Capone chats with Guillermo Del Toro about PAN'S LABYRINTH, HELLBOY 2, 3993, SILVER and more!!!
Published at: Dec. 27, 2006, 3:36 p.m. CST by quint
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Literally for months after I saw PAN’S LABYRINTH for the first time back in September, I knew that I’d be interviewing writer-director Guillermo del Toro when he came through Chicago in early December. For about two-and-a-half months, I was giddy with anticipation. Guillermo has a long history with AICN and an old friendship with Mr. Knowles that I’ve been aware of for some time. But since I live in the Windy City, I’ve only gotten to know the man through his films. This was our first actual exchange of any kind, but Guillermo has a way of making even a complete stranger feel like an old friend. The big bear hug he gave me at the end of our interview will stand as testament to that.
Just to explain a little about our initial introductory exchange: very often when I meet a director who has some knowledge of AICN, the publicist will simply tell the person my real name and my affiliation. What I’ve learned this year more than any other year is that, with the exception of Harry, the AICN editors’ real names don’t really mean much to actors or directors. But when you throw names at them like Quint or Moriarty or Capone, then the interviewees get a little more excited and open. Guillermo didn’t know exactly who I was for the initial part of our exchange, but that changes, as you'll read.
I hope this transcription captures some of Guillermo’s enthusiasm and love for PAN’S LABYRINTH. My love of the film knows no bounds, as it’s clearly on of the great films of 2006. Just to give you a little bit of a timeline, this interview took place a couple of days after BNAT 8. Be warned: there are SPOILERS scattered throughout about PAN'S. And now, here’s our friend Guillermo del Toro…
Capone: I went to the pre-BNAT screening of PAN’S LABYRINTH, and I think I liked it more the second time, probably because I wasn’t writing the review in my head while I was watching it.
Guillermo del Toro: Where did you see it first?
C: Here in Chicago, at a screening set up for just for me a couple months ago, which I felt kind of guilty about. There was just me and one other person in the room. I assume that had something to do with you wanting all the Ain’t It Cool people to see it early and put up our reviews right away.
GDT: Really? What is your pseudonym?
GDT: You’re fucking Capone?! [He reaches to shake my hand for a second time.] Hey, really nice to meet you, man.
C: I’m sure you heard all of the details, but we had a good Butt Numb-a-Thon this year, in addition to your film acting as the warm-up act.
GDT: Yeah, Harry loves doing it. Fucking 300. But the only report I read was mixed on it.
C: On 300? No way.
GDT: Well, there was a guy that loved it, but he said the crowd said after that it will never be done the proper way.
C: I think what that person might have meant was that there were some effects shots that the director said still weren’t quite finished, but it looked good to me. I have to say, though, that in terms of premieres this year, this was probably the most consistent lineup. I know he accepts some of the premieres sight unseen, which has resulted in some mishaps in the past. But this year, every one of the premieres was great.
GDT: Did you stay for the screening of CHILDREN OF MEN?
C: I did not, but I’d seen it already. And that wasn’t part of the official lineup, just for people who stayed the extra day.
GDT: I love that movie.
C: I love it too, and I did want to ask you about your friends' films [Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s BABEL], but let me talk about PAN’S LABYRINTH first in case they pull the plug on us too soon. The thing I picked up on the second time is the idea that, for this girl, the only thing scarier than her fantasy world is the real world. The way you convey that visually struck me as something that could only have come from someone who had had similar childhood terrors in their life. Did you, in fact, have such nightmares or waking nightmares?
GDT: Many, many, many of them. I know this is going to sound completely like mushroom-induced bullshit, but when I was a kid, when I slept in the guest bedroom of my grandmother’s house, at midnight, a faun would come out from behind the dresser. And I know it was lucid dreaming, I know it must have been. But at that age, you are dreaming that you are in that room, you dream of the exact same conditions. It was a recurring nightmare. The distant church would strike midnight. The hand would come out first from behind, then it would pull out the face, then the left leg would come out, and it would start pulling itself out from behind the dresser, and I would start screaming. They would come fetch me and take me to one of the other rooms. It really was a recurring nightmare, that one. I find that the girl in the movie is not so much trying to escape reality, which is the way that it would normally go. She’s actually articulating the world through her fantasy. So the things in her fantasy would reflect things in the real world. It’s not really her way of coping with the real world, more like interpreting.
Fantasy, for all of us, is a very intimate place, as intimate as religion and as spiritual as religion. That’s why movies provoke that much anger and that much passion, because when a filmmaker you love does a bad movie, you not only don’t like him; you want to kill him, kill his whole family, burn his house to the ground. And by the same token, when someone does something you like, it speaks to such an intimate place that you absolutely fall in love with that.
C: Do you remember, did your faun look anything like the faun in the film?
