Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS interview. This time I’m catching up with Andres Muschietti, the writer/director beind the box office hit MAMA which arrived of BluRay and DVD just in time for Mother’s Day. This interview took a bit longer than usual to complete, so enjoy this in commemoration of Mom’s Day a little late this year or lot early for next year, depending on how you look at it.
MAMA originated as a short film, and what an effective short it was…
It’s ok, you can admit it. You shat your pants a little, didn’t you? Add some feral kids, a future Oscar winner, and a Kingslayer and the Muschiettis expanded the film to feature length. You can read my review of MAMA further down the page, but first here’s what the Muschiettis had to say…
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): When I first saw the short film for MAMA, it scared the hell out of me. Where did the original idea for the short come from?
ANDY MUSCHIETTI (AM): Thank you! The short film was a morning vision. One of those that you have when you're still not fully awake; your brainwaves are kind of loose, images come at you sort of unfiltered. It was a sequence where two little girls were running from a horrifying ghost. Couple of months later we´re shooting a commercial in this suburban house in Barcelona. I suddenly notice it looks exactly like the house in the "sequence". I ran to Barbara and said, "We need to shoot this short here!" One month later we were shooting it.
BUG: When you made the short, were you thinking about ways to expand it into a feature length film?
AM: When the short was made, there wasn’t a story behind it. I always thought of it as a style exercise, but we thought of it as a visual support for a different project we were writing at the time – a ghost story called "The Yearning" – it was different story but the same tone, atmosphere, style. Eventually MAMA became so intriguing in its own, that we decided to expand it into a feature length screenplay.
BUG: When did the idea of feral children come into play? It wasn't in the original short.
AM: It was all about answering ONE question: Why do these girls think that monster is their MOTHER? I thought of the possibility that it was their real mother who came back from the dead, but somehow didn't seem too interesting.
Around the time we were thinking about ideas to expand the story; I accidentally came upon a documentary of the wildlife in Africa, where a leopard killed a baboon. As the leopard is about to eat it, the baboon GIVES BIRTH! The leopard surprisingly forgets about the mother and instinctively starts taking care of the baby, protecting him. He grabs him and takes him to a top of a tree, far from hyenas and other scavengers, and cuddles with him. Something immediately clicked in my mind and I knew this is what my story was going to be about. It’s interesting how a natural event like this can be the source of a beautiful and emotional drama. There is a double process that takes place at the same time - on one hand the protective instinct, and on the other, the IMPRINTING, in which a newborn gets attached to whatever is there to protect him, even if it’s not their real mother. It is such a fascinating survival mechanism that happens in nature – and I felt this is what the movie should be about.
BUG: How did you first come into contact with Guillermo Del Toro, and what was that initial meet like?
AM: We got a call from him after he saw our short film – he was very impressed by it. He knew we were planning to make it into a feature film, so he offered us his help to produce it. Guillermo is a very warm and funny guy, and we are both Latino, so there was a familiarity; from the beginning the dialogue was very fluid and comfortable. Later on there were more affinities that brought us closer and made a more solid team, like the ability to draw and communicate through sketches and designs, using the same language. Since I live in Barcelona and he lives in LA, we talked many times on the phone before actually meeting. I will never forget the first time I saw him. Barbara and I were at the lounge of a Beverly Hills hotel, waiting for him to come. I noticed his distinctive silhouette behind a yellow stained glass wall. After the initial introduction, we talked for three hours about MAMA, ending with a big hug goodbye.
BUG: What was the most challenging thing for you in expanding the original short film into a feature length film?
AM: Besides the tension and the scares, I wanted to make a movie with emotional intensity. I was very concerned about this because it was very important to engage the audience from an emotional point-of-view before you try to make them terrified out of their minds. Making MAMA credible and creepy was also a challenge. A big deal of the film’s success relied on getting realistic performances from the children, too, so I was also very concerned with it.
BUG: The film relies heavily on CGI in the latter half of the movie. Was there ever a time when more practical effects were considered?
AM: That is not right. MAMA is played by actor 100% of the time. An actor with special make-up. The ONLY digital element is the hair. i think people tend to think its CG because Javier Botet's proportions are simply unreal – he is impossibly thin. One of the things I was sure of when designing MAMA is that no matter how good they could make her, you can always smell CG and it eventually plays against the purpose. Everything was done practical. Check the behind-the-scenes featurette for more details. I find it funny when I read reviews that say that MAMA was too digital. Some people are confused these days. They can't tell CG from practical – but I think that is a good sign!
