Guillermo del Toro and Andy & Barbara Muschietti on Mama

The producer, director and co-writer talk about the new horror thriller, and del Toro's upcoming ghost story Crimson Peak.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Before the holidays, producer Guillermo del Toro held a roundtable interview with the creators of his latest production. Siblings Andres (Andy) and Barbara Muschietti co-wrote Mama and Andy directed it. Jessica Chastain headlines the cast but the stars are the children who grow up feral in the woods, and their supernatural caretaker Mama comes back for them when they get “rescued” by their city relatives. We got to ask del Toro and the Muschiettis several questions and record all of their comments in the roundtable.

We ask Andy how he approached  cinematography, especailly the opening shots of Mama.

Andy Muschietti: Well, I’m very much into the details.  In the case of Mama, the opening of Mama, it was definitely something that should be gripping, from the very first frame, the accident sequence. It was very carefully planned, and I think it was successfully executed. 

Barbara Muschietti: And also I think Andy was very encouraged by Guillermo to always move the camera.

Guillermo del Toro: Cattle prodded, but in an elegant way. Not the cattle prodding, but the moving of the camera. The cattle prodding was not elegant. But, Andy has a sense of style that you could feel from the short. Moving the camera gratuitously is terrible, but you want to move it with a sense of pace and action. I’m a big fan of his opening shot, which is gorgeous and ominous, in a really beautiful way. We open with the line, “Once upon a time . . .” and then you go to present day. It’s Hansel and Gretel. It’s a father that lost everything, taking his children to the woods to finish their lives. It’s exactly the opening of a fairy tale. They find a little cabin, it’s not made of chocolate in this case, but there’s a presence in there that’s going to transform their lives. Andy really is one of those guys that I found to have a style. That’s has happened twice for me, as a producer. It happened with [Juan Antonio] Bayona in The Orphanage. All I did on The Orphanagewas suggest a couple of scares, and then sit back and basically my jaw hit the floor, every time I got dailies. With Andy, it was about finding a guy who has a style and a sense of narrative that is way beyond a first-time director. Way beyond.

Guillermo del Toro on the themes of motherhood in Mama and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

Guillermo del Toro: The big difference for me was that, from the moment we started, and Jessica [Chastain] was so happy about this, was that she never becomes a mother. She becomes a fellow female. There’s solidarity.  But, she never becomes a possessive or mother figure. Literally, it’s the story of a woman struggling with motherhood, literally. Like hand-to-hand combat with motherhood. It’s the idea that there are other alternatives to the love of a mother, in the way we see the world. Her making peace with the fact that she can love someone, and love in a protective way, but not in a suffocating way. It’s really, really interesting that they have similarities, but I think it came from the fact that ultimately I produce only directors and movies that I have a lot in common with. 

Guillermo del Toro and Andy Muschietti on the child actors in Mama.

Guillermo del Toro: Andy completely spearheaded the casting. He had an absolutely great relationship with the kids. Shooting with kids, I remember what Ivana [Basquero] told me about Pan’s Labyrinth, when we shot the Pale Man scene which is a very intense scene. She saw the movie and said, “You know what’s funny? That scene was fun to shoot, hard to watch.” People confuse the two. Kids shooting horror, they love it.  They’re having fun. They just don’t like watching it that much. Andy is the one that can talk about the dynamic.

Andy Muschietti: I totally agree. The context of the movie, once it’s cut, it might be traumatic as hell, but the kids have a wonderful time [shooting it]. The first thing about getting great performances from kids is finding the right kids. It’s very disappointing, and it happens, when you see a movie that seems interesting, and then comes the kid and you don’t believe him. I think we achieved to get credible performances with the kids and getting them to emotions. Basically, what happened with these two is that they had very different schools. The older one had done some films before, so she was trained and she tried to mimic adult actors. So my relationship with her was different because I would speak to hear like I was talking to any of the actors because that’s what she wanted and that’s how she worked. The other one was completely instinctive. She had no experience. She was totally a feral actress. And the funny thing is that they related so much to their characters on screen. Victoria is a girl that knew about life, while the other one is totally imprinted. 

Guillermo del Toro: It’s very flattering that in every interview, everybody says you found two actresses. It’s very flattering because we found four. Everybody looks at the young[er] kids and it’s a given that it’s the same character. That’s Andy casting it. The only piece of advice I gave to Andy was something he already knew. I said to him, “Just treat them like actors, not like kids. Direct them with the respect you would direct other actors.” Throughout the process with Andy, there are two types of producing deals, and I’ve had both. I’ve produced over 20 movies by now. You are either watching in horror, as the cars take the curve in the Gran Prix, or you’re enjoying, going wow, wow. This movie was a, wow experience where I was able to love watching the dailies and love coming in the morning and Andy had laid out the sequence. We both had no ego about it. We would argue. He would drop ideas, take ideas. He would do things different than I’d discussed it with him. If you don’t take it personally, the partnership between producers and directors is very intimate. 

