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Sergio G. Sánchez INTERVIEW

Interview conducted by Ryan Holloway

The Secret of Marrowbone is the much-anticipated directorial debut from Sergio G. Sánchez who is responsible for some of the best screenplays in Spanish cinema. He is most well known for The Orphanage and The Impossible, two films directed by his friend and collaborator J.A. Bayona. Now with Bayona on Executive Producer duty, The Secret of Marrowbone is very much a Sergio G. Sánchez movie and one that he is very proud to have made. We were lucky enough to be invited to speak to the man himself about the film, his thoughts on cinema, mobile phones during movies and E.T coming home.

RYAN HOLLOWAY: Thank you very much for talking to Horror Talk, we’re big fans, thank you very much for The Orphanage…


RH: The Secret of Marrowbone is a wonderful film, it’s obviously got strong horror elements and it also has a lot of emotion to it. This is your first big screen feature, was it a conscious effort to do horror, or do you even consider it horror?

SGS: I think it’s a mixture of many genres. I always think of the film as a Russian doll of a movie. It starts out as a family drama and then nine minutes into the film there’s an unexpected visitor who breaks this family’s life and suddenly the film jumps forward six months, they’ve all changed, you don’t know why. I always tell people it’s not a film with a twist, I think it’s a film with many gaps that you have to fill in. You know from the first moment that the gap is holding information from you and the horror only comes when you put all those pieces together and you realise what Jack (George MacKay’s character) hasn’t told you. There are movies where you’re scared as you’re watching them and there are movies that are far more frightening when you think about them afterwards.

RH: Absolutely.

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SGS: I remember when I saw, for example, Rosemary’s Baby for the first time, I had read so much about it, I was probably 11 or 12, and I remember seeing the film and being really disappointed thinking, ‘this film is not scary at all’ and then I went to bed and I couldn’t sleep and I had all these nightmares that there was this black cradle in my living room and I could not get that film out of my mind. That’s the kind of horror I like, it's something that plants roots in your brain and keeps coming back and I think it’s a movie that becomes something different when you watch it for the second time. The first time it’s a mystery and you’re following the clues and then once all the answers are on the table it becomes a psychological portrait of someone.

RH: There’s a lot we can’t say about the film (Marrowbone), as it will spoil it for people, but what a great cast?

SGS: I still can’t believe it. I’m convinced they’re all going to have wonderful careers and when I look back in ten years I’m not going to believe that I managed to get them all in one film.

RH: Their chemistry was fantastic, it's one of the many things that really stands out for me. Did you just pray that they would gel, or was there something you did behind the scenes in pre-production to get them together because you really feel their closeness.

SGS: Part of it was just magic, they’re all such wonderful, warm people. I think you kind of go with your gut when you meet an actor. You’re looking for something beyond the acting ability and try to find a connection, ‘is he or she getting the character?’ A film like this talks about the frontier or the threshold between fantasy and childhood, maturity, life and death, and I look at the actors and think are they still children? You cannot fake that, you need to be in touch with that side of you so it was very much a gut instinct. I actually offered Anya [Taylor-Joy] the role on our first conversation. We skyped, she was in New York shooting. Actually, she went to my casting director’s office to audition and she sent a tape from home because she wasn’t happy with her audition and I thought, wow, if she has sent two tapes on the same day she must really want to be in this. I talked to her and as I was talking to her, I was like ‘she is Allie’, she was exactly what I wanted.

Then with Mia Goth (Mia plays Jane), she was the first one of the family that I cast, she came in and did this amazing thing where she completely transformed into Jane and I stopped her and said ‘will you please be my Jane?’ My casting director and producer were like, ‘you don’t do that, you have to see all the other actresses’ and I was no, no one is going to do better than this and that same day Charlie (Heaton) came in and read for me and again I offered him the role on the spot, so once I had Mia and Charlie it was easy to decide who Jack would be because I saw so many immensely talented actors that it was like, the challenge was finding the right actor for each character in a family you would believe.

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RH: There really was a sense of togetherness from them, it really came across.

SGS: And you have to think, the film was shot in Spain and they were all alone (laughs), none of them spoke Spanish.

RH: That’s helpful..

