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Oscar-nominated filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s taste for sci-fi and fantasy doesn’t come from nowhere. When he was younger, the acclaimed director recalls, “I saw a UFO.”
“I know this is horrible,” del Toro continues. “You sound like a complete lunatic, but I saw a UFO. I didn’t want to see a UFO. It was horribly designed. I was with a friend. We bought a six-pack. We didn’t consume it, and there was a place called Cerro del Cuatro, “Mountain of the Four,” on the periphery of Guadalajara. We said, ‘Let’s go to the highway.’ We sit down to watch the stars and have the beer and talk. We were the only guys by the freeway. And we saw a light on the horizon going super-fast, not linear. And I said, ‘Honk and flash the lights.’ And we started honking.”
The UFO, says del Toro, “Went from 1,000 meters away [to much closer] in less than a second — and it was so crappy. It was a flying saucer, so clichéd, with lights [blinking]. It’s so sad: I wish I could reveal they’re not what you think they are. They are what you think they are. And the fear we felt was so primal. I have never been that scared in my life. We jumped in the car, drove really fast. It was following us, and then I looked back and it was gone.”
Del Toro was speaking at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV in November, when he took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters. He also described a close encounter with a ghost, “a sighing ghost, [with] a really sad sigh.” Much scarier was his trip to a haunted hotel with composer Danny Elfman and writer Mike Mignola. “I said, ‘Each of us is going to stay alone for 40 minutes and nobody should knock on the door.’ And then we hear [ghostly sounds] and it was Danny Elfman’s ringtone.”
Along with ghosts and UFOs, del Toro described some of the thinking behind such films as Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, and his new work, The Shape of Water. A transcript of the conversation is below.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let’s begin with endings. When you start a work, what’s the first image you have and the last image and how do you then construct it?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Well, it varies, like with Shape of Water, the first thing that I have was of the character of Sally, Elisa.
GALLOWAY: Sally Hawkins.
DEL TORO: Yeah. It’s different than in the movie. I had her sitting on a little chair, eating a sandwich in front of the cylinder that held the amphibian creature, and a little record player next to her playing music for the two of them. It was their night out. And that was an image. In Cronos, I have a couple of images: the vampire grandfather sleeping in a toy chest and licking blood from the floor, one drop of blood from the floor, and so on and so forth. In Pacific Rim, what attracted me to do it was the idea of the girl, Mako, when she’s a kid, holding a red shoe and traumatized, and that girl living inside the adult Mako and the adult Mako being inside the 25-story robot, and the fear from the girl is operating the robot. And the only way to solve it is if she learns to trust the person next to her who also doesn’t trust anyone. So, those are the way.
GALLOWAY: Do you always start with an image?
DEL TORO: No, no, no. Sometimes you have a vague notion, like Pan’s Labyrinth. When I started writing, it was completely different.
GALLOWAY: In what way?
DEL TORO: In every way. I just thought it was a fascist captain and his wife. And the wife was pregnant and the wife met a fawn in the center of the labyrinth that told her you are a princess. And the only thing you have to do is give me your baby when the baby is born. And it was a very different tale. And then the frightened mother became a secondary character, the girl came in. There was a very pretentious blind man in the labyrinth, very pretentious [LAUGHS] like high school pretentious [LAUGHTER]. I’m not going to impress everyone with how sophisticated I am.
GALLOWAY: I think university is more pretentious than high school pretentious, but…
DEL TORO: You know what I am talking about.
GALLOWAY: Do you read a lot? Where do you turn for inspiration?
DEL TORO: I read like a maniac. I’ve been reading all my life. The most reading I did — and it sounds like a small period, but it was very intense — was from seven to 15. I read more than a book a day. You know, I read voraciously. And I’m a fast reader but really comprehend everything. You know, I swore I never would have the iPad. And I keep carrying a bag full of books on every vacation. And then I said, I’m going to try this thing. And now I carry 3,000 books in the iPad [LAUGHTER]. But I watch at least two movies a day, one movie a day at least. And sometimes the weekends I can do a little retrospective, you know. And I try to read two books a week.
GALLOWAY: What are you going to watch this coming weekend?
DEL TORO: Well, this coming weekend is a very special weekend. I’m planning to watch Miyazaki, you know, do a little bit of Takahata, Miyazaki, The Red Turtle, aleatory Ghibli stuff, you know. These are guys that I’m revisiting. Their spirit is so powerful and gentle.
GALLOWAY: Which film recently has most influenced you?
DEL TORO: That influenced me like it changed the way I think?
DEL TORO: It would be reviewing — not viewing for the first time — The Train, [John] Frankenheimer’s The Train. And I spoke about it yesterday. I saw it again about two weeks ago. Before that, I saw it a year ago. It was a movie that curiously was very influential for Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s invisible. You don’t see how, but it is there. And there are even direct quotations in the movie. So, I think that’s one of them, one of the most perfect sort of popular entertainment films ever made. And I think it’s perhaps the first real action movie in America cinema. And yet it’s complex. The marriage of Frankenheimer, [Burt] Lancaster, [Paul] Scofield was fantastic and Walter Bernstein.
GALLOWAY: The screenwriter.
DEL TORO: The screenwriter, uncredited as the screenwriter.
GALLOWAY: Because he was blacklisted.
DEL TORO: He was blacklisted and so it’s an incredible piece of filmmaking. For Shape of Water, it’s not an influence, it was consultation, which I think is different. I think influence is: you are sitting in a theater, you are watching something and it bounces on you and you have an idea. That is not direct, not quotation, you know. But when you are preparing for a movie, I watch a movie. I watch certain filmmakers. For Shape of Water, I watched Douglas Sirk, [Vincente] Minnelli, Stanley Donen, William Wyler. And they are not necessarily direct quotations. You can see a little bit of Written in the Wind, little things. And [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger, you can see them very clearly if you watch Shape of Water, you know. But those are consultations. I have 7,000 DVDs on Blu-ray and I use them…
GALLOWAY: Gosh! Are you a hoarder, Guillermo? [LAUGHTER]
DEL TORO: No, no, no, no, no, no.
GALLOWAY: I’ve been in that house of yours. That’s a lot of stuff.
DEL TORO: But it’s very organized. It’s not hoarding. Hoarding is when you have to go by the cat and a pile of shoes falls on you. You know that?
GALLOWAY: Do you think every hoarder has an excuse like that?
DEL TORO: No, no, no because it’s completely organized. We did a test once. I was talking about it with John Horn from the L.A. Times and he said, “Where is that book?” and I go, [GESTURES], “Where is that movie?” [GESTURES], you know. And for me, you take a movie out like you would a book, you put it on the player and you consult a chapter. It’s just to inspire you. But when I am shooting, every morning I wake up very early, three hours before call, and as I wake up for breakfast, I watch a little piece of a movie I like, that has nothing to do with what I am shooting. And the reason is, you feel — if any of you is a filmmaker — you will come to a point where you’ll say there is so much bullshit, if I may use that.
GALLOWAY: You may.
