One of the year’s most devilish movie surprises has been Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian arthouse horror film about 11-year-old twin boys who suspect their mother, fresh from cosmetic surgery and cocooned in gauze, is an imposter. The film opened to rave reviews in September, and it was nominated by Austria to be its official selection in the Best Foreign Language Film race at the Academy Awards, a surprising honor for such a dark thriller.
In conjunction with this week’s DVD/Blu-ray release, Goodnight Mommy‘s writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala spoke to EW while in New York about the making of the film. Though the movie marks their remarkably assured debut, the pair first met years ago, interestingly enough, when Franz hired Fiala to look after her children. They bonded over their love of cinema — the films of John Cassavetes and John Carpenter and everything in between — and Franz even paid her movie-buff babysitter partly in VHS tapes.
Despite a voluminous pile of 30 Hollywood scripts in their mailbox (including one for a remake of Nicolas Roeg’s seminal psychological thriller Don’t Look Now), Franz and Fiala are heading back to Austria to work on a few of their original screenplays. One of those, which may very well turn into the pair’s next film, is about the last executioner in Austria, who also happened to be a film projectionist.
Instead of discussing the plot of Goodnight Mommy, which pivots on an 11th-hour twist, I spoke to the directors about cockroaches. The twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) in the film collect animals, including roaches, much to the dismay of their mom (Susanne Wuest). Franz and Fiala perked up and became increasing smiley as they explained how the insects were wrangled and why the owner of the house in the film should be grateful for the infestation. Beware MINOR SPOILERS.
ENTERTINAMENT WEEKLY: What type of roaches are these? They’re huge. They look like big beetles.
SEVERIN FIALA: They are called Madagascar hissing cockroaches. They are more than five centimeters long and they make a loud, scary sound when you press on them. The two boys in the film really liked pressing them to make that sound.
What was your inspiration to include roaches?
VERONIKA FRANZ: It’s one of Severin’s childhood memories. Friends of his had cockroaches as pets in their home. And also my sons kind of collect them. But, actually, one of our ideas from early in writing the script was that the boys would keep dead insects and animals and preserve them in jars with alcohol.
We see probably about 100 cockroaches in the film. How many did you actually have on the set?
FIALA: We had about 3,000 of them in the house. And we had a cockroach trainer on the set, which is difficult because there are not too many professional animal trainers in Austria. He was also an insurance salesman. We wanted to train them but he told us that cockroaches are kind of stupid. They cannot really be told what to do. And they are indestructible, as you know.
What scene with the roaches was the biggest challenge to shoot?
FIALA: There were two. When the mommy’s belly is cut open and all the cockroaches crawl out, that was incredibly difficult. We had this puppet thing of a woman’s torso and it was so warm there for the cockroaches inside, so they didn’t want to come out. So we took a hair dryer and were blowing it to invite them out of the puppet stomach. But they love to stay all together, so eventually we pushed enough from the inside that a few of them popped out.
FRANZ: And Severin and I always try to do everything as real as possible, which means in the camera without special effects. So in the scene when the cockroach crawls into the mouth of the actress, we wanted to have it for real. Luckily for us, our lead actress Susanne Wurst loves animals and she was really relaxed and wanted to do it. Her only concern was that the cockroach might get hurt.
Whoa, really? So how did she prepare?
FIALA: She had two stunt cockroaches named Matilda and Nermal. They are both in the end credits. She would make them crawl into her mouth at home. But actually, when we came to shoot it, the cockroach got shy and wouldn’t go into her mouth.
FRANZ: So the last little part of that shot is CGI. But just the last little part, when it crawls into her mouth, nothing else.
How were the two boys with the roaches?
FIALA: When we were casting the roles of the twins, we always asked, “Do you like animals?” We asked them and they told us that they were afraid of spiders. And we got discouraged. But then we asked if they like cockroaches and they said, “Yeah, no problem.” We brought them two cockroaches as a present at the beginning of the film. The boys named them Rocky and Rambo.
Very good. Nice Stallone reference.
FRANZ: Yes, though I think one was a female. One day the kids’ mom called us and said that one of the cockroaches had escaped and we got very worried, because you never know if they are pregnant. If they are, then you have thousands of cockroaches in a very short amount of time. They reproduce very fast.
How did the owner of the house where you filmed feel about the cockroaches?
FIALA: Well, we were very careful to keep the cockroaches inside a terrarium. And if you put some Vaseline around the top then they can’t crawl out, but the babies can sometimes jump over the Vaseline. And some of them got into the house.
Oh, no. Who was the homeowner?
FRANZ: He’s an interesting guy. It’s his summerhouse. He grew up in this village called Haugschlag and he became a music teacher at a prestigious school in Vienna. But he always wanted to become a race driver and he actually became one, in Formula One and everything. It was difficult to convince him because obviously he’s a rich guy and didn’t need the money. But we’re very happy he said yes.
FIALA: His apartment, which is where he stayed while we filmed in his house, it was pre-owned and pre-inhabited by Werner Herzog. So that’s a very special connection for us.
FRANZ: But at the end of the shoot, we hired a very good exterminator to come and clean up the house.
FIALA: And the exterminator found some cockroaches that were not from us. They weren’t Madagascar cockroaches, they were some that had already been there before us. So now the house is even better than before.