Based on a three-minute short by Andres "Andy" Muschietti, the story follows two young sisters who've gone missing. Five years later, they are discovered in the wilderness, miraculously all safe, but not quite sound. Having desperately searched for them, their uncle Lucas ("Game of Thrones"' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and his current girlfriend Annabel ("Zero Dark Thirty"'s Jessica Chastain), take on the task of raising them. What the couple didn't count on is there's a strong entity attached to the girls and it's getting angry that its maternal role is being replaced.
Muschietti directed the short in 2006, having made it with his sister, Barbara. Now, for the feature, Andy has directed and co-written, with Barbara as co-writer and producer, and del Toro as their champion; he executive-produced the film, helped them write it, was on set during much of the production and ensured that they could make their debut feature their way.
Back in November, 2011, Chastain, director Muschietti and del Toro sat down with Moviefone on the Toronto set to discuss bringing "Mama" and their vision to life.
Can you introduce us to your character and her predicament? Chastain: I play Annabel, and she plays bass guitar in a punk band. She's very much living the life of never really wanting to grow up and have responsibility. She has a great boyfriend and I don't think Annabel will ever be at the stage where she's like, "OK, I'm going to settle down and have a family." She's kind of just in this holding pattern. Against her own wishes, she gets stuck with the responsibility of caring for two young girls. She doesn't know anything about dealing with kids. And then the young girls come with something else. She has to contend with that as well.
Something happens to Annabel's boyfriend and then I'm stuck with these kids. The idea of ghosts is that when they die, if they are in a heightened state, like a woman protecting her child or something, there is this really intense maternal state. The ghost is this representation of whatever the state was when they moved on, or didn't move on. So we have Mama, who is this maternal energy starting to feel threatened because there's another maternal energy coming into play.
It sounds like you're the point-of-view character and the audience is seeing this film through your eyes. Chastain: When I first met with Andy and he was talking to me about the character, I wanted to make sure we weren't doing a movie about a woman who didn't want to be a mom and then, "Look how wonderful it is to be a mom." He was like, "No, no, no. It's not like that. It's Annabel becomes a hero of people." It's this woman who is not necessarily likeable ... maybe she starts off a bit self-centered and not a very compassionate person, but through the relationship she develops with these girls, Annabel actually learns to be a good person and put herself at risk to save others. You actually have the making of a hero.
What about the concept for Mama's character -- did you find it frightening? Chastain: The most dangerous animal is a mother protecting her cubs, like the grizzly bear. If you see a female animal with her children, that's when they are most dangerous. That probably goes across the board for everything. That's probably the most dangerous emotion, that protective mother instinct.
Del Toro: When we went to Universal, to me, it was so clear that I said to them, "Look, the tagline is "A Mother's Love is Forever." It is absolutely horrifying. I love this idea it's something that everybody can relate to. Everybody at some point or another had a mother.
Was there a full script when you got involved or just the short you saw? Del Toro: It was the short. We started developing the screenplay from scratch. We talked about the ideas and they [Andy and his sister Barbara, who co-wrote the script] had a few ideas. Then I took a stab at the screenplay and then Neil Cross was brought in and he did a big big revamping of the screenplay. We developed it all the way.
Narratively, is this going to be a lot of slow reveals and scares? Del Toro: Fear is literally a catch-and-release. You have to reel in and then give a little up. Andy is very good at that. I'm very surprised because the dailies, separate, every shot seems a bit mellow. Then he cuts them together and they are beautiful. You start seeing more of the design you saw in the storyboards in the morning. Francis Coppola says, "Never as good as the dailies. Never as bad as the first cut." This has been the opposite. I love the dailies, but the first cut is better.
How do you go about making a three-minute short into a full-length feature, while still keeping the elements that made that short so exciting in the first place? Muschietti: How you go from a short to a long story is very simple: it's about answering the questions the short suggests. Everybody asks "Why do these two girls have a ghost mother?" When you start thinking about it, there's really not many possibilities. So, when the answer came, it was simple to establish what the outline would be. Of course, from that moment to now, it grew a lot and there were lots of development and lots of ideas that came in.
Mama is such a visual creature. Can you talk about the inspiration for her look? Muschietti: At the very bottom of the idea, there's a very scary image that I have. At home, when we were children, there were Modigliani paintings. Modigliani made these stretched faces and the empty eyes in the wrong angle. That always scared me a lot. It's a place generally monsters don't go. I realized this kind of monster, or kind of scary, I've never seen before.
"Mama" opens in theaters on January 18.