If it's one thing Guillermo del Toro knows as well as his horror, it's spotting new talent.
The director behind fantasy and genre classics like Pan's Labyrinth, Blade II and Hellboy has a history of backing fresh cinematic voices (see also: The Orphanage, Splice, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark), and now he's back - supporting creepy twisted fairytale, Mama.
Based on a two minute short about two young girls first protected by, and then ultimately terrified by a demonic motherly ghost-spirit-thing, del Toro chatted to Total Film about its creator and director Andres Muschietti, its all-star cast, deleted scenes, and what you could expect from a sequel.
Oh, and he even found time to update on his comic book passion project, and DC's twisted take on their own Avengers, Justice League Dark……
We saw the short two minute Mama short that inspired the feature film, and it terrified us. What was it about that clip that first caught your eye?
I loved the originality of the idea of something that terrible and that inhuman being called 'Mama', it was very startling. And then it was shot in that beautiful, very classical style, but in an uninterrupted take - so I realised that the style was as strong as the plot.
You have a pretty impressive CV when it comes to producing and executive producing - how would you describe the process when it comes to overseeing these projects? Were you quite hands-on with Mama?
Yes, I was very much hands-on. I always am when it's a first time director. I'm very careful to try to be of some kind of consequence as a producer when I'm presenting a movie. Producing is kind of like dating, whereas presenting is like a marriage. When you're presenting you're really putting yourself forward to introduce another filmmaker to the world.
In the case of Mama, I was there from the moment we started developing the screenplay. I would go almost every day to the set in the morning to run the storyboards with Andres in the morning. I would go and see the dailies in the editing room, and I would put in six to seven hours every Saturday in the Editing Room with Andres. I stay as an overseer or a guardian angel, whatever is needed until the movie is delivered.
Did the project evolve much from the original screenplay through to the finished on-screen movie?
Very much so. The basic idea revolved around Andres wanting the girls to be imprinted by the presence of Mama in their early childhood. And then each of us brought a little bit of seasoning to the dish. We were able to go back when the shoot and the editing were done to add additional material for about two or three days. It was a rare privilege, especially for a first time filmmaker to be able to calibrate it again by shooting additional material.
And was there anything that was cut that you would've loved to have make the final cut?
I personally thought that there was a little scene that we cut out where you saw the murder of the mother of the girls. It was not shown, it was implicit. But it was very scary. We took it out because we were worried that the murdered mother was the Mama of the title, the ghost of that mother. But it was a very good scene that Andres shot.
Tonally, it felt like there was a real attempt to balance both horror and twisted fairytale - how would you best describe it?
We tried to do just that - I really wanted to bring that element to the movie myself. I thought the opening was exactly like Hansel & Gretel - the kids being taken to the woods by the father, and finding an old cabin with an entity in it. It was remarkable. I thought the ending was so beautiful and so fairytale-like, that we tried to then reign that in in other parts of the movie.
Do you find it hard to cast children in horror movies - and then how do you go about looking after them on set?
It's never hard to cast kids, it's only ever hard to direct them. I think that Andres did a fantastic job. Because these are girls who are holding their own against Jessica Chastain, and there was a great chemistry between them.
Shooting a horror story with kids, I always explain really simply. They may be scary to watch but they're a lot of fun to shoot. You know, the kids have a great time shooting these movies. Whether you let them watch it is another matter <laughs>
We understand you originally wanted two real life sisters to play the roles, but you actually ended up splitting two real-life pairs up and grabbing one from each?
Yeah, Andy wanted the chemistry between the kids. But what he ended up doing was going after two little actors who were completely different to one another. One is really method, really disciplined, really a kind of formally trained actress. The younger girl is just an instinctive firecracker - she's almost a really wild little creature. And he used the two opposing energies to create the characters. The little one didn't speak a word of English when we started shooting, which was ok with Andre and me, because we understand French, but the rest of the cast couldn't communicate with her, which was very adequate for the movie.
**SPOILERS** We've heard rumours of a possible sequel - do you think that's likely to happen? And where would you like to take it? **SPOILERS**
I think that only if we found a really great story and a really great director to do it. That'd be interesting. Obviously the avenues for it are multiple. The girls are separated. Lily has gone with Mama so she could become part of that universe. Victoria, the older girl, she stayed, so she knows all the story and the background, so you could explore that for sure, but it would depend on the story and the director.
As massive comics fans, the news that you're involved with a Justice League Dark movie really excited us. Is there any more progress on that?
Yeah, I am going to be presenting my storyline to DC and Warners of where I want to take this universe. We do have a writer, but until that is firmed up, I have to keep it a secret. I hope it happens. It's going really really well. It's like meeting old friends. I grew up with Demon Etrigan, with Swamp Thing, with Deadman, so these are characters that are near and dear to my heart.
Would be looking to follow the recent comics, or would you want to follow a story that pulls in all their origin tales?
I'd love to use the origins that are proper to each character. I love the idea of Jason Blood as a paladin and a knight…. I love the entire Constantine mythology, the Dead Man mythology, the Alex Holland Swamp Thing mythology. These are really rich things to well, and to dig.
Mama is in UK cinemas now.
Did you love Mama? Excited by the possibilities of Justice League Dark? Let us know below...