Aaron Burns was a man on a mission during his recent trip to SXSW. Having spent the better part of the last decade in Chile, he was excited to see his family back in his hometown of Austin, but having gotten his start in the visual effects department of Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios at the age of 19, he was perhaps looking even more forward to return with a film in “Madre” that he could tell his old boss that he made in the same amount of time as the “Desperado” director shot his second feature.
“My first movie [“Blacktino”] was 19, and this movie was 13 – I wanted to do it in 12 because Rodriguez had done his second movie in 13 days,” Burns laughs now. “I was here at the festival to be like, ‘Dude, I almost beat you!’ But no, we tied.’”
When Rodriguez congratulated Burns, it needn’t only have been for conducting such a quick, efficient shoot since the only thing more intense than “Madre”’s production schedule is how the delightfully nasty thriller turned out. Picked up by Netflix shortly before its premiere at SXSW to be released later this year, the film wastes no time in sneaking into the nightmares of Diana (Daniela Ramirez), an expectant mother whose husband (Cristobal Tapia Montt) is always away on business, as she imagines their young, autistic son Martin (Matias Bassi) slamming his head against the wall until it bleeds. But she awakens to a real-life scenario that is potentially just as terrifying to her, hiring an enigmatic Filipino nanny named Luz (Aida) who shows a special ability to calm down Martin, but in doing so threatens to build a stronger bond than the one he has with Diana, exacerbated by Luz teaching Martin to speak in Tagalog instead of Spanish.
Working with Sobras, the well-oiled production machine built up in recent years by fellow wunderkind Nicolás López and Miguel Asensio Llamas and put into overdrive by Eli Roth, who partnered with them to make “Knock Knock” and “The Green Inferno,” Burns makes a sleek, classical nail biter that nonetheless feels fresh because of the clever way he taps into cultural tensions as much as exceptionally well-executed scare tactics for suspense. While at SXSW, Burns spoke about how a move to Chile proved integral for his development as a filmmaker, embracing the limitations of time and location, and how the thriller, which was originally created as an English-language production, joined the Spanish tradition of great horror films.
When I was just coming out of high school, there was a director here in Austin for SXSW 2005 named Nicolas Lopez, who came with his film “Promedio Rojo.” He’s gone on to do “Aftershock” and produced [Eli Roth’s] “The Green Inferno” and “Knock Knock,” and I met him there with his producer Miguel Asensio, who’s been his producing partner his entire career. We became fast friends and we’ve been working together for about 10 years now on a bunch of different movies. They invited me down to Chile and I’ve been living there for the past five years [where] I’ve made several movies, just working [on the set] and acting.
Because I had made my first feature film “Blacktino,” which was out here at the festival in 2011, they had been asking me if I had another script and I was like, “I’ll have it when it’s ready.” I didn’t have anything. [laughs] And they started making fun of me and pressuring me every day, so it was like “Oh Aaron, the fake filmmaker!” Every day, I would go to the gym with Lopez in the morning and sit down by the pool at the gym and write for the rest of the day. I would do that for two months straight, and by the end of it, I had the script. It was a movie that we intended to make in English and go to the studios, but [we realized] we have enough money here in Chile to make a movie and we have an entire studio facility. What we do at Sobras is we make everything from the idea to the DCP, so [we thought], “Let’s just make the movie and see how it turns out.” The cool thing about Chile is it’s a cool incubator for making movies and seeing if a story works, you can do that very cheaply in Chile and without a lot of problems.
This has a very distinct Spanish, classical horror film influence. Is that because of your own time in Chile or the collaborators?
My producer Miguel [Asensio Llamas], my editor Diego Macho [Gomez] and our composer [Manuel Riveiro] are all from Spain, so I have a lot of Spanish influence, and [since] the movie’s also in Spanish, it turns it into something that’s even further more on a collaborative process between my gringo American/foreigner sensibilities and their Spanish sensibilities, and we have so many people involved from so many different parts of the world all coming together, so it’s a world picture in a way.
I happen to speak Spanish now, but I’m a black kid from the U.S., so there’s a lot of things that I’m missing out on – like I don’t know nursery rhymes in Spanish or a lot of different things that people grew up with – so being half black and half Hispanic, I’ve been more in touch with the Hispanic side over the last decade – to the point where I’m trying to translate words from Spanish into English during this conversation. [laughs]
One of the things that I wanted was that ‘90s thriller sensibility like “The Good Son” and all these creepy movies that don’t show much, but they’re scary as hell. I come from that world [with a lot of gore] with Robert [Rodriguez], Quentin [Tarantino] and Eli [Roth] obviously, but for me, trying to enter into a new genre because my first movie was a comedy, I had to do something that was a little bit more me, and that was grounded and free of mysticism before tackled something with monsters in it or make a cool, gross out movie.
You touch on something that’s especially frightening, which is the fear from being a part of one culture, not understanding another. Was that something you could draw on from the start?