DEL TORO: There’s bullshit in the business: You know, a car didn’t arrive, the actor is late, whatever. Then when you watch a piece of film, you say, that’s what I am doing. I am not dealing with the schedule and the budget and makeup; it’s this is what I am doing. It’s sort of going to church.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever thought about giving up?
DEL TORO: Oh, yes. Many times.
DEL TORO: Almost every day of shooting, but seriously considering, at least three times or four times a night in my 25 years or career or job. There are times when you are in despair, because in order not to betray who you are, you don’t compromise, you don’t [make] movies that would be very lucrative or prestigious or easily understood. And yet I stay attached to the most uncanny premises. You know, it’s never been easy. First movie, I go to the Mexican Institute of Film and I say, “I want to make a middle-aged vampire story in a Mexican neighborhood.” Amazing, they refuse to make the movie for four years! I had to do three times the amount of work, budgeting, documents, than any other filmmaker. Then I go to Mimic and I tried, I really tried to make it as beautiful and thematically powerful as I could, didn’t happen. It got disassembled along the way.
GALLOWAY: By Harvey Weinstein?
DEL TORO: No, it was Bob Weinstein. They played good cop, bad cop, I guess. I got Bob.
GALLOWAY: They also play bad cop, bad cop on occasion.
DEL TORO: Bad cop workshop, I guess. No, my experience was with Bob. Miramax Dimension was Bob’s and it was such a difficult shoot. And nevertheless, the image, which we discussed the other day, the visuals were exactly as I wanted them and that was a revelation. I think Bob was completely obsessed with me moving the camera, because with Cronos, the camera is very deliberate. It moves only when it has to. And Bob kept saying, “Move the camera, your camera is always static.” And I started moving the camera, it was like dancing. They were shooting at the feet, you know. And little by little, I found a rhythm that I now use and sustain in every movie. Devil’s Backbone is elegant because I was forced to move the camera on Mimic. And Shape of Water doesn’t have a single static shot. Every shot is roaming, moving, craning, every single shot. The only equipment I don’t ride is a tripod. But it came out of that hardship.
GALLOWAY: Do you storyboard yourself?
DEL TORO: Every day. I doodle, and then I give it to a guy that draws much better, that draws nicely. And most of the time I ignore it, because those are storyboards are made for budgeting so we know we are going to have three shots. But in reality, after 25 years, the thing that you do is: you work with the actors, you get a semblance of setup, how we are going to do it. And you come to a location early. You come an hour before anyone shows up. The location’s empty, nobody’s talking to you, everybody’s eating breakfast. You sit down. When I was doing Mimic or preparing Devil’s Backbone, the more I saw still photography, I kept saying, “This still photographer got a better angle than I did,” you know?
GALLOWAY: Oh, you mean the set photographer?
DEL TORO: The set photographer. And then I started the discipline of walking the set, and if possible, with a little ladder, going up, going down, looking around. And then the morning, you doodle really quick, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” And then people show up and you’re prepared and if they have a better idea, you abandon it because I think you need to be fully prepared in order to improvise. You prepare, prepare, prepare. That’s your net and then if somebody says, “What if we do this?,” you improvise.
GALLOWAY [To audience]: Guillermo doodles in these notebooks. Have you seen the LACMA exhibition? You can see the roots of all these things. Have you been doodling anything today?
DEL TORO: No. You know what happened? And this is not as bad as it sounds: The last notebook, I lost, and I don’t know where it is.
GALLOWAY: When did you lose it?
DEL TORO: About two weeks ago.
GALLOWAY: Oh, no.
DEL TORO: I don’t know where it is and we were traveling all over the place with Shape of Water. It had only a few notations. The notebooks are notebooks that I bought in 1997 in Venice when Mimic went to Venice. And that’s one of the great things of Mimic — the trip to Venice. That was about it, but we went and I bought these notebooks and I said these should last me the rest of my life and they have, you know.
GALLOWAY: How many?
DEL TORO: I bought eight.
DEL TORO: Eight, yeah. I was not very ambitious. But they are so nice and they are very fragile, they come apart very easily. Then I bought a thing called… this is super-nerdy. I buy a thing called “the quiver,” which is a little thing that you put on the side of the notebook, it has to be brown leather and I put my two fountain pens on the side. And that’s my hi-tech approach to note-taking [LAUGHTER]. I think there’s something beautiful about handwriting.
GALLOWAY [To audience]: The very first time I met Guillermo, which is about 10 years ago, we did a roundtable. There was a car and he got in the car. And as he was getting in, he put his hand on the top, leaving his notebook there. The car took off and the notebook fell off and I opened it and it said, “Reward, $500.” I thought, “I’m going to steal this notebook.”
DEL TORO: You didn’t, you were nice.
GALLOWAY: I gave it back. I was very nice. [LAUGHTER]
DEL TORO: I’ve lost it quite a few times. Once, a very good notebook, one of the good ones, full of notes and everything, I was in a taxicab in London and I left it and I went into a crime and mystery book show. And I was in the book show and I felt the emptiness. I ran out, and I never run. [LAUGHTER] Never. This is a rare instance. I kind of wiggled my way up rapidly. And I come up and the taxi was still there. I was like a fat Tom Cruise [LAUGHTER]. A cross between John Goodman and Tom Cruise, you know, running behind the taxicab and of course I didn’t catch it. And I despaired all night. It was right when I finished Hellboy and I was being offered every superhero movie under the sun. And I couldn’t do Pan’s Labyrinth. And I spent the night — I do transcendental meditation and I was doing TM, and I was thinking, and I said, “OK, I get it, the notebook got lost because I was about to betray the movie I really needed to do.” Now there was no way the taxi driver knew where I was. I say, “OK, I get it, I’m going to do Pan’s Labyrinth.” And a few minutes later, the phone rings and it’s the taxicab driver. And he brings me my notebook back and I give him 500 pounds. “Take everything,” you know. But I believe in those things. I’m Mexican, I’m pretty superstitious. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: You saw a ghost.
DEL TORO: No, I’ve never seen it. I’ve heard them, twice. I’ve heard ghosts twice and I saw a UFO.
DEL TORO: I saw a UFO. [LAUGHTER] I know, I know.
GALLOWAY: You’ve been keeping this secret all these years?
DEL TORO: No, no, no, and I know this is horrible. You sound like a complete lunatic, but I saw a UFO. I didn’t want to see a UFO. [LAUGHTER] It was horribly designed.
DEL TORO: I was with a friend… we didn’t consume, we bought a six-pack. We didn’t consume it and there was a place called Cerro del Cuatro, “Mountain of the Four,” and outside, in the periphery of Guadalajara. We said, “Let’s go to the highway.” We sit down to watch the stars and have the beer and talk. We were the only guys by the freeway. And we saw a light on the horizon going [GESTURES], super-fast, not linear like [GESTURES]. And I said, “Honk and flash the lights.” And we started honking.
GALLOWAY: Oh, yeah, “Aliens, grab me, please.” [LAUGHTER]
DEL TORO: And it went from there [GESTURES] to here — like 1,000 meters away — in less than a second and it was so crappy. [LAUGHTER] It was a flying saucer. So clichéd, with lights going like this. It’s so sad. I wish I could reveal they’re not what you think they are. They are what you think they are. [LAUGHTER] And the fear we felt was so primal.
