Exclusive interview: Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth
19th Nov 06
Prepare yourselves for THE film of the year as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth opens in UK cinemas on November 24th and it really is as good as everyone’s saying. Mixing the harsh realities of the Spanish Civil War with the fantastic imaginations of a young girl, Pan’s is del Toro’s masterpiece, and a must-see for all fans of intelligent and adventurous cinema.
We first saw the film, introduced by del Toro, back in August at the opening night of London’s FrightFest event - the first public screening of the film following its 20-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Surprisingly del Toro was nervous at presenting his masterwork to a gore-hungry genre-savvy audience but he needn’t have been – the film went down a storm and as Zomblee noted in our three-way five-star review of the film in our FrightFest report, there were certainly more than a few tears from the grown-up horror fans at the close.
The following day we met up with del Toro for a good 20-minute chat about past projects, the production of Pan’s and what he is planning on making next.
A wonderfully intelligent man to talk to, del Toro was exceptionally warm and friendly, extremely well informed (and talented – I even managed to sneak a peek at his famous notebooks) and hugely passionate about films and film making. In short, del Toro is film fan, an uber-geek - one of us. Albeit one who has perhaps made THE best film of 2006.
EMB: Hello Guillermo. First of all, let me congratulate you on a magnificent achievement with Pan’s Labyrinth, and for the fantastic reception it received at last night’s FrightFest screening.
Guillermo del Toro: Well actually, I was nervous, because in a strange way it’s a movie which has more grounds in reality than fantasy - which is very good, but in genre terms is less broad. But it was great to see the response, because it was really beautiful from a genre audience.
EMB: After the first screening this year in Cannes, Pan’s Labyrinth has been labelled as your ‘masterpiece’. How do you feel about that?
GdT: You know it’s hard to judge. The only thing that I can say is that as far as my own standards go, it is truly one of the few films that I have done that I really feel proud of. I mean, all of the movies that I have done, there are moments in the movies that I like. But as a whole, I love this one, Devil’s Backbone and strangely enough Hellboy, and those are the three that I’m very proud of, with this one being the best by far.
EMB: So you don’t feel the need to defend this movie at all.
GdT: Some of the movies I will defend the beautiful moments, and apologise for others, but this movie is very well-rounded. It should be - in all the senses of the word - unapologetic. There are moments when if somebody doesn’t like one of your films, then you have to assume it’s their problem (laughs). And this is the only case I would say that. Even on the other two I would understand.
EMB: You’ve said that Pan’s is a sister film to Devil’s Backbone. When did you come up with the initial idea? Was it during Devil’s or afterwards?
GdT: Afterwards. Way after. Because I never felt the compulsion to go back and do another Spanish Civil War movie after Devil’s Backbone. But then 9/11 happened and the world changed so fast. I was doing Hellboy, which thematically is very related to this movie because it’s about choice, and defining who you are by your choices. Not from where you were born, or who you are supposed to be.
Then in the middle of all that, I felt that there was something political or spiritual that I wanted to say, and I felt that the best way I could do that was to craft another movie that dealt with the period after fascism.
It’s amazing because that was the only fascist regime after World War 2 that the allies could have actively suffocated and they politically decided to look the other way. It was also a very close war for Mexico. You know, we are very related in that sense. We are related by obviously the late fifteenth century when they came over, but we are also related by the fact that in the late 1930s we took a position and we opened ourselves to the left-wing republic in Spain to get all the refugees. It’s a very close war for me.
Most of our cultural movements after 1940 are extremely shaped by the immigrants from Spain, the people that shaped the cinema, actors, directors, and set-designers.
EMB: Pan’s is not a film that needs to rely on Special Effects, but the special effects that there are needed to be done well. Was that ever a problem with studios when you were trying to get funding?
GdT: No, because we did this film without a studio. The problem was finding a way that could make the movie look bigger than it was. I mean $15million for a story with the scope like this is very tight, but we decided we would give it a really good try.
I think it was the best way. I think it would be impossible for me to conceive Pan’s Labyrinth before doing Hellboy and Blade, because those films trained me, to a certain degree, to deal with digital effects. “I fucked up, I learned. I fucked up, I learned” (laughs). And I did these effects for like a fifth of the others. A tenth.
