With the feature Cronos to his credit, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro instantly won over an enthusiastic audience of horror fanatics. Crossover studio films like the unfortunately compromised Mimic, the stylish Blade II, and the manic Hellboy have only broadened del Toro's fame. His new film, Pan's Labyrinth, like The Devil's Backbone before it, melds fantasy with the history of the Spanish Civil War period (an upcoming third film will complete the thematic trilogy). I spoke to del Toro at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where I was pleasantly surprised to find longtime screenwriting partner and San Francisco resident Matthew Robbins by the writer-director's side.
Guillermo del Toro: Matteo, you must be having an aneurysm. Are you holding up?
Matthew Robbins: It's, uh—you're—it's good. He doesn't repeat himself.
GdT: Oh good.
GdT: Let's try—
Groucho: I've read that you two are writing partners.
GdT: We do. We're working on a screenplay right now, yeah.
G: It's a Lovecraft adaptation, is that right?
GdT: Well, we're done with that. I mean, we're done for the moment. Right?
GdT: We've been working on it, what, three years?
GdT: Yeah, three years now. But we've collaborated on about eight, eight screenplays, officially. And everything we write, we kind of ask the opinion of the other guy, and we get it! Which is pretty brutal. But I think that the Lovecraft adaptation was really tricky.
G: What was the strategy there, to wrangle that?
GdT: It's a big one. Because essentially the novel is almost—the [narrative] is so tenuous. It's such a sort of atmosphere-driven novel, where only the smallest traces of fantastical elements appear here and there. And that simply is unsustainable for two hours. And so we're trying to stay true to the novel, but then almost bringing elements from all the Lovecraft body of work into it.
MR: It was tricky because there are no characters.
MR: Almost literally their names. Many names, but there are no characters.
GdT: There's many names, and for example you find out—only through research you find out what the character's—the narrator's name is. You know, he's never named in the—
MR: And it's only through reading a lot of Lovecraft that you begin to understand how this fits into the grand scheme of things. And the power of the novel rests on the glimpses that you get of this immensity. It's all about scale and atmosphere, and the depths of time.
GdT: And how out of whack mankind is, really. I mean, how we're dying.
G: Well, of course we're here to talk about Pan's Labyrinth. Congratulations, by the way. San Francisco is a happy town for you right now, I guess.
GdT: We're very happy.
G: We awarded you recently. What were the stories that fired your imagination as a child?
GdT: I used to—I mean, it sounds really the thing to say, but I used to be fascinated with these fairy tales, you know? And then I think that my first few books were horror. The first book I bought with what was called my Sunday money, in Mexico—was an anthology of horror. And then very shortly thereafter a few Lovecraft books. And then I read everything that was in my parents' library, which was a collection of youth classics. So I read Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde. And they remain favorites of mine, those guys. You know? I went on to read all their work. Or as much—Victor Hugo, not by chance. Victor Hugo, I have read only two books: Hunchback and The Man Who Laughs. He's a little too dense, and they're a little too rich to say I know how I've read everything: impossible for me.
G: I think we see all the tonal influences of those books in your works, that there's horror, emotional horror—
GdT: Huge melodrama! I mean, Victor Hugo, Wilde, Dickens! And another favorite of mine was Hans Christian Andersen. All of them were suckers for melodrama—absolute suckers for melodrama. Let's have little Cosette, and let's have Jean Valjean—I mean, these are huge melodramatic—and dramatic!—but huge melodramatic elements.
G: This film suggests that protecting the soul means brave choices, and making one's own path. Do you believe there's a spiritual reward beyond this plane of existence?
GdT: Not in the Catholic little postaiture—how you say?—greeting card sense. You're not going to go to heaven in a white outfit and sing "Hallelujah"; I don't believe that. I think that there is a state of mind that is of absolute peace, which I think would be akin to the state of grace, that can be achieved through being at peace with your choices. And not necessarily with the outcome of those choices. You know, I think that a lot of people think that a good life is a life without mistakes. Or a life without sins. And I think that's not true. I think that a good life is a life where you screw up enough, but you do it on your own terms. I mean, where you break a few glasses before you learn to use them. I see the world like a room where a toddler, a baby, has been surrounded by the most expensive glassware. And those are laws and morality. And then you let him walk. You let him crawl around. And of course that baby's gonna break a shitload of glasses and cut himself on the glass and bleed all over the fucking place, but eventually that same kid is going to learn how to maneuver there. And I think that's life is we are surrounded by so many things that are set up to make us feel like shit and fail! And then people expect a perfect life to be a life where you—"Oh, he never broke a glass." Not agreed. (Smiles.)