SGS: (Laughs) Their time in Spain was very much like the situation of their characters but they were very happy, its in a rural area that’s very beautiful and by the coast and in the week of rehearsals we didn’t rehearse anything that was in the script. Basically I got the siblings together, except Sam (Matthew Stagg who is nine years old), who didn’t even know what the movie was about, so I explained the story to them and what happened in England and why they were trying to get away, I went through every major horrific event and we improvised on it and that’s how they found their characters and also they kind of built up a common emotional memory of their life and they suddenly became a family and again that’s how there is this warmth and generosity that Charlie, George and Mia have that just came through, they became a family even before we started shooting so everything was very easy after that.

RH: Did the script evolve or was it locked before filming?

SGS: It was super locked. It was just that I had one ending for the film that I shot and somehow it didn’t work for me on screen. Actually it was not the ending, but the consequences of the ending and so we shot in the house for six weeks and then we moved to a soundstage in Barcelona for one final week. That was crazy because the rest of the film I shot in chronological order and when we got to the soundstage it was difficult because it was like taking tiny bits and pieces of the film and it felt weird to end the film shooting like this. I remember one day I was shooting Billy [Heaton] going up and down a chimney at the same time as the final, final confrontation, and I was like, ‘I cannot do this’, I can’t be jumping back and forth from the two but that’s because that ending wasn’t planned, we were supposed to have shot that on location and I thought we needed something a little stronger. I mean the film plays with delayed expectations, my original ending was much quieter but I felt that somehow I needed something a bit more explosive.

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RH: Did you have the audience in mind when you were making that change?

SGS: I never think of the audience, I can only think of myself. I don’t believe there is this thing, that there is the ‘audience’, and they all think and feel the same. We are all individual spectators and I always think of a film as a radio transmission, there is someone sending a signal and you may tune into it or not, or be completely out of tune with it, it doesn’t mean that the film is good or bad, it depends on who you are, how you’ve lived, your vision of the world. You may connect with something and the person sitting next to you may hate it. So the only thing that can make a film good or bad is how honest you are as a storyteller. So I can never second guess what the audience is going to think, I can only listen to my instinct and think, I need this, I feel that the film needs to go to this place and if I’m honest with it I just hope whoever’s at the other end will receive it. You can’t possibly please everyone, If I wanted to please everyone I wouldn’t be making films as complex as this one.

RH: Absolutely not. You obviously work very well with J.A Bayona. He was executive producer on this film, did he have much input?

SGS: Not really. When I was preparing this film he was finishing A Monster Calls and prepping Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

RH: That small film…

SGS: ..both tiny, tiny movies (laughs). So basically he offered to shield me from the kind of troubles I could run into, in the same way that Guillermo [Del Toro] did for him when Guillermo produced The Orphanage. Bayona above all is a director, he will give you his opinion and you can do with it what you like. He will not impose anything.

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RH: The film is based in the 60s, it’s a very romantic era. You clearly like the juxtaposition of the romantic and the horrific?

SGS: Yeah! That’s what I’m building a filmography on. It’s kind of the reconstruction of pain and how you turn pain into something valuable or how you make sense of things that make no sense and how through fiction you can make life bearable, where as the things that happen in the real world make no sense and are way too grim and as far as the time, I think, there was this part of the story in order to function as American gothic I wanted to represent this image of idealised Americana that you see in Norman Rockwell paintings.

With the story, with individual aspects we are recreating this golden beautiful, perfect summer. While the horror is going on underneath I thought it was important to pick a time where they could live in this peaceful little town while the world was going through very drastic and very powerful changes. 1968 and 1969 was a time of social revolt with huge things happening.

Also I think it’s fascinating, you look at 1968 and in the same summer you have 2001, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, there were all of these incredible fantasy and horror films coming out because those times were so troubled, and right now we have a golden age of horror and huge things have been happening. I think it's interesting how troubled times make for great horror and fantasy films and also how horror is breaking the boundaries. Horror was not to be taken seriously a few years ago, it’s a very recent thing that a horror film will play a festival like Cannes, or Guillermo winning the Oscar this year for The Shape of Water, that would be unthinkable a few years ago and also how horror and fantasy is injecting into other genres, you look at a film like Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and there is nothing otherworldly in that movie but I cannot think of a scarier film.

It’s social drama and social cinema but its just terrifying. Something like Get Out would be a clever B-movie ten years ago and suddenly people are starting to see what is behind that kind of story and understanding its importance so I think it's funny how the world is breaking apart and building walls and horror is finding a way to tear those walls down.

RH: And with films like Hereditary and A Quiet Place doing so well do you think it’s harder to scare audiences now?

