Guillermo del Toro is not one to hide his enthusiasm. In Montreal to accept the Fantasia International Film Festival’s Cheval Noir Award, and to present a screening of Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, a makeup effects documentary that he also appears in, the Mexican-born director of cult-classics including Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy excitedly held forth at an early-afternoon press conference to discuss his filmography, his poptimist attitude, and why he thinks monsters will save his soul.
Del Toro’s love and appreciation for the film festival audience is one of the reasons he commands such love and dedication from fans—he makes it clear that he is just as excited to be here as we are. “We’re here because we’re fucking nuts,” he admits. “We are truly in love with a thing that is, for a lot of people, unlovable. If you’re a swinger, you need to go to a swinger’s party. So we’re here swinging. You can choose to go to a Church or a shrine. This is a shrine. This is where the faithful come to pray.”
While Creature Designers places much of its emphasis on practical effects, del Toro is not against the use of CGI in films, and believes that the general animosity towards the practice is based on simple misconceptions. “I think that a lot of the audience now just assumes that everything is CG,” he says. “There is not a makeup vs. CG [problem]; there’s lazy vs. creative. There’s something nice about blending the two techniques. I like CG. I cannot build a 25-story robot. And even if I enhance it, a man in a suit could not work now.”
Del Toro has a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business. He’s a fan that hasn’t lost his love of the genre, even as he’s gone on to helm some of the most beloved gothic-drenched movies of our time. Still, as he describes it, that gregariousness comes at a price—his utter refusal to make any compromises on his films. “If I’m directing, I haven’t done anything I didn’t want since [Mimic in] 1997,” he claims. “So if you don’t like something in my movies, it’s my fault. And if you like it, I’m happy. I learned an incredibly useful word in 1997, which is “No.” It’s a word I knew, but didn’t know how to use. When you’re a young filmmaker and you’re making movies, you make them because everyone loves you. You’re like a dancing bear. And then after that, you’ve got to become a bit of a motherfucker. And they respect that more. So I learned to say no early on, very strongly.”
That frustrating experience on Mimic, an imperfect but visually exciting creature film, cemented del Toro’s notion that going forward, he would exert complete creative control on any movies bearing his name. It has also meant that he is usually drawn to his own projects, rather than chasing the next potential franchise hit. “I don’t do any movie that I wouldn’t be willing to die for,” he states emphatically. “I’ve had on my lap movies that are huge, that become huge franchises, but I don’t believe in them, or I don’t believe I’m the right guy, and I say no. You need to get high on your own supply when you’re doing a movie.”
Sometimes, it’s a simple matter of principals that dictate which projects get picked. “I got offered the Narnia movies, but I’m a lapsed Catholic,” he says. “I’m not interested in seeing the fucking lion resurrect!”
The Strain, the FX-produced vampire TV show based on Del Toro’s series of books with Chuck Hogan, is a rare example of Del Toro loosening the reigns, albeit to Carlton Cuse (Lost), who knows a thing or two about running a show. “The Strain, after the first season, is Carlton Cuse,” del Toro insists. “It’s Carlton’s baby. Having co-written the books with Chuck Hogan, I’m too close to the books. I suffer a lot if there’s a change, and there’s a lot of changes. They kill people that we don’t kill in the book; they kill them in the second season. People that we killed in the first book, they live forever [in the series]. With TV, you learn very quick that the dynamics of a TV show are very different. Some characters that were meant to last have to end quickly. ”
Even with Del Toro’s massive success, no project is certain. For years, Del Toro had been working on an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, a meeting of the minds that horror fans around the world were working themselves silly over, before the film had ever been officially announced. When the studio suddenly pulled the plug on the film during pre-production in 2011, Del Toro was left shattered, and it’s clear that his experience through the bureaucratic wringer has left the usually-jovial director truly shaken.
“Imagine that you had a horrible miscarriage that left a lot of scars, and you’re still dangling a piece of placenta,” he says with a pained expression. “That thing really gutted me. Before I went into the pre-production process, I had put over a decade and a half into it. First getting the rights to the book, because it’s one of the few books of H.P. Lovecraft that is not in public domain, regardless of what people think. We had to track the chain of title. We got the rights. And then we went and designed everything. I can show you an ILM test, and about 200 pieces of design of the creatures and everything, and about 700 storyboards. It would break you heart.”
“It really was a great monster movie,” he emphasizes. “And we got James Cameron to produce and Tom Cruise to star, and then they say no. I was flying in a helicopter over the border of Alaska, seeing a pack of wolves crossing a frozen lake, and I landed in a little refuge in the middle of nowhere while we were scouting for Antarctica, and I get a call that says, “You have to call the studio tomorrow.” And you never call the studio for good news. So then I knew we were screwed, before I went back to civilization. And then they cancelled the movie. So it was very, very difficult. I’m not being funny, I’m not making this up, it really takes a toll. It really destroys something in you, when you have a miscarriage like that. It damaged me somehow. A lot of this grey hair probably comes from there. You put a lot of effort, your body and soul, and then it doesn’t happen. The ones that don’t happen break your heart. But I’m going to keep trying.”
