Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro has a self-proclaimed fetish with insects clockwork, monsters, dark places and unborn things. With that in mind, it was hardly a surprise either when he helped to create the onscreen world of Hellboy or when he announced his desire to return to that world for a Hellboy sequel entitled The Golden Army. On the eve of the release of that sequel, Guillermo sat down in Los Angeles with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier to talk of heroes, villains, ghouls and hobbits.
EI: What do you like most about this “Hellboy” world you created that you wanted to do more of?
GDT: The thing that I liked the most about the first movie were the monsters and the intimate moments. I really enjoyed the moments where Hellboy was having cookies and milk with the kids, for example, or when Hellboy and Manning were lighting each other’s cigars and talking about matches instead of lighters. I’m attracted to that. I would love to know who washes the Bat suit and who fills the Bat-mobile, and whether they use unleaded or diesel, whatever. Those things are kind of obsessive for me. Who patches the Spider-Man suit? I would love to know the details. Does Iron Man wash his own socks, or what happens when the washing machine is clogged? It’s those things. I try to give an everyday life feeling to the lives of Abe, Liz, and Hellboy. It’s the fact that Hellboy is a slob–a knucklehead slob–that nevertheless, when the time comes, can be a hero.
The people I admire in life, they’re not heroes 24 hours a day. They’re heroes just in the moment that you need them to be, be they fireman or whatever–the people who take out the trash and drive their kids to school, and at 8:30pm they save a life. I thought it was interesting to have these guys act like humans. Again, fallible, palpable, and perhaps in a true, Mexican way, having a few beers and singing a song. I think those are the things that make them human. I think the beauty is to make them emotionally resonate in a super way, for them to become extensions and expansions of the normal little nitty-gritty of life. I was raised in pure hardcore punk rock. I was listening to The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, but late at night now and then, when I was alone, I would listen to Mandy and tear up. [Laughs] I think every Mexican knows that at the right moment, you listen to Jose Jose, Alfredo Jiminez, and you have a beer and you sing along with tears in your eyes.
Look, there are many things in the movies that I make for the summer that I try to go against the grain of what it should be, and this could be a tumor joke or it can be singing a song, or it can be textually different. But I think what I’ve learned is that the less I conform, the more I love the movies, the more that I kind of conform the less that I empathize with the result a couple of years later. So I tried to give these moments to these characters. They needed them. I think that Abe needed to get a bug out of his ass and sing Barry Manilow, because he was listening to Vivaldi and Mozart. “No, you’re listening to Barry Manilow, you sap. Admit it.”
EI: Can you talk about the Wizard of Oz references in your films?
GDT: There’s also a Wizard of Oz reference in Pan’s Labyrinth, with the ruby slippers that she actually has at the end and the way that she clicks the heels and all of that. My idea was that, at the end of the movie, I wanted very much to have Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow. There was a little bit of echo in that. So when the Prince called him something, I said, “Call him the Tin Man.” I wondered, with this movie, if I could be a 12-year-old filmmaker. Picasso said it took him 30 years to learn to paint like a seven-year-old, and I feel the same way.
I’m 43, but I’m finally making movies straight from the zone that I was watching them when I was a kid. I really feel the awe and the wonder of a [Ray] Harryhausen movie. I tried to shoot many of the scenes in this movie like that. When they resurrect the fairy and I do a wide shot of everyone standing around and a little fairy moving in the middle, that’s straight out of a Sinbad movie. Texturally, we tried to imbue the movie with little moments from movies that we loved as kids. The idea was, can I shoot from awe as opposed to whether I could shoot from knowledge and certainty at age 43. I tried to shoot it like that.
EI: How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker?
GDT: I think that everyone is a filmmaker and the other epithets are just limiting. Back in The Devil’s Backbone time, people said, “Why are you doing a Civil War story?” and I said, “For the same reason that [Bernardo] Bertolucci does a movie about a Chinese Emperor.” Because we want to. As filmmakers, we have to talk about the things that concern us, and I think etiquettes are little passports that we issue ourselves to fit in a category, saying, “I’m an overweight filmmaker and there’s an overweight filmmaker festival somewhere. I’ll be a part of that festival.” I think it’s limiting. What I think is that we have to make the movies that come out of the heart and the cojones, perhaps. Other than that, I function as my life needs me to function. I continue producing Mexican films. I continue to produce Latin American films. We just finished Cosas Insignificantes with a first-time filmmaker. We’re in the progress of shooting a movie called Rabia, which is a production between Spain, Ecuador, and Mexico. So I don’t close my door either way. I don’t say that I only do Hollywood films. I do whatever is required in my life, and I think that’s liberating.
