To watch Austrian duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy is to be subject to an emotional resonance and a merciless wit that goes far beyond the usual shock-and-horror experience you might expect.
It is not what you might call a pleasant time at the movies.
The film concerns twin boys, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), who live in a spacious and ostentatiously modern home deep in the woods. One day, their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home, her face bandaged after some type of reconstructive surgery. Her strange behavior and unfamiliar attitudes toward them makes the twins suspect her to be a dangerous imposter, and they go to disturbing lengths to test that theory.
Physical and emotional trauma, blended with a quasi-clinical coldness? Consider Franz’s connection to acclaimed Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl, and you might not be surprised. She is married to Seidl (producer on Goodnight Mommy), and co-wrote many of his films, starting with Dog Days back in 2001. When Franz and Fiala presented their narrative feature debut at New Directors/New Films earlier this year, we asked them to explain their refreshingly smart take on horror.
Josh Ralske, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you decide that this was going to be your narrative feature debut?
Severin Fiala (SF): It wasn’t a conscious decision. We’ve known each other a long time. We share the same passion for cinema; we like the same kinds of films; we trust each other. During a collaboration on a film about the Austrian director Peter Kern, we had, somehow, the idea for Goodnight Mommy, and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write it?” And then Veronika broke her leg. So we had a lot of time to write the screenplay. There was no plan.
MM: Can you talk about how you shot it?
SF: We’re very proud that we shot it on 35mm, which we aesthetically like a lot better than digital, still. They tell you it looks the same; it doesn’t. And apart from that, I think it’s a much more concentrated and focused atmosphere on the set when you shoot on film, because it’s expensive. You can’t just let the cameras roll forever. Things must happen the moment you press the button, unlike shooting digitally, where maybe sometime something could happen, and everyone’s just falling asleep. That was not the kind of atmosphere we wanted on our film set.
MM: Was it an intense set?
Veronika Franz (VF): That’s impossible if you work with children. You have to keep it playful. We shot chronologically. The children didn’t know the script beforehand—we gave them, piece by piece, day by day, some idea of what was going on. So we kept them interested. We wanted them to be open to things, not knowing the whole story of the script.
SF: The main actress [Susanne Wuest] knew the whole story, but she didn’t learn the lines.
VF: Nobody learned the lines.
SF: Our cinematographer had done 32 pictures, and this was our first, and he made fun of us because we never had the screenplay with us.
VF: He said he had never seen directors who had no script with them
SF: But we didn’t need it, because we wrote it. [laughs] We knew the story, every detail. I think it can be quite harmful, actually, if the actors have the screenplay around always. Maybe their ideas are completely different from our ideas. If they learn the lines, they’re fixed in their heads; it’s hard to change it.
VF: Sometimes we were feeding them lines, because we needed some lines for the script. So it was a mixture.
MM: In American films, the children are very actorly. Was it challenging casting the two boys?
VF: That’s not the case in Austria. If you have children in a film, it’s usually their first appearances onscreen, anyway, so you just have to keep them as natural and lively as possible.
SF: I think casting was easier than you would imagine, because it was such a specific task. We were looking for 11-year-old twin boys with a specific accent. We’d call schools, and every principal would know if they had twins in the school.
VF: We auditioned, like, 130 twins—quite scary!
SF: Right. To see them all sitting around.
VF: We started auditioning by having them play “I Spy with My Little Eye,” which refers to the German title of the film. The German title [Ich seh, Ich seh] means “I See, I See” which is the same game—”I see, I see, something you don’t see.” It turned out that twins are not able to play this game, because they always know what the other is looking at. And then we tried “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and they could play it forever. We decided on our twins because we wanted to have beautiful children you like at first, but…
SF: But they also have some secret to them behind their beautiful faces. We had three pairs that were suitable for the film. Then we did this last round of auditioning where we tied Susanne Wuest to a chair, and told the children, “She kidnapped your mom. You have to find out where your mom is. Do whatever you want—whatever you deem necessary.” Two pairs of twins wouldn’t touch her in any way. They circled around and asked her, “Where is our mom?” Then came the Schwarz pair and they instantly grabbed a pencil and poked her and pinched her, and we knew they were the right twins for our film. A kid has to be really courageous to get physical with an adult.
VF: Their parents didn’t know the story, though we’d told them it was a horror film. When we showed the film to the parents for the first time, all of us were very nervous, but it turned out to be our best screening. They were so impressed by the performances of their children, and also by the substance of the film. The mother was crying because she was so touched. So we felt relieved, because we hadn’t wanted to betray their trust.
