Here’s Part II of my conversation with Guillermo del Toro, director of Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Mimic, Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II, and the two Hellboy films. [Read Part I of the interview here.]
Del Toro, a former special effects makeup designer, has his own aesthetic: melding of the man-made past — the handcrafted technology of wood, leather, brass, iron — and the organic world of slugs, bugs, and tentacles. He has a fascination with mechanical gadgets, the colors amber and steel blue, and body parts embalmed in jars. You might say he’s invented his own genre: not the clockwork and piston of “steampunk,”‘ but more gut-and-gears, something I call “steam-gunk.” (For a peek into del Toro’s sketchbooks, see this previous wired.com link to a fascinating video).
His latest film is one he didn’t direct, but he did co-write and produce: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a throwback to old fashioned haunted house films, starring Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes and Bailee Madison. The family moves into an old mansion and the daughter discovers an ancient evil inhabiting the basement’s ash pit. Scary stuff ensues.
When not prepping for his next stint behind the camera (the giant robot battle film Pacific Rim), Del Toro told me that he’s preparing for the rapidly-approaching age of “transmedia” and “multi-platform world creation,” when audiences will read books, play games, watch movies and webisodes, all set in the same world. To that end, he’s been working in fiction (The Strain is his post-apocalyptic, vampires-in-NYC trilogy) and a Lovecraftian horror video game.
But whatever the media, del Toro’s goal, it seems to me, is never to gratuitously freak us out. Rather, he just wants to touch us. Or as he puts it, “to make beautiful and moving images, and beautiful and moving stories within the genre.”
Ethan Gilsdorf: To me, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was interesting because typically in a film set in a haunted house, the horror that has happened in the past gets reflected in ghosts, or in things that are more spiritual. In this movie, these little creatures, the homunculi, are really a different kind of manifestation of that curse.
Guillermo Del Toro: The idea in the movie is that these creatures presented predate even the time when the land was colonized. There is a small reference in the movie about how in the colonies they built a mill and it sank into the caves. So the caves in that area have lodged these creatures which are very old. They predate man setting foot in there.
EG: Do you have a sense of why horror movies, especially those with supernatural elements, remain critically underappreciated? I suspect it’s related to the same way that other kinds of genre movies are received, but in some way horror has had less of a critical reevaluation, unlike science fiction or fantasy which seem to be genres people don’t pass judgment on as quickly as they used to. With horror or movies of the supernatural, there is still a stigma in the critical community. Any thoughts on why that is the case?
GDT: The movies that depend on an emotional reaction — being comedy, melodrama, horror — because precisely they are trying to elicit an emotion from the audience, they become almost a challenge to audiences and critics. It’s very hard for the critical audience to admit they got emotional in a movie. It’s sort of admitting defeat. A movie that tries to provoke on a purely intellectual level is always going to be met [more favorably] … Those who claim [they are] stimulated intellectually by that movie almost by proxy are defining themselves as intelligent. They are defining themselves as affected on a higher level. Movies that depend on an emotional reaction are oftentimes almost a dual situation: you go to a comedy as a critic or an audience member, almost saying, “Come on, do your worst. Make me laugh.”
And the same in horror movies. Being scared is often regarded as a childish or immature emotion. It’s very hard to establish that you are affected by [this kind of] movie without admitting that you love stuff that is more challenging.
Historically, science fiction requires more production value than horror. And other genres like comedy or melodrama don’t depend on the budget. There’s never been a categorization like a “B-[movie] melodrama” or whatever. Horror movies [are] a very quick and cheap entryway into the mainstream, in a way. They are very numerous and very visually objectionable, if you will, and very visually low budget and industry-defying. They are qualified as cheap products to cash in. That is true of many of the movies of the genre. But not all of the movies of the genre.
EG: What are some of the movies that you’ve seen that have affected you? I know the original version of this movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, you said was one of the scariest pieces of television that you’ve seen. What are some of the films, either recently or ones that go back decades, that you would say have frightened or disturbed you the most?
