Total Film Interview - Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro is pinching Total Film’s nipples. No, not pinching – digging and grabbing, pulling and twisting, seemingly intent on tearing flesh apart like some mad, grinning Cenobite.

Each yelp he elicits is greeted with a bellowing guffaw. Each counter-attack is foiled with brute strength and a surprisingly graceful spin of his bulky torso. And each high-pitched plea – “Please, Guillermo, how am I going to explain the marks to my wife?” – is silenced with yet another ‘playful’ clamp. Total Film is used to del Toro’s legendary bear hugs (and, truth be told, finds strange solace in the big man’s armpit), but this is a new form of meet ‘n’ greet.

It’s May 2007 and we’re in Cannes . Del Toro is poised to begin shooting Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but first he’s dropped by the south of France to say hello to a few old friends and to introduce the Hi-Def DVD release of Pan’s Labyrinth. Like 2001’s ghost story The Devil’sBackbone, also set during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’sLabyrinth is a masterful blend of baroque fantasy and ghastly history, del Toro conjuring a rich, textured world brimming with magic, malevolence and meaning.

But then you know this already: Pan’s swept all before it, taking $83m at the box office (from a measly $5m budget), winning three Oscars (for Best Art Direction, Cinematography and Makeup) and entering the hearts of punters and critics alike (Sight And Sound declared it “The Citizen Kane of fantasy movies”). The point is, del Toro’s fabulous fable took him to the next level, the highest level: a place where he could do anything he damn well pleased.

He chose, of course, to wave away offers in favour of revisiting his beloved paranormal investigator Hellboy, a monstrous Marlowe made up of scarlet-skin and fiery wisecracks. He also opted to produce and present The Orphanage (out in April), a shivery, classical ghost story by old friend Juan Antonio Bayona. But fast forward to February 1, 2008 and del Toro now looks set to cash in his chips for the Holy Grail of fantasy movies: The Hobbit(s). With news breaking in the trades that he has signed on to solo direct and co-write (with Peter Jackson) not one but two Hobbit movies, Total Film promptly strides into Soho to firm up the facts, meeting del Toro at the Hellboy II cutting room. Cue some hearty, hefty backslaps – but not, thankfully, any vice-like nipple twisters.

So what’s the low-down on The Hobbit?
“Well, the story has broken early because the negotiations haven’t ended and it’s not a sure thing,” he beams. “So it sounds like a political answer, but in reality that’s where it is. I will know that it’s happening when we have the final word and I’m fully and officially onboard. But I can say this – it would be an honour. I would love it. I bought all the Tolkien books that were available in Mexico when I was 11 years old, but the one I read at 11 was The Hobbit. It left an indelible mark on me…”

What was it about The Hobbit that fired your imagination?
I loved this Hitchcockian idea of a very proper, very prissy character with a limited universe being taken on this journey where danger and pain and loss ultimately enhance his view of the world. That to me is a powerful story.

If you do sign on, will you feel pressure stepping into Peter Jackson’s shoes?
Out of all the books, The Hobbit is the one that most resembles a fairytale. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is without doubt an epic, whereas the beauty of The Hobbit lies – although it has an epic battle – in a more intimate set of characters. It’s a tamer piece. And I have never in my life gotten involved in universes where I don’t feel privileged to respect the canon. I don’t expect The Hobbit to be troublesome. Then again, it may never happen. Or it may!

What is the reasoning behind making two films from one perfectly digestible novel?
The first movie is The Hobbit and the second movie is a link, a story between. It’s around half a century between The Hobbit and the first instalment of Rings. So it’s more like a bridge movie.

It must be pleasing that the fans welcome the chance of your involvement. It’s hard to think of anyone else following Jackson with such acceptance…
It’s really beautiful. And it gives you a quest, as a creator. It gives you a quest to take it all from your creative gut, for you wouldn’t be onboard something you didn’t fully enjoy and cherish. I have in the past refused equally big franchises [Harry Potter, X-Men, Narnia, Fantastic Four] and I have on the other hand accepted quite small franchises, like Hellboy. After Pan’s Labyrinth I could have taken gigantic films and I chose to continue the Hellboy saga because I really love the character.

Hellboy II looks like it’s going to be very personal. Is it an arthouse movie on a massive scale?
I think that something was forever liberated after Pan’s Labyrinth. Although I always say that my Hollywood films are ultimately films I enjoy as much as the ones I do on a smaller scale, I must say that Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy have different degrees of shyness about the aesthetics. This time, I really feel this movie will fully live in a world that is mine and mine alone.

As in Blade II, you’ve cast Luke Goss as the lead villain. What do you see in him?
Well, I remember when I was going to read Luke for Blade before I met him. I talked to a British friend of mine – a journalist – and he said Luke Goss?! Actually, before I met him, I got one of his Bros albums in LA. I listened and I remained undaunted! I wrote Prince, the villain in HellboyII, specifically for him. He has an intensity and a ferocity that is right.

