MIAMI–As a child, Alejandro Amenábar could not sleep without leaving his bedroom light on.
The imagined ghosts in his house never came to torment the Chilian-born, Spanish-raised Amenábar, but the dread of such apparitions paved the way for a future in filmmaking.
Amenábar, now 29, mined his childhood fears when he sat down three years ago to write The Others, a creepy Hammer-esque horror yarn executive produced by Tom Cruise and starring his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman. She plays a frosty Bible-quoting mother desperate to protect her two sickly and housebound children from her English mansion’s previous–and deceased–occupants.
“I couldn’t walk through corridors without any of my relatives being close to me,” said the wiry and boyish-looking Amenábar as he sat somewhat pensively inside a South Beach hotel. “I was a very easily scared boy. Of course, I was scared of ghosts. So many of the kind of fears that the children in [The Others] have, have to do with the kind of fears I used to have.”
Not all were culled from his childhood. Amenábar based one scene–in which Kidman hears footsteps emanating from an upstairs room–on an incident that occurred in his old apartment in Spain.
“When Nicole‘s character hears these steps going backward and forward, this is something that happened to me a few years ago when I wasn’t a scared boy anymore,” said Amenábar.
“In my room, at five in the morning, I heard these steps running above my head, and it sounded like something very big, very heavy. So I went to see the neighbor, and it turned out to be a very tiny, thin lady who said, of course, that she was not doing that at that time. She could barely walk. I never found an explanation for that, but I could it could make a great scene for a horror film.”
Amenábar knows that much will be made about Hollywood’s most famous ex-couple’s involvement with The Others. At a preview screening in Miami, the audience laughed nervously when Cruise‘s credit appeared onscreen.
“That’s inevitable. They both worked on the film,” he said.
He also saw no hints of trouble in paradise when he shot the film in summer 2000. Not that he paid much attention to the famous pair’s private life.
“Not at all,” he said. “If they had a … first, it’s not my business as a director. When shooting, I’m not worried about what isn’t about the shooting. From them, I just felt respect and support.”
“It’s a film that requires the audience to relax and let themselves be carried away by what the characters say and do,” he said.
The young director Amenábar first dazzled audiences in 1995 with Tesis (Thesis) and went on to make Open Your Eyes (1997), a mind-bending romantic mystery starring a pre-Hollywood Penelope Cruz that is now being remade as Vanilla Sky with Cruz and current beau Cruise.
Eyes sizzled with passion and reveled in ambiguity as it told the tale of a playboy who, after he is disfigured in a car accident caused by a jealous ex-paramour, tries to win the heart of his best friend’s girlfriend (Cruz). In contrast, The Others unfurls as a cold and delicate exploration of things that go bump in the night.
“I did feel when I was shooting Open Your Eyes, considering that was a story of jumps in time, going backwards and forward, I said, I would really like to do a very simple project working on a very primary level about fear,” he said. “I wanted to do a horror film. Then one day I ended up writing this very fast because this was the kind of horror movie I was missing in theaters. I was trying to get back many of the elements of classical films that have been lost and trying to remember the fears I used to have as a child.”
The filmmaker ranks Rosemary’s Baby, The Innocents and The Shining among his favorite horror films. In keeping with the spirit of these films, Amenábar wanted The Others to emphasize genuine psychological terror rather than elaborate special effects designed to wow but prove far from scary.
“Many films end up just being a parade of special effects and sounds effects,” he said. “That can be really, really impressive, but for me, I try to work on the opposite level with a quiet film, playing with silence and playing with darkness, the most primary fear.”
In this post-Sixth Sense era, Amenábar knows that audiences expect to walk out of the theater blindsided by a twist they never saw coming. For Amenábar, the goal is to make sure his film logically builds up to its surprise ending.
“Most of the time it’s not about the surprise … but how you set up the surprise, so that when you get there everything makes sense and it’s integrated with the soul of the story,” he said. “Then it’s honest, and it has much more impact for the audience. The surprise shouldn’t be the main challenge for a writer.”
The award-winning Tesis and European box-office smash Open Your Eyes turned Amenábar into Spain’s hottest behind-the-cameras import since Pedro Almodovar. With its $20 million price tag, The Others represents Spain’s biggest budgeted production.
It also marks Amenábar’s first English-language film, thought it was not intended as such.
“When I wrote The Others in Spanish, my producers said that it didn’t have too many Latin elements, it had all the perfect British elements,” he said of the film’s very, very British characters and its locale, a Victorian-era house on the Isle of Jersey. “So, we should shoot it in English.”
Shooting in English didn’t present Amenábar with any problems, but he took great care to ensure that his younger cast–Alaskina Mann and James Bentley–understood his every word.
“I was really worried about the children, about how our relationship would be considering that there was this Spanish guy always telling them things to do in a Spanish accent, and they were the perfect British children and living for months in confined darkness because they could not be exposed to sunlight,” he said. “We tried to protect their skins as much as possible. I thought that would be stressful to them. I always tried to be their friend and to trust them as they would trust me.”
“You learn something every day,” he said, laughing.
Good or bad?
“You learn everything,” he said.
Still, even with its English setting, Amenábar managed to film The Others in his homeland.
“The first thing I had do once we decided the story would take place on the isle of Jersey was go to the island,” he said. “Then we found a house on the island but the owner wouldn’t let us shoot there. We went looking for haunted houses. Someone found this house in Spain, which was perfect for me because I wanted to do the interiors in Spain. If we had found this house in London, we would have taken it for sure. It was haunting and realistic at the same time.”
Kidman‘s hectic schedule and an injury sustained from filming Moulin Rouge, forced Amenábar to shoot around his star.
“We had to wait,” he said. “Once Nicole wanted to do the film, and we wanted her in the film, we had to wait for her to do two films. And Moulin Rouge had several delays. I took advantage of it, taking time to find the children, casting and recasting, and during shooting we had a couple of times problems with her knee. But that was it. She is very professional and hardworking.”
Amenábar seems to have found a patron in Kidman‘s ex-husband. Besides executive producing The Others and holding remake rights to Tesis, Cruise is starring in the Cameron Crowe-directed remake Vanilla Sky, scheduled for a Dec. 14 release.
“I feel very flattered and honored,” he said about the remake. “Tom really loved to redo the story. I think he’s been trying to do it with respect. I’ve always felt that it’s their story, and Cameron Crowe is a brilliant director and they deserve to do the story they want to do, whether they change it or not.”