I caught up with director Clive Tonge for a chat on horror, J-Horror, filmmaking, influences, and sleep paralysis in film in his debut horror feature Mara, on VOD and Digital HD now.

After a man is seemingly strangled in his bed, criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko) interviews the sole witness, the victim’s eight-year-old daughter, Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand). When asked to identify the killer, Sophie says, "Mara." As Kate digs into the case, she unearths a community of people who claim to be tormented by a shadowy menace, a centuries-old demon who kills her victims as they sleep.

Mara is an interesting cinematic exercise because essentially what it does is give physical embodiment to the phenomenon in sleep paralysis of the hag (its even called “old hag syndrome”). Essentially what researchers believe happens here is that the conscious mind rationalizes what is happening during sleep paralysisparalysis of the skeletal muscles because the brain paralyzes the body during sleep so you don't act out your dreams, only thing is, you're awake, your breathing is also ragged and much harder for a few seconds – into a hallucination of something sitting on your chest strangling you. See Henry Fuseli's famous painting "The Nightmare" below for a clear artistic illustration of that feeling.

Henry Fuseli "The Nightmare". 1781. Oil on canvas. 101.6cm x 127cm.

Why this hallucination manifests in many people across different cultures as an old hag is a whole other question entirely. It may have something to do with symbols associated with the universal fear of death – see "the archetypal mind" which is a fundamentally Jungian interpretation – but I am not here to speculate, only to share this interview and remarkable film.

What initially attracted you to Mara as a project?

What initially attracted me was that I saw a TV documentary about – it was about weird stuff, and I can't remember what it was called but it was about weird stuff, unexplained experiences people have. One of the segments covered sleep paralysis.

That is a fascinating thing.

I was instantly fascinated by that, especially as it's never really been told [cinematically] before – especially as there's never really been a movie that deals sort of head-on with sleep paralysis. It's really creepy and it's real.

Indeed it is.

With sleep paralysis and Mara, it's not a ghost story – there's no spirits of dead people or anything like that – its a bizarre real story. If you go down the streets after this call, knock on 10 doors I guarantee you one of those people will have had a weird episode with sleep paralysis.

So, it deals with a really, really creepy unexplained phenomenon that also happens to be really common. The film has a chance, in that way, to reach out to the audience – with the statistics, around 10% in the general population and around 40% of people with psychiatric disorders will have an experience similar to what we're depicting on the screen – which begs the question again, why has this never been done before?

Exactly.

So, immediately we began work on it.

That is fascinating. That was one thing that attracted me to the project is a close male relative who has narcolepsyone of the symptoms of which is sleep paralysis, along with hypnagogic (which happens from wakefulness to sleep) and hypnopompic hallucinations (which happen from sleep to wakefulness).

Olga Kuryleno as Kate in the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

I'm sure he has crazy stories with that, doesn't he?

Yeah, he says its horrific. I've never experienced it myself but I have talked to him. I find sleep paralysis and those sleep hallucinations fascinating too. We kind of touched on the next question, but what was the research like?

From the beginning, it was very much a research-led project because myself and Jonathan Frank who's the writer, we're big fans of horror – as far as I'm concerned it's really the only genre.

It's a favorite of mine too.

What we were wanting to do, we didn't want to step on the toes of other sleep horror like A Nightmare on Elm Street – obviously they're a huge deal, big hitters – we didn't want to cross paths with that because we wouldn't stand a chance really.

A big part of the research from the beginning was, how are we going to make Mara stand out and be unique and not draw too many comparisons to Freddy Krueger?

Indeed.

We went to sleep doctors and spoke to many specialists which helped really steer the project towards reality more than just making up stuff. So, Mara really came about from the research – all the scares and things that are depicted on the screen come from real-life people's experiences.

Fascinating. Yeah that adds a level of grit to the film.

Yeah. And with the people who experience sleep paralysis, a big chunk of them would see this skinny hag climbing up the bed and getting on their chest as she starts to strangle them.

One of the academics we spoke to said – being a hardcore scientist, this being his particular area – essentially what he said was, if somebody in Canada sees the same skinny hag that someone in Japan sees, who am I to say that is not supernatural? I have no explanation as to why that is.

Interesting.

Basically the research gave the project extra legs because the project was such a rich gold mine and a wealth of material that our hardest job at the beginning was focusing it because it was all fantastic stuff.

That kind of leads in to another question, what was the creative process like in getting the visual language you did around the whole idea of Mara?

This was one of the biggest challenges for me as a director – getting the visuals right. It's one thing to write a script about sleep paralysis, but when you're actually going to do it, it's the most uncinematic thing you can imagine because basically it's somebody lying still on a bed – not moving a muscle. So, it's inherently not a cinematic experience.

I never thought about it like that – makes sense.

So, I had to think, how are we going to make this interesting for an audience?

So, we had – one of my crazy ideas that we pulled off – was a bed rig so we could visibly squash Olga [Kurylenko] into the bed as if there's an invisible weight on her.

I love that kind of inventiveness in film.

Yeah. We had weird things like that. It was a pretty simple construction really – easy for me to say because I don't have any practical skills whatsoever – you know, kind of a napkin drawing and a set designer later, they've got this bed that can slide a little section out of it and it looks like Olga's dropping inside, into the mattress.

