“I like creating real sets and real effects,” Guillermo Del Toro told FilmInk in 2013. “I like building as much as possible.”
Guillermo Del Toro has made building things his cinematic stock in trade. Whereas most directors create situations and stories, he creates entire worlds. Often hurling fantasy elements into direct opposition with the grinding, often greater horrors of the real world, Del Toro has the rare gift of making his surreal creations sing with emotion and truth. The word “visionary” is thrown around with abandon, but with Guillermo Del Toro, it’s wholly justified. It’s a wonderfully dark, occasionally brutal, and always fascinating vision that the Mexican-born filmmaker has displayed across a number of films as a producer and director, but it always plays as strikingly authentic, largely because this dark poetry is excavated directly from his own soul.
“It would be a cliche to say that, because I’m a Mexican, I see death in a certain way,” Del Toro told The Guardian in 2006. “I’ve seen more than my share of corpses, certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I’ve seen people being shot; I’ve had guns put to my head; I’ve seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated…Mexico is still a very violent place. Some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.”
Born in Guadalajara, Del Toro spent much of his childhood making monster movies with a Super-8 camera, before eventually graduating to 16mm and 35mm shorts. Even from an early age, he was hooked on horror. When FilmInk asked Del Toro in 2012 what he’d grown up watching, the director signalled a classic American TV series as one of his principal creative touchstones. “Night Gallery is still the foundation of a lot of what I love,” Del Toro said of the horror anthology series, which ran from 1969-1973. “When I was a kid, I was hardcore, so I watched The Exorcist and wasn’t scared. As a parent, I watched it again, and I was scared shitless. My God! Night Gallery stays in my mind though, and it forms my roots as a storyteller.”
The horror-obsessed Del Toro later attended Dick Smith’s Advanced Makeup Course, and spent much of the eighties and early nineties working as a special effects makeup artist. At the same time, Del Toro directed numerous episodes of Mexican television programmes, most notably the 1986-1990 horror anthology, Hora Marcada, which also boasted Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children Of Men) on the creative team. “It’s so bad,” Del Toro laughed of the show in 2010. “It’s absolutely, horribly bad. It’s interesting, in almost an anthropological way! We were so young, and so inexperienced, and we were doing them so fast.”
Ambitious, driven and obsessed with film, the burgeoning auteur also taught film workshops and co-founded The Film Studies Centre and The Mexican Film Festival. In amongst all of this activity, Del Toro also slowly began to piece together his first feature film. Though he faced great opposition in getting it made, his eerie, highly original 1992 horror film, Cronos, was eventually a smash hit in Mexico, and dominated The Ariel Awards, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Starring Federico Luppi and American import – and eventual Del Toro muse – Ron Perlman, the baroque horror film involved a mysterious device designed to provide its owner with eternal life, and played on classic literary and cinematic myths of vampirism and immortality. “I’d been trying to make Cronos for eight years,” Del Toro told The AV Club in 2010. “Frankly, I’m 46, and I still approach movies in the same way – namely, like each movie is going to be my last! I’m quite a fatalist. Cronos had a good chance of being the only movie that I made, because it was so peculiar. It’s not a regular vampire movie. It’s a Catholic, chemically correct vampire movie. I approached it with the zeal of somebody gasping for air, or holding on for dear life. I’ve been obsessed with vampires all my life. I’ve never been satisfied with the romantic conception of the vampire, so I wanted to reformulate that myth from a completely new perspective, which is alchemy and addiction and Mexican melodrama…all mixed together.”
Outside of Mexico, the deliriously unusual Cronos was also a big success at several international film festivals (it won The Mercedes-Benz Award at The Cannes Film Festival), and Del Toro was quickly snapped up to direct his first Hollywood film. Though imaginative and occasionally creepy, 1997’s horror flick, Mimic – which starred Mira Sorvino, and told of giant, scientifically modified killer insects that could mimic the human form – was muddled and narratively out of focus. Leaned on by the film’s producers and the Hollywood studio that bankrolled it, Del Toro was continually forced to compromise. “There is only about 50% of Mimic that I take responsibility for,” Del Toro told FilmInk in 2004. “And 40%, I completely disagree with. It’s the first movie of mine that’s ever had a second unit, because I refused to shoot certain ‘scares’ that I found cheap and cheesy. I really kick myself in the ass for allowing them to happen. But I was very inexperienced, and I wasn’t as strong as I am today. I didn’t understand many things. I came from an environment in Mexico where you basically make movies with your friends – so you have a really low guard and are trustworthy.”
