January 6, 2002|Guillermo Del Toro's films resonate with the weight of archetype: They find their thorniness down among the insects, the religious martyrs, the sexually infertile (including the aged and the very young), and the Stygian underside of the fairytale. It might have something to do with the gothic fact that the director read Frankenstein at the age of nine and fell asleep on his mother's lap while watching Wuthering Heights. The victim of a horrific Catholic upbringing that at one point involved bottle caps in the shoes as a means to mortify the flesh, it's clear that the well where many of Del Toro's demons live is deep and Byzantine.
Consider that the protagonist of Cronos is named Jesus (he's played by the legendary Federico Luppi, who reunited with Del Toro for The Devil's Backbone), and as Jesus's search for eternal life unfolds, he accordingly develops the wounds of the stigmata, while the central Casares character from The Devil's Backbone dies a martyr's death and returns from the grave to guide his diminutive acolytes to salvation. Del Toro's work is also indebted to the comic book form, a connection alternately obvious (see: Mimic, The Devil's Backbone (which is based upon a Carlos Giménez comic called Paracuellos), and of course the upcoming Blade II) and one that manifests in garish splashes of colour, extreme blocking and lighting schemes that recall painted panels, and carefully plotted storytelling.
Del Toro's dedication to his recurring themes across all three of his films points to a burgeoning auteurship; even Mimic, the middle and least favourite of his works (and his only experience in Hollywood prior to Blade II), is a brilliant visual and thematic articulation of Del Toro's obsessions truly distinguished from its B-movie brethren. The premise of the film involves insects who have learned to mimic the appearance of humans in order to prey upon them. At rest, their wings hang down like brown monastic robes, but during an attack, the creatures begin to suggest vengeful seraphim. The film's first victim is an elderly priest; next to go are two children, and the beast's creator is, like Dr. Frankenstein, an unnatural progenitor (Frankenstein is a man, Mimic's Dr. Susan Tyler is barren) seeking progeny in an ostensibly benevolent (one seeks to "avenge" the death of his mother, the other to end a children's plague) artificial construction. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Susan Tyler is forced to confront her role in the monster's being--a story paralleled a second time in Mimic by an elderly cobbler (Giancarlo Giannini) and his autistic son. More poignant lines can be drawn from the story of the cobbler and his unformed boy to the Pinocchio story: A scene where Giannini searches for his son in the sewer (Campbell's "belly of the beast"), calling his name and gripping a lamp, seems a direct homage to an identical scene in Disney's Pinocchio with Geppetto in the belly of the whale.
When I sat down with Mr. Del Toro recently on behalf of FILM FREAK CENTRAL, I was able to, among other things, ask him his personal thoughts on the successes and failures of Mimic.Del Toro on Mimic:
I was really happy with how [Mimic] turned out visually--I think it's a beautiful movie to look at, but what's painful for me about the film is not what it is, but what it could have been. For instance, there's a pretty fucking neat line that was removed from the original screenplay. Essentially Susan Tyler (right) is in the middle of the conflict and someone asks her how to get out of their situation and Tyler says, "I have no fucking idea--everything I knew about insects flew out the window when these things showed up. They're six feet long and all I know about them is that they have nothing to do with human nature--they have six legs, they have eight eyes, they have no heart and white blood, and they don't give a shit about us." And another thing that was expurgated was this really perverse moment: I have a huge wall of insects fucking in the subway--it's a bug orgy. Suddenly one of the insects chases them with the female still attached to his penis which is really creepy and cool--but I guess a little too freaky for a major studio (laughs).
Do you feel like you ultimately lost creative control on Mimic? I think I was just getting used to the whole Hollywood process and though I know it a little better, I'm no expert (laughs), but at least I know that if I want to make more personal films that I should do it independently and finance them myself.
Do you feel as though you figured out how to work within the Hollywood system for Blade II? The only thing that hurts me deeply about Mimic is that it succeeded neither as a popcorn movie nor as a personal statement--it's only half-successful at both, and I felt on Blade II that I would just make one of those movies where you eat the popcorn, but nervously. I wanted it to keep the fuckin' popcorn coming. I'm pleased because Blade II (left) is the Blade II that I set out to make. It's very different from the first film, but very similar, too. It contains some elements of the fairytale in that it's basically the story of a lost friend wandering through a kingdom, and a father's rejection. It was an interesting project for me because it's as much a story of Blade as it is a story of the villain. I was not trying to make Guillermo Del Toro's Blade II, I mean, I don't make Blade a Christ figure, but I did try to tweak it a little here and there and have fun with it.