G: Of course, there are several scenes in this film that are representative of those kinds of tests.
G: Of course, you have researched fairy tales, and we have the tropes of fairy tales in the film. Like the banquet of the food that's "look but don't touch."
G: What are the sort of temptations that, as a filmmaker, you might face? Like maybe the payday for the big, epic film.
GdT: Yeah, I think that you face them very often. I think that, you know, as far as that goes, I've been pretty much at peace with myself that I have never taken a movie as an assignment. I've never taken the position of "Well, this one I'm doing because of the payday." I've never done it. So far. Y'know, knock on wood. And maybe someday I'll experience it just to experience it and tell you what happens. But I think that so far, it's good. I have turned down some pretty big money-making endeavors!
G: You probably did to make this one, I would imagine.
GdT: Oh, yeah, yeah! Including this one, but I think in this movie, if you want to be my accountant, in this movie I lost money. But the reward for this movie is a hundred times stronger than making a movie that made money for me. I'm very happy with it.
G: Sure, no regrets, I'm sure.
GdT: Not one.
G: I want to talk about some more of the imagery, because it's so rich. The idea of the labyrinth itself—you mentioned that you wanted the settings of the girl's point of view to have a kind of embryonic feel.
G: Is the labyrinth, then, the birth canal that she has to travel through?
GdT: No, I think the labyrinth is more of a —I mean, the labyrinth, classically, is a very multi-valued symbol. The labyrinth means to me at least three things. At least. One is a journey towards your own interior, towards your own inner self, which can be a journey towards insight of the girl's heart and head. You know? The second one is, I think, the labyrinth in which the captain and Spain are lost. You know, and there is a very clear, perhaps even on the nose, metaphor in which I think Spain is a princess who forgot who she was and where she came from, and gets lost in the labyrinth. But at the end of the process, a new generation is born that will never know the name of the fascist.
MR: That's hardly come up in this country.
MR: You won't hear any American journalist—in Europe—
GdT: Doing the metaphor. In Europe they did.
MR: In Europe a lot of people asked about that.
GdT: And they know this. But the third level is the anecdotal level, which is the labyrinth is the labyrinth, and it is there, and there is a pit in the center. But I think it's a journey within. Some people that have studied labyrinths in the past—they think that at some point, some how, the shape of a labyrinth was suggested by either the brain or the innards of a human, because they are twisted and organized in a sort of organic—
G: Coming back onto itself—
GdT: Yeah, twisting onto itself type of thing. And I find that incredibly, for some reason, incredibly attractive. I find it incredibly stimulating, you know? That they become a journey to the god or a journey to the head.
G: By the end of the film, I felt like, on the one hand, there's an end of innocence—
G: For this girl, but also there's a confirmation of innocence, or purity—
GdT: Oh yeah—I think so. If you ask me, I think it's a really hopeful ending. But what I find with the ending is that it's incredibly reflective of who watches it. Because people come to me incredibly happy or incredibly angry about saying, "But you said everything was in her head!" or "You said everything was real!" And they're equally—I remember I was reading a column by an online critic that said, "I love the movie, but I don't like the fact that del Toro is so bent in showing us that everything the girl experiences is real and that she reaches a sort of heaven at the end. Then, a little later, I read another guy that is saying, "I love the movie, but I cannot understand why del Toro says that everything is false, and it's all happening in her head." And I said, "It's great."
G: It worked, yeah.
GdT: It works. I mean, it's like a mirror test of where you're standing.
G: The violence in this film reflects the sadism of its villain, of course, to tell the story, but not its filmmaker? Or do you have a sadist side to you?
