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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.
How do you balance the impact that the short had with telling a longer story in a feature?
Horror is always better when nothing is explained and frankly if you can do features, which you can in Europe and you can do in other countries, but an American horror movie there will always be the moment where you reveal the origin of this or the origin of that and that inevitably diminishes it. We inevitably reveal the origin, but I think what we tried to do… I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever.” Because it’s absolutely immediately, for me made it something relatable, like “All mothers turn into horrible things at some point” and then you reconcile and it can be great or not. I thought the idea of that surpasses any origin. It’s such a strong thing that ultimately what this creature has is possessive love you know? A mother’s jealousy is really, really strong.
Can you talk about the casting of Jessica Chastain?
Well you know her movies hadn't been released, any of the movies that have made her now so famous you know? We were having many casting suggestions with big names and big stars and this and that and then I saw The Debt with probably an illegal copy. I was blown away by the fact that all of her choices as actress were so smart, you know like scenes that played counter point to the way they would normally be played. The way she seemed to absorb Helen Mirren’s sort of mannerisms and then I talked to her and she said, “Actually Helen Mirren did some stuff I did, because we met after I finished my performance.” I said, “Well how did you get all of her…” “I watch a lot of her movies.” I thought she was so smart and we went and said back then “We want this actress that has no movies released, because she is the perfect actress.” We went and fortunately we got the actress we wanted.
Is it important when you're working with a first-time director like Andy that he come with an idea already in place?
Yeah, it helps a lot. The more hours they have under their belt the better, like Andy has shot hundreds of commercials and literally has shot so much stuff. He’s been in every situation. The fact that he has used every trick, every technical piece of equipment, that’s very comforting and yet the main thing is for them to be prepared. Nothing prepares you for a feature, nothing. I mean you could have shot fifty shorts and then you go and do the feature and it’s a completely different beast.
I really love the way he works with the camera. I always say and people think it’s like a figure of speech that I learn from the really great first time directors. His camera work is very delicate and then when you see it assembled together it flows beautifully and is very delicate and I was like “Oh my God, this is…” I was learning stuff from him. He’s been really, really great and you know that said it is my duty to torture him a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the afternoon. “You’ve got to make your day.” “You did ten more takes than you needed.” “What about doing this or that?” But all with the respect that I am very, very conscious that he’s the real deal.
Would you see this as a companion piece to films that you have done? I mean Pan’s Labyrinth, Devil’s Backbone…
It does, but I tell you the thing is that when we came on board, I came on board the short, his storyline was something I had a great communion with. It’s like The Orphanage. The Orphanage and I have many things in common, but it’s a movie that is done in such a completely different style. Yes, there are many things I have in common with Mama, but the style he is shooting it at, the color palette, the design elements are very different than how I would do it and I’m fascinated by that. I go like “My life could be so much easier…” They find elegant solutions to things that I break my head over.
You said something about Andy doing some really revolutionary stuff and obviously don’t spoil some of the surprise, but what can you tell us about what surprised you?
The way he dealt with the movement of the actor is really, really smart. There is one that I use like a test. I showed it to friends and was like “Tell me how we did it” and with the first try nobody succeeds, but there are other ones where he has Javier with a bunch of cables coming out of the body, so he’s pulled into directions that are not normal and he has to counter the wire pull and then we remove the wires and what it looks like is like literally a marionette coming to life. It looks almost digital, but it’s all caught on camera. He moves really disjointed, because they are trying to trip him essentially. It’s really, really cool.
The other one he did is really crazy, but is so simple. If I say it, you will see it. John Landis told me a story that ruined “The Blues Brothers” for me. Shall I ruin it for you? He said when the explosion in their apartment happens, he shot… the small explosion didn’t work and he went to Albert Wedlock and Wedlock said, “No problem, give me a picture of the apartment.” He blew it up. He glued it into foam. He cut the windows out. He said, “It looked horrible” and the board moves a little bit and it’s completely fake and he said “No one has ever caught it.”
How important is it to make sure that the ghost stuff in this is different from what we’ve see before?
Well I think he is very aware of it. I mean I there are moments where if you trace the lineage of ghosts in film, there’s a moment where Mario Bava intersects with J Horror, J Horror intersects with Devil’s Backbone and there’s no way of not threading some stuff that has been done, so as long as you don’t have a guy in a blanket you are doing quite alright. One of the things I did in Devil’s Backbone is I was like “Let’s not just change the ghosts, let’s change the atmosphere around it, so that there’s something that the ghost brings into our world” and we are doing stuff like that in Mama that is interesting.
