The Den of Geek interview: Guillermo del Toro
Speaking exclusively to Den Of Geek from Los Angeles, Guillermo del Toro talks Hellboy, The Hobbit, The Witches, Mountains of Madness and a whole lot more...
When Guillermo del Toro signed up to do The Hobbit, the response of Lord Of the Rings fans told you all you needed to know about him. For if Peter Jackson wasn’t going back to Middle Earth, then there’s no finer choice to step into his shoes.
In this exclusive interview, conducted just before Hellboy II hit the top spot at the US box office over the weekend, he tells us about the film, his career to date, and the projects he’s juggling into the future…
You must be thrilled with the reviews that Hellboy II has been getting. How are you feeling about it right now?
Incredibly well! It’s a movie that is much closer to the visual universe of my other movies, it’s more surreal perhaps. And I think it’s great to see that well received!
This one presumably is much closer to the Hellboy film you wanted to make?
I wouldn’t put it quite like that. It is the first time in the American movies that I do that I allowed myself to let my hair loose.
Pan’s Labyrinth’s success was presumably the watershed moment for that?
Well it was in my mind, perhaps, a new beginning. I would hope the watershed is still to come, though!
It did seem to be the film though where afterwards Hollywood decided that it would fully back you? That it took a smaller, personal, international film?
I think that essentially I fell off the map, for almost two years or three years, to do Pan’s Labyrinth. And certainly my agents were worried. But I was not, I was very determined to do it.
And that defines your career now to an extent. This confidence and vision, that you are standing up to people, and you are saying no?
Yeah. I feel if you do what you believe in, you have at least the comfort that if people dislike your movies, they’re disliking your movie. If you do what everybody tells you do, and people dislike your movies, they may be disliking other people’s choices.
Did you ever dream of being in a position like this, after the experience you had with your first Hollywood film, Mimic?
No! Immediately after Mimic, I really had to wonder if I would ever shoot a movie again…
… it got that bad?
Well, a) because all the joy of film making went away for a little bit, because it was just atrocious. And b), because in America I was not easily employable because the battle we had with Mimic had been unbeknownst to me made quite public in the industry.
It was the way you reacted to that film, though, that you went and did The Devil’s Backbone rather than fight the Hollywood system, that presumably gave you the standing you have?
Well I think that it was my gut instinct that if I stayed and did another Hollywood movie, I would do it from a position of weakness. And I thought that in doing The Devil’s Backbone, I’d be doing that from a position of strength.
I really loved that movie. It took over ten years to get it made, and you know, when I went away, Blade II was already on the horizon, and at some point New Line tried to get it that Blade II would come first. And I made them understand that it was not their decision, it was my decision. And it was that moment, that particular moment, that was a great moment for declaring principle.
Blade II you filled with little lovely little touches for hardcore geeks, too. We’re thinking particularly the Burroughs homage in the typewriter room. Did you get much reaction to those?
Well, no. Any homage in Blade II, like calling the nightclub the House of Pain, they went largely under the radar. But what I thought was very good was that Mimic, despite all the trouble, had been a financially successful venture. Dimension made their money back, and they made enough money back that they pumped out two sequels direct to video, and you know, when we went out into the market, my position was better. When Blade II raised quite a substantial amount above the first one, that gave me enough ammunition to go for Hellboy.
I thought that the geek component of Blade II may have gone unnoticed, but what is really nice is that it is the only movie that I’ve done where I had tried to be really hardcore with the gore. All the other movies are by contrast quite restrained. They are more minimalistic, with little injuries like Cronos or indeed in Pan’s Labyrinth. But I really wanted Blade II to have sort of a punk attitude, and that was not unnoticed!
You’re a well know comics fan, but how much reading do you put into the conception of the Hellboy films?
That is actually a really good question, because with both Hellboy 1 and 2 there’s a lot of research. Even if it does not apply verbatim, a lot of reading goes into those movies, more than with Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth.
For example, in the first Hellboy, I had to research - and found - historical alibis for the fact that there was a lot of traffic of Nazi submarines through Scotland, specifically! So when I say it opens in Scotland and there were Nazis there, it is at the very least plausible!
But I had to find the research for that, and I researched into the Nazi/occult manifestations, and there is a whole system of belief that meant I could do the arrival of essentially the destroyer of worlds or the anti-Christ with a Nazi ritual. The reading for Hellboy II was hand in hand with the reading for folklore and mythology and fairy tales for Pan’s Labyrinth.
Did you find the look of the comics affected your shooting style?
I tried to on the first one. Very, very rigorously. But as it turns out, we could only translate a certain portion. I felt that we were quite slavish to the colour palettes and the shadows and all that. But at the end of the day, the movie has to end up having its own look.
