Sleep paralysis is just frightening. Happening to people around the world and from all walks of life, you are fully aware that something is going on, but you cannot move at all. Some feel a presence, some see a presence, but all are powerless to do anything about it. In the film Mara, Director Clive Tonge tells the story of this startling condition through the lens of a murder investigation. Starring Olga Kurylenko (Hitman) as the criminal psychologist, Kate must deal with her beliefs and come to grips with the truth that goes beyond anything she has faced before. Slowly falling victim to an entity named ‘Mara,’ Kate must solve the case before more are murdered as mysterious as the man she is investigating.
The debut feature for Filmmaker Tonge, Mara is a tense thriller that takes this very common condition from a much different perspective than previous horror efforts. Blending sound design, genre troupes, lightening, performance, and FX, the film bridges fantasy and reality. The Horror News Network sat down with Clive Tonge and spoke with him about Mara. We discuss the influence of real life experiences of sleep paralysis with the cast and crew. The impact of the DP? Where the legend stems from and how the film’s score impacted and elevated the narrative?
Horror News Network: Where did the inspiration come from for Mara and have you ever dealt with sleep paralysis?
Clive Tonge: I first heard about it when friends described their own horrific experiences and there were some scary similarities. The inspiration came from a documentary I watched years ago about unexplained phenomena. Sleep paralysis was one of the sections in the show. What it described was so creepy and compelling my immediate thought was, “Why has no one done this before?”
Then I met writer Jonathan Frank (aka Jono) who was working on a very similar idea. And that’s how Mara began. However, I’ve never had sleep paralysis myself but another thing that came out of the research was just how common an experience it is 40% of the world’s population get it. But no one talks about it because of the fear of being thought of as crazy. I subsequently found out that both my parents and my brother have experienced it many times. Every time I mentioned the project or pitched it, there was ALWAYS someone who has experienced it.
Horror News Network: The entity known as ‘Mara’ is based on Scandinavian folklore. Can you talk about the research and how you balanced fact with fantasy?
Clive Tonge: This was the biggest challenge. A Nightmare on Elm Street used sleep paralysis as the basis for creating a new monster in Freddy Krueger. That is such a classic franchise, I knew there was no point even trying to compete. So Jono and I took a completely different route. We immersed ourselves in extensive research and made the choice to steer closer to the reality of sleep paralysis rather than make up too much new mythology. The actual creature ‘Mara’ (played by Javier Botet) is based on what sleep paralysis sufferers from all over the world have described. The scares in the movie are all based on those who have suffered actual experiences.
There is also a discussion to be had about how much of Mara is ‘folklore’ or ‘fantasy’. When a person in Canada sees the same emaciated hag as someone in Japan then surely there is something more real to this than a simple fairy tale. Then it becomes taking this route which threw up its own challenges. The main one being how to make someone paralyzed, into something cinematic. The answer came when I drew on my past experience shooting music videos. My basic attitude was if the band moves, I’ll stay still. If the band stays still, then I should move.
Horror News Network: What was the collaboration like with Composer James Edward Baker? How did his experience affect the creation of score? How did the score impact the film?
Clive Tonge: James was also a Producer on Mara and was around for the whole shoot. That meant that he got a real idea of what I was going for. So, when he went away to start scoring the film, he already had a good idea of what he was going to do. I spent time down in his studio (full of weird instruments and audio ‘knick knacks’ from god knows where) and we tried a few things out. James has some extremely disturbing (therefore useful) insider knowledge of sleep paralysis as he gets it once or twice a week, EVERY WEEK! But for me and my beloved horror genre, sound design and score are absolutely crucial for getting the tone right.
The biggest impact James’s score had was to elevate Mara to a more epic and cinematic scale. Mara deserves to be witnessed on a big screen with amazing sound. That’s where horror is at its best and most frightening.
Horror News Network: This is your debut feature. Did any of your previous work play any sort of role in making this film made?
