Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 11, 2015, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Elias and Lukas, the dangerously determined children at the center of Goodnight Mommy, share a close bond, and so do the Austrian chiller’s writer/directors, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. FANGORIA spoke to the filmmakers about the movie’s true-life inspirations, casting challenges and more.
Released by Radius-TWC after well-received and award-winning festival play, Goodnight Mommy (reviewed here) focuses on the young siblings (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz), who are unnerved when their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home from reconstructive surgery, her face swathed in bandages and her behavior seeming strange and hostile. Convinced this woman is an impostor, the boys embark on a twisted and torturous campaign to prove that fact and convince her to reveal where their real mother is. Franz, who previously worked as a film journalist and co-scripted the Paradise trilogy with noted director Ulrich Seidl, and Fiala first collaborated on Kern, a documentary on misanthropic veteran German actor/director Peter Kern, before finding inspiration in other realities for their narrative horror debut.
How did you come up with the scenario and characters of Goodnight Mommy?
VERONIKA FRANZ: Actually, it started by watching television [laughs]. There’s a reality series on German TV where women get beauty operations; they are mainly 40-plus and not so beautiful anymore by society’s standards, so they get their hair done, their teeth, their cheekbones, and after two months they look completely different. The show follows the steps of transformation, and at the end, there is that moment when the family is reunited: The mom appears on a red carpet, and the husband and the children are standing at the other end. And with the children, it kind of appeared to us that it was not pure joy on their faces the first time they looked at their mother; it was like irritation, because they hardly recognized her. There was even one girl who grabbed her father’s arm and said, [gasps] “It’s not our mother! Where’s our mother?” That was the starting point, actually, for the story.
SEVERIN FIALA: We asked ourselves, “What would happen if the mother couldn’t explain it, and this small doubt wouldn’t go away, but instead it grew and just got bigger and bigger?”
FRANZ: It came from the characters, really. We hadn’t planned to make a horror film or a psychological thriller or an art-house movie; we didn’t decide on a genre, we just wanted to tell a suspenseful, gruesome story, and make a film we would like to see in the cinema ourselves. We like to be shocked and overwhelmed and physically affected by movies.
The film definitely goes all the way in that sense. Was there ever a point where you thought you were taking things too far?
FRANZ: Yeah, we discussed certain scenes, but we always asked ourselves, “Is this true to the characters?”
FIALA: What would children possibly do if their mother wasn’t there anymore, and they think this woman isn’t her?
FRANZ: They’re struggling to get their mother back, and that’s a very substantial crisis.
FIALA: Of course, they wouldn’t take a chainsaw and chop her head off, because they wouldn’t think of that possibility. That would have gone too far, because it’s unrealistic for the characters. All of the stuff that happens in the movie is something the kids would think of. Of course it goes too far, but that’s what the movie is about. If we were going to tell this story, it had to get out of control.
FRANZ: In the original script, we also had more emphasis on the question of manners, which is not so strong in the final film. We reversed certain questions or orders mothers usually give to their children. There was one scene we cut where the mother said, “I want some water. Bring me some water,” and the children ask her, “How do you say it properly?” They make her say, “Please.” But we took that out because the film was too long.
Do either of you have kids yourselves?
FIALA: Yes, Veronika has kids. I was their babysitter.
FRANZ: He has a mother! [Both laugh]
FIALA: I had a brother, and my mom thought it would be a good idea to buy us the same clothes so that we wouldn’t get jealous of each other. So my brother and I were dressed alike all the time. We were exactly the same size, so I was confronted every day with, at a minimum, two or three people who would ask, “Are you twins?” I spent many years living with my brother in a very small room, so it felt like having a twin. Maybe that was an inspiration also.
Did having kids yourself help when it came to creating the characters of Elias and Lukas?
FRANZ: Of course, but I think it was actually more about being a mother, and having the duty of being in charge all the time—to know what’s right or wrong. You’re supposed to know that, but nobody prepares you for it. You were once a child, and you had a mother, and that’s the only preparation you get for being one yourself. You know, society expects you to just be able to do that. Of course, mothers love their children and children love their mothers, but that’s not the real issue. It’s also about communication, about education, and what you think is good for the children might be wrong for those particular kids.
