Guillermo del Toro Interview: The Fall, James Cameron, Hellboy 3 and more

We chat to the legendary writer, producer and director Guillermo del Toro about his new novel, The Fall, working with James Cameron, and making Hellboy 3…

Guillermo del Toro

He’s a man who needs no introduction, but we’ll give him one anyway. It’ll be a bit sudden if we go straight into the questions.

Since his directorial debut, Cronos, in 1993, Guillermo del Toro has proven to be one of the most exciting filmmakers of his, or any, generation. He survived the Weinstein brothers (read Peter Biskind’s Down And Dirty Pictures for a fascinating glimpse into the nightmare that was Mimic), made a devil with a red right hand of stone a cinematic icon, and has made gothic horror a thing of beauty.

Recently, he stepped away from the camera to co-write The Strain, the first in his vampire trilogy with author Chuck Hogan. With follow-up The Fall now available in all good bookshops, we caught up with him to talk vampire obsessions, James Cameron, The Haunted Mansion, and how we can help get Hellboy 3 made.

You seem to be a filmmaker who’s always juggling a number of projects. How did you find time to write this? Was it during pre-production on The Hobbit?

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Yeah, it was actually. I started The Strain in L.A. and I finished it when I was in New Zealand. Chuck and I tackled The Fall during the prep of The Hobbit. Fortunately, with the way life is in New Zealand, I ended up with a lot of open time to write, you know?

So, was it a release, then, to write a novel during the prepping of such a huge movie?

It was a huge release because we were having writing sessions, screenplay sessions at Peter’s house for many hours in the morning. And then I would go and meet with Weta for designs and then for many months, before my family joined me, I was free to write, essentially, most of the night.

And I could write in the morning too, early, early before going to Peter’s. Like, from five a.m. to nine a.m. I was able to write. So, I was able to compartmentalize a very good chunk of time for the screenplay which was very serious and difficult to adapt. And then writing the novel became a lot of fun, getting my chapters to Chuck and getting Chuck’s chapters to me. It was like opening a Christmas present.

So, that was how it worked? You took chapters at a time?

Yeah. The way we do it is we get together in the beginning and we start by having what Chuck calls ‘a four-day breakfast’. And then after the four-day breakfast we have a map of the whole novel and each of us takes the chapters that we want to write. We do it entirely independent until the manuscripts change hands.

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And you’ve said before how much the visual side of storytelling really informs your stories. Here, you’re denying yourself that and asking the reader to do that for you. Does that make it harder?

No, it makes it different, but I don’t think it makes it harder. I think it’s actually a release for me to be able to talk to people directly through words. I can certainly address things directly. You know, when you’re writing a screenplay … ‘a half-open door, ominous, dark’. Well, that’s as far as you can get, and how you’re going to get the sense of dread or doom is going to be through sound and camera moves and lighting that door properly.

But, ultimately, you cannot objectivise any longer and you cannot contextualize other than in the image itself. So, when you are, on the other hand, writing about it, you can feel free to write about a quarter of a page about a half-open door.

And here, and in the first book, The Strain, there’s almost a forensic level of detail to vampires, a kind of biological interest in how a vampire might live and breathe.  

That’s an aspect of both books that I’ve had as a pending thing to tell for about 30 years. And I started thinking about vampire biology when I was in my teens and I kept really obsessively thinking about what would happen to a vampire if he was, quote unquote, turned. If he was human when he turned.

And I tried to make a rationale and some of that rationale made it into Cronos and some of that rationale made it into Blade 2. The design biology of the reapers in Blade 2 came entirely from me. The way Goyer had written them originally, he had written them like shape shifters, and I came up with all that biology. But I could only get about a tenth of what I could get into The Strain and The Fall and in The Night Eternal, which is the third book.

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So, is it freeing? Because I’m assuming, even in this age of CGI and where you’re able to make bigger films, there’s still a limit to what you can film. In a novel you have the kind of scope that you wish you had with a film – infinite possibility.

Oh, absolutely. Not only do you have no budget limits but you have no censorship, no stupid bullshit notes. You are directly talking to your audience, straight. And I think it is a huge privilege and one I take very seriously. And, I must say, writing these books with Chuck Hogan has been one of the best experiences of my life.

But your next film project is At The Mountains Of Madness, is that right?

You know, until it’s greenlit, nothing is sure, as I have learned in the past. [laughs] That is the goal, yes, to start shooting that movie in June next year.

Are you keen to get behind the camera again? Because it’s been some time since Hellboy 2

Three years…

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And you had the delays with The Hobbit, you’ve been writing these books. Are you itching to get behind the camera again?

That doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel. I am so anxious to get going with shooting. About six months ago someone said they needed to shoot a title sequence and I said, “Can I direct it for you?” [laughs]

And did you? Did they let you?

No. No, I was still with The Hobbit and they couldn’t make it work. But I am anxious to direct, very anxious.

And you’ve got James Cameron in your corner with At The Mountain Of Madness. Is that for the 3D expertise as much as the added clout to get the budget you need for it?

Well, you know, this is a partnership that is born out of friendship. Jim and I have been best friends for the last couple of decades. We met in 1990 or 1991, and he has been one of my best friends through all those years. We have been through his life and my life making sure if we ever co-operated it would be on the right project.

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So, the benefit of James coming on board is huge, creatively and personally. It’s not only the 3D, or the technical aspect of the film. It is truly having a partnership with someone that you love and respect and you know he loves and respects you as a person and a filmmaker.

Is it a very collaborative environment, then, when you meet other filmmakers? You seem to have that relationship with other filmmakers, Frank Darabont, for example.

You know, for me it is. For me it is. I’m not sure it is the rule of thumb. But I know Frank is that way. I know Jim is that way and he happily says that me and my group of friends opened his eyes to that possibility. But he is very collaborative.

I have seen him produce and he is the greatest guy to have produce your movie because he is very, very involved if you need him, but he is very, very hands off if you don’t need him. And that is really the ideal way of producing.

I think that with Alfonso Cuaran, Alejandro González Iňárritu, Jim, Frank and a few others, you find that friendship that combines the personal and the professional. But it is not a rule of thumb, I don’t think.

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Do you find it is easier or harder to make films now than it was when you started some two decades ago with Cronos?

It is entirely different. It is always difficult. I don’t think it ever, ever, ever gets easy for almost no one. I mean, maybe one or two people would find it easier, but I don’t know them. [laughs] I think everyone finds it very hard. What it is right now that’s very scary is that it is more conservative. And I’m not just talking about politics.

If you look at a film, even a genre film, let’s say, like, Poltergeist, and you see the parents of the kid talking in the bed, and saying “Fuck”, and “Fuck this and fuck that.”  And the girl is endangered and then taken to the other side. Those three things alone would be impossible to make in a mainstream studio film now, which means that we have de-evolved into a more conservative environment when talking about wide release films.

I also think that political correctness has crippled, not only mainstream films, but has crippled even a large portion of what you would call art-house films. The thing is, it’s really difficult to find a producing partner or a financing partner that doesn’t respond to ideas in a very conservative way that gives you all the restrictions of a studio film, but none of the money.

[At this point we get a ‘Two more question’ intercept from the PR, so prompting a sudden, and not all that smooth, segue into the next two questions.]

Okay, two more questions. Another project you’ve been linked with is The Haunted Mansion, which might have taken some by surprise. What drew you to that? Was it to do something different?

No. No. What I have been doing is I have been fulfilling my “bucket list” of things I have been wanting to do as a kid and as an adolescent for all these years. I very much wanted to write about vampires and shoot movies about vampires and I have been doing that. I very much wanted to make Jekyll & Hyde and Frankenstein and by the same token I have been obsessed with The Haunted Mansion.

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I was in The Haunted Mansion the year it opened and I have been to The Haunted Mansion, essentially, every year after that, almost infallibly every year since I was three years old.

If you know me well you would know this is almost a religious passion. I love The Haunted Mansion. I pursued The Haunted Mansion from the get-go. I pursued it back in the day when it ended up being a comedy and I lost interest in it because it was clear to me that it was going to be a comedy. But I pursued it and I met with Nina Jacobson at Disney when it was announced they were making a film.

There’s a lot of love for all your films, but especially for the Hellboys. Would you like to make another one, to finish it as a trilogy?

I would love to, but I don’t think Ron wants to. He really grew tired of the makeup in the second film and he was really rubbed the wrong way by those seven-hour sessions. And I think that … I don’t blame him … but I think it is almost impossible for him to agree to do it. I can’t make a Hellboy film without Ron, you know, at all.

We’ll have to get an online petition to persuade him.

You know what? If you guys start that, I promise you it would help, because he would absolutely love that. [laughs]

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Guillermo del Toro, thank you very much.

We did get a petition going and you can find details and comments on our efforts to coax Mr Perlman back into the red suit and makeup right here

The Guillermo del Toro Collection is available to buy on Blu-ray now, courtesy of Optimum Home Entertainment