Outside of the 2008 television movie Las manos del pianista, Marrowbone (2017) is the directorial feature ‘film’ debut of Sergio G. Sánchez, most well known as the screenwriter for compatriot filmmaker J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012). Of his work as a writer, Marrowbone has more in common with The Orphanage; the family drama offset by tones of mystery and the supernatural as four siblings seek refuge in an old home after the death of their mother, only to discover that the house has another, more sinister, inhabitant.
In conversation with PopMatters, Sánchez discussed the formative influences that have shaped his aesthetic appreciation of horror cinema and storytelling. He also reflected on a thematic through-link of his work as screenwriter and director, cinema’s spectral form and the impermanence and absence of meaning.
Director Sergio G. Sánchez on the set of Marrowbone (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I guess I would have to say it was the first time I read The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James. I was probably too young to read it, 12 or 13, and I was expecting a straight-up horror story. When I got to the end and I didn’t have any clear answers, I was intrigued. It was very much left to my imagination to decide what I had to express, and I think that made a strong impression on me.
That is the kind of horror I have always been interested in, writers like Henry James and also Shirley Jackson, and novels like We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), where you have an unreliable narrator who you don’t know if you can trust or not. And there are always things that happen that are open to multiple readings. I would have to say novels like that or films like The Other (1972) by Robert Mulligan, or Our Mother’s House (1967) by Jack Clayton have been the biggest influences on this.
How has the practical experience of directing impacted your own appreciation of these influential films and their filmmakers?
I’m not sure that there is any conscious effort to sort of replicate that, but when you’re a kid, you’re a blank note book, and the first things you are exposed to really shape who you will be, which is actually one of the themes in Marrowbone. I guess those early films I saw, those classic movies, they invented a language that I kind of miss in the cinema of today. So my intention here was to shoot the film so that it could look like it was made at the time it is set. So yes, I guess there’s a big interest in those films from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Interviewing filmmaker Sean Brosnan for My Father Die (2016), he explained: “I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they’ll pick a story and then say: ‘What do I want to explore?’ I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it.” Each storyteller takes a different approach, but to speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?
It’s a journey, but I have discovered the same themes in all the films I have written. It’s about someone who is trying to come back to a home that no longer exists, but it’s there. I don’t know why, I have no idea; it’s something written in my unconscious. But it’s what you try to do and I remember one of the first screenwriter teachers kept insisting theme is the most important thing in the movie, you have to know it and when you do, write it down and stick it to your computer to make sure every scene in the story somehow talks about that theme.
So for me, yeah, there is something to it, but I am also obsessed with the thresholds or the frontiers between childhood and adulthood, fantasy and reality, life and death. So exploring those worlds is always the territory I feel most comfortable, and I just end up driving my stories towards those worlds.
There’s a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script: the script that is written, the script that is shot, and the script that is edited. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely! In the case of Marrowbone there’s even a fourth writing because after I finished the film I wrote the novel, and so it gave me the chance to re-write the story. There are those three layers, but ultimately each film is different with each person that watches it.
I think filmmaking and film watching is a very intimate expression, a conversation, and it’s almost like sending out a radio signal that some people will be able to tune into, whilst others will just not get the frequency. If the filmmaker and the person in the audience don’t share the same fears, longing and interests, then a communication will not happen.
I’m always very interested in making movies that have more than one reading, so that they can become very different films for different people, even when you watch the film twice. The first time, if you try to follow the story and solve the mystery, it’s a bit of a puzzle, but once all the revelations are on the table, you can watch the film again and again, and it becomes a psychological portrait.
Marrowbone is ultimately a film about the bonds that cannot be broken and the loss within the family. So I’m always trying to make films that are rich with different layers, and can be interpreted in more than one way.
Returning to your point about an interest in the threshold, one of the characteristics of this film is the finding of not necessarily the dream in the nightmare, but the light amidst the darkness. To my mind, this contextualises Marrowbone as an uplifting type of filmic experience.
