The Orphanage an interview with director Juan Antonio Bayona

A graduate from Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalunya, Juan Antonio Bayona directs a unique tale of love and horror.

Q: How did The Orphanage happen?

Juan Antonio Bayona: Very slowly! Screenwriter Sergio G(utierrez). Sanchez had written the script in 1996. I met Sergio six years ago when he was showing his short film 7337 at horror film festivals. He had been living in America, studying film in New York and working on movies there. One day he gave me The Orphanage script and I loved it. The core story has remained intact but I did want to add in some of my own themes and personal touches.

Q: Like what for example?

JAB: I wanted the clash between the worlds of children and adults developed and a deeper involvement in why Laura (Belen Rueda) would go back to the same place she once called home. The ideas of regression, facing the unknown, and Laura building up a parallel story in her own mind were crucial to me. The children’s games were key too. The most important line in the film is ‘I don’t know how to play anymore’. The first shot you see is the young Laura playing the tapping game and it’s that one she has to remember to conjure up the spirits of her memory. The first half of the movie has Laura reliving her youth and the last half is her regressing back to that childhood state. She’s even wearing the same outfit. The cruelty of hope is my main theme.

Q: You were preparing The Orphanage as your future executive producer Guillermo del Toro was shooting Pan’s Labyrinth.

JAB: Although Sergio and I vaguely knew what his film was about we were surprised when we finally saw the completed movie. For it shared the same idea of linking the real and fantasy worlds – his used ‘Alice in Wonderland’ while ours was ‘Peter Pan’ influenced. Fairytale tones obsessed Sergio and why The Orphanage takes many cues from the J.M. Barrie ‘Peter Pan’ story especially the sadness of Wendy waiting every night by her window for her kids to come back. Laura is Wendy yearning for her Lost Boy to return. The Lost Boy was our original title. If anything The Orphanage harks back to the visual elegance of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. I think that’s why Guillermo wanted to help us raise the money and become our executive producer.

Q: When did you first meet Guillermo del Toro?

JAB: At the Sitges Fantasy Festival in 1993 when he presented Cronos. I had been attending film school in Barcelona and, after teaching there for six years, had begun my career with music videos and commercials. I made each like a mini movie, a Spaghetti Western, a scary shocker, so I could experiment with all my favorite genres. Guillermo encouraged me from the first moments and always promised to help me if he ever got in a powerful enough position to do so, and after Pan’s Labyrinth that became a reality. Everyone loves Guillermo. They know he’s smart and they trust his judgment. I could not have shot the movie the way I wanted to, the way it was in my mind, without his vital involvement. A ten-week shoot is a long schedule for a first-time director to secure in Spain, especially with huge set construction costs in Barcelona studios and locations in Asturias, the Northern Spain province where Sergio was born. But Guillermo refused to allow any artistic compromises and I will always be grateful to him for making my first time so free of the problems most newcomers face. He told me up-front he had every confidence in my ability to pull it off.

Q:Did you ask Guillermo for any advice?

JAB: I did but he never gave it. Looking back, I’m glad about that, all my decisions are my own and I can stand by them without any reservation. Guillermo told me he learnt a big lesson when Pedro Almodovar produced The Devil’s Backbone. Pedro told him the best producer was the one who is there only when you really need him. That was definitely the case here.

Q:Why did you choose Belen Rueda to play Laura?

JAB: I thought she was fantastic in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside playing the part of a woman with a fatal disease. Belen is a huge television star in Spain and sparked to the script because it touched on something emotionally similar she had gone through in her own life. Her second child died of heart problems while still a baby. She was thrilling to work with, gives an amazing performance and makes the poignant ending work. It was always my intention to move the audience to tears during the finale and Belen tapping into the emotional core of the story is simply heart-rending to watch.

Q: And Geraldine Chaplin to play the medium Aurora?

JAB: Geraldine Chaplin in an acting goddess to many of my generation. I wanted The Orphanage to have the mood of 70s Spanish cinema and Geraldine starred in one of the best movies of that decade, Carlos Saura’s The Secret of Anna, as the ghost of the mother. It made sense to have her play the medium. Then I saw her as a guest on a trashy TV gossip show in Spain and how funny she was surprised me. That’s what I wanted from Aurora – serious, and dramatic with an edge of humor. The whole medium sequence was shot entirely in night vision with the actors completely in total darkness. It was my first day of shooting with Geraldine and I was very nervous, my confidence almost non-existent. To break the ice I hid under a bed and grabbed her leg when she knelt down in the pitch black. The scream on film is her real shocked surprise.

Q: Although it’s Laura’s son Simon who goes missing in The Orphanage, another child plays an essential role too, the deformed Tomas who stalks Laura’s dreams and nightmares.

JAB: We made Simon HIV Positive rather than suffering a nameless terminal disease because I needed Simon’s sickness to connect deeply with the theme of Laura’s guilt and why she would be so over-protective towards him. Sergio and I talked a lot to doctors and HIV was something a child could suffer without it affecting their adoption. It’s a narrative device you don’t normally find in a horror film and I felt it was an important issue that made Laura’s actions more believable. Then we connect the ideas of illness and ugliness by making Tomas Simon’s invisible friend. His past death is a major plot point. I wanted Tomas’ disfigurement to provide pathos, why the sackcloth features a wonky smile, sewn on by his doting mother with clear unconditional love.

Q: Is Laura mad? Is she a ghost? Or is she just having a mental breakdown?

JAB: Those were the questions we had to ambiguously deal with in the script. Those were the hardest things to pull off and became very complicated issues in the writing. Trying to convey an amazing ghost story with the possibility that it wasn’t. That’s why there are very few visual effects because you would have to justify them and if you want to maintain an ambiguous thread you can’t do that. The challenge was to keep it simple yet effective.

Q: You must have been thrilled by the reaction The Orphanage received at Cannes. And that it has since become the top-grossing film of the year in Spain?

JAB: Cannes doesn’t usually go for genre movies. But thanks to Guillermo again, Pan’s Labyrinth the year before paved the way for easier acceptance. I don’t believe in genre anyway. The moment I started working on the film I felt free to do what I wanted and go where I wanted. The ending is emotional because that’s what Laura was looking for the moment she arrived back where she belonged. I didn’t care if that fitted the genre because it was the obvious ending. The things that make movies alive are not the genre but what lies beneath. Here, that’s a mother’s unqualified love. That’s why the movie has done so well in Spain and abroad. You can’t pigeonhole it. You must worry about the truth of your characters and that it fits your vision. The rest will come naturally if you’ve done your job properly. I love the horror genre but I want to transcend it too. Allow the hardcore audience to see possibilities beyond the easy scare, to embrace its multi-faceted richness. The broadest audience reaction the film is getting is my personal triumph with The Orphanage.


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