Isabelle Nelisse, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier and Jessica Chastain in "Mama." (Universal)Link
Director Andres Muschietti and Jessica Chastain on the set of "Mama,"a supernatural thriller presented by Guillermo del Toro. (George Kraychyk/ Universal)Link
Jessica Chastain in "Mama." (Universal)Link
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Mama." (Universal)Link
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain in "Mama." (George Kraychyk/Universal)Link
Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Mama." (Universal)Link
Megan Charpentier in "Mama." (Universal)Link
From left, Jessica Chastain, Isabelle Nelisse and Megan Charpentier in "Mama." (George Kraychyk/Universal)Link
Berta Ros in a scene from the short movie "Mama." (Barbara Muschietti)Link
"Mama" director Andrés Muschietti with producer Guillermo del Toro. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)Link
Guillermo del Toro at the Rome Film Festival on Nov. 13, 2012. (Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)Link
The first time Andres Muschietti directed a film called “Mama,” it was roughly three minutes in length. The 2008 short that spawned the new horror feature opening in theaters Friday is a quick slip of a thing — a creepy mood piece that sees two little girls running from a ghastly apparition in the middle of the night.
“The short film was a vision that happened one morning when I was lying in bed at that time of the morning when brain waves are sort of low,” Muschietti said. “It came up with no context, no back story. It was not a rational construction, but it seemed like a very interesting thing. I didn’t bother looking for an explanation, it seemed creepy enough without it.”
Creepy is the watchword for Muschietti’s new feature, his first full-length film as a director. The expanded story sees two orphaned girls abandoned in a ramshackle cabin in the woods; years later, they’re discovered and brought back into civilization, living with their uncle Lucas (“Game of Thrones’” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain). But something supernatural seems to have followed the children back into the real world, hoping to claim them for its own.
In many ways, it makes sense that Muschietti, 39, would make a film about ghosts. He’s been haunted by the supernatural nearly his entire life, though not quite literally — he says he’s never seen any spectral presence personally. But growing up in Argentina in the 1980s, he was always fascinated by stories related by friends and family, really any encounters he happened across.
“When I was a kid I used to watch an American show called ‘That’s Incredible,’” Muschietti said. “There was this creepy story about a ghost that roamed in the aisles of a Toys R Us store. They had a photograph of it, it was so creepy, I think it was the most traumatic childhood experience I remember. It’s this blurry [shot] of a stilted image walking down the corridor.”
He also cited “The Entity,” the 1982 film starring Barbara Hershey, about a woman tormented by a violent, invisible presence as a film that terrified him as a young man.
Muschietti channeled some of that fear into his impeccably designed short, which made a splash when it debuted at the Sitges International Festival of Fantastic and Horror Cinema in 2008. That paved the way for Muschietti and his sister Barbara, who produced both iterations of “Mama,” to expand the idea into a feature.
Andres Muschietti said he found an unlikely inspiration after stumbling onto a National Geographic video, in which a leopard begins to care for a newborn baboon after killing its mother, taking the baby into the trees to protect it from an advancing hyena.
“That was so shocking for me,” Muschietti said. “The concept of imprint, the idea that a newborn baby can adapt to anything that’s there to nurture him, even if it’s not the mother, that idea was fascinating and I haven’t seen it in movies — at least the way I wanted to.”
“Mama” comes with the stamp of approval of producer Guillermo del Toro, who previously has shepherded spooky efforts from newcomers Troy Nixey (“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”) and Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”), the latter of whom has gone on to garner critical acclaim with his second feature, the real-life disaster tale “The Impossible.” (Del Toro recently announced plans to make his own small-scale supernatural thriller, a period-set haunted house tale titled “Crimson Peak,” in which Emma Stone is tipped to star.)
Muschietti credits Del Toro’s involvement with helping secure a star of Chastain’s caliber for the role of Annabel, a musician with a penchant for black eyeliner and Misfits T-shirts who is, to put it kindly, ambivalent about the notion of motherhood (to be fair, one might understand anyone’s trepidation about bringing two feral children into your home).
It’s Annabel who becomes the protector of Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) and Victoria (Megan Charpentier) as they find themselves visited by the presence they call Mama.
With her elongated neck and empty eyes, the ghost might remind some fans of the vengeful spirits from such J-horror titles as “Ringu” and “The Grudge.” But she was actually inspired by a Modigliani portrait that Muschietti said unnerved him in his youth.
To bring the title character to life on the screen, Muschietti felt it was important to cast an actual actor in the part; the role went to Javier Botet from the “[Rec]” films.
“I didn’t want to make Mama CG,” Muschietti said. “Every time you see a CG character no matter how good it is, you can always tell it’s CG and it takes you [out of the film].” In the case of Mama, he said, “There are elements that are CG, but… it’s the right mix of elements.”
Early critics seem to agree. In her review in The Times, Betsy Sharkey wrote, “Mama (Javier Botet) is one of the most intriguing evil presences to turn up in horror movies in a while. Not only is the character a shape-shifting marvel to witness, there are other frightening elements that attend her. “
The film shot in Toronto on a sound stage adjacent to where Del Toro was making his robots versus kaiju blockbuster “Pacific Rim.” (“He had six stages on the lot and I had one,” Muschietti joked.)
During pre-production and into the first weeks of shooting, Del Toro met daily with the filmmaker, going over storyboards, walking through the sets. Muschietti described their collaboration as an invaluable learning experience, and one he’s likely to carry forward into future projects, even if he hasn’t quite settled on what film he’ll do next.
“He has so much knowledge not only of film but of the business,” Muschietti said. “He gave me great, great advice of what to do, what not to do. He’s not someone you’re competing against, he’s someone you’re being supported by. He’s like a godfather. He respects your instincts so much, he basically lets you do what you want.”
– Gina McIntyre
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