"The Orphanage" made its illustrious debut at the Cannes Film Festival this year and, as its deeply unsettling story of mothers, children and ghosts unfolded on the screen, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona heard a noise in the dark that gave him a panic.
"I heard people laughing," Bayona recalled with a moan. Then he shook his head and smiled: "Then we realized it was nervous laughter. They were so scared they were laughing at themselves. Then we knew it was OK."
"The Orphanage," originally released as "El Orfanato," opens in limited release in the U.S. on Friday and has been tapped as Spain's best foreign-language film submission for the 80th Annual Academy Awards, and that could help it appeal to audiences who typically recoil at anything perceived as a genre film. Reviewers have lauded the film's tale of grief, faith and shivering mystery at a seaside orphanage, and, in Spain, market research found that the film received its highest marks from women older than 40.
"We've made a horror movie for grannies," first-time screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez said. "Seriously, the film is difficult to describe to people. It's not a drama; it's not a horror film. But it is also both. The best thing is not to try too hard to describe it and to let people go into a theater and watch it unfold."
What exactly the audience sees on the screen, however, is a matter of debate. The film tells the tale of Laura (Belen Rueda of "The Sea Inside"), who spent part of her childhood at the Good Shepherd Orphanage and now, as a wife and mother, has returned to the shuttered old manor to reopen it with her husband as a center for ill and disabled youngsters. Her 7-year-old son (portrayed by Roger Princep) is spooked by the place but then meets some imaginary playmates. When he disappears on the clinic's opening day, Laura goes looking for him among the phantoms that are either in her house or in her mind.
Are the ghostly visions that follow real or a product of heaving grief? That is up to the audience. "That is what makes such a special film," says producer Guillermo Del Toro, the filmmaker who has shown a flair for fantastical tales with very human heartbreak and squirming Gothic menace with "Pan's Labyrinth" (which earned him an Oscar nomination for original screenplay) and "Hellboy."
Del Toro's guidance was strong, but the film belongs to Bayona and Sanchez, who make for an interesting tandem. The writer believes in ghosts, but the director does not, so by extension the story embraces the supernatural while the film remains rooted in reality. Early on, the pair painstaking plotted out the movie, scene by scene, in two rows of note cards. The notes on the left were the ghost story while the notes on the right were the drama.
"We really had such a painful time during the script process," Bayona said during a recent breakfast interview, with Sanchez sharing the table. "We have a story that you could read as a classical ghost story but at the same time -- and I think this is a very Polanski idea -- you could read the story as a real drama about a woman who is losing her mind, who cannot deal with the idea of losing a child. This is a perfect puzzle where at the end all the pieces fit together."
To enhance the schism, the film is careful to stay loyal to what Sanchez called "a clinical representation of something that might be supernatural." During a seance scene, for instance, Bayona deftly used sound and shifting point of view to create the impression of something happening, but it's never overtly shown as supernatural.
"We didn't want to cheat, so everything is justified, there is an explanation for everything that happens in the room," Sanchez said.
Bayona remembers that as a child growing up in Barcelona, what he heard but couldn't see scared him the most; he would race to bed when his parents watched horror movies, but the sound of cinematic screams came through the walls of the apartment and young Juan would create a movie in his mind to fit the noise. With "The Orphanage," he tapped that primal terror, but he wanted a story too.
"I was trying to focus in those psychological aspects like 'The Shining' or 'Rosemary's Baby' that work on that level. They are ghost stories or horror stories, but at the same time they are stories about the point of view of the main character. . . . Jung said that it is in the subconscious where the living and the dead come together. We said, 'OK, that's how this movie works.' "
In Spain, the film has broken box-office records, grossing $35 million since its release in October and capturing the public imagination in a fashion reminiscent of "The Sixth Sense." By leaving key moments shrouded, the filmmakers have let the audience fill in the blanks. At one point in the film, a character is confronted by an image that is either a product of the supernatural or his slipping hold on reality. Sanchez said he was surprised during a recent subway ride to hear one woman enthusiastically recounting that scene and telling a friend that the character was looking at a smiling specter, a ghost she then described.
"I'm sitting there on the train thinking, 'What?' We never show the audience what he is seeing!' But that's how it is, and in real life too, if people want closure, they will find it."
TO research the film, Sanchez and Bayona spent time with support groups for grieving parents. They were shaken after hearing the parents of missing children express envy for their peers who at least had the corpse of their child returned; the death that was known and defined was not as torturous as an open-ended mystery of a lost child. They also spoke again and again with parents who soberly described how their dead children returned to them in a ghostly form with a message of some sort. Bayona said the sessions made it clear to him that that dark void is more frightening than any defined figure emerging from it.
Bayona said the entire project has not made him believe in ghosts, but it has taught him that he -- or anyone -- might change his mind on that matter if confronted with deep pain and loss.
"For me, it was quite exciting, the short distance between the people who believe and the people who do not believe," Bayona said. "And everybody, at a certain moment, if they are pushed to the limit, they need to believe."
Sanchez said that today the term "horror film" conjures up gore, torture and psychopathic killers, but he finds most of that either boring or crude. Instead of stalker with chain saw, he said he found that the most chilling films are about parents whose grip is torn from a small hand.
"If I look at all the horror films I enjoy -- 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'The Omen,' 'Don't Look Now,' 'The Shining,' 'Alien' -- they are all about interrupted motherhood. The same thing happens with this film. Everyone knows what it means to be separated from your family. It's not about children being disturbing -- the reason films have children in them is because we're afraid to lose them or be the child who is lost."
Sanchez wrote the screenplay in 2000 and was met with profound disinterest until Bayona latched on to it in 2004. Bayona is part of a new generation of filmmakers in Spain who came up through the film schools that opened in the 1990s. He's also a friend of 15 years to Del Toro, who said the script for "The Orphanage" was as good as any that he has ever been handed.
When he was sizing up the project, Del Toro met with both Bayona and Sanchez and sagely offered them about 10 suggestions that would sharpen their proposed film. Speaking by phone from London, Del Toro chuckled at the memory of the unified resistance he met.
"They immediately rejected about six of them," Del Toro said. "It went back and forth. I would say something and the two of them, unified, would say no. They were equally focused and a team. I left that meeting even more interested in them and more confident that they would make something very special."
Del Toro went to great lengths to protect the film's potential. He insisted on a longer shoot than usual and gave Bayona room for three weeks of rehearsals and a set that was built to allow the camera movement needed to realize the film's dark visions. The budget was $4 million, about $1 million more than most films of its marketplace pedigree in Spain.
The success of the film in Spain has put the director and writer at the fore of the burgeoning cinematic movement there. "I think we could make any project there we wanted right now," Sanchez said. "I think we could make a movie out of the phone book."
They had a plan in place for another film together, which Sanchez describes as "a science-fiction version of 'Brief Encounter,' " a reference to the 1945 David Lean film adaptation based on Noel Coward's yearning play. Sanchez is also writing the script for Del Toro's "3993," a dark fantasy tale set in the 1990s but intertwined with the 1939 Spanish revolution.
A English-version remake of "The Orphanage" is being planned, although the timetable is at the mercy of the writers strike. Bayona and Sanchez are curious to see how Hollywood will reframe their story. But they shrug when asked if they will be wounded if the American adoption of their creation is less cerebral. "This was our child, our movie," Bayona said. "But now we can let go."