J.A. Bayona and Sergio Sanchez on The Orphanage: The RT Interview

The director and writer talk about this year's most-acclaimed horror movie.

by | January 9, 2008 | Comments

Juan Antonio BayonaThe
is being touted as this year’s
Pan’s Labyrinth
a fitting tribute considering Orphanage is produced by Pan
Guillermo Del Toro
. Though mixing horror with disparate genres is familiar
ground for del Toro, it’s virgin territory for director

Juan Antonio Bayona
and writer

Sergio Sanchez
, both making their feature-length debut. Their film tells the
story of Laura (Belen
), who, with her husband and son (Fernando
and Roger Princep, respectively), move back into her childhood
orphanage with plans of re-opening for business. Soon, her son goes missing and
Laura is convinced he’s been whisked away by his invisible friends. What follows
is one of the most haunting, wistful horror movies in recent memory.

The Orphanage, which opens wide this Friday, is Spain’s Oscar entry for Best
Foreign Film this year. We also
dug it when we first
saw it at Cannes, and it’s subsequently made our

top 20 list for 2007
. We sat down with Bayona and Sanchez in San Francisco,
discussing studio interference, classic horror, and the role the titular manor
had in shaping the movie.

Did you ever think The Orphanage could become an
Oscar contender?

Juan Antonio Bayona: Yes, of course. [Laughs.] We
took it to Cannes and we got a wide reaction there. It was amazing. And things
started to snowball from there. The numbers in Spain have been so huge
that…there are so many good things, but there’s a lot to assimilate as well.

How did you first come in contact with the screenplay?

Sergio Sanchez: I wrote the first draft of the
script in 1998, 1999. It’s actually something I wanted to direct myself. So what
I did was I shot a short film with a similar theme. When I met Antonio at a film
festival, he really liked the short film I did. He asked me if I had any
screenplays. I gave him the script of The Orphanage which, at the time, I
was showing to production companies in Spain. And they all kept complaining
about the same things. They said, "You know, this is a mixture of drama and
horror and those two elements cannot mix. They’re like oil and water, you can’t
do that." "You don’t have a main villain." "You have two different endings."
"The first act is too long, blah blah blah." Basically, all the things that made
the script unique they didn’t like. They wanted to go for a formula.

You didn’t take heed of any of it?

JAB: Well, yes, we did. For example, with the
opinion of there being no evil character in the movie we decided to kill the
"bad guy" in the middle of the story in a very extreme and violent way to let
the audience know that this is not that kind of movie. That there is an "evil
guy" or a "good guy." That [instead] the evil lurks in every character.

So that character’s death wasn’t in the original

SS: The death came later on. What Antonio decided to
do was like, we’re not only not going to listen to the studios but we’re going
to go against them. [Laughs.] We’re going to kill her earlier and in the most
violent way possible so the audience is thrown off.

The movie starts off like classic horror. Suddenly, we
start taking away all the elements. [When] the story’s halfway through, it’s
very barebones and you have no idea where it’s going to go next. The final half
of the film is practically a silent movie.

When you mention classic horror films, which ones were
you thinking of when you wrote the screenplay?

SS: To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t thinking of any
movie in particular. I guess my big two influences were…one was Peter Pan,
the other was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I guess if I have to
talk about film influences, it’d be
The Innocents
the Jack Clayton
adaptation of Turn of the Screw. But I wasn’t thinking of movies. I was thinking
of classic horror stories, I was thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, I was thinking of
Henry James, Shirley Jackson.

JAB: We talked about the tone of the movie. It’s
unique because it starts as a chamber movie and ends as a melodrama more or
less. We were talking about the tone of the movie and I remember talking about
not just The Innocents. I remember we talked about
Our Mother’s House

from Jack Clayton which was a very unique ghost story that also deals with

What sort of role did Guillermo del Toro act out as

JAB: I met Guillermo, like, 15 years ago. I used to
say "50." [Laughs.] People say, "No, no, you’re not 50." We had a very funny
meeting. I was very young, more or less like you.

SS: No, a lot less than you. [Laughs.]

JAB: I was 15 at the time, I was a minor. I went to
a festival pretending to work as a journalist to get free tickets and interview
people I really admired. I remember one of these people was Guillermo del Toro.
When he saw me for the first time he thought I was a 10-year-old boy with
sideburns, [but] he was impressed by my questions so we kept in touch. He came
to Spain to shoot a movie and I went to film school and I shot a lot of stuff,
different stuff like music videos, short films. And he really liked them. Since
he knew I was going to do a movie he wanted to be there, to protect us. So he
never, for example, insisted on an idea more than once. He gave a few
suggestions. We took some and rejected others. He was there just to help us. He
would remind us of experiences he had with
The Devil’s Backbone
Almodovar used to say the good producer is the one who’s always there when you
need him and he’s never there when you don’t. So [del Toro] was trying to do
exactly the same with us.

And once del Toro was on board, the budget doubled.

