Release date: January 18, 2013 – FILMED IN TORONTO, CANADA
Five years ago, sisters Victoria (Red Riding Hood’s MEGAN CHARPENTIER) and Lilly (Mirador’s ISABELLE NÉLISSE) vanished from their suburban neighborhood without a trace. Since then, their Uncle Lucas (Game of Thrones’ NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU) and his girlfriend, Annabel (The Help’s Academy Award®-nominated actress JESSICA CHASTAIN), have been madly searching for them. But when, incredibly, the kids are found alive in a decrepit cabin, the couple wonders if the girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home.
As Annabel tries to introduce the children to a normal life, she grows convinced of an evil presence in their house. Are the sisters experiencing traumatic stress, or is a ghost coming to visit them? How did the broken girls survive those years all alone? As she answers these disturbing questions, the new mother will find that the whispers she hears at bedtime are coming from the lips of a deadly presence.
Director ANDY MUSCHIETTI makes his feature-film debut with Mama, which was written by NEIL CROSS (television’s Luther) and Andy Muschietti & BARBARA MUSCHIETTI (Historias de Dhallywood). The movie is based on the Muschiettis’ acclaimed short film Mamá.
“A ghost is like the essence of a person. If you leave a full personality to desiccate in the sun, then what is left is the corpse of one emotion.” – Guillermo del Toro
The behind-the-scenes team is led by producer J. MILES DALE (The Vow, upcoming Carrie), who produces the film alongside Barbara Muschietti. They are supported by a key crew that includes cinematographer ANTONIO RIESTRA (Black Bread), Academy Award®-nominated production designer ANASTASIA MASARO (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), editor MICHELE CONROY (Splice), costume designer LUIS SEQUEIRA (Breach), composer FERNANDO VELÁZQUEZ (The Orphanage) and the Oscar®-winning makeup team of MONTSE RIBÉ and DAVID MARTÍ (Pan’s Labyrinth).Del Toro serves as executive producer of the film.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
A Mother’s Love: The Dark Fable Begins
Based on their acclaimed short that took the film community by storm in 2008, Mama is the first feature crafted by international commercial director Andy Muschietti and his sister, producer Barbara Muschietti. Over the course of just one day in 2006, the Spanish natives made their short as an exercise in style and to show that Andy was capable of creating dark material in addition to his humorous commercials. In the film, we are introduced to two young girls, Victoria and Lilly, as they are trapped in their house and terrified of something or someone. We follow them as they try to escape a spectral creature only known as “Mamá,” running from one end of their house to the other…until they find themselves trapped at the end of a hallway and with nowhere to hide.
It would take two more years before the footage was edited and visual effects were added by the in-demand young director and his producer. Once completed and distributed, the short drew international festival and, ultimately, industry attention. The Muschiettis attribute the short’s success to its evoking deep fear with the play on a primal archetype, as well as to its brevity.
Discussing the project, Barbara Muschietti reflects: “We are lovers of the horror genre, and these are the films that have kept us dreaming of making our own films.” Barbara is equally enthusiastic about working with her brother: “I think we are that much stronger at what we do because we know we have each other’s back.”
Andy Muschietti returns that it was this relationship that pushed both of them to realize they could make a feature out of their first collaboration: “Barbara is a great ally in that she wants to make a great movie, and at the same time, she’s my sister and she wants to protect me.”
The short grabbed the attention of Guillermo del Toro, the prolific writer/director/producer who has produced close to 20 movies, many by first-time directors. He watches hundreds of short films each year and tries to give words of encouragement to burgeoning filmmakers as they transition to bigger projects. Once in a while, he finds something truly special. That was indeed the case when del Toro’s then assistant showed him the Muschiettis’ work.
Del Toro describes his attraction to translating Mamá into a feature film: “In the first 10 seconds of the short film, it was clear that Andy Muschietti really understood drama, and I was very impressed. Andy is the real deal.” What particularly struck del Toro was the Muschiettis’ decision to have two little girls become the crux of such an intensely scary story. The Mexican-born filmmaker has long believed that children are essential in spooky tales because “the origin of the horror story is in the fairy tale—Grimm’s fairy tales, folktales from Eastern Europe, Russia and Appalachia, are all full of violence and horror.” And what would a children’s horror story be without a crazed mother figure? Del Toro adds: “I think that a possessive mother is a great idea as a monster because everybody has known one, whether it’s your own mother or a friend’s mother or in fiction.”
