When The Orphanage came out in 2007, screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez almost instantly became an important figure to watch in the horror world. Guillermo del Toro, known for supporting ambitious, young Spanish and Mexican genre filmmakers, produced The Orphanage, and its combination of heavy atmosphere, potent scares, and heartbreaking drama made it one of the most memorable horror movies of the past 15 years. It also began a collaboration between Sánchez and director J.A. Bayona that continued with the 2012 disaster drama The Impossible.
With Marrowbone, which is now available on digital platforms and in a limited US theatrical release, Sánchez has made the move to directing, and the results are equally memorable. It’s a chilling, intense horror film that’s shocking on first viewing, and fascinating on subsequent viewings for the craft that went into building its story. The film follows the Marrowbone family: siblings Jack (George McKay, 11.22.63), Billie (Charlie Heaton, Stranger Things), Jane (Mia Goth, A Cure For Wellness), and Sam (Matthew Stagg), who range in age from 20 down to childhood. The four of them live alone in a creepy old house, without supervision since their mother died. And they’re all in perpetual fear of a ghost that disrupted their lives last summer. But when Jack begins to fall for a young woman named Allie (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s insular lifestyle is threatened, and the mysterious hauntings return.
It’s a moody, heartbreaking film, packed with the atmospheric dread and emotional revelations that made The Orphanage so memorable. It was also one of our favorite films from the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. On the eve of the movie’s public premiere there, I sat down with the filmmaker to discuss his philosophy on horror, his experience as a first-time director, and the secrets behind some of Marrowbone’s most impactful, jaw-dropping moments.
Warning: major spoilers for Marrowbone follow.
Marrowbone is your feature directing debut, but you’ve wanted to go into directing features for quite a while. Why was now the time to finally pull the trigger?
Well, geez. I went to film school at NYU, and then I made three short films in Spain and a movie for television, and what I wanted to do was The Orphanage. One of those short films was a short version of The Orphanage [called 7337]. In a film festival, I met [director J.A.] Bayona, who saw that film, and he had his production company tell him they were interested in producing the film for them. So I let him read the script, and he showed it to his producers as a sample of my writing, so they would hire me to do something else he wanted to do. They loved the script, and said, “Why not [have Bayona direct] this?”
But then [The Orphanage] became really big in Spain, and suddenly, I got switched to writer, and it took three very successful movies in Spain to finally say, “Okay, this one’s for me. No one else is going to direct this.”
What was the genesis of the story in Marrowbone?
The genesis was a game I played with Belén Atienza, who is a producer on the film, and also produced The Orphanage, The Impossible, A Monster Calls, and now is producing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom also. [Editor’s note: Bayona directed all four films.] Sometimes when we get bored, we play a pitch game where you have to come up with an idea in five minutes and sell it to me. In one of those games, the story for Marrowbone came in. But I guess it’s like a slow simmer. All of my obsessions and the things from my childhood that really scared me or bugged me were in there, and suddenly it’s like a part of my subconscious is taking shape into this strange creature. In a way, it has common themes with things I’ve done before, but it’s, I think — I hope — a new creature, also.
There are references. Jack Clayton’s Our Mother’s House is a movie I saw when I was a kid. It just terrified me, even though it’s not a horror movie, just like I think Marrowbone is not really a horror movie. Or Robert Mulligan’s The Other. Also, one of my biggest influences are all of the books by Shirley Jackson, especially We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But when you’re growing up and you have these formative years, you’re like a blank book, and the things you’re exposed to sort of shape who you are and who you become. I guess up until 13, or a little later, but that’s when you become the person you’re going to be for the rest of your life. I think all my references are quite old. I’m 43 now, so they’re all at least 30 years old. So it’s like no movie later than 1970-something has had a big influence on me. [Laughs]
There’s a lot to unpack in the movie, especially about denial and mental illness. Jack has written a book to help him forget what happened to his family, which touches upon the idea of using storytelling to cope with grief and tragedy. What were you trying to say with the film?
Well, I think there’s a recurring theme in all of the movies I’ve worked on. I think they’re always about a character who is trying to come back to a home that no longer exists. I don’t know why, but I always feel attracted to certain types of stories, and others just don’t grab me, and it’s only recently that I’ve identified this. With each new project, you keep shaping up the sculpture, and you know what attracts you. I think this movie is about how to preserve your innocence. Life can hit you in so many different ways, and as you grow up, it suddenly starts taking things away from you instead of giving them. So it’s like, “Where can you preserve all those memories? And what are the things that shape the person you are?”
