SUSANNE WUEST AND LUKAS SCHWARZ IN GOODNIGHT MOMMY. COURTESY OF RADIUS
In Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy, even the most familiar, intimate relationship can descend into abject terror. Two young twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz), cloistered in a stark, modern house surrounded by cornfields in a stretch of isolated Austrian countryside, are left to their own childish devices. They are waiting for their mother (Susanne Wuest). When she returns— her face tightly wrapped in layers of gauze that obscure the entirety of her features after a cosmetic surgery; her mood severe and unloving—the pair start to believe she is an imposter, and responsible for the disappearance of the woman they love.
In their first narrative film, Franz and Fiala set a pace of unflinching, exruciating suspense, matched with a clinically precise approach in composition and framing. As the mystery surrounding the circumstance of the boys and their mother slowly unravels into a bona fide, yet wickedly intelligent horror movie, the film pivots from the twins’ childish, dreamy point of view to their mother’s, throwing the chain of torturous events into sharp relief.
We spoke to the Austrian filmmakers by phone, in advance of Mommy’ s Friday release, about the film’s third act twist and finding horror in the everyday.
COLLEEN KELSEY: I want to begin with one of the major themes in the film: doubt, and the break in trust between mother and child. That’s something pretty universal, aside from the extreme events in this film. Why did you decide to center a film around this fracture?
VERONIKA FRANZ: You’ve already given the answer! [laughs] It’s a theme everyone knows. What was interesting about it was, it’s impossible to restore this kind of trust, and the question, how can you restore or prove it?
SEVERIN FIALA: It’s a film about the question of identity and what makes you become the person you appear to be. Are you a mother, are you a woman, do you have a job? Every person can be many people at the same time, but the children maybe only know one side. They only see this perfect image of the perfect mother, and when something changes in that image, that really can shape the bond between them. It’s so universal and everyone can connect to it. It’s really something basic: Everyone has a mother, most people know what it feels like, how you can be hurt by distance, or losing trust. That’s something we wanted to do because it makes the film more rooted in reality, in a way, and more scary
KELSEY: That was actually my next question for you—the decision to keep the film’s events rooted in reality, even as these events become more and more surreal. Reality is often scarier than fabrication. How did you two, in the writing of the script and the pacing of the film, decide when the tables were going to turn from a very real situation to a very extreme one?
FIALA: It starts out told from the children’s perspective, and we tried to be true to the children, and the way that children would see the world, and the things that they are interested in. In a child’s world, dreams and nightmares and fantasies are a lot more real, and part of the real world as they perceive it. For us, the first half of the film has more [of a] fairytale [perspective], and then when the perspective shifts to the mother character, that’s a more grown-up point of view, without any fairytales and no more shadows and light—just plain violence, which should feel more like a documentary film and not so much as a fantasy film. It’s not the children taking a chainsaw and chopping her head off, but these children really could think of the magnifying glass or the glue.
KELSEY: This is the first narrative film you two have co-written and co-directed together. How collaborative is your writing process?
FRANZ: We literally were sitting around the table, bouncing ideas off each other, trading ideas. We like to play with the audience; I think you can see in the film. We are for each other a separate audience. If I say something which Severin thinks is bullshit or a bad idea or a stupid idea, we drop that idea. You have to trust each other. It’s not about vanity or ego, it’s about having the better idea for the story. We discovered that we share a very similar vision of cinema: what we like in cinema, how we like actors to act, what we show to the audience.
FIALA: It’s basically the same for both of us, which is crucial, because if we had to argue during shooting: “Was the actor good? Was the scene good?” it wouldn’t be possible. We knew we liked the same things, we trusted each other completely. And the team, even if they had worked with two directors before, said they had never seen two directors speaking with one voice.
KELSEY: Was it easy for you both to agree to Lukas and Elias?
FIALA: Our producer, Ulrich Seidl, who is also a filmmaker said, “Oh, they could be good.” So we invited them and did lots rounds of auditioning. In the last round, we got three chairs, and the last challenge was, we tied the actress to a chair and told the children that this woman had kidnapped their mother and they had to find out where their mother was, and we told them they could do absolutely everything they would think of. Of course children are intimidated and they are scared, and two pairs of twins were only circling around the actress and shouting at her and asking, “Where’s our mom?” Then came our twin pair and they grabbed a pencil and started pinching the woman.
FRANZ: That was enough! [laughs]
FIALA: So afterward, everyone sat around, and we knew those were the kids. There were no discussions. It was the most important thing, because a film shoot is very long, and it’s a lot of work, and they have to want it. If they lose interest way too fast it’s not going to work, and they have to be really brave and really courageous, because a lot of really challenging things come up. Of course they know everything is acted, but the level of concentration you have to keep up, you really have to be ambitious to be able to do it.
The two kids were extremely intelligent. At the beginning, we tried to surprise them. When they see the mother coming home from the operation, it was very important to us that the children wouldn’t see the actress before the actual shoot. So the expression on the faces of the children when they open the door and see the bandaged mother standing there, it’s real, because it’s the first time they see this woman in the bandages. We tried to do a lot of those things, like scaring them by saying, “Boo!” from behind. We did it a lot at the beginning, but they were so intelligent, they got what we were after way too fast, and when we tried to trick them later, they played along to satisfy us, to make us happy. They were way too intelligent for us.
KELSEY: At the end of the film, all the questions the viewer has leading up to the mysterious nature of this circumstance are explained in a rational conclusion. Was it important to you two to give those answers, rather than leave the viewer questioning?
FRANZ: Leaving with the viewer with questions actually depends on the viewer. [laughs] Our experience is that if you’re very educated in film, then you maybe you have more answers in the end and questions. And there are other people that still have questions. We tried other endings, too, but I think you would have been unsatisfied if there were no answers. We wanted to leave the audience with questions, not questions about the plot, but questions about identity, about power games in families, about what you can discover—those questions.
FIALA: In a film like that it is really impossible to say how you, as a viewer, would react. We asked ourselves, “Would we get this twist in advance? In the beginning, at the end, or never?” and of course if you know it because you write it, it is impossible to tell. So we asked other people. One says, “Oh, I got it from the first image, I understood everything,” or people like my mom, who has seen it three times, doesn’t know anything about the plot twist, because she didn’t get it, so the range is really, really wide. We never can be sure how people will perceive the film. We tried, but no matter what you think, or what you get out of it, or when you understand what, it’s an interesting film for all of these possibilities. Even if you get it at the beginning, we want it to be an interesting film asking existential questions.
VERONIKA FRANZ AND SEVERIN FIALA WILL BE PRESENT FOR A Q&A FOLLOWING A SCREENING OF GOODNIGHT MOMMY AT THE FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER SEPTEMBER 8. GOODNIGHT MOMMY IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE SEPTEMBER 11.