The “Extreme Cinema” of Goodnight Mommy

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala talk making audiences shiver and sweat with their psychological horror film

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In Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s psychological horror stunner Goodnight Mommy, twin brothers Lukas and Elias (Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz) spend their days in isolated idyll in the Austrian countryside, collecting bugs and playing hide-and-seek in cornfields while they wait for their mother to return home following intensive facial surgery. When she does, the boys notice she’s changed. It’s not just her bandage-wrapped visage that raises red flags. Mom (Susanne Wuest) keeps Lukas and Elias at a distance and institutes new rules around the house, demanding that noise be kept to a minimum and that the blinds remain closed. Our fair-haired lads can only arrive at one conclusion: This woman isn’t their mom at all.

Franz and Fiala have made movies before—they’ve collaborated on shorts in the past, as well as the 2012 doc Kern—but Goodnight Mommy has vaulted them into new recognition alongside their fellow Austrian auteurs. But don’t call Goodnight Mommy the new Funny Games. While Franz and Fiala’s movie fits quite snugly into the “creepy children” horror niche, it is ultimately the end result of their own thoughts, ideas and experiences rather than a simple pastiche of that subgenre. Think of Goodnight Mommy as an example of terroir filmmaking, the kind of picture produced as the total sum of its influences rather than as a cheap imitation of them. Watching classic horror movies about evil kids made up part of the director duo’s research process, but Goodnight Mommy has a wholly individual cinematic identity: family terror rooted in paranoia and topped off with some of the blackest humor imaginable.

Yet it didn’t initially start out as a horror film. Indeed, Franz and Fiala went down that path out of a desire to close the gap between their viewers and their medium, and to coax a visceral reaction out of anyone brave enough to watch. As Goodnight Mommy slowly rolls out across the country following its opening last Friday, Paste had the chance to talk to the pair about what went into making the film, how they prefer their horror, why the concept of “family” makes for great horror movie material, their inspirations as filmmakers, and just how unnerving it can be to stare out into a room full of auditioning pairs of twins.

Paste: I gotta say, it must feel pretty good that, if you’re already reading notices about the film, it’s earning comparisons to the stuff of Michael Haneke to Georges Franju. That has to feel pretty nice.
Severin Fiala: Yeah. But actually, I mean, we admire Michael Haneke a lot, because he’s a great, accomplished filmmaker, but we feel with Funny Games, which we are often compared to, he tried to make a film, in a way, against horror cinema, which shows you how bad it is. We think our film is actually the opposite, because we love horror films. We think they really talk about the taboos of society. They really get to the important issues. So, we love horror films, and we’re not so happy about the Funny Games comparison.
Veronika Franz: When it comes to the concept, when it comes to how carefully we make films and, you know, how precisely we plan them, then I like the comparison. [laughs]

Paste: [laughs] Yeah, I feel like the comparisons aren’t quite accurate—in terms of craft, this is a really beautifully made film, but it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to ape anybody or riff on anybody. I really like that. It feels like it’s very much its own thing.
Franz: Oh, thank you! [laughs] That makes me very happy, actually!
Fiala: We didn’t plan on making a horror film. We simply wanted to achieve a film we both, Veronika and me, would like to see in cinemas. So, yeah, it was simply what we thought we would like, maybe a challenging film or something that physically gets to you and challenges the viewer. That’s what we wanted to make—if it was a horror film, or an arthouse film, or a psychological thriller, we can’t say anymore. But it’s the film we would like to see.
Franz: We wanted to tie the audience to their chair, actually!

Paste: [laughs] I certainly felt like I was stuck in my seat. I felt like I couldn’t move. I like that sensation. It’s interesting you say that—you could have just had a family melodrama about two boys and their mother, and the relationship between them going haywire. What, for you, took it all the way to horror? What made you decide, “This is going to be a horror movie”?
Fiala: I don’t know. We like extremes, and we like extreme cinema, and cinema that, somehow, really physically does something to your bodies, and makes you shiver and sweat. In Austria, we have this theater and opera tradition, and everyone’s sitting in the theater or the opera, leaning back and thinking about all this intellectual stuff, and there’s a real distance, we think. And a horror film has the great power to overcome this distance between the story and the viewer, actually, so that’s what we like: stories that really grip you and push you into the story. That’s what we like, and that’s the power of cinema.
Franz: And we also, yeah, I like to confront myself, actually, with fears in cinema. I like that. I’m interested in that because I live with that in reality! [laughs] With films, you can confront yourself and the audience with such issues.
Fiala: And you can learn something about yourself that you maybe don’t want to learn. But a horror film, as Veronika said, ties you to the cinema chair, and you can’t run away because you have to look at it, and at the same time you don’t want to. Maybe you don’t like what you see, but you can’t escape. That’s something we like.

Paste: So, do you prefer your horror to be more grounded in reality as opposed to in supernatural stuff?
Fiala: We like both kinds of horror films, but we think the scarier kind is the one that’s rooted in reality, because that’s one everyone can connect to. So we tried to make the film, to root it very much in reality, even when it comes to the violent scenes. So we didn’t want, like, the children to take a chainsaw and chop the mother’s head off, because that’s pure fantasy. But we wanted to have fun with stuff they know of, or that they could think of, that somehow comes out more of children’s things.
Franz: And that also goes for, you know, the first part of the film, which is told from the perspective of the children, and it has more a fairy tale or nightmarish atmosphere. But that’s also, I think, real for children. I always think of Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, by Guillermo del Toro, because that’s also, like, a nightmarish atmosphere, or dream or fairy tale atmosphere, but really for children’s reality.