Del Toro was even unhappier with the experience of making the film itself. “The worst experience of my life, even above the kidnapping of my father [in 1997, Del Toro’s father was kidnapped and held for 72 days until his ransom was paid], was shooting Mimic,” the director told The Guardian in 2006. “What was happening to me and the movie was far more illogical than kidnapping, which is brutal, but at least there are rules. Now when I look at Mimic, what I see is the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.”
The experience temporarily soured Del Toro on Hollywood, and he returned to Mexico to make the haunting quasi-horror film The Devil’s Backbone in 2001. Moody, quietly terrifying, and strongly characterised, the film follows Carlos, a twelve-year-old boy whose father has died in The Spanish Civil War. When he arrives at an ominous boys’ orphanage, Carlos soon discovers that the school is haunted, and riddled with dark secrets. “It’s not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost,” Del Toro said when doing press for the film’s US release. “People expecting The Sixth Sense or The Haunting are going to be disappointed. The movie is its own weird creature. The Devil’s Backbone is something that I’ve been carrying with me for sixteen years. It speaks of my childhood.”
As a child, Del Toro would retreat to a world of make-believe to escape not only from the violence that he witnessed around him in Guadalajara, but also from the fear of Hell instilled in him by his devout Roman Catholic grandmother. Del Toro’s drawings of monsters and fantasy figures would frighten his grandmother, who even staged two attempts to exorcise him in order to cleanse his soul. As a further form of penance, she would place metal bottle caps into the young Guillermo’s shoes so as to bloody his feet. “I had a horrible childhood, emotionally,” Del Toro told Canada’s Metro News in 2012. “I wasn’t beaten or locked in a closet, but I have an intense relationship with the horror of Catholic guilt. My grandmother was like Piper Laurie in Carrie. I was like a chubby version of Carrie. It was difficult for me to get over that. I suffered intensely in the first ten years of my life. I would cry at the concept of burning in Hell. Mexican Catholicism is very brutal and very gory. That all affected me.”
Drawn from the deep, dark well of his childhood pain, the powerful The Devil’s Backbone was highly acclaimed, and restored the director’s reputation after the blame for the failure of Mimic had been visited largely upon him. The success of The Devil’s Backbone galvanised Del Toro, and he felt strong enough to return to Hollywood, where he directed the highly effective vampire actioner, Blade II, a rare equal sequel, and a punchy continuation of the little known eponymous Marvel comic book character.
From there, Del Toro bounced into another comic book adaptation, putting his own personal spin on Mike Mignola’s even more obscure Hellboy, the twisted tale of the titular demon, who is raised by Nazis but grows up to become a highly unconventional superhero…of sorts. “Hellboy is essentially a regular guy,” Del Toro told FilmInk in 2004. “He’s almost 7ft tall, and he’s red with horns and golden eyes, but he behaves like a Regular Joe. It’s just that his job is different from yours. His job is beating the fuck out of monsters.”
Though not a big hit on its theatrical release, Hellboy picked up a large and devoted audience on DVD, which was the prime reason for the 2008 sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which marked a highly impressive expansion of the first film’s oddball fantasy universe. “On the first one, I wanted to honour the aesthetic that Mike Mignola had created,” Del Toro told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “And by doing that, I only made it my own up to a point. On Hellboy II, I wanted to take certain elements further. I wanted the aesthetics to be less comic book in tone. Hopefully, there’s a beauty to its strangeness.”