Through their embracing of these fables and passed-down ghost stories, audiences have long enjoyed this style of suspenseful storytelling. The Muschiettis wanted to create a supernatural thriller that terrifies moviegoers on a primal, familial level and tell the story not only of a monster, but also of a deeply human emotion bent monstrously out of proportion. Now they had just the man in their corner to help them do so.
The Muschiettis were honored by their mentor’s assistance. Says Barbara: “Guillermo is a fantastic teacher who loves sharing his knowledge; we’ve learned so much technically, creatively and in terms of the business.” Del Toro enjoys this role and told the Muschiettis that it never gets better than your first film and that they should always stick with their gut instincts. She adds: “The insight he’s given us has been invaluable, and we feel incredibly lucky to have him in our lives.”
Drawing upon his years of experience producing a range of projects, from the blockbuster The Vow and genre-smashing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to more serious fare including Hollywoodland and Talk to Me, fellow producer J. Miles Dale joined Barbara Muschietti to produce the genre-defying film. As was del Toro, Dale was drawn to develop Mamá as a feature because he felt the short was “arresting and leaves you wanting more. It explores universal themes of what has an impact on a child, what it means to be a parent and how love and support come in different ways.”
Once Dale began conversations with the film’s director about his ideas for the long-form piece, the producer was sold. Dale commends: “The greatest thing about Andy is that he can convey his vision in a very inventive way. He’s got a great sense of humor, he doesn’t get nervous, and he doesn’t pretend to know everything. He’s happy to ask an opinion.”
Del Toro met with the Muschiettis to develop the screenplay completely from scratch, using the short film as atmosphere and expanding upon its characters. The Muschiettis wrote the first draft, then del Toro “took a stab at it…added a couple of scares,” but they all agreed they needed a further polish of the screenplay.
That work came from Neil Cross, whom del Toro describes as “a screenwriter I admire and respect, and whose draft jelled everything into the movie we’re producing today.” As the screenplay came together, del Toro grew to appreciate just the hold that the Mama creature had on these two desperate little girls—and the primal need that mothers have to protect their young. Indeed, she mothers them the only way she knows how, and she will kill to protect her new daughters.
The producer—who openly believes in ghosts—admittedly devours stories in which the ghost is imbued with very human traits. He reflects: “I loved the idea of two girls lost in the woods, adopted and sustained for years by a deranged ghost consumed with possessive, asphyxiating motherly love. It’s when the girls are rescued and brought to the city that the real problems begin.”
Naturally, the feature version of Mama is an extended technical, visual and narrative form of the short. To lengthen the project would be no small feat. Del Toro, Dale and the Muschiettis collaborated at every stage of development, casting and filming. Though known for his own terror-inducing films, del Toro is clear that “Mama is Andy’s movie, and he’s doing it in a style all of his own. I think it’s really quite a fantastic piece, and it doesn’t need to resemble anything I’ve done.”
Although he is a veteran commercial director who has mastered the art of storytelling in as little as 30 seconds, Muschietti appreciates the confidence and support of his film’s executive producer: “Guillermo has been like a godfather to us on this movie. From the beginning, it was clear that he wanted us to do our best. He’s been generous with his time and incredible knowledge, demanding in all the right ways, enthusiastic and, above all, shown us that he believes in trusting instinct.”
The director reflects: “There were a few moments when we were developing the story, where we had different ideas about things, and more often than not he would remind us that it was our movie, our instinct, and we should follow it. You just couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Guillermo has been to us.”
Returns del Toro: “I think Andy has a great career ahead of him. He is supernaturally calm, very sure of himself, and I admire the fact that he fights for his ideas—even with me!”
Lost Children and New Parents: Casting the Supernatural Thriller
When selecting the actors to portray the key roles in Mama, it was crucial to find the correct performers, regardless of their star power at the time. The key parts that the filmmakers needed to fill were those of the new family cobbled together after Victoria and Lilly are found in the woods and returned to civilization. Their unlikely saviors are their Uncle Lucas and his wild-child girlfriend, Annabel, who is admittedly unprepared for motherhood.
