“I never thought about shaping a career,” the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro says as we sit down at the offices of Fox Searchlight on the Fox lot in Century City to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and begin discussing his quarter-century in the business. The 53-year-old, a rumpled and gregarious bear of a man, emphasizes that instead, he has followed his lifelong interests — monsters, the supernatural and “love in spite of differences, love in spite of otherness” — and trusted that others would respond to the resulting films. “They are an amalgam of impossible things that shouldn’t be together,” del Toro says of his body of work. “A fairy tale in post-Fascist Franco Spain [2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth], a gothic ghost story in a Western-like landscape during the Civil War in Spain [2001’s The Devil’s Backbone], a film about a middle-class vampire in Mexico [1993’s Cronos] or a musical-thriller-drama Douglas Sirk version of a monster movie like Beauty and the Beast, which is The Shape of Water. I’ve been at it for 25 years, and all my craft and all my thought has been put to the service of what I think are artistic, beautiful manifestations of fables and parables.”
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Del Toro was born in Guadalajara and raised in a strictly observant Catholic home. During his childhood, he says he experienced a series of supernatural events — some in lucid dreams, others while fully awake — which shaped him greatly. So, too, did Universal’s classic horror movies, through which he became enamored of monsters (and learned English), and Forrest J. Ackerman‘s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, through which he became fascinated with movie makeup and special effects. Throughout his youth, del Toro made short films of his own with his father’s Super 8 camera and ventured into designing makeup and special effects through a correspondence course with the legendary Dick Smith. Then, after trying his hand at brokering real estate and selling cars, he started his own makeup and special effects company and began working with some of Mexico’s finest filmmakers, all the while hoping to one day direct a film of his own. “I started accumulating favors,” he explains, “until I cashed them all in for Cronos.”
Cronos, del Toro’s 1993 directorial debut, tells the story of a girl who grows closer to her grandfather as he becomes a vampire. The second-most expensive Mexican film ever made up to that point, it received glowing reviews, was awarded a prize at Cannes and swept the Ariel Awards, Mexico’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. “I thought, ‘Okay, it’s gonna get easier,'” the filmmaker recalls. “And it didn’t.” Despite the success of Cronos, the Mexican film industry refused to finance the next film that del Toro wanted to make, The Devil’s Backbone, dismissing it because of its genre, so instead he accepted his first job in Hollywood, directing Mimic for Miramax’s Dimension division. His experience making the $30 million film about giant insects taking over the New York subway system, which was released in 1997, “was pure madness,” he says mournfully. “It was such horrible interference every day, every step of the process.” (There were positive take-aways, too: Mimic marked the beginning of collaborations with actor Doug Jones and cinematographer Dan Laustsen that have spanned 20 years, through The Shape of Water.)
Over the next decade, del Toro made creative choices that seemed, to many, enigmatic. He walked away from opportunities to direct an installment of the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and “one giant superhero movie,” while instead making a Spanish-language period piece (the aforementioned The Devil’s Backbone, which largely got lost after premiering on Sept. 10, 2001) and three English-language comic book adaptations (2002’s Blade II, so he could depict a villain as a hero, and 2004’s Hellboy, as well as its 2008 sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army, because, he says, “I was in love with the character”). But, as del Toro looks back, he regards his decision to make Pan’s Labyrinth, a 2006 fantasy film, as a major turning point in his life and career. “It was at a time when I was on the brink of becoming obedient in my own personal life, and I said, ‘I can’t do it. I’m gonna disobey,'” he explains. “They offered me every superhero under the sun, and I said, ‘No, I’m going to Spain, and I’m going to make this movie.’ And I hadn’t even written it.” The film had a budget of just $19.5 million — the same as The Shape of Water more than a decade later — but achieved massive critical, commercial and awards success that, as del Toro sees it, “changed a lot of things.”
Del Toro’s rise to prominence roughly coincided with that of two other outstanding Mexican filmmakers, Alfonso Cuaron (2006’s Children of Men, and later 2013’s Gravity) and Alejandro G. Inarritu (2006’s Babel, and later 2013’s Birdman and 2014’s The Revenant), and the filmmakers — all close friends and consultants on each other’s work — were affectionately nicknamed “The Three Amigos.” Del Toro says, “Without realizing it, the three of us did movies that were thematically similar,” adding, “and we found ourselves, after consulting with each other.”
Over the last few years, del Toro has continued to make unpredictable choices. He signed on to helm the Hobbit films, but ultimately bowed out and instead directed 2013’s Pacific Rim, an homage to kaiju Japanese monster movies, and 2015’s Crimson Peak, a gothic haunted-house movie. But through it all, and really dating back as far as his first viewing of the 1954 classic B-movie Creature From the Black Lagoon, the movie he really wanted to make was The Shape of Water, which he finally co-wrote, with Vanessa Taylor, and directed, with Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon starring. The genre-hybrid is set during the Cold War and focuses on a group of “outsiders” (a mute cleaning woman, her black co-worker and her closeted gay roommate) challenging authority (G-men and the military) in defense of “a filthy thing that came from South America” (not unlike an immigrant).
Del Toro feels that, on The Shape of Water, he took “major, bigger risks than at any time before,” and is particularly proud of the outcome — calling it his favorite of his films — not least because he made it “on my own terms.” “This was a huge bet,” he emphasizes. “This is a movie that was done on a scale of $60 million for $19.5 million. The ambition was huge.” So has been the response to it — at Venice, where it received a credits-long standing ovation; at Telluride, where it premiered in a venue with rain slamming onto the roof, appropriately enough; at Toronto, where it screened in a venue in which some of the film itself was shot; and many other stops along the way. “Everything I am, everything I’ve ever done in 25 years of filmmaking and 53 years on this earth, leads me to this movie,” del Toro says passionately. “It’s my biography. This is me, in my totality, coming up with a movie because I had to make it.” Some have dismissed it as a water monster movie, but he says there’s much more beneath, well, the surface: “Monsters incarnate two things that are very dear to me: otherness and imperfection.”