Director Michael Chaves talks to us about his supernatural horror based on the Mexican folklore of La Llorona. The film is both a spin-off from ‘The Conjuring’ and a standalone movie that follows a mother in 1970s Los Angeles who must save her children from a ghost who is trying to steal them away.

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Michael what scares you? Because I can tell you right now that I didn’t think umbrellas would be added to my list of fears but after The Curse of La Llorona I’ve some new ones.
You know what’s funny umbrella’s have always scared me literally because of the metal tips. I always feel like they’re going to go into my eye it’s going to spring up and go right into my eye. I think at my core I’m very neurotic and just think of the worst possible outcome. In terms of things that specifically scare me it’s probably the bigger more existential fears. Growing up it was always the fear of the dark, the fear of the outside, the drainpipe you know with Pennywise.

You’ve cut your teeth over the years with writing and visual effects on projects like The Guild and Chase Champion so when it came to The Curse of La Llorona did you bring any of your own flair to the style of scares.
A lot of my experience comes from directing commercials. For me, I am always aware of when to use visual effects. I wanted to be cautious when to use them and to rely on practical effects, to rely on makeup, the practicality of the fear. The reality of how some of the scenes were built will scare an audience more than a CGI monster. It’s all because we’ve become so savvy at identifying which is which.

Did you take inspiration from any notable films? I ask this because I noticed one particular shot that harks back to Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’.
100 percent. Yeah, that was a straight lift from the original Evil Dead. I love Evil Dead I love the remake I think it’s a really fun movie, it’s a classic movie and there’s something about the wild energy of that shot that really connects with an audience. There’s also something playful about it and that’s why I loved it and love about Sam Raimi. The obvious reference we go to though is ‘Poltergeist’ because it’s a family under siege from a supernatural threat. Apart from that, I’m a fan of the 90s early 00s movies. I feel like there was a renaissance with films like ‘The Others’ and ‘Sixth Sense’. ‘The Conjuring’ is also a huge inspiration and I would say that even if I wasn’t working with James Wan.

When building the world of La Llorona how did you ensure a successful horror?
One of the most important aspects are the characters. Having characters that you can connect to, that you like, that you care about is one of the most important things. We were really lucky with our entire cast. That’s what really transports you. If they’re scared you’re scared. They are the entry point for the audience. The other element for a horror film or even just a scary film is a musical quality.

It’s funny because this is my first feature film and most of my ideas were visually based but having finished it now and looking back most of my best ideas and scenes were auditory based. There is sound in their origin. Going forward now I feel like the sound is where you start.

What was it like working with your cast -Linda, Jaynee, and Roman? Bringing that family dynamic to believable life.
I was blessed with the entire cast. Linda is incredible, she gets to such an emotionally dark place she is a mother herself and I think that is one of the first things we talked about. How important that is to the role. She is a mother who would do anything for her kids. We also gave her the sense of an outsider, there would be a sense of discovery as she learned about this legend.

The kids Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and kids, in general, are great in horror film because they themselves are so close to genuine fear. They are naturally coming from a place where they are more vulnerable so they know that better than anyone. You don’t need to paint the picture too well because they’re already in there.

How long before you found your La Llorona  (Marisol Ramirez)?
It was a few months and we were combing through so many different explorations about who the monster would be and we were initially looking for a contortionist. Maybe this is a more physical role and there’s something to how she moves and snap her arms. Simultaneously I was watching this documentary on ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’ and it was talking about casting Robert Englund and Wes Craven talked about how Englund’s performance as Freddy just got under his skin. This started to influence what I was looking for in my monsters, a savage quality. That’s ultimately why we went with Marisol. She captured this relentless, savage quality and it was really fun to see. She was also very funny because she’d come on set and she’d unsettle the kids and even the adults would also be a little unsettled in the scene.

What went into the design process of building your monster?
There was a lot of makeup development which was a lot of fun. Before I got into directing I even used to toy with the idea of getting into special effects makeup… That was a process that went close to a month where we would try different versions and looks and there was a version where she was more zombie-like but we realised it didn’t stand out enough.

We also tried different things with the eyes. Originally it was going to be black eyes because of her black tears so there was an idea of soulless black eyes. It’s all about how they cut through the darkness of the shadows and they can be what an audience members zeros in on. It also taps into our survival makeup when you see the eyes of a predator it triggers something within you.

Did you take inspiration from any notable films? I ask this because I noticed one particular shot that harks back to Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’.
100 percent. Yeah, that was a straight lift from the original ‘Evil Dead’. I think it’s a really fun movie, it’s a classic movie and there’s something about the wild energy of that shot that really connects with an audience. There’s also something playful about it and that’s why I loved it and what I love about Sam Raimi.
The obvious reference we go to though is ‘Poltergeist’ because it’s a family under siege from a supernatural threat. Apart from that, I’m a fan of the 90s early 00s movies. I feel like there was a renaissance with films like ‘The Others’ and ‘Sixth Sense’. ‘The Conjuring’ is also a huge inspiration and I would say that even if I wasn’t working with James Wan.

Was there a particular scene or scare that you wanted to nail and when you did how did it feel?
The two scares that turned out well were the initial hallway scare and the bathtub scare. They were actually the first week of shooting. The hallway was the first thing we shot and it was all about the crew getting their sea legs because we were warming up the production so I was very nervous to be tackling something like this in the first week of production. Usually they start with something a little easier or simpler to ease everyone in but we were thrown right into it and I was nervous but in the end, I am very happy with how they turned out. The bathtub scare, in particular, is a lot of fun.

The car scene and the umbrella scene were two scares that I brought to the film and they weren’t in there originally. It’s funny because they were my ideas they are the ones I’m most harsh on. The umbrella scene really works and I know the car scene also works but it’s funny going into a test screening I saw the car scene as a work in progress. In my eyes, it wasn’t done and the one unanimous thing everyone agreed on in the test screening was the car scene. They loved it and didn’t want me to go near it.

What does it feel like directing this film and then to be moving to one of the heavy hitters in the genre – The Conjuring 3?
It’s the biggest thrill honestly. Before this, I was doing commercials and I loved it and I thought that was my calling but I’ve always wanted to make a movie. This has literally been the greatest thrill and it’s also because I got to work with such an incredible team, after all, we’re in a horror renaissance… There’s also the feeling of working on the next Conjuring film. It’s unmatched I can’t put it into words especially because I’m a fan of the franchise and I’ve such huge respect for what James Wan has done that it is a total honour. We are at the very early stages but we have a script and I can’t wait for you guys to see it.

Words : Graham Day

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA is at cinemas from May 3rd