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After my screening of the The Orphanage (read my review here), screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, director Juan Antonio Bayona, and star Belen Rueda sat down to answer questions about their thriller.
What role did the Sundance Institute have in developing this film?
Sergio Sanchez: It was a workshop. It was an open call—you could send your screenplay and they picked ten screenplays from Spanish writers. You got together with ten screenwriters during a weekend, they each gave you their thoughts and ideas on the scripts. It was done a few years ago.
Can you talk about your choice of location? It’s a Spain foreign audiences don’t see that much. Also, were there any true stories that inspired you to write this? SS: When you see films shot in Spain, they are always shot in the very same places. People have this idea of Spain as this desert where the sun is always shining. About the research, actually we focused more on the research of the character of Laura, what it’s like to lose a child. We had meetings with people who had kids who disappear. We went to grieving groups. That’s the kind of research that we were more interested in. I think what’s really interesting in the movie is the grieving of the mother. The film is about the cruelty of hope.
Belén Rueda: [The following, and all of Belén Rueda’s comments unless otherwise noted, are translated from Spanish by the conference moderator]: I think this film is really about very universal fears. Fears of death, fears of having someone disappear, or fears of facing new life in a completely different environment. I think because it’s universal fears, it doesn’t matter where it takes place, because these films touch us anyway on a human level.
Does the film assume that the “cruelty of hope” is crueler for mothers than it is for fathers?
BR: [in English] I don’t think so. I think that they react in different ways. [In Spanish] I think the mind of Laura in this case is not a “healthy” mind. Because of the loss of the son really becomes an obsession for her. Even before he disappears she felt this tremendous sense of guilt. I think that’s something that’s a little more a mother’s thing than would be a father’s.
Juan Antonio Bayona [Bayona’s comments are also translated from Spanish, unless otherwise noted]: I think that Laura really isn’t a heroine. For me she’s really like a little girl. She’s always acting like a child. There’s just one mention of her adult life. Everything is really related to her childhood. People spoke about Peter Pan [references in the film], and perhaps there’s nothing sadder in Peter Pan than the image of the mother sitting by the window waiting for them to come back. More than the mother, though, [Laura] becomes Wendy. What I was trying to do was create the idea of an irresponsible heroine. That was much more what I was after in this character than the classic sort of character that you get in horror films.
BR: Geraldine Chaplin said something that I think is very true, which is there’s nothing worse than open-ending waiting. Death is a terrible thing when it happens, but it comes and then it’s over. But the idea of never knowing when the ending is coming, never having any closure, is really much more terrible.
The film was recently picked by the Spanish academy to represent Spain at the Oscars. Do you think it will follow the path of Pan’s Labyrinth [a heavy favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar at last year’s ceremony, Pan’s picked up three technical awards]?
BR: [In English] We hope!
Does it scare you?
BR: [In English] Not so much. Not like the film! I was at the Oscars four years ago with The Sea Inside.
Juan Antonio Bayona: [In English] She’s like a veteran right now. She’s lived all this.
Belén, how did you prepare besides the research as an actor? What were the toughest scenes for you?
BR: I think there are different phases that one goes through. The first is when you receive a screenplay. That’s a special time for me because it’s the only time you can be a spectator to the film. You can read it and in a certain way imagine the film from a position of separation. Once you’re involved, you can never have that separation again. At first you begin to put a lot of your own experiences, memories, thoughts into the creation of the role. Then there’s a point where you meet people who have been through those experiences, for example when we went to meet the association of people who have had children disappear on them. That was really important to me, to see that full range of hope and despair, to get a handle on the experiences of the people who have been through that. Also the fact that I am a mother is helpful. I could imagine what it would be like to have a child disappear. It is important not only to bring yourself to it, but also find a way of evoking the emotions of people who really have been through these experiences.
How did you find the house? How did you create it? What were the things about it that you liked most?
JB: Many times people have asked me about the influences I had in making the film. Actually I would say that for this film, more than say other horror films, I had in mind melodramas, especially the melodramas of David Lean. I think something horror films have in common with melodramas is both of them find a way of visualizing, on screen, emotions. I studied the films of David Lean and melodramas for exactly that reason. In terms of the house, it’s a classic thing in horror films to make the house into a character. I think we avoided this. For example, there are very few shots of the outside of the house, the face of the house.