GdT: I think I do, but I don't think it's in this film, except in one shot, and I'll tell you which one it is. But I think that, other than that, when the brutality is meant to be disquieting and is meant to be unsettling—if you watch the movie again, you will see that the first act of violence, which is the biggest act of violence in the movie, actually is the one told more complexly; it's like five, six cuts. Wide shot, over, over, sideways, sideways, blah blah blah. After that they start simplifying themselves, all to the point where the last killings are done in a single shot: wide, wide shot of the killing. And they become completely off-handed things. The only shot where I literally pushed it to become larger than life is the moment that I think it's key where the captain becomes the Big Bad Wolf. He transforms himself into an ogre, which is the shot where he's sewing his own mouth. That has a very sadistic glee to it. But to me the means and the end were worth it. You know, it's the only moment in which I think it is very important that the captain then becomes an almost fantasy monster in that scene. And it is the same way that the monster, the caretaker in Devil's Backbone, all of a sudden had a red eye and a broken nose: these guys are starting to look on the outside the way they look inside. And so I thought it was really necessary—and it was needed because the character drinks alcohol, drinks a hard drink, and (inhales sharply) it burns his cheek. And what does he do? He pours another one. I mean, it's really important for defining the character. This guy is so unstoppable that he's going to sew his own cheek. So I needed it.
GdT: No, no, no. You know, but I think the character is defined by really bold acts. This guy, the captain. Cutting his own throat in the mirror. Lying about his father's watch. A captain would never, ever, ever, ever, ever polish his own boots. Except if he is that obsessive. And the captain does. And he also fixes his own watch. So all those things tell you who he is. The earnestness of his speech about how Spain needs to be ridden of these people. All those things tell you who he is. And I think that in that moment I do want it to—if you see how it's shot, that scene is shot in a single shot. And I hold it, because I know if I hold it, the audience knows I'm fucking with them.
G: That's something I wanted to ask you about, actually. Hitchcock, of course, was really keenly aware of how he was manipulating his audience, and obviously you do give a lot of thought to that. What is your primary hook into an audience, that you work?
GdT: I don't know what exactly is the device, but I try to do a thing with this movie particularly that is, I imagine, incredibly aggressive, if you want, with an audience that—if going to a movie is like a blind date, you know, this movie is like a girl that you open the door, and she has a full, fuck you get-on the moment you see her, and you go, "Oh well, either I'm going to fall in love with her, or I'm going to hate her because she has a very "I'm done. I'm here. Like me, don't like me, let's go out." You know? And one of the things that the movie does that is that uncomfortable is that, in order to experience the pain and the magic with the intensity of a child, I push the dial of both—I crank it to Spinal Tap eleven, you know? (Laughs.) And so—it's a movie geared towards adults, and adults are harder to push in that sense, in the intensity of those things, so you know, the fact that if it works, you have on the one hand fantasy making you vulnerable to brutality—that's a pretty aggressive tactic—and then you have brutality making you keenly aware of the beauty on the fantasy world; then that's also a very aggressive tactic, so I think it's definitely not a movie for everyone.
G: Right, right. Is CGI a godsend to you? How do you like to apply that?
GdT: I think that, you know, I neither condemn it nor praise it to the sky. I think that people tend to conveniently forget how shitty optical composites really were, where you lost a generation or two generations of grain and color layers when you composited back in the day. I think the ideal measure would be to almost do stop-motion but composite digitally. That would be the ideal world but is economically not feasible, so I think that you always need to do a physical effect and then enhance it with digital, either by compositing or by cleanup. But I think the digital technology of film is a godsend, because I cannot imagine color-timing a movie like this if it's not a digital timing. I did the digital timing of this movie, and I literally could isolate areas and make the red a slightly redder here and green over here and this and that. It's a blessing.
G: But on the other hand, of course, having Doug Jones and the makeup and the puppeteers who are helping create Pan—it's so much more palpable to have that in camera.
GdT: Yeah, than going in and saying, I want the fawn CG 'cause it's easier for me. No, I think CG very often has become a lazy filmmaker's tool. Where the guy says, "Well, I don't want to do anything physically, so let's shoot it all practical," but it's rare that it happens. I think it is a great tool; it is a great tool, and people— I think there's a lot of prejudice in favor and against it, both.
