Regression is a psychological thriller about the oddity of the human mind

A film about fear, about how we face our fears and about how sometimes those fears turn into our worst nightmare.

Spanish Writer-director Alejandro Amenábar returns to the big screen with the mind-bending Regression, which represents a return to suspense, the genre of The Others which marked his feature film debut in 1996. 

Regression offers different layers of meaning for different audiences, and most of all, a good show to entertain wide audiences who appreciate effective, unpredictable narratives.

Regression is the Spanish director’s sixth feature film and the third he’s shot in English with an international team.  Faithful to his commitment to offering the best fiction to a global audience, he’s managed once again to create a formula for teamwork that transcends language barriers.

“I grew up seeing so many American films, I feel like I identify with them,” says Alejandro Amenábar.

Set in Minnesota, 1990, Regression tells of detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) who investigates the case of young Angela (Emma Watson), who accuses her father, John Gray (David Dencik), of an unspeakable crime. When John unexpectedly and without recollection admits guilt, renowned psychologist Dr. Raines (David Thewlis) is brought in to help him relive his memories and what they discover unmasks a horrifying nationwide mystery.

The term ‘regression’ signifies, among other things, going back,” says Amenábar.  “For me this project is about revisiting mystery, returning to the genre that marked the beginning of my career with Thesis, a film that explored the nearly hypnotic power that contemplating horror can sometimes have upon us, continued with Open Your Eyes, a hallucinatory and feverish glance in which dreams and reality co-exist, and culminating with The Others, an attempt to recover the taste of old classic suspense films.  I always look for what drives me, what motivates me, and that energy which you find sometimes exploring things that are completely different.  That’s why I’ve explored different genres: drama, horror, suspense, or the mix of genres you find in Agora.

It’s a suspense film made with seriousness,” says Alejandro Amenábar of Regression.  “I like suspense and horror movies which aren’t made with ironic distance.  I do like seeing ironic horror movies, but in general, I prefer movies that take the genre seriously.  Regression is not a horror movie.  It’s about fear, about the fragility of the human mind, about how afraid we can get and how fear can keep us from thinking and seeing things clearly.” Pictured are Amenábar discussing a scene with Ethan Hawke during filming.

Alejandro Amenábar

Alejandro Amenábar’s new film is not only a direct immersion in suspense, in the words of Fernando Bovaira, the film’s producer: “Regression mixes genres , which has led Alejandro to subvert them.  The title is very appropriate because to a certain extent the film is about the oddity and complexity of the human mind.

 “Regression could apparently be perceived as a film with horror ingredients, but deep down it’s more a reflection about how to vanquish and defeat our primal fears. Regression is Spanis and a deep journey into our subconscious and our inner demons. However, it also has components of a family drama, since those demons can really destroy our lives and the lives of others”, says Fernando Bovaira.

“Some of the things that happen in Regression would fit into the horror genre,” explains Alejandro Amenábar, “although it’s treated as a psychological thriller with crime overtones.  It’s influenced mainly by thrillers and American horror films from the seventies: The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby… which all have an element of restraint that I wanted to bring back.  The Others was inspired by films from the forties, fifties and sixties, and this film by the seventies.  I wanted to bring back that tempered and slow-moving tone.  But more than anything, I wanted to take the story I was telling very seriously.”

Respect for the genre permeated throughout the members of the crew who participated in the project, from the actors to those responsible for the film’s aesthetic.  “When Alejandro proposed making this film to me,” says Daniel Aranyó, the Director of Photography, “he said that for him it was very important for the story to be believable at all times.  That you should feel like you’re watching a movie in the seventies, with contained dialogue and a somber feel, that he wanted there to be a close connection with the characters and the credibility of the story he was telling.  We had to stay away from the devices people use today to create suspense in a thriller.  And let the story guide you along slowly.”

Inspired by a wave of events that occurred in the United States during the eighties, the film is both a reflection on evil and an exploration of the shortcuts of the mind,” says Fernando Bovaira.  The initial accusations that served as documentation for the writing of the screenplay arose within the context of growing political and religious power inside the United States, and later spread to the rest of the world with unequal intensity, even reaching the point where it was classified as a global conspiracy, and not only by the most sensationalistic sources.

“There was a series of real phenomenon that took place in which police investigation, psychological consulting and superstition converged in an attempt to piece together a strange and horrifying puzzle known as Satanic Ritual Abuse,” recalls Alejandro Amenábar.

“The wave of accusations and confessions was overwhelming, destroying entire families, generating chaos and social panic and in several cases there were harsh criminal consequences.  It has been very interesting to revisit those cases from back in the eighties and nineties with the perspective of someone from the 21st century.”

“Brain studies are a new frontier for scientists. There is still little knowledge of how we process our memories and of how time and manipulation can alter them.“, says  Fernando Bovaira. “Though religion and science belong to different realms, as Stephen Jay Gould maintained, psychology is still in an infant state and can fall easily into superstition. In Regression, Raines and Reverend Beaumont apparently battle in different fields but are closer to each other than they might think.”