GDT: Absolutely. I was trying to recreate him. And I saw monsters and creatures when I was a kid alone in my room. I’d see the proverbial monster behind the chair. I know they were lucid nightmares.
C: It’s funny how those types of nightmares speak to the things you were exposed to as a child. I was allowed to watch the old Universal horror movies as a child, so my monsters in the closet were vampires and Frankenstein’s monster. It’s interesting to hear you articulate that.
GDT: I had a recurring nightmare with…what do you call the Japanese IRON MAN here in America?
C: You mean TETSUO: THE IRON MAN?
GDT: Yes, yes. When I got a fever, my hallucinations would be of that shot of The Iron Man flying into camera. I don’t know why.
C: The two films of yours I’ve always had the greatest fondness for are, I guess, what I’d call the two most reality-based ones: THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and this one.
GDT: Those are my favorite films too.
C: What is it about the post-Spanish Civil War, Franco-led era that has fascinated you? I’m not sure Americans will understand the significance of the period.
GDT: It’s the brutality. The worst acts of violence are those that occur in a household, and a civil war is that. A civil war is a war in the household. That’s why the two movies take place in two buildings, and basically the people living in them are killing each other. I think that the tragedy of civil war, if you read the accounts of the civil war in Spain, a father would kill his son on the battlefield because the son was a Fascist and the father was a Republican or vice versa. Or brother would kill brother, literally. Neighbors who have lived next to each other for 25 years, all of the sudden, are killing each other. It’s a decomposition of social values that is so terrible. For example, many of the acts of violence shown in the movie are taken from oral accounts that I read. Some of the dialogue comes from testimony of the time.
For example, the priest in the movie says about the rebels, “God cares little what happens to their bodies, He has already saved their souls.” Or the episode with the bottle on the nose is a mixture of a memory of a street brawl that I saw as a young guy. We were in the middle of it, and a friend of mine was being beaten with a bottle. And the only thing I noticed was that the bottle was not breaking, like in Western movies, like John Wayne breaking the bottle over someone’s head. The rest of the scene plays out pretty much like a little anecdote I was consigning about a Fascist coming into a grocery shop and basically bashing the nose of a guy with his pistol, and getting out of there. He picked up his groceries and left.
C: Both films also seem to have a lot of these intense fears shown through the eyes of children. Are children stronger than most adults give them credit for?
GDT: I think children are purer than most of us. And by purer I don’t mean in a nice way. I just think that a child can feel uncontrolled rage, uncontrolled fear. They simply have no way of measuring it. At the same time, I think they are also capable of just accepting without qualifying. So, that’s why the girl in CRONOS accepts her grandfather, even if he’s running away. Or the child accepts the ghost once he sees the ghost as his equal in DEVIL’S BACKBONE. What is hard in these movies is to take structures that are very accepted and changing them because they are contained in a child’s universe. For example, in CRONOS, the least scary thing should be the vampire. The vampire is a victim. In DEVIL’S BACKBONE, the least scary thing should be the ghost. And the scariest things should be this proto-Fascist caretaker. In PAN’S LABYRINTH, the scariest thing should not be the monsters; it should be, in theory, the Fascist captain.
C: Not just in theory. Do you relate to the child actors differently?
GDT: What I do is treat them like adults, in a sense. I don’t condescend to them when I’m giving them instructions. At the same time, people think children shouldn’t be in such violent films. In reality, shooting a movie is pretty boring. So, let’s say that the Pale Man [one of the creatures in PAN’S LABYRINTH] is scary the first time you see him. By the second day of shooting, when the Pale Man is having a bagel and some coffee, he’s about as scary as your uncle.
C: Is that what you call that character, the Pale Man? He’s not given a name, other than in the credits. [At this point Del Toro opens up a sketch book filled with his drawing and notes for PAN’S LABYRINTH, at which point I want to bonk him over the head and steal the book so I can spend hours looking at it.. He turns to a page featuring his character designs for the Pale Man, which are identical to the way he looks in the film.] Oh wow. I was going to ask you about the design for him. When the girl walks into that room and see the dining hall and see him, it feels like we’re stepping into the middle of something that been going on for hundred of years. Why is his skin drooping from his body?
GDT: What I try to do is create a world that has a mythology behind it, and then I try not to explain the mythology. I think the minute you do that, the mystery goes away. This design is based on a guy I know who is very old and lost a lot of weight…
C: The pale man looks like one of those people.
GDT: And a friend of mine had an encounter in a locker room, and he described it, “You wouldn’t believe it, there was skin going everywhere!” And I just thought it was a look…when I create a creature, since we don’t have money to enhance every shot with CG, I thought dangling skin looks really good when you make it with silicon. So I said, let’s do it like that. Originally the sculpture was an old man’s face, but when I saw the first sculpture, I did this drawing and I removed the face and faxed it to the [makeup effects team] DDT company and said he has no eyes. Let me figure out where the eyes go. And I thought that he could have them on a plate and he can grab them with his hands. But then I thought, what if he has a stigmata and he puts them into the stigmata. That’s the way I thought about it.