DEL TORO: Seriously, like I have never been that scared ever in my life. We jumped in the car, drove really fast. I kept looking. It was following us. And then I looked back and it was gone. So, you know, judge me. I have no implant. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: You think.
DEL TORO: I think.
GALLOWAY: Well, what about the two ghosts?
DEL TORO: Well, the more remarkable one, the one that inspired Devil’s Backbone, was a sighing ghost, it was a really sad sort of inhaling [SIGH], like a really sad sigh. It was my uncle, I think, because it was in his room after he died. But the second one, which was truly remarkable, is we were scouting locations for The Hobbit. If you go to New Zealand, at the tip of the island in Waitomo there is a hotel called the Waitomo Hotel. And everywhere I go, if I can, I take the haunted room. Like the Langham Hotel in London has two haunted suites. And I’ve been in both of them, nothing has happened. [LAUGHTER] Once — can I tell an anecdote?
GALLOWAY: Yes, of course.
DEL TORO: Once I went with Mike Mignola and Danny Elfman. And I said, “Each of us is going to stay alone for 40 minutes and nobody should knock on the door or make little noises. Two of you go to the bar.” And then we hear [MAKES GHOST SOUND] — and it was Danny Elfman’s ringtone. [LAUGHTER] That was the only occurrence for the night. Now, in Waitomo, the hotel was empty for the season. So the eight people that scouted The Hobbit, we took it. And I said, “Guys, I’m going to sleep over here.” I asked for the exact room, they went to the east wing, west wing, whatever, they went to the other side of the hotel. It was The Shining, in New Zealand, and I was alone in the corridor. And I started doing what you do when you are in a haunted hotel, watching The Wire. [LAUGHTER] I was watching Stringer Bell strike some deals, and then all of a sudden — and I know there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, I’m sure — I heard screaming, hearing screams of a murder, a woman being murdered in the room, huge screams, horrible screams. And I turned on the computer and it was right there in the room but there was nothing. It was right there in space. And then I got really scared, followed all their sounds and there was a vent in the bathroom and I could hear noises and voices. And I went back and sat in my chair. There was a balcony with a huge window and I thought, I better not look at the balcony in case somebody’s standing there.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
DEL TORO: And I don’t know why, but I started hearing a man crying, really sad, with huge repentance. And I grabbed my earphones and I watched Stringer Bell all night, didn’t look away from the computer, and the next morning nobody had had any occurrences except me.
GALLOWAY: You are very drawn to monsters, but not so much to ghosts.
DEL TORO: Well, Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak. You know, I think for me, it’s not the creatures, it’s what they represent; because to me what’s great about the genre — I don’t do a genre, I do weird stuff. I don’t know what I do. I do my own sort of mix, a cocktail of things. And what is attractive to me is the form of the fantastic, with the engine of the fairy tale and the purpose of the fable. Those are the things I’m interested in. So, what is the allegorical, what is the symbolic, what is the incarnation value of a creature? In Devil’s Backbone, a ghost is a thing left undone, a regret from the past, multivalent and beautiful. It’s my second favorite film I’ve done and it’s a beautiful multivalent symbol. I don’t want to make it only one thing because then the symbol becomes a cipher, you know. It ceases to be poetry and it becomes algebra, it’s very boring. So, you ascribe it a certain value symbolic of it and you keep it a little open and it’s beautiful because then it’s poetic, then it has a weight narratively that is sublime and ethereal.
GALLOWAY: You don’t want it to be too easily understood, in other words?
DEL TORO: No. Well, imagine that at age 52, I have been preparing Shape of Water for a while. Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu, they both said, “You got to make that one. That’s the one you’re going to make.” Alejandro and I were talking about Murakami and how the story was so beautiful. Murakami has a sort of man that shares a home with a giant toad, and we were talking about [that]. And I was preparing Pacific Rim 2, big movie, really great to make — you know, all the accoutrements of a big movie blah, blah, blah. But there was a crossroad in which I could leave Pacific Rim and go do Shape of Water. And Pacific Rim was the sure thing — big payday, blah, blah, blah. And Alejandro, Alfonso and I, we spoke. And I said, “I’m going to get help. I’m going to go to the other movie,” which means to stop for a long time, [pay for] financing the design of the creature, writing the screenplay myself, the design of the set before a production designer comes on board — and I go ahead and take that one. I take this pitch for Shape of Water, a musical melodrama set in the Cold War in 1962 between a woman and an amphibian man.
GALLOWAY: Very commercial!
DEL TORO: Well, but at the same time you say, “Listen, we’re in this world a very limited time.” And we are not important individually. We are going to be just as important only insofar as you are part of a chain. And if you can be that link to other people that came before you and the ones that come after, then you have to honor that link. If you are doing what somebody else tells you to do and you have success, it’s horrible. And if you are doing what other people tell you to do and you fail, it’s equally horrible. So, I think that at age 52 I went and had a question, a very important question. I said, “What am I doing that’s different than anything I’ve done?” And the movie is very different in many ways. It’s a continuous sort of cohesion of everything I have done, but at the same time, my mentor, one of my mentors in Mexico, saw the movie and he defined it perfectly. He said, “You finally exhaled.” The movie has a breath and a humanity and an easiness and a fluidity, no pun intended, that is beautiful.
GALLOWAY: But it’s still very much the same mind behind your first film.
DEL TORO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I haven’t lost that much.
GALLOWAY: I wanted to ask you two questions. One is, you mentioned your second favorite film. What is your favorite of your films?
DEL TORO: Shape of Water.
GALLOWAY: It is? Even this close to it?
DEL TORO: Oh, yeah.
DEL TORO: Look, for other people it may take a while to evaluate. For you, it’s instant, because it’s a sportsmanship. You aim, you shoot and if you don’t hit the center, you don’t like them. You hit close to the center, you like them.
GALLOWAY: Given your thinking, was it hard to get your first film off the ground?
DEL TORO: It’s been hard to get every film, all the time. The only one that was fast, the only two that came fast off the ground, were Blade II and Pacific Rim maybe, because the people behind them wanted them to happen. But even Pacific Rim was very different before I came on board. When I came on board, there was a 10-page treatment that have no double pilots, it was basically the Jaegers and the Kaijus, which I adore. But there was a completely different story. There were no paternal links. There was none of the human story, none of the set pieces. So, Travis [Beacham] and I co-wrote the screenplay on that.
GALLOWAY: I want to take a look at a clip from your first film, Cronos. It’s amazing to me in the first film that you can sense that imagination. You can sense the person behind it.
DEL TORO: I’ll take any praise you’re giving me.
GALLOWAY: I love that, because you feel you are in a nightmare world.
DEL TORO: I was.
GALLOWAY: You were?
DEL TORO: No, it was a very difficult movie because a first movie, and again every movie I have done, the ambition exceeds the budget. It doesn’t matter how much it is. I dream bigger than the budget, and Cronos was no different.
