On the Set: Guillermo del Toro, Jessica Chastain on the Mysteries of Mama


October 27, 2011.  In the heart of Toronto on this chilly day in late October, there are traces of “Halloween” in the air.  Cardboard ghouls and skeletons are taped to windows.  Ornamental pumpkins, surrounded by colorful autumn leaves, rest in display cases of various shops.  Not far off, a horror film festival is about to get underway.  And somewhere, someone is likely feasting on a pumpkin donut or sipping from their pumpkin latte.  All of these festive elements are getting this writer – who resides in Southern California, the land devoid of seasons – in an apropos mood for an apropos set visit to Pinewood Toronto Studios where some supernatural shenanigans are unfolding.  

ShockTillYouDrop.com is checking in on director Andy Muschietti, who is orchestrating a feature-length spookshow called Mama, based on his short film of the same name.  The short focused on two young girls and a malevolent spirit – it was three minutes of tightly-wound terror that was all about stylistic execution over story.  The feature film, however, will provide more narrative substance.  The tale tells of Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a couple who welcome two young girls, Lily and Victoria – found living alone in a cabin – into their home.  As Annabel tries to introduce these youngsters, Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) and Victoria (Megan Charpentier), to a normal life, Annabel starts to believe an evil presence has permeated her home.

Mama marks Muschietti’s feature directorial debut and he’s able to pull off his endeavor thanks to executive producer Guillermo del Toro.  

Del Toro has, for some time now, made it a point to shepherd promising filmmakers and their visions (see: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Orphanage, Splice, Julia’s Eyes).  Here at Pinewood Toronto, Del Toro’s mission is two-fold.  Not only is he overseeing Mama but he’s in heavy pre-production on the monster ‘n robot romp Pacific Rim.  Every sound stage on this lot is dedicated to Del Toro.  In fact, you can say Pinewood Toronto accurately reflects the dual nature of Del Toro’s career as he has always found a way to balance big budget fare with smaller, more intimate projects – whether he’s in the director’s seat of those films are not.

To kick off our Mama coverage, we begin with our discussion with Del Toro and Chastain – the latter looking rather different than the last time we saw her.  The actress sports a Misfits t-shirt, short, black hair, dark mascara and a partial tattoo sleeve – an octopus (designed by director Muschietti) creeping down her arm (admittedly, we’re kind of smitten with this new look).  Del Toro?  Well, he’s his usual jovial self and always a pleasure to listen to.

Question: Have you taken over this entire studio area?

Guillermo del Toro:  Yeah, we did.  It’s a Mexican coup.

Question: So how much time do you get to spend over here with prepping the other movie at the same time?

Del Toro:  Well, what happened is Mama obviously started shooting way earlier than [Pacific Rim] and we’ve been working on it for over two years.  We went through many drafts and developing the look of Mama.  We started over a year ago.  We did some tests and so when we came here it was easier to spend more time at the end of the day going to the Mama office.  Now, as I start shooting [Pacific Rim] in two weeks [it will be] less so, but I do check Andy’s [Muschietti] home work every morning. We arrive like an hour before call.  He walks me through his day.  I give him my blessing.  We literally walk the setups, then at the end of the day I see the dailies.  Any comment I have I talk to him.  We meet on the weekends for the editing.  I mean it’s very practical to have it shooting right here.  If it wasn’t like that, I couldn’t do it.

Question:  This is a Canadian/Spanish production, right?  Was there ever a notion to shoot it in Spain?

Del Toro:  We did.  I said to Andy early on, “There are two models of how we can make this movie. One is we have no money, but we do it completely free.  You are never going to get a note”  I said, “The other one, which I cannot fully prepare you for is through a studio, which means that you are going to get notes.  I’m going to be the Mexican buffer, so you’re not going to get as many.  You are going to be well protected, but coming from the background you come from, they are going to feel like a lot.”  He said, “I’ve done enough commercials and dealt with the clients,” which, it’s different, but he chose this model. He said, “I want to have the sets.  I want to have the look and the time to shoot it.”  And that’s what we went for.

Question:  What was your initial reaction to the original film and how did you get involved in the feature film?

Del Toro:  We look at hundreds of shorts every year.  I love producing first-time movies, because you bring voices to a genre that a lot of people come into for a different reason than a genuine love for it, so when you find someone like Andy, like Bayona, like Troy Nixey, you go “There’s a voice in there.”  The form was very flashy, because it was a single shot apparently, but it was very, very coherent with the fact that the whole short was about building up.  It was very, very smart and then we met.  My reaction was I crapped my pants.  I think that we contacted Andy.  We met about the concept of the story.  We developed the screenplay together.  He had a very clear notion of what he wanted to do with the characters, which – strangely enough – is very similar to the stuff we did in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark meaning a couple, the daughter is reluctant, but it was there before I came in.  That notion was there and then we did a very good rewrite with Neil Cross who did a rewrite for me on At the Mountains of Madness.