C: When he puts his hands up to his face to see, it’s a terrifying moment, and I’m not even sure why. But it’s far worse then just putting the eyes in his head, which is what you think is going to happen. I guess the obvious question would be at this point, will we ever see Doug Jones’ [who plays both the Faun and the Pale Man in this film, and played Abe Sapien in HELLBOY] actual face in one of your films?
GDT: No, not if I can help it. [Laughs] He actually has a couple of roles in HELLBOY 2.
C: So I hear. But when I saw that he played both characters in PAN’S, I wondered if you chose to do that because he had the right body type to play them, or if you were linking the characters somehow.
GDT: Okay, I’m going to give you a couple of spoilers to those who haven’t seen the movie yet. So skip this if you haven’t. The idea for me was Pan the faun is the Pale Man and Pan is the frog.
C: I wouldn’t have guessed the frog, but okay.
GDT: Yes, the girl's tests aren’t really about the tests. If you watch the movie carefully, the fairies that the Pale Man eats all come back at the end. They’re all alive. So the idea is that the real test for the girl is not so much the test, but seeing how she learns from her mistakes and seeing how she is capable of following only her instincts and disobeying the rest of the influences. It’s about her being her own little person. And her decisions are morally tested, if you want. This is very anti-American. It’s not the regular Western structure. It’s very much fairy tale logic. For example, the frog under the roots of the tree is very much recurrent in fairy tales. I remember there’s a tale called “The Three Hairs of the Devil.” The devil is asleep and a guy pulls one hair, and he can ask one question, whatever he wants to know. And there’s a town where water won’t flow, and the town is dying of thirst. So the guy pulls the hair and asks the devil, “Why is water not flowing in the town?” And the devil says, “If you look under a stone, you will find a giant frog. Kill it, and the water will flow.” That’s fairy tale logic.
I’m so fed up with so many notes when I’m developing a screenplay for a studio. Why this? Why that? The tale just has to be told, it’s not a logical exercise. Why does Cinderella need to leave at midnight and not 1 o’clock or 2 a.m.? If it was a Hollywood story, you would have a character saying, “In traditional magic, midnight is the time of…” It’s endless babble. So I love the fact that in my movie, the three tasks are really testing her will. For example, [in the Pale Man sequence] the fairies point at the middle door, and she chooses the left one. They say don’t eat the grape, and she eats the grape. If you watch the movie, you’ll see her mother has sent her to bed without supper. And the next day is the near miscarriage, and she hasn’t eaten. So her hunger says, eat the grape. And it’s a big mistake, but it’s a mistake she’s going to learn from. And in the end, when the faun says, "Give me your brother," she can say her own answer.
C: In the event, we run out of time…
GDT: We’ll ask for more time.
C: Cool. I will come back to this movie, but I want to make sure I get these questions in before we’re cut off. Where are you with HELLBOY 2 now?
GDT: We are in pre-production. We are designing. We’re budgeting with Universal. We’re scouting in Hungary. We’re doing effects breakdown, all of that. We’re going to shoot in May-June in Hungary and London.
C: It seems like your name comes up a lot with different projects [this interview took place before the rumor about TARZAN broke]. But the one I’ve read about that actually makes sense because it’s another Spanish Civil War-era piece called 3993.
GDT: Yeah. 3993, the idea, I read the screenplay by a guy called Sergio Sanchez and I loved it very much. The idea was brilliant. He’s doing another draft. I need to work with him, and then if the draft comes out the way I want it, I would love to direct it. It’s a movie I’m scared of because it would be the only movie of the three about the Civil War that has mostly contemporary elements. It’s split up between 1993 and 1939. It’s about how the Spanish Civil War, which a lot of people at the beginning of this new century think is a thing of the past, can come alive then. It’s hard to describe it without spoiling it. I’d love to do it, and I’d love to do a movie in Mexico again.
But I’ve been stuck on page 60 of a screenplay called SILVER for 13 years, and it’s essentially about an old masked wrestler who becomes a bodyguard to a group of politicians in Mexico. He is fat, he has a broken leg, he doesn’t wear the mask anymore. And he finds out they’re vampires, and now he has to kill them at age 60-something. He puts on the mask and goes out to kill them.
C: No, that’s the one. Finish that one. Forget everything else.
[At this point, the publicist makes the first of many valiant attempts to shut the interview down. Guillermo ask for a few more minutes.]
C: The only other overriding theme in PAN’S LABYRINTH I wanted to hear your thoughts on was the idea of being pushed into a certain fate versus taking control of your own destiny. That’s ultimately what Ofelia's life boils down to.
