By Michael Guillén
The conditions for interviewing Juan Antonio Bayona at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival were less than ideal. Situated in direct humid sun in the outdoor plaza of the Intercontinental Hotel, surrounded by at least 20 other press junkets all vying for time and space, it was difficult to concentrate and focus. A media circus, indeed. Then, because they were running behind schedule, the Toronto publicists informed me at the last minute that they were cutting my time down to a mere 10 minutes.
Imagine my delight, then, when the San Francisco publicist arranged for me to have a full half hour with Bayona, as well as scriptwriter Sergio Sánchez, during their recent San Francisco appearance. "We've met before?" Bayona queried when I walked into the Ritz Carlton conference room. "In Toronto," I confirmed, "Bienvenidos a San Francisco!"
Following its world premiere at the 46th International Critics' Week in Cannes earlier this year, Juan Antonio Bayona's debut feature The Orphanage was hailed as "devastating and uplifting" (Time) and a "formidable thriller" (Variety). It was promptly picked up by Picturehouse, the distributor behind Guillermo del Toro's ravishing horror-fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, which competed at Cannes shortly after The Orphanage began production last year. It's important to note, however, that Sergio Sánchez's screenplay for The Orphanage and Bayona's commitment to it had already been in place years prior to Bayona's acceptance of Del Toro's production pedigree and long before Bayona ever saw Pan's Labyrinth. After reading the script, Del Toro agreed not only to produce The Orphanage but to present it as well: a kiss of faith on the forehead.
With the welcome advantage of having the screenwriter present, I felt the script was the best place to start. My thanks to Luisa Serna for helping translate when necessary.
Sergio, can you speak to where the story for this script came from?
Sergio Sánchez: [What] sparked the idea for The Orphanage was [an illustration] on the copy of Peter Pan that I read as a kid. It was [an illustration] of Wendy's mother sitting by the window, waiting for her children to come back. I thought it would be interesting to re-tell the story of Peter Pan from the point of view of the mother. That's basically what The Orphanage is, only our Laura [Belen Rueda] is a bit of Wendy and it's a bit of Jane and Margaret, her daughter and granddaughter. She was the girl who was left behind and could never go back to Neverland.
There was Peter Pan on one hand and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James on the other, because I also wanted to write a horror film that could be ambiguous enough to admit a double reading. You could see it as a ghost story and you could also understand that what happens in the film is the process of a woman who is gradually losing her mind because she cannot cope with the loss of a child.
Once I had that settled, I brought in my own personal stuff. I brought in my own childhood fears. I was a very sick kid when I was growing up. I spent most of my childhood in hospitals and most of the time I thought I wasn't going to make it. My mom was very old and I was also very afraid of losing her. Separation was the big fear of my childhood. That's why I developed these two imaginary friends, just like the friends of Simon in the film. Throw all of that into the blender and The Orphanage came out; a mixture of all my childhood obsessions.
Peter Pan is also one of my favorite childhood stories and I've actually remained interested in it into my adulthood. It is one of the stories that still feels relevant. I, too, remember certain illustrations from the volume I read. One where Peter Pan is floating in a boat made out of a bird's nest. And another where he is looking in the window of his mother's house and realizes he has been replaced by another baby.
Sánchez: I changed that in The Orphanage and had Tómas behind the glass holding up the key.
As I grew older I actually studied the story of Peter Pan. That's one of the main reasons I was enchanted by The Orphanage when I first saw it. One of the narrative elements that has always struck me about Peter Pan's story - something that Walt Disney played with in his animated version - is how Peter Pan was always running away from his shadow, which was in hot pursuit. There was a detachment between Peter Pan and his shadow.
I remember I talked a bit about this with you, Juan Antonio, when we met in Toronto. I remember questioning you about the shadow in her past that Laura was trying to get away from and you said that Laura wasn't trying to escape anything from her past; she was trying to escape her present. By returning to her past, Laura was attempting to escape her present. So what is the backstory behind that? Why did she return to this house of her childhood?
Juan Antonio Bayona: I will tell you with an example. For three months, I rehearsed with the actors. I used to record all these rehearsals. I remember I was watching them with a friend of mine, an actress, and I asked her what she thought of Belen and Fernando Cayo [the actor who plays her husband Carlos]. She told me, "There's something I don't believe in their performance. I don't believe they're a couple. I don't believe that they make love." I told my friend, "They don't make love. That's the problem. That's why she's going back to that house." She's running away from her present. She's looking for the happiness that she had in the past.
Sánchez: You mention that Peter Pan ran away from his own shadow. I think Laura's shadow is adulthood and she does not want to become an adult.
Bayona: Exactly like Peter Pan.
Yes, it's by avoiding his shadow that Peter Pan remains young.
Sánchez: Yes, it's the same thing. She doesn't want to have the responsibilities. That's why we never see anything of her adult life. We see her as a child and then we pick up from when she returns to the house trying to be a child again and, of course, it's too late.
The ambiguity you strived for in this script - and achieved - is beautiful and complex. You don't know if there really are ghosts in that house. Was she summoned to the house by the ghosts of her childhood? Or has she come to the house and peopled it with the ghosts of her childhood? By the fact that, as you say, Laura and her husband don't make love, with the subsequent absence of any children of their own, the theme of adoption becomes a presiding theme in The Orphanage. Are you saying that she didn't really want any children of her own because that would necessitate her being an adult?
Sánchez: Yes, pretty much. She wants to be a mother like someone who's playing to be a mother. She wants to take care of all these children, tell them bedtime stories, dress them up, cook for them, and have all these parties and play with them; but it seems like she's not really ready to face all the responsibilities that go along with parenting. She's not a very good mother to Simón. From the very first time you see her, minutes into the film, you realize she's a woman who's been hiding from her own kid the fact that he's sick and adopted. That's not a healthy thing to do. That's not the healthy approach. If you talk to a doctor or a psychologist or anyone who's going to give you a child to adopt, they will tell you to be open with the child about it from the very beginning. It makes no sense trying to hide things from your adopted son.
On the other hand that's one of the things that makes Laura so interesting. She is very much a flawed character from the beginning of the movie and still you root for her. You want her to find what she was always looking for.
Bayona: It's also not so much that she doesn't want to be an adult as she doesn't know how to deal with the responsibilities of adult life. And probably the idea of adoption is what gives her even more reason to think she's not able to deal with responsibilities.
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