And, in a way, like you said, Jack’s notebook — which is what he would like his life to be like — I guess it is very much similar to what I do in my writing. You go through life, and you have all of these different troubles, and you find a way to shape it into something that will last forever, and that no one will take away from you. They’re like portraits of who you are at each of those moments.
So yeah, I guess I’ve always been obsessed with the same themes, like family and death, and how do you keep those who you love forever? And again, how everything around you, everything you know, everything you love, shapes who you are.
Is it easier to explore those ideas in this gothic framework? Are there things you wouldn’t be able to do in more conventional drama?
Yeah. That’s what fascinates me about the genre or horror films or anything. I mean, just yesterday, I saw The Shape of Water. It’s just so wonderful because in the disguise of a fairy tale, you can talk about so many things. There are so many political readings of that movie, about what’s happening right now in the world. It’s amazing. It would take you 10 different films to say everything Guillermo has to say in one single movie.
So I think the “fantastic” genre just allows you [to do anything]. First, I think it’s the most cinematic of genres because you can do everything there. There are long stretches of my movie where there’s no dialogue at all, and everything — every event in the story — happens off-camera. So it’s much more playful. If this were a straight drama, you would have to go through all of those speeds, so I think there’s much more room for poetry, and for true emotion, and for what film should be — or the kind of film I like. Just images, and sound, and music, all taking shape in the viewer’s mind.
And also, I really like movies that have more than one reading, which was a big obsession in this film. It was my first movie, and I wanted to put so much into the screenplay, that at some point I was like, “Okay, stop. You cannot put chocolate and white chocolate and toffee and everything in the cake. One thing at a time.” I was so obsessed with the movie having two different readings that I was probably overstuffing it with details that were meant for that second reading.
Can you talk about some of those details? How did you set up the ending without giving too much away?
Things like, for example, Jack never looks his siblings in the eye. Never. Not once in the whole movie. When we did a test screening for some friends, I was terrified about things like that — “It’s going to be so obvious” — and no one noticed. Or when Sam sneaks into Mother’s room and he covers himself with a sheet and looks in the mirror — and that’s Jack [the audience sees under the sheet]. Of course, I know [actor George McKay] so well that it was like, “Cover yourself a little more, a little more,” and at the end, it was just like, “No, you can tell it’s George!” People were like, “No, you can’t tell it’s George, don’t worry.”
Jack is the only one who makes sounds around the house. Whenever his siblings move around him, sometimes they move and you can hear them, but it’s like Jack will move and the sounds will mix in there, so that you think they’re in there, but they’re not. And also, Jack is the center channel with the sound [mix]. The other voices just come and go and leave. There are all these subtle little things. But again, you play with those elements, but I didn’t want this to be a twist movie.
Also, I think it has a very strange structure. There’s a prologue. Nine minutes into the film, something happened, you don’t answer what happened, and then there are all these little strange enigmas that keep piling up. And then once Allie gets hold of the notebook, you get the answers to all of those things, but still, it’s like, “Wait a minute, what did I just see?” And it’s in those 15 minutes of the film, I think that’s what the movie is really about, when Allie rebels against her father, and it’s like, “No, you cannot take this away. They’re not dead; you’re the one who’s dead.” And so, for me, thematically the movie is about something other than the twists.
When you have something that needs to be read on multiple levels or is playing keep-away with the audience like that, what is your writing process like? Do you have an ending and work backward?
I tend to be very obsessive, and never start writing until I know the whole movie. Like, I will just start, I go crazy, I start writing 3 x 5 cards and just put them on the wall. And until I have the whole structure, and I know the characters, I usually don’t start writing. This movie had a completely different approach because it came from that game I played. So, [Atienza] said after that little game, “I think you should write this story” because I had brought many projects to her that I wanted to direct, and some were too small, some were too big, and this story felt like it had the right scale.
It was ambitious enough, but not overly ambitious, so she’s like, “Why don’t you try just writing three pages a day and see what happens?” Because I didn’t really know all the details of the story. And I jumped into it. I sent her three pages for the first 20 days, and then on the last day, I just started writing and went on until the end. I wrote like 45 pages that day, and that first draft was crap, of course, but it contained the story. So it’s the first time that I started writing, instead of just putting cards on the wall, I had a whole screenplay to work with. And then it just was about cleaning it up. In that [writing] exercise, every day I would try to put one of my obsessions or interests in. Then it was, “Okay, now we need to bring this down to its essence.”
