Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Matt Sobel about avoiding the remake trap with Goodnight Mommy.
As far as dirty words go, there’s nothing filthier sounding to a movie snob than the term “remake.” When the word passes through our brains, we see flashes of Sylvester Stallone’s Get Carter or Jan de Bont’s The Haunting. We tend to forget that The Wizard of Oz, The Maltese Falcon, and John Carpenter’s The Thing all fall into this category as well. Human nature, we fear the worst.
When Matt Sobel was first offered to direct the Goodnight Mommy remake, he recoiled. He feels about these things probably the same way you do. The original Austrian movie from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is an exceptionally creepy psychological thriller requiring zero improvements. Transplanting the plot to America for box office potential feels utterly unnecessary and a little crass. Then, a fellow filmmaker friend whispered something in his ear, and his point of view altered.
The new Goodnight Mommy contains the same narrative bones as the Austrian film but tweaks a few minor details that ultimately shift the theme into something radically different, something radically American. Two young brothers (Cameron Crovetti and Nicholas Crovetti) are dropped off at their mother’s home by their father. It’s been a while since they’ve seen her, and they’re a little nervous. This sensation increases dramatically when they discover their mother (Naomi Watts) wrapped in bandages, obscuring her face. Slowly, the kids begin to suspect that a creature has replaced mom. Their investigation delivers horrific results.
There were two steps for the new director to accomplish right out the gate. Once they were accomplished, he could freely invest himself in his Goodnight Mommy. However, he was a little surprised by how one step led to the other and who helped him through them both.
“Step one,” says Sobel, “is telling the producers who bring the project to you, ‘Thank you, but no thank you. I’m not interested because I don’t like remakes that just cater to an audience who are too lazy to read subtitles.’ But step two would be having a great conversation with your friend, Kyle Warren, who would eventually become the writer on the film, and realizing that there is a possibility of thinking about a remake in a different way, which is not so much translating directly the story from a German-speaking audience to an English-speaking audience, but transposing that basic story more like you would transpose a melody from one key to another. In doing so, changing its tone and meaning.”
Without spoiling where this Goodnight Mommy goes, Sobel and Warren push the plot in a direction that directly speaks to the America of this moment. In doing so, they create a unique point of view, one that sizzles with outrage and potential activism. When their Goodnight Mommy concludes, you’re left to stew on our national situation for a bit.
“We started calling our process a reimagining,” continues Sobel, “to remind ourselves and the people that we were working with that we have a very specific idea about what the thematic heart of the story is, and it is different than the thematic heart of the original. For us, and this has actually predated our involvement with this project, we’re interested in the human need to forever believe that we are the heroes or the victims of our own life story and forever reject the idea that we are the villains. The ways in which we lie to ourselves, and change the facts of the world around us so that we will always be true, are very deeply troubling and interesting to me. I think it’s very topical. I see it all around me. I think it’s a political theme, not to say that this film is overtly political, but I was like, ‘I see an opportunity to take the basic story elements of the original film and to shape them in a way that foregrounds this theme.”
The third step in claiming Goodnight Mommy as his own was convincing the producers that his new idea was the way to go. If he could win them over, the movie’s visual language would require an entire overhaul. By shifting protagonist perspectives, every other production department would have to fall in line.
“I went back to the producers who I had initially passed on,” says Sobel. “I said, ‘What about this as a new idea for a story?’ From there, a whole bunch of other ideas about how our story might delineate itself from the original spun out. The first of which being that the original film is very much about three people. We’re observing them from some distance. The tone is very austere and chilly and cold. Our movie has a primary protagonist, and we see the world through his eyes. We started talking about the film as the movie inside Elias’s mind; at least the first ninety percent of it is the movie inside his mind until it gets shattered. What kind of difference does that suggest? The way you shoot things, the way that production design looks, the way that the tone of the story is told.”
Sobel and cinematographer Alexander Dynan spent significant time observing their house set. The location could not reflect what Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala sought in their movie. This Goodnight Mommy needed to be warmer emotionally, but not necessarily visually. What was bubbling beneath Naomi Watts’s bandages? What was bubbling even deeper, and how did it affect the children? Or the child?
“I had a rule with Alexander,” he says. “I wanted to feel much closer to Elias, much more inside his perspective. I wanted our angles on the architectural space to feel more human, less austere. I think that one of the largest conversations that we had about this was about the lighting. We picked a lot of Vermeer paintings as references. A lot of the things that he would do in this darkly lit room with intense side lighting, and we were talking a lot about the distance in terms of visual latitude between light and dark and how we wanted to push that in the cinematography and in the color grade, as far away from each other as possible to thematically touch upon this idea of darkness being a wound that has been covered and not allowed to heal. It’s festering because it hasn’t been allowed to be exposed to the light.”
Working in so much darkness caused an unexpected issue. Filmmakers are often warned about working with children, but such caution usually refers to their temperament or their parent’s temperament. Sobel has never had an issue on that front, and in fact, he’s worked with child actors frequently and fancies himself a bit of an expert on the matter. However, he had never worked with kids on a production that demanded so many night shoots. So many night shoots in New Jersey.
“We were shooting a movie that has a lot of night work in New Jersey,” says Sobel. “It’s a state that has pretty strict labor laws for children; they have to be done by 12: 30 on the summer solstice, where it doesn’t get dark until nine. We had several emergency meetings about it. We couldn’t get more than four shots on these boys per day if we’re shooting night work, so how do we do that? Almost invariably, we have to shoot the boys first. Naomi can never act against the boys because by the time we’re coming around to her, the boys are asleep. There’s extensive use of stand-ins that are not actually young boys but adult women. Naomi was very understanding and generous about the fact that she was going to have to play against these adult women, and it was just really hard to figure out how to shot-list and prioritize in a way that would allow us to shoot night work with the boys.”
Thinking back on the Matt Sobel, who initially rejected the Goodnight Mommy remake, the director chuckles. He infused himself into the project and is incredibly proud of the work. Through his collaboration with Kyle Warren, Alexander Dynan, and numerous other crew members, Sobel uncovered a new film beneath the old film. It’s not wrapped in bandages, either. Instead, he’s brought his reimagining into the light for us to observe. We must now decide whether it’s a creature or a caregiver.
Goodnight Mommy is now streaming on Amazon Prime.