Guillermo Del Toro
Telegraph, Jul 2013
Sketch based on photo by Matt Carr @ Getty
Also at Telegraph.
It’s all of nine in the morning, in a San Francisco hotel suite, and already, the portly Mexican director, Guillermo Del Toro is railing against roughage. I asked him why his latest movie, Pacific Rim, a monsters-versus-robots CGI spectacular, was again in the fantasy genre, and he responded with a metaphor that feels particularly apropos given his recent stomach surgery to control his weight.
“For me, art is like sex or food,” he grins. “You do what you like. And realism just doesn’t arouse me. I believe that I can make comfort food like Pacific Rim, or I can make a little gourmet meal like Pan’s Labyrinth. But I don’t have to give you roughage just because it’s good for you!”
An effusive and chuckling teddy bear of a man with thick lenses and a greying beard, Del Toro is in high spirits. It’s been five years since he’s directed and he’s clearly delighted to be back in the chair. His next movie was meant to be The Hobbit – fantasy again – until creative differences with the producer Peter Jackson, led to him leaving the project after two years, a wrenching decision. But Pacific Rim is just what the doctor ordered – sea monsters threaten the planet, so giant robots are built to battle them for approximately 131 minutes. “It’s fun!” he says, rubbing his hands. “Take your kids!”
But Pacific Rim may disappoint some fans, the “gourmet meal” crowd. While Del Toro’s made comfort food before – his Hellboy series, about a comical, blue-collar demon, is a similar visual spectacle, due soon for its third instalment – he’s best known for his smaller plates. The quirky horrors from about a decade ago like Cronos, Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone, and then his masterpiece of 2006, Pan’s Labyrinth, an astonishing, almost perfect fantasy film that sprang entirely from Del Toro’s imagination, won three Oscars, and announced the arrival of a great new auteur.
So isn’t a simple, noisy blockbuster like Pacific Rim, somewhat limiting?
“When I go to a party, it’s a party,” he says, cheerfully. “And when I go to a symposium, I don’t bring tequila. These are two completely different rooms in my house and I am comfortable in both. You don’t go to a party and question everyone about their values!”
Del Toro’s house, growing up, was in Guadalajara, Mexico, and by all accounts, it was anything but a party. But it was also where his devotion to the fantastic was sealed, by scars mostly – it was a childhood replete with formative horrors.
“I grew up Catholic, and the anxiety that generated in me was enormous,” he says, seriously. His father was a car salesman and his mother an artist, but much of his upbringing was spent with his grandmother, whom Del Toro likens to “the Piper Laurie character in Carrie.” She didn’t just torment him with the promise of purgatory, she tried to exorcise him more than once, and made him mortify himself by placing metal bottle caps into his shoes so that his soles bled on the walk to school.
As a boy, he experienced a string of gruesome encounters – he saw a decapitated teenage boy by a barbed wire fence, a crashed motorist burning inside his VW Beetle and a man with a split skull walking down the street. Guadalajara was a rough town.
But it was the dead babies at the morgue that jolted him hardest.
“There was this pile of kids there, and the bottom ones were not very fresh, so there was liquid and…” He rubs his beard; the jovial smile has gone. “What was horrible was the casualness of it. And something snapped – I just knew that OK, there is no benevolent being overlooking everything. I’m a spiritual guy, but I just don’t think the universe is judgmental.”
The tag line for Pacific Rim – to fight monsters, we made monsters – may apply in an oblique psychological way to the young Del Toro, because he started making monsters at an early age. First he would sketch them in a book that he carried around with him, something he continues to this day. Then he started playing with horror makeup, applying scars and melting eyes to scare his parents, but after graduating from film school, he developed his skill into a special effects company – literally creating monsters on short notice for the Mexican film industry. Soon he was directing features of his own.
Del Toro was one of three A-list Mexican directors to ascend to Hollywood in the early 2000s – Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Alejandro Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams) were the other two. “Was it a coincidence? I suppose so,” he says, smiling. “Especially because we all happen to be friends! When I arrived in San Francisco I made two calls – one to my wife and then to Alfonso!”
He misses Mexico, all the more so now that he’s unlikely to return any time soon. It’s just too dangerous. One of the most dramatic periods of his life was in 1997 when his father, Federico, was kidnapped for 72 days. Del Toro and his two brothers helped to pay two ransoms and bring him to safety in America. He describes it as a “healing experience” today. “I highly recommend you save your father’s life once,” he says. “It transforms you, that’s all I know. You learn that your father is a man. A vulnerable man.”
