“She’s really a monster—she’s not my mother!” Talking to the Directors of Goodnight Mommy

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In Goodnight Mommy, angelic twins face off with their mother after her return home from surgery, her freshly bandaged face concealing a cruel new personality. Their escalating duel, photographed with icy clarity, unfolds almost entirely within a neat, angular country house. Two Austrians are the film’s masterminds: Veronika Franz, collaborator with her husband Ulrich Seidl on films like the Paradise Trilogy and Import/Export, and Severin Fiala, his nephew. I spoke with the pair shortly before the film’s US premiere in New Directors/New Films this spring; the film opens theatrically on Friday the 11th.

I originally saw the movie in a bunker-like basement screening room.

Veronika Franz: [Laughs] Claustrophobic?

A little. So where did you get the idea for the movie?

Severin Fiala: We got it from watching these television shows where women get their faces operated on.

They get the complete makeover—get new hair, get their teeth done, their cheekbones, new clothes. They’re completely remodeled. For that purpose, they’re separated from their families for quite a while, like a month or so. Then they come back, and there is this happy television moment when they are reunited with the families again. Of course, this is meant to be a very happy moment, but if you look closely at the children, it’s a completely changed mom coming back. It’s not about happiness, it’s kind of scary, and that inspired us. That was the first idea: that a mom would come home completely changed.

VF: And the children would doubt that it’s really their mom. That was how it started. Last time when we watched this show again…

SF: After the film.

VF: After the film was done, there was this little girl waiting for her mom, and her mom appeared. And she’s pulling at her father’s shirt and saying: “It’s not my mom!” Yes!

That sounds like a terrifying television show, but I’m sure it has really high ratings.

SF: Of course.

I obviously thought of other horror and suspense movies, or something like The Other. Was that one on your minds, the Robert Mulligan film?

VF: Actually, it wasn’t. Our references are older, so it would be like The Innocents by Jack Clayton. We are very into horror movies, so we spent a lot of time together watching those films. I guess there are many influences out of this huge pool of films.

SF: We didn’t really do that on purpose. We think we just had this idea for a story and then tried to follow this idea, but of course we have seen so many films that subconsciously had to somehow get into our film.

VF: Before staging the film, we also prepared by watching all the films we could find about bad children.

SF: The one we really love is Who Can Kill a Child?

Oh, that’s great! When the kids are just pouring into the jail…

VF: That’s one of my favorites actually.

SF: That’s a really good one.

Goodnight Mommy has some of those evil children movies in it, but it’s also like those movies where people are changing their identity. It’s sort of that movie as well. So Eyes Without a Face comes to mind, also because of the mask.

VF: Yes! I love that, too, of course.

SF: Jesus Franco kind of remakes Eyes Without a Face, of course. Every Jesus Franco film which has Dr. Orloff in it.

VF: We also watched a lot of other films that have the issues of who to trust—like Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing. You don’t know until the end who the crazy one is. Are the children crazy? Is the nanny?

SF: Actually, we didn’t want to do a film about evil children. We always wanted that the children had a need to find something out, or a kind of existential struggle. It’s not purely about evil children, but children that desperately want to find something out.

I’m curious what each of you thinks is the most frightening thing about Goodnight Mommy. I think people are frightened by the imagination of children.

SF: Generally the scariest thing is that it’s rooted in reality, I think, and in family. Nearly everyone in the world can relate: everyone has a mother or this kind of very strong relationship.

VF: Yes. In Venice [last year at the film festival] people would leave. Some women left and our press agent ran behind them and asked: “Why are you leaving?” And they said: “We as mothers have to leave now.” I’m a mother myself. I have two boys. This is a scary setting because it’s a very basic fear. I remember in my childhood playing with my mother. She would play a monster, and I remember we were on a blanket. I remember this one moment when I felt [gasps] she’s really a monster—she’s not my mother! That really gets to you. Of course, as a teenager, you also have fantasies that you are not really the sons or daughters of your parents. That’s the next level.

But we didn’t want to make it easy. We didn’t want to make the audience enjoy the violence. That’s why we wanted it rooted in reality. Whatever the children do, it was possible they could actually do that. They would not take a chainsaw and cut their mother’s legs. Some people say the children would torture their mom. We don’t see it that way. They want to find out something that they’re really scared of. They want to have their mom back.

