2020 Horror Interviews

An Interview with ‘The Expecting’ Director Mary Harron and Actress AnnaSophia Robb

The Expecting - Quibi

Mary Harron needs no introduction. The Canadian filmmaker most famous for bringing American Psycho to life in her own unique, viscerally stylish manner has continued to do fascinating work in the years since her biggest hit was released, with the female-focused Charles Manson drama Charlie Says making a considerable dent in 2018. With The Expecting, Harron turns her attention to television, sort of. The Quibi series finds a young woman pregnant with something that isn’t entirely human, and it’s infused with Harron’s signature keen eye for horrific details in otherwise normal settings. 

As the expectant lady in question, actress Annasophia Robb takes on her most challenging role to date. Under a mop of mousy brown hair, Robb is virtually unrecognizable as the kid who played Violet in Tim Burton’s nightmarish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory redux and a young Carrie Bradshaw in The Carrie Diaries. Here, she’s in much tougher territory, tasked with wearing a prosthetic belly, spewing out various vile substances and communicating a lifetime of anguish, among many other things. The Expecting is a major moment for both women. I recently caught up with the lively pair, over the phone, to talk body horror, all the real-life messed up stuff that happens during pregnancy and much more.

Joey Keogh: Let’s start off really simple. How did you both originally get involved with this project?

Mary Harron: My agent sent me the script, and I really responded to it, so it was really about the script for me because I didn’t know that much about Quibi, but I thought it was interesting to try a little bit different of a format with these chapters. I’d done a limited series before, for Netflix, but this was really short chapters. Really, it was all about the story and the fact it was about pregnancy, too. Obviously, having been pregnant twice, I just love — I guess this is my sense of humour – but I just love a horror movie based around pregnancy, and that it also took all the crazy things — because being pregnancy is kind of crazy anyway, just naturally, normally — and just amped all of that up in really a interesting way. Then it was just about finding the right Emma and AnnaSophia was just so perfect for the role. How did you feel about the script when you first read it, AnnaSophia? 

AnnaSophia Robb: I felt the same way. I was sent the script, and I really responded to it, just because I didn’t really know where it was going. The structure of it, the Quibi storytelling format, means that every 10 pages there’s a mini-arc, so I found myself just flying through the script wanting to know what happened next; it felt like it moved very quickly. I’m not super familiar with the horror genre, but I loved the hook of this sort of body horror with her pregnancy and all of the different, really unusual, bizarre things that happen to your body when you’re pregnant. I really responded to Emma, the role — she seemed like such a lonely character, and her journey and survival mode that kicks in was really appealing to me. I like playing characters that have something to fight for, so that brought me into it right from the start, but of course I was pretty stoked that Mary was going to be the director. I also just really wanted to work with her. 

JK: Pregnancy is kind of an untapped market in horror. There should definitely be more pregnancy-related horror movies, because it’s quite a messed up thing that happens to women’s bodies, just in general. 

MH: Absolutely. When it came to the scene where — this is in the trailer, so it’s not a spoiler — she’s looking down, and it’s actually revealed to be a dream, at her belly and the little feet start pushing out [laughs]. When I read that, I thought “Oh, I have to do this.” Listen, I’m Canadian, and there’s some very good Canadian body horror thanks to Mr. Cronenberg. There’s also the Soska Sisters, who just did a remake of Rabid, and they did another movie called American Mary, so they’re very good at body horror too. There’s this whole really interesting section of horror that involves a lot of prosthetics — it’s not what I usually do. There are certainly some bloody sequences in some of what I’ve done, but I don’t tend to go full tilt prosthetics or full tilt horror –my stuff is more psychological horror, but it was interesting to say, “okay, this is very graphic, this is very physical, so how do I bring it to life?” And then it’s the whole thing of working with the production designer to make that happen. The special effects artists and VFX artists I really love, especially because there were a lot of practical effects, a lot of prosthetics…

AR: And puppets! 

MH: And puppets, that’s right! There were puppets, too! 

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The Expecting - Quibi

JK: Well practical FX are best, particularly with body horror. You need that tactility or it doesn’t work. 

MH: I think so, too. We had this great team in Montreal, and they did some really incredible work. Have you seen them all? You’ve seen three episodes, I guess they showed you?

