Today sees the release of Mama, a rather curious horror movie starring Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and exec produced by the master of dark fantasy, Guillermo Del Toro. Based on a short created by Spanish creative duo Andreas and Barbara Muschietti, the movie offers a disturbing new take on the ghost story.
Recently we spoke to writer-producer Barbara Muschietti. During our conversation we discussed the difficulties of producing for a sibling, being discovered by Guillermo Del Toro, and the intricacies of converting a three minute short into a 90 minute movie.
HeyUGuys: The first thing I should probably do is pass my congratulations. I was just reading that Universal were saying you guys had franchise potential and they’re considering sequels.
Barbara Muschietti: We’re very, very happy with the way the movie’s done so far in the States, and in Spain, and Mexico, and in other territories where the film is doing well. We hope we do well in the UK as well. We’re very close to the UK, and we really hope people like the film there.
You mention Spain and Mexico, would you say the film has a particular appeal to the Hispanic community?
I don’t think there is necessarily. I think it’s a very universal subject, it’s about mothers, but I honestly don’t think there’s a particular Hispanic or Latin ingredient in it that would make it appealing to one public or the other to be honest.
I’m curious about the dynamic that exists between you and your brother, with one producing and the other directing.
Well we’ve been doing this for a long time, we’ve been basically a producing/directing duo for ten years, at least, doing commercials and shorts. More than that, we are 18 months apart, and we were raised by the same parents, who had the same tastes, and we were exposed to the same movies and the same books, so when it comes to that we fight all the time, because we’re brother and sister, but we fight about Andy leaving banana peel on my desk, or his shoes somewhere in my living room, but we don’t fight about writing together or directing or producing together, because we know each other so well. He knows that when I say ‘we can’t have any more’ he understands that it’s true, and when he says, ‘I need more’, I understand that it’s real as well. We both want exactly the same thing, which is to have the absolute best film we can have, and that makes things very different than maybe other producing/directing relationships where interests are different from the director and the producer.
Let’s look at the early production process, the development, you write together, don’t you?
Yes we did. It started with a short we did, we shot it at the end of 2006, just a three minute short. Basically we shot it in a day and a half, with our own money, and it was a very irresponsible short in a way, because we posed a lot of questions that we were not giving answers to because it was three minutes long. We left a lot of answers to be answered, and luckily a lot of people wanted those answers, and started asking about those answers, and that’s how we got to do the film. Guillermo was one of those people of course.
Was that short always intended to help you generate revenue and investment in a potential feature, or was it a short first and foremost, and the fact that you had something sufficiently interesting to engage people just a measure of how good it was?
Strangely we built the house from the roof down. We started building the roof, which was the short – we do commercials that are comedy based, and we love horror. Horror commercials not being that successful and thus having a comedy reel, we decided we needed to do something that reflected that we could write, and Andy could direct something spooky. We basically shot this three minute short to support another project we were writing, called ‘The Yearning’, but the way it turned out was that when people watched the short they wanted to know what was going on in the short, rather than reading another script. People like to watch a three minute short rather than reading a 120 page script. So they all started asking about Mama, and so a director who we’re friends with here in Spain said, drop whatever you’re doing and start writing Mama, because this makes no sense that you’re not doing it yet. We started writing it, we did a 20 page treatment, and right after that we got a call from Guillermo, and he said, “guys, I want to help you make this movie, we’ll make it in Spanish, or English, or in Chinese, for two dollars, or twenty thousand, or two million, or whatever; we’re gonna make this movie”.
So having a person like Guillermo, that we admire so much, give you that confidence makes a huge difference. And we were very naïve at that point – this was a good three-and-a-half years ago. We were very naïve, and didn’t know what making a big-ish movie, at least for us, as a first film for us, entailed, but we embarked on it with heart and soul, and here we are.
We’ll get on to working with Guillermo in a second, because I’m very keen to talk about that, but very quickly, what was the other feature you were working on about?
It’s called The Yearning, and it’s another ghost story. It was written to be a first movie, so it’s enclosed, in a small area, for a small budget. I would love to produce it with Andy, I don’t know if it’s a film that Andy should direct, because I think maybe he should go a little bigger now, but it’s definitely something we have in our pocket, and I would love for us to develop with another director.
So you’re already looking to do what Guillermo did with you, and help another director?
First thing, the first day that Mama was opening in the states, Guillermo said, “I already told [‘Impossible’ director, Juan Atonio] Bayona, and now I’m telling you, I did it with you guys, and now you have to do it with someone else. You have to help them make their first movie”. So I would love to do that. I don’t know if now is the time, because we’re going now on our sophomore effort, but I would definitely like to, one day, lend a helping hand to a novice director.
So working with Guillermo, I’m curious, when you were developing the script for the feature – there are moments when it feels like a conventional horror narrative, and then there are moments that feel like the sort of fairy tale, fantasy world that he’s known for. I presume he helped you develop it.
I think actually the attraction that Gullermo felt towards the short and the treatment, is that there’s definitely a component of that in those materials already. Then we developed it with Guillermo. I think one could interpret that there’s a Guillermo flavour in it, but I think very [it’s] much the kind of film Andy wanted to make, and probably that’s what attracted Guillermo to it. Of course we are hugely influenced by him, not only in the development, but before as fans of his work, so I can’t say there’s this particular moment, or that particular moment where Guillermo pushed one way or the other, but if you’re asking if there’s an influence, for sure.
I was, but more about stepping away from the conventional tropes of horror, because there are moments where it feels like a traditional horror film, but there are also moments – the ending particularly – it’s very rare that you have a moment of sacrifice in a horror film that you have in Mama.
I understand. That’s the film we wanted to make. We were lucky that we were able to do that film with Guillermo, and this amazing distributor that supported us all the way.
So is that the sort of thing we can expect from you and Andy in the future – a horror film that isn’t just a horror film.
I always say this, I hate repeating myself, but the first horror film we saw was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which at the age we saw it, basically four and five years old, it was a horror film. I think what we aim to do is create emotions. Scares are part of the emotion, they enhance emotions, but scares are nothing if you don’t have an emotional base. I don’t want to do, and neither does Andy, a slasher film. They’re fun to watch, but you leave the theatre and there’s nothing there. You’re not engaged with any of the characters, the day after you’re not going to think about them. Hopefully the three-and-a-half-years that we’ve invested in making the film will last more than two hours in people’s minds. That’s what we’re trying to do, to stir something within. The only way you can do that is by provoking emotions. With our first film we hope that we did that a tiny bit at least.
And as a bonus, here’s the original short on which the film is based.
Mama is out in cinemas today.