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Guillermo del Toro interview, part I

Guillermo el Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” was already building buzz even before its wide release starting this week. It’s gotten Best Foreign Language Film awards from the Florida, Washington DC, San Francisco and Southeastern Film Critics Societies, a Best Cinematography Award from the New York critics, Best Picture from the National critics, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, not to mention Best Foreign Language and cinematography awards from Boston. I think it’s safe to say it’s en route to an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Picture. I spoke to del Toro on the phone the day after the Golden Globe nominations were announced. Here’s the first half of the interview. 

PK: Congratulations on your Golden Globe Nomination

GDT: Oh thank you, it was a great wake-up call.

PK: Actually, congratulations also on the Boston award.

GDT: Thank you very much. It’s been wonderful, and actually, you guys were the first.

PK: We always point the way in these things. Actually there’s kind of a crummy certificate we can mail you.

GDT: [gives address]

PK: We also gave an award to your cinematographer.

GDT: Send it here; he’s my neighbor (laughs). He’s expanding, that guy. He’s in Argentina right now.

PK: Is he Argentinean?

GDT: No he’s Mexican. But he’s shooting a commercial over there. 

PK: What’s going on with Mexican filmmakers? They seem to be taking over now. Your colleague Alejandro González Iñárritu is getting a lot of attention for “Babel.” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men”...well it’s in my top ten list. What is it about this generation of filmmakers that makes them so influential and creative?

GDT: I think we always wanted to be, sort of, Mexican filmmakers that could work in any arena we wanted to and not be limited just by what we were told we could do. For example, Alfonso always talked about doing things like a screwball comedy or a road movie. Genres that are normally, seem…or me with horror. They also seemed a little prohibited for other generations of Mexican filmmakers and we have this will to work in any arena we want to and that is what we have in common I think, a real will and a normal desperate desire to have a point of view that was different from generations before us.

PK: You also seem to be influenced by a disparate number of filmmakers. A lot of people have compared, you’re probably tired of it, “Pan’s Labyrinth” to “Spirit of the Beehive.”

GDT: I think that it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s one of my favorite movies about childhood. Among them are the “Spirit of the Beehive,”  “The Innocents,” and “Night of the Hunter” for example. And I think that those things are very beautiful for me to hear. You’re right about it. Our generation – Alejandro, Alfonso and I – were influenced by different filmmakers and the generations before and I think it came to the point where we decided to do the things we admired in the genres we admired and that comes across in Alfonso’s handling of science fiction for example in “Children of Men,” or Alejandro doing what I think is a very brilliant… to me his most subtle and beautiful episode in all his dream movies, which is the Japanese episode in “Babel.”

PK: The two films that you mentioned, “Night of the Hunter” and “Spirit of the Beehive,”  and also in your own films, one of the themes seems to be children in danger. Can you comment on that?

GDT: To me “Spirit of the Beehive” was incredibly beautiful and almost intangible and spiritual in the way it approached fantasy. It was very tenuous and delicate and I have a will to make fantasy actually, almost material, much more tangible, and I think that it only can happen in a universe populated by children. I don’t idealize childhood, as you can see in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even “Cronos,” but I do think that it’s the time where emotions are sort of unfiltered and impulses are unfiltered, including faith and belief and love, for example. In “Cronos” the granddaughter loves her grandfather even in spite of him falling apart, rotting away. I think these things can only happen in childhood stories, and that brings me very close to the spirit of fairy tales, in which brutal things and brutal rites of passage occur to little children.

PK: You yourself were kind of an imaginative child. I read in an interview that you actually saw a faun come out of a wardrobe or something when you were a kid?

GDT: From behind the armoire of my grandmother, but I’m sure it was a lucid dream or something but the fact is I have a very personal place for monsters in my life; they are not just creatures of literature or cinema, to me they are archetypical spiritual beings. I really see monsters as a representation of things that are very cherished and almost religious for me.

PK: Do you design your own monsters…?

GDT: I try to, yeah.

PK: So you sketch them out in a notebook?

GDT: I sketch them out in a notebook or I doodle them for the people designing them. I am intimately involved with designing them because I really believe in them, so its almost like I know how they sound, what they move like, how they look, what they look like. All these things I absolutely have an almost religious certainty (laughs). So I have to work on that.

PK: Do they come in visions?

