BY ROB FELD
Photographed by Patrick Harbron
For a director who has made eight feature films in the fantasy/ horror genre, Guillermo del Toro is refreshingly difficult to categorize. In conversation, he references a global swath of art and literature, both highbrow and pop culture, as seamlessly as he does films and filmmakers. Which perhaps explains why his movies can embody the tragic work of a literate old soul and the grand scale wish fulfillment of an exuberant 12 year old.
Born in Guadalajara, del Toro worked in the Mexican film industry for 10 years, distinguishing himself in makeup and special effects, before leveraging that experience to direct his first feature, Cronos (1993), an allegorical and intricately designed vampire film rich with symbolism.
It was rare for a filmmaker to emerge with such a sophisticated and fully developed aesthetic, which led to his first American feature, Mimic (1997). His design and thematic preoccupations were allowed to fully flourish when Pedro Almodóvar offered to produce his next film, a Spanish Civil War ghost story and Gothic romance, The Devil’s Backbone (2001).
From there, his passions split between an irreverent comic book demon-hero, Hellboy (2004), and another Spanish Civil War fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). High-minded and stylistically mature, Pan’s Labyrinth brought together del Toro’s affection for strange creatures and dark themes into a masterful whole. His most recent film, Pacific Rim (2013), was a technically ingenious and supercharged addition to the Japanese monster genre. He is currently prepping a return to Gothic romance with Crimson Peak, “a classical ghost story, but with a modern twist,” says del Toro. That it will be “rich and operatic” comes as no surprise.
Del Toro is an enthusiast: of film, of ingenuity, of the obscure, and of life’s peculiarities. All of this enthusiasm was on display as he talked about becoming a filmmaker, the challenges of directing and the demands of his craft.
Rob Feld: How did you first catch the filmmaking bug?
Guillermo del Toro: Somebody gave my dad a Super 8 camera, projector and screen as a down payment for a car, or something like that. Back then you could buy a Super 8 version of Star Wars or a Hammer horror film. I bought Boris Karloff movies—The Curse of the Crimson Altar, The Raven—and a Planet of the Apes. I must have been 7 or 8. I was fascinated because you could do reverse on the projector—I watched the movie in reverse so much that the projector burned the movie. So we bought a splicer and all of a sudden I understood editing. By pure accident.
Q: Do you remember the first film you made?
A: I grabbed my dad’s camera and started doing an action movie with my Planet of the Apes figures. You would ship the film to Kodak and a week later it would come back developed. When I opened that envelope and I projected that first Super 8 reel, something happened that was absolutely life changing. I saw images on the screen like I had seen in the Planet of the Apes Super 8 or The Raven, and they were mine. I cannot explain it except that it was the best film experience I’ve ever had. It’s never been topped. I got the right first kiss.
Q: How were you able to pursue filmmaking in Mexico?
A: I was very fortunate. When I was in high school, a very famous independent director, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, moved to my hometown [of Guadalajara]. He wanted to shoot using students but there was no film school. So a group of people surrounded him and he taught us screenwriting. We formalized a class, founded a school and a film festival, both of which are still going 25 years later. I became a PA on his movies and produced a feature for him, Dona Herlinda and Her Son, for $5,000, and my mother was the star. Jaime had seen her in my Super 8 films, and he said, ‘Your mother’s pretty good.’ And I said, ‘She’s affordable.’ [Laughs] It became sort of a family enterprise to make the movies. And I really felt I could do it.
Q: Was it difficult to make the kind of films you wanted to make in Mexico?
A: It was difficult for someone to do fantasy films because the government support structure was for non-genre films—‘serious Mexican cinema’ with social relevance. And what I kept arguing is, I think you can be in the fantasy genre and have a true imprint, a personality, and it can be a genre where you tackle important subjects. But it was an uphill battle.
Q: How did you make the transition to the American film industry from Mexico?