So yeah that kind of thing and equipment – there's no actual CGI in the movie – a couple of little visual tricks that we used, you won't see any in the trailer or in the movie. We kind of stabilized the eyes and things like this.

Yeah.

Of course, one of the biggest things that contributed visually to the horror, was our actor Javier Botet who played the part of Mara.

[L-R] Javier Botet and Director Clive Tonga behind the scenes of the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

He really did nail that role.

Oh my God, as soon as he started doing his stuff, I was shocked how good this guy is.

So basically my job in terms of Javier – I didn't have to do much beyond, "hey Javier! How are you gonna make yourself look creepy?" With his long experience at that he's fantastic. His body's incredible and he's a really good guy.

I really wanted to make sure he looked the part so we had a few costume ideas. But once I got chatting with him, I realized there's so much this guy can do and I don't want the costume to get in the way of that. So we made sure that what he was wearing was a pure material that you could see his body through because in the end that's the thing that really sold the skinny hag.

So attention to his costume and little tweaks allowed us to see him at his best if ya like and after that we drew up the other stories where they didn't have the ability to create these sharp little forms, so they had to be economical with how much they showed. We kind of took that lesson and did it with Mara so we see glimpses and pieces of a dark jigsaw puzzle but with space for the audience to follow.

Interesting.

Mara as a creature had its own arc. Where first of all its a creepy noise, then you catch a glimpse of something, then you see a bit more, eventually leading to a bigger reveal of the creature.

I'm going to have to check out Slender Man as Javier's in that too...

Oh yeah. He's in Slender Man, he's in It: Chapter Two, we found him in a Spanish horror movie called [Rec]... I don't know if you've heard of that.

I can't say I've seen it. I'll have to check it out.

They all have kind of that skinny monster in them. When Jonathan Frank and I saw that, we were like, "him! We want him!" [Laughs]

[Laughs] I can see why.

We were going to get him in our movie so we just chased him and chased him until he could no longer say no.

[Laughs] well, there you go. What were the challenges like on the film?

Well for me – as a first-time director – pretty much everything was a challenge. [Laughs] Everything I had done before wasn't of very practical use on a film set.

I guess the biggest challenge for all of us really was the schedule. It was a hard schedule really. It was shot – multiple locations, big movie stars, producers, crowds of people and we shot it all on a low budget in 18 days.

Rigorous indeed.

Yeah. Sometimes it felt like I was on my own, sitting in the middle of a freeway, saying "go that way! No!"

Javier Botet as Mara in the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

[Laughs] Yeah.

But yeah I got through it and you kind of get used to the craziness of it as time goes on. But yeah shooting the film was a daily challenge.

Meeting Olga for the first time was nerve-wracking. Meeting Javier for the first time was nerve wracking. But keeping a good creative team, the core team – and Jon was there the writer – so if something needed tweaking in the script he could go over and do that. People from the production company too who stood by me and kind of pushed me to be the director of this movie – they were on hand to help.

So, I had a good crew around me who helped shoulder the responsibility and help me through the bits where, you know, I didn't know quite what I was doing.

Yeah. So everything was a challenge but in the end it all turned out well. I've got a thick hide man and I'm ready for anything.

Absolutely. It did turn out really well. Switching gears just a bit – to a question I like to ask most everyone – favorite films and directors? Which would you consider most influential on you as an artist?

In terms of Mara and the horror genre, it's interesting because I'm likely older than most first-time directors out there. I'm 52 years-old, so I'm like the oldest newcomer in the film industry.

That gives you certain advantages. Like I've got a huge back-catalog of watching all kinds of films. I've studied these films a lot in my life so I can bring a lot to the table in terms of this is the kind of thing I like and am shooting for, that kind of thing.

[Laughs] Indeed.

One thing that I really loved at the time, was the J-Horror and that kind of aesthetic. I don't know if you ever seen the Japanese Ring called Ringu?

I have but it's been awhile.

I went to see that when it was released over here with a girlfriend at the time. It terrified us and I absolutely loved it. It's sort of like a kid when he sees his hero and thinks, "I wanna be like that," that's what I want. I want to affect an audience the way that movie effected me.

I've seen that film many many times, broke it down, took it apart, put it back together. What came out of it was, in terms of the story, it's strange when you compare it with a western style of storytelling. The remake Ring kind of ironed out some of those story issues.

So, I think what we wanted to do was make like an American version of The Ring with how the Japanese do supernatural scares.

I see.

But yeah, The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, are films that have really effected my overall style. But then also super-suspenseful films like The Strangers was a big influence.

Really my style is an amalgam of too many years watching horror movies, too many years of wanting to be a director and not believing it was going to happen, so I was making notes of when it was going to happen and then 10 years went by and I'm still making them.

Definitely Mara, which I would describe as a supernatural thriller, came from that.

[L-R] Olga Kuryleno as Kate and Javier Botet as Mara in the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Our last question, what do you hope people will take with them from Mara?

Well, if The Ring made you scared to watch a TV, I hope people take with them that they're scared to go back to their own bed and can't sleep at home anymore. I hope they take a whole bowl full of terror with them and I hope I upset their sleep for years to come.

That's great horror.

Of course! I'm makin' horror movies. I don't want 'em to think! I want 'em to be scared and yearn for the lights, ya know?... Ambulances outside the cinema...