Mama is, in some crucial respects, a ghost story, and for horror celebrant del Toro, ghost stories have a primal appeal and are almost endlessly malleable. "My libraries are separate in my house. The only room that I can guarantee that I’ve ready every book is the horror room," he said. "I have read most every horror and ghost story from the last ten years. I can say within that world, you can find as subtle as a ghost story as brutal scary ghost story or an antiquarian story feeling. There are so many flavors. Ghosts are a metaphor. They can be interpreted in so many ways. There’s no ending to what you can do. It can be fun, deeply disturbing. You can have The Shining and The Haunting and The Innocent, and those are three different tonalities."
Chastain's character, Annabel, has drawn comparisons to the character played by Katie Holmes in 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, in which she attempted to protect her stepdaughter, even when the girl's father proved dismissive of her fears. Mama is quite thematically divergent, however, as del Toro explained, "The big difference for me was from the moment we started and Jessica was so happy about this is she never becomes a mother, she becomes a fellow female, there's like solidarity, but she never becomes possessive or mother figure. Literally it's the story of a woman struggling with motherhood. Literally, like hand to hand combat with motherhood and it's the idea that there are other alternatives to the love of a mother in the way we see the world and her making peace with the fact that she can love someone and love in a protective way, but not in a suffocating way is really, really interesting that they had similarities, but it came from the fact that I think that alternately I produce only directors and movies that I have a lot in common with."
While his name has been used extensively in the film's marketing, del Toro made it a point to express that Mama is very much the film of director Andres Muschietti, who co-wrote the feature-length expansion of his short film with Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross.
"Mama is exactly the way [Andres Muschietti] wanted to do it from the short," del Toro said. "The only thing I said is that when you find the kids in the cabin, they should appear smaller because that’s creepier. [laughs] The rest was all Andy. He came in with Mama fully formed and I have great kinship with that type of ghost. I wish I could tell you there was that moment with Andy that was difficult, but there wasn’t. When you work with a great director, like Andy, you can have a great partnership. And in this case, we were on the level the whole time."
"The only piece of advice I gave to Andy was something he already knew," he continued, referring to the involvement of child actors. "I said, 'Treat them like actors, not like kids. Treat them with the respect you would other actors.' Through the process, there are two types of producing deals, and I’ve produced almost twenty movies at this point, you are either watching in horror as the cars take the corner in the grand-prix or you’re enjoying it going, 'Wow.' This movie was a wow experience where I was able to love watching the dailies and love coming in in the morning and Andy had laid out a sequence. We both have no ego about it. We would argue – we would exchange ideas and introduce new ideas. If you don’t take it personally, the relationship between producers and directors are very intimate."
Ever energetic and talkative, del Toro was more than happy to explain just what makes Mama special, saying,"What I love about Mama as a project, it is a great construction of a character. It’s not just a ghost. We did three stages with Mama. We did one where the girls talk about her and before you see her. When they say, 'Mama is back,' it implies a lot. It implies a will and a personality on the ghost before you show it. Second stage is the speech of the old lady saying a ghost is a twisted emotion like a corpse in the sun. Then, you do it through the process of action where you show a shadow, you hear a noise, a closet door opens and the doctor makes the investigation that she was a mother – by the time you reveal Mama, you already have so many emotions and ideas about her, and when that is personified in that scarecrow of a figure, is super scary. You’re not dealing with just a scary figure. You’re dealing with a full blown character. That is much more satisfaction. Andy had the wisdom to show just enough – myself I would have probably shown more [laughs] – and I think he made the right choice."
Mama arrives in theaters nationwide this Friday, January 17th.