Why the insects? The vampire larva in Cronos; Mimic speaks for itself; and the slugs and halo of flies in The Devil's Backbone? They're just cute! No, I like that they're one of the few truly totemic animals: they've been a powerful symbol of so many things from ancient Egypt to alchemy texts, they almost infallibly represent the darker side of human nature or the darker side of all nature. I think they are in a way so removed from humanity yet so self-sufficient and arrogant in their behavior towards us that they're scary. Either they're medieval ambassadors of the devil--the Lord of the Flies--or they represent immortality in the form of the scarab--revered but also feared.
You mention fairytales in regards to Blade II, and I have noted that the fairytale style is a cornerstone for your films. It's funny you say that because in every movie I make I consciously try to insert fairy tale elements. I try very hard. I'm a huge fan of a particular group of Victorian illustrators that specialized in illustrating fairy tales. Kay Nielson, who illustrated some beautiful children's books, Arthur Rakham (right)--very beautiful sepia work, and I try to incorporate elements of those images in all of my work. Into Devil's Backbone went that oversized oven in the kitchen and the big oversized scissors hanging on the rack.
I have this feeling, and I know in my gut that it's right, that horror stories are nothing but the stepchildren of fairytales. They're a derivation of that and the imagery tends to lend itself very nicely to that.
In that they teach morality through cautionary examples? Quite the opposite: I believe they talk about a far more subversive morality than that in fairytales. I believe that fairytales are an instrument of instruction and that horror tales are the illegitimate offspring of that. The best horror tales to me are those that have an anarchic point of view--the ones that have no preconceived notions of what should be. At the same time I think that horror is without a doubt a beautiful instrument and an expansive container for metaphors.
Much of the power of your work comes from the archetypal nature of its images. I believe that all stories in the world are either love stories between men and women, fathers and sons, sons and mothers, mothers and daughters. It's very basic. I remember something Almodóvar said to me when we were starting to produce Devil's Backbone. He said that your films and my films have something in common. And I asked, "What? What is it that you found?" And he said, "Well in your films, everyone seems to either be family or they kill each other and in my films, everyone is either family or they fuck each other." I like that description very much.
Tell me about children and elderly mentors. What I love to do in my own stories, my most personal stories, is to recognize that in these youth-obsessed times we tend to forget and fear anything even mildly "real" as they manifest the two extremes of life: old age and childhood. We'd rather go with conventions of "funny sweet old people" and "spunky one-line spewing child," and I absolutely hate both. Aging is a process that very few movies deal with. I remember a few fondly, like Atlantic City about an aging, second-rate gangster--or a beautiful movie called Going In Style, which is about three old guys that rob a bank.
Kids, too, have very complex lives. Most people when we grow up forget that complexity, how difficult it was growing up, how violent, how terrifying. Most people talk about growing up like it was some fucking candy-ass experience. It's really a tough time full of contradictions and horror. The only time our movies examine those struggles are in a few films in the teen movie genre--years when that turmoil is more articulate. But in childhood, the massive amount of time we spent in sexual or existential confusion is never talked about.
Your protagonists are usually sexually impotent (too elderly, too young) or, at the least, barren--can you tell me how that frustrated sexuality informs your films? I had this discussion with Pedro [Almodóvar], we were talking about me shooting my first love-making scene in Devil's Backbone--my first openly objectively love-making scene, and I said, "Yeah, but I'm gonna do it without a leg." He said, "What's wrong with a little nudity?" and I said, "No, I'm too prudish--I'm ex-Catholic. I can't be on the set with a nude woman," and he said, "What's wrong with you? You can kill everybody but you can't look at a little nipple?" I replied that I thought that all of my films deal with sexuality but it's not normal sexuality--it's aberrant. In Almodóvar's movies there's all this liberating sex--but in the things I do there's all this very aberrant sex but never genital. It's sensual, some twisted eroticism. But never, except now, straightforward.
Even the sex in The Devil's Backbone, though you say it's straightforward, is a minefield of political symbolism. This is a good place to talk about the Spanish Civil War and how it informed your latest film. What happened was that the Spanish Civil War was a very strange conflict and one that should not easily be forgotten. First it was a prelude to the Second World War and then it was not only a conflict between left and right, but a war from the right that had such strong fascist support that it made the left look like a bunch of artists and intellectuals. Eventually, the left started to be infiltrated by the Communists and it started fragmenting. As the right unified, the left imploded. The anarchists did as much harm to the republic as the fascists on the other side: It was a tragic development, though a very interesting one, too. I tried to portray that idealism of the left in Devil's Backbone that was completely caught off guard by a revolt from within.
Spain was as abandoned and adrift as the orphanage in the middle of the desert. The idea was to put something in the middle of nowhere and, recalling the clockwork machine of Cronos, I wanted to create a Chinese Box of the war for my film. Ultimately, and this is something I discussed with Pedro, I said, "In order for this metaphor to work--the sexual moment between Jacinto and Casaras has to be a moment of power." It's not a pleasurable and liberating moment, it's a mutual mind-fuck, and a crystallization of internal disruption and the class struggle.
