Yayo Herrero on The Maus

Even though genre cinema is mostly known for its rigid conformity to tradition, there will always be directors who look to diverge from rules and expectations. Yayo Herrero is such a man and The Maus clear proof that he doesn't just play around. I had the pleasure to ask him a couple of questions about his first, which he was more than willing to answer. So if you want to know more about the origins of the film, the ways in which it tries to challenge the viewer and the long-term prospects for Herrero, do read on.

Yayo Herrero on Maus

Niels Matthijs: IMDb lists you as "Yayo Herrero", but you've also been credited as "Gerardo Herrero". At first I thought you changed your name to avoid confusion with Yayo Herrero - the ecofeminist activist - but if I'm correct Gerardo Herrero is your birth name. Why the change?

Yayo Herrero: I used to sign all my short films with my birth name, but they generated great confusion because there's another Spanish producer and director: Gerardo Herrero from the production company "Tornasol". My family and lifelong friends have always called me "Yayo" since I was a child. So I decided to use it.

Maus is a direct reference to the main character's nickname, but I noticed most people are reminded of Spiegelman's graphic novel instead. Was that a conscious reference or did you come about the name in a different way?

Although the Art Spiegelman comic is one of my favorites, the film has no connection with the comic. However, it is possible that I was influenced at an unconscious level. "MAUS" (original title in Spain) has always seemed the best title to play with the idea of "the mousetrap", both physical and mental protagonists.

The film takes place in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Bosnian war, not the most obvious of settings for a Spanish film. What drew you to this setting?

In 2010 I decided to write and direct a short film: "Picnic", which took place in Eastern Bosnia. At that time I used to read a lot of comics by Joe Sacco and it was precisely "Gorazde", the graphic novel, that most impressed me. That was a time when I started traveling a lot to eastern Bosnia and Sarajevo because I was very much in love with Eastern Europe.

An interesting element is the Hamajlija, a Bosnian/Muslim type of amulet. Its function and mythology is kind of implied rather than explained in full. How did you find out about the Hamajlija and was it already there when you began working on the film or was it added at a later time?

On one of my trips to Sarajevo I bought a book about Bosnian beliefs which talked about the "Hamajlija". I am from Asturias, located in the north of Spain, where superstition and popular beliefs are deeply rooted. It's something I've lived with since I was little and I wanted to incorporate it into the film.

It's clear that The Maus isn't just a horror film, there's a lot brewing beneath the surface. The film isn't very direct in addressing its themes though, leaving much of the decyphering to the audience.

Indeed, "MAUS" is not a horror film. It´s an esoteric drama. It was a conscious decision because I have always believed and trusted the intelligence of the viewer to decipher the enigmas of the film. I think it's a funny challenge. An experience different from what horror films usually offers to us.

From reading comments online, most people seemed to be pretty baffled by the addendum (the scene in Germany). Did you forsee such puzzlement from the audience when you decided to add it?

I think the end of the movie is what gives the film a sense of truth and real meaning. It forces the viewer to think about everything they've seen. Generate debate. In addition, it connects the past of our protagonists with our most current reality. Because the violence and horror that we live in Europe today is a spiral that comes from the past.

From the trailer, people may be expecting a more traditional horror film. Did you have any input in marketing the film or was that handled by an outside firm?

I never had control over the distribution and how to sell the movie. I would never have sold "Maus" as a traditional horror movie because whoever expects to see that will be disappointed.

Horror has a pretty strong but rigid fanbase, but it's also a genre that is looked down on by many others. The Maus is a film that is probably too different to please the hardcore horror fan, while too horror to appeal to the more "serious" film fan. Where you worried your film might not find its audience?

What worried me was being honest with the history, the characters and the experiences that my Bosnian actors contributed. They lived the real war.

Even more so than before, film is becoming very compartmentalized, with many viewers sticking to the kind of films they know to like. Is that something that worries you?

I do not worry because it's something I can not control. I think a director should not think about it. If I did it would be the first step to lose freshness in my work.

The Maus is a film that transcends its limited budget. I often feel the lack of budget pushes a directors just that little more to be creative, on the other hand it must be frustrating to be tied down because of a budget. How did you cope with that?

It was complicated, but I think that's the fun of directing. Facing a challenge and being as creative as you can is the obligation of any director who wants to tell a story. You have to be brave and not a coward.

The camera work in particular stood out to me. The camera seems almost attached to the characters, constantly circling them and often keeping the background out of focus. When did you decide on that technique and what did you hope to achieve with it?

Being a psychological film I decided that it was best to tell it rigorously from the point of view of the couple protagonist. That's why the camera is always with him or with her. What was intended is to convey to the viewer the same sensation of claustrophobia and restlessness that the protagonists experience.

Another interesting choice was the use of off-screen sounds, which add a lot of tension when the camera is panning towards the action. A good sound designer is crucial to a good horror film, so how did that collaboration came to be?

It was an intense process because the challenge was to create through sounds a certain indecipherable mystery. Something that corresponded with the own sensation of fear of the protagonists.

Netflix has a way of selecting films like The Maus, small but creative genre films that would otherwise have fallen through the cracks. On the other hand, people often complain Netflix does a very poor job of highlighting these smaller films. How important is it for you that Netflix picked it up?

It was very important and definitive to gather all the budget of the film. I was very lucky because I was allowed to premiere it in competition at the "FantasticFest" in Austin and at the Sitges Film Festival. So it could also be seen on the big screen and I witnessed the divisions generated by the film.

You've done a couple of shorts before, The Maus was your first feature film. Getting that second feature out there often proves challening though. Do you have anything lined up already?

I have several scripts that I am developing, but there is one that I think will be the one chosen to finance in 2019.

If a rich fan came to you, gave you a blank cheque and full creative control, what kind of film would you make?

A film as wild as "Mad Max Fury Road".