Writer-director Aaron Burns’ film Madre explores the lonely struggles and paranoia of a woman dealing with motherhood on two fronts: Diana (Daniela Ramirez) is pregnant and, through her husband’s neglect—left to be a single parent raising her autistic son (Mattias Bassi). In desperation, she hires a nanny (Aida Jabolin) who, as Diana discovers to her growing horror, might have her own sinister agenda – or could Diana simply be imagining it all? Debuting in wide release later this year on Netflix, it screened at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, where director Burns took the time with us to speak frankly about his diversity in genre filmmaking.
Diabolique: An ongoing discussion within the industry and the genre has been diversity.
Burns: Everybody’s different and everybody has different kinds of perspectives and I think that we see a lot of stagnation because people, they’re trying to make safe stuff, you know? When it comes to this genre, you can’t be safe! There’s no such thing as safe. I saw this insane movie at this film festival in Mexico called Morbido. It’s the most insane film festival in the world. We took Madre there and it won, right? But I saw this movie there that you have to watch if you ever get a chance. It’s called The Night of the Virgin. It’s about a kid, who’s like a virgin, probably like eighteen or nineteen, and he’s trying to have sex for the first time on New Year’s Eve, and he ends up going home with this, like, fifty year old woman, and her house is disgusting, and he’s trying not to vomit because there’s cockroaches everywhere – it’s just awful – and then everything just turns crazy because you find out she’s a Satanist and she’s trying to impregnate him with her Satan-baby, and it’s just like ‘Oh my God!’ and it just gets worse and worse and worse! And it’s like, all the stuff I watched at Fantastic Fest pales in comparison to this movie – and it’s made by two Spanish kids!
Diabolique: Do you think being steeped in a Catholic culture helps drive this transgressive imagery?
Burns: Yeah, dude, totally! Kings, and all kinds of weird King Arthur shit that’s been going on for years, you know, and the Moors coming in. Like, on my movie – my producer, Miguel Asensio is from Spain, my editor Diego Macho Gómez is from Spain, composer’s from Spain, first A.D was from Spain. We were just inundated by Spanish people. They’re like the most fun but also like they have a completely different twist on everything. They see Europe in a completely different light than the French. Like, there’s a director in Spain named Santiago Segura. He made a series of films called the Torrente movies – he directed and wrote and stars in – these movies about this terrible, stupid, ridiculous police officer who’s constantly, he’s just like the most offensive guy you’ve ever met, he’s disgusting. He’s fat, covered in sweat all the time, he’s just gross. He’s an awful person, right? – and Santiago’s nothing like that. The movies are the most successful movies in the history of Spain. If you watch those movies, you’ll understand Spanish people so much better. Because Spanish people are hard to understand.
Diabolique: They say horror fans don’t mind reading subtitles.
Burns: Yeah, because they grew up watching Italian movies. So everybody’s comfortable with subtitles because if not, you weren’t watching good horror! [Laughs.] It’s a thing where there’s a stagnation, because, when I was growing up, black horror movies sucked. They were awful! I’m talking about having both sides – because you had your camp, right? White people had their campy movies. I’ll give you some examples: I mean, like the Leprechaun movies and all that kind of stuff – those are great, they’re fun, they’re great movies, I like watching them. And they even mix black and Irish culture with Leprechaun In The Hood. I mean, there’s tons of them. Ghoulies, Troll – all those kinds of movies are like the white version of the Snoop Dogg movie where he’s like a killer pimp [Bones]. The thing is that normal people that watch movies, they don’t know the director, because they don’t give a shit.
Diabolique: How do we make better things that reflect where our culture has evolved to?