A: At the end of the Cronos, I had to take a mortgage on my house and sell my car in order to pay for the inside mechanism of the Cronos device. After that film, my debt was so crushingly big that I came to America to work for Nina Jacobson at Universal Studios. Universal was, and is, a mythic studio for me—the home of my cherished childhood monsters. Nina loved Cronos for all the right reasons. She offered me a development deal for any idea I wanted. When she told me how much [she could pay me], I was blown away. I had never made any money making films.
KEEPING IT REAL: (top) Del Toro, directing Idris Elba, prefers to shoot on sets, even for a supercharged CG film like Pacific Rim; (bottom) Portrait of the artist as a very young director (right) on one of his Super 8 movies.
Q: The first film you directed in America was Mimic for Miramax. You’ve said that was a crushing experience and didn’t turn out as you wanted it to.
A: In Mexico, innately the director is king. You have final cut. In fact, no one calls it ‘final cut’ in Mexico. It’s just a cut. I mean, who does a cut? The director. So I came into a world that was much more complex on Mimic. [Since then] I think the DGA has given me a structure and a series of regulations that allowed me to feel that, ultimately, there was a measure of control and a pride you can defend, even in the face of the biggest adversity.
Q: For a family meal scene in Cronos, you used a fairly static camera; by the time you did a similar scene in The Devil’s Backbone there was a real leap in the staging and the camera was constantly floating.
A: In Cronos I was statelier, but very inexperienced. When I shot TV in Mexico, you would count the days where you could hire a dolly; a Steadicam was unheard of. But when I went to do Mimic, I started experimenting. I said, ‘I wonder if I can sew two or three camera movements together and make them feel symphonic; if I can have the camera moving left to right around the character, and then the next cut is moving right to left.’ So I started developing that. Devil’s Backbone is where I really came to feel it was harmonious. I came up with a little system: If I’m doing an over-the-shoulder, I call it a ‘PIJU,’ which is ‘Push In, Jib Up’; and doing the matching over-the-shoulder, I’m doing a Push In, Jib Down. They cut together really nicely. It’s mostly instinctive, but I keep it in my storyboard book. I so appreciate when people see a movie of mine and tell me, ‘We love the way you stage with the camera.’ Because I go through huge problems to stage like that. None of that is accidental.
Q: The ending of The Devil’s Backbone in which the children in the orphanage see the ghost of their professor is particularly poetic. How did that come about?
A: The final shot on Devil’s Backbone might be my favorite shot I’ve ever done. I was very much influenced by Westerns—my favorite is The Searchers. The shot of John Wayne’s silhouette against the frame of the door is so epic. Originally we had a whole other sequence planned. It was the last day, like an hour from sundown. We were tearing our hair out; we couldn’t make it. The shot we [already] had was the shadow of the professor, who was a ghost now, framed by the architecture of the orphanage, trapped like an insect in amber, with the kids outside in the sunlight. I saw that shot on the video and I said, ‘That’s the end of the movie. We don’t need anything else.’ I thought it was a perfect way to show the demarcation between the ghost world of shadows, and the real world of light.
Q: Early in your career you established a color palette of amber and cyan that you continue to use. How do you use the palette to express what the movie is about?
A: Colors represent something different in each movie. In Hellboy, I only color-coded red characters that have to do with him, and we avoided red everywhere else. The birth of Hellboy was art directed in blue and gold so that the red would stand out, and there is red on Rasputin’s robe, who is his father. In Devil’s Backbone, I wanted to code the amber to link the fetuses in the bottles, the ghost in the pool, and an insect in amber. All of them are symbols of what I think a ghost is—a moment suspended in time. We’re doing Crimson Peak right now. The way we color code the new world, America, and the old world, Europe, is very conscious. There is one character that represents opulence, sunlight, and wealth, and we are dressing that character in ivories and gold, so it’s literally a drop of sunlight in the middle of a world that is blue and cyan. That drop of sunlight is going to travel to a world that is cold and distant. And that’s storytelling.
COLOR CODED: (top) Del Toro, directing Ron Perlman as the irreverent comic book demon-hero and Rupert Evans, devised a red palette for some characters in Hellboy. (bottom) The director is hands-on when it comes to creating his creatures, this one for Hellboy.