EI: What’s this story about a haunted hotel?
GDT: When Mike [Mignola] came to London to listen to the score sessions, the last day he was there, we rented a room in a haunted hotel with Danny Elfman, and the three of us went there. We each spent 30 minutes alone in the room with the lights out, waiting for the strangling ghost to come out of the darkness, and we had a blast and then we drank enough port to forget about any ghost that was there.
EI: Did you see the ghost?
GDT: No, but I’ll tell you what happened. We were setting the rules, the three of us. We said you can’t fuck with the guy that’s left alone. You can’t come back and knock or scratch the door. You have to let the guy have 30 minutes alone, and at that moment we hear “Ooooooooo” and it was Danny Elfman’s f*cking ringtone on the iPhone, but we crapped our pants. For that brief moment, we went, “Oh, my fucking God!” Then we realized it was this moronic fucking ringtone. But nothing else. It turns out that I read the fucking Internet information wrong. They said it was room 333 at the Langham Hotel. It turns out that I read it wrong because it said there are many ghosts in the Langham and I said, “We are in the room where a noble man committed suicide because of the love of his woman.” We thought that was a great ghost. It turns out I read the wrong information. The suicidal guy was in a corridor in another room on another floor. The guy that died in 333 was a doctor that strangled his wife and then committed suicide. The last time he was seen was in 1971/1972 by a BBC commentator, of all people, and the guy came out of the darkness glowing green and went straight for the throat of the guy. So I’m very happy that we didn’t see him, but it was foolish of us to try.
EI: What is it about monsters that you’re so passionate about it?
GDT: At the risk of sounding like a Day of the Dead pamphlet that wants you to go to Michoacán, I really believe that there is a tradition in Mexico of craftsmanship of creating. Those are mythical creatures that belong to no particular mythology or set of beliefs. They are fanciful dragons with fat heads and the tail of a dog and the body of a cow. They come straight from the brain of the artist that creates them. They’re incredibly colorful, and this is a culture that loves the designer. We love these monsters. We love creating them. We love the very act of doing them as the artistic gesture. We are the equivalent to the medieval masons carving gargoyles in a cathedral, except we don’t do this necessarily in the Catholic realm of mythology. We do this as art and do it freely. I’m very influenced by that.
I’m a Mexican filmmaker in origin, and therefore people ask me if I’m a Mexican filmmaker and I say, “How could I not be?” If I endeavored myself to not be that, I would not succeed because I was raised in Mexico. I heard all the legends and I drank all the drinks and I ate all the foods. I walked on the streets. Therefore, when I see Devil’s Backbone, I see the Spanish Civil War and I also see a lot of that literature in there. A Spanish guy said, about Devil’s Backbone, that they talk like Mexicans and that the Spanish guys would be more reserved and not say this or that. It’s impossible for me not to be that.
EI: I don’t know much about your background. You were raised by your grandmother?
GDT: Very Catholic, yes.
EI: And all your films seem to deal with kids who lose their parents–that are orphans.
GDT: My movies… I think I had a very strange childhood–very, very strange, including the fact that I did see a faun coming out from my grandmother’s armoire when I was a kid. Every night I slept in that room, a faun would come out of that armoire. But I don’t know exactly how to peg it, it’s just…. I’ve always been attracted to that literature. I love Dickens for the same reasons. There is a precise quote of David Copperfield in the movie, when he says, “It’s the other hand, Ofelia.” That’s the moment Copperfield meets his stepfather in the book.
EI: That doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that. Dickens has orphans also, and lost kids.
GDT: And it’s something. I obviously have a sense of family disintegration and, at the same time, I have the sense that you make your own family as you grow up. You know, I think that Hellboy finds an adopted father in the same way this girl finds a mother that is not her mother. And her mother she may love, but her mother doesn’t understand her. Evidently, I talk about things I feel deeply. In The Devil’s Backbone, the kid finds a father in the older professor and finds a brother in the other kid. I believe that you are born with one family and you make another along the way.
EI: In two movies, you have kids as protagonists in these turbulent times. Is there a way to look at this as an escape? A lot of stuff we are seeing is fantasy, with your imagination as a way to escape the harsh realities…
GDT: I actually think that fantasy is not escape but a way to articulate the world. When I was a kid, my imagination was never benign, but it helped me understand the world a little bit. It helped me articulate, through fable, the good and the evil and the this and the that. And it is a clear way to find your place in the world. Like I said, to me, fantasy is not an escape. It’s like fascism. Fascism comes out of the shortcomings of the people. People that hate any minority or any majority are doing it because they hate something in themselves. They are so fragile.
