Generally you'd assume that a guy popping over from his soundstage to yours, offering advice while he's in the middle of preparing his own movie, would be a worst-case scenario for a first time director. But Guillermo del Toro is the kind of guy people ask for advice constantly-- he's an advisor at DreamWorks Animation, his ideas became part of The Hobbit even after he left the director's chair, and he signed on as executive producer of Mama even as he was preparing his own directorial effort (Pacific Rim) simply so he could help first-time director Andy Muschietti find his feet behind the camera.
"Maybe he’s got a different kind of coffee," speculates Mama producer Miles Dale, when asked how del Toro finds the time to help out on Mama. Dale, who's produced titles like The Thing and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, described del Toro's role on the set last October as being a "big picture guy," someone from just outside enough to step in and help them find their way through a shoot:
We’re working hard and sometimes we’ve got the blinders on and [Guillermo] will look at the big picture and go, “How about this?” It’s really and objective second opinion from a guy we all have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’m not sure where the guy finds time being so busy up here [on Pacific Rim] and the other projects he’s working on, and the books he’s reading. His name on top of the title means a lot and it also means we can get a little more money for the movie.
And it's not just moviemaking that del Toro somehow makes the time for. He spent an hour chatting with us on the set of Mama, as if he had absolutely nowhere else to be, and then invited us to a screening that night at Toronto's Bell Lightbox theater, where he would be presenting the obscure Italian horror movie L'acrno Incantatore (we went; it was very strange but kind of a thrill). Below is our lengthy conversation with del Toro chopped down; you can read much of the rest of it, when Mama star Jessica Chastain joined us, here. This is the third of our three-part report from the set of Mama, and for the second part, you can click here.
In the interview below del Toro talks about all kinds of stuff-- how he learns a lot about directing from first-time directors, the fallout from Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (which had just been released a few weeks earlier) getting an unwanted R-rating, his plans to eventually make a Frankenstein movie, and how he's probably a lot less busy than it seems when we're constantly writing about his next film projects.
Mama opens in theaters January 18.
Have you taken over this entire studio [Toronto Pinewood Studios]?
Yeah, we did. It’s a Mexican Coup.
So how much time do you get to spend over here with prepping the other movie [Pacific Rim] at the same time?
Well what happened is Mama obviously started shooting way earlier than us and we’ve been working on it for over two years more. We went through many drafts and developing the look of Mama, the central operation. We started over a year ago. We did some tests and you know, so when we came here it was easier to spend more time, like many hours in the day at the end of the day going to the Mama office. Now as I start shooting in two weeks (Laughs) less so, but I do check Andy’s [Muschetti] home work every morning. We arrive like an hour before call; he walks me through his day. I give him my blessing. You know, 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.
Did you ever plan to shoot it in Spain, since this is a Spanish co-production?
We did. I said to Andy early on, I said, “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. You’re not going to…” 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, you are going to… 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 form 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 and he chose this model. He said, “I want to have he sets. I want to have the look and the time to shoot it.” And that’s what we went for, you know?
What was your initial reaction to the original "Mama" short, and how did you get involved in this project?
Literally 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 Juan Antonio Bayona, like Troy Nixey, you know you go “There’s a voice in there." You see a lot of horror shorts that are very well produced by first time directors and you see the person worried more about how polished the short looks almost like they are calling cards and this one was a genuine… 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. My reaction was I crapped my pants.
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. 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.