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It would seem that a taxi driver is to thank for the making of Guillermo del Toro’s three-time Oscar-winner Pan’s Labyrinth.
On Wednesday night, del Toro joined the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures for a 15th anniversary celebration screening and Q&A for the film. The acclaimed Mexican writer-director revealed that prior to making the film, he had been approached to work on big-budget superhero films for the likes of Marvel.
“After Hellboy and Blade II were successful, I got offered every superhero movie — they were starting to pick up,” del Toro remembered. “I was thinking about it because it was very tempting and I said, ‘Do I do Pan’s Labyrinth or do I do a big movie?’”
Unsure of whether or not he should take the superhero movie opportunity, del Toro ended up forgetting his notebook filled with ideas one day in a cab in London. When the taxi driver was able to return it to him, the director took it as a sign to make his passion project.
“I said, ‘I understand Lord, I’ll do Pan’s Labyrinth, but give me my notebook back.’”
Screening the Spanish-language film in the Academy Museum’s newly opened David Geffen Theater, the Q&A that followed also included the film’s cinematographer Guillermo Navarro — who won the Oscar for best cinematography in 2007 — and Doug Jones, who played The Faun and The Pale Man in the film. Navarro and Jones are both frequent collaborators of del Toro’s, with Navarro having worked on Cronos, Hellboy and The Devil’s Backbone, and Jones having appeared in Mimic, Hellboy, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water.
Shot in del Toro’s favored 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Pan’s Labyrinth came just two years after the director’s success with demon-superhero film Hellboy.
“I like going from big movies to smaller movies,” del Toro said. “I like it because it keeps you honest, and it keeps you scared. Both things are very important. But everything that could go wrong on Pan’s Labyrinth went wrong. And the crew also thought that we were insane. The Spanish crew thought that I was a complete fool in the mountain screaming nonsense.”
He continued, “The first day [Doug] showed up … they were like, ‘What is this American dressed as a Faun doing in a Fascist period movie?’”
Said Jones of the film, “Guillermo del Toro is the only person that could have pulled all that off. I knew that going from Hellboy, which was a big studio [production with] multi-layers of decision-makers, to this — this was his movie. His and his alone. So I knew we were in very good hands.”
Added Navarro, “Here in this world, you have creative control of what you’re doing. You don’t have to be approved, discussed, questioned. We were really on our own, so this is really a product of us.”
Following the film’s acclaim and critical success, del Toro expressed that he never knows which of his films will resonate with audiences.
“I thought I was doing [Pan’s Labyrinth] for a very small audience, same with The Shape of Water. I had no idea that anyone wanted to see the fish get funky,” del Toro joked. “The movies I try to do never make sense. I’ve never pitched a movie, and somebody went, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Del Toro also pointed out that the budget for Pan’s Labyrinth was the exact same for The Shape of Water — $19.3 million, largely due to the practical sets and effects used throughout the film, and keeping it under $20 million was important to the director. When producers told del Toro it would be impossible to do the film on such a limited budget, the director said, “I’m going to find someone that likes 19,” which he ultimately did.
“We know the work and we know what it takes to do it,” Navarro added, in regard to the budget.
In contrast with the film’s dark conflict between Falangist Captain Vidal and the Spanish Marquis fighting against the Spanish Francoist regime, the fairy tale elements of the story take place within the Labyrinth where young protagonist Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) encounters The Faun (played by Jones).
As for the overarching themes of the dark fantasy, del Toro touched on the meaning behind the magical elements.
“Only those that know how to look will find magic in this world because there is none if you don’t know where to look,” he said. “I thought of the movies that made me survive this life when I was a kid because movies saved my life and my sanity a few times. The people that like my movies, I’m fortunate that they connect to them in the same molecular way that I connected with the things I loved as a kid.”
“It’s been 15 years,” del Toro thanked the audience. “Thank you for this celebration. This is the best birthday this film could have.”
Having scored a best picture nod this year for his recently released Nightmare Alley, del Toro now holds a total of six Oscar nominations under his belt, with two wins for best director and best picture for The Shape of Water in 2018.
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