Guillermo Del Toro on Film Business: "The People With the Money Are Assholes"

“I had a f—d up childhood,” fantasy film maestro Guillermo del Toro said to kick off his master class at the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, where he spoke onstage to an enthusiastic crowd that included fellow Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron.

Del Toro is one of several directors, including Michael Mann, William Friedkin and Wong Kar-Wai, appearing at Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux’s ninth annual celebration of classic films and filmmakers, which takes place at the Institut Lumiere in Lyon.

Speaking candidly about his influences, inspirations, fears and desires, del Toro gave a raucous 90-minute talk Monday filled with keen observations, vivid memories and a healthy amount of f-bombs.

Raised by a deeply Catholic family in Guadalajara, the director described his religious upbringing as “a mix of virtue and violence that was f—d up to give a kid.” He recalled how his grandmother would put bottle caps in his shoes to make him suffer for his future sins, while a vividly gory statue of Christ at the local church made a deep impression on him, even if the facial expression made it “look like Jesus was coming.”

But for the young fan of horror and science-fiction flicks, The Outer Limits and fantasy literature, “Frankenstein was a more beautiful martyr than Jesus,” while the world of adults was much more dangerous than the one of make-believe. “When you’re a child dealing with monsters, you don’t have to think about how they will act: they do exactly what they look like,” he said.

Elements from religious iconography and childhood nightmares have found their way into del Toro’s most memorable work, including The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The director, who started off as a special effects makeup designer before making his first feature, Cronos, in 1993, explained how the fantasy genre “allows you to lower your guard because you’re not talking about specifics, but about the universal. Whether you want to or not, everything inside you comes out.” 

For his latest movie, The Shape of Water, which won the Golden Lion at Venice in September and will be released by Fox Searchlight in December, del Toro recounted how he invested his own salary in the film so that he could make the creature — which took nearly three years to design — exactly the way he wanted: “I practice my craft with the absolute faith of someone who believes that it is an art.”

Yet creating art on a Hollywood scale can be a painful endeavor, and del Toro, who has also directed blockbusters like Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013), was extremely candid about his relationship with the business side of movies.

“The people with the money are assholes,” he said. “They look back and they want to stay in a safe place, while the filmmakers want to go forward. And sometimes we as filmmakers f— them up because we’re also assholes, but we’re crazy assholes.”

While del Toro is an extremely generous film and fantasy buff, with two houses in Los Angeles that are filled to the brim with books and memorabilia, he can nonetheless be uncompromising when it comes to the movies he wants to make. “You need to be pretty brutal,” he said, recounting how he’s lost his cool a number of times on set. “Frank Capra’s movies can make you cry, but he was a tough motherf—r.”

Describing a new book project that will consist of interviews about film craft with directors like George Miller and Michael Mann — with whom del Toro spoke onstage earlier during the Lumiere fest — the filmmaker explained how he wants to “elevate the dialogue about cinema to discuss images in specific terms,” especially at a time when television seems to be taking over.

“Our relationship with stories has become very intimate and promiscuous” with television series, he said. "We go to bed with them each night.” But for all its narrative power, TV has not created “images that stay with us as mythology” — such as Chaplin getting caught in the gears in Modern Times, or the blood pouring out from the elevators in Kubrick’s The Shining.

For del Toro, the fantasy genre that he has practiced for several decades has “given us some of the most indelible images in the cinema,” even if not all fantasy films are necessarily created equal. But that aspect ultimately seems to matter less to him, with the Mexican director openly concluding: “Sometimes a really bad movie has saved my life.”

The Lumiere Film Festival runs through Sunday.