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Interview: Guillermo del Toro

The majority of U.S. audiences probably know Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro for his films Hellboy (an adaptation of a Dark Horse series comic books and graphic novels) and Blade II (the second and hands down most gruesome installment of the Blade series), or maybe even the giant-bug-living-in-the-subway thriller, Mimic. Those unfamiliar with his work in his home country (two films — Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, both brilliant conglomerations of gothic horror and intense, engaging drama, which have earned dozens of awards and nominations between them), may be in for a shock with the release of Pan’s Labyrinth, his latest film, his best to date, and the film that puts del Torro in the debate for most talented living filmmaker in the world (and earns his mention as one of the most talented filmmakers in history).

The film opens with Ofelia, a young girl not even in her teens, and her pregnant mother traveling to a remote military outpost in northern Spain. The year is 1944, the Spanish Civil War has just ended, and after the death of Ofelia’s father, her mother is married to and carrying the child of a monstrous and bloodthirsty military commander who has been given the mission of seeking out and killing the last of the rebel fighters who are hiding in the surrounding wilderness. On her journey to her new home, Ofelia meets a small fairy that leads her to the entrance to an old Labyrinth, a broken-down stone structure that is a gateway between two worlds. Here Ofelia meets a Fawn (or ‘Pan’), a duplicitous creature who explains to her the conditions in which she may enter the Labyrinth. What follows is an awe-inspiring fairy tale set against the backdrop of a brutal civil conflict.

I had the chance to participate in a discussion with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro while he was in New York City.

Question: So… we liked your movie.
Guillermo del Toro: Thank you very much. I feel better for that.

Q: It’s a fantasy film for adults in a certain way. I can’t imagine kids seeing it because of the violence. What do you think about it?
GT: I think that if I was totally in charge of the entire parenting board, I would say up to a certain age I agree with you, but I think that there is a very perverse exercise in raising kids, in which we on the one hand isolate them from violence that has any real weight, and allow them to immerse themselves in violence that has no reality to it. You know? On the one hand you create children that are hypersensitive to adversity and pain, and you create children that are perversely addicted to the graphic nature of violence, so it’s… I would say that up to a certain point I would allow younger kids than the rating it has to see it in their teens, early teens. But thank god I am not in charge of the parenting board. [laughs]

Q: It’s a fairy tale where the fairies get their heads chewed off. Should kids see it? What can kids derive from this kind of fairy tale and the values it has in terms of the fairy tale/legend scope of that genre?
GT: Well, in general, when fairy tales were created they were not only very disturbing tales, but also at the same time they were meant to represent very dire circumstances at the time they were written—famine, plague, and not in general very nice situations, in which those orphans, kids being orphaned, kids being abandoned, etcetera, etcetera. And I think in that sense the movie is just a continuation of that thread in the genre. I think that, I feel that, the movie is about the responsibility of the civilians, and the responsibility of choice. You know? It’s a movie about choice, and how your choices affect your destiny and who you are. And it’s a girl who refuses to obey either the magical creatures, or the fascist captain, and how she essentially forges her own destiny. Chewing on fairies aside, I feel that is a damn valuable lesson in today’s world.

Q: You say it’s about choice, so what do you have to say about the other choices being made? The choice of the mother to play it safe and get involved with the Captain?
GT: Everything in the movie represents a choice. The book is a book of crossroads that only comes alive when a choice has to be made. The doctor has chosen to very cowardly to serve the fascist captain in order to keep himself serving both sides of the equation. He helps the rebels, but he doesn’t have the balls to face up to the captain. Mercedes has chosen to be servile to the captain in order to take information, and the mother has chosen to be subservient in order to save her daughter. And each of those character, the character that chosen to remain servile, which is the mother, has not a great ending. But the doctor, I think that dies in a much more dignified way than he lives, in the movie. And Mercedes finally has the capability of confronting the guy. And the captain is the only one that remains unchanged. The captain is the only one that remains absolutely unphased by everything else.

Q: Until the final moment…
GT: Until the very, very final moment. And I think it’s… you see the choice of the doctor, and you see essentially the doctor is saying, articulating one of the inflections in the movie, which is obeying just for obeying, only people like you can do that captain. I think that every character, and even going a little further, I think 1944 is a point of choice for the entire world and Spain, because the Spanish Resistance has been helping the allies to fend off the fascist offensive in Europe, and right after Normandy, the world chooses to allow Franco to remain. Which is in essence what happened. So the entire movie is built on crossroads, which are part of a labyrinth journey, you know?