We’ve watched thousands of films together since we’ve known each other, I don’t know, 15 years, and all kinds of films. To prepare for this film, we watched films with children in them. So, for example, The Innocents by Jack Clayton, I really liked very much, or Bunny Lake is Missing by Otto Preminger. I don’t know if you know those, they’re quite old films…

Fiala: Village of the Damned, of course. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of that good stuff.

Paste: That is very, very good stuff, I totally agree with that. I’m curious about the idea of “family” here, because there’s a growing number of horror movies concerned with “family” as theme. Is there something about family that makes for fertile ground for telling horror stories?
Fiala: There are many answers to this. On the one hand, most people have a family, so it’s very much a universal topic that everyone in the world can connect to. And I think most families have their dark secrets buried underneath, or in the basement, or whatever, and no one talks about it because family is something holy. It’s like, the perfect image of the family … that’s why we started out with the Von Trapp family in our film, because it’s the perfect Austrian family, and you know if you watch there is something wrong. It’s kind of creepy, so that’s something we wanted to talk about, which is still kind of a taboo in our society. Most families, or all families, have these dark secrets that are not talked about, and they’re not perfect at all.
Franz: And we think those are very special issues. Speaking of motherhood, for example—I’m a mother myself, I have two boys—and in terms of being a mother, and how to be a mother, or how to educate yourself, or how to behave, you are kind of obliged to know how to do that! Our society expects you to know what is right and what is wrong, and actually it’s not that easy! [laughs]

Paste: Right, of course. I think it’s so cool that you have these two sibling stars. They’re actually family themselves, and there’s something in that that translates very well to their performances. How was it for you, working with the two of them, and how did you find them in the first place? They’re fantastic.
Fiala: Thank you! Yeah, we were kind of afraid that we wouldn’t be able to find twins that would be good enough for starring in our film. But actually our casting director was great. She encouraged us and told us that it was going to be easy. And actually she was right, because you can simply call schools, because if you look for twins, that’s so specific that everyone in the school would know if there were twins the right age. So we called, invited them for casting, for auditions, and we ended up with 130 pairs of twins, which is a scary sight, actually, to see that in a waiting room.
Franz: [laughs]

Paste: Yeah, I can imagine.
Fiala: There were very many extremely talented twin pairs, and we decided on, like, three of them and invited them for a last round of auditioning, in which we tied the main actress to a chair and told the children, “This woman has kidnapped your mother. Find out where she is.” Two pairs of twins were circling around her, asking, “Where is our mom?” But the third pair, which is obviously the one we took, they picked up pencils and they started poking her. So we knew that those two were courageous enough to be in our movie. Working with them, to be honest, was really easy and really a pleasure. They’re very intelligent, they’re very gentle, very ambitious, they wanted to do it right and work hard, they had fun…
Franz: And you know, we like to play, and they like to play! [laughs] So we would play together. I actually think it’s easier to work with children than with grown-up actors and actresses, because if you tell children something in a scene but it’s not quite what they do, then you can be sure that you told them something wrong. They really try to trust you, try hard to fulfill what you told them. With actors and actresses, it’s another thing, because they have their own opinions, their own opinions of the character, their own opinions of the film. So you tell them something, and they might do what you say, they might understand what you said, but if they do something which is not as good as you expected it to be, then it’s often very difficult to find out what the reason is for that. Children trust you, you know? They trust you. You’re the adult. You’re supposed to know what’s good.
Fiala: We worked with them and it was actually quite playful. They didn’t know the whole screenplay or the story. They didn’t have to learn any lines of dialogue. We just explained to them the basic situation, that their mother comes home bandaged and she behaves strangely, and then we shot it chronologically. From day to day, we explained to them a little more of the story and gave them more and more details. We did that to keep them interested, because the worst thing is if they lose interest during the shooting. So it was more of a game for them, really, where they have to find out what’s with mom, what’s the problem with her. They even asked our team members, and no one told them, so they were really curious.
Franz: And they still called the summer of shooting the best summer of their lives. [laughs] They really enjoyed it when it came to the darker scenes of the film. It was more a technical challenge, because all of it was very orchestrated, and there were a lot of people surrounding the twins, and they had to fulfill certain roles that they had to do, and so the tough part was to get emotions out of the children.
Fiala: Some of that stuff, it looks so stupid if you shoot it. And funny. It’s not like, really violent, it’s like 20 people standing around looking at children shaking a camera and saying, “Hey, tell us where our mom is.” It really feels stupid if you shoot it.

Paste: The other interesting thing I noticed about Goodnight Mommy, apart from family, is the idea of nature being kind of sinister. Did you intend on making the landscape around the family feel as forbidding and ominous as it did?
Franz: I don’t know if I’m answering the question correctly, but for us, the whole environment around the house, all this nature, is part of the children’s world, in a way, while the house is kind of an extension to the mother’s character. From the children’s perspective, they don’t understand why this woman behaves so strangely. We obviously can’t give a lot of information about her, so we used the house to convey how the mother is. It’s really all beautiful surfaces and it’s cold, and it’s geometrical, and it’s kind of a prison. You pull down the blinds, and it’s a dark prison. And the children’s world, outside, is kind of the opposite. It’s all light and sunshine.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.