- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

The story behind “The Orphanage” (“El Orfanato”) is almost as interesting as the haunting tale the film tells.

The Spanish psychological horror film, which opens in District theaters today, is the first film to be “presented by” Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican director made one of last year’s most acclaimed films, the visually extraordinary adult fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth,” in Spain and is a hot commodity in Hollywood.

Just how did a first-time director and a first-time screenwriter get Mr. del Toro’s name — and the attention that comes with it — on their film?

When he was just 17, the now 32-year-old director Juan Antonio Bayona met Mr. del Toro.

“I was pretending to work as a journalist at a film festival in Sitges [Spain] to get free tickets,” Mr. Bayona reminisces, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles. “I interviewed a lot of people I really admired. Guillermo was one of those people.”

He laughs, recalling it now. “The first time he saw me he said I was like a 10-year-old boy with sideburns.” Nevertheless, Mr. del Toro obviously took him more seriously than that. The two kept in touch, including through Mr. Bayona’s four years in film school. The young man kept Mr. del Toro apprised of his work in short films and music videos.

“From the moment he knew I was doing a movie, he wanted to be there to help protect me, to help me do the movie I wanted to do,” Mr. Bayona says. “He liked the script so much.”

Not everyone did.

It’s hard to believe now — “The Orphanage” is up for 14 Goya Awards (Spain’s Oscars), including best picture, and it’s Spain’s official submission to the Academy Awards — but 34-year-old screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez thought his work might never be made.

“The script had been to all these workshops and had been shown to many production companies, and nobody wanted to touch it,” he recalls. “They said it had this impossible mixture of drama and horror. All the things we liked about this script, they didn’t. It was too ambiguous, it didn’t have a main bad guy.”

Mr. Sanchez met Mr. Bayona eight years ago, when both had shorts screening at a festival. Mr. Sanchez gave Mr. Bayona and his production company a copy of “The Orphanage,” hoping it would lead to a commission for another script — but Mr. Bayona liked it so much that he wouldn’t commission something else.

Spain’s film executives turned out to be wrong. “The Orphanage” took in $8.3 million in its first four days, the biggest opening in the country that year and the second-highest premiere ever for a Spanish film.

The filmmakers said they never felt the pressure of having Mr. del Toro’s name on their film. After all, they point out, they started making “The Orphanage” before Mr. del Toro had his biggest success with “Pan’s Labyrinth.” More than anything, they felt grateful.

“Without Guillermo, it would have been impossible to do the movie,” Mr. Bayona says.

It did lead to heightened expectations by the time their film came out, though. “At Cannes, the first screening the film had, everyone was expecting the next ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ ” Mr. Sanchez says. “We were surprised the film got such a warm response. ‘Pan’ [is] such a tough act to follow.”

The two films, of course, have similarities and differences. Those trying to find too many of the former should remember that “The Orphanage” was written long before “Pan’s Labyrinth” started filming. And though more stripped-down psychological horror films seem to be coming out of Europe lately — see the recent French-Romanian film “Them,” for example — Mr. Bayona and Mr. Sanchez actually were more influenced by English-language books and films.

Mr. Sanchez says that in writing his film, his only two conscious references were “Peter Pan” and “The Innocents,” the film version of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” directed by Jack Clayton.

“If you tell ‘Peter Pan’ from the point of view of the mother waiting for her children to come back from Neverland, you’ve got a horror story,” he says. “I think ‘Peter Pan’ is one of the most horrifying stories ever written.”

He also loves the horror films he watched as a child. “We wanted it to have the look of all those movies from the ‘70s,” he says. “Strangely enough, they share common themes. ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘Poltergeist,’ ‘The Exorcist’ — all these movies are about interrupted motherhood in one way or another. I guess I’ll have to see a shrink and see what interests me about mothers.”

Mr. Bayona adds that one scene in the film is a direct homage to “Poltergeist.” But it also has some loftier influences.

“Melodrama and horror movies share the idea of showing the feelings of characters in a powerful way on the screen,” notes Mr. Bayona, who says he’s a big fan of David Lean’s films.

Mr. Sanchez graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied film — Spain didn’t yet have a film school when he started out. Strangely enough, the Spanish filmmaker found he sometimes was more versed in American film than his classmates.

“When I was in New York, I was very surprised there were so many students who had no idea who Billy Wilder was but had seen all the films of Luis Bunuel,” he says.

Mr. Bayona hasn’t committed to his next project yet, but he’s leaning toward another genre-bending piece, “a science-fiction story with no science fiction at all.”

Mr. Sanchez is working on “The Homecoming,” his directorial debut, and writing “3993,” which will complete Mr. del Toro’s trilogy on the Spanish Civil War. Everyone wants to know: What is it about?

“Probably Guillermo would kill me if I told you,” is all he’ll say.

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