In terms of expanding the Hellboy franchise, you’ve been quoted recently as saying you’d like to do a Hellboy 3. But would you stop at three, or do you see this being something you could come back to fairly regularly?
I personally would stop at three. Because I think that particular iteration of Hellboy ends there. The way I plan to do the film if it ever happens, there’s no other place to go.
Is there any other comic franchise you’d like to try?
I have mentioned casually the ones I love. Dr Strange, I love Jack Kirby’s Demon, I love Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing. But all of them are very unlikely to happen.
Any particularly reason for that? Because if anyone can get them made, it would be you!
Well it’s because I have such a backlog of stuff that I need to take to fruition. Case in point is [At The] Mountains Of Madness. That’s a project where if I delay it two more years, it’ll be impossible to meet the expectations of the people who are waiting!
Is that one you definitely still want to do?
I would love to. That’s my goal in life! Hopefully in the next few years, if Hellboy goes well, we’ll get the ammo to convince the studios to do a tentpole horror movie.
The next few years, obviously, are going to be dominated by The Hobbit. Do you find yourself in awe of the size of a project such as that?
You know, to be absolutely honest, no. It’s just a lot of work. But I’m used to working a lot – I’m a hard working fat man! If you give me a mountain, but you give me ten pickaxes, I’ll do it!
Recently you’ve been talking about how different sized budgets place different demands on you. The Hobbit, it’s fair to say, will be the biggest budget you’ve ever worked with.
What kind of demand are you expecting off that? Is there an added weight of expectation there?
Well it’s one of those movies where if Pan’s Labyrinth comes out and it fails, it fails quietly. It’s kind of a silent project. If it’s successful people get it on their radar, and if it isn’t, there’s very little harm done. If Hellboy performs well or not, ultimately the people affected are smaller size of public.
The Hobbit films? They are absolute quests. There is absolutely no room for non-delivery. As far as me working hard or having the best partnership with Peter, Philippa and Fran, I expect that it will be between the four of us, we will do the best to form a Beatles band, and we will deliver The White Album!
There are lots of reports circulating that the second film is in some kind of doubt for legal reasons. Can you clear that up for us?
Not to my knowledge. Absolutely, categorically not to my knowledge. The only thing is there’s going to be a second film, but the shape of what it is and how it happens will be determined by the process. That’s the only thing. I’m afraid that whenever I try to vary a question that’s been answered before, I end up getting in hot or boiling water because people just put a classic headline on it. If I say I’m feeling sick, or I have the flu, the headline is ‘Del Toro Sick! The Hobbit cancelled!’
Does that amuse you or frustrate you?
It’s very unusual, because I’ve never talked so much about a project that doesn’t even have a screenplay! It’s almost like people want photos of the baby while it’s still in the womb!
You’ve mentioned in the past that between Chronos and Mimic, you wrote six screenplays that went unproduced, and subsequent to that a further three. Do you have any conception of ever being able to go back to these projects?
Some of them are gone. Some of them, the rights to the underlying material has expired, and some have transformed into other projects. For example one of them was based on the novel Spanky by Chris Fowler, and that one disappeared because Chris awarded the rights to another production company. So that is gone.
List Of Seven, by Mark Frost, I’m still trying to get off the ground. We wrote The Left Hand Of Darkness, which is another vision of The Count Of Monte Cristo, as a western. That’s still pretty much alive and I’m still trying to make it, but it never seems to be the right time.
I think that’s a movie that still bugs me a little bit. I mean, when you ask me if I’m scared of The Hobbit, I’m not, I’m more scared of Left Hand Of Darkness, because it’s a movie that I’m very, very proud of the screenplay, but it requires a set of tools that are a little daunting. It’s sort of like a David Lean, Sergio Leone epic western. Very much full of magic. And it’s the only movie without any creatures.
There are other ones. I wrote a few others. Wind In The Willows, one I wrote for Miramax that I’m not at liberty to disclose but that I’m going to produce for another director before the year’s end.
You’ve directed your own stuff, so how do you feel about passing over your writing for someone else to have a stab at?
Well, if it’s somebody I trust, that’s the only case in which I’ll pass it. I promise then that I’ll leave that person alone. Because I think that the best way of producing a movie is hiring the right guy and allow him to flourish. That’s the way I’ve done it, with good and not so good results, but it’s the only way I know.
The guy I’m hiring for this screenplay, I think is fantastic director.
Of course, with projects like The Orphanage, you’re using the clout that you’ve built up to give people a break. Is that a good feeling?
It is. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you slightly younger, mentally. And as sappy as it may sound, I find a lot of reward in giving. There is a lot that you gain when you give.