Q: I want to ask you a question about the time period, I’m glad you brought it out. 1944 and the [Batista] regime and the Spanish Civil War. It’s so interesting that you put these fantasy elements into this time period. What makes you equate the two, whether it’s this film or your previous film, The Devil’s Backbone, what makes you think of a ghost story set in this time being a good way to express this crossroad or this change?
GT: Because I believe in parables more than I believe in political speech. And I think that parable have the chance to move you spiritually or emotionally and affect your emotionally. And political speech, if you don’t agree with it, it just makes a little static on your brain. It’s argumentative. It’s not emotional. I think The Devil’s Backbone was trying to say that anything pending, including the civil war, which has never completely healed in Spain, is a ghost, anything pending is a ghost. And what better way to say that than with what the movie says, ‘What is a ghost?’ Is it something that seems alive, or a tragedy doomed to repeat itself over and over again, like the war, and so forth. And Pan’s Labyrinth, when I go through the years of collecting fairy tales in their original form and original publication, I realized one of the themes that repeated itself over and over and over again was the theme of choice. Choice as a way of defining your destiny. And I thought this is a way to illuminate it. The difference is parable over more of a pamphlet political. Parable does not need to affect a particular outcome of an election or a vote or things like that. Parable discusses general issues.

Q: One choice that comes to mind, when the captain gets shot in the face, his eyes rolls back, destroyed. That was a choice you made. Where did that come from?
GT: That’s right. The thing is I wanted all the deaths in the movie to be deaths that were not… ‘moviefied’ if you would. The guy shot through the hand, and then shot twice in the distance. They are climbing up a hill and a guy shoots another guy in passing in the head. The doctor is walking away and he is shot and just a little stain of blood appears on is shirt. And the death with the bottle and the older guy, it’s just done in an incredibly matter-of-fact way. And the most matter-of-fact death in the movie is the girl’s, which is just like, ‘Oh, you’re there, let me shoot you too.’ I think the death of the captain had to follow that pattern. And his death is not a glamorous death or a cinematic, great cinematic, it’s sort of undignified, you know? He’s shot here [gestures to face] and [laughs] my past is extremely rocky, and I worked in a mental asylum six months when I was a kid, and I had to go through the morgue to get to my car in the parking lot. And I used to talk to the morgue guys and I saw my share of corpses and I always found there was something slightly sad, and slightly off on every dead face you would see, and I thought the captain, that was a little surreal if you would.

Q: I don’t know much about your background other than a little bit that I read. You were raised by a grandmother…
GT: Very Catholic, yes.

Q: …so all your films it seems deal with kids that lose parents, that are orphans, and I want you to talk about that a little, in relation to the girl, but also in relation to the baby who could have had one life with the captain, but who is handed over to the civilians.
GT: The baby was important to me not only as a fairy tale element or sort of the… anti-Abraham moment in the movie, because Abraham obeys and is allowed to do it when God says, ‘Hey, just kidding!’ [laughs]. But I wanted it to be like the opposite, it’s like, ‘No. I won’t. I don’t care what you’re telling me, I won’t.’ Disobedience again. And I think the other element that made it important for me is the movie is, the princess is also Spain, who forgot who she was and where she came from, and through the transit of the labyrinth, you will finally come out with a generation that will never know the name of the fascist, which is Spain right now. Sadly that is the good news and the bad news, because by not acknowledging that past they are very vulnerable to repeat it. But the kid was important in that. And my movies…. I think I have a very strange childhood, very, very strange, including the fact that I did see a Fawn coming out from my grandmother’s armoire when I was a kid. Every night I slept in that room a Fawn 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, Ophelia.’ That’s the moment Copperfield meets his stepfather in the book.

Q: Well Dickens has orphans also, and lost kids…
GT: 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. It’s evidently I talk about things 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.

Q: In two movies you have kids as protagonists in these turbulent times. Is there a way to look at this as escape, a lot of this stuff we are seeing as fantasy being imagination escape, was this intended?
GT: I actually think that fantasy is not escape but a way to articulate the world. I don’t think the girl is escaping, because if she was escaping she would escape like Sam Laury in Brazil, flying or she would escape into Disneyworld, with little birds chirping and telling her how beautiful she is. But 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. Now crazy enough for me in the movie, it’s real.

Q: Do you have a personal relationship to Franco’s Spain, relatives or is it just that….
GT: Friends. Growing up, at the age I met refugees, or that were son’s 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.

Q: You were finishing a thought that you were adding to, to Ed’s question that I wanted you to finish that thought you had.
GT: Which was…. To me fantasy is not an escape, but in the case of the movie I believe that it’s real. I believe that she died physically, but she got away dying the exact way she wanted. If you look at the fascist, the fascist died exactly the worst way he could imagine. She kills him with that phrase before shooing him. ‘He will never know your name,’ and he goes ‘What the fuck?!’ That’s how fragile he is. Because if anything 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, that’s why the guy is cutting his own throat in the mirror, and that is why he lives in his daddy’s watch, because he is that small. And the girl on the other hand, she dies exactly the way she wants to die. So fuck him, good for her. It’s that type of moment.