BUG: The look of Mama herself was pretty distinct. What influences did you draw upon in coming up with her unique look?
AM: Ever since I saw CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as a kid, I’ve been afraid of long limbed figures. Also, by that time, there was a Modigliani portrait hanging on the wall at my house - it scared the shit out of me. Modigliani portraits still scare me to this day; the small, empty eyes set in a wrong angle; the elongated neck; the tilted head; a gesture of absence that makes the characters’ intention and intelligence unreadable. I wanted to impart all these qualities into MAMA because I knew it would scare others just like it scared me as a kid. Another concept that has a visual expression is the floating feeling. Edith Brennan fell into a lake and her body rotted in the water. Because of this, water greatly affects MAMA. Also, we tried to give the illusion that her hair looks like it is underwater throughout the entire movie.
BUG: The children in MAMA were especially good in the film. What kind of direction did you give them to get those types of performances?
AM: The best way of avoiding difficulties with children is picking the ones that can give you the performance. No matter how good a director you think are, if you pick the wrong kid it can be a nightmare. I learned that lesson doing commercials. Now, it was not easy finding them. We did castings everywhere and finally found two very talented little actresses in two different cities – Vancouver and Montreal - Megan Carpenter, who plays Victoria, and Isabelle Neisse, who plays Lilly.
These two were amazing in their own particular approach to acting. Megan had some training in film and had done a bunch of movies before. She behaved pretty much like a grown up actress and that seemed to work great for both of us. It was a tough role; the character of Victoria has to express her inner conflict without saying a word . Megan nailed it.
As for Lilly, she was all instinct. Completely out of control in between takes; focused as a freaking chess player just before action. The younger set of the sisters (3 years old and 1 year old ) was a different story. At that age it’s almost impossible to even get the child to focus. In this case, directing takes a lot of patience and it’s mainly about getting their attention as much as possible (even if it’s for a few seconds). One thing I find useful is standing close to them and quietly feeding them the line over and over until it sounds human. Editing plays an important role in these cases.
BUG: The concept of feral children has always fascinated me. Were there any specific cases that influenced you in making MAMA?
AM: I found the case of GENIE specially touching because it dealt with parental negligence and madness, just like in our story. Her case is also particularly sad because she was purposely isolated from the world. I knew her story way before MAMA but we revisited when we did our research. But probably the most spectacular cases are the ones with children that were adopted by animals.
BUG: How do you and your wife work together making movies? Who plays what part in the collaboration?
AM: I direct and Barbara produces - we don't cross the line there. We are quite different people and we have different skills. There is a great balance in what we do; that’s why I think we are a good team. As for the writing, I normally come up with the story and structure it. I put a beat sheet together and then discuss it with my sister and on that feedback the story grows.
BUG: Given the success of MAMA, would you be open to do a sequel?
AM: Maybe not to direct it, but I would certainly like to supervise the artistic and creative values of a sequel.
BUG: What other projects are you working on at the moment?
AM: There are a couple of projects going on, but mainly we are working on a new screenplay. It’s a supernatural thriller with dark humor. It’s going to be really scary.
BUG: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions.
AM: Thanks, Mark!
BUG: MAMA is available on BluRay and DVD this week! My review for the film is just beyond the trailer below…
New on DVD & BluRay this week!
MAMA (2013)Directed by Andres Muschietti
Written by Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash
Find out more about this film here!
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Having written my own little comic book tale of feral children in THE JUNGLE BOOK from Zenescope (the sequel is out now, if you’re curious), when I saw those dirty little girls in the trailer for MAMA, I knew I had to see this film. Having done so, I think Guillermo Del Toro has once again picked a winner of a film to back as MAMA is more along the lines of the excellent THE ORPHANAGE than ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?
If you’ve seen the trailers (and who hasn’t by now since they seem to show up in between every other commercial), you know the story. A pair of girls are left in the wild to be raised by some kind of creature in the middle of a secluded forest for five years. Once discovered by hipster parents Lucas (GAME OF THRONES’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabell (ZERO DARK THIRTY’s Jessica Chastain)—you know they are hipsters because Lucas wears a wool hat in the summertime and Annabell has a full sleeve of tats—the girls are brought home to live with them. Immediately these girls are proving to be too much to handle as they sleep under the bed and talk to invisible people in the walls, but given a house to live in and a psychologist (Daniel Kash) to study them, the couple tries to make it work. But the force only known as Mama won’t let the girls bond with their new family, and therein lies the conflict of the story.