The principal reason for Del Toro being granted the cash for this big budget follow up, however, was the film that came before it. In 2006, the hard working Mexican director delivered his first true masterpiece. The Spanish language Pan’s Labyrinth is a work of stunning imagination and deep humanism, telling of a young girl who escapes into a dark fantasy world as the horrors of The Spanish Civil War rage uncontrollably around her. Once again dragged kicking and screaming from the broiling cesspool of his childhood memories, the film was a massive international success, and perfectly distilled Del Toro’s gift for engineering worlds in which the darkest fantasy sits right alongside an even darker reality. “I love fairy tales,” the director once said. “They tell the truth…not politics, religion or economics. Those things destroy the soul. That is the idea from Pan’s Labyrinth, and it surfaces in all my films.”
Working on the film outside of Hollywood because he wanted to, and not because he had to, Pan’s Labyrinth allowed Del Toro to establish himself as an international filmmaker of the highest order. He has since used his continually growing power to help shepherd other filmmakers’ work to the screen, producing the likes of Rudi Y Curso, Insignificant Things, The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, Splice, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark and Mama. “When I’m a producer, I have such clarity of vision,” Del Toro told FilmInk in 2008. “I’m like a cheerleader. I’m the fattest, most repulsive cheerleader you can ever have, but what am I going to do? But when it comes to my movies as a director, I only have fear and feelings of inadequacy and horror.”
Del Toro effectively puts those feelings in check by throwing himself into his producer/mentor role. “I watch hundreds of shorts every year,” he told FilmInk in 2012. “Yesterday, along with everything else that I’m doing, I watched five shorts, none of which were any good. I have a public email address that I give out everywhere: [email protected] People write to me, and I answer about fifteen emails a day from people that I don’t know – fifteen-year-olds in Milwaukee, Mexico and Latin America trying to make movies. I’ve been getting inundated with shorts. It’s good to stay in contact like that. When I produce in Mexico and Latin America, I don’t even have a contract. I don’t take any money; pay someone who needs it! I don’t own the movies. I never sign a piece of paper. There are only two ways to get young: teaching or producing new guys. I used to teach film language at The University Of Guadalajara, and there’s no better way to understand what you do and organise your thoughts than by teaching other people.”
Del Toro’s abilities as a producer and talent developer were spotted by studio boss and Hollywood heavy hitter, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who persuaded him to join DreamWorks three years ago, where he has since assisted with their animated projects, including Puss In Boots, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2, and Rise Of The Guardians. “I’m not attached to the company, so I speak freely,” Del Toro told FilmInk in 2012. “I have no political agenda. I don’t want to climb the structure so they can use me as a human shield if they need to push anything.” Tellingly, Del Toro deliberately keeps an open seat at his table while lunching at DreamWorks, letting it be known that he’s available to chat with anybody with a bright idea.
Five years after Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Del Toro returned to the director’s chair with 2013’s Pacific Rim, a huge sci-fi extravaganza about giant robots battling giant monsters. The director famously came close to getting back behind the camera again with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but the constant delays on the troubled project were too much for the creatively hyperactive Del Toro. He left the film after being heavily involved in its development and scripting, with The Lord Of The Rings director and general overseer, Peter Jackson, eventually taking up the mantel that really should have been his all along. “It didn’t mean abandoning the great things that Guillermo brought to us, which was a fresh pair of eyes on Middle Earth,” screenwriter and producer, Philippa Boyens, told FilmInk in 2012. “He really did help us form that sense of going back into that world.”
His departure from The Hobbit, however, allowed Del Toro to release his inner geek on a film that was truly his, as opposed to applying his gifts to a project that had sprung from the fertile mind of another. “I shoot a movie like a fan,” he told FilmInk upon the release of Pacific Rim, which was like a dream come true for the director. But what is the appeal of watching giant monsters destroy cities? “I can only say that they speak to a really pure, joy-driven part of myself,” the director replied. “If I see a giant robot or a giant monster, my day is good. They speak to the part of me that has the capacity to enjoy without judging. It’s because they are so massive, not only in stature, but also in what they represent. They are forces of nature; they allow me to be in awe at the age of 48. And awe is a feeling that we all need in our lives. The moment that you catch yourself in a movie theatre smiling involuntarily, it’s a good moment. And I’ve had that three times a week while making Pacific Rim.”
