Goodnight Mommy Interview: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

“We like to be attacked by cinema.” – Severin Fiala

The Austrian thriller Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh) has been traumatizing people around the world playing film festivals in Venice, Toronto, Austin (where I saw it at Fantastic Fest), Sitges and more. It finally opens in the States this weekend, and we don’t want to tell you too much, but I had to have something to talk about with writer/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz.

GoodNightMommy_RGB_4_CMYKSo it begins when Mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home from the hospital covered in bandages. Her children (Lukas and Elias Schwartz) think something’s wrong and maybe she’s not their mother at all. The film opens September 11 and on Friday at the 7:30 show at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, you can see me do a Q&A with Fiala and Franz. After the movie we can talk spoilers, but here is an early interview with the duo behind Goodnight Mommy.

Nerd Report: I’m guessing the literal translation of Ich Seh, Ich Seh is not Goodnight Mommy. What does it actually mean in German?

Veronika Franz: It’s “I spy with my little eye.” You know the children’s game?

Severin Fiala: In Austria it’s a little different. It’s “I see. I see something that you don’t see.” Ich Seh, Ich Seh means “I see, I see.”

Nerd Report: Did you like the English language title Goodnight Mommy?

Severin Fiala: It took a while to get used to it, put it that way.

Veronika Franz: But we didn’t come up with a better one so it was the suggestion of our world distributor. We tried to find another one but I Spy With My Little Eye is too long.

Severin Fiala: And I Spy is a little too Eddie Murphy.

Nerd Report: Or too Bill Cosby, originally. 

Severin Fiala: Yeah, of course.

Veronika Franz: Why do you ask. Do you like the title?

Nerd Report: Oh yeah. I just knew Ich Seh, Ich Seh could not have translated to Goodnight Mommy because it repeated the phrase.

Severin Fiala: We like the idea that you leave out the second half of the quote, which is “something that you don’t see.” So we liked it on various levels but it didn’t translate.

Nerd Report: What do you say about the film when there are so many surprises you don’t want to spoil?

Severin Fiala: We told the children, because the children didn’t get a screenplay, we just told them the basic situation and then shot the whole film chronologically. The basic situation is a woman comes home bandaged and behaves differently. The children get the feeling that it’s not their mom. For us, it would be perfect if spectators wouldn’t know anything apart from that to begin with.

Nerd Report: Given that you shot chronologically without telling the kids what the story was, were there ever possibly different outcomes? 

Severin Fiala: No. That’s kind of the difficulty, not to tell the children the whole story but to make it more or less happen. The goal is to have the children feel freedom in any scene, the freedom that they can do whatever they want, but nevertheless to have the scene come out the way you need to. It’s bad if you tell the children the whole story and say, “It’s going to end this way. In this scene you’ll say this line. Then you’ll go from left to right, then I say cut and then finish.” That’s not natural. They won’t behave naturally. If they children have the feeling they can do whatever they want and react completely natural and don’t have to say any specific lines, then they act naturally but maybe it doesn’t happen the way you want it to. That’s the goal to achieve, to make it technically the way you want to and contain the children’s freedom.

Veronika Franz: A week or 10 days before shooting, we moved in with the children to the house and tried to get used to the rooms and places there.

Nerd Report: Is there something supernatural going on when the mother goes into the forest?

Severin Fiala: Not for us. Our film in the first half or 2/3 is told from the children’s perspective, so we tried to respect the way children see the world with dreams, nightmares, imaginary things. They have a much bigger view than an older person’s view of the world. We think there are dream sequences for us that are not so very clearly dream sequences, but are more integrated int other film and blended into it. So for us, the dream of the children wanting to look behind the bandages of the mother and see the face but never being able to do so because the mother shakes her head and it’s never a focused picture of the face.

Nerd Report: Were the kids around for the most intense scenes?

GoodNightMommy_RGB_1_CMYKSeverin Fiala: Of course they were around. They’re in the scene. I mean, intense, everything that’s intense in this film I think is so technical the way you shoot it, because of course with fire it always has to be really well planned. It’s rather technical, so I don’t think any of the scary, gruesome and gory scenes were scary for the kids because it’s rather technical and there were so many people around. Of course the children were around every day and in every scene.

Veronika Franz: They weren’t around when it was very late, like four o’clock in the morning. We shot the scenes with the children before and they went home to go to sleep. Afterwards we shot with the actress.

