The Orphanage’s Juan Antonio Bayona drawn to the dark side

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, DEC. 20, 2007

By Steve Newton

Most people have a keen recollection of the first film that scared the crap out of them. For Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona, it wasn’t anything as fright-worthy as The Exorcist; he got creeped out by seeing Frank Langella go batty in a justifiably overlooked 1979 version of Dracula.

“When I was a child, I was very curious about horror movies,” recalls the 32-year-old on the phone from his native Barcelona, “but I couldn’t stand them. I remember having dinner with my family at home and then by surprise there was this image on the news of Frank Langella playing Dracula, climbing down the wall. After that, I was so afraid that I couldn’t sleep for months–and Frank Langella is not scary at all in that movie. But I was attracted to the bad side, the evil side.”

When it came time to helm his own horror flick, The Orphanage, first-timer Bayona was fortunate to be in the company of a producer who had a similar affinity for the dark side: Guillermo del Toro. The director of last year’s Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth had previously made a name for himself in genre circles with such films as Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, and Blade II.

“When he came on board, Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t released yet,” notes Bayona, “so he was a great director, but not the great star he is now. So I never felt the pressure of having him on the movie–it was completely the opposite. I was so relieved that he was there just to protect us, and let us do the movie we really wanted to.”

The Orphanage concerns a wife and mother (The Sea Inside‘s Belén Rueda) who encounters supernatural forces while trying to turn the orphanage she grew up in into a home for disabled kids. A popular actress in Spain, known mostly for her comedy work on TV, Rueda was Bayona’s first choice for the lead role of Laura.

“If you get an actor who is not known for playing horror or genre movies, then the audience will never know what to expect,” he relates. “You are pushing the audience to some place that they are not used to visiting.”

Another method Bayona employs to keep viewers on edge in The Orphanage is to instill everyday elements with dread. It’s a technique Roman Polanski favoured in films like The Tenant, which Bayona cites–along with the story of Peter Pan and Henry James’s haunted-house novel, The Turn of the Screw–as influential to his movie.

“The first time I read the script [written by Sergio G. Sánchez] I was surprised with the character of Laura because, at first, she’s just dealing with the usual problems of ordinary life–there’s no evil character [after her]. If you think about these Polanski movies, they’re about how the ordinary world becomes a nightmare, and I saw that this story could work in the same way.”

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