The free-spirited Annabel supported her boyfriend during the years that he spent searching for his missing nieces. After they are found, the bass drummer initially resists getting involved with the girls’ caretaking, but ultimately she finds solidarity with them.
When casting for the part began, actress Jessica Chastain had already worked with filmmakers including Terrence Malick, John Madden and Al Pacino, but few of her movies had been released and she was still relatively unknown. That would all change during 2011, the year her career launched into the stratosphere.
Del Toro gives his production executive, RUSSELL ACKERMAN, credit for bringing Chastain to his attention. Needless to say, the executive producer was blown away with her work. As timing met opportunity, the buzz about Chastain began to build as her slew of 2011 releases—including The Help, in which she gave an Oscar®-nominated performance—introduced her to audiences worldwide. Del Toro commends: “Our biggest victory in Mama was casting Jessica Chastain. She has the unique ability of showing great strength and great vulnerability at the same time, and the intangible gift of instantly making you care about her.”
The director also praises the production’s Annabel: “Jessica is a beautiful human being and an amazingly talented actress. I will be forever grateful for how she dug inside herself to give a dimension of life and sorrow to Annabel that I never dreamed of. There were intense moments where she made huge emotional investments that you feel on screen. We were very lucky to have her.”
Chastain admits that she looks for projects that challenge her comfort zone, and when she read Mama, she was immediately hooked. She reflects: “I’m a huge fan of
horror films, and Mama is terrifying and unlike anything I’ve ever done before.” She also responded to her character’s deep arc. “I love the way Annabel goes from being a reluctant guardian to the girls, to the place where she’d rather die than let harm happen to them.”
The performer appreciated that the Muschiettis weren’t aiming for cheap scares with their feature debut. Rather, she knew they were constructing a thriller that is as much psychological as supernatural. Explains Chastain: “Mama tries to kill Annabel because Annabel is the rival to the affections of the girls. Mama is perfectly fine with the girls being in Annabel and Lucas’ house, as long as they love Mama best. But once the girls discover that Annabel is warm, they see there is something they can get from Annabel that they could never get from Mama. You start to see their alliances shift, and that’s what causes all hell to break loose in the house.”
With the collaboration of wardrobe, hair and makeup departments, Andy Muschietti worked with Chastain to create Annabel’s signature look: a reluctant hero and raven-haired 30-year-old teenager. Del Toro admits he was the most surprised when he first saw the character come to life. He laughs: “The look of Annabel was very surprising to me—tattoos, black hair—I would have gone a completely different route. But when I saw her, I understood who she was instantly.”
The actor who would play the dual roles of artist Lucas Desanges and his twin brother, Wall Street financier Jeffrey, needed to have range to portray a father driven to his breaking point before he drives his young girls out into the wilderness. Dale gives some insight into the character of Lucas: “The girls’ uncle feels a tremendous responsibility because nobody knows really what happened on the day that they disappeared. He wants to unravel the mystery, but ultimately, fatherhood is not a role that he’s entirely ready for; there are a lot of things that he doesn’t know. So when he starts that journey, he’s doing it blindly, just out of love.”
The director and producers auditioned many leading men in Hollywood and Europe for the role of Lucas/Jeffrey, but all had very different ideas on what was needed in their performer. Del Toro explains: “Andy was interested in going one way, the studio was interested in going another, and I was interested in going a third way. Then all of a sudden, we saw the reading that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau did, and we converged. He was the guy who could pull it all together.”
Del Toro credits the Game of Thrones star with “radiating a sense of being centered and grounded” in making him believable as someone who could make Annabel consider taking on this madness.
Coster-Waldau appreciated that the project was not remotely what he expected it would be: “I knew the genre of the story, but I didn’t expect the story to evolve as it did. It’s like you read one of those horrible stories in the paper about a guy who’s lost it and had a breakdown and killed his whole family and himself; that’s how it starts. Then suddenly, the story becomes something very different. But when I saw Andy and Barbara’s short, I could see clearly that Andy is unique in how he uses the camera. I loved how the short is about these kids and Mama, but it’s almost like you can feel them.”
