Dialogue: Guillermo del Toro
The Mexico-born filmmaker offers his take on why compelling fantasy can transcend national borders.The past few weeks have been quite the whirlwind for writer-director Guillermo del Toro. Not only did his Picturehouse release "Pan's Labyrinth" score six Oscar nominations late last month in an array of categories, but the movie also is on track to become the highest-grossing Spanish-language feature ever in the U.S. Taking a short break from the excitement, del Toro recently spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's Gina McIntyre about what makes fairy tales so universally appealing and how he owes much of his success to an impressive collection of action figures and more than one Super8 camera.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide to make this film independently rather than within the studio system?
Guillermo del Toro: What tends to happens with fantasy in Hollywood is they tend to explain it until it's not magical anymore. There's a simplicity in fairy tales that requires the most simple of traces. I think it's better to be coherent than logical. We created universes that were elaborate, but they seemed cohesive. We didn't verbalize the whys, the whens and the whos. The main problem is (whether) to make a story an exercise in logic or to make a story an exercise in emotion. If you create a story that is in the O. Henry mold -- which means that there is a surprising payoff at the end that needs to be traced back logically like (1999's) "The Sixth Sense" -- then yes, you need to apply logic to the payoff. But if your goal is not a payoff but an emotional journey, then logic construction should take a back seat to an emotional construction.
THR: There's been a lot of talk about the new generation of Latin cinema, represented by Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and you yourself. What do you make of that?
Del Toro: We are just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, there are incredibly interesting people coming right after. There are filmmakers age 20-30 that are booming in Spain, in Argentina, in Ecuador, in Mexico that are incredibly interesting voices. For me, a Latin American, the Spanish-language surge (means that) people now don't have to struggle with being confined by their geography on the tales they tell. The generations before Alfonso, Alejandro and I were almost ghettoized into only telling stories about the places they were born in. Even me, talking about the Spanish civil war in the past would have been seen as an intrusion because I'm Mexican not Spanish. Now, I think the freedom is coming hand and hand with the language and the polished, technical side of movies becoming universal. The generations before us made movies somewhat more rudimentary in the cinematography, the sound design, the image design in general. They became constricted about reaching an audience, but our generation has polished the technical side and at the same time made very peculiar tales universally acceptable.
THR: You have the most fascinating stories from your childhood and your early days in the business. Is it true that your grandmother tried to have you exorcised and that the first film you made involved "Planet of the Apes" action figures and ketchup?
Del Toro: Yes, yes, it's true -- that and more. My grandmother exorcised me twice herself. The second time she did it, she was throwing holy water at me, and I was laughing at how ridiculous the situation was. She thought I was laughing at the holy water, so she got even more scared. She started yelling, "Don't laugh at the holy water!" The first time she did it, I was very young; the second time, I was in my early teens, maybe 12, 13. She was that way.
THR: And that early film featuring the action figures?
Del Toro: I used to grab one-reel Super8 cameras. I would pop in the cartridge, and I would shoot the whole cartridge in sequence with the toys fighting each other or doing a little bit of rudimentary stop-motion. I remember one climactic shot was the villain falling from a great height, and I had a bag of ketchup at the end (that) would explode against the floor.
THR: How did those formative experiences shape you as a filmmaker?
Del Toro: Well, I still have the villain falling from great heights in (1994's) "Cronos," but there was no ketchup, and I have a man falling from great heights in (1997's) "Mimic." (Laughs) I'm still interested in people falling from great heights. I used to have about 70 figures from (1968's) "Planet of the Apes," and I had a huge walk-in closet in my parents' house that I had transformed into a "studio." I carpeted it with AstroTurf, and I made mountains on the side walls with papier-mache. I made a moon that lit itself. I started organizing the drawers into wardrobe, makeup, props. And I would charge my little brother five pesos for a game involving all the props and 10 pesos for a game involving makeup effects and pyrotechnics. I had a bunch of gunpowder, and I set fire to my walk-in closet a couple of times.
THR: What did your parents think about your setting the closet on fire?
Del Toro: You know, they were not around that much. (Laughs) We were pretty self-sufficient. As long as I put it out, they didn't find out.
THR: So, filmmaking has really played a huge part in your life?
Del Toro: I did those early Super8 films, and then I forgot about it for a few years, until I was 14. When I was 14, I was in the high school arts festival. The previous year, I had won drawing, sculpting, writing and theater (awards), and there was one category that I didn't win that was called audiovisual -- they used to do slide-shows. I hate slides, so I asked, "Can I do a movie instead of a slide projection?" And they said yes. I did a little movie about a monster that climbed out of the sewers and looked at the high school. It was a huge success. I played it until the film broke and burned.
THR: Jumping forward just a bit, you've openly said that your first experience with Hollywood -- working on "Mimic" -- was less than ideal. What did you take away from that, and how has it shaped the way you work with the major studios now?
Del Toro: I often say that working on "Mimic" taught me one of the few words that the English and the Spanish languages have in common, which is "no." I really think I came in being a little too open because I came from a filmmaking background where you are open to suggestions and are sharing and candid about things. I was shocked to find out that it was not that way (in Hollywood). The one thing you learn is to protect yourself.
THR: Your next project is a studio film, Universal's planned 2008 release, "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army," the sequel to 2004's "Hellboy." What can we expect, and what's it been like to revisit a character for which you have such a deep-seated affinity?
Del Toro: Like in any relationship, as time goes by, you feel more comfortable. I feel so much more comfortable with the characters the second time. I know them. I know the actors. I know the realm. It's a far more loose and far more spontaneous movie than the first one. I found myself a little stilted by all the exposition that I had to deal with (in "Hellboy").
THR: And beyond? You've always said that you have several dream projects. With the success of "Pan's Labyrinth," does it look like it might be easier to get any of them made in the near future?
Del Toro: There are two projects I've been chasing for the last 13 years in one form or another. One is "(The Count of) Monte Cristo," and the other one is "At the Mountains of Madness," and they both seem to be moving forward. I'm shooting a trailer for (the adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft novel) "At the Mountains of Madness." It's being financed by (Warner Bros. Pictures). I'm going to shoot a trailer to show them how absolutely unique this world is. If it comes out right, then I guess they'll give me the money (to make the film).
THR: There's been some talk about a new "Tarzan" film as well.
Del Toro: Yeah, we're developing the screenplay with (screenwriter) John Collee (for Warners). What I'm fascinated about Tarzan is the same thing I'm fascinated about Hellboy or about the story of Ofelia in "Pan's Labyrinth," which is how we are shaped by the choices we make, how we basically will ourselves into being. I love the fact that Tarzan is a character that has to learn to become an ape, and then he has to learn to become a man. His final life and persona are shaped by these two decisions.
THR: Would you say that concept of choice and consequence is the one theme that runs through all your work?
Del Toro: I suppose it is. I wouldn't say it's in all the films, but it's certainly in a few of them. It's definitely in my mind every goddamn day. It really is one of the things that entertains my thoughts all day long. I'm prone to obsess about certain things. I think Bruno Bettelheim said that fairy tales are a way for us to create a theater play of our inner conflict through magical characters. I think that very much summarizes who I am and what my craft is.
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Dialogue: Guillermo del Toro