Huesera: The Bone Woman's Michelle Garza Cervera on Bone-Snapping Foley Work and Writing Feminist Horror

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<i>Huesera: The Bone Woman</i>'s Michelle Garza Cervera on Bone-Snapping Foley Work and Writing Feminist Horror

Pregnancy has long been a horrifying emblem in film, indicative of something infiltrating our most intimate boundaries. In Huesera: The Bone Woman, Michelle Garza Cervera re-treads this territory, reassembling the undead parts of this trope and animating it in unsettling shapes.

Huesera opens with Valeria praying for fertility, desperate to get pregnant for an unspecified reason, longing bearing down on her and her husband. Over the course of the film, her pregnancy consumes her, isolating her in an impending sense of doom. Cervera chooses to push past the birth of Valeria’s child as a natural conclusion, sitting with the physical toll of motherhood and measuring its twisted longevity. Cervera lends pregnancy a terrifying heft, crafting a distinctly inhuman visual to accompany the experience. Women’s bodies bend in impossible positions, forming a multi-limbed monster that slithers towards the protagonist with terrifying speed—a nihilistic spin on being welcoming into the fold of first-time motherhood.

Paste talked to Cervera about her experience directing, questioning social codes and her place in the “maternal horror” subgenre.

Paste: There are so many horror films about maternal figures who break social codes (from Hereditary and The Babadook to Psycho and The Innocents). What got you interested in this subgenre? What did you think your film could bring that would be different from the rest?

Michelle Garza Cervera: I was developing for so long—it took me almost four years to put it together—and through that time I did a lot of investigation. It’s crazy, since the seeds of every genre…horror, fantasy, speculative fiction, there is so much about motherhood! Of course it has to do with the fact that it is so in our psyche: All of us are daughters and sons and all of us have the possibility of becoming parents. All aspects of motherhood and fatherhood are so normalized. There are so many social rules, deep down there is so much guilt and so many instincts and so many emotions that are completely taboo around that.

I started doing horror—like short films—a long time ago, but when I picked this theme, I was completely, 100% sure that horror was perfect for it because it just allows you to do a certain kind of focus and introspection into these things that are very hard to speak of. And sometimes we already think it’s very normalized to speak about these other aspects of parenthood but it’s really not—at least in my country! And I feel like in every place I have gone with Huesera I have very deep down conversations about how this is all still such a taboo.

Also motherhood is such an institution, it defines our lives completely, like it tells you how your life path has to be. When you are at home growing up with your mother, and it has to be done in the correct way, and then you’re leaving home and your path to follow is that you should become a mother. This is the path to happiness, so every other dissident path is fucking scary. To me, that is suffocating! It’s horrible! And there are so many expectations about how to be a good or a bad woman everywhere. I feel like what makes Huesera special is that I was really rooted in the experience of being a woman going through an identity explosion…living in Mexico City with that kind of family, I really tried to keep it very specific to how that feels.

Could you tell me a bit about working with sound designer Christian Giraud? How long did it take to create the perfect bone snapping sound?

Cervera: Well we knew we had this sound-like motif since the script. We went through so many different materials and concepts. He was even telling me since the pre-production, “Oh, I think I’m going to use this animal bone!” The actress [Natalia Solián] really cracked her body, she’s really good at cracking her fingers. But [Giraud] has a niece who’s super young and she particularly loves cracking her bones, and he remembered that and he had a long recording session with her!

But honestly it was a mix of different things. He went to this barbeque place, which was very gross, and that one really didn’t work, it was too much. We also used a lot of food. It was a lot of experimentation. I love that process of finding the foley, the foley sessions are one of my favorite parts of the process.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the end of the film. Did you ever consider any other conclusions?

Cervera: I started from the ending. I had a figure in my family who made a similar decision, and I was really doing a personal investigation; how do we create empathy or identify with a character like this? It is supposed to be one of the worst things a human can do. This is, of course, a horror film so I am taking it to the extreme, but there are so many thoughts and feelings that are within the spectrum of that decision but there is not much space for them to be talked about. So I knew that would be it.

But I do have to confess that it was a challenge. It comes with so much guilt even as a filmmaker, as a screenwriter, because of course there is another human being there and you can’t forget about that. So many of the examples of maternal horror keep the focus on the baby, and for me—like in the labor scene—I knew that keeping the camera on the woman’s experience was necessary, and I don’t think it’s been done much.

Writing this arc, and keeping empathy for a character like this is going to be a challenge, but that was my focus the whole time when writing, so we never really thought of changing it. I mean there was a moment, there was an investigation into what would happen if she would have stayed, but that kind of was more horrific. So it was like “No, we have to give a little bit of hope.” This hopeful ending comes from me, and I think it’s very important, it speaks to this theme.

The title translates to “Bone-Setter,” all the bones are broken and then reset.

Cervera: It’s a better title in English, honestly! But I think there is another horror film called The Bone-Setter. But I think this is way more The Bone-Setter than The Bone Woman.

For you was it a hopeful conclusion?

Cervera: Yes, yes, yes, completely! To me the main goal was to be like these characters exist and let’s just talk about it. I mean there are already portrayals of this kind of character. Valeria is many things—that’s part of what we wanted to do with this character, she’s so much more than that decision, there are so many things crossing her life. For us it was about giving her that chance to have that existence, that freedom to go and find any kind of reconstruction she needs. To me, more than the yes or no, the “I stay” or “I go,” it’s about opening the door that this can happen and there should be ways to reinitiate those relationships. There should be a space for these kinds of women to exist. Just opening up that conversation was to me, full of hope.

You’ve worked on short films where you’ve been the sole writer, and you co-wrote this one with Abia Castillo, which feels appropriate considering a lot of its hope is born from female collaboration. What was the process like?

Cervera: Most of the creative building in Huesera was done by women—my cinematographer, my editor—those relationships are so strong and there are moments where you feel like you share a brain. With my co-writer, we have actually already done like four projects together. I feel like I have found my partner. I think that is very hard to do and I feel very, very proud that that happened. It was a really magical process! You start talking about a story and you really have this connection over this exact note that is so specific that I need for this story, and that happened with her.

I pitched Huesera to her on a trip to Acapulco, we were seated together in a bus for a work thing. Her feedback was so detailed and specific and came with these grounded aspects of horror that I really loved, coming from a very specific situation and character and bringing the supernatural from the outside. If you collaborate with someone in a creative way and give it enough time with rewrites, I do believe that the project will start getting a kind of life. It will tell you what it needs and what it wants and what sacrifices you need to make, and that’s something that really came from the collaboration. The moment we got the final script of Huesera we were like “I have no idea how this happened.” It was just so much input and so many ideas and discussions and reading and investigations.

Something else we are really proud of is our friendship. It’s awesome! We are now in the deep, profound process of writing again, and we kind of forgot how hard it is. Now that we are here we are like, “This is a nightmare!” But I do feel like I have someone there. Anytime I feel demotivated or in a dark place regarding the creative process, she is picking me up, and if she is feeling like that I am like “No, come with me.” Doing that alone, I don’t think I want to do it anymore.

Is your next project also going to be a horror?

Cervera: Yes! We already have it funded and I think we are going to make that this year.

Is horror your genre now?

Cervera: I think so. At least for now I don’t see myself exploring another genre. There is so much in this area that hasn’t been done or that I am very curious about. And also specifically with my country I feel like there is so much more to be done and I feel like there are more and more directors coming. I dream about having these genre conversations in Latin America as well so I want to push for that.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.