In the end, Allie and Jack wind up together, and the film plays it like a conventional happy ending, even though he’s still suffering from multiple personality disorder. What was behind that idea, and did you get any pushback on that approach?
I always wanted to play it as a beautiful moment. I only got one comment from one guy who said, “It looks like you want to say with your film that no one should go to a psychiatrist,” like doctors aren’t good, or people shouldn’t take medication. Well, I don’t really know anyone who takes Prozac that does them any good to begin with, but also I felt that it needed to be like that. The only reason why I wanted to make this movie is that I do believe in those endings. For me, I really think the people you love never really go away from you. They become a part of you.
There was much more in the ending that was even happier, and I even shot it. And I took it away because I felt like I needed to leave it in a place where each person from the audience could make their own interpretation. But yes, I do want it to be a happy ending, because otherwise, Jack would have killed himself that night. It’s like, why would you go on living if the world’s going to be such a horrible place? And also, to me the ending is about, I think, “Love can heal anything.” I think that’s something so pure that it can only make sense in the context of two adolescents who believe their first love is going to go on forever. And you never know, probably Jack and Allie are not going to make it. [Laughs] But you needed to leave it in that moment.
It sort of reminds me of the ending of The Graduate, where they’re both sitting in the back of that bus, and it’s like, “Yeah, we’re happy.” It depends on when you cut. Five seconds earlier or five seconds later, it can be a completely different movie. Maybe we just stick with Allie looking at that empty prairie, she’d be like, “Oh, fuck.” That could be really depressing. But no, it’s a moment where she’s encouraged, like, “Oh, I know they’re coming back. I’ll just wait inside.”
Visually, the film is breathtaking. Were you pulling from any particular visual references?
That was the one thing I avoided all the time. And I found that with both my production designer and my cinematographer, on the first meeting, it’s like, “Well, I would like to know the references you have for this film,” and I’m like, “None!” And they really fought against this, just to find a starting point. I was like, “No, no, no, I want to make this something unique.” With the production designer [Patrick Salvador], we discussed the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and with the cinematographer [Xavi Giménez], I showed him Bunny Lake Is Missing, which has very long tracking shots across the house and things like that. Because I knew, “Okay, at least I’m going to show you a black and white picture, so that you can think of lenses and camera moves and stuff, but don’t get any sense of what the [film should literally look like].” I also fought to shoot in a real house. They tried to get me to shoot on a soundstage, and from the beginning, I was like, “No. I want a real house, with every room lived in.”
I wanted to be able to move in and out of the house, have real light coming from the windows. There’s hardly any artificial light in the whole movie. It’s all shot with available light, except for the attic, which was the only thing with the soundstage. And we tried to make it real, and bright. I thought that Jack needed a feel of the ideal summer you would always want to go back to. Otherwise, it’s like, why would Jack want to go on with this, if it wasn’t a happy place for him? So I wanted to avoid darkness. There’s just that one scene where they play Risk, and the rest of it is very bright and sunny, and I used this approach for everything.
Now that you’ve tackled your first feature, what are you working on next?
Well, there are three scripts. I wanted those more ambitious projects that would not get greenlit for a new director. Now they might. Also, I really would like to do a TV series. I’m working on something along those lines. What I do want to do, I want to switch gears. It will not be scary, it will not be super dramatic. I would like to do something, probably still stick to fantasy, but more lighthearted. I also think the second time you come around, you need to surprise people. Otherwise, if you do something that’s too similar to your first movie, it’s like you get locked in a box where people expect certain things from you. It’s funny, because I’ve gotten six offers to direct movies, even before the movie comes out, and they all deal with people locked up in a house, and it’s like, “No, thank you.” When I was working with Bayona, that was again a concern after The Orphanage. They offered us every sequel out there for a horror movie, and we really knew we didn’t want to do another horror film.
In a way, as different as The Orphanage and The Impossible are, I think there are some links there when you see them together, and you probably can find them with Marrowbone also. Now that Bayona is doing his own thing and I’m doing my own thing, you’ll probably be able to go back to The Orphanage and trace who was who. Like, “Okay, this belonged to Bayona, and this was Sergio’s part.” But I don’t know. I just hope to be shooting next summer. I just don’t want to stop directing ever. It was so much fun.