Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage
Though he looks and dresses like he’s still a teenager, behind Juan Antonio Bayona’s youthful appearance hides a mature and sophisticated cinematic sensibility. The 32-year-old Barcelona native has a passion for movies that first led him to become a precocious journalist, and then to study directing at film school. Since graduating, he has built a formidable reputation making a series of acclaimed commercials, pop promos for Spanish artists such as Hevia, Ella Baila Sola, Camela and OBK, and two short films, Mis Vacaciones (My Holidays) (1999) and El Hombre Esponja (The Sponge Man) (2002). Throughout this period, Bayona’s progress was being tracked by his friend and mentor, Guillermo Del Toro, who he had interviewed at the Sitges International Film Festival when Del Toro’s first film, Cronos, played there in 1993.
Del Toro was an integral player in the production of Bayona’s feature debut, The Orphanage, which is written by Bayona’s friend and fellow short film director, Sergio G. Sánchez. Recalling both Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, The Orphanage is a classic, Gothic-style ghost story about Laura (Belén Rueda), a woman who returns with her husband and young son to the orphanage where she grew up in order to open a haven for stricken children. However it appears that (possibly literal) ghosts of the past have reared their heads when her son disappears suddenly in mysterious and eerie circumstances. Well-paced and told with admirable restraint, The Orphanage is not only a cracking ghost story but also an emotionally resonant psychological examination of the difficulties of childhood and parental responsibility.
Filmmaker spoke to Bayona about ghost stories, growing up on a diet of great movies, and the inherent appeal of Stephen King’s Sugar in the Raw.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with this project?
Bayona: I was at a film festival when I discovered 7337, a short film Sergio [G. Sánchez, the screenwriter] directed. I loved it so I asked him for material [he’d written] and he told me about The Orphanage. He had been trying to get financing for two or three years but no production company wanted to pick it up. They used to say that the movie was an impossible mixture of horror and drama, and the things for us that make the movie different from the rest of the formulaic movies were the things that they were trying to criticize in the script. Because I knew some production companies in Barcelona and I was a friend of Guillermo Del Toro, I was able to get the financing and Sergio generously gave me the script and I could finally do it.
Filmmaker: What kind of a director-writer partnership do you have with Sergio?
Bayona: I read the script and was very impressed that the scary sequences were very well-written but there was a perfect balance between horror and emotion. I thought that made the story so different from the usual horror movie that I decided to go in. We talked a lot about [Henry James’ ghost story] Turn of the Screw, and I remember that [Sergio] told me something very useful: the first time he read Turn of the Screw, he was an 8th grader and he didn’t understand anything. But he kept reading it every year (he was kind of obsessed with that), and then he discovered that there was nothing to understand, that it’s the reader who puts their interpretation on the story. I thought that was very interesting. What we did was create that same kind of story that could be read like a horror story or at the same time like a real drama, and let the audience interpret the story at the end.
Filmmaker: How did you get to know Guillermo Del Toro, and at what stage did he get involved on this project?
Bayona: I met Guillermo 15 years ago (and I am 32 now), so I was a young man. I was working as a journalist and I met him in a very similar situation to [the two of us talking] right now. The first time he saw me, he thought I was a 10-year-old boy and he was very impressed by my questions. After that, we kept in touch. I went to film school and did all kinds of different things like short films and music videos, and he loved all of them. So when he knew I was going to do The Orphanage, he wanted to be part of that.
Filmmaker: Had you been trying to make your first feature for quite a while? Were you waiting for the right project?
Bayona: Yeah, I rejected a lot of projects before I did The Orphanage. I didn’t find the right material until I found The Orphanage. To do a movie takes so much time and is so painful that you have to find something that is worth doing.
Filmmaker: How much of am influence was Del Toro on this project?
Bayona: What I really admire in Guillermo — apart from, of course, his movies — is the way he works. He’s a stylist, and he’s very into the melodrama thing. Probably melodrama and horror movies are the two genres that are most effective at visualizing the inner conflicts of the characters. That is what movies are about, what the mise en scène is all about, so it’s great as a director to be able to put the story and the conflicts of the characters to a very extreme situation in the most expressive way.
Filmmaker: Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage have plot parallels, and also share an attention to detail and a richness, in both the narrative and the visual aspects.
Bayona: Guillermo Del Toro is always very obsessed with very small details, and The Orphanage is a story with different levels of reading, so that makes the story and the elements very rich, very layered and dense. We found some people saw the movie for the second time and they thought that they had seen a completely different movie. It’s because there are several levels of reading in the story.
Filmmaker: It’s classical and revisionist at the same time.
