The result of the collaboration is "Mama," a genuinely creepy psychological thriller starring Golden-Globe winner Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ("Game of Thrones"). The film follows two young girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) who are left to fend for themselves alone in a creepy cabin in the woods after their parents die. Their uncle, played by Coster-Waldau, frantically searches for them and eventually finds them five years later.
The girls, who are obviously traumatized, wind up living with their uncle and his heavily tattooed rocker girlfriend, Annabel, played by a raven-haired Chastain. Problems arise when Mama, the jealous ghost that protected the girls in the woods, follows them to their new home.
Moviefone caught up with del Toro to chat about bringing Mama to life (the movie and the ghost), the struggle to cast Chastain, and why he finds child actors "horrifying."
What was it about Mama [the short] that really resonated with you? There are primal emotions to motherhood and family that I respond to. As producer or director, I have a proclivity towards orphans, father/son, father/daughter relationships. I think family is the source of all horrors and the source of all blessings. But horrors for sure! [Laughs] I'm very happy, I've never shied away from a fist-fight, thanks to my brothers. [Laughs] They trained me to be physically apt. At the same time, I curse the fact that I got the shit beaten out of me at my house plenty of times. It's like that. I think that a horror story needs to have a real emotion at the center for you to respond. And the fact that it's a ghost in love, that I love.
This is another director's movie, but this still feels like a Guillermo del Toro movie... I've now produced 20 movies. The rule is very simple: Do unto others. Produce the way you want to be produced. If I see a choice that Andy is making that I don't agree with, but it's a choice, I shut my f***ing mouth. If I see him about to poke the child in the eye, I do have to say, dude, let's talk. But at the end of the day it's his decision. I'm 350 pounds and I've gone on my knees saying please, don't do this, but it's the director's movie. But I only produce things I have high affinity with. The reason why I wanted to help Vincenzo [Natali] do "Splice" is because the moment [Adrien Brody's character] f***s the monster, I was shocked. I was like holy f***ing shit, I've got to see this on the big screen. It's so against every fibre in my nature to see that scene, that I thought it needs to exist because it freaked me out.
Do you ever come in on the design side? In some cases. Not in "Mama." In "Mama," Andy had everything figured out completely. He went for a completely different aesthetic than I would have. It's very real. The wardrobe design is very real. The house they moved to with Mama, it's not stylized. It's a real f***ing house. I would have stylized it.
What was process like of determining what Mama would look like? Andy came up with her completely. 100 percent. She was just there. He's a great artist. He was freaked by Modigliani. He was freaked by the face. He drew her like a Modigliani ghost.
Did you know you'd be using [Javier Botet, of [Rec] to play Mama]? Andy knew him. I plan to use him again in "The Strain" and "Crimson Peak." Andy came up with the whole puppetry of the actor, he came up with these bands for the wrist and the ankle. The actor would be walking, and we would have technicians pulling him. A lot of people think it's digital. Somebody said to me, 'The only effect I didn't buy was Mama, the body was too CGI.' It's a f***ing guy! [Laughs] The only CGI on Mama is the hair. This actor has a thing called Marfan syndrome, which is something that people think Abraham Lincoln also had, which probably helped him with killing vampires. [Laughs] But it's something that allows you to dislocate all of your joints.
What was the casting process like? [Casting] Nikolaj is one of those moments in which I went to Andy and said that's the guy. Basically, he's playing the girlfriend. It's a very hard part to play. You need somebody that is able to be warm and casual and make the audience feel at home, but at the same time he has to be so good-looking and warm and accessible that you understand why she puts up with this shit. Andy was not as familiar with him, so I said, dude, trust me on this guy.
On Jessica, we showed [Andy] her footage. Back then, it was a very difficult moment because her representatives knew who she was and knew where she was going. They were like don't do a thriller, don't do a genre movie. At the same time, the studio didn't know who she was. We ended up meeting and she immediately wanted to play the part. She said look, I want to transform. I don't want to be the girl that I was in "The Help," or the girl that I was in "The Debt."
How does the Annabel as Jessica portrays her compare to the Annabel on the page? A great actor can understand what's on the page and make it sing. When I'm doing a reading of a screenplay, if a good actor hits one of your lines, you go I'm a great writer. [Laughs] How good am I? When a bad actor hits that same line, you go holy f***, who's gonna deliver this shit? It's an alchemy. What I think is really great is an actor saying I'm going to service the part. The wrong thing for an actor in any movie, especially in a genre movie, is to have an agenda, to say this is not on the page, and I need it! Then the movie starts changing, balancing towards the actor instead of the story. All I can say is she's close to what's on the page, except it sings.
What do you look for [when casting] kids? You look for kids that can play. Acting is just playing. When you're a kid you say I'm a cowboy and you play and never discuss it again. You never say what's my motivation? The worst thing you can do is cast a child actor. When they come into the audition and the mother is like don't forget dear, say hello, be courteous, that's horrible. And the kid goes into acting mode. It's horrifying.
Are you planning to keep juggling productions? Less than I've done. I've come to the conclusion that I need to create a company, because I do it all myself. When you hear JJ Abrams has 10 projects, he has Bad Robot. When you hear that I have 10 projects, it's me. But it's worth continuing to produce first-time directors.
"Mama" opens in theaters on January 18.