Exclusive interview: The Curse of La Llorona and Conjuring 3 director Michael Chaves

La Loorona is one mother of a monster. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The latest horror movie from producer James Wan is out this week. Wan has been producing spinoffs from his Conjuring movies, and when The Curse of La Llorona premiered at SXSW last month, everyone learned it also has a connection to The Conjuring.

La Llorona is a real world myth in Latin culture about a mother who murdered her children. Now her spirit comes to steal the children of modern day mothers.

A 1970s social worker (Linda Cardellini) crosses paths with La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) when she investigates Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) for child abuse. It turns out Patricia was just protecting her children from La Llorona.

Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves is staying in the Conjuring family. He’ll direct The Conjuring 3 next. Chaves spoke with Monsters and Critics about his first feature film, in theaters this weekend.

Being a single mother is hard enough without having to face La Llorona too. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Monsters & Critics: What was the thought between keeping The Conjuring connection a secret rather than just tell people, “This is part of that great universe you like?”

Michael Chaves: I think it was done for a couple reasons. The most important one was that we wanted this movie to stand on its own. We want it it to be its own entity. La Llorona has been around for hundreds of years. It’s really not part of the Warren case files so we wanted it to, and it does stand on its own, on its own two legs.

Then in terms of any Easter eggs or little discoveries in it, I think that was just something that I always love that as an audience member. Going in to make those discoveries. I hope that an audience can come to it on its own terms, that there’s enough buzz about that but they can make the discovery for themselves.

M&C: Are there any plans for the Warrens to face La Llorona?

MC: I think that would be up to James and the keepers of the franchise.

Eat your heart out, Bloody Mary. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: Does not only the film but the myth play on a parent’s worst fear of something happening to their children?

MC: Oh yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Los Angeles and I heard this as a ghost story. It was one of those things that people would just say at campfires. It’s funny, because if someone pressed me, I could not remember a single one of those ghost stories except for La Llorona.

I think the reason is it’s so dark. It’s so unsettling, the idea of a woman who murders her kids. I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s just stuck around for so long.

M&C: Pet Sematary and Us are also about children and families in danger. Why do you think it all came together at this time in cinema?

MC: Well, they heard we were doing it so they wanted to copy us. That’s the easiest answer. [Joking]

No, I think you see that a lot in horror films. You see a lot of stories, even the dark mother story. You can see that imprint on so many ghost stories, so many horror stories, horror movies.

I think that just keeps on coming up because it’s primal. We’ve all been kids. Some of us are parents and we’ve all had that experience and I think it’s very easy to connect to.

If you think that’s scary, wait until La Llorona gets you in the bathtub. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: Because La Llorona is so tied to water, you have a lot of shots with reflections in water. Were all of those in camera?

MC: Yes. There was one that we could not get in camera. We actually tried and it was the final shot. It was extremely complicated. The way we ended up doing it is we shot into a mirror and we made it into a puddle because we couldn’t get a natural reflection out of the water.

It was too distorted or the quality of the image wasn’t good enough. So what we did is we shot into a mirror for that. So what the camera goes into is they’re actually looking into a mirror to see that final shot of Linda.

Then we made it look like a puddle in post, but everything else was captured in camera. I’m glad you picked up on that. It was something I wanted to layer in.

M&C: Were the natural water shots difficult for lighting and camera?

MC: Not really. The funny thing is, the way we figured out how to do them is we would literally take out our cell phones. So our iPhone, we’d turn it off and then you would be able to see the reflection in it.

We placed it and would be like, “Okay, we’re going to put the water right here. We’re going to put the table on it.” It was basically like our own little floating mirror and that was the way we sized up so many of the shots was just with the cell phones.

La Llorona is ready for her closeup. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: This far into the Conjuring universe, is there a uniform lighting and camera crew that knows how to do these movies?

MC: Whether or not this is officially in the Conjuring universe is to be discovered.

M&C: I’m sorry. I mean, under James Wan’s productions does he have a crew that can give these movies a consistent look?

MC: Definitely. James was very generous in hooking me up. His crew, now they’re working on huge movies and I got to work with some incredible artists.

