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Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenábar unites religion and science for the satanic crime thriller Regression.

Set in 1990’s Minnesota, Regression stars Ethan Hawke as an ambitious but stubborn detective named Bruce Kenner, who must investigate the mysterious connection behind the sexual abuse of a religious young woman (Emma Watson) and the Satanic ritual scare haunting their community.

With the help of a psychotherapist, Professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), who conducts hypnotic regression therapy, Kenner tries to uncover the past horrors faced by witnesses of black mass rituals. And as he gets deeper into the case, and into Watson’s Angela Gray, Kenner finds himself playing a dangerous game, one that could make him a target by the very people he’s after.

Amenábar — whose breakthrough films include the Nicole Kidman-led haunted house flick The Others and the murder mystery Thesis — has most recently helmed the historical drama Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, and the 2004 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem. With Regression, however, the Chile-born filmmaker marks a full circle return to the genres that launched his career.

Ahead of Regression‘s North American release date, I spoke to Amenábar about this long overdue return to the thriller and horror genres, how he prepared for the film, and his body of work thus far.

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ScreenPicks: Regression was inspired by the American satanic ritual scare of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In terms of research, how did you prepare for this film?

Amenábar: “Well, first I wanted to make a movie about the devil, using it as the McGuffin, as an excuse to do a horror movie. So I remember reading The Satanic Bible by Anton La Vey and another type of books. Somehow, I got bored, and I couldn’t find an interesting approach. The satanic cult is something I wanted to explore, so I put it aside, and then some book I read about satanic ritual abuse, which is something I never heard about before … It allowed me to make a movie about the devil and also the mind and about how the mind plays with that.”

ScreenPicks: I know that you listen to film music when you write. How does music help you as a writer?

Amenábar: “Yeah, I always listen to soundtracks; I love soundtracks. When I try to come out with a movie, I try to get in the mood of the story. Music really inspires me. In the case of this movie, I remember listening a lot to soundtracks by Jerry Goldsmith and those movies from the ’70s that I admired. So I always try to get in the mood with the appropriate music.”

ScreenPicks: Religion and science are major themes in this film. When you were writing the script, did you ever struggle with balancing both perspectives?

Amenábar: “I remember that I liked the idea of science and religion working together. My previous movie, Agora, was really about the struggle between science and religion and confrontation … They have different visions, but they’re trying to solve the same problem. I try to enforce, a little bit more, the idea of science compared to religion.

ScreenPicks: This film is a mix of different genres. You could say it’s a detective mystery, a psychological thriller, and a supernatural horror movie. As your body of work proves, you explore these areas a lot. What compels you to tell these kinds of stories?

Amenábar: “I feel particularly attracted to mysteries and horrors since I was a child. Considering I was a very scared child, for some reason I was very attracted to horror movies. That’s why my first movie [Himenóptero] was a horror and my first feature [Thesis] was a horror movie as well. At the end of the day, I tried to find an interesting story, the appropriate way to tell the story.”

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ScreenPicks: I know that you were inspired by the American thrillers and horror movies from the ‘70s. What is it about that generation of films that continues to inspire you?

Amenábar: “All of those thrillers and horror movies like All the President’s Men, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby — we wanted to keep some of the style of those movies, and then somehow the movie is analogical. When we have some digital effects in the movie, it’s as if the movie rejected them. So we have to go back to the analogical stuff.”

ScreenPicks: Although the film is set in Minnesota, you actually shot this film here in Toronto, where I’m from. What advantages do you think filming in this city had?

Amenábar: “One thing that I didn’t know when I started working there is — when we were moving around, we could see many films being shot there. In the case of this movie, it was the perfect set. You have the urban area, then you have the countryside. Of course, we have Pinewood Studios there. It was perfect for us, and I had a great experience working there.”

ScreenPicks: You’ve worked with many big actors in your career. I’m just going to list some of their names: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, and Rachel Weisz. Of course, for Regression, you now have Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson. Are there any actors that you haven’t worked with that you want to work with?

Amenábar: “You always try to find the proper actor for the role. Of course, there are many actors I would want to work with. One thing I’m starting to appreciate more and more is the honour of working with people of such talent … It’s so difficult to act. In my case, I just try to create an atmosphere in which they can play. But I don’t know. I couldn’t give you particular names.”

ScreenPicks: Are there any that you want to work with again?

Amenábar: “Yeah, all of them. I remember having a party experience a few weeks ago. We were having dinner — Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and I. We were remembering — they worked in my second movie, Abre los ojos [Open Your Eyes], and Javier Bardem worked in Mar adentro [The Sea Inside]. We were having a great experience working together.”

ScreenPicks: So you’re one of those filmmakers who don’t release films as frequently, but your films are very much memorable. How do you think your films have fared over time? Which films do most people talk to you about?

Amenábar: “For my films, one of the most known is, of course, The Others and Mar adentro. I don’t know. I’m not sure if my films stay in time. I always consider this as a job and a way of making a life. It’s great when you make a movie and make money for the next one.”

ScreenPicks: Are you working on any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

Amenábar: “I’m writing right now, and hopefully I’ll have something ready for late spring.”

Regression is now playing in limited theatrical release.

(All photos are courtesy of The Weinstein Company.)