I don’t know about the States, but in Europe, that’s not being discussed. You’re a good mother or a bad mother; you’re a bad one when you slap your children, OK, that’s obvious, but there’s much more to discuss about the relation between children and mothers. You know, this anti-authority education, which has existed for about 20 years, leads to children having power over their parents. You say, “OK, these kids are not behaving,” but that’s very superficial. You have to dig under that.
You faced a couple of casting challenges with Goodnight Mommy: Finding an actress who could emote behind bandages, and twins who could act. Can you talk about the process of finding your leads?
FIALA: Yeah, we were quite afraid that it would be very, very difficult…
FRANZ: Because Austria’s a small country.
FIALA: We didn’t know if we would find the right twins, but our casting director said, “Oh, that’s going to be easy!” She was right, because it’s so specific; you can call schools and ask them, “Do you have twin boys, aged 9 to 11?” and they’ll instantly know. So we ended up with 140 pairs of twins auditioning, and there were three we found extremely talented, and could imagine starring in our movie. Then when we did the final casting round, where we tied the actress to a chair and told the children, “This woman has kidnapped your mother; now you have to find out where she is, do whatever you want,” two pairs of twins just started circling around her, shouting, “Where is our mom? Tell us, tell us!” but didn’t dare to get physical or touch her. But the third pair immediately grabbed a pencil and started poking her, and we knew, “OK, those two are courageous enough to be in the film.”
The actress who was tied to the chair for that—was she your actual lead?
FIALA: Yes. We knew her beforehand, and we even wrote the part with her face in mind.
You found a great location, too—that modern house in the middle of nowhere. Did you write for that location, or did you find it after you completed the script?
FIALA: We found it after. Actually, we found another house that we loved a lot and seemed perfect, but there was a highway behind it, and the sound was so loud that we couldn’t use it. Then the location people came up with this place, and we loved it on the outside, but it wasn’t so good on the inside. So we completely redecorated it; there were some new rooms built inside, and new walls.
FRANZ: It was rather difficult because obviously, it was a rich man’s house, and rich people don’t need money, and they don’t want to move out of their home because some strange film people want to shoot a movie there [laughs]. So it was kind of difficult to convince them. Then we refurnished it, and brought cockroaches into the house… [Laughs]
FIALA: They got a lot of money out of it, but they said we changed the soul of the house, so they don’t enjoy living there as much as before!
FRANZ: For example, we had to manufacture all the blinds. There was not a single blind in the house; it had such big windows and glass fronts that that cost a lot of money.
[Potential SPOILER ALERT]
Are you familiar with a similar film from the ’70s called THE OTHER?
FRANZ: No, we are not, and it’s the only horror film about children doing harm that we’ve missed [laughs]! One friend of ours said, “You should watch this movie because it has a similar story,” but we kind of forgot, and now it keeps coming back to us, and we have to watch it. But now I’m scared to!
FIALA: Everyone says it’s so similar, but we haven’t seen it.
FRANZ: That’s the truth!
FIALA: It’s funny for us to read so many reviews saying, “It’s so similar, they stole the idea,” and we’re like, “We don’t even know that film.”
FRANZ: For preparation, we did watch a lot of children’s horror movies, for example The Innocents by Jack Clayton, Bunny Lake Is Missing by Otto Preminger and Who Can Kill a Child?—that’s a great film. We tried to do our homework, but obviously we missed the most important one [laughs]!
What do you have in the works right now?
FIALA: Actually, we have five or six projects that we’re working on, but they’re not really far along in development, because we haven’t had a lot of time since Goodnight Mommy. It’s great that the film is such a success, but it also takes up a lot of time, traveling to different festivals and releases in other countries.
Would you make a film in America?
FIALA: We don’t know if we would do a film there. If it’s the right one, we would do it, but if it’s not, we don’t have to, because we have so many projects we can do in Austria that we would love to make. It would have to be a really special film for us to come to America.