Your films seem to avoid computer effects wherever possible, but Hellboy II operates on a grand scale. Does it contain extra CGI?
We have approximately the same number of shots as in the first Hellboy but those shots are three or four times more complex. We are dealing with very difficult contexts and very stylised creatures. You know, I still favour the combination of the physical and the digital, so a lot of thecreatures have a basic physical structure and we’re just sort of digitally expanding what they can do. So you have a real sense of, “How did they do that? That looks real to me. That’s a crazy creature but it looks like it’s there!”

So you still have men in suits?
We have a crap-load of men in suits!

You’ve also produced The Orphanage, a suspenseful and very emotional ghost story. Again, it employs computer effects only sparingly…
I think the trick with these things is for them not to show. We actually have a lot of visual effects in The Orphanage but they are invisible, you know? We essentially replaced almost every sky shot in the movie; we put in the lighthouse and altered some of the landscape.

Its scares are rooted in real characters and real emotions. Was that the appeal to you?
I remember watching The Exorcist as a kid. I didn’t get scared because it was just a monster and I was a geeky kid. As an adult, as a father, I understood the true impact was not the shock value of the make-up and the effects but the fact it’s a story of a mother with a sick daughter – watching her disintegrate and trying to pull her back from the brink. You could switch the whole movie and say she has a brain tumour or a terminal illness and it would be almost as compelling because the emotions that Ellen Burstyn plays are completely real.

Are you a fan of contemporary horror movies?
I’m a big fan. I love a lot of the Korean wave of horror, the Spanish wave of horror. I’m a big fan of the sporadic European horror movies that appear, like Them, the French film – I loved it. Not so recently, obviously, but I loved TheShining or the movies of Pupi Avati. I’m a huge fan of Cronenberg and Romero and so forth. I was one of the guys that fell early for Japanese horror. And I reacted very strongly to The Blair Witch Project because I felt it conjured a lot of what was written by people such as Arthur Machen about the savage nature of the world, the wilderness. It enacted it in a very smart and contemporary way. I’m not, frankly, into torture porn.

Why not?
It’s a perfectly valid expression of horror. I am not against torture porn existing, in the same way that I am not against porn existing in the erotic film arena – both are extreme expressions of cinema. One of film’s functions is to subvert and to be anarchic, so you can’t expect gentle anarchy from a horror film. I’m just in another wavelength.

On one level, your movies are creature features…
Yeah, I’ve always been a monster guy! I’m not a sci-fi guy, but I am attracted to some sci-fi that’s monster driven. I’m not a fantasy guy, but I am attracted to some fairytales that are creature driven. I am a horror guy, but I am only attracted really to creature or monster driven horror most of the time. It’s a fascination. I think they’re the most beautiful things that the imagination creates.

Have your creatures always been living inside of you or do you riff on your favourite movie monsters?
It works every way. In the last 10 years, I find more and more inspiration in illustration and painting. Most of the time, film monsters have a very worn-down track and they all seem to look like each other. Now and then you’ll find a really refreshing example, like the creature in The Host or Neil Marshall’s own take on the creatures in The Descent, which I have a great kinship for. But I think, very often, they look like movie monsters. What I love to do if I can is to give them a painterly twist. I find inspiration in Hieronymous Bosch, Dali, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, medieval engravings, that sort of thing…

What’s your favourite monster in your own movies?
I think it’s the Pale Man. And Pan. And the ghost in Devil’sBackbone, followed closely by the Reapers in Blade II. Yeah, because I thought that device of the splitting jaw… That’s actually the reason why I made the movie. It was all about the vampires, you know? I don’t identify with Blade’s politics much!

Are there any creatures that we should especially look out for in Hellboy II?
I tell you, this list will be drastically altered once Hellboy II comes out! The whole point of the movie is to create this teratology. It’s about creating a world and populating it with these creatures. I have everything from a Love-craftian creature to a troll to Michael Moorcock’s Elric, for the elf, all the way to just an elemental creature that is almost surreally beautiful.

Did you identify with monsters when growing up?
There is that element, for sure. Certainly on Frankenstein, which I always said is a perfect metaphor for my teenage years! And that’s why I think they connect so much with rock music, for example – we’re all teenage Frankensteins and it’s a very adolescent feeling of being an outcast. But as an adult I identify with them because I think they also represent the fact that I believe our defects are what make us special, not our qualities.

You hated school and retreated into your imagination…
I hated it until I was about 14 or 15, when it became a mixed school. When the girls came in, I was happy as hell! But before that… You know, a Jesuit boys’ school is just like a fucking prison. It’s a really, really brutal environment. I got into fistfights three times a week and that’s one of the reasons I became large [laughs]. I gained a little mass so I could fight back.

Did you do OK with the ladies when they arrived?
Well… Referencing it from my present form, you would never believe it, but back then I was kind of alright!

Your films shy away from overtly sexual content…
Pedro Almodovar once said to me, “You’re a prude! You’re capable of killing 40 people but you cannot film two people fucking each other!” And I think he hit it right on the nose. I don’t know how I would shoot sex, because there is still a remnant of the Catholic boy in me. You have to be a little randy in order to articulate these things, the way Cronenberg articulates them. He can be both disturbing and kinky. I don’t think it’s in me. But who knows? As I get older, I may get randier [laughs].