As Chastain notes, Coster-Waldau was moved by the terrifying jealousy of the Mama creature. He elaborates: “As long as there’s no emotional connection between the kids and whoever they meet, Mama is fine. But as soon as there’s an emotional threat, she goes in and gets aggressive. Clearly in the beginning, Lucas is the one who’s connecting with the girls. So he is a threat and she pushes him down the stairs in a very special way.”
For the critical roles of the feral girls left in the woods for five years, 10-year-old Megan Charpentier was cast as Victoria and eight-year-old Isabelle Nélisse was brought on board as her little sister, Lilly. As both girls are in the majority of the scenes of the thriller, the filmmakers knew the search to cast them would not be a simple one.
Barbara Muschietti admits casting the children was her biggest fear: “We were terrified about finding these two girls because this is heavy material that requires a lot from them physically and emotionally, and they’re in just about every scene of the movie.” Casting sessions across Canada uncovered what the producer calls “the two most precious little girls ever. Megan and Isabelle are amazing. Amazing! They’re both completely different but spectacular, and everybody on set was absolutely in love with them.”
Dale reflects on the process: “Casting children is very intuitive. Then you take a chance that what you see at the audition will hold up when you get into the rigors of working long days away from home—and, in this case, going to a darker place than the average child actor would go. I’ve been so impressed with how Megan and Isabelle have managed to maintain a kind of grace and fun through it all.” He laughs: “It’s been inspiring and a breath of fresh air for all of us cynical film people.”
Andy Muschietti couldn’t have imagined that the two characters he and his sister created six years ago would manifest into the young performers in his feature debut. He discusses: “Victoria and Lilly have different arcs, but they both have to go through a lot emotionally and be credible. Megan is a more rational, adult kind of actress, even though she’s 10, while Isabelle is more visceral and spontaneous. But they both bonded with Jessica and delivered the perfect intensity.”
As for casting the film’s signature character? Mama herself is the final element that translates from the short film to the feature. The role is played in both productions by Spanish actor and movement expert JAVIER BOTET, whom Andy had seen in the Spanish horror film [Rec] and recognized as perfect for the title character.
Standing an astonishing seven feet tall—with uncommon body features and physical abilities commensurate with his measurements—Botet moves delicately, deliberately and terrifyingly as Mama. Barbara Muschietti surmises: “Javier doesn’t speak a word, but he speaks volumes.”
Del Toro likens Botet to one of the former’s frequent collaborators—the inimitable Doug Jones, who has played fascinating characters in del Toro’s movies, such as Abe Sapien, Pan, Pale Man and the Angel of Death—describing Botet’s work as “part performance art, dance and creepy mime.”
Finally, Aliens’ DANIEL KASH joined the production as Dr. Dreyfuss, the psychiatrist in charge of Victoria and Lilly’s care after they are mysteriously found in the woods and returned to civilization. Although his interest initially seems altruistic, the doctor’s motive in diagnosing the girls turns out to be less than benign. As one might imagine, Mama is none too pleased with his therapy suggestions or subsequent treatment plan…
The Look of Terror: Design of Mama
Andy Muschietti reveals that he long envisioned the character of Mama “as a Modigliani painting left to rot.” Being a renaissance man, the director designed the original Mama with reference to the “lowbrow” style—also known as pop surrealism—made famous by Chet Zar, an American artist noted for his dark visual art, makeup effects and digital animation.
The director’s extensive drawings and storyboards inspired Mama cinematographer Antonio Riestra, production designer Anastasia Masaro and costume designer Luis Sequeira to collaborate on the well-blended color palette and detailed style choices featured in every shot of the film.
In the fall of 2011 as Mama began production, Pinewood Toronto Studios and locations in and around Toronto afforded the filmmakers the opportunity to build sets and adapt existing locations to the exact specifications of the script.
Creating sets for Mama was further complicated because much of the horror takes place in an innocuous suburban house. Even the abandoned shack in the woods is an example of 1950s architecture, not a creepy castle or an abandoned mansion commonly used as settings for this genre. The sets not only needed to lend themselves to reality, but also offer the audience spaces in which they could project their worst fears. The Muschiettis credit production designer Masaro and her team with achieving what Barbara calls the “benign but rotten” look they craved.
