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It's quite obvious that Guillermo del Toro believes wholeheartedly in two things: making good horror films and creating opportunities to pay it forward. This double-sided mantra has led him to produce close to 20 film projects, many by first-time film directors including The Impossible's J.A. Bayona, whose first feature The Orphanage was a del Toro production. Del Toro's latest producing endeavor is Andres Muschietti's Mama, opening this Friday. The story focuses on two young girls who disappear into the woods the day their parents are killed. After being rescued years later the girls find themselves haunted by a deadly presence they call "Mama."
Fandango: Is it true that it only took the first 10 seconds of Andrés Muschietti's short film to make you start thinking of adapting it into a feature film?
Guillermo del Toro: It was very clear to me that Andy really understood drama. He's a very good guy; I like Andy a lot. He's a great filmmaker, very assured, great with actors, great with the camera and has a great sense of style.
Fandango: The character Mama is reminiscent of the petrifying folktale La Llorona, so it actually seems perfect to have a crazed motherly figure at the center of this chilling story.
Del Toro: I think that a possessive mother is great idea as a monster because everybody has known one, whether it's your own mother or a friend's mother or in fiction. The thing about Mama that I admire is how the character was designed, which is very scary, like a living scarecrow. The way Andy controls her movements, the jerking and octopus-like movements in the hair, it is incredibly unsettling. She looks like she's made of rotten flesh and tree bark. She has a very defined look. The other thing that I think we did collectively right was to create a platform that made for a real character. We gave her a very strong backstory, a strong role in the movie, she was protective of the girls in the film, she genuinely loved the girls, and she's really like a tragic character. The goal was to have audiences at the end of the movie care for Mama regardless of what she's done. We want audiences to root for her to a certain degree in order for the ending to work.
Fandango: When working with a new film director, does it still feel like you're running a marathon or have you nailed it down by now?
Del Toro: I have produced several first-time directors so it's very easy for me now. I understand them very well, I protect them, I help them and within all my experiences I've only had one bad experience so I think that's a good record. I think it's important to pay it forward. I enjoy learning from new directors and learning how to stay fresh.
Fandango: You shot Mama and Pacific Rim at the same time. How did you get through that?
Del Toro: It was all timed very well. I rented the offices at the end of the corridor from where I was shooting Pacific Rim and we shared the same stages and studios in Toronto, so basically I rented the space for a year for both productions. I literally would focus on Mama before breakfast, during lunchtime and be with Pacific Rim all day and come back at the end of the day to the editing room to discuss Mama.
Fandango: It's especially interesting that you just don’t lend your name to a project but you're actually in the trenches helping orchestrate production.
Del Toro: I was involved from the creation of the screenplay all the way to the mixing of the music, color correction and everyday production. It was all organized around my schedule because the studio signed off on one condition and that was that I be there every step of the way from conception to delivery. I needed to prove to Universal that I wasn’t a name producer but an actual producer on set so I timed it so I could be with the Mama production for half the shoot. Fortunately, it all happened accordingly.
Fandango: The catalyst behind Mama's fury is actually Jessica Chastain's character. She unwillingly becomes a motherly figure to these girls and Mama just isn't willing to accept that. This is the first time we see Jessica play this kind of role. How much convincing was involved during casting?
Del Toro: It's funny because it was difficult for us to convince her representatives that a thriller was a good move for her at this stage because everybody was trying to manage her career very carefully and at the same time she wasn’t a known commodity so we were trying to convince both sides that she was ideal.
The reason why we were obsessed about getting Jessica is because she's such a great actress that she always plays situations as if they are real. She always came from a real point of view, from the character point of view, and it was instrumental. We knew very early on that she was not only our first option but our only option.
I saw a lot of her work in the editing stages in preparation of our first meeting. This was all before she broke out as a star. The first time I met with her, I told her why she could trust in making this genre movie and that it was going to be a movie of artistic integrity. Fortunately for me Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage were very good calling cards to convince her.
Fandango: Pacific Rim comes out this summer but you still have 10 other projects in the works. When do you get downtime, and is it still possible to scare you?
Del Toro: Oh, yeah, many things scare me. I'm actually very susceptible to horror movies when they're good. It's not difficult for me to get scared when a movie is good, but it's very difficult to find a good movie in the horror genre.
I hate downtime. I loathe downtime. I would say I'm a workaholic except it's not a vice. I really think it's exactly what I want to do with my life. I just want to tell stories.