Burns: The way you do it is by bringing them in and not saying shit. You don’t prop it up or hype it up: “Look, I got black people! I got seven blacks, I got four Indians, and a Mexican guy, and this person from here, and this person from there” It’s like, who gives a shit? They’re just people. They’re just fuckin’ people. No one cared about the Asian kid in The Goonies, he was just their friend. No one gave a shit. Nobody cares about the kid in Stranger Things. I don’t know what the kid without the teeth is, he’s probably some Italian kid, who cares? The black kid? Nobody cares. Geordi from Star Trek? Nobody gives a shit! He’s badass! He’s blind and he can see – and create a reading rainbow! Nobody cares at that moment. I don’t see Worf as a black guy – he’s a Klingon? No one’s talking about this, it doesn’t matter. When you’re watching Star Trek, nobody’s making fun of the Asian guy, nobody’s making fun of the Russian guy, it’s just like ‘No, there’s a Russian guy, there’s a black lady, there’s an Asian guy.’ Because in the future this is how everyone is going to be and nobody’s gonna talk about it or give a shit about it. Who cares? There’s a transexual person in this role – nobody cares, why are we talking about this? This isn’t a fucking issue.
Diabolique: Then what is stopping more diverse material from being made?
Burns: You have to Kardashianize everything. Everything has to be a drama. Everything has to be a ‘story’ – Not everything’s a goddamn story, we’re just making here making fuckin’ movies.We’re not curing cancer, dude. Like, this is a film, we’re telling a story that’s fictional, or maybe based on something real, or a documentary, or whatever, but we’re not saving the world. This is just making films, and maybe this film will be influential and maybe it won’t, but for the moment, while we’re making it, it’s just a fucking movie.
Diabolique: What were some of the movies that defined you as a horror fan?
Burns: Growing up I was into musical theater heavily, right? And the darkest movie I ever saw as a kid was Little Shop Of Horrors and I used to watch it so much. I died for that movie. I would quote it, and sing the songs, and me and my cousins – it was between that and Grease, every single day after school, we would come home and watch either one of those. So I’ve probably seen Little Shop of Horrors and Grease two hundred times? You know? And they are movies that affected me, but Little Shop of Horrors, because it’s just, Frank Oz was just saying, ‘Fuck it, you know what? We’ll just make it super-dark.’ I love that guy so much: Bowfinger. Another black movie where nobody cares. There are Mexican guys. It’s a joke, but they’re the smartest guys in the room at the end of the day.
Diabolique: Why does representation matter? What was the first film in which you saw a character on-screen that you felt reflected you better?
Burns: One was – I didn’t see Terminator 2 ’til later – but the first time that I saw Samuel L. Jackson as a fuckin’ black hacker in Jurassic Park, I was like, ‘What the fuck? Wait, what? Black people – I use computers, I’m only eight, but I’m a black kid, my Dad loves computers, and now I’m seeing a black man being the authority that saves the whole fuckin’ park in Jurassic Goddamn Park with all the dinosaurs! What the fuck!’ I couldn’t deal with it! And then again it happened in Terminator 2, where the scientist that created fuckin’ Skynet is a black guy! ‘Oh my God! I love science! I want to create Skynet!’ So those were the moments for me, because seeing intelligent black people on-screen, people who I saw – and James Cameron doesn’t give a fuck, dude! He doesn’t give a shit – it’s like, ‘Yeah! In fuckin’ Abyss I have a black lady who drives the submarine, she listens to country music – she’s fuckin’ black, who gives a shit? She’s drivin’ the submarine! She’s fuckin’ great!’ So it’s one of those things where, growing up black, I always felt like I had to be two times better than everybody else – at everything, right? So to me, now seeing all these people complaining about ‘Oh, I’m never getting enough opportunities, blah blah blah’ Be two times better! Who gives a shit?! Change the stigma. Change the stereotype of what people think about you. Hold doors for white people, old white people. Blow their minds! Blow the old white racist person’s mind by holding the door for them. You will kill them with kindness, because at the end of the day, if somebody doesn’t accept you, you just have to be better. You have to be bigger. Show up. Don’t wait for invitations. Don’t wait for anybody’s permission, dude. Show the fuck up and be better, be better than everybody.