Guillermo del Toro on his input into the Mama creature design.

Guillermo del Toro: Mama is something he [Andy] wanted to do, exactly the way he did it from the short. The only thing I said about Mama was the teeth. I said, “Make them thin and long and small ‘cause that’s creepier.” That’s the only thing I can say. The rest, Andy came in with Mama fully formed, and I have great kinship with that type of ghost but I wish I could proudly say there was that moment with Andy, but there isn’t. When you work with a great director, you can have a great partnership and, in this case, we were on the level, the whole time. 

We ask Guillermo del Toro, when he was working with Peter Jackson on The Hobbit, if 48 frames per second was on the table.

Guillermo del Toro: No, it was never on the table. It was not I think even on the horizon. It was never discussed. We never even quite discussed 3D. That came later, in the process.  

We ask his thoughts on 48fps as a filmmaker.

Guillermo del Toro: I haven’t seen it. When I see it I’ll have an opinion. Mama is for 24 frames.

Guillermo del Toro on the difference between Mama and his upcoming ghost story Crimson Peak.

Guillermo del Toro: Very different. I have my library separate from the family home, and every room is a different room. The only room that I can guarantee I’ve read everything is the horror room. I’ve read I would say most every horror and ghost story, let’s say from 10 years back. I don’t read as much of the new stuff, anymore. Within that world, you can find as subtle a ghost story as The Friends of My Friends by Henry James, to brutal, scary ghost story, or an antiquarian feeling ghost story like any of M.R. James’ stories. There are so many flavors. Ghosts are a metaphor that is so polyvalent, can be interpreted so many ways that there’s no ending to what you can do. You can make it a fun ghost story. You can make it a deeply disturbing, psychological ghost story. You can have The Shining, even things that are close by like The Haunting and The Innocents, they are three completely different tonalities in those films. So very different. Crimson Peak is very, very classic and, at the same time, very irreverent with the classic. Mama I think is a movie that does something that I am amazed at, but is very different from what I do. Mama has an incredibly strong base of reality. The emotional reality, and even the art direction, there’s an aspect where the house feels real. I would go more fantastic. I would go a little crazier to the point where we would joke about lamps on the night table. I hate those lamps. Too real, but he knows that he needs them based on reality. So Crimson Peak is a complete confection. It’s like a gothic romance confection. It’s candy. It’s a piece of cake. This is a movie that depends, a lot, on being a slice of reality. 

How Guillermo del Toro decides what to produce and what to direct.

Guillermo del Toro: To direct is harder. People think you sit like The Godfather, waiting for people to come with “Oh, so you bring me a project today.” You’re hustling, you’re desperate, you’re panicked, you’re horrified. The movie you think you’re going to do next, you don’t do. The movie you think you’re never going to do, you make. A career is what happens while you’re making other plans. When people say, “Why did he choose this over that?,” you go, “Dude, really?!” As a producer, you know it’s not an affair. It’s a marriage. You only marry after you date a little carefully, you talk, you make sure, as much as you can. And you know if it’s working on the first week of dailies.  First week of dailies, you know you’re going to be helping, but you’re not panicked. On other occasions, you look at the first week of dailies and you go, “Okay, here we go, trouble.” But I think you know it, instantly. I only produce things that have so much in common with what I like. I wanna understand what I’m doing. I wanna understand the instincts that are going to inform the story. At the same time, I only produce movies that have something stylistically different, so I can learn from the experience of producing.  In every movie I produce, I learn something. I watch the directors and I go, “Hmm, he did this.”

Andy has one shot in the movie, one shot technically that I was like wow. He came up with the idea completely on his own. I come in and I go, “Is it going to work?” And wow. It’s the moment when Lucas is falling and he hits the steps on the staircase and he came up with the idea of he shot it upside down with the steps on top and Lucas at the bottom. He put them on a swing and he would have him moving on a platform and the steps would hit him. I was like all right. If you come in and you look vertically, it’s like the relationship you have with your children. I’m there to learn from my daughters. They are the perfect spirit and what you do, as a parent, is ruin their sense of freedom, ruin their sense of self. If you are careful and you learn from them, you enhance it. It’s the same thing with directors who produce, especially first-time directors. They come in and they don’t think, “Oh, I can’t do that.” They go, “F*** it.” That adventure and that kinship is what makes you commit to produce. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.