Does part of that come out of not wanting to see someone go through the experiences you had?
There is a part of that. I always joke that I want to be the avenger of filmmakers that come to the States to do their first thing. Look, it’s always going to be a difficult experience, but with a strong producer, it is at least a shared experience.
You’re finding you’re deflecting the pressure for them…
Not only that. I do it not only gladly, I also kind of enjoy it, because I have no proximity to the process. I have an emotional detachment in the sense that as a director, I’m protecting my baby, but as a producer, I’m protecting somebody else’s baby. And my aim is better. I can shoot the bastards a mile away!
You’ve also got, according to the IMDB listings, 11 projects that you’re involved with in various states. Where do they all fit around The Hobbit?
The ones that are in development will be put to bed by the year’s end, because I am clearing the table completely to do The Hobbit. I cannot balance any more than The Hobbit come ‘09. And from now until January ’09, I’m trying to put everything to bed. And a lot of them are either finished shooting, or in post production, or they already finished the final cut. So that list comes down to really about five projects.
And a lot of them, sadly or not, are not financial ventures, they are efforts that do not render any monetary gains. They are supporting of other film makers, and stuff like that, where the monetary involvement is minimal. But they require my attention.
The Hobbit came out of left field a few months ago, and I am clearing the table as fast as I can.
And as regards the projects over the years that you’ve been attached to yourself, things like The Witches and Tarzan, is it a case that you can’t even look at those for a few years now?
The Witches was delivered, I must report, with a lot of pride, that Lizzie Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow, absolutely loved the screenplay. And we found uncannily enough difficulty raising the money for it.
Can you believe that? I wanted to do it stop motion, and it couldn’t be done, we couldn’t raise the money.
Do you think the project has died a death now?
I would love to do that movie, but there was just a curious resistance to it.
And Tarzan, I’m out of.
It’s interesting you mentioned doing The Witches as stop motion, because we’ve always wondered if you’d be tempted to do animation? It would surely lend itself well to your visual style?
Before The Hobbit came to the table, I was putting the finishing touches to a deal, a very beautiful, perfect deal that I’m not at liberty to disclose, to actually create two animated films. I was very eager, because I am becoming more and more compulsive about controlling the frame. About what goes in the frame, and the elements and the camera moves. It’s come to the point where certain stories, I know I’m only going to be able to do the way I think them with animation.
Others no, you cannot do Devil’s Backbone animated, or for that matter in my mind not even the first Hellboy, but as time passes I do know there are certain things that I will become Mr Compulsive, and will have to control essentially as much as I can.
Talking of films you’ve not made, you’ve twice turned down the Harry Potter films. Were they a little too straight jacketed for the way you work?
No, I would have loved to have done the last one. Because I found the ending very moving.
You’ve also, of course, got a very fervent online fanbase, that you’re very close to. Is that a double edged sword for you?
Well, we get the harshest criticism, and it’s not an unconditional relationship by any means. I don’t believe it is, because I have experienced many a backlash from many people who are still very close to me in the fanbase. You become friends, but I think that it is the duty of friends to at least voice their dissent. The danger of it would be to actually create a dependency, where the film maker ends up taking dictation. That would be very sad.
I always tell the people on the website, at DelToroFilms, or the Hellboy website, I always say tell me what we did wrong, or what we did differently to what you wanted. And the only thing I would ask is that we worked hard, and didn’t deliver a movie that was half-baked, or that we didn’t think about, and it was artistically not an effort that lacked any endeavour, or physical or mental artistic investment. So if we did that, then I would love for my decisions to be respected. Even to be respected when someone says you have ruined my childhood! And so far the changes on the movies I’ve done, they have been voiced, even in the negative aspects, most of the time in a quite civilised way.
Are there any films coming up now that you wish you’d been involved with?
No! There’s enough! I think that everything else that I like is in great hands. I love Batman, and I can’t imagine any better hands than Christopher Nolan.
Is that the one you’re particularly looking forward to seeing?
Yes, I want to see The Dark Knight!
And they’ve not let you see it yet?
No, I want to wait until opening night! I don’t want to go to an industry screening, I don’t want to go to a preview, I don’t want to go opening weekend. I want to see it on an IMAX screen, with a bag of popcorn and regular folk!
Finally, what advice would you give to anyone now who is looking to break into the film industry?
Well, it’s always very difficult, and it’s always a don’t give up situation. I really have no advice but to persevere. I always use that most poetic analogy, that making films is always like eating a sandwich of shit. As you get your foot in, you get a little more bread, but you always get shit! If you get used to the aftertaste, you may survive!
Guillermo del Toro, thank you very much.
Thanks to Mike Jennings, Carl England and Robert Mclaughlin for their help in preparing the questions.