GALLOWAY: And you had $1.5 million.
DEL TORO: $1.5 million and then another $5 million in interest.
GALLOWAY: $500,000 in bankers’ fees.
DEL TORO: The interest in Mexico at that time was 115 percent annually — good place to park your money, by the way. And then later, you see the interior of the machine, and to pay the producers we had no money. We had no chance of shooting it. So, I sold my van to pay for the interior of the machine I’m building. We built it in my company. Every effect there was done in my company. And it was done with nothing. We had no technology. So, every time I cut, it’s a different device that does a different thing. And the final one, when he places it, that retracts the legs, it was two wind-up mechanisms from wind-up toy cars that we would open the machine, wind it up, winded the second one up, hold them, seal the machine, give it to the actor, say action. And when the first mechanism wound up, triggered the second one, that wound the legs at the same time. The cars cost 75 cents. And we gutted them and made this. The mechanism however is made of real silver and real gold.
DEL TORO: And they were done by jewelers. Because the way, back then we are talking about 1990, plating plastic was very bad. It looked bad. And when we plated different metals, the one that had the best sheen was silver. So, we made the machines of silver and gold. We did about, I don’t know, seven of them. And somebody stole them at the end of the shoot.
DEL TORO: I kept the molds and made copies. I have one. It’s the one that was at LACMA. But the original machines probably were melted to do some garish piece of jewelry.
GALLOWAY: How long did it take you to design what’s called the scarab? How many different versions did you do?
DEL TORO: A friend of mine, a painter — I knew what I wanted in terms of the shape. I wanted it to feel like a Faberge egg. I knew the symbols: the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, which is eternity. The egg itself is a symbol of eternity, the scarab another symbol of eternity. And we designed the motifs and then a painter friend of mine designed the front and I designed the back. And the interior, I designed myself. He was quick. He was a very good artist, took about a weekend.
GALLOWAY: I was fascinated — when we were talking about Shape of Water, you said you spent two years designing the creature.
DEL TORO: And one year executing it.
DEL TORO: I mean, those two years were on and off, depending on the flow of my wallet because I was financing myself. So, I started with two sculptors, then went to Legacy. Legacy did a cohesion of those sculpting and then we hired a third sculptor, Mike Hill, who came in and really shaped the creature. And then we spent a long, long time with the coloring, the sculpting. About, I don’t know, three, four months were purely sculpting and about six refining. It was a very elaborate creation because you are not designing a monster. You are designing a leading man.
GALLOWAY: You have often said you would love to remake Frankenstein, which is the film that maybe had the biggest influence on you. Did you ever design the creature or think how you…?
DEL TORO: We did. We designed a bunch of material. I had a thing for Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. But I don’t know anymore. I am such a coward on that because I love the books so much and that’s what I am trying to do. No one has done the book. I mean this is a book that is to me, it was a great discovery. I bought the book thinking it was going to be like the movie. And I read it and I was moved so profoundly because this is written by a 19-year-old girl that decides to —
GALLOWAY: Mary Shelley —
DEL TORO: Mary Shelley, who beats all the men that made the bet one stormy night — you know.
GALLOWAY: Yes. [To audience:] I don’t know if you guys know this story but you do, yes? I’m really thrilled to know that. Those who nodded get an A.
DEL TORO: But what is fantastic for me is that the Romantic movement comes out as a counter balance to everything that has been accumulating since the Age of Reason. I think the downfall of imagination as a genre or as a perception starts with the Age of Reason, which says everything else that came before us, all those superstitions, all those myths, are childish. Then it continues when the novel assumes that realism is the highest form of art. And then it continues when that gets psychologized. And everything else, the parable and the fable, these forms that are ancient to us are seen downgraded on film. Chronicle and fable were born at the same time, basically, with the Lumieres and Méliès. One decides to do a train arriving to the station, the other one decides to do magic. And very often we forget the fantastic, [which gave] some of the key images of the catalog of images in cinema.
GALLOWAY: Such as?
DEL TORO: You name it, Nosferatu at the top of the ship, Frankenstein crossing the threshold, the unmasking of Phantom of the Opera, the gushing blood from the elevators on Kubrick’s The Shining, the star child on Kubrick’s 2001 [A Space Odyssey], and you can go on and on. You know, in the same way that in literature, you can go in through Richard Madison or somebody very commercial — Frederick Brown, Stephen King, whatever — and you are going to end up reading Victor Hugo. You are going to end up reading Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Louis Stevenson and so on and so forth, you know.
GALLOWAY: Is there one image from one of your films you think will last more than others?
DEL TORO: If I have to venture the three images — I love when people reproduce the things I do and they do their own versions. I have bought pieces.
GALLOWAY: Have you really?
DEL TORO: Yeah, yeah, because I love them and I love the image. I am buying something I did. I am buying something I put out in the world and somebody did better, you know?
GALLOWAY: So, what were the three images you were going to mention?
DEL TORO: The ghost at Devil’s Backbone. I think the Pale Man or the fawn in Pan’s Labyrinth. And I suspect the Shape of Water has a couple of images. Particularly, one of the images has been used in the posters and so forth: them floating. These are images that last.
GALLOWAY: Going back to fairytales, what was the one that you were inspired by for Cronos?
DEL TORO: To me, the Cronos came from a very strange place and you go back. And you read my first interviews and I talk about the fairy tale feel of the movie because it has a gentler spirit or a more magical spirit than a vampire film. The last thing we see is the drinking of the blood is the Resurrection, the fact that she puts her grandfather in a toy chest. These are the things that resonate. And you only assume it’s a vampire film as the movie progresses. You don’t know it’s a vampire film but you go, “Ah, it’s a vampire film.” He is afraid of the light and so forth and to me it was… I lived a long time with my grandmother and the idea of… there was love between us but there was also a very eroding Catholicism, you know, that was very, very painful for me as a kid. And I grew up and I realized I still loved her. And, we can be monsters to each other sometimes but sometimes we are not. And when you understand that, you can love. If you seek perfection, you will never love.
GALLOWAY: [To audience] I wrote a profile on Guillermo that came out a couple of weeks ago and people were very shocked by the story where she put bottle caps, metal bottle caps, inside your shoes. By the way, I brought you all copies of this magazine.
DEL TORO: I thought you brought them bottle caps!
DEL TORO: I was going to run away…
GALLOWAY: So, we’ll give those out at the end of the interview and you can read about that.
DEL TORO: Well, she explained to me original sin and I didn’t get it. I mean, I’ve got to pay in purgatory for something I have never done? That’s a bad deal, you know. And then she explained purgatory to me: basically, the flames of hell, but not forever. I was like, “Oh, that’s great.” And then she said, if you want to ameliorate your time in purgatory, you can offer Jesus your suffering. So, here are these bottle caps, put them in your shoes and every time they hurt, you offer your pain to Jesus. I wore them for a long time until my mother discovered my socks were stained with blood, and then we stopped the bottle cap-thing.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] But you still kept staying at your grandmother’s?