GDT: The list is the usual. The Shining, Alien, The Innocents, The Haunting, Jaws, The Uninvited with Ray Milland, The Dead of Night (the British movie), The Curse of the Demon … But recently I was very affected by a Korean movie that is very, very extreme called I Saw the Devil. I was very, very affected by it. It’s a very in your face, a broad, brutal, movie, but highly effective.
EG: How do you see your own work having grown or evolved over the years since you first got started as a filmmaker? How do you think you’ve changed?
GDT: Well, I think that technically I’ve become more proficient at certain things, but in terms of artistic intention, I think from he get-go, from Cronos on, I’ve always tried very hard in my own way to make beautiful and moving images, and beautiful and moving stories within the genre. That has been basically unwavering in my intention in creating things. Even in the more commercial movies like the two Hellboys, I tried very hard to fabricate beautiful images, and beautiful moments. Even in a movie as hardcore as Blade II I tried very hard [to make] a beautiful image here and there.
EG: Do you ever long to do something that’s fairly conventional, in terms of just a straight up drama or straight up comedy or something that doesn’t necessary include these more fantastical, supernatural or pulpy elements?
GDT: Not really. [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s in my DNA. I really think I was born to exist in the genre. I adore it. I embrace it. I enshrine it. I don’t look upon it or frown upon it in a way that a lot of directors do. A lot of directors make a horror movie as a steppingstone. For me, it’s not a steppingstone, it’s a cathedral.
EG: Do you feel like you have a particular lesson that you would like a young filmmaker or a beginning filmmaker, or for that matter a beginning writer, to take away from your work? Is there something that you hope an astute student would be able to appreciate of what you’re doing?
GDT: No, I’m not trying to teach anyone anything. I think that’s a waste of time. I do hope that people who like [one of my movies] like it for the right reason. That they like it because they see how many of the moments in the movies run counter to what they are just supposed to do. The Devil’s Backbone‘s ghost, I tried to make him more moving than scary. I tried to make him pitiful and beautiful. I tried to make the vampire sympathetic in Cronos. I tried to make the real world far more brutal in a way than the world of horrors that the girl experiences in Pan’s Labyrinth. And so forth. But they are not lessons by any means. They are just strands of my work that I hope that the people who like it notice.
EG: Are you at liberty to talk about The Hobbit and share any thoughts about what is going on? Are you in touch with Peter Jackson and what’s going on down there in New Zealand?
GDT: We stay in touch. I said what I had to say. I really love having had the experience. Now it’s in Peter’s hands and I’m actually waiting for it to come out and I’ll be the first in line. Other than what I had to say, that there’s nothing else to add.
EG: Give me some thoughts on your field and the direction you think filmmaking is going to be headed. Whether this relates to the kinds of stories we’re going to be absorbing, the kinds of narratives, like filmmakers collaborating with game designers, or other changes.
GDT: I’m a firm believer that the narrative form, the storytelling form, for big genre stories, will very rapidly invade into transmedia, in multi-platform world creation, in the next ten years, when we’re going to have the movies, the video games, the storyline, the TV series or webisodes and this and that, all coming at us consecutively if not simultaneously to give the audience a real sense of a world creation. I’m not talking about [every film] — there will be all kinds of films always — just in the genre filmmaking I expect it will be changing. I’m very interested and very actively training myself by designing and directing a video game. I’ve been working on it for the last year and I still have three more years to go to develop the video game. … So by the end of the four years I will have had a bit of a tenure in video game making.
EG: Is that game going to be related to a film you are working on, or is it independent?
GDT: No, this is just my apprenticeship into the gaming world. And my experience has been a very beautiful and productive one. It’s with a company called THQ and it’s game called “inSANE.”
EG: I see that we are out of time.
GDT: I want to thank you again for this.
EG: Thank you very much. Guillermo, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark opens Friday, August 26.
[Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in a different form in an article for the Boston Sunday Globe]