They’re also testing her in some ways.

VF: Yes.

SF: Like all children.

But it’s true: they really are still just kids. Some of the stuff they first use to fight back is what kids might pull. They have pet bugs, so they’ll try with the bugs.

SF: The most important thing for us that it’s rooted in children’s reality, so they use the stuff they know, but in a different way. It’s all things children could possibly think of. And as the film is all about surfaces and what’s beneath the beautiful surfaces, the bugs are a kind of symbol for that. Those cockroaches are everywhere. There is no house, no matter how beautiful that does not have them—behind every wall and on every floor, there are bugs. You only have to know how to find them. That’s for us the perfect symbol for these beautiful surfaces and masks and the bugs crawling underneath.

How did you come to work together?

VF: Severin used to be the babysitter of my children. Actually the older one. He’s now 17.

SF: It’s quite a while ago.

VF: You [Severin] were 13 or 14. He was very interested in film by then already. I would not pay him with cash, but we would go and rent videocassettes. He lived in the countryside, not in Vienna. He would watch all night long all these videocassettes he could not get in his hometown because it’s a small town in the province north of Vienna. We started by watching films together, every kind of film actually—horror films, art films.

SF: I can remember one night all night when we watched Tetsuo II, then it was Faces by Cassavetes, then Lancelot du Lac by Bresson, then Friday the 13th Part VIII.

That’s a pretty good series right there.

VF: A friendship grew out of it and Severin would go to film school. I used to be a film journalist, and I am of course the co-author of Ulrich Seidl’s films. We had the idea to make a documentary about an Austrian filmmaker. He’s called Peter Kern and he was quite a famous actor in the Seventies. He worked for Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter. He’s very Viennese, he’s very Austrian, he’s very fat, and he’s now like an underground filmmaker. We wanted to do a portrait of him because he’s a very impressive character.

SF: We always said there should be a film about him, but no one wanted to do it because he’s a really crazy guy. So we said, let’s try it ourselves.

VF: We borrowed the camera. We only had a cameraman—the three of us did this documentary.

SF: It was the same with this film because you never know how it all turns out. We just started and said: “Let’s write the film.” It could be a good story. Step by step we went further and further. We never knew from the start how long it was going to take. It takes forever.

And you were shooting on film, right?

VF: Yes. It was very important for us to do that. We fought for that. It’s not what you do if you do your first feature film.

You put in the credits “Shot on glorious 35mm.”

SF: Yeah, it’s a quote from Frank Henenlotter, his last film, Bad Biology. I only saw it in the program at Cannes. I saw it at the market, and it said: “Shot on glorious 35mm.”

VF: We had several reasons for doing that. We just prefer it aesthetically. We think it has more secret images—people just have more secrecy to their faces somehow. We really made a lot of tests because our cinematographer wanted us to shoot digitally at first. The other reason is the working method.

SF: Actually, I think it’s a lot more focused and concentrated with film, because if you shoot digitally, you just press the button and wait for something good to happen. That’s what they tell you. You shoot with children, just press the button and let them play for half an hour and something good will happen. We didn’t want to do it that way. If you shoot on film, it’s really expensive—you push the button and then the good stuff must happen. I think that’s a much more interesting atmosphere to work in.

When the stakes are that high, it’s really important having good child actors. What qualities were you looking for when you were casting the kids?

SF: They had to have two sides. They had to be beautiful and fragile, so that you can sense the fear in the first part of the film. But then they had to have this emptiness to their faces and a secret maybe. They had to be physically fit because we had other children that were really good, but they couldn’t do the more physical stuff. They were really clumsy. They would’ve dropped the scissors…

VF: I think they had to be courageous actually. It’s not so easy for children to attack adults. The last casting round, we had three pairs of twins which were possible for the film.

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That sounds like a pretty creepy scene right there, just three pairs of twins. I hope you have a shot of that, a room full of twins.

SF: We had to pick from, like, 125 pairs of twins.

VF: Yeah, we would tell the children they should attack an actress we sat on a chair. These were the two we decided on in the end. They would take a pencil and go there. They were courageous.

