LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As a movie-obsessed teenager, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona snuck into a film festival masquerading as a journalist to catch the eye of award-winning Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.
Fast forward 15 years and Bayona's early panache has paid off handsomely in "The Orphanage," a supernatural thriller produced by Del Toro fresh off his 2006 hit "Pan's Labyrinth," which earned three Oscars and was Mexico's nominee for best foreign language film.
"Guillermo thought I was a 10-year-old with sideburns," said Bayona of his first meeting with del Toro. "We kept in touch (and) he loved my work in music videos and short films."
"The Orphanage," Bayona's first feature-length movie, is Spain's entry for 2007's foreign language Oscar. It debuts in major U.S. cities on Friday and across the country in coming weeks.
At home, the film broke the box office record for a Spanish-language movie, grossing $35 million. It received 14 Goya nominations, Spain's equivalent of the Oscars, and Bayona has been branded a young phenomenon by industry watchers.
Del Toro said Bayona, now 32, impressed him over the years with his enthusiasm for learning the ins-and-outs of filmmaking and for his talent behind the camera.
"It was wonderful to meet someone so young who dominated technical aspects and storytelling," Del Toro told Reuters.
The movie, written by another first-timer Sergio Sanchez, tells of Laura (Belen Rueda), who brings her husband and son Simon to an orphanage where she grew up, buying the imposing century-old palace to set up a home for disabled children.
Simon tells his mother about a new, imaginary playmate named Tomas, who seems to cast an evil influence. When Simon disappears, Laura goes on a dark and dangerous search to find her son with help from a medium played by Geraldine Chaplin.
Bayona, a Barcelona native who grew up watching Steven Spielberg films and Spanish movies on TV, delights in taking audiences through the palace's hidden passageways and shocking them when tiny Tomas appears wearing his burlap mask.
As Laura continues her journey, she shows a mother's determination to find her lost son.
"This horror story moves spectators to tears, and that is something completely unexpected," said Bayona.
Moviegoers are likely to see similarities with "Pan's Labyrinth," which also meshes the reality and fantasy of a young girl's dark childhood. But Del Toro insists his role as producer on "The Orphanage" was mostly hands-off, and he allowed Bayona to hire his own, young collaborators.
"The great thing about first-timers is that they break the rules on what shouldn't be done in film," said Del Toro.
The director's influence has been crucial, though, in helping to bring in top actresses Chaplin and Rueda. He was a key factor in getting "Orphanage" screened at the 2007 Cannes and Toronto film festivals and in securing U.S. distribution through Picturehouse studio, which also released "Pan's Labyrinth."
Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, dressed in an pink-lined wool hooded jacket, Bayona played down the idea that, like his champion Del Toro, he could be back for February's Oscars.
"It's just a little movie," he said.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Stuart Grudgings