As talk turns to his current projects, del Toro explains why he chose to pass on Pacific Rim 2, the sequel to his ambitious 2013 action film that pitted mechanized robots against Godzilla-like monsters. “I chose Pacific Rim over Dark Universe at Warner’s, because they were conflicting,” he explains. “And then Pacific Rim got pushed 9 months, and I have this little movie that I’ve been carrying for a couple of years (The Shape of Water), and I thought, “I’m going to do that right away. There’s a juncture here, I’ve got to take it.” It’s a more difficult movie, it’s a smaller movie, but I felt in my gut that I need to make it. And then we started seeing people [for Pacific Rim 2], we needed someone that had his Kaiju syllabus. That knew the mech. That really felt like a fan. And [Pacific Rim 2 Director Steven DeKnight] felt like that guy. It’s his movie. I’m assisting in any way I can or that he needs, but it’s his movie, and I think the ideas he has are great. I’m very happy with it. But I decided I was going to move on to new things.”
Del Toro is mum about The Shape of Water, his upcoming Cold War-era film starring Michael Shannon. “It’s a smaller movie in the English language, which gives me a lot more freedom,” he states. “Because I don’t abide by intervention, you do have to weigh the size of the audience you want. When you get more budget, you do change. When I say Blade II is a six-pack movie, I mean it. It’s a movie best appreciated with a six-pack and a pizza. This is a much more-constricted budget, but it allows me to [explore] a more esoteric area. Not that anyone was clamoring for gothic romance last year [a shot at the weak box office for Del Toro’s Crimson Peak], but I’ve got to tune it to that. It’s as personal as The Devil’s Backbone to me.”
Following The Shape of Water, Del Toro has set his sights on re-imaging one of the most popular children’s stories, with a dark undertone that fits in squarely with his own filmography. “I’m writing a new draft of Pinocchio,” he explains. “I think [Pinocchio is] Frankenstein. Pinocchio and Frankenstein have similar strands. It’s an innocent, a pure force, that is created and abandoned in the world, and learning to cope morally with the world. He’s not a normal character. He’s viewed with suspicion, with wonderment. He’s imprisoned, tortured. So the thing I’m doing is, I’m going back to the book. I’m going back to [“Pinocchio” author Carlo] Collodi, so we have little things from the Collodi book that are not in the version most people know. Burning his legs, getting hanged, seeing the black bunnies, which are really scary. Pleasure Island is truly scary. I set it in the time between World War I and II in Italy, when fascism is rising, so it’s an interesting time for Pinocchio. It’s a good time for a puppet to exist. So it’s an interesting Pinocchio. It’s animated, and I have hopes to get it made.”
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With the recent upswing in violent attacks across the globe, Del Toro is quick to point out a theme that weaves its way through all his films—the notion that humans are the real monsters. “I have never seen a horror movie in which I want the monster to be destroyed,” he proclaims. “I want the fucking villagers to die. I want the scientists to explode. Everybody can die expect the fucking monster.”
The monster as an innocent is a idea that can be traced back to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein—Del Toro’s all-time favourite creature, and one he has often toyed with trying to bring to the screen. “Part of me wants to do a version,” he admits. “Part of me has for more than 25 years chickened out on making it. Sometimes I dream I can make the greatest Frankenstein ever, but then if you make it, you’ve made it. Whether it’s great or not, it’s done. You cannot dream about it anymore. That’s the tragedy of a filmmaker. You landed a 10, or you landed a 6.5, but you were at the Olympics already, you know? You were judged.”
The thought of being judged for expressing one’s emotions leads to Del Toro’s thoughts on how modern audiences have changed (hint: not for the better). “If you are in an audience right now, emotions are corny,” he says sadly. “You go to a theatre and you have an emotional scene on the screen, you’re going to hear chuckles. It’s a very difficult time. Emotion is the new punk. Being emotional is being punk right now. It’s taking a risk.”
With all of the negativity surrounding social media, Del Toro was initially apprehensive about offering up any sort of an online presence. He eventually conceded, starting a Twitter account, but with one goal in mind—to never criticize other artists. “It took me many years to finally decide to go on Twitter,” he admits. “And I went on Twitter and I made a point, other than politics, which I fucking hate, I am not going to say anything negative about anything artistic. I’m going to talk about books I love, I’m going to talk about films I love, I’m going to talk about artists I love. Because there’s enough of the other crap. It’s much easier to sound intelligent by shitting on something than by praising it. We have supplanted intelligence with cynicism. When we say we hate, we sound smarter than when we say we love. I say, “Fuck that.” So if you go to my Twitter account, I’ve posted hundreds of mini reviews of books, hundreds of mini reviews of films, hundreds of new artists for people that don’t know them. And it’s out of enthusiasm and love. Politicians and all that I do take a shit on, because I think it’s a perversion. That’s true horror.”
As a filmmaker who has based his career on monsters, both real and imagined, Del Toro readily acknowledges that his fascination with creatures is not a typical pursuit. “I doubt I’ll ever be a normal guy,” he says candidly. “Monsters are real for me. In the sense that if you see my movies, there’s never any doubt the creatures are real. For me, ghosts are real. I’m a Mexican, so to me, everything weird and fucked up I think is real. The way a Christian believes that Jesus will save his life, that’s the way I believe monsters will save my soul. I believe it. When I see Boris [Karloff], I see a messianic figure. Somebody that died for my sins. I’m not a fan, I’m a deranged creature.”