Q: You’ve worked largely in the fantasy/horror genre. What appeals to you about that as a director?
A: Image construction is at its highest level when you are creating a reality that doesn’t exist. That can be said of period films, but it’s an even more rewarding effort when you’re making a creature or a set of circumstances that are impossible. You amp up the design of the world we live in a little bit, so that the creature can fit. Or you create the entire environment around the creature. It’s a huge exercise in design and control.
Q: In terms of storytelling, what are the advantages of working on genre films?
A: Thematically, when you tackle metaphor or parable, and you need to articulate it through fantastic creatures or circumstances, you are able to personify abstract concepts and make them understandable within the fantasy fable. You can talk about absolutes. It’s very difficult to talk about good and evil when people are involved because we are all a little good and a little evil. But you can do it in pure terms if you are creating demons and angels. Then you can truly use the idea audio-visually at its purest.
Q: Do you have a favorite bit of ingenuity from one of your films?
A: Yes, on Blade II. When I went in to pitch the movie, I already had a design for vampires that I’d wanted to do for a while but no project would accommodate it. It was the fact that the bottom half of the Reaper’s [vampire] head would split open like a fan. The whole lower jaw would fan out. I thought that was a relatively cheap effect to do, but one that would be incredibly shocking. And no one had ever seen a vampire like that. The moment we saw the dailies of the first Reaper bite [with] digital effects and makeup effects, everything had come together. That was a eureka moment when we went, ‘Oh, my God, that’s amazing.’ We really loved it.
Q: What makes a creature come alive for you?
A: The first thing you have to resolve is the silhouette. Once the silhouette captures the gait and personality of the character, then you define color. Then you define the details. The mistake a lot of people do is they start with the details. A lot of people say, ‘I want a creature with five wings and huge tentacles and teeth,’ and they start accumulating. And I think a great creature is never done by accumulation but by doing each element very, very carefully.
Q: How did that work in Pan’s Labyrinth?
A: If you watch the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth—which I think is perhaps the best creature I’ve done—you see his environment. The Pale Man is color-coded in flesh tones and deep, deep red. And everything around him is color-coded in red. Every piece of food on the table is red. The checkered flooring is red, the walls are red. The shapes are round and sort of rhyme with him; we sculpted the table and chair so they would feel of a piece with him. When you enter, you’re not entering a set with a creature, you’re entering a world. So when you decide about the eyes, you say, eyes or no eyes? What shape of eyes? What color of eyes? Is the absence of eyes going to be more expressive than if it has eyes? How many? Is it symmetric or asymmetric? Because you have to question everything.
MIND GAMES: In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro, working with Ivana Baquero, brought together his affection for strange creatures and dark themes to create what was for him a deconstructed fairy tale.
Q: You’ve talked about the difference between eye protein versus eye candy; what distinction were you making there?
A: Eye candy is something that you eat visually, but is superfluous to the storytelling: it looks good but it doesn’t tell the story. Eye protein is beautiful and technically complex, but it tells the story. A Hitchcock complex camera move is eye protein. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is eye protein—an incredibly complex, technical exercise, but essentially the form is the story. It’s like the way I designed the link between the fantasy world and the idea of returning to the womb in Pan’s Labyrinth. The appearance of a movie can be ciphered with more complexity through image and design. Audio-visually, film can be either more insidious or deeper than the genre it belongs to. You can make a profound movie while making a very entertaining movie. On the surface, Pan’s Labyrinth has all the trappings of a classic fairy tale, but in a way, it deconstructs the fairy tale. It is ciphering the fable audio-visually as much as it’s doing it through the screenplay, which is only one layer of the storytelling.
Q: Your films contain such intricate and fully realized worlds. How do you go about staging your vision?