GDT: They come fully formed.

PK: What about the guy with the eyeballs in his hands?

GDT: That was a process. There are several monsters where you start one way or you start another. But there comes a moment when it all becomes clear. The guy with the eyes and the hands went through a long process and actually 2 or 3 incarnations, but when it clicks, it clicks.

PK: I have to say that currently that’s my favorite monster.

GDT: Thank you.  People have taken a great liking to him.

PK: It’s too bad though that people are already familiar with the image. I had a friend who came into the screening late and just came in at that point and had no idea that the creature was going to do that and she said that that’s the most incredible moment that she’s had in a movie in a long time.

GDT: I think that I agree with you but at the same time I understand them using it as a promotional image because it’s strong. But I absolutely agree. The movie is best experienced if you have no knowledge of what you’re going to see.

PK: There are other motifs besides monsters that run through your films. In a film like “Mimic” especially, insects are the dominant motif.

GDT: I think insects are as close as we come in the real world – insects and deep-sea creatures - to having monsters walk amongst us. I’m fascinated by biology; I always have been since I was a kid; I’m fascinated with anatomy and how things work from inside out, and it always is very shocking to me to remember what the insect biology is and how these creatures have no real heart, they just have hollow chambers, they pump white blood, they have 6 or more eyes, they have 6 legs, they have a hard shell and have no skeleton. It’s wonderful. It’s an absolutely incredible design, and in that they are perfect and that makes them also incredibly scary. When I was a kid I used to think about archangels, which were the soldiers of God; the tough guys. They came in and did the dirty job, and I always thought that somehow all archangels would look like insects if you actually saw them.

PK: Well ,that’s not how it was described in my Sunday School. But they sort of serve in this way too in this film. Transforming themselves into the fairies.

GDT: I think that the insects are messengers from really alien places and I always dreamt as a kid that if there were any magical creatures they would hide in the guise of small creatures, like insects and lizards. It’s a conceit that stayed with me until my adult life.

PK: Kind of a combination of Jiminy Cricket and Tinkerbelle.

GDT: Yeah, exactly, but the grungy version of both. What I like is the idea of the fairies actually being almost like being little dirty carnivorous monkeys in the movie. Everything in the movie is aworn, almost like a left out in the rain, fantasy universe. Its grungy, it’s dingy, it’s edgy, it’s brutal and it’s a perfect reflection of the actual world around the girl in a way. The mistake I think in a movie like this would be to make the fantasy world too precious.

PK: The insects bring to mind other filmmakers like Luis Buñuel who spent a lot of time in Mexico and David Cronenberg also is a big insect fan. Are they influences?

GDT: Huge influences, especially Luis Buñuel in the way that he could articulate the world through his Catholic upbringing. Being an atheist, I am a lapsed Catholic and nevertheless I am taken by the cosmology I was taught as a child, and I cannot just shake it off. It’s really very intimate to me and articulated in a language in which I speak. And Cronenberg I absolutely think is not only one of the great genre filmmakers; I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of the last 20 years, for me. He seems to tap into a completely different vein than I do; he’s an existentialist, but curiously enough we share a passion for a lot of the same motifs.

PK: Also tunnels are a big part of your movies. Underground passageways and realms and so fourth. I understood you played in a lot of areas like that when you were growing up.

GDT: Yeah, anecdotally, that is true, and it is a very important part of my biography in the way that I was always exploring those worlds; catacombs, sewers, abandoned subway tunnels. To me it is all a compulsion to go within, to go inside. I think monsters live in there.

PK: It’s a symbol of the subconscious I guess and also a return to the womb.

GDT: Both. I think that it’s not that hard to interpret, but I really think that if I choose where monsters live, they’d live within, the appearance of monsters lives within. The monsters should actually be afraid of living outside.

PK: The real monsters you suggest are the human beings who cause so much trouble in the world. Your last couple of films have focused on the Spanish Civil War. What is your fascination with that? What about maybe some events from Mexican history?

GDT: I have tried to have movies that take place during the Mexican Revolution financed, and I had no success back then…I’m going to try it again because I definitely want to talk about it. All fantasy is political, and all politics are fantasy.

PK: That’s reassuring. Certainly the current President would agree with you.

GDT:  Yeah. He wouldn’t agree but he would be living proof of it.

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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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