Originally published October 2006 in Hotdog magazine
“Horror’s about putting you in touch with mortality. It’s about reminding you of the perishable side of emotions and physicality, and the fact that you’re going to age, die, and eventually rot. When something like that confronts you, it can do it in a shocking way- and that’s the traditional scare- or it can confront you in a much more perverse and persuasive way- and that’s what I’m usually interested in!”
You don’t so much interview Guillermo Del Toro as run alongside the conversation trying to keep up. Hotdog is sitting with the director of Cronos, Blade 2 and Hellboy in a plush, tastefully decorated conference suite in the basement level of a London hotel, and while he might be jet-lagged thanks to flying into the country the night before, it hasn’t blunted his enthusiasm in the slightest. Instead, dressed in dark, casual clothes and wearing round spectacles, Del Toro is hunched next to the table with a broad grin and an evangelical gleam in his eye, occasionally howling with laughter, and generally exuding a passion for horror and dark fantasy from every pore.
For the 42-year old Mexican director, making horror movies isn’t just a job- it’s a way of life, and his love for the genre has pushed him towards making what’s arguably his masterpiece. Shot in Spanish, and acting as a companion movie to his 2001 chiller The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth tells another story of childhood during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s, but this time is pitched as a lush and pitilessly dark fairy tale.
The plot follows a young girl (Ivana Baquero) who tries to escape the brutal reality of her sadistic adoptive Army captain father (Sergi López) by taking refuge in a bizarre fantasy world, where she’s offered a chance to escape by a half-man, half-goat named Pan (Hellboy’s Abe Sapien himself, Doug Jones)- as long as she completes three difficult tasks. While all the ingredients of a traditional, child-friendly fairy tale are present and correct, there’s also blood, extreme violence, terrifying creatures, and a climax that will have even the most hard-hearted genre enthusiasts weeping into their popcorn. Harry Potter it most definitely isn’t…
“People don’t tend to remember that the original versions of tales like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella came out of a very harsh, difficult reality, and are usually about orphans in dire, Dickensian conditions,” explains Del Toro. “Like in Hansel and Gretel, where the parents leave their starving children in the woods to die of hunger- and that’s the set-up for the story!!” he laughs. “Of course, now it’s all cute and toned down- but fuck that, the context of the story was totally miserable conditions, and that’s what I wanted to do with this movie- make the Potato Famine version of Hansel and Gretel!”
The film’s dream-like world of pale creatures with blinking eyes in their hands, flittering bug-like fairies and horned fauns is an obvious stomping ground for Del Toro’s love of baroque and inventive monsters, but Pan’s Labyrinth also pays equal attention to the grim realities of Franco’s Spain, and it’s a world the director finds endlessly fascinating. “Imagine if I told you that Hitler died peacefully in his bed of pulmonary disease, with Eva Braun by his side, aged 74, and he got a royal funeral. You’d go ‘What?!?’, and yet that’s basically what happened in Spain, where you had a brutal fascist regime, headed by Franco, that was allowed and politically sanctioned to exist in a supposedly (at least back then) free world.”
“It was a harsh, violent time, and outside of Spain, not that many people know about it. Ask anyone in the street and they might mention Ernest Hemmingway and ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, but they won’t think of Franco in the same way as they’ll think of other dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. There’s so much more to be told about that period, and I’ll go back, again and again.”
Unsurprisingly, considering their similarities, Pan’s Labyrinth began life as one part of the original, much more fantasy oriented version of The Devil’s Backbone, but went through many changes before Del Toro finally decided, after hitting box-office success with Hellboy in 2004, that the time was right to make this dark, personal movie.
What he didn’t realise at the time, however, was exactly how much trouble and heartache he’d end up having to go through. “Almost as soon as I arrived in Madrid- and I’d cashed everything I had in the world to get me and my family over there-,” says Del Toro, “I get a call from the film’s financier saying he’s changed his mind, and he’s out of the movie business. This was two weeks before pre-production was supposed to begin, I’m stuck without a job, and I had to choose whether to go back to Hollywood and obediently make another film, or stay and try and get this one done. I chose the second option, but I suffered like a motherfucker while doing it.”
What was supposed to be a relatively swift, eight-month production process ended up taking nearly two years, throwing a whole selection of tricky scenarios at Del Toro, and over which time the previously portly director managed to shed nearly 150 pounds in weight. “Half of that was almost purely thanks to the Pan’s shoot, because I was basically an insomniac for the first six weeks. It was a nightmare- we were trying to make a hugely ambitious story on a small amount of money, and stuff kept happening. We hit the driest season in Madrid’s history, on a movie that was supposed to look luscious and green, so we had to work around that- literally, on certain shots, if you moved the camera a millimetre to the right, you’d see that everything was dry as a fucking bagel.”
