"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.' "