A: I follow a principle that I got from studying theatrical design: each set has to make one statement. If you go to the pit and the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, the whole statement of that set is the circular pit with one monolith in the center. If you go to the Pale Man, the statement is the chimney and the table. Sometimes the point of a set is complexity, but each set has to have a hero angle and make the statement quickly. You know what that set is about. The office of the Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth is about the gears behind him; he’s trapped in the watch. What’s the point of the central patio in The Devil’s Backbone? The bomb. What’s the point in Hellboy’s room? Cats and TVs. A set needs to be readable quickly and make one storytelling point.
Q: In Pan’s Labyrinth, the audience sees the Pale Man approaching the girl before she sees it, rather than doing a shocking reveal from her perspective. You don’t seem to go in for startle scares.
A: As a producer I do, but as a director I don’t. What I know is this: I love and studied genre films like crazy. I’ve dedicated my life to the study of the fantastic, but I don’t totally fit into any genre. Looking at an action film like Pacific Rim, I don’t think any other big action movie would have a birth scene of a giant monster getting strangled by its own umbilical cord; it’s the little idiosyncrasies that make it ill-fitting. So when I do horror, I’m interested in the look of a horror film, not the trappings of one. The thing that concerns me most is a sense of loss. I have that in me, and it’s in what I do. To a degree it’s in Pacific Rim, but the two best two movies in terms of that are Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone. They embody that feeling; a loss of innocence, a loss of essence.
Q: You keep extensive notebooks (excerpts of which were recently published in a book) which show your ideas germinating over time. What thought do you give to choosing your next project?
A: I think that I give myself license to do what I want at the same time that I do what I can. People think a director plans the career, that you are like Blofeld caressing a cat in a secret location saying, ‘Where should I take my career?’ Any member of the DGA can tell you that doesn’t happen. A career is what happens to you while you are making other plans. You do what you can, but you do what you want. That’s the definition of a career.
Q: You made choices like doing Pan’s Labyrinth instead of…
A: A big Marvel movie, right.
Q: And that could have made you very comfortable and given you many options down the road.
A: Yes. What is surprising is that, in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a huge movement against selling out. Now, everybody’s eager to sell. So the only thing that we have to preserve in an equal, sacred manner, is not buying in. If you buy in, your success is measured by how much money you made or how popular your movie is. But you need to define success by the degree of fulfillment. I started writing for Universal Studios in 1993. In all those 20 years, I have never, ever, read the trades. If you threatened to bomb my house, I couldn’t tell you who the three hot execs are right now. When I was growing up, we founded a cinema club that became the Guadalajara Film Festival, and we would create programs to show the films of Max Ophüls or Preston Sturges. I was the projectionist, the ticket seller, and the moderator. It was about film. You could have a fluent discussion about the merits of Harold Lloyd. What worries me, and is very dangerous, is that more and more I see websites concerned only with the business. Really, is the most interesting thing the box office and not the movie itself?
THE UNDEAD: (top) Del Toro directing Wesley Snipes as a warrior trying to save the world from vampires in Blade II; (below) The director with one of the vampires in Blade II. The acceptance of the fantastic, he says, is innately Mexican.
Q: Many of the creatures in Hellboy and the elaborate environment of Pan’s Labyrinth could have been done with computer graphics, but you chose not to. When is the right time to abandon the real world and use CG?
A: When it’s the last possible solution. You can tell when a director is being lazy and doing the quickest, easiest solution for the effect. But the best solution for an effect is always the hardest solution. Almost invariably, the one you don’t want to shoot is the right thing to do. So, to this day, including Pacific Rim, I’m a set-oriented director. I build a lot more than most people would do with a big CG budget because I think there is a reality for the actors that you need to give them. We built almost four blocks of Hong Kong on Pacific Rim, both real and destroyed, because I wanted to give the audience an experience. The other point in Pacific Rim was building the cockpits for the pilots, and shaking the poor actors for real. I wanted actors to feel as if they were in a real place, rather than reacting to some VFX that isn’t there. We had enough of that in the film. I wanted them to feel they were in a huge universe and the only way I could do it was through sets. People think that because the audience cannot articulate it, they don’t notice. But they notice. There is something that you feel where everything is real.