JK:: Yup, three episodes. 

MH: Well, anyway, there’s some creature stuff that comes later on and that involves a lot of prosthetics, you know, masks and things. But yes, it has to be. The digital FX, the VFX, can enhance it, and they’re also very important, but in something like this that’s very tactile, we really prefer the latex stuff. 

AR: It’s definitely nice to have real things to work with, rather than just imagining what you’re supposed to be seeing. It’s also kind of a treat nowadays to be able to — rather than just having the VFX — have the real props. Even the belly — just being able to wear a physical belly every day, it changed the whole movement of my body because of how it felt to wear, to have this foreign object sitting on me, and it’s growing. That was a helpful tool and a reminder of Emma’s situation with this foreign thing that’s constantly attached to her, and to me. 

JK: What was the biggest challenge of the shoot, for both of you?

MH: I would say… filming in the woods, in November, in the rain. At night! You’re just standing out in it, night after night, and they have these warming tents but you can’t go into them if you’re really working. The DP and I had to stand out there the whole time, and it was just very, very cold, so it’s just about trying to stay focused when the weather is against you and it’s so cold. That kind of ordeal was a big thing for me. But it’s just physical, really. 

AR: I think the cold for me too, working in colder conditions. But then, mentally — you know, with darker material, when you’re living in sort of a darker world — it can be draining. The physical stuff is also part of it, but I also ensured the physical side of it worked because we were shooting at night, outside, and it was cold and miserable, so I didn’t have to fake any of that — that was real [laughs]. That physical exhaustion, that coldness, was part of the script too, so actually being out in it was helpful, but the mental exhaustion of… jumping into a scene, when you’re in a different timeline and you’re not shooting sequentially, you have to figure out “where is this character now,” and Emma is sort of, throughout the course of the show, she’s trying to decipher what is imagined and what is real, so trying to figure that out and make sure it was consistent throughout is always hard. 

More by Joey Keogh: Shudder Slashics: Buddy Cooper’s ‘The Mutilator’ Still Boasts a Killer Hook

The Expecting - Quibi

JK: On the flip-side, what are you guys most proud of about The Expecting? What was your favorite element of the whole project? 

MH: Hmmm. My favorite things came towards the end, actually. There’s this location, an abandoned mental hospital that was actually used in Shutter Island and The New Mutants — it’s very creepy and strange, and it’s located just outside of Boston. When we were shooting there, at night, it was like a fairy-tale. Equally, when we had this young girl in the woods [at the beginning]. I really like trying to create this atmosphere of a dark fairy-tale. That was my favorite part of the process. So, if people feel that, I’ll be very happy. 

AR: I really enjoyed being pregnant. It was such a fun experiment. I mean, I have never been pregnant myself, so to be able to play a pregnant character… also, there’s not just one hard thing she has to go through, it’s this sort of whole arc, and once the show gets going, I think around episode three or four, it really starts to pick up and then it’s just non-stop. So looking back and watching it now, I think it really keeps the audience on its toes, I think it’s very non-stop, and to see it just ramp up was very exciting for me. 

JK: Were there any major differences between shooting a Quibi series like this in these sort of bite-size chunks and shooting a long-form feature or TV show?

MH: I would say… no. I don’t know how AnnaSophia feels, but we really shot it like a movie, which was good, because breaking things up and finding an end point for each episode, you try to keep that in mind when you’re shooting always. But we really had the intensity and the momentum of a movie shoot. 

AR: It felt like we were shooting an indie movie — it didn’t feel any different, though the frame is different because it’s for Quibi. I did feel like the scenes were shorter, though. We had a certain amount of story to tell within these different stages, so the scenes felt almost clipped, I would say. We did have some longer scenes, but the most important part of the scene is what we filmed, rather than the beginning or the end. So, that was definitely something different for me. 

MH: That’s fair. It was… very compressed. Distilled! Distilled horror! 

AR: Yes, distilled. That’s a good way of describing it. 

JK: “Distilled horror” could be a new sub-genre all its own. 

MH: [laughs]

AR: Extra-extra scary and potent! 

Catch The Expecting exclusively on Quibi now.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.