Eleanor Sabaduquia who did our makeup and Gage Munster who did the special effects makeup. The two of them basically came up with a look for La Llorona. We developed it together.

So to be able to have basically James Wan’s makeup team working with us was incredible. Then Michael Burgess, our director of photography, his dad is Don Burgess who was the DP on Conjuring 2. He followed that up with Aquaman.

He worked on Conjuring 2 and definitely had a sensibility of that. I’m actually now working with him on Conjuring 3. His dad shot Conjuring 2 and now he’s shooting Conjuring 3 with me.

Marisol Ramirez IS La Llorona, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: Is La Llorona as practical as possible in the movie?

MC: Yeah, there was one scene that the tears needed to be a little augmented because it was just impossible. There was a moment in it that it was just impossible to get tears in the way the story needed.

But everything else was in camera. I think that’s something that as a kid, I thought I was going to go into special effects makeup. I loved those crazy latex rigs and fake blood and all that stuff, doing that on myself and my friends.

For me, those are the movies that I grew up with, a lot of in camera effects. That was very fun to do and it was definitely something that was important to me in doing.

M&C: So when she contorts her face, is that acting?

MC: Actually, there was a little bit of supplemental on one of the moments where she opens her mouth, but 90% of it is performance. She really gets there.

Marisol does such a great job in it. She wasn’t auditioning for La Llorona in the beginning. She was auditioning for the role of Patricia. Her performance was so harrowing and so emotional that I was like she might be able to do a crazy La Llorona.

Sure enough, she did. I always love in Nightmare on Elm Street, I think what makes that series so great and would be hard to recreate is Robert Englund. He brings so much psychopath savagery to the role.

Of course, you have great makeup effects on top of that, you have great costume and of course his knives for hands, but I think at its core, what makes him so unsettling is just it’s a great actor underneath it. I think if you can get that for a monster, I think it makes a difference.

Is La Llorona lurking in the dark? Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: Is Conjuring 3 going to be more of a courtroom drama?

MC: No. It’s interesting, you heard some stuff. I can’t say what it’s exactly about. You might be onto something. It is definitely not a courtroom drama.

It involves a very interesting case that I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I cannot say what it is but you might be onto something. And what I can say is it’s not a haunted house movie.

Where in the past these have been classically haunted house movies and this takes the Warrens on a journey. They’re really pushed to their limits as they try to solve this case. They come to face an adversary that they’ve never faced before which I’m so excited about.

I wish I could tell you more but I’m sworn to secrecy. It is so scary and it’s a really cool step forward for the franchise.

M&C: I read about the Arne Johnson case. Is it possible it’s not the case I think it is?

MC: I’m sworn to secrecy. I am familiar with that case and I think that would make an incredible movie if that was the case that was chosen. They do have a lot of great cases but it’s definitely not a courtroom drama. Whatever it does center on, it’s something bigger than that.

M&C: As the first Conjuring movie James is not directing himself, how much do you want to put your own stamp on it?

MC: I’m a Conjuring fan so I think it’s a huge responsibility and a huge honor to do this film. I don’t look at it as this is my chance to do the Mike Chaves version of it. I want to honor what’s been done before. I want to honor the story of the Warrens.

This story is already a step forward and already very different. For me, I want to keep as much of the spirit and the Conjuring Warren case file spirit intact as it moves forward.

La Llorona could be behind any door. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

M&C: To get the La Llorona job, did James see your short films?

MC: Yeah, that was actually what caught his interest and I think he really liked it. There were all these things in it that were very likeminded. I remember, I think he said in the e-mail, creepy vintage ghost lady. I love how he said it that way.

There were a lot of things that I think he really liked that I did and I think we just have a similar sensibility. It was absolutely The Maiden. I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t seen that to go check it out.

M&C: Is it on YouTube?

MC: It’s on YouTube and Vimeo. Just look up The Maiden. It’s out there.

M&C: When we watch it, will we be able to tell it’s from the director of The Curse of La Llorona?

MC: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s definitely some very similar stylistic tropes in there.

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