Clive Tonge: I think my previous work, mainly short films, definitely played a part in getting Mara done. Over the years, I have done virtually every role in the filmmaking process. My shorts were well received which gave me the confidence that I had something to say, and that I was able to say it in a way that is entertaining for an audience. I’ve always had the need to make films, and my experience directing shorts just about kept me going. I think this is the most important thing for filmmakers is keep making films. You will get better. More than any practical skills, my previous work taught me that tenacity is an essential skill. It’s the one thing I can truly brag about.
Horror News Network: Can you talk about how you storyboarded or planned out the different sleep paralysis attacks? You seem to have the eyes featured for each attack, was this something that was emphasized in real victims who have dealt with sleep paralysis?
Clive Tonge: So, this question relates back to the challenge I just mentioned – how to make sleep paralysis cinematic. For this, I did draw on some of my previous experience. I have a background in low budget VFX and picked up a few techniques over the years. One idea was to anchor the eyes in a fixed place on-screen and let the rest of the frame move around them. We also built a bed rig that allowed Kate (Olga Kurylenko) to drop down into the mattress creating the illusion she was being pressed into the bed.
Featuring the eyes was an idea that evolved during the writing process. For one, often times they are the only thing that can move during sleep paralysis. So, holding close-ups on the eyes meant we could have movement in the frame. But on-set I quickly realized just how important close ups of eyes are for creating terror in the audience. For example, if Olga’s eyes looked left motivated by an off-screen noise, the audience is immediately engaged, and their imagination will ‘create’ a monster. That monster will be far scarier than anything anyone could create because it’s unique to each individual.
Horror News Network: The support group offers different perspectives, fears and coping to authenticate the idea of sleep paralysis. Can you talk about that aspect within the narrative?
Clive Tonge: The support group is one of the scenes where we are able to show that sleep paralysis can strike anyone from any walk of life. Rich, poor, religious, strong, weak, it doesn’t matter. So, we wanted to include all these different characters each telling the same story. It’s also an important scene because Doctor Ellis (Mitch Eakins) gives us the scientific point of view on sleep paralysis. That scene where Kate’s scientific beliefs coming crashing together with the more ‘supernatural’ things being described, that is part of her journey as she is caught between these differing views on the same topic. She goes from skeptic to full on believer.
Horror News Network: What did your cinematographer Emil Topuzov bring to this project?
Clive Tonge: Emil elevated the script and brought it to life in an atmospheric, eerie and beautiful way. I cannot tell you how incredible it was for me to see what happens when a true artist goes to town on your work. His mastery of lighting on location lifted the whole project and made my movie look like ‘a movie’. His experience and mastery of cinematography was invaluable in ensuring everyone was on their ‘A’ game. He also brought high quality vodka (much needed!).
Horror News Network: It seems to be a rule of thumb that you hold the monster in the shadows until the very end for the reveal. Can you talk about how you wanted to reveal the entity of ‘Mara’ throughout the movie? How big of a role did lighting and sound play in it?
Clive Tonge: How else can it go right? If you reveal the monster early on you’ve blown your wad and there’s nowhere left to go. Once the monster is revealed it loses its mystery and the anticipation in the audience is lost. We’ve all heard the stories about Jaws and Alien – how practical considerations meant the directors couldn’t show as much of the monster as they wanted to initially. And that limitation made the films a million times scarier. I tried to learn from their experience. After all, who better to teach you than Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott?
The way I wanted to reveal Mara has everything to do with how sleep paralysis actually works for many sufferers. The idea that there is an unseen malevolent presence in the room that has one thing in mind – to climb up onto your chest and squeeze the life out of you. This is where I want the film to define itself – in the psychological execution of the scares. Mara, by her very nature, will build suspense and a foreboding sense of dread, avoiding ‘cheap’ cattle prod jumps that plague the lower end of horror market.
My vision was to have ‘Mara’ appear to the audience as individual pieces of a horrifying jigsaw that will be completed by the viewer inside the dark corners of their own imagination. This allows us to use the most terrifying thing of all the unknown, what we don’t see. What we imagine is in there, stalking us from the shadows.
Horror News Network: You check out Mara on VOD right now