G: What's the mood like on one of your sets?
GdT: Actually, they're funny. Most of the time. Even in an intense movie like this, I'm cracking jokes. But when we get serious, it gets really serious. It goes from a lot of fun and a lot of—but I was very—I spent a lot of the movie really tense and anguished. But I try not to show it to the crew. You know, I really—it is a good time.
G: They say comedy is what's deadly serious to make. Would you be ever interested in making a flat-out comedy?
GdT: Hah! Never like that, 'cause I don't think I would survive it. But I think there are many things in Hellboy that I find have that tone, but it's a tone; it's not a genre.
G: I suppose I should get a tease in here for Hellboy 2, because everyone's very curious. What can you tell us about the new directions that will take the franchise?
GdT: Well, the idea is to try to sort of reinvent what we did wrong in the first one, what we think that we did wrong. And trying to preserve what we think that we did right. And it's always nice in a franchise to see the new things. Like you see the new Bond, and of course, the attitude and Daniel Craig and the level of intensity and violence is new, but still you have the opening scene. Still he gets laid. Still he wears great clothes. Still has a great car. So there are certain things that you need to preserve, and one of the sequels that I admire the most is Evil Dead 2, because it not only reinvented the first movie, but it actually pushed the envelope of narrative several years, I think, ahead. But our ambition is more modest: we just want to say, "Let's preserve what we did right; let's improve what we did wrong."
G: How would you characterize your relationship with your fan base?
G: (Laughs.) Uh-huh.
GdT: Yeah, when I do, I have shared many a cup of coffee with just a fan at Comic-Con or at any convention or invited them to get into a screening or things like that/ And I try as best as I can, still today I try as best as I can, to answer the emails—all of them—personally. Right now I am unfortunately two-hundred and twenty-five behind—
GdT: But I'm still trying.
G: Well at least you know that you're—
GdT: Oh man, it's really—and I try to watch their short films. And in many instances I try to employ them in the movie. In any movie I do, there is at least two, three fans that approach me at conventions working on them. I can tell you that is absolutely true of Blade, absolutely true of Hellboy, absolutely true of Devil's Backbone, Pan's, and Hellboy 2. In Hellboy 2, one of the key designers right now—it's a kid that used to write me on my website. And he posts on the talkbacks on the message boards. And on the first Hellboy, one of the guys that designed the props and built the props was a fan that wrote in the Hellboy.com website. The guy that did all the storyboards on the first movie was a guy that I met in a Virgin megastore.
MR: Where is that guy?
GdT: He's become one of the hottest storyboard guuys in the business. He storyboarded Beowulf and Monster House for Robert Zemeckis. So, you know, that's—I think that my relationship is that of saying we're equals. I just produced a movie for a fan in Spain that showed me his first short film—Juan Antonio—and I produced his first feature, so I don't think you get more promiscuous than that!
G: One more question I have to ask you: in maintaining your independence—you've been able to do that quite successfully by trial an error—but what is the key to doing that when you're working with a studio?
GdT: I think that the hardest word I've ever learned in my life is, in English, the only word we have in common in Spanish, which is "no"!
G: Holding the line.
GdT: Holding the line. I mean, I came in the first time to Hollywood with such wide...eyes. I was looking at everything and saying, "They love me! They really love me!" And then I was completely open to collaboration, and I always gilded—I always looked for the silver lining on the cloud, until all of a sudden I felt I was getting my cherry popped by John Holmes. It was like, "Oh my God! I don't want to be a dirty debutante!" But I think maybe it was like that. Maybe it was like truly a trial by fire. I learned a lot about the politics. And I learned, for example, how easily a producer-type wedged between the director and the studio. Oh my God—that's—truly, communication can break in so many ways. And so I learned to defend the movie. Not myself. I don't think that you should make it an evil point. Defend the movie. I learned that when you don't, or when you fail to do it properly, you live with that movie for the rest of your life.
G: Well, the best of luck to you—keep not blinking...
GdT: Alright, man. Thank you. Pleasure. Great questions, man. Love 'em.
[For Groucho's review of Pan's Labyrinth, click here.]