To make life even more complicated, a week or so before shooting began, Del Toro had a visit from the National Forest Guard who delivered some more unwelcome news. “Because they’d just had the biggest forest fire in Spain’s history, they said we couldn’t light a match, use a squib, use a blank, or create any sort of explosion. And there we were, trying to make a war movie! So, all the explosions you see in night-time, for instance, are done with light and steam- there’s not a single fire element. All the daytime explosions were done with mud, water and air, and while you can’t tell the difference, it took an incredible effort to get it right. In the end though, all the stress and difficulty meant that suddenly, six weeks in, heaven occurred. Everything we shot just became very emotionally powerful, so I think the movie was actually energised by all that dread and difficulty, and ended up better because of it.”
The film also sees Del Toro once again refusing to play the predictable casting game, and after choosing pretty-boy Luke Goss to play the funkily-jawed vampire villain in Blade 2, he’s turned confounding expectations into a habit. “Every producer in Spain told me I was making a mistake casting Sergi López as the villain. He’s had a few darker roles internationally, but in Spain, he’s best known as a romantic comedy lead. He does these Tom Hanks-style roles, and I was casting him as this psychotic Army officer, so I had all these producers saying ‘You’re going to fuck up the movie!’ And, it was almost the same with Maribel Verdú (from Y Tu Mamá También)- she usually plays hot, sexy chicks, and I wanted her to play a drab, introspective, bitter woman. Very few people said ‘Good choice,’ but I guess I just see actors in a different way. You can make risky decisions like that, but you’ve just got to be absolutely certain that’s what you wanted.”
Part of this certainty in Del Toro is something he learned from a seriously unexpected and traumatic source- the kidnapping of his father in the late 1990s. “It’s something the negotiator told us while we were dealing with the kidnappers- a process that lasted roughly three months. He told us one rule- ‘Any time you take a step, you have to be absolutely certain it’s what you want. Because if he lives or dies, you can’t question the decision you made.’ It’s something that’s been very useful in the rest of my life, and that includes filmmaking. Once you’ve make a decision, you should never torture yourself for making it, because your best judgement got you there.”
“We got my father back, in the end- the experience left a hell of a dent, but it also brought my family closer together, and galvanised us. Really, I had two personal tragedies then, because my second film Mimic was happening very closely together with the kidnapping, and I had a lot of trouble on that film. Both those experiences were very traumatic, and they both made me realise that freedom is precious.”
Certainly, the fact that only two of the six films Del Toro has directed (Mimic and Blade 2) could be described as genuine, out-and-out Hollywood films is a testament to his determination to bring his personal vision to the genre, and he feels, if nothing else, that at least he’s learned the art of saying ‘no’. “At one point, I was developing a faithful, traditional version of the children’s book Wind in the Willows for Disney, and when they said ‘We think Mr. Toad should have a skateboard’, I just said “That’s great- why don’t you do that yourselves, I’m out of this joint.” As a director, you’ve got to be secure about saying ‘No thank you’, and know when to pull out of a game, and when to say ‘Fuck you.’ I also trust my craft more than I did when I started out, and I think essentially, once you’ve reached a point when you’ve done six movies, the secret is to try and stay as hungry and as fucked up as you were on the first one.”
As for what film number seven might be, the odds are looking healthy for Hellboy 2, even if the budget isn’t as promising as Del Toro would like. “We’re as green-lit as we can be,” he says, “and we’re currently getting the budget approved, but we’re trying to do a story that, ideally, we’d need $140 million dollars to make, and we’re doing it for roughly the same price as the original- $60 million. It’s a point of pride that I always try and make the films look bigger than they actually cost, but sometimes it’s frustrating- like on Blade 2, when lots of reviews said ‘it benefits from a much larger budget than the original’ and it actually only cost $17,000 more than the first film, which is not much in movie terms!”
Ask him about the state of horror movies in general, and he declares the genre to be currently in a fairly robust shape. However, he does feel the world of modern-day scare-fests is lacking one particular type of movie, and if he can ever get his long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind-warping horror classic At The Mountains of Madness out of development hell, he might be able to do something about this. “Nobody at the moment is doing high-visibility, high-profile, tent-pole horror. Everybody in Hollywood keeps thinking Blair Witch Project, Hostel, Cabin Fever, Saw- which means you do them for about $5 million maximum, and they gross $80 to $100 million. Fine, that’s one model- but the other, which nobody is attempting, is big-budget, no-holds barred, serious horror, in the way films like The Exorcist or The Shining were. What we need is an R-rated, $80 million, tent-pole horror movie to come out, and kick everybody’s fucking ass. And no pussyfooting, PG-13 shit!”
Message to Hollywood- Guillermo Del Toro needs $80 million for a bleak, full-on horror film, and he needs it right now. You know it makes sense…
Originally published in Hotdog magazine