Guillermo del Toro is a Hollywood heavyweight known for producing films both dark and scary – think “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Orphanage” – and his newest horror film, “Mama,” goes back to what the Mexican filmmaker calls “the basics.”
“I believe there are only two things that work in horror, the basics: the things that shouldn’t be, but are, and the things that should be but are not,” del Toro told reporters at a press conference for “Mama” in New York City. “Every horror movie should follow those two things – and the rest is all about dislocating the world as we know it.”
The supernaturally scary “Mama” – which opens Friday in theaters nationwide – tells the story of two little girls, kidnapped from their suburban home and left to fend for themselves in the woods. Years later, their loving uncle Lucas (“Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finds the pair and discovers that they may not have been alone. In fact, as he and his rocker girlfriend (played by “Zero Dark Thirty” actress Jessica Chastain) learn, a supernatural being may have assumed the role of mother to the orphaned children. And as Jessica Chastain’s character Annabel quickly discovers, a mother’s love – even a reluctant mother like Annabel – knows no limits.
It’s a dark, complex film that fans of the genre will find compelling. For del Toro, the movie represents a fruitful mentorship between himself and young Argentinian filmmaker Andrés (Andy) Muchietti. Muchietti and his sister Barbara produced the short that inspired “Mama”; an independent two-minute short which del Toro says struck him immediately as a project which he wanted to develop for a larger audience.
“I’m always watching shorts but at the first look at this one, I loved it,” said del Toro. “I knew immediately I wanted to come on board as a producer for a feature-length version.”
Creating the film – which spanned three years from del Toro’s first conversations with the Muschiettis to post-production – was no easy feat. And the most difficult decision made? To produce the film for a commercial film distributor while remaining true to Muchietti’s avant garde sensibility.
“I told Andy that I would be his bodyguard but that things might get more political, complicated when you get bigger exposure and more financing,” reminisced del Toro. “I tried to act as a buffer to preserve the idiosyncrasies of Andy’s style, and as a result, the ending of the film is not common or normal for a commercial movie.”
“Having Guillermo on set gave me confidence,” commented Muschietti, who has produced shorts and commercials in Spain for nearly fifteen years. “In that confidence, you don’t question yourself or why. He believed in me.”
Barbara Muschietti, who wrote the film’s script and acted as co-producer on set, echoed her brother’s appreciation for del Toro’s creative support. As the only woman on the film’s production team, Muschietti said she was grateful to del Toro for giving her the encouragement to develop the strong, female characters in “Mama.”
“As a woman, writing female characters [like Annabel] is necessary,” said Muschietti, who created Annabel as a strong, rebellious woman disinclined to assume the responsibilities of motherhood. “I was raised to think that my destination was having children. As an Argentinian, a South American, there is a lot of pressure, that’s still there. But I think I’m doing what I was meant to do.”
“I have two daughters and I constantly try to find other ways of portraying women than in their usual roles,” commented del Toro, when asked about the unorthodox portrayal of motherhood in “Mama.” “I find that most of the time, motherhood is portrayed only in the most sanctimonious way. And there’s a motherhood that is horrifying, possessive – but real.”
“I love the idea of portraying different emotions than expected and doing that through a horror film, puts it into a context that’s compelling.”