Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Guillermo Del Toro

Eye Protein

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

December 14, 2006—Looking over the six feature films on Guillermo Del Toro's resume, three in Spanish (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and the new Pan's Labyrinth) and three in English (Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy), it's easy to spot an auteur's touch, a personal tendency toward certain issues of lightness and darkness and a predilection for underground caverns and clockwork.

But meeting him in person, one quickly discovers another side to him, a passionate enthusiasm for the possibilities of cinema, and a disdain for anything lazy or easy. "I think shooting a movie is like shooting porn," he says during a recent visit to San Francisco. "There is a point when you cannot fake the boner. It shows when you're not into it."

The Mexican-born Del Toro is also fiercely devoted to his friends, who include the filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). He talks about their films as passionately as he talks about his own. In fact, he says, he and Cuarón -- who produced Pan's Labyrinth -- deferred their salaries in order to finish the film.

"One of the first things a Hollywood person told me was never put your own money in your own project," Del Toro says. "And, with the exception of The Devil's Backbone, and including Hellboy and Blade II, I have risked my own money on every project. Because if you're not crazy about it, why am I doing it? If I'm not risking my own money in it, why should you pay your money to watch it? And that's where partnering up with friends like Alfonso is very powerful. I said, 'worse comes to worse, we're going to lose the money.' And he said 'I'm ready.'"

It looks as if their gambit paid off. Pan's Labyrinth recently won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign film, and has received strong buzz and mention on many year-end top ten lists, even before its Christmas Day opening.

Set just after the Spanish Civil War in 1944, the film tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who journeys to a remote castle to live with her mother (Ariadna Gil) and her mother's new husband, the fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lpez). Once there, she discovers a mysterious labyrinth and meets its sole inhabitant, the Faun (Doug Jones), who charges her with three tasks. At the same time, she meets a housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verd) and a doctor (lex Angulo) who secretly help out a band of rebels in the hills.

The film beautifully combines and balances the fairy tale aspects with the more realistic elements. Del Toro calls it the "sister movie" to his The Devil's Backbone, which was about a little boy and set during the same period.

"There is such a huge tradition in fairy tales of the pre-pubescent heroine going through the tasks and the rite of passage," he says. "There are even books written about it by feminists and studious people who analyze fairy tales. The most powerful example is a tale by Hans Christian Andersen called "The Snow Queen," where the girl has to go through an ordeal that is ambiguous and scary and vaguely disturbing to rescue the boy she loves. You can have all the other films and stories added to that pile, and it's really a tradition."

Del Toro admits that he's only interested in "the extremes," childhood and old age. "Youth is suspicious for me. I'm 41 and I never went through puberty," he says. For this reason, Del Toro passed on the opportunity to direct the third Harry Potter film, which he passed on to Cuarón. "Alfonso did a much better job than I would have ever done. Alfonso believes in youth, much more than I do. I told the producer, 'if you ever want to kill one of those kids, I'm your guy.'"

As it happens, Cuarón, Iñárritu and Del Toro have all released new films in the last two months, prompting many critics to call their works a trilogy. Del Toro laughs at the idea, but does say that the three friends are all at similar ages and in similar places in their lives. "I would say that the three movies deal, somehow, somewhat with hope, and the three movies deal somehow, somewhat with children and parents," he says. "But it's not a voluntary trilogy. It's not somebody coming out and saying, we're going to do this and then phoning each other and saying, 'how are you doing with your part of the trilogy?'"

Del Toro admits to one drawback to working closely with other filmmakers, and that's the sharing of actors. In casting Maribel Verd, who is perhaps better known for her sexy role in Cuarón's road trip movie Y tu mamá también (2002), Del Toro worried about offending his friend. "When you work with an actor that has worked with another director, you almost have to apologize. That happens to me, when someone works with Ron Perlman or Federico Luppi, it's almost like an infidelity," he says. "And I'm looking to see, 'he's not that well directed, or they're lighting him wrong.'"

He agrees with Cuarón that movies today have a tendency to rely on dialogue and story rather than images, sound and other components of cinema. "But it's always been like that," he says. "One of the best cinematic storytelling things is to do a silent film. Go back to Murnau or Dreyer or Lang or any of them and look at The Last Laugh or Sunrise or Destiny, and they're brilliant. It's beyond pantomime. It's really about telling the story and the mood through pure film. The rest is suspect."

Astonishingly, Del Toro goes on to champion the current state of television. "Anything like "The Wire," "Battlestar Galactica," "Entourage," Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Lost" -- all these things are so well written in that world that you really start questioning, what makes a movie a movie? What makes a movie not great television? I think that is why Alfnoso and Alejandro and I are struggling with the form in that way. Alfonso and Alejandro and I are trying to write half of the movie with visuals. And I jokingly call it 'eye protein,' because it's not 'eye candy.'"

It may be too soon to tell, but these three friends could be the head of something like the original French New Wave, film critics and fans who turned to make their own films and thereby revitalized the form. Del Toro smiles at the idea. "Just one thing," he says. "I am the Godard."

Partial Guillermo Del Toro Filmography:
Cronos (1993)
Mimic (1997)
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Blade II (2002)
Hellboy (2004)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Pacific Rim (2013)

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