Again, that’s a common thing in everything I have done, that search because I think life has no meaning. It’s in answer to meaning that in retelling our reality we try to give some kind of meaning to something that doesn’t have it. I also think something like that is the essence of cinema because I wouldn’t say this film is a ghost story, but if there’s anything in the world, film is probably the closest thing to a ghost that we can experience. It’s something that is not tangible or real, it’s made of light and dreams, and sound that is meant to evoke an emotion, and hopefully carry a message. So I think it’s the perfect medium for this type of story.
The challenge for any storyteller is creating an harmony between tones, which perhaps can be likened to the different colours on the painter’s palette. How did you approach striking a balance between the supernatural, human drama, and the mystery elements?
Absolutely, and it’s almost like when you’re working with the art director and cinematographer, and you choose the colour palette of the colours you will use in the film, and what those colours will signify. In a film like this that navigates across many different emotions, and I would even say [across] genre, because it moves from family drama to mystery, to ghost story, to love story, it was my biggest challenge as a director. There were times shooting when I thought maybe I should have chosen a simpler story for my first time as a director because it was really hard to keep furthering that. You take one false step and everything can fall down. I guess it was achieved mostly by the work with the actors because this is an ensemble piece.
Jack is the protagonist, but there are many sides to him and each of the actors had to know exactly which part they were playing in the story. Sometimes it was frustrating, because they would come to me with ideas or suggestions for things the characters would do, and I had to think of the family as a whole unit. Rehearsing, once we found and established the truth of the story’s emotion, it was much easier. But of course, it’s very tempting when you are making a movie like this to think about how you can include a horror set piece that will be nerve-wracking and extreme, yet you cannot do that because the film must be interpreted in two different ways. So it’s always very hard to find the balance and this was the same challenge I ran into on The Orphanage.
If I ever make another suspenseful film, I will go full horror [laughs] because that will be so much simpler to balance.
Unlike the filmmakers, the audience are not necessarily aware of those little moments, gestures and occurrences that impact the aesthetic and narrative of the film.
Well, it was actually very funny because George MacKay came to me many times and said: “I just noticed this little thing in the script or the story, and I think it’s funny because this connects to…” He would come to me with those things like it was a happy coincidence, and I was: “George, I wrote it… it’s meant to be that way” [laughs].
It’s so difficult to build a performance that looks naturalistic and you sense something is off about Jack [George MacKay], and it’s like: Okay, so he’s this nervous boy and that’s why he’s not able to make physical contact, or look them straight in the eye. There are also things with the sound that I wish we could go into more detail, but we would spoil the movie. For example, Jack has a key chain rattling whenever he moves, but you can hear that sound in many other places whenever Jack is not there, which is also a hint. For every bit of sound, we played a serious and ominous sound throughout the house, so that you never know if it’s the wind flying through a crack in a certain window, someone breathing, or it’s something else. But when the film comes to an end, you realise what that sound means. So I’m always playing with tiny little details that make for an intriguing first viewing, and then a richer second viewing because once you know what each of those details mean, the story takes on another meaning.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
As the filmmaker I’m definitely a different person after making this movie and hopefully that’s what every film goer expects from the film. You kind of hope that you will be different when you walk out of the cinema — not terribly different, not for it to be complete transformative experience, but one that will give you new eyes to look upon things, and will make you think and feel things that you didn’t before. I think that’s one of the things we look for in cinema; we want to experience that small catharsis where we are changed by the film we watch.
In conversation with Larry Fessenden recently, he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Would you agree with his choice of phrase, and that by a certain point you must accept the film you have and send it out into the world?
I wouldn’t say abandoned exactly, but I can see where that comes from, because there’s always a sense that you can never finish a movie. There’s always something more you could put into it and you do feel like someone is taking it away from you in a way. But if we were to make a comparison, it’s probably like having a child, because when you have a child you take care of him, and you nurture and expose him to the all the good things that you can, hoping that he will become the little person you are dreaming of.
Very early in the making of a film, you try to dictate what it has to be, but there comes a moment when the movie decides what kind of creature it’s going to be, and suddenly it’s not so much you trying to control it, but just taking care of it, and making sure that it goes in the right direction. But sooner or later it’s going to take a life of its own and there comes a point when it’s not yours; it belongs to the audience, to whoever wants to watch it and embrace it.
Marrowbone is released theatrically and is available On Demand today, 13 April 2018 courtesy of Magnet Releasing.