Yeah, because it was a situation where I really felt this isn’t my culture, however, I’m adopting it as such. It’s become my culture. Every day I’m understanding more and more, so I wanted to show something that was even a little bit more foreign to me – the Filipino culture – because I really know nothing about that. I know some Filipino Americans here in the States, but they’ve spread their culture far and wide and it’s interesting because it’s so based in Spanish culture. They were [colonized] by the Spanish and about 20 percent of their language is Spanish, but they [used to] hate the Spanish people. Now it’s not so much like that. They’re reopening ties with a lot of Spanish-speaking countries and trying to do exchange programs where people come and teach Spanish because Spanish was outlawed for a very long time because the Americans liberated them and taught them English. So now nannies in the Philippines are in high demand in Spanish speaking countries because they teach Americanized English.
Originally, I wrote the script to be a nanny from Mexico here in the U.S. with a blonde white lady [as the mother] and she’s teaching the kid Spanish and that causes some drama, but then when we finally decided to finally to do the movie in Chile, my producer Miguel actually has a nanny from the Philippines and he said, “Oh, we should do it about a nanny from the Philippines,” so I we changed it to be a Spanish-speaking family with a Filipino maid, but it’s a whole mix of [cultures] that I think comes together in a pretty neat package.
Yeah, for sure. I don’t want it to feel like a bottle episode, but it’s like if you’re a pregnant woman and you’re having troubles with your pregnancy, where are you going to be? At the Hilton? Or traveling the world on African safari? No, you’re probably going to be at your house. But it’s a situation where we lucked out because it allowed us to put more money into the movie because we can make one really great location rather than trying to half-ass together 83. A lot of movies don’t have the production value or the money to make all their locations look great, so maybe they have one that looks great and then a hodgepodge of bullshit that they bought at the Goodwill. I’d rather concentrate on characters and the story and the acting and the drama of the situation and the real terror and fear that one feels, [plus] it also gave us a great ad campaign that just came up on Deadline where “The terror is in the house.” So it’s a good way to lock down the story and take away options. It’s not just a sprawling world where we can go anywhere. It’s not “Lord of the Rings.” There’s only so many possible interactions that can happen between these people, so let’s investigate all of them.
The performances are great all around, but how did you work with Matias as Martin, in particular?
That kid is amazing, man. He’s so full of life and so energetic. My production designer and our line producer were actually the ones that found him because they worked with him previously and they kept on coming up with him, and I was like, “No, we need a younger kid, we need a younger kid.” [Finally] I was like, “Alright, bring him in.” And he’s just happy and animated and really fun to be around. The other cool thing is we shot during the school year and he’s a home school kid, so his parents were really malleable with his schedule. I would cast him in anything because he’s a winner, just full of life and ready to do anything. He takes direction so well, especially with me and my broken Spanish. [laughs]
And you’ve said it was a tight schedule.
I think our record one day was shooting 16 pages, which is crazy for the movie. It’s not unheard of for TV, but for a movie? It’s like, “Dude, kill me.” But we have a tight-knit crew, It’s the same crew that worked on “Knock Knock,” “The Green Inferno” and “Aftershock,” and all the movies we’re making in Chile in the Spanish language. We all have a mutual respect and you know, my girlfriend’s the costume designer, my production designer is her best friend. The [cinematographer], I’ve worked on his crew for probably about seven movies at this point, as a camera operator. I’ve been in all the departments with them, so we’ve developed a shorthand over the years where it’s like, “Yeah, let’s do the thing like the thing in this other thing” and everybody’s on the same page and that’s what allows us to shoot a movie in 13 days.
[With my first feature “Blacktino”], I was a 25-year-old kid in over his head and didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was trying to force myself into the industry rather than learning, so I went down to Chile trying to learn about the entire process of filmmaking rather than just directing and through that, I learned so much about how everybody’s positions work and learn to respect all the different crew members and what they think and why they do their job in a certain way. So it prepares me even better because I know how to do all the jobs on set, so if there’s ever anybody that needs any help, I’m there, but also at the same time I can just have faith that if I see somebody doing something, I know how they’re doing it and just let them go with the flow and do their own thing.
What’s it like returning to Austin and having this big premiere at SXSW?
This is my third time at South By. I was here in 2010 with a short film called “Now or Never” and “Blacktino” in 2011 and now “Madre” in 2017 and [SXSW programmers] Janet Pierson and Jared Neece were instrumental in making all that happen. So it’s great. All my immediate family lives here – my father and mother and my brothers and sisters – I have eight brothers and sisters and hopefully, they get to see the movie and dig it. Well, not the little guys, there are two that are pretty young. [laughs] But [with] all my friends and colleagues that I worked with at Troublemaker over the years who are coming out to support it, it’s just a real blessing. I’m just really happy to be here.
“Madre” will be released by Netflix later this year.