EI: Do you have a personal relationship to Franco’s Spain–relatives or friends?
GDT: Friends. Growing up, I met refugees, or sons of refugees, that came to Mexico at age five, and one of them was very much one of those father figures you find in life–Emelio Valseira. He was a historian–a film historian. And he used to tell me, “Look a little more into it. The war doesn’t end in ’39.” And the war does not end and it has not ended; it still goes on.
EI: When was the first time you went to Spain from Mexico? And what did you think of Spain when you were growing up?
GDT: Growing up, I always thought of Spain as, like, The Promised Land, because all the great translations of Gothic literature were coming from Spain. And I was noticing some of the Latin American translations were not that great–I speak both languages. And the Spanish translations and the prologues and the editor’s notes were so great in the books, and I always thought of Spain like an illuminated country of people discussing the short stories of M.R. James. And no, I went there in the ‘80s for the first time and I met Pedro (Almodovar), in the ‘80s. I never introduced myself to him then, but I went to la morena parties, and I was like, “Oh Jesus! This is great! This is the way the world should be!” Everybody was in favor of liberation and in favor of letting be—everybody–and it was such a luminous time. And I fell in love there. I really, if I had it idealized before then, I just thought, Jesus, this is fantastic.
EI: When did you first become interested in politics? It seems that many horror films influenced you. It makes me realize that you directing The Hobbit really makes sense.
GDT: I think all horror films are very political, all of them, for one side or the other. Even sometimes the same author can have two political stances. I see (John) Carpenter brilliantly articulate a film like They Live, which is one of the most political films I have seen, and then, at the same time, he can do a repressive fable like Halloween, and it is, by nature, a genre that is intrinsically political, and I always read it like that. I used to do writings, I used to do criticism, and I was always championing the political stance of the fable and the horror and all that, so I don’t know exactly when it happened, but it probably came with masturbation at 15, when I left as a Catholic and said, “This cannot be bad.” [Laughs]
EI: What early films influenced you?
GDT: I think one of the guys I loved so much was Bunuel because, to me, Bunuel made his best work within an industrial framework. His best movies–and I’m not trying to be chauvinistic here–are his Mexican period, because he did them… In order for a surreal act to really exist, you had to have a bourgeois form to subvert. I find his French films to be… What are they subverting? The Cannes Film Festival, where they are now being rewarded? I think it was much more subversive that he was able to put that subtext and that evil, seeping nature of his surrealism on films that were supposedly industrial films in Mexico.
EI: Coming from Mexico, what is your opinion on the current state of Mexican cinema?
GDT: I think that we are finally, in this year, living a hope in production, because we managed through a long, long battle to get tax exemption, which has never been heard of in Mexico. I mean, the official budget for Mexican film, all the films, all of us, is about ten million dollars a year for, I don’t know, 30, 40, 50 films. At the worst, sometimes it is very hard to make movies like that. And now, with the tax exemption, we’re going to see what the hope will be for the viewing of new generations. I think first- and second-time directors are going to get going with this.
EI: Here’s a strange question: Do you remember your dreams?
GDT: Yeah, I dream very… the only dreams I have are very pedestrian. I dream mostly that I am eaten by sharks and zombies. Really.
EI: Maybe it’s time to get the sharks and the zombies together… [Laughs.]
GDT: Lucio Fulci did it.
EI: Are you in pre-production yet on The Hobbit?
GDT: It’s two movies, actually – we’re in pre-pre-pre-production. There’s still a lot of work to be done before we film. Hang in there. [Laughs.]
EI: So you’re going to do two?
GDT: Yeah, two of them.
EI: Will you film it all at once and then release them separately?
GDT: We’re going to have a break in the middle of filming, but I don’t know how long the break is going to be.
EI: Is that so people can grow?
GDT: No. [Laughs] For the dwarfs to get big enough? We’re going to do it because of the textural differences between the two movies. The second one is meant to blend with the trilogy, and so many sets will have to be refurbished and reconstructed and so forth. Ultimately, we will start editing, and I normally shoot six days a week and edit on the seventh, but I’ll start editing the first part of the first movie in that break.
EI: When do you start production?
GDT: We start production sometime in 2010.
'Hellboy II: The Golden Army' is in theaters now from Dark Horse Entertainment/Universal Pictures.