What works best in this film is the creepiness of the little feral girls. The CGI way they scurry across the floor like rats, the bizarre way they sleep with their eyes open, and the animalistic performances, especially by the younger one Lilly (played by Isabelle Nelisse), was fascinating. Sure, it may be a bit far-fetched that these two girls survived in the forest by themselves with only a dirty retarded ghost and a shit-ton of cherries, but the performances by Nelisse and older sister Victoria (Megan Charpentier) made the film for me. Seeing these two girls laugh and play like normal children one second, then explode with animal fury the next, was mesmerizing.
For the most part director Andres Muschietti was able to pull off a whole lot of scenes of high tension and creepy chills. There were quite a few genuine jump scares at some truly horrific and spooky imagery in this one, most of which had to do more with some clever directing than CGI. Once the cover is blown on Mama, though, Muschietti lets the computer effects team go nuts with the contorted and deformed Mama in all of her smudgy and furry glory. These scenes work, but still, when the camera is allowed to linger on Mama, she looks more like a cartoon and less like something scary. Personally, I’d have preferred a whole lot less of Mama in the last half hour of the film.
The other thing that didn’t work for me was believing that Coster-Waldau and especially Chastain were the young hipsters the film wants to make them out to be. Maybe I’ve seen Chastain in too many elegant ball gowns or Coster-Waldau in too many royal crowns, but both seem somewhat miscast here. Chastain doesn’t really convey the struggling musician vibe, and isn’t believable when she tries to be tough and callused toward the girls. When things get dire towards the end and she knows what’s going on, she’s a bit more believable, but for the most part she seemed like she didn’t fit very well in this role.
Coster-Waldau is rendered pretty useless in the final scenes (and throughout the whole movie for that matter), either knocked into a coma or unconscious, making me wonder why he was even given a part to play in this film or why the character really needed to be there. This story is all about the two girls, Chastain, and Mama, and while Coster-Waldau does a decent job here with what little he has, he isn’t really integral to anything but adding about ten minutes to the runtime if that.
Storywise, the film suffers from being top-heavy in the good idea department, but unravels into somewhat of a mess in the final twenty minutes. Chastain somehow becomes supernaturally aware enough to bring along a specific item just in case she might need it in the final confrontation (and sure enough, she does). The showdown between Mama, Chastain, and the feral girls is beautiful to behold as Mama’s flowing black dress waves and cascades in the wind off a cliff, but ultimately proves to be drawn out and overly slow-mo-ed.
Boiled down to basics, MAMA is the scene in PET SEMETARY where the emaciated Zelda rushes towards the camera cranked to 11 for modern audiences. The scene from the short film is replayed late in the film, and caused a big scream in the audience, but I was surprised it showed up as late as it did given that many have already seen the short by now.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked MAMA. Though I’m picking nits (and I’m sure those dirty kids’ heads are full of them), there were a lot of effective scares and the look of MAMA is definitely horrifying. With some fantastic work from the two lead child actresses, some decently directed scenes of tension, and some admittedly beautiful imagery, MAMA is going to be a crowd pleaser this weekend and it deserves all of the hype is has heaped upon it. If anything, it should be acknowledged for not being a sequel or a remake and bringing something original to the stale type of horror we see in mainstream cinema these days.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 3. He has written comics such as VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE DEATHSPORT GAMES, & NANNY & HANK (soon to be made into a feature film from Uptown 6 Films). He has co-written FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND’s LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (to be released in 2013 as a 100-pg original graphic novel). Mark wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK from Zenescope Entertainment & GRIMM FAIRY TALES #76-81. Look for GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES available in February-July 2013 and the new UNLEASHED crossover miniseries GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS WEREWOLVES: THE HUNGER #1-3 available in May-July 2013! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitter @Mark_L_Miller.
Interested in illustrated films, fringe cinema, and other oddities?
Check out Halo-8 and challenge everything!
Find more AICN HORROR including an archive of previous columns on AICN HORROR’s Facebook page!