EMB: We loved it from the start, right from the appearance of that insect…
GdT: That was also a very difficult shot because it’s daylight. And the toughest shot on a digital creature is daylight, close-up. It’s fucked up (laughs).
EMB: I thought all the production design on the film was fantastic. I’ve heard it’s largely based on the illustrator Arthur Rackham, is that right?
GdT: Yes, especially the faun. The faun and the pit and all those type of things. I mean I wish I had all my notebooks, I only have this one, which is the last one I did. (Shows me his notebook). All the notes on the movie are here.
EMB: (Genuinely amazed) And these are all your drawings as well. They are incredible. (pause as I flick through a few pages and GdT explains a few drawings). So how long did it take for you to come up with the visual concepts for this film?
GdT: We did the conceptual work in twelve weeks, but I had been working on the movie in my notebook, and the art director, talking about it for about two years. So by the time we put pencil to paper, we had a very, very, very shorthand. So essentially the sets came out on the first draft. There was not a single set that we had to revisit that much. Budget-wise, yes. For example, the Pale Man corridor was a much longer corridor. So then you find a way to curve it gently so it gains perspective…
EMB: The whole film is extremely well acted all the way across the board, but for me, there are three standout characters. There’s obviously the young girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López) and the Captain’s worker, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). How did you go about casting those roles? Was it a long process?
GdT: Well it would be amazing for people to know that this was casting against character, because normally Sergi López in Spain is considered as a melodramatic comedic actor. And he does mostly light comedies, romantic comedies in Spain. So when I cast him as the fascist Captain, I would say there was not a single person in the Spanish film industry that said “good choice”. Every single person said “what a terrible choice. You’re fucking up. You shouldn’t cast this guy, he’s a comedic actor”. And I said “Well, I’ve just got to trust my instinct”.
Mercedes with Maribel Verdú – the same thing. Everybody was saying “but she’s a comedic actor, she’s melodrama, she’s very light, very sexy”, and I was just trying to make her do something different. Casting is a lot of instinct like everything else in filmmaking, and sometimes you can go wrong. I have gone wrong in the past, much to the suffering of the movie.
But another time when I cast someone that everyone hated, was when I cast Luke Goss in Blade 2 as the main villain, and I remember getting emails from the UK saying “you, you fucked up”.
EMB: But when you see him in the final film, he’s amazing.
GdT: it’s like casting Menudo (a teenage Puerto Rican band who change their line-up to keep everyone in the band under 16 years old) as a gang of thugs (laughs). But you’ve got to trust what you feel. To me, art is not about being right; it’s about talking in your own terms.
EMB: Let’s talk about the violence in the film. It’s not necessarily a violent film, but there are moments of intense, shocking violence, the bottle on the nose, the slit on the side of the mouth... Were you not ever tempted to tone these moments down for a lower certification?
GdT: Absolutely not, because I felt in order for the movie to work, there needed to be something slightly uncomfortable about the fairytale. The mistake in this movie would be to make the real world super-aggressive and the fairy world super-beautiful. And the reality is that the fairy world is kind of nasty too.
Since you are going in that direction in the fairy world, you do need to lean a little heavier on the real world. So the violence that I read about is much worse than what you see in the film. I read many oral testimony books on the Civil War and literally sometimes I would read five or ten pages and would need to stop because it was too brutal. It’s amazing how capable we are of killing each other, you know.
So the bottle scene originally happened two minutes into the film. It originally happened much earlier. But when we needed to shift because of budget, because we couldn’t find the one set that I needed, I felt it would be great to put it just after the scene where the girl and the mother have just had one of the most tender and loving scenes. Then you realise that this is the girl’s stepfather.
EMB: The combination of the nice scenes and the nasty scenes gives the film it’s balance.
GdT: One of the producers said to me, the week we were going to shoot that scene, said ”You don’t need that scene”. I said ”Fuck you, you don’t need that scene. I need that scene! If you don’t do that scene you’re just going to have a guy who is moping and looking angry for 40 minutes.” If you look at the movie again, it is the only act of violence for about 40-45 minutes. But it is such a brutal act.
EMB: Now Pan’s Labyrinth is the first film you have written, produced and directed. Was that a satisfying experience? Would you do it again?