Bayona: We got all these classical elements, all these clichés, and there is a moment where Laura is using them to create the story in her mind, so I thought it was justified that we had all these elements in the beginning of the movie, and as the movie progresses forward it becomes something else. For example, there is the evil character of Benigna, and I remember when we were talking to some studios, they tried to keep the character alive until the end, so we decided to kill the character in the middle of the movie in a very extreme situation to prepare the audience for the unexpected. I strip the movie of all the classic Gothic elements until finally the movie is bare: there’s just one character in the house, there’s no dialogue. The audience doesn’t know where to go, because after the mystery is solved they think the movie is ending, but the whole point of the movie comes after that.
Filmmaker: How confident were you with this being your debut feature?
Bayona: I was able to work with my usual crew, and we’ve been shooting for 10 years. I remember the first day of shooting, I went to my cinematographer and I told him, “It’s funny how calm we are on our first day.” It was like a usual day in our lives. You never think about what’s next in a movie, you never think about what’s going to happen when the film opens as you’re shooting. You are so focused on the camera, the actors, your work, that you never think about all this.
Filmmaker: What were the challenges of the filming process?
Bayona: The more difficult part was the script. It was crazy to try to set a perfect puzzle with pieces that fit perfectly with two different readings at the same time. For example, in the séance sequence we couldn’t use cheap tricks or digital effects, because at the end you couldn’t have justified one of the readings. What we had to do was work with the sound design and the idea of point of view so that it makes the results more interesting.
Filmmaker: What ghost movies were touchstones for you?
Bayona: We talked a lot about Jack Clayton’s version of The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents, and there is another Jack Clayton [movie] I love, which is Our Mother’s House. It’s a very small movie from the 60s about these children who live with their mother, and when the mother dies they decide not to tell anybody. They bury the body in the cellar, and every night they do a séance to talk to their mother in order to find out what to do with adults, with real life. I thought that was an amazing movie.
Filmmaker: Talking with such authority about obscure Jack Clayton movies from the 60s suggests you have a real depth of knowledge about movies.
Bayona: One of the great things at the moment in Spain is that we were the first generation with democracy. After what happened in the Franco regime, the government paid a lot of care to our education and culture. We only had one station on Spanish TV, so we just had to see the movies that were on TV. When I was a child we used to watch movies from Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini. Right now it’s impossible for a little child to discover movies from Roman Polanski or Francois Truffaut on prime time TV, but my love of movies grew watching these movies. The storytelling in my movies is as a result of watching all these movies. I saw Jack Clayton movies, Jack Arnold movies, Jacques Tourneur [movies], I saw Steven Spielberg and I saw Francis Ford Coppola [movies]. I think my generation was lucky to have that sort of education.
Filmmaker: If you could give an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Bayona: Christopher Reeve. I discovered movies watching Superman. I have a Superman obsession.
Filmmaker: So are you jealous of Bryan Singer? Would you like to be making Superman movies?
Bayona: I would love to do that, but it would be a very different Superman movie than what Bryan Singer did.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced during your time in the film industry?
Bayona: When we were working on the script with Guillermo Del Toro, I wanted to change the title. I thought The Orphanage sounded a little cheesy, so I got the idea of the title being Within The Walls. It tells a lot about Laura’s situation and a lot about the end of the movie. Guillermo had written a ghost story years ago and that script was never done, so he was taking some ideas from that movie and giving them to us. Then there was this moment when I asked him, “So, what was the title of that movie?” and he told me, “Within The Walls.” I thought, “What the fuck?! It’s impossible!”
Filmmaker: It’s a great title.
Bayona: Don’t tell me that! I remember, I went to see Sergio during the process of writing, and I told him, “There is this movie which is a big flop all over the world, and then this movie is number one in Spain.” That movie was called Cold Creek Manor, and the Spanish title was The House. I thought, “Oh, my God, we’re going to call our movie The Orphanage!” He said, “No way!” But we did $35m in Spain with that title, so we were probably not that wrong.
Filmmaker: All of John Grisham’s book titles start with A or The, and they all sell in huge quantities.
Bayona: I’ve got a friend who always used to tell me that whatever the title, if there is Stephen King’s before it, [it would sell]. [He picks up a sugar packet] You could say, Stephen King’s Sugar in the Raw, and that would be a big hit.
Filmmaker: Moving forward, what plans do you have for your next project?
Bayona: Sergio and I are working together on an English movie. It’s going to be a European production, so half a step between a Spanish movie and an American one. And I have another project in Spanish, but I need time to figure out what it’s going to be.
Filmmaker: Finally, do you see yourself making movies in America five years from now?
Bayona: This is one of the greatest things that a Spanish or Mexican director could do: you can make movies with Americans, and when you get tired of them you could go back to your country and be treated as a king and do whatever you want. Yesterday, Guillermo Del Toro showed me the preview for Hellboy 2, and the first line was “From The Visionary Director of Pan’s Labyrinth.” I thought, “Oh, my God, Guillermo, you’re selling Hellboy 2 using Pan’s Labyrinth!” Isn’t it great?!