DEL TORO: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that a lot of what I do — and this is what is beautiful in Shape of Water — is: there were a lot of Catholic things sort of encircling all the movies I did, any of them. And I think Shape of Water is the first one that is a lot more ample, and more human, in many ways, a lot less fixated in loss. In all the other movies have loss and nostalgia, loss, all of them, even Pacific Rim, even Hellboy, even those movies, even Blade II has that with the character of Nomak.
GALLOWAY: How does Hellboy have a Catholic quality?
DEL TORO: [LAUGHS] Do you want me to really explain that? I mean his father gives him the choice to be what he wants to be and he is reminded by a rosary that his father can’t leave behind. The fact that you are who you choose you are, not who you are born to be which I believe completely.
DEL TORO: I do, I believe that there’s a moment… I am not talking about self-determination in a Norman Vincent Peale way. I am talking about every day we are all great people and horrible people, many times a day. Whether it’s road rage or whatever, we are all imperfect. You know, we cannot look at the world and say black and white because the only place that has oxygen for us to breathe is the gray. So, in between the black and the white, to get to that gray, you choose. You make a choice. You make a choice to be an agent of love or an agent of fear. And this sounds like a silly notion but it’s true. Every day you make those choices. And, it’s very difficult to remain 100 percent something. I think that’s what the Shape of Water tries to say, the only way you can negate a person in its whole is through ideology, by reducing them to one term.
GALLOWAY: We are going to come to Shape of Water, by the way, but I want to talk about Hellboy. We are going to watch a clip from it.
DEL TORO: You are?
GALLOWAY: Yes, you said it was an autobiographical film…
DEL TORO: It is.
GALLOWAY: …just as much as your others. So, let’s watch a clip and then I’d like you to explain.
DEL TORO: Oh, I hope it’s not that clip.
GALLOWAY: No, no, no, it’s a different clip.
GALLOWAY: Hellboy’s an autobiography?
DEL TORO: I am not fire-proof.
GALLOWAY: OK. [LAUGHTER].
DEL TORO: Don’t try anything weird… The relationship between him and Professor Broom, it’s still the relationship between me and my grandmother in many ways, you know, it is, for me. And there are many secret ways that I can… There’s a lot, some of them very personal but I changed the birthday of Hellboy in the comic to my birthday, October 9th.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
DEL TORO: Yeah, so he comes to Earth October 9th and many of that sort of faith or lack of faith or, my grandmother was always worried about what I was going to be. She always saw me draw monsters since I was a kid and she was really concerned. When she was very close to dying, I visited her, I was doing sculptures and makeup effects and all that and I showed her my greatest hits. And she started to cry and she said why can’t you do anything beautiful? And I said these are beautiful. And I think that worry is the worry Professor Broom feels for Hellboy and there are other biographic elements that I, you know, I’d rather keep for myself but they are there.
GALLOWAY: Somebody said something interesting which is: all biography is autobiography.
DEL TORO: Yeah, all portraiture is self-portraiture.
GALLOWAY: Is that true of film, too?
DEL TORO: Oh, 100 percent, because that dialogue you have is with yourself. Everything, the way we see the world, I really believe this, is absolutely the way we see ourselves. The satisfactions, the hatreds, the fears, we feel for others, are all things that are incomplete in you. It has very little to do with others. Until you heal those things, then you can see people. I mean I love the idea of kintsugi that we discussed.
GALLOWAY: You should tell everybody what that is.
DEL TORO: The Japanese notion that… you know, tea sets were very valuable and the great ones came from China. When the tea sets broke, they were sent to repair to China and they came back with really coarse repairs, trying to make the crack disappear, look like new. And Japanese started the art of repairing those cracks with gold. So, the crack itself was a beautiful thing that told the story of how that thing came to be, not trying to hide the cracks but make them part of the being of the thing. And that’s what we are. I think that we are made of broken porcelain and we should not be afraid of making the repair marks.
GALLOWAY: It’s a very interesting view: The flaws are part of the human being, but also the work of art.
DEL TORO: It is the notion of wabi-sabi in Japan, which is much more ample, but it’s the perfection of imperfection, the humility of the beauty of imperfection. It’s very hard to explain wabi-sabi, but it’s this notion that it’s the chinks in the armor that make the armor beautiful, so to speak, or the aging of a piece of wood.
GALLOWAY: I love that idea.
DEL TORO: Yeah, and wabi-sabi says it’s in context that a humble thing can become beautiful. And I think that’s what I tried to do with the genre. You know, I take a genre that is really looked down upon. And in the more personal films, in the smaller films, I tried to attempt to …
GALLOWAY: Renoir made really astonishing films between 1929 and 1937. That was the period of the great Renoirs. And critics started praising his extraordinary empathy and compassion. And somehow once he heard this, he started doing it deliberately.
DEL TORO: It failed, yeah. The same thing happened to some degree to [Alfred] Hitchcock. I really believe that. Look, the best place to talk about the banquet is to be outside the banquet, to look through the window and say, “You motherfuckers.” You know, that’s the best place. It’s the best place to be, to remain outside. I mean, I think it’s a position. When Hitchcock has the amazing revelatory beautiful dialogue with Truffaut, it’s gorgeous, but I think he started articulating a lot more purposely. And there is the period there, Topaz, all the way to Frenzy, Topaz, Torn Curtain, blah, blah, blah, which is sort of a lesser Hitchcock, we can argue that to some Marnie is fantastic. To some, it is not. But I can defend Frenzy not as a beautiful piece but is an incredible bitter piece of filmmaking that is very revelatory of Hitchcock. But I think that is not good when you start, it is good when you articulate, when you know. But if there’s another reading that you haven’t articulated, leave it like that, you know.
GALLOWAY: Has anybody said something about you that’s changed your mind about your work or made you see it differently in any way?
DEL TORO: No. I mean, I do interviews. I don’t read them.
GALLOWAY: You don’t?
DEL TORO: No. There’s a book, Cabinet of Curiosities, that we published, that I did read, because I wanted to check for mistakes. But it’s very hard for me to read that.
GALLOWAY: Your friends Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu…
DEL TORO: They have said things that changed my life, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Like what?
DEL TORO: Many, many, many, many times. I wouldn’t have done Shape of Water if not, because they said, “If there is an opening, bolt, go and do that one. Go and do that one, that’s the one.” Maybe I would have, but I did it faster. And we have each profoundly changed. Shape of Water, when I was planning it, Alejandro and Alfonso read the screenplays, gave me notes, very good notes. We see each other’s cuts. Y Tu Mama Tambien, when I was reading the screenplay, the ending was different. The ending was they went to the beach. They had all this adventure. They came back to Mexico. They heard that she died. No, she committed suicide. She came out, walked into the sea, and drowned. I think I said, “I think the two guys, the love story’s between the two guys.” They should kiss and never see each other again. Because they can’t deal with it, you know. And he said that’s a good idea. And you know, so we influence each other that way. Alejandro came one night to Pan’s Labyrinth and he saw Pan’s Labyrinth and he was in desperation. He was like, “This is so slow. My God, the crane.”
GALLOWAY: This is so slow?
