November 20, 2007

Director dreams up fairy-tale thriller

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) is the feature film debut of director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio Sanchez. The duo have pushed the thriller movie format beyond its classical bounds with their tale of Laura, a mother coming to terms with the disappearance of her son, Simon. I had the privilege of sitting down with Bayona and Sanchez to talk about the film and its reception, as well as upcoming projects.

Elizabeth Grobel: How do you feel now that the film’s been premiered?

Sergio Sanchez: We’re still in awe of the reaction the film is getting. With audiences, the film has pretty much gotten the same reaction here [in the United States] and in Cannes. Cannes was really enthusiastic because it was the first time anyone had seen the film, and nobody knew anything about it. You’re gonna enjoy this movie if you have any beliefs in the supernatural, and you may also enjoy this movie if you’re a complete skeptic. You can walk away from this movie thinking it’s about the cruelty of hope, or you can walk away thinking it’s about the healing power of faith, if you’re kind of an optimist.

Sanchez has said that his main inspirations were the story of Peter Pan and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

EG: What did you find compelling about these works?

SS: I thought it’d be interesting to tell the story of Peter Pan from the point of view of the mother who’s waiting for her children to come back from Neverland. And what I liked about The Turn of the Screw was the ambiguity. [I also like] the works of Shirley Jackson. I’m a great fan of hers. She gets horror out of everyday situations in broad daylight and that’s what I like.

Juan Antonio Bayona: I remember when we were talking about The Turn of the Screw, [Sergio] told me that he’d read that book every year since he was in school. He tried to understand what was happening and finally he realized that you have to give your own interpretation. I used that comment as a tool. I tried to work on the ambiguity of the story in order to create a movie that would let the audiences think for themselves about what was happening.

Indeed, the narrative strength of The Orphanage lies in its constant volley between reality and fantasy. It arouses in the viewer a willing suspension of disbelief that is continually broken and re-mended.

SS: You can see it as a ghost story, or as the projection of a woman’s fears. There’s nothing tangible that proves the existence of the supernatural [in the film]. As the movie goes along you gradually get rid of all those classic horror movie elements and then the movie’s something new and bare.

JAB: Not just new—there’s a moment when the movie’s completely naked from anything. We had a board with two columns: One was the real story and the other was the ghost story. We tried to make both stories work at the same time. It was a challenge to create this huge crazy puzzle. Probably the results were better because we’re not going to places where everybody’s going right now in this genre.

EG: What about cinematic influences?

JAB: One of the movies I really liked was Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it’s a movie that takes the inheritance from the past, from the ’40s and the ’50s, from the great American directors, and puts it in a new and completely different direction using new techniques and special effects. That movie works so well on so many levels; I wanted to do something similar.

EG: Were there any disagreements going from script to screen?

JAB: I used to say that [Sergio] was respectful of my lack of respect all the time. He was there every day for the shooting. I was trying to push myself to the limit. That’s the great thing about being a director: You always have the final decision! Guillermo del Toro [who produced the film] used to tell me that that was the perfect team of people because I would never get no for an answer. The energy there was huge.

EG: What are you working on now?

SS: I’m writing Guillermo’s next Spanish-language film, which is called 39–93. It’s a fantasy movie that deals with the Spanish civil war and it’s supposed to close the trilogy of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s an idea that I’d already done when I met [Juan and Guillermo]. I’m also writing what’s gonna be my first film as a director. It’s called Homecoming.

Whether you’ve never believed in ghosts or still sleep with the bathroom light on, The Orphanage is an enjoyable watch. It’s a welcome break from the Hollywood blockbuster action-flick grind, and lingers with you well after the credits roll.