But isn’t there a dark sexuality lurking in your movies, almost out of sight?
It’s a very perverse sexuality in my movies. Blade II was censored in Germany because of the perceived vaginal shapes of the mouths of the vampires and I think there’s a little bit of S&M, some onanistic stuff, in Cronos. But I think it’s all sublimated. It’s not conscious; it’s there in the form I can handle it. That said, I consciously tried to not articulate the vampire myth in Cronos. I tried to not make it sexualised – I would say genital. But there is a sensuality in the way he licks the blood off the floor of the toilet, so go figure!

Let’s talk about Pan’s Labyrinth. Do you think of it as a watershed in your career?
It was the second movie where I really popped out of a shell. The first one was Cronos, where I really just said, “To hell with it all, let me do it my way.” The other movies, to some degree, have some timidity.

Even The Devil’s Backbone?
Even Devil’s Backbone. It’s not that it’s timid, but it’s not as insane as I could have done it. I think it could have been kicked up a notch. In Pan’s Labyrinth, I came to a point where I felt, “I’m just gonna bet everything I have”. And it came out exactly the way I wanted it. So that is very liberating. I’m approaching Hellboy II in the same way now. Before I used to say, “OK, this is a Hollywood movie, let me study what I need to do.” In Hellboy II, I just do what I do.

How disappointed were you that Pan’s lost out to The Lives Of Others for the Best Foreign Film Oscar?
Leading up to the ceremony, I kept saying, “I really believe that The Lives Of Others is just going to connect with the Academy more.” I knew that if the Academy needed to choose between a movie that they perceived as fantasy and one they perceived as both important and based on reality, they were always going to choose the latter. So I went in with a complete certainty. [Pause] You know, I believe for, like, 30 seconds before they read the name out, I allowed myself to go, “Hmmm, maybe…” But it was a speckle of hope. I turned to my wife immediately afterwards and said, “Well, no more interviews tomorrow – I’m gonna rest!”

It’s a shame there’s a prejudice against genre movies…
In this particular example I am very happy that it was TheLives Of Others, which is a beautiful movie. In the broader sense… When you read anyone, be it Tolkien or Lovecraft or Oscar Wilde when he’s doing his fairytales, you realise it’s probably one of the supreme efforts of the human mind, to create this fantasy. I think it was Carl Jung who said one of the best ways to address reality and truth is fantasy, you know? Because the important truth cannot be addressed menially, by normal drama. The reason why we carve gargoyles and angels is because we cannot explain what we feel other than those figures. It’s intrinsic to the human endeavour to have these creatures be part of your life.

Isn’t it nice, in a way, to be part of a club that many people don’t approve of or understand?
I think that society has a way of domesticating almost anything. The other day I was in an elevator and I heard an instrumental arrangement of the Sex Pistols! Frankly, when I think of that, I welcome the anarchy of torture porn.

Why do you think it’s so hard to make a great fantasy film? So many of them are dire.
It has to absolutely be joined to the way you see the world. That’s the reason why I have not taken some huge fantasy assignments that have been offered to me in the past: if its mythology doesn’t grab me by the guts, by the balls, it won’t ring true. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a great idea. I think a lot of these movies are just made because a similar movie has made money and people get assigned to them.

Do you think that you’ll ever make a film that’s entirely removed from fantasy?
Not really, though I wrote a piece… It’s not fantasy in the sense that there’s no supernatural or preternatural element to it. It’s a very dark murder comedy. It’s a stretch to call it a comedy because it’s just an absolutely brutal murder. It’s an absurdist fable.

What else is in the pipeline? Are you still working on your Lovecraft adaptation, Mountains Of Madness?
Very much so. It’s a shooting screenplay. We’ve created about 10 third-scale, fully painted, fully moulded creature maquettes that would blow your mind! And we have animatics, storyboards... The problem with that movie is the size. Lovecraft made it a point of the novel to be about the cosmic insignificance of men, so we have to make the scale of the city and the creatures and the complexity of it incredibly mind-boggling.

Have you seen The Mist?
Frank [Darabont] showed me some stuff and I turned to him and said, “Well, you fucked me out of a couple of sequences!” Yes, I think that is 100 per cent Mountains of Madness territory.

How about Cloverfield?
I haven’t gone yet. I saw whatever has been leaked on the internet and again I think some of the Cyclopian scale of the creature is very much Lovecraftian. But it’s fine by me. I think it’s in the zeitgeist.

And, finally, is Frankenstein still going to happen and what do you intend to do with it?
As soon as the Writers Guild strike is over, I’ll start writing the storyline that I initially proposed to Universal, which is more like an appendix to the Frankenstein myth. It happens in Victorian England and it’s driven by the creation of the monster. But it also has a number of ulterior stories around it. It’s more like a companion piece to all the existing Frankensteins.

Do you have your design for the creature?
Yes, I do. It’s actually creatures, plural. This will be a Universal project so I’ve decided to embrace the Karloff design, to riff on it. I need to recreate that beauty – not verbatim, but almost. [Laughs] The creatures are always clear in my mind, long before I go into a movie!

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.