Goodnight Mommy was a shocking surprise when it screened at TIFF, Fantastic Fest, AFI Fest and many other premiere film festivals. I’m still trying to keep the secrets for new viewers, but I may have asked some spoiler questions in my interview with the Mommy herself, Susanne Wuest. If you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t think you’ll get the context, but fair warning that this conversation talks about some of the specific horrors of the film.
Wuest plays a mother of two boys returning home from the hospital with her head wrapped in bandages. The boys suspect she is an impostor and torture her to prove she’s not their real mother. Goodnight Mommy opens in the States this weekend and if you are in L.A., you can see me moderate a Q&A with directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala at the Nuart theater. Wuest is still in Vienna so we spoke by phone.
Nerd Report: How do you describe Goodnight Mommy without giving too much away?
Susanne Wuest: Well, I start with saying it’s a genre auteur film in a way, because I agree, it’s quite hard to put it in one box. I also would say it’s a suspense horror film and I always tell them that it’s very scary in a way they won’t suspect.
Nerd Report: Did you say genre auteur film because Veronika and Severin are auteurs?
Susanne Wuest: I picked that term up from thinking about filmmakers who write their own scripts. This is what they are, because it an arthouse film but it also is very much a genre horror film which is inspired from I don’t know how many films they saw. I think hundreds and hundreds of horror classics. It’s what they love very much and so do I.
Nerd Report: Was it uncomfortable doing half of the film wearing bandages?
Susanne Wuest: Yes, very much. I have to say it was a very interesting experience. I love to explore new fields when it comes to acting. This was something new for me, to do something which limits your vision, you can’t see properly, it was strenuous and challenging at the same time, but it helped very much to get closer to that woman.
Nerd Report: Was it uncomfortable walking out into the woods and taking your clothes off?
Susanne Wuest: That’s a very interesting thing. I knew that on one hand, to walk into the woods of course, the floor is covered with a lot of plants which are not very comfortable to walk on. But it was really, really interesting for me because it was he first time I did something like that and the guys who were on the visual effects, they were all standing around catching everything on different cameras. The whole thing was shot in the studio too, having this whole movement of the camera in front of a green screen. It was actually really weird because I arrived at the studio and there were 10 or 15 guys clicking on their notebooks. It was like entering the NASA office. It was quite weird. Everyone was just typing and no one was paying attention to me. Everyone was just focused on their computers. They were quite impressive.
Nerd Report: So that scene is actually two scenes, one on location and then in the studio?
Susanne Wuest: Yes, absolutely. It was quite tricky in the woods because they would really take care of the movements and see how that would be going. But then, they would reshoot the whole scene in the studio, but no the walk. Just the standing and that particular effect with me moving my head like that.
Nerd Report: I know there’s movie magic, but when you’re stuck to the floor, how stuck were you?
Susanne Wuest: I was very stuck. Speaking about movie magic, it was not a lot of magic in a way too. We used a glue which was quite strong. In fact, they also fix the hair to the floor until the point when I told them to please loosen it because I was afraid. I mean, the whole room was burning and I really couldn’t move. I couldn’t see much because my eyes were glued too. It was my first experience with fire in a way. I expected it to be hot of course but I didn’t expect it to be that hot. I didn’t think about the fact that after a while there is no more oxygen. So it was a very uncomfortable and very strange situation. After a while I said, “Okay, could you please loosen my hair because if something comes down, I want to be able to move.” There was was not a lot of tricking to be honest.
Nerd Report: I can’t believe they did that for real. I thank you for going through so much for my entertainment.
Susanne Wuest: [Laughs] Well, I have my moments where I go, “Okay, this is too much” because actually they were thinking of completely setting me on fire and I told them no, I’m not going to do that. They said, “Well, it would look cool if you really do that stunt yourself.” And I said, “No, this is where I stop.”
Nerd Report: Do you have kids yourself?
Susanne Wuest: No. I don’t. Not yet.
Nerd Report: Can you imagine how horrifying Goodnight Mommy must be to parents of children?