DEL TORO: Yeah, “The crane, you are going to wait for the crane to reach…oh, the dolly, you’re going to wait for the dolly to settle?” Cut here. And we took out 15 minutes in one night. And that’s the cut you see.
GALLOWAY: Do you regret any of those 15 minutes?
DEL TORO: None of those. The editor convinced me to take out one line of dialogue that has haunted me since.
GALLOWAY: Which was?
DEL TORO: The girl goes to bed without supper, because she arrived with a dirty dress. The next morning, her mother dies. The girl stays without supper or food or breakfast for 24 hours and the maid, she’s making the breakfast and she says, “Would you like some food? You haven’t eaten in two days.” And she said, “No.” I took that out. And that’s why she eats the goddamn grape.
GALLOWAY: Oh, I see.
DEL TORO: And the editor said, “The audience will understand.” I go, “No.” They didn’t. And it was important.
GALLOWAY: I can barely look at my work afterwards because I see little things a copy editor has changed. It drives me crazy. Do you find the same thing when you look at your old films?
DEL TORO: Some of them, I can watch. It’s very hard for me to look at Hellboy or Cronos, very hard, because all I see is oh, my God, it’s like there I am dancing with a lampshade on my head. I was so happy at the time.
GALLOWAY: What about Pan’s Labyrinth?
DEL TORO: Here’s the ones I can watch. I can watch Shape of Water, number one, Devil’s Backbone, my number two favorite, Pan’s Labyrinth for sure, Crimson Peak for sure, and I can watch Pacific Rim and Hellboy II. The others I suffered horribly. And I see everything that that guy’s doing wrong and I know how to fix it. I go, “Oh, why are you doing that?”
GALLOWAY: You re-edited…
DEL TORO: Mimic, yeah. But we couldn’t shoot what I didn’t shoot.
GALLOWAY: Pan’s Labyrinth, you got an Oscar nomination for and it’s really an exceptional film, almost like a sister film to a Spanish film called The Spirit of the Beehive, which I know you love.
DEL TORO: Yeah, I think I would say even Devil’s Backbone is a little bit like that. The two films that influenced me in that regard were Spirit of the Beehive and Night of the Hunter. The notion of childhood and magic, the dark side of magic, and childhood and magic, in contrast with the world of the adults, those are the three vectors that those two movies have in common.
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at a clip — not from Night of the Hunter.
DEL TORO: What are we going to see now?
GALLOWAY: Pan’s Labyrinth.
DEL TORO: That’s an interesting sequence on how it came to be, because originally she came to a chamber that was huge, that had a chandelier made of dripping amber, dripping resin from the tree. And it was beautiful and we built the set. It was a beautiful set. And when we were doing the frog, the giant toad, I argued with the effects company, DDT. I said, “Make it out of latex so it can be light.” And they said, “Oh, we’re going to make it out of silicone.” I said, “It’s going to be too heavy. The performer inside is not going to be able to handle it.” “No, no, no, no, no.”
GALLOWAY: There was a performer inside the…
DEL TORO: There was a performer inside the frog, yeah, a puppeteer, which was a very small girl that plays Hellboy as a kid in Hellboy II, same. We are there, we build this beautiful set. We’re shooting. It’s a Friday, we are shooting Monday. And this set, the routes were just to get to that other set, and she puts on the suit and it’s too heavy. She can barely move. And she falls out of exhaustion after one rehearsal. So, we are screwed because the idea was she jumps on top of the toad and shoves the stones in the mouth and holds, like a rodeo, and the toad jumps all over the place and we couldn’t do that because we couldn’t start those movements. So, I said, “OK, let’s take him to the tunnel. So, he can barely fit.” And you will understand why he doesn’t move. He’s blocking the entire tunnel. And instead of her shoving the stones, she is going to trick him with the insect. And that was done on the fly in 24 hours.
DEL TORO: It’s a solution to a problem, you know? And the way we broke it down is the first three, four shots are the puppet. The rest is digital.
GALLOWAY: So, is it a frog, is it a toad? It’s in itself, which I find just incredibly imaginative. That wasn’t in your original…
DEL TORO: That’s not autobiographical.
GALLOWAY: At what point was that conceived?
DEL TORO: That was conceived from preproduction and it’s digital, except the mass that is on the floor is a substance called Methocel, and we molded the Methocel. We can make it in different consistencies. But the notion was from the start.
GALLOWAY: When you started writing the scripts, how long did it take and where did the idea that this can run into a giant frog come from?
DEL TORO: There are two or three receptions of this tale and different versions in the Grimm fairy tale. One of them is a soldier, a soldier that comes to a town and there is a tree that is dry. And he is told, as part of his wishes, he is told the secret that there’s a giant toad nesting in the roots of the tree. Lift the stone and kill it and the tree will flourish again or the water will flow again. There are different receptions of the tale. And I took it… most everything in Pan’s, it took about… I started studying fairy tale… I read everything as a kid, all the fairy tales. But then as an adult I started studying fairy tale anthropology. And I am not talking about the basics. The basics are Bruno Bettelheim, Maria Tatar, but those are the basics. If you go deeper, there’s amazing books mostly published in 1800s which they are toeing the line between believing in it and not believing in it. There’s great books like British Goblins, The Science of Fairy Tales, Goblins and Apparitions From the Northern Isles, blah, blah, blah. And I got this collection of books and I went and read and made notations for Pan to feel like an ancient tale, you know, to feel like it was based on the most fabulous original source. And I took the essence of those tales. There are a few things, the rule of three, which I think is…
GALLOWAY: Which is what?
DEL TORO: The rule of three is three bears, three wishes, three, for some reason the way humans divide story, and there’s a theory that is interesting, is in threes. Even the Aristotelian theories, three acts, you know. But the notion is that it takes three beats to identify a predator, two eyes and one mouth. The smiley face is sort of the emoji of the predator. If you were in the jungle moving like a little anthropoid and you saw two eyes and a mouth, bolt.
DEL TORO: That’s all the beats to tell that story. And some people say it comes from that but the fact is then the three wishes become three sisters, three brothers on the road looking for fortune. There are three, for example when you go and retrieve the magical bird, there are three cages: one made of wood, one made of silver, one made of gold. You know, this is the rule of three. The banquet, the fairy banquet which is a banquet that is abundant but you should never eat from it which is the Pale Man’s banquet and so forth, etcetera, etcetera. You know, there’s many, many more to use, picking from fairy tales that you deduct. The beauty of fairy tales is that they were not created for kids. They were created by itinerant travelers that seek shelter in castles and houses and in exchange for a meal on a fire, they would regale these stories, that’s why there are so many versions of the same tale. Most of those guys that traveled from city to city were cobblers and tailors. That’s why so many stories are about cobblers and tailors —
GALLOWAY: Oh, right. Yes.
DEL TORO: — or soldiers. That’s why there are so many soldiers returning from war in these tales. But they are tales that were addressed to adults so they have very gory, very difficult, very brutal elements and those get lost in the sanitation of the tale. But in the original reception, that’s why The Shape of Water was The Shape of Water, a fairy tale for troubled times because these are troubled times right now.
GALLOWAY: Is there one fairy tale that most haunts you?