Question: With the original short what really is amazing about it is that it’s three minutes long. It’s really in and out and it’s got such an impact.  How do you balance that with telling a story that includes the back-story and the answers?

Del Toro:  Horror is always better when nothing is explained and frankly if you can do features, which you can in Europe and you can do in other countries, but an American horror movie there will always be the moment where you reveal the origin of this or the origin of that and that inevitably diminishes it.  For example, The Ring – the original Nakata film and the remake – the difference is how much it is explained and as much as I like Let Me In, but again, the more mystery the less linear the backstory is, the better the movie is.  We inevitably reveal the origin, but I think what we tried to do…  I always say “Family is either the greatest joy or the worst horror” like either your stepfather is a fascist or your step father is Professor Broom.  Family is always intrinsic, too.  I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever.”  For me, it made it something relatable, like “All mothers turn into horrible things at some point” and then you reconcile and it can be great or not. I thought the idea of that surpasses any origin.  It’s such a strong thing that ultimately what this creature has is possessive love.  A mother’s jealousy is really, really strong.

Question: We talked to Edward earlier who is at work on the digital effects and obviously we know you’re a big monster fan, can you talk about your input on Mama’s look and the hair and the fingers and all of the stuff he talked with us about?

Del Toro:  Holy shit.  Literally, I brought them to the house.  We started with an amazing prosthetic work, amazing, and I bring them home and I put it on and my daughters run away.  [laughs]  “We don’t want to see that!”  My wife is “Don’t show that to the girls!”  It’s really cool and then my wife came and visited, because she used to do prosthetic make-up with me back in the day and she came in to see the application and the actor was immobile and he lifted his head and moved his jaw and she said, “I’m leaving.”  So, we started with a very strong base, but I think it’s great and we did it in a different way with the ghost in Devil’s Backbone, to have an underwater effect for the hair.  The tests are really, really promising.

Question: Was it your idea to bring Javier [Botet] in to play Mama since he played a creepy old girl in [REC]?

Del Toro:  No, the DDT guys [did that].  Javier is like one of the nicest guys on earth, but we had never met.  We call him jokingly, “The thin Doug Jones.” [laughs]  Because he makes Doug Jones look like John Candy.  But we had never connected and the thing with him is Andy wanted him from the start.  DDT are big fans of him, so you know we just went for it.  We did some stuff with him in the tests that are really simple, but it’s freaky weird.  The movement becomes so strange.  Andy came up with some ideas that are really revolutionary, I think.

Question: Can you talk about the casting of Jessica Chastain?

Del Toro:  We were having many casting suggestions with big names and big stars and this and that and then I saw The Debt.  I was blown away by the fact that all of her choices as actress were so smart, you know like scenes that played counter point to the way they would normally be played.  The way she seemed to absorb Helen Mirren’s sort of mannerisms and then I talked to her and she said, “Actually Helen Mirren did some stuff I did, because we met after I finished my performance.”  I said, “Well how did you get all of her…”  “I watch a lot of her movies.”  I thought she was so smart and we went and said back then “We want this actress that has no movies released, because she is the perfect actress.”  We went and fortunately we got the actress we wanted.

RELATED: Click here for our Mama hi-res photo gallery featuring the stills you see here!

Question:  Would you see this, thematically, as a companion piece to films that you have done, like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone

Del Toro:  It does, but I tell you the thing is that when we came on board, I came on board the short, his storyline was something I had a great communion with.  At some point I did a little pass on the screenplay and then Neil did a big pass, so little by little, but it’s very different.  It’s like The Orphanage.  The Orphanage and I have many things in common, but it’s a movie that is done in such a completely different style.  Julia’s Eyes, if you saw it, is really almost eastern European style of the look and what fascinates me is, yes, there are many things I have in common with Mama, but the style he is shooting it at, the color palette, the design elements are very different than how I would do it and I’m fascinated by that.  They find elegant solutions to things that I break my head over.

Question: Is Mama like a villain?  How much empathy are we going to have for her in the classical tradition of Universal monster films?

Del Toro:  I think that what it is is a possessive mother is very hard to sympathize with for me.  She is sheer possession, but Andy is doing stuff with her backstory that is moving.  I think that what you have is if you let a human…  If the soul is the whole of a human being and you leave it out to dry and desiccate and the only thing left is possession, that’s Mama.

Question: How important is it to make sure that the ghost stuff in this is different from what we’ve see before?  You have encyclopedic knowledge of this genre, so are you just saying to Andy, “That’s great, but that really is an awful lot like what we’ve already seen.”