GDT: Yes, it’s the some story in CRONOS, and the same story, for me, in HELLBOY. It’s about how what you choose defines you. Most people allow circumstance to define them, and I think destiny…there’s that great phrase in TERMINATOR, “No fate but what you make.” I think up to a point, that’s true. The movie tries to tell you that for every character in the movie, there is a moment of choice. The movie is based on the crossroads, the labyrinth, right turns, left turns, choosing where you go. And it’s a theme for the doctor, a theme for Mercedes, a theme for the mother, who chooses obedience, for example.
C: I did want to touch on what we talked about earlier: your friends’ films. The three of you have made three of my favorite films this year: your movie, BABEL, and CHILDREN OF MEN. Is there a common thread in the three films?
GDT: We talked about it a little bit. The three movies ultimately are connected by two things. I believe very much that in the case of PAN’S LABYRINTH, it’s very much like a Rorschach test, like a blotch test, in that people either find it incredibly green or they find it incredibly hopeful and poetic, and I feel that the three movies talk about hope in a certain way. And the three movies are father-and-son or parents-and-children stories. In Cuaron’s film, it is the absence of children that makes the movie ultimately about children. But the reality, it’s a deal where we coincide working this way and we’ve been friends--Alfonso and I--for 20 years. PAN’S in the third movie we’ve produced together. I wanted to produce PAN’S myself because I felt I needed more control over the movie because of past experiences. And Alfonso is a great partner; we produced CRONICAS together, a small Ecuadorian-Mexican co-production.
C: Is that the film with John Leguizamo as the journalist?
GDT: Yes, yes. And we produced DEVIL’S BACKBONE along with Almodovar. And I feel that in all of the 20 years--with Alejandro it’s been 16 years--of friendship are coming to fruition now. We hang out together, and we talk to each other more than we talk to our mothers.
C: Having these three films one right after the other this year has been a unique experience. It’s really changed the landscape of what has come out this year.
GDT: When I watch BABEL, I was really entranced by the Japanese story. Because the other stuff, I could see Alejandro doing. He’s very good at that juxtaposition of timelines and violence. But the Japanese story was so delicate, so well observed, so private in a way. I was very taken by that.
And CHILDREN OF MEN, I’ll tell you, even when he explains to me on paper how he pulled off the shots he did…he explains to me how he did it, I still don’t know how the fuck he did it. How can you plan that way?
C: And it’s not just those three big scenes. He does it all the way through the film.
GDT: People talk about the three big ones, but it’s also throughout the movie. Much of the movie is single shots. I was sworn to secrecy about how he did it, but I can tell you this, I don’t think that in terms of cinematic invention that there will be anything that daring for a while, that really beautiful execution of digital and physical effects together.
C: There’s a real distinction in PAN’S LABYRINTH between the grotesque and the violent. The true violence of the film is reserved for the real world.
GDT: True, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but the Pale Man eating the fairies is pretty rough. To me, the grotesque is beautiful. There’s an element of the poetic and beautiful with the grotesque, in general, in art. You can see it in a Fuceli painting or a Goya engraving or a symbolist painter or Francis Bacon, you name it. The grotesque contains a heavy dose of melancholy, loss, and poetry. But the violence in the real world is dealt with in a way that is very shocking but at the same time, it is very off-handed, very nonchalantly by the captain. It’s everyday violence in the war. When you see the movie again, I do the opposite of what you would do in a horror film. In a horror film, each death becomes more and more inventive and elaborate. More like set pieces, like Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci. In this movie, it’s the exact opposite. You start with an elaborate, violent death, which is the bottle on the nose, and little by little, it becomes more lean until the final death, the doctor’s demise, is one shot. I probably just spoiled that. To the point where the captain does his final act of violence, I finished that frame and the D.P. turned to me and said “What’s the coverage?” and I said “That’s it.” That’s the whole point; it’s just like that.
There is one moment in the whole movie that is completely larger than life, and that’s the sewing of the mouth. And the reason for me including that is that it proves a character point. This guy [the captain], we saw him cut his own throat in the mirror. We saw him deny his father’s watch. We saw him polish his own boots, fixing his own watch. I think it defines who he is, what an unstoppable guy he is, that he is sewing his own mouth. And he becomes, essentially, the Big Bad Wolf at that point. I think it was necessary for him to become the ogre. Even so, in his final moment with the baby and the rebels, is such a tender moment when he says, “My son.” And I am at peace with creating this mutilation on him. They call it a Chelsea smile, half Chelsea smile, really. Like the Chelsea gangs in Britain. I think that it’s about creating a monster, but allowing him a moment of humanity right before he dies.
C: Another common theme in your films. Okay, now they are shutting us down, and I know the guys that are waiting to get in, so we should stop. Thank you so much for sitting with me for so long. [And then came the aforementioned bear hug.]