MM: The kids have this sensitivity. You’re really hoping [the mother] will get through to Elias.
VF: Actually, it was hard to decide which twin would play which part. Elias is the older one, and he’s the stronger one. Lucas always wants to be the center of attention, but he played the other part. He had less attention. It was the right decision.
MM: Do you have to tiptoe around the horrific content of it when you’re working with children?
SF: Making a film is totally different from watching it, and the children weren’t allowed to watch it. We decided on that because they were in every scene. The power of cinema is that it can drag you into a story, and make you forget how it was made. Making it is kind of technical—it’s many people standing around. It’s not scary at all. It was sometimes boring for them: “OK, we go from here to there, from there to here; we run across this field into the woods.” They thought it would be a really boring film. When they saw the beginning of the film, they were like, “It’s not boring!”
MM: The house is a great location. It’s so modern and clean, such a cold, pristine atmosphere. It’s like the house is the mother’s world, and outside is the children’s.
SF: It’s an extension of the mother’s character, really. We couldn’t tell too much of her story, so we used the house, the interior, its design, the pictures on the wall.
MM: There’s a twist in the film that horror fans will see coming, but I don’t think knowing it detracts from the experience at all.
SF: It’s interesting and maybe shocking how much the film differs according to the viewer. Our main goal was that no matter if you know in the first frame, or if you just get it at the end, nevertheless, the film works.
VF: It’s not about plot twists. Even if you know [the twist], then it’s working in another way.
SF: It’s a much sadder movie if you know it than if you don’t. My mother has seen the film three times, and she still doesn’t get the plot twist. [laughs] Some people never do, but that’s all right with us.
MM: The one thing that was niggling at me about the plot was why the mother had cosmetic surgery when her family had just experienced this horrible trauma.
VF: We have an answer to that. On the one hand, she’s a TV person, so she wants to start a new life, so she has to look younger than she does.
SF: She wants to completely start anew, sell the house…
VF: Start dating. That’s one layer. On the other hand, she also received some bruises in the accident. So it’s not only beauty surgery, but plastic surgery because she was scarred. We left that open to interpretation.
SF: We don’t like cinema when it’s all spelled out. We leave some things open for interpretation.
VF: And also play around with things in genre cinema.
MM: What is the clip that opens the film?
SF: It’s The Trapp Family—an older version of the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music. It’s the archetypical Austrian family—the image of a perfect functioning Austrian family. But nowadays if you look at it, it’s a little scary, because you know a family can’t be that perfect. That was exactly what we wanted with our movie.
MM: Being two directors, how do you split the work?
SF: We didn’t split it. We decided it would be better if we did everything together. We share a vision of cinema, and we know that we’re not interested in vanity or ego, but in a film that’s gonna come out of our collaboration. Writing and directing together makes it faster, actually, if you trust each other. If you’re writing alone and you have an idea, you never know if it’s a good idea, or a bad idea, and you question yourself. You can never be sure. If I have an idea, and I show it to Veronika and she says it’s bad, then it’s finished. We’re really the first audience for each other. Directing works the same way.
MM: Can you talk about your influences?
VF: We carry a whole world of horror cinema within! But preparing for this film, we rewatched some things.
SF: Bunny Lake is Missing by Otto Preminger
VF: The Innocents by Jack Clayton.
SF: Eyes Without a Face by Georges Franju. All the Jess Franco remakes of Eyes Without a Face. There are some films we like that comment on society, like Society by Brian Yuzna. That’s a completely different film and has nothing to do with ours, but it’s an influence.
MM: Did you ever have concerns about showing too much, or pushing things too far and losing your audience?
SF: You must never think about the audience in advance. Think about the characters and the story. If children want to find out where their mother is, they wouldn’t take a chainsaw and chop someone’s head off, for example. But a child’s means could go incredibly far. That was the judgment process: What would the characters do? How far would they go? What could they possibly think of? And not what that might do to an audience.
VF: But when it premiered in Venice, there were people leaving the cinema. We’ve also had two people who fainted [laughs]. It’s so different what people like. We like a physical cinema that attacks you and overwhelms you, takes you on a ride, and also maybe hurts you. And after the ride is over, we hope that people are left with something to think about. That’s what horror cinema can do. Really good horror films talk about death or taboos or existential things through suspense. MM
Goodnight Mommy opened in theaters September 11, 2015, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.