Nerd Report: Since you’ve shown the film, have you heard from parents and mothers particularly that it was a difficult film for them to watch?

Severin Fiala: Yeah, we found out that mothers reacted quite strongly. Either way. Some of them leave in the middle and we said, “Now the mothers are leaving.” In Venice that happened. A large group of people in the cinema said, “Mothers are leaving now.” On the other hand, most of the women who stick through the film are mothers too so it really delights the mothers but they react strongly anyway.

Nerd Report: Your previous film was a documentary. Had you always planned to make a feature, or always make very different films together?

Severin Fiala: No, we didn’t plan it at all actually. With the documentary, it’s about an Austrian director and one time famous actor, more of an underground film director without money in Austria. He’s a really interesting personality and really mean guy and lots of people are afraid of him. We always thought it would be great if someone made a film of him, but no one ever dared to so we one day said let’s just try ourselves and we found out, doing this film, very small team, only us and a cinematographer, that we could work together well. Then we had the idea for Goodnight Mommy and jus for fun wrote it down because it’s fun writing screenplays. Then it came into being without the plan of we want to do this film or that film, a big film or small film. It’s just a way of living, finding out what your’e going to do next.

GoodNightMommy_RGB_3_CMYKNerd Report: Veronika, you were a screenwriter of other films. How did you hook up with Severin?

Veronika Franz: It’s kind of a strange story because Severin used to be my babysitter. Not “my” babysitter but the babysitter to my children. I got to know him when he was 13 or 14 as he was always into movies. I paid him not with cash, but by renting videocassettes at the video store in Vienna. So we started watching films together all night long and it grew a friendship out of it. That’s good because we really trust each other. We do all the stuff together because we have the same vision of films. We found out we shared that, so when we work together, it’s about making the best film we can make. It’s not about who has the better idea. It’s not about vanity or ego. It’s what serves the film best. That’s what unifies us.

Nerd Report: What were your favorite movies to watch on VHS in Vienna?

Severin Fiala: When we started watching, I can remember one great night of watching films. Our favorite together is tough because there are so many great films and it always depends.

Veronika Franz: I think it’s Society by Brian Yuzna.

Severin Fiala: But’s Bunny Lake is Missing by Otto Preminger.

Veronika Franz: And The Innocents by Jack Clayton.

Severin Fiala: And The Thing by John Carpenter. I can go on forever.

Veronika Franz: What was the title, Brain Damage?

Nerd Report: So you watched horror movies together?

Severin Fiala: Yeah, lots of them because we like to be attacked by cinema. We don’t want to lean back and watch something and reflect on it by watching it, but we want to be dragged into the film and attacked by the film and have a bodily reaction to that. That’s the film we tried to make and the films we’d like to see in cinema. When we started watching films together, when I was Veronika’s babysitter, I remember one night watching Tetsuo Part 2 to begin with, then Faces by John Cassavetes. Then Lancelot du Lac by Bresson and then Friday the 13th Part VIII. So it’s completely different films and we loved them all actually.

Nerd Report: You started with Part VIII?

Severin Fiala: Well, I knew Part I-VII. Veronika started with part VIII. It’s a fun part actually. I like it better than Part III and Part V.

Veronika Franz: Severin lives in a countryside. He grew up in a lower part of Austria, two hours away from Vienna where I lived. So he knew all the films the local video store in his hometown would offer. So he knew of course Friday the 13th Part I-VII but he didn’t know Cassavetes.

Nerd Report: Do you know what you’re doing next?

Severin Fiala: Yeah, we have two different projects that we are writing at the moment. Two historical films, both have executioners in it. One is about the last execution in Vienna in the 1940s and ‘50s and the other one is in the 18th Century about women murdering innocent babies. So more gruesome true stories to come up.

Nerd Report: Veronika, if I watch the films you wrote for other directors, will I still be able to tell they come from the creator of Goodnight Mommy?

Veronika Franz: I don’t think so. If I write with Ulrich Seidl or for Ulrich Seidl, I respect his vision of cinema and I write for that. He works completely differently. We write short stories, like very concise treatments, no dialogue at all and then he kind of improvises with his actors and actresses which are professional and nonprofessional actors. Every film, the ending of the film would change because he’s changing the film while shooting it. As you can imagine, Severin and me could not do that because we had to come to a certain ending.