Susanne Wuest: Absolutely, absolutely. Actually, the core relationship to children in general or relationship to family members, that’s a very, very close bond. If these people don’t recognize you anymore because your behavior changes, this is what it is. She is not behaving like their mother anymore and this brings the kids to the conclusion that she might be in fact someone else. I think this is a very hurtful and frightening experience, that the moment we stop playing the roles we play all our lives, children, parents, might be the moment where people stop recognizing us for our behavior. I think the whole story is very much about identity and the loss of love and that’s a very frightening thing itself.
Nerd Report: What was it like working with the kids?
Susanne Wuest: Oh, beautiful. Beautiful. They’re the cutest, most intelligent, down to earth kids you could possibly imagine. They’re very, very smart and sweet. They didn’t have a script so it was all improvised. It was quite hard at times to really scare them. We tried to but kids are not really impressed. Also there was a lot of paying attention to each other, like the moment when we would start getting more physical with each other, they came and would cuddle with me. It was quite beautiful. Lots of really, really hard table tennis matches in the breaks during filming. I grew very, very, very fond of them and I’m still in touch with them.
Nerd Report: Did you ever have to do your side of the scenes without the kids there?
Susanne Wuest: No, they were always there.
Nerd Report: The first time you read the script, did you get the twists?
Susanne Wuest: You have to know, Veronika, long before this whole thing started, Veronika came to me and she said, “We’re going to write a horror film for you.” I thought it was a joke but a year later, she came and she said, “Now the script is ready. Now you have to play it because we wrote it for you.” And we organized a dinner. We sat down but she didn’t give me the script. She told me the whole story which was a very sensual experience. And so until a very few days before we started to shoot, I didn’t have the script myself. So I didn’t know about the twist in the beginning. Three days prior to shooting, I went to Veronika and said, “I think I should read the script just once. I’ll give it back to you after but I want to read the script once.” When I read it, I thought, “Wow, that’s a very, very sad story. It’s a story about the loss of love basically.”
Nerd Report: You’re a very well known actor in Vienna, so they actually sought you out and wrote Goodnight Mommy for you?
Susanne Wuest: Yes, they did. It’s great, isn’t it? It’s one in a million.
Nerd Report: Have any other filmmakers done that for you?
Susanne Wuest: Let me think. Not so far, but maybe. Maybe I’m starting a new trend here. I would love that.
Nerd Report: If, like me, people are a fan of your work in Goodnight Mommy, which of your Austrian films would you recommend your new fans see next?
Susanne Wuest: Well, I would recommend an older film, Antares, by Gotz Spielmann. This is a very different film to Goodnight Mommy but I believe it’s a great film. I do a lot of arthouse work. Antares would be great I think.
Nerd Report: Arthouse is good and yeah, we want to see you do different things. Goodnight Mommy is a great introduction for us.
Susanne Wuest: It’s true. Thank you so much. I think it’s a very extreme introduction. People will always remember me eating bugs or torturing kids. No, but depending on what people like, I really would recommend Antares and I think that Spielmann is an amazing director too. Maybe I would also recommend a French film named La Lisiere by Geraldine Bajard. I really hope to be working on more genre films in the future because I really, really love that kind of storytelling. Fairy tales, etc., I love that very much.
Nerd Report: Veronika and Severin are first time feature directors. Was it very different being directed by them?
Susanne Wuest: No, not really, because Veronika has been working with her husband Ulrich Seidl for many, many years. So she wasn’t really new to a set, and both have done quite well what they wanted. So I didn’t really feel a difference. If it would’ve been their fifth film I wouldn’t be surprised either.
Nerd Report: I mentioned a few of the standout scenes for me but which were the most difficult for you?
Susanne Wuest: Well, there were many things in a way but I think slapping one of the children. That was really hard. Sometimes as an actor you come across things which are very, very emotionally difficult to do. Slapping one of the boys was a really hard thing to do. The other thing that was quite a challenge was being bound to a bed for two weeks in a row. That was quite a challenge too.
Nerd Report: Did you have to make sure you went to the bathroom before you started filming, or could they let you up to go for a break?
Susanne Wuest: Definitely, at a certain point I wasn’t even able to speak anymore because I couldn’t open my mouth because that was glued too. So I better make sure that I went to the bathroom in the morning because even if I would have wanted to, it wouldn’t open, the bandages. Also I did a lot of training because I knew that I was going to be bound to that bed and that it’s going to be very, very challenging in a difficult way.