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INTERVIEW: MATT SOBEL ON EXPLORING THE HORRORS OF SELF WITH NAOMI WATTS IN “GOODNIGHT MOMMY”

Sunday, October 2, 2022 | Uncategorized

By SHAWN MACOMBER

 You’re skeptical of remakes? 

Well, so is director Matt Sobel

When producers Animal Kingdom asked the Take Me to the River/Brand New Cherry Flavor helmer whether he might like to take on a remake of the 2014 Austrian psychological horror flick GOODNIGHT MOMMY, he initially said Nein! 

“I initially passed on it because I am not a fan of remakes that are made just because people are too lazy to read subtitles,” Sobel tells RUE MORGUE. “But in conversation with my friend, Kyle [Warren] – who would eventually end up writing this film – I realized there was a potential to do something a little bit different with the material, something that was less about translating a project from German to English and more akin to taking a melody from one key into another key. So that’s what we did. We took the elemental beats of the story and transcribed it into something that explores different themes and to my mind, exists in a different genre than the original film.” 

Sobel was kind enough to talk to RUE MORGUE about that reimagining process, working with the great Naomi Watts on very difficult material, finding the perfect set of twins, and the socio-psychological quirk that keeps him up at night. 

Can you distill for me a bit how you and writer Kyle Warren sought to set your GOODNIGHT MOMMY apart thematically from the original? 

The themes that were really on our minds at that moment – and, really, continue to be on my mind in most of the stories that I’m working on – are centered around this ubiquitous human need to think of ourselves as either the heroes or the victims of our own life stories. We desperately want to avoid seeing ourselves as the villains. And the things that we’ll do – the ways that we’ll lie to ourselves and other people or change our perception of the world that we’re living in? I find that to be really fascinating, really scary, and, unfortunately, really topical.

Practically speaking, how does that manifest in your remake?

I would say that, while the theme in the original is a story about a boy who cannot bear to be alone, our film is a story about a boy who cannot bear to be at fault. And that hopefully very precise distinction led to all of the largest differences between our film, which is a psychological thriller or perhaps even a drama, and the original, which is much more horror.

I love this idea of variations on a theme. It seems as if music and theater are open to multiple reinterpretations and productions that put an individualized spin or focus on a piece whereas film is – a little less so.

Maybe it is harder to pull off. You know, when you’re talking about theater, if you don’t see it live the first time, you’ve gotta see a restaging of it. In film, we frequently only see a retelling of a story when a studio wants to access a different market by changing the language or cast or whatever. I couldn’t think of very many examples in film in which a remake or reimagining had been approached in this way. And that’s kind of why I decided that I did want to do it.

This question will be a little roundabout to avoid spoilers, but, as someone who is divorced with kids, I did think the parental relationship falling apart was a very rich and affecting aspect of your film. There’s this element of trying to “reimagine” your own identity for yourself, even as you try to maintain the parts other people – like your kids – have come to rely on. There’s a complexity of relationships changing that were not expected to change that spirals in GOODNIGHT MOMMY.

Right. Also, in the case of mother, there’s a lot of deeply felt, deeply suppressed resentment – and a desire to cover that up with the performance of a good mother. And when that performance gets pushed too far, it can’t hold, and all of what’s really underneath spills over in shocking ways.

To pull off that sort of multilayered nuance as a filmmaker, so much depends on casting right? If the performances aren’t there, it’s not going to fly. How much of a process was it to get to these performances?

I had some pretty extensive conversations with Naomi [Watts] beforehand about the back story. We even talked through some past events that are never in the movie but definitely informed the way she conceived what her character was going through. I really wanted her to play the reality of the character at all times and to not worry at all about how her character was designed to be misunderstood. Because she is intentionally misunderstood for the first 80 percent of the film. But it was really important to me that that part of the story would be my responsibility, not Naomi’s – which was just to make the character a real person. I do think there are answers always about why it is that she acts this way, as difficult as they might be to understand. Those motivations are there. She’s pushed in ways that are not clear until the end of the film by real darkness.

What about the boys?

We made the decision to not tell them the end of the story until the last week of shooting. They hadn’t seen the original film. They were told not to talk to anybody about it. They had a script that ended on page 85 and then said “to be continued.” We tried to shoot as much of it as we could in chronological order as we could. So, acting, they didn’t know if this woman was really their mom, which meant that that part of the story – that suspicion that they had – was actually kind of real for them. They wanted to know, like their characters, what’s going to happen? 

As far as their performance? They’re just really great, very skilled actors. I did not treat them any differently than I would treat adult actors. They brought it. 

Absolutely. I feel as if from that first scene where they walk into the house and encounter their mom in bandages, it was just so impressively naturalistic.

You know, I was very concerned while we were writing the script – like, do the twins that can do this exist? I was actually so concerned that I was at one point, I was almost like, “If we can’t find twins can they just be brothers?” Like, no one’s gonna wanna watch an hour and a half of bad acting. It’s just not gonna work … So thankfully we found Nicholas and Cameron [Crovetti].

To go back to Naomi for a moment – to me, it feels like taking on this character was a pretty brave choice. It’s a very complex, difficult, and in some ways ugly role. Does that track with how you feel about it?

Yeah. And I know she had a lot of reservations early on. 

Oh really? Anything specific? 

Well, she wanted assurances from me that this was not going to go further in the horror direction than the original. Which was perfect because, as I said before, we were headed in the opposite, more dramatic direction. She also was very collaborative and had some script thoughts. She’s a mother of two, so there were moments where she was like, “I don’t know, like how a mother can do this,” and we’d talk it through. Some of those suggestions she made are in the finished film. She really fought to keep this person real, not a monster, and I appreciated that. 

Any final thoughts?

I think that we spent a lot of time in deep conversation about what lies beneath the surface in this story. I really appreciate stories that move like thrillers but have quite a lot to say on other levels, too. The Babadook comes to mind as an example. It’s my hope that the people who watch GOODNIGHT MOMMY will take away a conversation that is richer than just, “Wow, what a creepy woman!” I’m hopeful because I know I’ve been talking about it for almost four years now, and I’m still interested in it.

Shawn Macomber