Do you see that there is a struggle between filmmakers who are trying to tell a traditional ghost story versus those who are kind of adapting to the Paranormal Activity found footage faux documentary style which seems to be catching on a lot more than a traditional ghost story?
A lot more and I understand why. I mean I’m a big sucker for all of the Ghost Hunters and you know Paranormal Witness… I watch all of that stuff. But I think there’s a value in the tradition. Sometimes like going very traditional is very hard for the hardcore, like us new devices make people simply more interested, but I always think… the way I see it is there’s always a new generation being exposed to the genre.
For me the biggest tragedy inevitably was the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark R rating. I didn’t want to remove anything, but it was a kid’s movie. We made it for it to be the scariest “Goosebumps” episode ever made and I really still hope that younger audiences catch it.
What are you taking with you from that R rating on Don’t Be Afraid into this? Obviously that’s a lesson in learning what you can and can’t do to kids.
We asked very concretely “Why do we have the R?” And they said, “No matter what you change, it’s an R” and they just said “Pervasive scariness” which is great… They said, “If you want to try, you should take out the moments of violence here, here, and here.” It was like “We might as well not make the movie…” “We don’t want to see the girl near a knife. We don’t want to see the moment where the creature takes a swipe with the blade at her feet” and you go “All right, $15 million less at the box office…” Which is fine. I think the lesson is frankly if I had to go back and change it to a PG-13 and make it more successful, I would not do it. Again like now, so I guess I didn’t learn my fucking lesson, but what I did learn the lesson on is that no matter how much you pre-plan it, the MPAA will have a different point of view, because we literally… There’s no profanity in Don’t Be Afraid. For me it’s one of the most disserving PG-13 movies. The opening is what freaked them out also with the teeth, which I must admit I was very happy with.
Is that a situation that you are going to be facing here with Mama?
Probably. I think we will take it step by step. I think that the spirit of the opening in Don’t Be Afraid was so mean. We don’t have anything like that. This is much more classical like The Orphanage, but The Orphanage got an R also. I don’t know, I can’t figure it out. I can’t play chess with the MPAA.
So do you, at all when you are filming, think about “Is this going to go PG-13 or R?” or do you just kind of say “Fuck it, let the chips fall.”
Normally, like for example the opposite has been true on the Hellboy movies. We calculated the Hellboy movies to be PG-13 and we got it first try. I’ve never had to cut a frame. Blade 2 almost got NC-17. (Laughs) On the other hand we went and they were like “No fucking way.” We literally negotiated frame by frame. We took very little, but they literally were saying “Six frames less on the exit wound” and we went like “All right, six frames off the exit wound.” Some people use the tricks of going extreme and then dialing it back, I don’t do that.
How do you keep everything straight? You are producing this, you have other movies that you have planning, you have Pacific Rim which is the biggest movie you have ever done. How do you sort of keep everything going with all of these plates spinning to keep your head straight?
Well Pacific Rim has been almost a year since I started working. I was working on it when I left The Hobbit like a week later I was producing it with Legendary, so I’ve been there first as producer and so it was a very easy transition and the rest, the sad thing about our business is nothing happens at the same time and everything happens so slowly. Like it’s easier to go from the outside to go like “He’s doing all of this?” I wish. That doesn’t mean he’s going to ultimately get away with doing it. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve found out if you develop seven things, one becomes real and if you develop one single thing and I’ve done it and you stick with it, chances are it’s like 60/40 it won’t happen. It’s very sad, but it’s true.
Look, the last two years which have been my inactive years as a director, I’ve produced five movies, put out three novels, developed screenplays for three TV series, one that is known, two that mercifully no one knows about. (Laughs) They would go “What is he thinking?” But you know you keep it like that. If my name was not my name, but the name of my company, people wouldn’t even think about it, like if it was DreamWorks, because then you are hiding behind a name, but in reality it’s like JJ [Abrams] is equally overloaded for example, but he has Bad Robot.
So are you hoping that by the time if and when you ever get around to doing Frankenstein for Universal that there is an audience fatigue from every single fucking Frankenstein movie that’s being developed now?
That is never going to go away. I mean I have a Frankenstein fetish to a degree that is unhealthy and I’ve been talking with Sara Karloff about other projects. I’m just a Boris Karloff super fan and of Frankenstein the story. It’s the most important book of my life, so you know if I get to it, whenever I get to it, it will be the right way.