While Madre may only be his second feature film to date, writer/director Aaron Burns is no stranger to the world of horror, or indie filmmaking for that matter. His credits include providing visual effects expertise on projects like Planet Terror, Machete, and The Green Inferno (on which he also was in charge of second unit photography and even played the character of Jonah, who was eaten by cannibals in a glorious frenzy of brutality), and he has also worked as a camera operator on Aftershock and played supporting roles in both The Stranger and Knock Knock.
While at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, Daily Dead caught up with Burns to talk about his disturbing take on parental paranoia. The filmmaker discussed what inspired his latest project, how he wanted to tap into the true horror of Madre’s story—rather than rely on copious amounts of gore—and the importance of trusting female instincts, even if you’re not a woman.
Look for more on Madre soon, and be sure to keep an eye out for the film, as it’s set for a release later this year on Netflix.
Congrats on Madre, Aaron, and on the Netflix deal, too. Is it a big relief to come into SXSW already having your US distribution in place?
Aaron Burns: Totally. It’s actually icing on the cake, because for us, our first market was Chile, because this is a Spanish language film. We have big actors from Chile that are in this film, and the movie comes out on April 27th there, too. So we know that with Netflix, we’re covered as far as what we spent, and down in Chile, we're tracking pretty well already, so when the movie comes out, we should be fully recouped, which doesn’t always happen.
I’d love to hear about your approach to this story and tapping into maternal fears, and getting into that headspace. Also, I thought you did a really wonderful job in dealing with Martin's autism, because it’s such a complicated affliction, and I’ve seen it misrepresented in films before.
Aaron Burns: On one side of my family, I have all girl cousins, and there are literally 15 of them. I grew up with all of them, all at the same time, so I was the only boy and I'm fourth down on that side of the family. I grew up around a lot of women, so I know women, in terms of seeing them deal with their familial relationships and their husbands and things like that. I know that when they don't feel respected or they don't feel like anybody's listening to them, they double down and they might go overboard on trying to get people to notice what they're trying to tell you, because at the end of the day they're going to be right.
When I don't listen to my girl, bad shit usually happens and not because she's responding poorly to me not listening to her. It's more like, "No, she was right and I probably should have listened," because she has a different perspective that I don't have. It's always good, and sometimes I win, sometimes she wins, but it's always good to have as much information as possible. If somebody else is seeing something in a different way, then maybe you should stop for a second and listen to what they're talking about because there's a 50-50 shot that they might be right, too. They might be right in a different way, or have their own little nugget of truth that you can then use to find the real truth of something. I just saw this tragic character of a woman that's pregnant who no one will listen to.
Plus, she has this fairly autistic 11-year-old son who's getting stronger every day, and she's losing mobility every day, and so she's losing her patience every day, too. She's at the point where she's about to institutionalize the kid because she's at her wit’s end. Her biggest fear is that this thing that's growing inside of her now is just going to be a repeat of her first child. That's a fucking scary idea. I'm not a mystical person, I don't believe in phantasms and demons, or any of that kind of stuff, but the stuff that scares the shit out of me is like, "Man, what happens if my kid comes out and he has issues? What are the next steps for that, and how do I make his life as good as possible?"
I wanted to explore that, because there’s this situation in Madre where this nanny enters the picture, and she fixes in 11 days what this woman couldn't fix in 11 years, and the kind of inadequacy someone might feel from something like that. I think that's a really interesting way of entering into horror and entering into this kind of psychological thriller, where you have these scary concepts without all the blood and guts. When you tap into something like that, you're tapping into something that's a lot more primal, and it’s those types of scenarios that really scare me.
You do a really great job of that, and also, for as much as there are the psychological elements to this story, you’ve also got some voodoo and body horror in there, too. How did you approach finding a balance between those different aspects of Madre?
Aaron Burns: The main thing that I wanted to try and accomplish with the movie is simplicity. I come from a visual effects background, so I know that, "Oh, we can just add blood here, and we can just add guts hanging out from that," and I've done all that. I did my own death scene in The Green Inferno, but for this movie, I wanted it to be a lot more subtle. I wanted to go in more of a Hitchcock-y direction, or even Rosemary's Baby, where you don't see these things, but your mind creates these horrific pictures of bad stuff happening.
I didn't want to have this story bastardize the horror brand, where I’m like, "Oh, I want to make a successful movie that people will go see because there's a creepy kid on the poster." I wanted to make something that has a little bit of staying power and something that's a little more realistic and something that connects with them emotionally, and feels real to them.
At the end of the day, in order to make something that's good for me, in order for me to feel comfortable spending all this money to make a movie, I want to make something I’m proud of. This is a huge risk. I'm a fucking black kid from Austin, Texas, and I live in Santiago, Chile, and now I'm making a horror movie all in Spanish, with a little bit of Filipino in there, too. Do you know how crazy that is? I'm spending all this money, so I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure that everyone who made this film possible are happy at the end of this process.
My entire crew, I've worked with them for a long time, and we're just really excited and really happy to be here at SXSW, and we're excited to see where this goes, because this journey is just starting for us here in Austin. Plus, this is my third time here. I was here with a short film in 2010, then I was here with my first feature, Blacktino, in 2011, and now I'm here again with Madre in 2017. It’s amazing.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more reviews and interviews from SXSW, and in case you missed it, check out our other live coverage of the film festival.