JAB: We talked about a lot of things. Shoot the
movie in ten weeks. We talked about building a set, building the whole orphanage
set. These kinds of things. It was a very low budget movie, a $4 million movie.
But we had maybe more than what a newcomer usually has in Spain.

And that was enough to do everything?

JAB: Oh, no.

SS: No way. [Laughs.]

JAB: We cut out much from the script. But I think
it’s better. It’s like when you think about
decided to…

SS: The POV shots of the shark.

JAB: Right, from the view of the shark, because the
shark wasn’t working. That kind of thing of trying to get a benefit from your

SS: We went though many different drafts. The final
one [is] where the major cutting happened. Actually, basically everything that
was in the script got shot. It’s not like we couldn’t shoot stuff that was in
the shooting script that was in the film. I would say something like 15 minutes
of the film was cut to get to the final cut. Antonio was very convinced [on] a
single point of view. That the audience knew what Laura knew so that you could
identify with her. So whenever the story drifted away, he just chose to leave it
out of the film.

JAB: For example, you think about the seance with
. I remembered that we had to shoot that sequence in a single
morning. It was crazy. Then it was like, "Why don’t we shoot Geraldine Chaplin
with a video camera because we were going to be fast?" Then, just at that
moment, we realized that the only way to shoot that sequence was with a
video camera. That’s the kind of thing [where] we took from our limitations.

What was the working relationship between you two like?

SS: I was on the set everyday. I was there even for
most of the rehearsal period. We did a lot of research with the main actress. We
went to visit a couple of grieving groups. We visited parents whose kids were
missing. We tried to incorporate that into the character. So sometimes things
would happen during rehearsal that were very interesting so I’d go back home,
re-write the scene, and hand it back. Things like that happened all the time

JAB: For example, [Princep] would always be
brilliant on the first take. Then he would tend to mechanicalize. So we were
trying to make these sequences look like new for the child all the time. So I
remember changing the lines of dialogue between takes.

Was it difficult finding the right house for the movie?

JAB: We went to find the house in Austrias, which is
where [Sanchez] was born. And I saw a short film he did, 7337, which had the
same mood, the same atmosphere [of The Orphanage]. We found the house at
the entrance of this village. It was surrounded by another house that we had to
erase from the computer. When we finally found the house, we were very happy. It
was a very strange house because the four sides were completely different. If
you put the camera there, or there, or there [it] looks completely different.
The house has personality. It was very interesting. But when we were talking
about shooting inside the house, it was impossible because we’ve got these
complicated shots. What we did was build the interior house in a set in
Barcelona. We had wanted to shoot the movie shot-by-shot like in the old
classical Hollywood way.

Who was living in the house at the time?

SS: No one. It had been abandoned for over 30 years.
Actually the owner of the house was there during the shoot but I guess just so
we didn’t break anything. It’s a house that looks as if someone had left running
in the middle of some apocalypse. [Laughs.] Everything was still in place. What
happened was that the woman who owned the house [at the time], her child was hit
by a car right in front of the main entrance. She associated the house with all
those memories so she decided to move out and never come back. The house was
left just like that. As a result, it was in a very decaying state and the roof
was about to collapse.

And everything was still inside?

SS: The things were still inside. We were shooting
in the house and after you get the good take usually the sound crew will ask for
silence to record the ambience, the room tone. And many times what would happen
they would yell, "Okay, quiet. Room tone." And the guy with earphones would just
go, "Quiet!" [Laughs.] "Who is that?" Always some strange stuff would find its
way [into the microphone] and we could never find where the sounds were coming

That’s oddly appropriate for the movie.

SS: Yeah. It’s actually in the film. During the
seance, the very first noises that you hear, the whispering, that was recorded
from the house and we don’t know what that is.

Since you’ve directed before, did you guide the
direction in any way?

SS: Nope. None at all. It was just an agreement we
had. You have to understand and respect that he’s the director and he makes the
decisions. So whenever he asked for my opinion, I would give it. But [otherwise]
I would just sit there and not say anything. There was only one time that I
pushed for something to be done in a different way, which was the knock on the
wall scene. Again, he had very limited time to shoot, he had to do everything in
a rush. He drew the storyboards for the whole movie and [that scene] was
originally more complicated. I just walked up to him and said, "You know, it
would be wonderful if you had the balls to do this in one take." And I walked
away and hoped he would listen. [Laughs.]

Is the American remake still in production?

JAB: Yes. Guillermo is attached to the project. He
will be part of production. We really don’t know anything about that. Guillermo
doesn’t want to do exactly the same movie with an American director. He’s trying
to find a way of retelling the story in a parallel way.

SS: Yeah, we’re not involved. And we don’t want to
be. This thing was so personal and it was so hard to get this film made. I’m not
going to say 10 years even though the first draft is that old. It’s been,
really, five years working non-stop on this, fighting really hard to get the
movie made. We just want to move on to the next thing. We’re happy with the
movie as it is.