Del Toro:  Well, I think he is very aware of it.  There are moments where if you trace the lineage of ghosts in film, there’s a moment where Mario Bava intersects with J Horror, J Horror intersects with Devil’s Backbone and there’s no way of not threading some stuff that has been done, so as long as you don’t have a guy in a blanket you are doing quite alright.  [laughs]  I think the thing that we tried to do – one of the things I did in Devil’s Backbone – is I was like “Let’s not just change the ghosts, let’s change the atmosphere around it, so that there’s something that the ghost brings into our world” and we are doing stuff like that in Mama that is interesting.  The look is the second most interesting thing, but I remember one of the scariest operations ever is in a movie that is not really good is The Sentinel.  The moment she closes the door and her father is there is so scary, because we know her father is dead and yet he is there.  I mean, it’s just a very old guy in pale makeup with contact lenses, but it’s so scary. So the main thing is if the concept is really new, it helps.

Question: What’s the dynamic like between Andy and Barbara, brother and sister?

Del Toro:  I think they are like the kids from The Midwich Cuckoos – they have like a psychic bond of an unholy kind. They really are a great tag team. Between the two, they approximate my body weight.  I tag wrestle them both together.  She is really, really what a producer should be, which is very protective of the first instinct of Andy and then everything else comes second, the schedule, this, that.  She is truly the first line of defense without a doubt.

Question: Jessica, what’s it been like working with Andy, a new director, and, of course, Guillermo?  Did Guillermo’s name help convince you to sign on for this project?

Jessica Chastain: Well, of course. I’ve been such a huge fan of Guillermo’s and he’s one of the first people I met actually when I came onto this project that I was surprised, because I had knee problems. I came on to the meeting in crutches and was like “They won’t want me after he sees me in crutches…”

Del Toro:  A broken leg. I said, “I will break the other one if you don’t do it.”  [laughs]

Chastain:  And then I met with Andy and Barbara and I was really impressed with his ideas and how creative he was and how emotional he wanted the story to be and how important relationships in this story were to him.  I always get a feeling about something and I had a feeling about Jeff Nichols with Take Shelter.  I really just go on instinct and I loved the story.  I think the script is really well written and of course I love Guillermo and I have a feeling about Andy and working with him, he’s been great. He is so collaborative, so inventive, and just good energy on the set.  He’s a kind person.

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about Annabel?

Chastain:  Yeah, it’s a fun look.  I love working with kids.  Sometimes I like working with kids and animals more than adults, because they are so surprising and really playful and inventive and this was another opportunity to work with kids, but in a different kind of relationship.  Annabel is a woman who, you know, when the film starts she is someone who never ever imagined she would ever, ever be around children. It’s not something she wants in her life at all and she becomes, I guess, the unwilling protector of these girls and by the end she kind of grows up.  It’s like Andy said to me in our first meeting, he said “She becomes a hero of people.”

Question: Who is she? This is a character who isn’t in the short, so what does she do?

Chastain:  Well she plays bass guitar in a punk band and she lives with her boyfriend who is an illustrator.  The way I’m approaching her, she’s this woman who doesn’t really ever want to grow up.  She never really has any responsibilities.  With the octopus [tattoo] she probably sees herself like an octopus, when the tentacles get caught then they detach and then they grow back.  She’s very anti-responsibility.  I don’t know what to say without giving away much of the story, she is just stuck.  She ends up stuck with these children that she doesn’t want in her life and it’s a complicated relationship, because the children are stuck with something else.

Question:  What’s your background as a fan of supernatural thrillers or ghost stories or horror films?

Chastain:  I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever. I even just got goose bumps when you talked about that, because I’m thinking of horror film.  Every time we did a scene yesterday where I’m opening the closet door and it’s like me ten years old walking up the stairs. I really love it. When I first met with Guillermo, he was talking to me about the different style of acting like the great actress from The Orphanage – what was her name?

Del Toro:  Belen Rueda.

Chastain: It’s just this level of intensity that you really have to sustain almost to where your muscles hurt after, because of the tension.  That really excited me to think like “Okay, this is an opportunity to learn how to do it or see if I can do it.”

Del Toro:  And there’s a great tradition of actresses.  I mean, let’s say it’s not the norm.  You can have just a scream queen or you can have a sexy actress in a horror movie, but there is also a very beautiful rarified layer of great actresses that find their best part in the genre like Mia Farrow, Ellen Burstyn.  Belen for me is a fantastic actress for the genre and everything else.  Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman in The Others.  It’s seldom thought about like that and I think when it’s done right and for the right reasons, on Mama there’s a good chance it may come that way.

Chastain:  It’s also, I was really surprised when it was first introduced to me, the script, because I thought “I am so not the expected choice” and even that gave me more faith in like “Well that’s really interesting. If you think I might bring something to this part…” Because you know like I’m also used to watching a lot of horror films like where you say when there’s the girl in the tank top in the rain and crying, so I thought this would be really interesting.