SGS: I think it’s harder to grab their attention. They are so used to the grammar of film that they take many things for granted. One thing I hate for example, I saw A Quiet Place in a theatre with people checking their phones, I wanted to kill myself. People will just watch movies on their laptops, stop the movie, answer a text, go back, its like, there are so many screens in our lives that its so hard to focus on one story and open yourself to whatever grammar that story is trying to establish. I see that, for example, in my film that some audiences react violently against it, just because of how the story is told and what happens in the beginning and then we go to six months in the future everything has changed and it's like people are thinking ‘this guy doesn’t know how to tell a story’, but, yes I do! And I want to tell it in a way that will make you be aware and on your toes and question everything that you’re watching but instead you get people saying ‘ah its one of those twist films’ and I’m like, no, how can it be a twist if I’m telling you from the start? Jack is hiding things, I’m not telling you the truth….where’s the twist?!

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RH: And this is why you have to make films for yourself and not for the audience. In terms of your inspirations. I read somewhere that you saw E.T. and as a kid you started writing a sequel because you wanted E.T to come home.

SGS: (laughs)

RH: Is Spielberg an inspiration or are there specific filmmakers that you think have inspired your aesthetic?

SGS: I’m not sure about aesthetically, it’s more of a tone thing I think. I grew up watching Spielberg, and the first film I saw and actually its my first memory, the first memory of my life is the day I went to see Star Wars. I was 4 years old and I remember everything about that day and not wanting to leave the theatre. There’s something very special about Spielberg because his films grew up as I was growing up if that makes sense. I think the first film of his that I saw was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and then Jaws, which was very frightening and then Raiders. E.T. hit me at nine and I went home and stole my father’s typewriter to write, I could not bear E.T. leaving, I had to write how he got back and suddenly, even when he made The Color Purple, I think I was 13 and I thought I was a grown up, just like The Color Purple thinks it’s a grown up film and the Empire of the Sun I felt like I had the mental age of his protagonist and then suddenly with Schindler’s List its like, ok, you’re no longer a kid. So that progression was important. I think your life is like a blank notebook and the first things you are exposed to, the first lines that you write in that book will go with you all your life and I got scared very easily so my mum never let me watch horror movies and that made them even more exciting so I sought out those movies but it was actually more films like Our Mothers House or The Others or The Innocents, it was the horror that I could not understand that stuck with me that I kept going back to because I wanted to understand. I remember the first time I read Turn of the Screw and I thought ‘I got cheated there are no ghosts in this story!’ But then I’m like, wait a minute, go back and try to figure it out, are there or aren’t there? And you go back once and say, wait a minute this woman is a pervert and then wait, there is actually a ghost and I’m terrified, what am I supposed to make of this? So that kind of story keeps you active and you need to participate and decide, just like with the characters in this film (Marrowbone), have to decide whether they step over that line and do they leave reality behind or not, you have to decide where you wanna go.

RH: So what is next for you, is it writing? Is it directing? Bit of both?

SGS: A Bit of both. I’m writing two scripts for other directors then I’m hopefully shooting my second feature as a director next year which I’ve also written the script for, it’s a fantasy film for kids in the vein of The Neverending Story, and then I’ll probably go back to back after I shoot that film and make a TV series, which will take me back to the supernatural realm so I have all bases covered except the one I haven’t tried that I want to try, which is directing someone else’s script.

RH: Ah ok, I was going to ask actually, with Bayona having just directed the latest Jurassic movie, would you be interested in taking on a big franchise title?

SGS: No. (laughs), I think it’s the end of cinema, I mean, with all due respect to all of those films. I really miss the big studio films that were original and I find it very frustrating that everything has to be related to a franchise or a reboot or a remake, I miss those blockbusters of my childhood where they took me to new unexplored places.

RH: I think a few of our readers will agree with you, thank you very much for talking to us today.

SGS: My pleasure, thank you. 

The Secret of Marrowbone is released in UK cinemas on 13th July 2018

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About The Author
Ryan Holloway
Staff Reviewer
As far back as he can remember Ryan has always had an obsession with films, and horror in particular. 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' and ‘Alien’ were the first films that really stuck in the psyche and rather than scarring his tiny mind and running up a huge therapy bill, those films created a fascination with the dark side of life and art. Brought up by Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers (not literally), horror will always fascinate him no matter how absurd, dark, twisted, barmy or just plain wrong. Horror DNA gives him the opportunity, and excuse, to legitimise his macabre tastes and watch whatever strangeness comes his way.
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