Since emerging at the cultier end of the arthouse scene with the inventive 1993 vampire movie Cronos, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has been an enigma, jumping between mainstream action-horror blockbusters like Blade II and Hellboy, and smaller, more thoughtful genre pieces like The Devil's Backbone and the new Pan's Labyrinth, which wowed critics at Cannes and Toronto, and has landed on scores of 2006 "best of" lists. It represents the purest, most purposeful expression of del Toro's talent to date, grounding his skill at creating elaborate fantasies in a historical story that grows in meaning as it goes. The director recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his work, his friendship with fellow Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and a seesaw career that includes the almost-fatal Hollywood dud Mimic.
The A.V. Club: Mimic was released in 1997, but The Devil's Backbone didn't come out until 2001. Why such a big gap in your filmography?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, Mimic was such a bad experience that I didn't want to go back and do an American movie again. I didn't want to go through the process. I wanted to make a movie in Spanish, basically following my own rules, and I was fortunate enough to meet Pedro Almodóvar and for him to offer to co-produce The Devil's Backbone. He took a while to raise the financing, and in the middle of that, I got offered Blade II—several times, by the way. I didn't want to do it until I did The Devil's Backbone, but they were in a hurry, so I said, "Listen, if you want to do Blade II without me, you're welcome to it. If you want me, you'll wait for me to do my Spanish movie." And they waited.
I just didn't want to go back to the Hollywood system without having experienced a breath of fresh air. It was complicated. Mimic left a big dent in my life. It took a while for me to regain my balance.
AVC: How do you approach movies like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone differently from something like Blade II?
GdT: In terms of craftsmanship and process, they are exactly the same. I try to be just as careful in crafting the world and so forth. But when it comes to something like Pan's Labyrinth, I know I won't have to respond to anybody in any marketing department. It doesn't get audience-tested. The only calibration the movie needs is my own judgment. Which is great. For me, success is not about accolades. It's about fucking up on your own terms. If there are mistakes in the movies—and they all have mistakes—at least they're yours, and you can learn from them. When the mistakes are by committee, it's harder to know what went wrong. So there's a lot more freedom when I work my own way.
AVC: How do you get to a point in your career where you have that freedom?
GdT: You make no money. [Laughs.] It's easy! You can always go back to not making any money, and then you get the freedom. And I'm going to continue doing it, because it really is a fantastic sense of liberation.
AVC: Pan's Labyrinth doesn't look cheap.
GdT; No, but for Hollywood it is. It was made for 13.5 million euros, which I think is around $20 million. But the intention was to make it look like a $50, $60 million movie. You just approach it in those terms as a producer, knowing that nobody is going to live in luxury, with a limo or caviar or crap like that. Really, it's always been like that in my life. I have "fat-guy syndrome." If they give me $50 million to make a movie, I'll try to make it look like it cost a hundred. If they give me $60 million, I'll try to make it look like it cost $120.
AVC: Pan's Labyrinth starts out with this sense of childlike wonder, but gets grimmer and gorier as it goes along. Was that part of your grand plan for the film, to have it gradually get harder to take?
GdT: Well, the idea for me is that if the movie connects with you the way I want it to connect with you, you should be experiencing both the horror and the wonder as a child would. From a child's point of view. When we're kids, brutality registers differently than when we are adults. I tried to make the violent scenes—in what is essentially a war movie and a fantasy movie mixed together—disturbing and unsettling and heartbreaking. That contrast is great, because it has not only that childlike sense of wonder, but the brutality that only a child would sense. Because as adults, we get too used to violence.
Most of the violent scenes in the movie are taken from oral accounts of the Spanish Civil War, mixed with other things. [Spoiler warning.] The only moment of violence that I think is executed in a larger-than-life style is the moment of the captain sewing his own lips. I wanted that to be a moment in which he really, fully turns into the ogre of the movie. The Big Bad Wolf, you know? [End spoiler.]
AVC: Do you enjoy supervising the makeup effects for a scene like that?
GdT: Of course. But I think that if you see every other scene in the movie, the violence actually becomes progressively more offhand. It starts in close and starts pulling back until the last couple of deaths in the movie are in wide shots, with no coverage. Very matter-of-fact. When I stage a violent scene, I try for it to serve a purpose.