What was Guillermo del Toro’s influence?
JB: I met Guillermo del Toro 15 years ago when he came to Spain. He was just a debut director with Kronos. I was 18 and at that point I was passing as a journalist so I could get into screenings free. I went to interview him. We had a very nice conversation; it was a very funny meeting. I liked him, he seemed to be impressed by me, and that really became the basis of a friendship. When the opportunity to make The Orphanage came up, I went to him to see how he might be able to help us. He created space for us so we could do the film as we wanted without having to restrict ourselves. He was very, very sensitive to the needs of another director. He did make many suggestions, but I have to say we didn’t pay much attention to them. He was very nice about that actually. What was important to him was that we made the film that was in our heads, that what we wanted to make appeared on screen. As a way to repay him, I would hope at one point in my life to produce a film by a debut director, just as he helped me.
SPOILER ALERT In the film, why does Laura have no memory of Tomas or his mother? [Tomas is the child in the sack mask who haunts Laura, and his mother, still alive, returns to look into Laura’s family]
SS: Tomas was supposed to be kept in the basement, hidden away from all the other kids. That’s why she has no memory of recollection of him. The time where the story takes place is the late 60s, if a kid had a deformity like that, it would be a problem. It was very cruel was happened in orphanages. In our research we found stories about kids missing in orphanages that nobody ever knew about.
I noticed a similarity to Pan’s Labyrinth, as far as the ending indicating that life after death is so enchanting. Are you encouraging mass suicide? I never saw a horror film with a feel-good ending before.
BR: It was really the ending that [Laura] wanted. I think a moment arrives in everyone’s life where you can achieve the happiness you want, and it was that way for Laura, but it’s not really everybody’s way. There are some people who say the film ends very sadly because she dies, but I don’t think so. I don’t think the film presents that as the only possible ending. Take the husband, for example. He decides he wants to continue to live and remake his life.
JB: Really in a way it was a surprise for us, because Pan’s Labyrinth was being finished while we were shooting. We didn’t really know much about it. When we did see it, it was both surprising and delightful for us that there were similarities between the films. One way to talk about the film is to talk about the way we need fantasy in our lives in order to confront reality. I tried to build the film around the person of Laura, who is somebody who lives between two worlds, between the living and the dead, between children and adults, and who uses that fantasy in order to face the problems she faces in the world of adults, the fears she encounters. Here’s a woman who is at a point where she’s starting a new life. She’s got a new house, she’s starting a new business, she’s entering motherhood. It’s a moment when all of those fears crop back up. She escapes back into her childhood, into the past. I was interested in seeing what that escape would do to her life. That’s what we get in prologue, this image of a childhood that’s extraordinarily happy, a bucolic, perfect childhood, which isn’t necessarily the childhood people spent but the childhood people remember.
The film seems to make a satiric connection between police and mediums. [A skeptical psychologist, played by a very heavyset man, questions the presence of the medium who comes to speak to the ghosts of the children in the house]
JB: [In English] In fact, I offered Guillermo del Toro this role...
BR: [In English] I told him to tell the truth!
JB: The whole feeling of the film was in many ways constantly to show Laura in a situation where she felt like she was being fooled, and then having to move on once she discovered the truth. There’s a sarcasm we entered into the film. For the psychologist we tried to get two characters who looked like Laurel and Hardy. We wanted to use Guillermo, but after Labyrinth he lost some weight, so he was no longer the right guy for it. We wanted to push the character of Laura, to push the envelope in a way. If the police will do something as crazy as this, what’s the next step? To go back to melodramas, it really is the idea of bringing a problem this enormous right into the house. It goes back to that idea of trying to visualize these kinds of problems, these emotional situations.
BR: Even though it has this dramatic or comic force in the film, having the sequences of the medium is something that is part of the world. The associations of people who have had people who have disappeared on them, there are entire lists of how you should live in this situation. One of them is ‘Don’t go to mediums.’ That’s because, really, everybody wants to go to a medium eventually. If the police don’t have answers and you’re at wit’s end, you’ll try anything. This is very much part of the reality of what happens to people who do lose somebody.