Q: With images that are so intricately designed and storyboarded, how much wiggle room does that give you in terms of spontaneity when you’re on the set?
A: Whether you’re Kubrick or Cameron or Hitchcock, or the most humble itinerant director in the world, it doesn’t matter: Your craft is the same. People enthrone this Stroheim/Kubrickian idea that a director is a god that never compromises. Impossible. Bullshit. Even Kubrick had sunrise and sunset to deal with. He could shoot for days, yes, but even he was subject to the laws of physics. So you need to constantly battle against what is, while trying to get what it should be. The more nimble you are in turning a compromise into an asset, the better you become at your craft. Instinctively you know when you need to keep pushing and instinctively you know when you’re done. To insist on a single take scene that is taking all day to perfect, when in your gut you know it could be the same scene if it included a cut, is not the best thing for your craft. But to keep at it until you get it right when you know it’s essential to your film, that’s worthwhile.
Q:How do you work with actors, especially children, when there are so many effects elements for them to interact with?
A: When you’re talking to a child actor, talk to the actor, not the child. You cannot be condescending. Children are highly intelligent, highly complex personalities. I also use tricks. I get them into a rhythm of breathing and hyper oxygenate a little bit, if the scene requires them to be scared. Or in preproduction, I write a biography of the character, give it to them and say, ‘Tell me what part of this works for you? What is your favorite food, what is your favorite movie, what music are you listening to, who is your favorite artist?’ I ask them to tell me the most terrible moment in their family life and the moment that makes them the happiest. I then use it for sense memory, or for them to be able to evoke it in the take. But all you are doing is working with them the way you work with any actor.
Q: Is there a core set of skills directors should have?
A: When young directors ask me, ‘What do I do?’ I say the only thing I can tell you is you have to know a little about everything, enough to know when something’s wrong. If I have a good relationship with a DP, it is because it is proven or because I know that the light looks right. You know enough about sound to say the mic is off axis. But you also need to know at least one thing as well or better than anyone in your crew. If you have to choose one, choose the one that is the closest to the essence of your craft, and the essence of my craft is monsters or creatures. I’m very happy to say that I can go into a shop and I talk about separating agents for the molds, or types of silicone. I can shoot the shit and come up with solutions. I can say, ‘The pull-line in the cable is too tight,’ or ‘It’s too close to the puppet.’ And that’s going to help them. I also come from a background that was heavily based on optical effects, so I can discuss matte lines, integration of the blacks in a plate, a lot of compositing language.
Q: You shot Pacific Rim 2-D and converted it to 3-D. Why did you decide to approach the process that way?
A: Conversion has the latitude of giving you control of the final decision in postproduction. Doing it native is a huge commitment from the get-go. For example, if you want to establish the dynamic of the shot, you decide on convergence right there on the set. You still have a little latitude in post, but you are basically exercising a large part of that decision at a moment when you lack context. Once you cut that shot with the shot before, and the shot after, the rhythm affects the way an audience reads that convergence—the way they watch the movie. So my decision was, look, this is my first experience on 3-D. I felt I’d get more latitude in post-conversion.
Q: If you had the chance, would you now do Pan’s Labyrinth in 3-D?
A: No! For me, Pan’s was always a fairy tale. I actually made a point of creating transitions that felt like wipes, like you were turning the page on a book. So the more 2-D it was, the better.
Q: So what makes a particular project a candidate for 3-D?
A: I think that you need to decide the degree of immersion that you want. For me, Pan’s Labyrinth was always a fairy tale. But I think Crimson Peak will probably be converted to 3-D. I wouldn’t do Devil’s Backbone in 3-D, but I would have loved to do Blade II, Hellboy or Hellboy II in 3-D. So it depends. I don’t want to see Jane Eyre 3-D, but I certainly loved Gravity or a big action film in 3-D.
Q: You’re so hands-on in every aspect of production, how do you feel about working with a second unit?
