because Barbara and Andy are brother and sister. And Andy's like a Renaissance man. I think, I could be wrong, but all the drawings in Lucas' room are all Andy, he's an amazing artist. He also plays tons of instruments, so he's like into music, and drawing, and writing. But because of that too, he kind of gets lost sometimes. He'll be creating something, and then my favorite thing is that all of a sudden Barbara starts speaking, I'll hear, "Andy!" And she starts speaking in Spanish to him, and then they start speaking back and forth. And you really see the amazing team that they are, because she' so organized and smart. It's like they're two sides of the same coin. I turned to both of them. Andy, because he's incredibly creative, and inventive, and visual. And Barbara, because she's whip smart, and really fun to be around. And then Guillermo, you turn to for humor. He's like the captain, you know. But he never makes you feel like a servant. Whenever he's on set, it's like a standup routine, he's really great to be around.

On avoiding typecasting and playing well-rounded characters

I want to do all kinds of films, all kinds of characters. I don't want to be typed. If someone tries to type me, I'm super stubborn, and I will do the opposite. Tree of Life is one my favorite things that I've ever done, and that character was probably the greatest gift I've ever been given. But the second I found out people were typing me, I was like, "I'll show you!" I'll do the opposite of a Terrence Malick, I'm going to do a horror film, and I'm going to play the opposite of a good mother. I want to do a Western, I want to do a musical, as long as I play a woman that has an arc, and has something going for her other than the male counterparts. Sometimes in American cinema, the woman is there to serve the male role. Even if it's a small part, I don't mind, like Celia Foote [Chastain's character in The Help], that was a fun role. I was not the lead of that film, but she had her own interesting arc in it. And that's what I need in a film.

Around the Internet:
  • NeronWillRise

    Anybody notice that Chastain has been in the number 1 and 2
    movies at the B.O. during a weekend in 2011 (The Help, The Debt)
    and she'll do it again (Zero Dark, Mama) in 2013?

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