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Juan Antonio Bayona: Refinding Neverland 

A conversation with The Orphanage’s master of melancholic terror

Wednesday, Dec 19 2007
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At the Toronto Film Festival last September, Ella Taylor talked to Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona about Peter Pan, his happy childhood and others’ less fortunate under Franco, being discovered by Guillermo del Toro, and his new horror movie, The Orphanage.

L.A. WEEKLY: The orphan movie is typically framed either as a genre horror picture or a very earnest piece of realism. The Orphanage is both and neither.

J.A. BAYONA: The movie is about how we use fantasy to face reality, which is the basis for fairy tales. So we were trying to maintain both readings of the story at the same time, which was quite challenging because it was framed as a genre movie, and we had to do those sequences without using digital effects that we couldn’t justify in the movie’s resolution. If you want to tell grown-up fairy tales, you have to look for the dark side. That’s why the ending has this sweet feeling, and at the same time it’s really, really sad.

click to enlarge Little boy lost (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • Little boy lost (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

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Is that also how you interpret the Peter Pan story, where at the end they’re floating around in Never Never Land? When I was a child, the ending struck me as enormously sad.

The last chapter is so beautiful and so devastating. In Spain, our generation of filmmakers is accused of having nothing to tell. But as François Truffaut always used to say, childhood is a theme that everyone can talk about with knowledge. When I read the first draft of Sergio Sanchez’s script, I really liked the Peter Pan subtext because it’s something everybody could share, this feeling of loneliness, of loss.

I’m raising a child who came from an orphanage and I always wonder what her previous life was like. In your movie, the orphanage years were Laura, the mother’s, happiest in many respects. What does that say about your opinion of family life?

I had a very happy childhood. But in the Franco era, they had terrible childhoods, they were hungry.

Laura’s child is HIV-positive as well. Is this purely a metaphor for vulnerability, or was it your intention to say something about the dangers that face children today?

We used that to give credibility to the story. In Spain, it’s easier to adopt a child with HIV, and Laura has this inner feeling that she wants to protect children with disabilities. There’s also the idea of guilt, and the irrational. After the sixth or ninth month of this child’s disappearance, there’s no possible way that he could be alive. But there’s something irrational in her that wants to believe, that keeps her looking for her son.

In your movie, imagination is the most powerful influence on our lives.

When I was a child in the 1970s, every Monday they showed a scary movie on television, and my parents used to send me to bed. I was four or five years old, and I remember lying in bed listening to those women from the Hammer films crying. I could imagine the movie in my head, and it was so terrible, I couldn’t sleep for months. If you see Frank Langella play Dracula now, it’s so cheesy, but I was so scared seeing him then on TV. You can see in The Orphanage that I really loved American movies, but in Europe we grew up watching European films as well. There were retrospectives every week, so we could see all the movies of Truffaut, Fellini, Carlos Saura. It’s sad to think that people now are watching Big Brother and all this cheesy crap.

How did you connect with Guillermo Del Toro, who co-produced and presents The Orphanage?

I met him when he came to Spain to present Cronos. I was 17 and a sort-of journalist at a film festival, so I could get free tickets. I interviewed Guillermo and he thought I was a 10-year-old journalist; he was like, “Who is this guy?” After that, I used to send him my short films and music videos. He loved them, so when I told him I was going to do The Orphanage, he immediately decided to produce it. And when he read the script, he was so attracted to the story that he decided to present it.

I hear there’s an American remake in the works.

New Line cinema is remaking it, with Del Toro producing. I think it’s going to be very different from the original. I won’t direct.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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