Amenábar discusses a scene with Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke.

Once the crime is reported at the beginning of the film, the characters in Regression dive head-first into a world of pursuits, visions, black masses… and fight against the clock to find the proof that will sustain their suspicions and send the perpetrators to prison.  “As the phenomenon grew, an important role was played by the media, witness accounts and essays written about satanic experiences… and also the influence of film itself,” says the director.

Set in a small community in the Midwest, the town and the enormous landscapes surrounding it create a very particular stage that offers extra elements to the story.  The director and screenwriter explains:

“The Midwest is characterized by wide open spaces which contain very small worlds.  In the movie we see a typical American town, with scattered homes where everybody knows everybody.  In such closed spaces the feeling of guilt for having made a mistake is intensified.  Guilt is the element that weighs most heavily on the main characters.”  “What provokes fear in each one of us?” wonder the filmmakers.  Ethan Hawke, who stars in the film, says: “His movie is exploring a little bit our relationship to why we want to be scared, why we enjoy being scared, or why we both hate it and love it at the same time, what a huge part of fear and guilt are in our personalities.”

For Fernando Bovaira “Regression is a film about fear, about how we face our fears and about how sometimes those fears turn into our worst nightmare.  It’s structured like a crime story in which apparently no proof of the crime being investigated has been found.  In the detective genre chaos provokes someone to commit a crime; from there the detective, through the success of the investigation, restores order.  In Regression, Bruce, the main character, gets so wrapped up in the case that he becomes trapped.  The man hunting for the truth becomes the prey.”

Shooting the film

Shot entirely in English, Regression has an international cast headed by American Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Training Day) and British actress Emma Watson (Beauty and The beast, Harry Potter). “Bruce Kenner, the character played by Ethan Hawke, is one of the smartest and most sophisticated guys in town.  While Angela, played by Emma Watson, is like a little angel in the middle of that world, who seems to say very little but sends sparks flying in every direction,” says Alejandro Amenábar. “My character is kind of an enigma to me”, explains Ethan Hawke.

A challenge shared by the director and star, as Alejandro Amenábar highlights:  “When we started shooting, Ethan said that it was the story of a man who was asleep.  And my answer was: ‘No, it’s the story of someone who’s permanently awake, nothing gets past him.’  And I think he managed to build a character who is the smartest detective in town but who is kind of sleepwalking the whole time.  What surprised me most about Ethan’s work is how he manages to find that range of extremely contained energy in someone who is extremely tough, who in the end is truly afraid.”

The trigger in the story told by Regression is the accusation made by young Angela Gray, a shy teenager whose accusation sheds light upon conflicts that no one had dared to speak of before.

This is probably one of the hardest roles or characters that I’ve ever had to play”, says Emma Watson. “Angela is someone who’s had a very difficult life. She has grown up in a house with two addicts; her father is an alcoholic so is her grandmother and her mother died when she was very young in a car accident. She has such a complicated history.”

 Why choose a British actress to tell a story that revolves around a rural North American family?

Alejandro Amenábar had no doubts about who would make the perfect Angela Gray:  “Emma Watson is an extremely intelligent woman, she’s very talented and she understood the project perfectly.  When making a film like this one you need accomplices, people who understand what you’re trying to say.  She had very clear ideas when she arrived to start shooting.”

One of the greatest challenges during the selection process was finding an actor who could explain regression theory with the necessary casualness and precision to make it easier for the audience to understand the scientific aspect, and at the same time be perceived as the nicest character who introduces a touch of humor to the story.

“The challenge was to find someone who could also give you authority.  Someone capable of explaining the therapy and leave no room to question it,” explains Amenábar.  “When we repeated takes while explaining the therapy, David Thewlis got better and better with every take.”  For the British actor: “Raines is a psychotherapist and he is called into the investigation to help out, but he’s a very stubborn man. He’s very adamant that he won’t be seduced into any discussion of the occult or the religious. He’s very opposed to Father Beaumont and he’s strictly a scientific man. He only wants to solve this whole case through scientific procedure. I’m so adamant that my way of working is the correct way to approach this issue, that I think it’s Raines, really, who causes a lot of the trouble.”

As David Thewlis explains, his character and Reverend Beaumont create a dual current in the story.

”Beaumont is the character most obsessed with evil,” highlights the director.  Lothaire Bluteau adds: “It’s the two faces of the coin, you have the science of the psychiatrist and faith. I’m playing a guy who is accepting the rules of the Church but he is not like an extremist so he takes this for what it is”, says Lothaire Bluteau “I’m the link with the audience. I love it in a movie that you put it in the position where the audience has to take sides.”

Regression is an international co-production with a budget of 20 million dollars.  It took twelve weeks and a crew made up of Spanish and Canadian specialists to complete pre-production, which started in Spain but quickly moved to Canadian soil.