This weekend the new horror film “Mama” opens in theaters nationwide. It’s the spooky tale of a pair of young girls who are abandoned in a cabin in the woods for several years. When they are finally discovered and returned to society, to live with their kindly uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game Of Thrones“) and his punkish girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), something else comes along with them… a spectral figure the girls name “Mama.” In other words: perfect material for producer Guillermo del Toro to shepherd to the big screen.
We got to talk to the filmmaker about what it is about ghost stories that always inspires him, what to expect from the forthcoming “Devil’s Backbone” Criterion release (another ghost story), where “Haunted Mansion,” “Crimson Peak” and “Beauty and the Beast” are in his busy development pipeline, his day job at DreamWorks Animation and why his Disney Double Dare You shingle broke down (hint: it had something to do with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark“).
What is it about ghosts that constantly fascinates you?
You know, amongst the characters in supernatural fiction, one of the ones I’ve been the most intrigued about is ghosts. I’ve done “Devil’s Backbone,” produced “The Orphanage,” read every ghost story that you need to read for the curriculum, everybody that is noteworthy. And I think it’s steeped in tradition. In England they used to tell great ghost stories during Christmas and I really find that it is, of the themes in horror, the one that invites themes of reflection. You reflect about what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, so on and so forth.
And “Devil’s Backbone” is something you’re revisiting for a new Criterion disc. What do you have planned for that?
We’ve done a new transfer, we’re doing a new sound mix. Criterion is really streamlined about the extras – they don’t want to put a lot, they only want to put the good stuff. So they are really, right now, designing what they want. We know we want to do a second part for the “Bleak House” [Guillermo del Toro’s office, which is stuffed to the gills with monster-related bric-a-brac and macabre miscellanea] because we have so many rooms left. There’s a whole second half of the house!
But you’re not only interested in scary ghosts because you’re working on “The Haunted Mansion,” right? Where is that?
“Haunted Mansion” is very much alive and in process. Disney is very supportive and we are doing another draft of the screenplay… Yet another draft… And they really want to do it. I know we’re going to talk about other possible directors, for me to produce, and having written it, produce it for somebody else.
What’s the tone going to be like?
It’s going to be scary. Hopefully it will be fun scary, rather than funny scary. It’s going to be fun but the idea is to make it scary like when you go through the ride as the kid – part of you is charmed and part of you wants to get out of there.
“Crimson Peak” is a ghost story too right?
Yes, but fortunately, like in comedies you can have Woody Allen or The Farrelly Brothers or you can do Preston Sturges or Lubitsch or all of these things. There are so many ways to tell a ghost story. “Crimson Peak” is a gothic romance. I don’t mean that there’s going to be a guy who appears with a dozen flowers singing in the balcony, what I mean is that, in the most classical definition of the term, it’s a gothic romance. It’s got a lot of darkness and sound and fury and drama and stormy; but at the core of it is a scary movie.
Is that still going to be next?
Yes, God willing. We’re going to be doing the pilot for the series “The Strain“ [based on the trilogy of novels co-written by Del Toro and “The Town” author Chuck Hogan] for Fox and then I’m going to go right into the prep for “Crimson Peak.”
Where does “Beauty and the Beast” fit in?
We just got the first draft from Andrew Davies, who wrote some BBC Charles Dickens miniseries, to great effect, including two of my favorites of his – “Little Dorrit” and “Bleak House.” I love his work. So we just got it. I’m doing a pass myself and then we’ll send it to the studio for reactions.
What is it like to have this film, which probably wasn’t on your radar at all until a little while ago, opening at the same time as “The Hobbit,” which you spent 18 months on?
All I can say is that it’s been a very busy end of the year. We were prepping the launch of “Pacific Rim,” we were prepping the launch of “Rise of the Guardians,” I was prepping the launch of “Mama.” And the result is I’m going to see “The Hobbit” next week. Peter [Jackson] was kind enough to offer a private screening and I said, “Look, I want to see it with an audience.” And I got the screener from the Academy and I said, “I don’t want to see it on my TV. I want to go to the theater.” Then my daughters say, “Don’t go without us!” And I say, “Don’t go without me!” When you have two kids it’s like making an appointment for the ambassador of Zambia.
What about “Rise of the Guardians?” That seems to be something that people assume was the first DreamWorks Animated feature you had a huge hand in.
Listen, “Puss-in-Boots” I had a huge hand in, to a certain degree, in my capacity as creative consultant, so did I in “Kung Fu Panda 2.” What happens with ‘Guardians’ was I was able to be there from the start. And I am very happy with the results. We didn’t get a great reaction from the audience, we got massive testing results and a great CinemaScore but for some reason that I will ponder for the rest of my life, the opening weekend they didn’t show up. We held fantastically but not enough to remedy the fact that we had a weak opening weekend.
How is your gig at DreamWorks Animation?
I love it. I love working with Jeffrey [Katzenberg]. It’s like a second home for me.
I’m so curious as what your [now-defunct] shingle at Disney was going to be like.
Well, I wanted to make scary movies for kids. The irony is that “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was sort of the first one… and then we got an R-rating, which was a huge blow because that was a movie that was done specifically thinking that this could be enjoyed by kids. So when you see that movie and you get an R-rating… I felt very puzzled.
And it fell apart because you were stuck in New Zealand?
Basically. They picked up [his production shingle] Disney Double Dare You and we were going to launch it and then when I went to New Zealand to do “The Hobbit,” they got tired of waiting. Let’s put it that way.
Are you interested in returning to smaller films?
Yeah, but it’s not like I have two screenplays under my bed. I successfully reached page 25 for “Saturn and the End of Days” and on another [script] I have successfully reached page 45. Those things take years to write. “Devil’s Backbone” was like 15 years it took me to make. “Pan’s Labyrinth” it took me two or three years to solve the screenplay. I work on them but they are trickier propositions. As soon as I finish the screenplay to one of them, I’ll leave everything I have to go make it.
You’re in the very early stages of a “Pacific Rim” sequel. If you do that would you shoot it in native 3D?
Yes. Provided, at that point, that the technology is becoming easier and easier…
Initially you didn’t want it to be converted…
Even then they were super respectful. By then we were already getting ILM shots. I was realizing that out of 100 shots, maybe 10% of the shots were risky. They said, “If we go 2D on those shots, we can do it.” Then I gave them my list of conditions. They spent twice of what they normally spend on [this process], because they gave me the chance to pay ILM to do every single shot in native 3D. They aren’t being converted. So all the big 3D effects shots are being done by ILM from the get go. Normally they give a movie a 14 to 16 week conversion time [for 3D]. I started the conversion back in September. So it’s six months for conversion. It’s very classy.
And you’re used to that at DreamWorks Animation?
Oh, at DreamWorks 3D is a religion.
You famously attach yourself to all of these things…
That is actually 50% not true because 50% of the stuff that gets announced never happens because the studio never pursues it and a lot of the stuff never happens. It’s enough of a rumor. It’s like ‘He’s doing “Malificent” with Angelina Jolie,” nope, never attached, never went to a meeting. For some reason it takes any tiny movement to get an announcement because the blogs are trying to scoop one another. But most of this stuff, I’m lucky if it actually goes into screenplay phase.
“Mama” opens in theaters this weekend, Friday, January 18,