If in Cronos it's a vampire movie folding within itself, I wanted Devil's Backbone to be a movie about several wars on several different levels.
The feeling I get from The Devil's Backbone is of melancholy: the ghost is a reminder of Spain's submerged strength. I think the ghost serves as a horrifying but ultimately pitiful reminder. That's why the ghost in the movie breaks the cardinal rule in horror films: less is more. I tried to show the ghost as much as I could in the film so that by the end you're not fearing the dead so much as the treachery of the living. It starts as a ghost story, but it's meant to be a war story with a ghost in it. If you read the seminal gothic romances there are huge elements of melodrama with a supernatural strand running through them--but they're much more than just the accumulation of, say, twenty-five supernatural occurrences or something. Look at a beautiful Gothic romance like Wuthering Heights--it opens and closes like a strange ghost story, but ghosts are not the main thrust of the story.
Wuthering Heights shares with your film that feeling of sadness and loss. That's the first movie I saw in my entire life. When I was in pre-production on Devil's Backbone in Spain, a reporter asked me what would be the two feelings I wanted people to walk out of the film with, and I said, "nostalgia and loss." War is the Devil's Backbone, it destroys the innocence of the children--it eats them away. At the end of the movie what steps out of that metaphor of an orphanage has the body of a child, but is really a broken soul and a brave heart. People ask about the title and I say look for it. It's not a fucking sermon, you've got to dig deep.
What has your experience been like with a legend like Federico Luppi? I think that it was a far better experience for Federico as an actor to work with me this time in Devil's Backbone than in Cronos because in Cronos I was daunted. He was like a god to me--I always admired him. I kept looking at him and thinking, "Oh my lord, that's Federico Luppi"--and it's funny, he confessed to me during Backbone, "Y'know, I never understood that fucking film. I was going by what you told me but the whole time I was thinking, what the fuck is that guy doing?" I said to him, "Well, now we know."
But re-encountering him during Devil's Backbone, I felt it was ten times the actor/director collaboration over the first. His performance is extremely nuanced, I'll tell you that there was one day we were doing take after take after take on just one small moment and I said to him "You have to give me this emotion"--and he says, "I'm giving it to you." I just didn't see it and he says, "Wait for dailies." It was magic. I went to dailies and fuck, there it was. He's just so nuanced. He's in essence a guy that does nothing, that is completely useless but well intentioned. I learned a great deal from Luppi's craft and experience.
I've heard rumors that your next film project will be an adaptation of Mike Mignola's brilliant Hellboy series? I would love for that to be true--I'm working towards that. In the meantime I'm working on a film that's been in the works for nine years called Mephisto's Bridge. Which is kind of a nice combination because it's a project in English with a larger budget that's as personal to me as Cronos or Devil's Backbone.
Wasn't Rupert Everett originally attached to Mephisto's Bridge? Not anymore--I think we mutually lost interest (laughs). (Norman Reedus is now starring.-Ed.)
Your connection with comic books is clear to the point that the boy in The Devil's Backbone opens the film with a comic book as his key identifier--are you planning on bringing other graphic novels and series to the screen? I'm involved in bringing an adaptation of Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Domu: A Child's Dream (about a young girl at war with a psychic monster in a hotel, natch -Ed.) to the screen, and I'm also involved in adapting Hester/Huddleston's The Coffin (a modern Frankenstein fable involving a search for eternal life, natch -Ed.). I've been a collector of comic books since childhood and I tried to project myself on all the kids in Devil's Backbone; it's a very autobiographical film--everything that happens to those kids in that movie I saw or lived. It's distorted of course, I never saw a child killed, but I did see a child get smashed against a column.
I tell you one thing, if Hellboy happens, it's going to be fucking awesome.
You mention Victorian fairytale illustrators as key to your own art. Besides the comics and manga, are there other schools of visual thought that you emulate? My favourite school of painters are the symbolists, the second the surrealists. What I like is that they represent two sides of the same coin: The symbolists saw a woman holding a pear and it spoke to them of the ephemeral nature of youth, a reflection of mortality, whatever. The surrealists don't give a shit about the symbol--they just say, "What about a melting clock?" I like to see myself as a combination of both. There are things I'm going for but things, too, that I can't explain--that are just governed by the gut.
I also come from a childhood where I was fascinated by alchemy and how the alchemists coded every message. How they developed a hermetic language where they would essentially do large illustrations to serve as the text. No words at all, you had to understand that the salamander meant fire, that the couple above the salamander represented the unfertilized egg, and so on and so forth. What fascinated me about alchemy was that it was knowledge embedded in symbol and I strive for that in my movies as well--but often, I'll just let an image speak for itself. If I just go by my gut I'll be okay.
The Devil's Backbone is now playing in select cities across North America. Blade II opens nationwide on March 29, 2002.