Q: In the press notes you said that Spain lived the 60s in the 80s, which I thought was kind of profound. Especially since you grew up in Mexico and you were witnessing that from another continent….
GT: No, no, no. You’re wrong. The first time I went to Spain was in the 80s and man, that was good. [laughs]

Q: So how did that experience influence the story you tell in Pan’s Labyrinth?
GT: Growing up I always thought of Spain as like, the promise 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 novels of Orwelles Wopple and M.R. James, the short stories of M.R. James. And no, I go there in the 80s for the first time, and I met Pedro, 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 an illuminous time. And I fell in love there. I really, if I had it idealized, before there, I just thought, Jesus, this is fantastic. And for me that is the kingdom she steps into at the end. It’s me coming out of the airport in the 80s to Spain.

Q: The character Fawn, that’s a truly complex character, because it’s very horrifying character, yet appears to have a caring, paternal aspect, but sort of turns on her at the end. Just sort of walk with me through the genesis of that and how you created the look can complexities of that character.
GT: The character, in terms of the look, I always start with my little diary and I start coding the movie in terms of appearance and colors and so forth. So I start my notes for the screenplay really, before I shoot anything, and I start designing stuff for it. And I made a note about the fawn, which is the fawn I used to see as a kid, I said, but I never saw his legs, I always saw only the tip of the leg and I started screaming. And I like an illustrator Arthur Rackham, along with Kay Neilsen and Edmond Dulac, are like the Holy Trinity of child’s illustration. And I like the knotty, twisted nature of his trees and the roots, and I thought it would be great to have the fairies be like little cannibalistic monkeys that eat meat, and the Fawn be a really raggedy guy who has been there for three hundred years waiting for the goddamn princess to show up, and be like ‘Finally, you’re here, let’s get going.’ And the character of the Fawn is essentially the trickster. He is a character that is neither good nor bad. He’s a character… that’s why I chose a Fawn. Not ‘Pan.’ Pan is just the translation, which is not accurate. It’s a Fawn, because the Fawn in classical mythology was at the same time a creature of destruction, and a creature of nurturing and life. So he can as easily destroy her as he can help her. And he’s always ambiguous, you will notice if you ever see the movie again, the Fawn starts really old and blind and creepy, and she doesn’t trust him then, and as the movie progresses he becomes rejuvenated and beautiful and at the end he is really young and his eyes are full, and he’s clean, and still she doesn’t trust him. And I think it’s important for her to make mistakes by her disobedience, but not give up. According to my reading of the movie, okay, and this does not mean ‘Oh I got it,’ the Fawn is a parent, and the Fawn is a fraud. She is really put to test, but he is playing those roles.

Q: In comparison with the complexity of the Fawn character, is the Captain a little one-dimensional? Was the character he’s based on historically as brutal as that? Explain him a little bit….
GT: I think most of Spanish fascism was not very nuanced, and I do believe about reading oral history of fascism and Spain, you will be amazed at how non-nuanced they were. There was a particular brutality on the militarian character that you can read in Italian fascism and Spanish fascism that is not really that shaded. I mean it’s really in favor of god and country. So I thought that there is in modern film and in Spain especially after the 50s, there is a false need to nuance everything in a way that may not even favor the function or the form of the character, and I thought this: I’m gonna create this guy the way Dickens creates his bad guys, which I adore—Sykes, Fagan. You understand why they do what they do and that’s the end of it. I think that the Captain says…. I can only say the captain really believes he’s helping Spain. When he is in the dining room, he really says, like many politicians right now say, I want a clean, new Spain, where my child can be born and be.

Q: So he doesn’t consider himself…
GT: He does not consider himself a bad guy.

Q: When did you first become interested in this political point of view, and also, what were the earliest horror films that influenced you?
GT: 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 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]

Q: What were those early films?
GT: That influenced me?

Q: Yeah.
GT: I think one of the guys I loved so much was Burnielle, because to me Burnielle 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.

Q:What’s the current state of Mexican cinema?
GT: 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 10 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. And I apologize for the shortness of time.

Q: Do you remember your dreams?
GT: Yeah, I dream very… the only dreams I have are very pedestrian. I dream mostly that I am eaten by sharks and zombies. Really.

Q: Why not get sharks and zombies together?
GT: Lucio Fulci did it.

Q: What are you working on now?
GT: We’re gonna do Hellboy II man, The Golden Army. Going back to comic books. And the theme is similar to Pan’s Labyrinth, everyday is grinding fantasy to dust. And then I hope to go back to Spain and do the third one of these.

Picturehouse Films releases Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth in theatres on December 29th.

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