A: To me, the best solution has always been not to use second unit. From a creative standpoint, the way Jim Cameron defines it is great. He says, ‘When the footage of the second unit is bad, it’s bad news. When it’s good, it’s worse news.’ Because you didn’t get to enjoy shooting that shot. The only movie of mine with second unit was Mimic, and that was forced on me. From then on, I judiciously use what I call ‘C camera,’ a splinter. If it’s a setup that requires three hours, like the cars flipping over on the street in Hellboy, I set up the camera and the lens. Then I explain what the movement is, go to a stage next door, and literally just pay attention when they call ‘action.’ They take three hours to reset the cables and the cars and all that. That approach has served me very well.
Q: Having worked as an AD yourself, what do you expect from your ADs?
A: I love an AD that is not a yeller but has very strong ties to the crew. Someone the crew respects and loves, and who always puts creativity before schedule—that’s my ideal AD. The sacred triangle on a set is AD, cinematographer and director. If those three are strong, the movie will be good.
Q: You first worked with your DP, Guillermo Navarro, on Cronos, and you’ve been working together ever since.
A: Guillermo was famous for being the grumpiest cinematographer in Mexico, but also one of the best. I went to meet him, and asked him if he would do Cronos. We were working on a sequence and I was supervising the lens. He got really angry when I said, ‘Look at my drawing and look at your lens. That’s the wrong lens.’ And he said, ‘Oh, really? You want to tell me what lens I should put on?’ I said, ‘Well, only on the storyboards I drew.’ And he said, ‘Tell me what I’m looking at through the lens right now.’ So I stood in front of the camera—which to this day is how I set the camera; If I know the lens, I can get in front of the camera and I know exactly what the lens is seeing. I told Guillermo, ‘This is the bottom frame and this is the top frame.’ He smiled, and in the past 20 years of collaboration, we’ve never had an artistic argument about a shot again.
Q: You have a tight support group in your friends and colleagues from Mexico—Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. How did you get together and what has it meant to you?
A: We loosely banded together because we came from the beginning of independent cinema in Mexico. Alfonso was an assistant director, and I was also an AD, doing storyboarding and makeup effects; we were doing anything we could. We bonded over our love of genre films and our desire to make them a little differently than American genre films, but a whole lot different from Mexican films.
And when I became an associate editor on Amores Perros, Alejandro saw that he could trust me and that I wanted to make his movie better. I in turn fell in love with the guy because he’s such a brilliant director. Every time I have a big decision, I call Alfonso or Alejandro. I talk to Alfonso more than I talk to my mother. Directing is a solitary job. You can confide in your AD, your DP and producer, but basically you are the guy who has to strike the gold. It’s really good to have that support system because I find that the best friend a director can have is another director.
Q: How does a Mexican worldview inform your work?
A: The way I love monsters is a Mexican way of loving monsters, which is that I am not judgmental. The Anglo way of seeing things is that monsters are exceptional and bad, and people are good. But in my movies creatures are taken for granted. There is a heavy Mexican Catholic streak in my movies, and a huge Mexican sense of melodrama. Everything is overwrought and there’s a sense of acceptance of the fantastic in my films, which is innately Mexican. So when people ask how can you define the Mexican-ness of your films, I go, how can I not? It’s all I am. I am incredibly proud of being Mexican, so that’s going to be there.
Q: At this stage in your career, how would you define your job as a director?
A: When you start with Super 8, you are everything. You’re the DP, the sound man, the effects guy. And what I started understanding, by working for other people, is that the best type of director is someone who rose through the ranks. If you want to know how to handle a crew, it’s great to be part of a crew. I did about a dozen movies, and about 20 episodes of TV, in many capacities—assistant director, line producer, storyboard artist. I understood the communality of making a film. If a director is capable of preserving that and still has a great vision, and a firm understanding of the movie as a piece of art, that’s the best combination. You create a great atmosphere on the set, people enjoy working with you, but at the same time, you are exacting in what you want. It’s half orchestrator and half composer. You are creating the music and directing it at the same time.