SF: They’re so gentle actually.

VF: They’re intelligent.

How old are they?

SF: They were eleven when we shot the film.

VF: Yes. They are very thin, so they look younger actually then they are. We shot chronologically, and they didn’t know the script in advance, not even their parents.

SF: They didn’t know the whole story. They didn’t read it. They didn’t know what was going to happen.

VF: We would reveal bits and pieces from one day to the other to keep them interested. It really worked well. They tried to ask the whole team. “Is she our mother or is she not our mother? Who is she? Is she a monster? Is she an alien?” We had a hard time keeping the secret. We even changed the call sheet.

SF: There was one week we made extra call sheets for the children with completely fantasy stories.

VF: We would play with them a lot.

SF: They didn’t really have any idea of how the film would be like when it was finished. They weren’t allowed to see it. Their parents decided on that. I think it’s a good decision because when the children remember the summer, it’s still the best summer of their lives. They will remember playing table tennis a lot, having fun with different people, eating a lot, going swimming, and then somehow in between, shoot a little scene here or there. They had a good time and so did we. It was a light atmosphere on the set which was important for us because if it’s kind of a dark story, I think the children mustn’t be affected by that. We tried to keep the whole atmosphere light and playful.

VF: In the beginning it was hard to achieve because you have to imagine we had 30 people standing around waiting for what we would say. We just played with the children, so they would stand around watching us play with the children, and of course ever minute costs a lot of money, but we believed in this method and we believed in also surprising the children. For example, when the mother appears for the first time, we tried to separate them beforehand, so the children would not see the actress, how she would look with their masks. What you see in the film is actually the first time they really saw her, the first reaction. The whole team was rolling their eyes, but then they saw, by the third shooting day, that it would work. They accepted these crazy methods of shooting the film.

That reminds me of another question: how did you divide the labor as co-directors?

SF: We didn’t at all. We started it together, we wrote it together, physically sitting next to each other, passing the laptop, writing scenes together, and then we continued working together. There was no decision that wasn’t made by both us.

VF: These big directors—like Michael Haneke, for example, he would ask us: “That’s not possible to do it like that. One of you has to be the boss. Who is the boss?” We literally did all the things together. And actually if something is not working out as you had imagined it or as you had planned it, one [director] can try with the actors, and then the other one can try.

There’s always a second chance.

VF: Yes, but I think what’s really important is that you trust each other. It’s not about your ego. It’s not about vanity. It’s just about making the best film we can achieve somehow. That’s what unifies us. It’s not about you are right or I’m right.

It’s seamless. Veronika, you have extensive experience co-authoring films with Ulrich Seidl. I’m wondering if you brought anything from those experiences to this collaboration.

VF: Yeah. We both learned—because Severin also knows how Ulrich works—that you mustn’t give up until you achieve what you imagined. You have to do the work every day and every day. Filmmaking is a marathon, and nobody tells you that when you go to film school or when you start being a director. Being very creative and being talented is only a small part.

SF: It’s mostly stupid work and you have to plan on [expending] the same amount of energy on every possible task. Maybe it’s not all talking to actors and imagining scenes, but it’s deciding the smallest bits and pieces. Your team has to know that you really want everything to be perfect, and they’ll do the best work possible.

VF: Another thing I learned is the idea of shooting chronologically, so you can see what you have got and maybe adjust a little bit, or redo it if you have the time. We didn’t have so much time. Of course it was totally different because Ulrich always has a very open… He develops [the material] with his actors and actresses. We always write endings in the stories, but, I swear, in every film it’s different than what we wrote originally. And also here we didn’t give them a script—Ulrich also does that. Not even the actress.

Are you going to work on something new together?

SF: We’re just writing the two next ideas. It’s two historical films, and both have executioners in them. One in the 18th century, and one in the 1950s about the last executioner in Vienna…

VF: … who happens to be a part-time film projectionist. He was really the last executioner in Austria after the Second World War, in an American occupation zone. He was the projectionist until 1950 when the death penalty was abolished.

SF: It’s good stuff. The cinema projectionist had these white gloves when touching the film, and as an executioner, he had black gloves.

VF: That’s really true. We couldn’t believe it when we found it out.

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