For her part, Masaro employed colors with an earthy glow. Browns and blacks accompany Mama—from the moldy way she appears on walls to her wardrobe and the gifts she presents to the girls as she grows to claim them as her own. When it came time to explore the children’s world outside of the forest, the color palette was broadened to include yellows, blues and greens. The girls’ room in Annabel and Lucas’ house, as well as the bedroom in the institute run by Dr. Dreyfuss, needed to be friendly and inviting to kids…yet exclude saturated hues that would conflict with the rest of the film design.
For these spaces, Masaro used bright colors in a muddier range, which director of photography Riestra subsequently toned down even further. The rest of the movie
employed earthy tones to maintain the moody, dark quality that Andy Muschietti wanted to project, continuously reminding us that the long-deceased Mama is still omnipresent.
Del Toro credits Andy Muschietti for understanding how to generate fear in the film: by using restraint in how much—or rather, how little—he reveals of the title character. Says del Toro: “It can be scarier to not see than to actually see, or to imagine what was seen. Mama is shown just enough that you feel satisfied, but not too much that it loses its punch.”
The director explains the approach that he and DP Riestra employed, which Muschietti admits was half-scripted and half-found during the course of production: “One way of creating fear is by not letting the audience see what they want to see, by detaching from their point of view. This device, known as a ‘lazy camera,’ strategically forgets characters and has the effect of generating tension.”
Andy Muschietti praises Riestra for finding the right lens with which to film Mama and accentuate her proportions, and for lighting in such a way that adds visual interest and mood throughout. Riestra’s vision for the film was dark but stylized, keeping the detail in significant moments, such as highlighting the characters’ skin to show their reactions to what they may—or may not—have seen.
Barbara Muschietti raves that Riestra—who had developed a rapport with the brother-and-sister team in the days they worked together in commercials—“painted the whole movie with just the right mood, aesthetic and visual texture.”
In order to further achieve his vision for design, Andy Muschietti conducted a series of physical tests with Javier Botet that involved manipulating his body movement. Together, they ultimately found the right balance of actor, prosthetics and digital effects. Fear is generated through the physicality of a real and living Mama, and the challenge was to balance computer-generated effects with prosthetics.
The renowned Mr. X visual-effects team led by EDWARD TAYLOR provided the hyper realistic element of Mama’s hair, while the Oscar®-winning Spanish make up effects team of Montse Ribé and David Martí, of DDT Effects, built the prosthetics that elongated Botet’s neck and fingers and brutally distorted his face to showcase a specter who has lost more than one could ever imagine.
A longtime proponent of blending VFX with special effects, del Toro suggested DDT to the Muschiettis. He commends: “I trust them completely. From The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Orphanage…I think they are one of the best teams of makeup prosthetic effects in the world right now, and frankly ever. They are a pair of geniuses, and I knew they were going to be able to interpret Andy’s ideas for Mama.”
Costume designer Luis Sequeira brought Andy’s cocoon concept to life and constructed Mama’s flowing dress to mirror her digitally generated floating hair—not a simple task when the hair was yet to be created and the actor was wearing a bald cap. Since Mama walks, flies, grows and mutates throughout the film, Sequeira had to create 15 versions of the same dress. Each one was hand-sewn and dyed to appear seamlessly from scene to scene as a single dress with a long tail.
Production wrapped, del Toro sums up on behalf of the filmmaking team what they’ve been sharing since the short Mamá was created several years ago: “The most unyielding force in the universe is maternal love, but when it goes wrong, it produces a very particular brand of compelling horror.”
Universal Pictures and Guillermo del Toro present a De Milo/Toma 78 production of a film by Andy Muschietti: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Mama. Casting for the thriller is by Robin D. Cook, CSA, and the music is by Fernando Velázquez. The costume designer is Luis Sequeira, and the editor is Michele Conroy, CCE. Mama’s production designer is Anastasia Masaro, and its director of photography is Antonio Riestra, AMC. The film’s associate producer is Cristina Lera Gracia. The thriller’s executive producer is Guillermo del Toro. Mama is produced by J. Miles Dale and produced by Barbara Muschietti. It is from a story by Andy Muschietti & Barbara Muschietti. The screenplay is by Neil Cross and Andy Muschietti & Barbara Muschietti. Mama is directed by Andy Muschietti. © 2012 Universal Studios. www.mamamovie.com