RELATED: Watch the trailer for Mama right here!

Question:  Talk about working with Andy…

Chastain:  Yeah, when I first got here I went to his office and there was this beautiful…he just draws on the walls, so there’s me and the girls, but I came in one day and I found out he had stayed up until like 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning drawing the storyboards, so everything he has his hand in.  We just started filming in the girls’ room and Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau] said, “Well…” because Nikolaj’s character is an illustrator, he’s like “I feel like I would have done something for the girls,” so then Andy’s there. It’s great. He really feels like a renaissance man, You feel like this whole team, everyone is good at more than one thing.

Question: You were saying that this is not like anything you’ve worked on before, but it seems like you’ve worked on so many different kinds of movies.  I’m curious, is it the horror that makes this different? You are saying there are short takes. What is so different?

Chastain: Well the character is different and I think it’s easy for me to bond with children and I just love kids and so to play a woman who really doesn’t know even how to touch a kid. She doesn’t want anything to do with them. That’s different, the character, but then definitely the genre and you know for example Take Shelter we shot that movie so quick and sometimes we’d have three takes for one scene with tons of dialog, so I’d come to set and it would be Mike Shannon and I talking about the structure of the scene and where we had to get and what that was, like a play. This is different in that it’s like “Okay, all we are getting right now is me walking to the closet and opening the door.”

Del Toro:  With the camera pushing this way or the ballet of the camera and the actor, yeah.

Chastain:  So, it’s a different way of working in that I don’t warm into something like a play does where you just kind of follow this way, it’s as soon as it starts you have to be ready, you have to be where it is in that short moment and so that is really exciting and interesting thing for me to tackle, because it’s unlike anything I’ve done. We talked about it a little bit yesterday.

Del Toro:  It seems like you and the ghost are both protecting the children, but are sort of at odds with each other. How do you get to the point where you are giving empathy to something that you are so scared of? Does that happen?

Chastain:  You know it’s funny, because we haven’t really shot the scenes with me and the ghost yet and I don’t know how much you guys know, so part of me is like “What am I allowed to say?”  It’s an interesting dynamic, because another really cool thing I remember Guillermo said to me the first time we met was you know the idea of a ghost is when the ghost dies, if they are in an extreme state when they die, they stay in that state.  If this woman was in a state of protecting a child or being like this maternal thing, the ghost that she is is that and so if anything threatens her connection to what she feels is her children, that will always be there.  It’s not like I think Annabel is fighting because she wants to be like the best mom, I think it’s just she becomes a threat, because in any way that the children start to connect with Annabel who’s actually alive and warm, then it pulls them away from her, so it becomes like that dynamic, but we haven’t shot yet.  I’ve seen…I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.

Del Toro:  They’ve walked around the building.

Chastain: Okay, so you guys know Javier is playing Mama?  He is amazing. I saw him in his outfit and he is just… physically what he can do is beyond and we have one scene where I just kind of look in a mirror and I just kind of catch a glimpse of him and that’s all we shot. It’s like two seconds together and it’s so… it really makes your skin hurt.

Question: As a self professed scaredy cat, are you concerned about your scenes with Mama eventually? Are you going to be terrified on set? 

Chastain: Well I have to be, so yeah.  [laughs]  I’ve gotten a bunch of scary films that I’ve put in my trailer and I’ve taken a lot of them home and it’s like “I have half an hour?  Okay, I’ll just put it on for the sound and the atmosphere.”   I’ve tried so many times to watch REC, it’s just not going to happen.

Del Toro:  That’s a great movie.  What’s really funny is also at its base level I believe that horror came from fairytales and when you think about…  At the most metaphorical level, the movie and what I loved about how clean it is, is a mother wrestling with a mother instinct in order to grow and I told Andy, “This is so fabulous for me, like literally you are making a serious struggle that she is going through. If ultimately that’s the story of her making peace with or not, maternity, we are going to have her wrestling with the epitome of motherly instinct, which is great.” 

Question: What’s your relationship then Jessica with Andy as a first time director and also I guess working with Barbara, his sister, as a tag team?

Chastain: It’s great. It was so moving actually to meet them, because family is really important to me and I just see a lot of sacrifices that they both have made and they are a really good team that supports each other.

Del Toro:  They are like the dream brother and sister.

Chastain: I know.

Del Toro:  My brother used to beat the shit out of me.  [laughs]

Chastain:  I will give you guys a little bit.  We were talking about Halloween costumes and what we are going to be and everyone was getting ready and [Barbara] was like “We are doing the brother and sister theme.” I said, “Great.”  She goes “I’m going to be Skywalker and Andy is going to be Princess Leia.” They were working it out Andy had no idea.

Mama opens in theaters January 18, 2013 from Universal.  To watch the short film Mama is based on, click on the player below!

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