Is Mama a horror movie? Depends on who you ask. Star Jessica Chastain, who freely admits to being a scaredy cat, most definitely says yes. The film's visual effects supervisor Ed Taylor says absolutely not-- "I like to call it a ghost story. It’s about hope, it’s about what a parent is - how do you define a parent? And it’s about fighting for what you love." Producer Miles Dale doesn't use the word "horror" once over the course of a long interview. And director Andy Muschietti? He says that at the end of the film, when you realize the true nature of the titular character, "You shit yourself. Ideally."
You couldn't blame everyone for still trying to figure out their movie's tone when I talked to them last October, with Mama halfway through its shoot and Chastain, as she described it, starting to "feel like I'm finding my feet." (You can read our full conversation with her and more details about the movie in the first part of our set report). But whether Mama is a psychological thriller or a ghost story or a metaphor about parenting-- or, most likely, some combination of the three-- it was certain that the movie was out to terrify you, and that all starts with the title character, the malevolent ghost who has cared fro two little girls in an abandoned house for five years, and doesn't respond well when a new woman-- Chastain's Annabel-- tries to take control.
Mama herself is actually played by a man, Javier Botet, who appeared as the emaciated girl demon in [REC] and who executive producer Guillermo del Toro calls "the thin Doug Jones. Because he makes Doug Jones look like John Candy." (If you're not familiar with Jones, who played the Pale Man and the Faun in del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in Hellboy, click here). Botet wasn't on set the day we visited, but we got a look at his work in a special effects test reel, in which Mama floats down a hallway with the kind of herky-jerky, unworldly movement you associate with nightmares. With hair floating up and defying physics, and a body that can crawl up walls like a spider but also move forward incredibly fast, Mama looks every bit a monster-- but she's also beloved by the two little girls who Annabel must learn to care for.
"She's a horrible hero," says Barbara Muschietti, the co-writer and co-producer and sister of director Andy. Andy explains a bit further:
You see that the girls love this thing. You're not sure if it's real or not, but they follow her, they mimic her, you see a lot of traits from the mysterious character that is reflected on the girls. And when you see it, it doesn't matter all you know about their love, because it's so horrifying that you shit yourself. Ideally. So that's the game we're playing.
The test we saw of Botet as Mama was done entirely practically, with shots layered over each other to get the proper spooky effect, but the final product will include some CGI work, which is where Ed Taylor comes in. The visual effects supervisor from Canada-based company Mr. X explained that Mama's free-floating hair-- supposedly linked to her death underwater somewhere deep in the past-- is the most challenging aspect of the character, since hair can be one of the most difficult things to realistically create in CG:
Most CG hair is short, and there is a reason for that. What happens is that you start getting these collisions that add up and the math takes an incredible amount of time. So we are really trying to create this character of the hair, and that will be a big task, so that’s it. Just trying to bring it to life and not make it a passive entity is enough of a challenge for us.
What's remarkable is how much of Mama will be created practically, with Botet's performance making up the bulk of the character, and the CGI coming in to augment the hair and other terrifying aspects -- "There might be some aura effect; there will be a bruising effect that will come into play." I don't know what a bruising effect is, but it's terrifying, almost as the fact that Mama emerges in the house through cracks in the wall, and that moths arrive before she does. The moths are another one of Taylor's digital creations, and here's how he described the way they'll be used in the film:
They will cover the wall, cover all the lights. Lucas, the main character, has epilepsy, so in one scene, all these moths start showing up because Mama’s trying to get at Lucas. You see them fluttering their wings in time with his eyes, as he goes through his convulsions. So that is one thing we will be doing: the bruising and the moths."
For Andy and Barbara, who created Mama for the short film that has now changed their lives, the character emerges from a very specific point in their childhood: a series of paintings by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani that hung in their childhood home. Taylor described the artist as "the biggest cue for Mama's look," and as Barbara explained, "we had a Modigliani growing up, and it scared the shit out of us. When Andy started drawing Mama, it was very clear that there was a big, elongated Modigliani air to Mama. It's very scary visuals." The siblings grew up with horror films like Vincent Price movies every Friday, but Barbara cites Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws as the kind of movies that scared them most-- movies that have clearly affected the role Mama will play in the film.
Given the small budget for the film, Mama will be making limited appearances-- but as Taylor explains, that's only for the better: "Andy is pretty smart and he knows it is better to play with your imagination a bit more. I think some of the scariest films barely show the monster. I think he has held back on purpose, as well as for budgetary reasons." And executive producer del Toro says it simply: "Horror is always better when nothing is explained."
But if you want a little more explanation about how a first-time director like Andy wound up working alongside his sister, and under the guidance of no less than Guillermo del Toro, read our on-set conversation with both Andy and Barbara on the next page. We'll have one more report from the set, including our lengthy interview with del Toro, coming tomorrow. You can catch all the scares of Mama for yourself when it opens January 18.