I do love those things, the makeup effects. But I love them more with the monsters. I never was much of a gore guy. I've always enjoyed just creating monsters.
AVC: Since it's set around the time of the Spanish Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth seems to be dealing with the idea that losers can ultimately be winners, once the final judgment of history is rendered. Is that a fair reading?
GdT: I wouldn't disagree with it. There's a Kierkegaard quote I really enjoy: "The reign of the tyrant ends with his death, and the reign of the martyr starts with it." In my movie, the strongest character, ultimately, is an 11-year-old girl. Not the guy who is basically usurping morality and usurping choices, hiding behind the façade of "this is the way things are." I think that is the ultimate cowardice, when someone makes your choices for you in an institutional way. And you just say, "Well, I have no other option."
AVC: Does that include the choice to end your own life?
GdT: I think more than ending it, it's about choosing how you live. If we have a choice in how we die, I would say that's a privilege. I think we have a sort of prudish approach to death in the West, though certainly not in Mexico. In Mexico, it's a little bit freer. We're not so precious about it. [Spoiler warning.]
Anyway, I actually think that the movie is not about the girl dying, but the girl being reborn. It doesn't matter what happened to her physically. She ends in the place she wanted to be. On the other hand, the captain ends in the worst place possible for him. When he hears the last line of dialogue, everything he wanted to be sort of crumbles. [End spoiler.]
AVC: Your films are political to a degree, but they aren't necessarily comments on modern times so much on all times.
GdT: Yes, it's the difference between a parable and a pamphlet. A parable discusses things that are relevant in the past, the future, and the present—regardless of the outcome in the present. A pamphlet, on the other hand, is completely concerned with affecting an outcome in the present, the most immediate present. I would like to think that movies like this or The Devil's Backbone or Cronos are definitely more parables than anything else. They try to discuss things like immortality and death and truth and choice. Pan's Labyrinth is definitely a movie in favor of disobedience. I really believe that in the larger sense, not only today but at all times, you only find yourself when you disobey. Disobedience is the beginning of responsibility, I think.
AVC: This has been a good year for you and your Mexican compatriots. Did you plan to all have movies coming out about the same time?
GdT: No, it was completely accidental. I remember Alfonso was shooting Children Of Men while I was shooting Pan's Labyrinth. I would talk to him every day, find out how it was going. I even went to visit him in London, but it was ridiculous. I finally knew what approaching a movie set from the outside was like. The assistant directors kicked my ass. I said, "I'm a friend of Alfonso!" And they said "Of course you are." [Laughs.] I saw this huge machinery in London while I was in Spain shooting my smaller movie.
No, it was not planned. I was talking to Alejandro when I was in post-production on Pan's Labyrinth, because he was post-producing Babel with the sound designer I wanted. I got the soundtrack and he got the designer.
AVC: You're a voracious reader. Do you find it difficult to keep up with all the things you're interested in?
GdT: Yes, very much. I ache for more time. I buy a book and I start browsing it, and then I have to stop and don't read for two or three days until I take it up on the weekend. I find I'm waking up really early now, just to read. Waking up at ungodly hours. But I try to keep up, religiously. When I was a kid, it used to be a book a day. Then a book a week. Now it's like a book every two weeks. But I read every day.
AVC: Do you wish you could work faster?
GdT: Not only do I wish I could work faster, I actually would love to find somebody to help me do two, three things. Either a producing partner or a studio or a friend. I'm working with Alfonso and Alejandro, and we're starting to produce each other's movies. But back then, after Cronos, it was an impossible thing to dream.
I wish I could have done double the movies I've done, but that's the way it is. Between Cronos and Mimic, I wrote six screenplays. All of them went unproduced, so far. Between Mimic and The Devil's Backbone, I wrote three screenplays, all unproduced. So I have eight to 10 screenplays written and unproduced. And frankly, some of them are my favorite stories. I have a Western version of The Count Of Monte Cristo where the count has a clockwork hand. I have a screenplay called Mephisto's Bridge about a Faustian deal with the devil. I love them all. And I'm always peddling them.