After Pacific Rim, Del Toro returned to storytelling of a slightly more traditional bent with 2015’s Crimson Peak, a big, grand epic ghost story in the classic tradition, complete with a period setting, howling spectres, gnawing guilt, and a big, terrifying haunted house. Like all of his works, Crimson Peak – despite its florid flights of fancy, and unnatural horrors – has a personal grounding with Guillermo Del Toro.
“I have experienced ghosts twice,” the director told FilmInk upon the release of Crimson Peak. “That doesn’t mean that I believe in the religious baggage of ghosts, because I don’t. I believe that twenty years from now, somebody will say, ‘Guess what, this is the explanation – it’s all because of a dimensional echo.’ But by then, we’ll be taking our jetpacks and flying across it. What I don’t like in my movies is connecting them with moral or religious superstructures. It’s the easiest way to make them scary, but I’m not interested in that. If you tell me that this is an evil spirit, and that it’s connected to the darker side, then I have no interest. I am a sceptic in search of something contradictory of that. I actually stay in haunted rooms when I travel. I look for haunted hotels, like The Langham in London. When I was scouting for The Hobbit, I stayed in a haunted hotel in Waitomo in New Zealand. I asked for the haunted room, which is a certain number…you can google it. I heard a murder at 1:00am in my room…it was a woman screaming, horribly, and then a man sobbing with horrible regret. There were only eight people in the hotel, because it was off season. I was super scared. I was watching The Wire on DVD…I was not evoking the ghost with a candle! I was watching McNulty get drunk, and then all of a sudden, that starts. I got so scared that I put my earphones on and almost watched the whole season. I didn’t sleep a single minute.”
Though the film’s dark, romantic spirit – Emily Bronte’s bleak, brooding Wuthering Heights appears to be an influence – might seem at odds with Del Toro’s body of work, the director is quick to tie it in with his particular vision. “Gothic romance at its most grand is also sort of pure,” he says. “It almost connects with fairytales. If you think of a folk tale like Bluebeard, that’s very much a Gothic romance. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jacques Torneur’s 1943 movie, I Walked With A Zombie, have the same structure. I Walked With A Zombie is Jane Eyre with zombies! It’s a journey for our young heroine, who in the old tradition is pure. It’s a journey into darkness through the romance of a dark brooding gentleman that sometimes, more often than not, ends up being innocent of the crimes that he was accused of. And in that journey, the heroine becomes strong and becomes aware of the world. It’s a thinly veiled journey into becoming an adult, and becoming a woman. I was interested in those aspects of the story that really connect with fairytales.”
Serving solely as producer on 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising and as a co-creator on TV’s highly regarded The Strain and Trollhunters, Guillermo Del Toro’s greatest cinematic achievement came in 2017 with The Shape Of Water. Extraordinarily beautiful and emotionally heart-rending, the film – which echoes the earthy supernatural wonders of Pan’s Labyrinth – is the perfect distillation of what drives and fascinates Del Toro thematically. The 1962-set tale of a mute cleaner (Sally Hawkins) who develops a romantic relationship with an aquatic man-monster housed in the secret government lab where she works, the film features all of the originality and deep strain of humanism that have come to characterise Del Toro’s work. “The idea is to create a story about love. Not a love story, but a story about love,” Del Toro said upon the film’s release. “I wanted to make a movie that was sort of healing for what I fear is our times right now, which is times of division by ideology that is incredibly harmful. In 1962, people started accepting the causes of tolerance, empathy…we are again in a moment in history in which, I think, we need to talk about these things. So it’s a very healing fairy tale for very difficult times.”
The winner of Best Picture at the last Academy Awards – at which Del Toro also picked up the Best Director gong – The Shape Of Water stands with Pan’s Labyrinth as evidence of not just their director’s artistry, but also his humanity. Though a master at creating vivid flights of fancy, Guillermo Del Toro is also a supreme navigator of the human condition.
The new novel, Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth Of The Faun, by Guillermo Del Toro and Cornelia Funke – which imaginatively expands the world of Pan’s Labyrinth – is out now through Bloomsbury.