DEL TORO: There are several.
GALLOWAY: Tell me about one.
DEL TORO: Well, there’s variations of a tale called The Iron Shoes and this may have to do with the bottle caps, I don’t know. It’s a princess or a prince that were very proud and it varies the origin of that pride. They wear iron shoes and singing for their lover, their lost beloved. And they run through the world until those shoes wear down which I think is a very beautiful image, very, very haunting to me. And there are probably at least 100 male and female variations of Beauty and the Beast.
GALLOWAY: There’s now the 101st variation because Shape of Water is very influenced by Beauty and the Beast.
DEL TORO: Very influenced, very contrary to it.
GALLOWAY: Because you haven’t seen it, the premise of Shape of Water is a young woman…
DEL TORO: Mute, mute cleaning lady, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Go ahead, tell us the premise.
DEL TORO: No, you, you. You are the host.
GALLOWAY: A mute young woman works a secret government facility where she discovers they have kept an amphibious humanoid that she begins to fall in love with. What’s extraordinary is it’s such a daring premise.
DEL TORO: Well, what is weird is you know as a storyteller, that’s why it’s so painful for me to see Hellboy or Cronos, because I see what I was doing, which is very different than the craft the way I understand it now. And I think that you come to recognize almost the pressure points of a story where it’s going to breathe or not. And there is a crucial moment in Shape of Water, I don’t know if it’s about, we are going to see or not, but it’s the moment the creature surfaces from the water and for the first time it blinks, because that’s the hinge. If you don’t buy that moment, if you, as a director don’t execute that moment precisely — the lens needs to be at the right height, it needs to be the right lens, the creature needs to emerge, the performer needs to emerge just so. And then if you buy that moment, you are in.
GALLOWAY: Shockingly, I have that clip to show.
[LAUGHTER] [CLIP] [APPLAUSE]
GALLOWAY: What was the genesis of this? You love Creature From the Black Lagoon.
DEL TORO: Yeah, when I was a kid watching it, I thought they would end up together, the girl and the creature. And they didn’t. But it’s beyond that. It’s to me we are right now in a very dangerous time in which I don’t want to go into very specifics. They are in the headlines every day. They’ve been in the headlines for many months, if not a couple of years. The ideologies that are dividing us are becoming very pernicious. And social sort of disease that tells you, you have two choices as to why the world is unequal to everyone. Choice number one is 1 percent of the population owns 99 percent of the wealth or choice number B or two is it’s them, whoever them may be, immigrants, a race, a creed, a sexual preference, whatever, they blame it on them. And the illusion, the ideology that creates the illusion of them makes a lot of people invisible and allows you to mistreat, hate, blame. And that’s the difference. The first option, 1 percent owns, that makes you responsible, “What are you going to do about it?” Second option, “I’ve told you, you’ve nothing to do with it, it’s them. You’re cool.” And most people take that and take the hatred that comes with that and hate whatever they perceive as different. There’s no us and them, it’s only us. There isn’t. We need to fabricate them to hate. And the idea with this creature was can I make a fable I would love that doesn’t sound disingenuous, that is not cynical, that is beautiful and that sort of restores like the Kintsugi, what has been broken. And I really made it almost like a remedy for these times. And to say let’s get all the invisible people, the people without a voice, come together and save something beautiful. I don’t want to spoil anything. That was the idea.
GALLOWAY: What was the toughest part of making the film?
DEL TORO: The movie is a $65 million movie made for $19.5 million. The scope is huge and yet we had only $19.5 million, because what I learned with Crimson Peak that was extremely painful for me is that I made that movie for $55 million, therefore I forced the studio’s hand to market it like a horror movie which it wasn’t. It was a gothic romance. And they couldn’t market it and rose the money they wanted so they market it like a scary horror movie which I never wanted it to be. So, people went saying what is this, this is not what I wanted, you know. If you give a person a Gucci bag to mow the lawn, they can barely fit any leaves in there. It’s a Gucci bag, yeah, but I want to fit more leaves. It’s not what it says in the box. And I felt there was a huge disappointment with that. And I said I’ll do it for the number that allows them to market it for what it is which is a very peculiar, very beautiful, delicate thing.
GALLOWAY: You were going to do it in black and white at one point.
DEL TORO: Well, I tried. Don’t tell the studio because they are here! But sometimes you go to a poker game with a few chips you are willing to lose so you can look reasonable.
GALLOWAY: [To an audience member:] Angela, do not repeat this to your bosses.
DEL TORO: I was completely prepared to lose that. Yeah, it was a pawn sacrifice [LAUGHS] you know, I was never going to win that one. It’s like when you go to the MPAA.
GALLOWAY: Yes. Was there a pawn you sacrificed here for the rating?
DEL TORO: No, there wasn’t. The movie is exactly as I cut it because we knew we wanted an R, you know. In other instances, you do leave an extra little thing and then you take it out. Don’t tell anyone, please. Somebody in the MPAA, please…
GALLOWAY: This was a real actor playing…
DEL TORO: I’m a nice guy.
GALLOWAY: This was a real actor playing the creature.
DEL TORO: Yeah.
GALLOWAY: How do you work with him? What conversations do you have?
DEL TORO: With Doug Jones? You know, with actors you try to be very specific. If it’s a physical performer like Doug, you think the page speaks for itself and then you say you are going to need to be innocent. You are going to need to be powerful because the range is very, very great. What you saw, the micro gestures of the face are so beautiful. And then what we did is we animated digitally…
GALLOWAY: The blinking…
DEL TORO: We created sort of a Zorro mask that we could fade in and out so sometimes it was the makeup for one, two beats, the gesture came and then we went back to the makeup. So, your eye didn’t go oh, CG. You were actually retro-projecting the surface into the 3D mask. It was a very creative way of doing it but don’t need it to convey everything with his body. So, sometimes, you know, we developed a very short code. I would say when he raises in the water, I would say, “Raise as you were a 25-story creature, raise with the weight. And then when you get up, stand like a bull fighter. Center everything on your pelvis.” This is very easy to understand. And then you can give him small instructions that would be pertinent if people saw the movie but be innocent, you have never seen a bathtub, you have never seen a tile. You don’t know where you are. He’s in an alien, complete… The way I see Creature From the Black Lagoon is a home invasion movie you know. [LAUGHTER] The poor guy is pattering around his house and these bastards came in a boat and broke in. He goes, hey, hey, oh. And they chain him and take him to a lab, you know. It’s a home invasion.
GALLOWAY: OK, we’re going to have questions.
QUESTION: I’m in film production. I’m wondering if any of your monsters scare you because they certainly terrify most people and if not then what fictional creatures are you scared of if any?