GdT: I will do it again, but it was not an easy experience. It was the toughest experience I’ve had doing independent films. I would produce again, but never again on that same scale. I mean Alfonso (Cuarón) was a great ally in the making of the film, but mostly in the post-production and the selling of the film.
But essentially during the shoot it was a very complicated political situation. We had huge problems; it’s hard to believe. I mean this movie was shot during a time when we were forbidden from using any firework. You couldn’t use blanks on the guns, you couldn’t use explosives, and you could not use fire. So everything you see in the movie is simulated. This was a war movie where the forest guards forbade us from using any gunpowder. Nothing. No squibs.
So the entire movie was planned with either composite elements, or there are a lot of the explosions that are just light and steam. This was one of the few complications. The movie was shot during one of the driest season in about three decades in Madrid, so everything was dry and yellow and dead. And in the movie I wanted it to be luscious and beautiful and green. Almost like an idyllic form.
So we had to paint a lot, all the dead branches. And we had to put artificial moss in the trees. Everything you see in the movie that looks green has either been tended to, or, we found an area, a specific area where there was like three metres of grass, and we would shoot there. But it doesn’t show.
EMB: Why do you choose to make dark, fantasy films as opposed to say, romantic comedies?
GdT: Well, I think Hellboy is a romantic comedy - but with a dead clockwork Nazi (laughs).
No, I think that it’s not so much of a choice as the way I think. It’s like with Ofelia. Ofelia’s imagination in the movie is not a nice Disney-like imagination. My imagination was always like that. I never imagined nice things. I imagined nice, nasty things. And I feel that it is the way you view the world that defines your work, you know.
I think art is all about ‘point of view’. This was made clear by the pop-artists, or the surrealists, or the Dali-ists, that as long as you look at an object with a certain point of view, that object can become menacing, or interesting. I mean, the Campbell soup can that Andy Warhol painted was before that, just a piece of utilitarian design. But the moment you enshrine that in a certain way, it becomes a piece of art.
So I think you have to be faithful to the way you look at the world, and I would be puking half of the day if I chose to do a romantic comedy.
EMB: Hellboy excepted, yes?
GdT: Yes, and I’m doing the second one precisely because I like those characters and the way I have a great rapport.
EMB: Great, because as a huge comic book fan myself, I was extremely pleased to see Hellboy, not only made, but made well.
GdT: It’s a strange one because the reality was, the movie, not by design, but by destiny, ended up becoming very different from the comic in certain aspects, but then I realised that that was a privilege because some people now, when they think of Kroenen for example, they think of Kroenen from the film more strongly than they think of the Kroenen in the books.
I think that Mike Mignola (the writer of the comic books) was wise enough and generous enough to say ”do your own riff on the universe I created. Don’t be a slave to the comic”.
EMB: I’ve got many more questions, but unfortunately I think my time is up, so here’s one last question. There are two films that you’ve stated you are interested in making; there’s H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness and The Count of Monte Cristo. Are you still passionate about making those?
GdT: Yes, absolutely. The problem with Mountains is that we came very close to doing it this year. But there’s a certain moment where you have to be responsible and not do the movie for less money than you need.
Look, I went from doing Hellboy for $60 million, to doing Pan’s Labyrinth for $15 million. But Mountains is about scope. It’s about saying that we are insignificant in the scale of things. So you have to necessarily go from the human scale in the camp, in the ships, in the plane to finding the city in the top of the mountains, and finding a city that is so huge, that you are essentially are dwarfed by it. So, how do you do that on shoestring budget?
There was a difference of $10 million. The studio was saying “Do it for so much”, and I wanted $10 million more. It was about $80 million by the way, and in a world where $80 million can be spent on a Julia Roberts vehicle, you really wonder why you shouldn’t get that.
The problem with Mountains is also that it is an R-rated horror movie without a happy ending, so when you put all those together, $80 million, horror, R-rated, unhappy ending, the studios get touchy.
And Monte Cristo I’ve been trying to make for 14 years. I’ll get it made. It’s patience you know. Devil’s Backbone took 16 years, so, you know, I still have a couple left (laughs).
Pan's Labyrinth is released in the UK on November 24th and the official website has now gone live at www.panslabyrinth.co.uk.
The website also features footage of the Pan’s Labyrinth Q&A screening at this years Fright Fest.