He would return if he didn’t have children of his own – that’s how homesick he is. But for now, he lives with his wife and two daughters in the sleepy suburb of Thousand Oaks, way out in the San Fernando Valley – “where they shot the lake in Frankenstein,” he adds. And it’s here that he has created his greatest monument to his love for fable and fantasy – his very own house of curiousities called Bleak House.
“When I was a kid I read about Fonthill Abbey,” he says, “where the author William Beckford had the largest cabinet of curiosities in the world. And I dreamed of one day driving myself broke creating a strange place of my own.”
His collection started as four rooms in his house, but then expanded to an entire house, about three minutes from his family home. Recently, it has expanded again to two houses, side by side (he persuaded his neighbors to sell), which have 16 libraries between them – “I’ve read maybe 80% of them.” Life size monsters, models, paintings, heads, creatures and old dusty tomes – it’s a horror fan’s paradise. And this is where he works – where the robots for Pacific Rim were designed, and all his ghost stories take shape.
“The last ghost I heard was when I was scouting for The Hobbit in New Zealand,” he says, seriously. “When I travel I have a little list of haunted hotels, so I try to stay in them whenever I can. And in this hotel, I heard this woman screaming horribly through a vent in the bathroom. And then a man, sobbing in remorse.”
But he lost his religion years ago – isn’t he skeptic when it comes to that sort of thing?
He smiles. “I am! I believe that we’ll have a perfectly reasonable explanation for that 75 years from now. But we are, for want of a better analogy, in the Middle Ages – we just don’t know it. The people in the Middle Ages thought they were thoroughly modern and so do we. In fact, all you and I are doing today is conversing about my latest tapestry!” he chuckles. “Pacific Rim is just Agincourt with robots and monsters!”
There are many more tapestries to come. Del Toro is so prolific that he typically works on seven or eight huge projects at a time, either as a writer, producer or director. After the disappointment of The Hobbit, he was even hungrier to get something off the ground, so at this moment, he’s immersed in all kinds of things.
He’s writing a TV series called The Strain, based on a vampire trilogy he co-wrote. Come 2014 he’s directing a horror movie, Crimson Peak, starring Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch. This much is certain.
But the “Maybe” list is so tantalising. He’s looking for funding for The Mountains of Madness, a classic HP Lovecraft horror story about aliens in the Antarctic – “I’ll show you the art and your heart will break,” he says. The same goes for a 3D puppet rendering of Pinocchio. Frankenstein looms, with Cumberbatch again – “I’m yet to write it, but we did overcome a big legal hurdle.” And then there’s Slaughterhouse Five, a much talked about collaboration with Charlie Kaufman.
“Charlie and I talked for about an hour and a half and came up with a perfect way of doing the book,” he says excitedly. “I love the idea of the Trafalmadorians [the aliens of Slaughterhouse Five] – to be ‘unstuck in time,’ where everything is happening at the same time. And that’s what I want to do. It’s just a catch-22. The studio will make it when it’s my next movie, but how can I commit to it being my next movie until there’s a screenplay? Charlie Kaufman is a very expensive writer!” He shrugs. “I’ll work it out.”
One lesson of The Hobbit, however, is that plans sometimes go array, and all that energy and enthusiasm which Del Toro brings in spades, might yet come to naught. Have his feelings changed about The Hobbit now that the film is out?
“I haven’t seen it!” he says. “I didn’t want to see it on a BluRay and I’ve been so busy I’ve only been to the theater three or four times in the last year. And my daughters dominate that decision. So we go to see Les Mis, which I would never see!”
“No, of course. Peter sent me an email and offered to screen it at 48 frames any time I wanted. So when I have time, I’m going to take him up on the offer and do it properly.”
Would it be painful?
He thinks a minute. “I’m not sure. But in the road of my life, I’ve been blessed with a very tiny rear view mirror. Without it I wouldn’t have survived the kidnapping of my father, the impossibility of making genre movies in Mexico in the 70s and 80s… I have a geological perspective on life – we concentrate so much on the small things but when we are a strata of chalk between two layers of granite a million years from now, your supermarket to-do list and the entire canon of Shakespeare are going to have the exact same importance.”
He smiles broadly. “So enjoy your life as it is now and stay in the process. Don’t think of the outcome. Just fucking do.”