DEL TORO: All right. Well, the one that scared me is the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth because originally the sculpture was a sculpture of a very old man, face, very regular face. And then I was thinking something was not right. And I saw a photo of the belly of a manta ray which I’ve seen in the past as a kid and it was so creepy, the little mouth with the little nostrils that look like eyes. And I thought I’m going to take out the face. And I called the company, DDT, and I said erase the face. I’m sending you a doodle which is in Cabinet of Curiosities, a doodle of what the face needs to look like. It’s going to be flat and with a mouth, with the eyes are going to be the nostrils. And they got so angry. They got so angry with me. You have no respect for the work of the sculptor. I said absolutely, I have no respect whatsoever because I want that face, you know. But that scared me because that face, the belly of the manta ray gives me the creeps. So, that’s one that scared me. The rest I like. The rest I think they’re super cute. You know, they’re adorable.
QUESTION: Hello, I’m a screenwriting major. And my question was so over the course of your career you’ve worked in many different genres and worked in different languages and now more recently you worked in different mediums working on projects like Death Stranding with Hideo Kojima. And my question was after experiences like that, do you see yourself working more with games and VR in the future and what is it about these user-driven mediums that intrigue you to tell stories?
DEL TORO: OK, I’ll try to be brief. What happens is 10 years ago and when Pan’s Labyrinth came out, I said, “I’m going to write a book. I’m going to develop a TV series. I’m going to produce animation. I’m going to design a video game and one more.” It was five things I wanted to learn as a storyteller, because each of these are different ways of telling the story. Video games, when people say well, video games are like movies, you want to… what, what, again? You know. No. No. [LAUGHTER] They’re not like movies, not like movies. Go back, you know. Same way with animation, the learning, for example the animation, we were trying to animate mistakes, failed act, to give the animation a little more weight. Learning on video games that the way you basically create a mandala, not a linear drama with three acts, you need to create a mandala that gives the player the sense of freedom and then reroutes that layer back and again into the narrative you want. So, it bifurcates, rejoins. It was really a great exercise. And you learn. Now Alejandro Inarritu recently created this wonderful VR experience, Carne y Arena, you know. And it’s an amazing new language, VR. Now I haven’t learned it and I want to learn it. And it’s only because I think that the more nimble you are in all those disciplines, the better you are the one you choose to exercise. I think that if you are a narrator, read. You know, read as much as you can. And to me video games, the good ones are reading. The really, really good ones, the dense ones are like reading. They have a literary value. They have an amazing production design, sound design. And when I say read books, read movies. A lot of us don’t read movies. You know, how you will write better movies? Reading better the movies, if you read a movie profoundly, in every single aspect that it has to offer, you will come out of that experience a better narrator. So, you know, that’s all I can say.
QUESTION: I am a second-year graduate production student. And I wanted to ask, my good friend Antonio who went here had a film at Cannes this year so we got to see Alfonso Cuaron’s, a talk that he gave when you were there and he told me to watch it later and one thing that really, really struck me about something he said was that early in his career, he was very, very concerned with shaking off, you know, the influence of other people having his own cinematic voice and he said that he thinks he lost 10 years trying to be just really, really original sort of just developing as a filmmaker. So, my question is at our stage, we’re really trying to develop our own voice but we’re also trying to find ways to just be better filmmakers and grow. You know, you worked your way up…
GALLOWAY: And you must get to the question.
DEL TORO: I know the question, I know what it is.
GALLOWAY: Go ahead, Guillermo.
DEL TORO: Can I answer it? Because I know where you’re going.
GALLOWAY: But briefly.
DEL TORO: I’ll be briefly. [LAUGHTER] Yes. No, what happens is on the one thing you cannot prevent is being who you are. You know, I think, there’s a saying in psychology that says that which we don’t speak about controls us. You know, I think that what you need to do is take yourself, be completely yourself, and by that understand one rule that is out of your defects, will come your virtues. You know, there’s no other way to get to your virtues and frankly your defects.
QUESTION: Like you said about —
DEL TORO: Exactly but like if you talk about the things you are most ashamed of, you will tackle the subjects that you will find most intimate, that you don’t want to talk in public, that’s what your stories need to be about. Because if you don’t, you are offering an imitation, it’s a cover for a song. We want your song. We don’t want to hear your cover of The Beatles. We want to hear you composing. So, your voice is there. Now you can never avoid having it. What you can do is let it free and that does take years. And in all respect to everything, and I know Alfonso, we all spend 10 years trying to find our voice. That’s why it’s so hard to see these movies because you see glimpses of this, glimpses of that. But you don’t know your range. You know, you’re like a baby rattlesnake. You don’t control the venom, you go [GESTURES] you know, you kill everything you bite. In 25 years, you go [GESTURES] I just want to do this. It’s a little better with time. There’s a tabulation, arrogance and experience. When you are young, you have to have a lot of arrogance because you have very little experience. And then that goes the other way.
GALLOWAY: I love that. Let’s see, two more questions and then we’ve got to stop. Last one, oh, great, perfect.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m a junior screenwriting major.
DEL TORO: I thought you were going to say I’m a genius screenwriter. Oh, my God, it’s your accent.
QUESTION: And I was just wondering if you could briefly discuss your thoughts on the relationship between social and political issues and their relationship with cinema and for example, would you ever make a film on the present day violence and Mexico and if so, what would your approach be?
DEL TORO: Look, each of us, we do what we do. We are like trees, right? I give pears. I don’t give pineapples, you know, that’s it. I’m not going to tackle a pineapple because that’s not in my roots. It’s not in my sap. It’s not in my branches. I’m not going to give a pineapple. You do what you do. And from that forum, you can choose to be an interested human being. You know, when the purpose of a film is purely political, then that’s a particular genre. It can be propaganda or it can be a drama that tackles that. You have to say look, we are a concert of voices. We are a banquet. If your role is to play dessert, be dessert, you know. That’s what you are, or if your role is to be the hors d’oeuvres, the entrée, that’s it. I mean we, in a cultural symphony, you don’t say I’m going to be this. Your art shapes you and you shape your art. It’s very organic like I care. I have empathy. I care deeply about what happens and Shape of Water is a reaction to what is happening right now, you know, that I think is we fear and feel rage to the other and who the other is, I tell you, every day it’s going to get so divided that we’re going to soon hate the person next to us. You know, because you start with the big ones, the big divisions, political, religious, whatever, and you end up with the small divisions. Intolerance is an incredibly fine art. So that’s what I am preoccupied with. So, the answer is not only I want to do it, I’ve been doing it. Everything is a political act when you are narrating, everything. To tell the same story in Shape of Water from the point of view of a scientist or a government agent, that’s a political choice. To tell the story from a cleaning woman’s point of view, it’s a political choice. To open the movie, sorry… cover your eyes. OK, wow. To open the…
GALLOWAY: We have a very young guest. Hi.
DEL TORO: How are you? Well, everything is a political choice. I’m going to constrain myself. And I think when you tell the story from a woman’s point of view, it’s a political choice and you choose not to go with the square jaw, the eye, you know, everything. When I do Pacific Rim, I made clear what I wanted to do. I said I don’t want any country in charge of those robots. I want the world in charge of those robots. I want a Japanese girl, a black leader, an Australian team, you know. But easily we could have made it Team America. That’s a political choice. So, do not fool yourself in that. Everything you do is political. You just have to say does this represent who I am? And in the case of myself, as ashamed as I am of formal mistakes or youth, every movie I’ve ever done does represent me.
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