Big Think Interview With Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro is an Academy Award-nominated Mexican filmmaker, producer, and author. Del Toro's first experience as an executive producer was in 1986 at the age of 21. Before that he spent nearly 10 years as a make-up designer, and formed his own company, Necropia, in the early 80s. He also co-founded the Guadalajara-based Mexican film festival. Later on in his directing career, he formed his own production company, the Tequila Gang.
Del Toro has directed a wide variety of films, from comic book adaptations “Hellboy” and “Blade II,” to historical fantasy and horror films, two of which are set in Spain during or in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War under the Fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. These two films, “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” are among his most critically acclaimed works. Del Toro was nominated for best screenplay for “Pan's Labyrinth,” and the movie was nominated for five more Oscars.
Del Toro is also the co-author of vampire fiction trilogy "The Strain." "The Fall," book two of the trilogy, was published in 2010 by William Morris.
Guillermo del Toro: I am Guillermo del Toro and I’m a very strange, chubby Mexican.
Question: What do monsters represent metaphorically?
Guillermo del Toro: I think that I’m interested in monsters not because they have a specific value, you know, I actually think they are, they have multiple values depending on how you use them. They are symbols of great power. I think that at some point, when we became thinking creatures, we decided to interpret the world by creating a mythology of gods and monsters. You know, we created angels, we created demons, we created serpents devouring the moon. We created a mythology to make sense of the world around us.
And monsters were born at the same time that the angels or any of the beatific creatures and characters were created. So, I don’t assign them a specific value but I do... I am very mindful of the way I deal with them in the movies and in the books because I assign them a specific function and I try to take them to the extreme with that. You know, I make them victims or I make them sympathetic or I make them brutal parasites. And they become a metaphor for something else. Obviously, monsters are living, breathing, metaphors. For me, half of the fun is explaining them socially, biologically, mythologically, and so forth.
Question: What does our need to create beasts say about human nature?
Guillermo del Toro: I think the moment we made our interpretation of the world as this sort of binary, you know, type of interpretation, night and day became separate entities—light and dark. And we went through the process of creating the world by an understanding of the world through opposites. We needed to mythologize. And I think what it tells you is that... it’s mostly Western culture thinking. There are Eastern philosophies that accept "the good and the bad" as parts of the whole. And that the good flows with the bad and the bad flows right back into the good. And that is a beautiful way of understanding the world and the Universe.
But Western culture tells you that we understand the world through opposites only. There’s a great phrase, and I’m going to misquote it, in the Tao saying essentially that whenever we consider something good at the same time we are deeming something bad. When we consider something light is because we are considering something dark. And it’s better to just understand everything as the everything and abandon ourselves to it, and so forth. But I think that’s what it tells you.
Question: Why are vampires so popular right now?
Guillermo del Toro: I think that, you know, the moment of the birth of the vampire myth in English literature is with essentially there is few writings here and there, a poem and this and that. But in fiction most everyone agrees that it was birthed by John W. Polidori with a short story, "The Vampyre." Now, the fact that Polidori had an ambivalent relationship with his master and friend, Lord Byron and he based the character of the main vampire in that story, Lord Ruthvren on Lord Byron, you know. Immediately gave birth to a vampire that was both a loathsome parasite and a dandy. A seductive character that is later absorbed by a Stoker in "Dracula" and you know, you can trace it all the way to Anne Rice.
And I think that right now, we have an unbridled sort of melodramatic, romantic, fantasy with the vampire is only one half of the myth. The bad boy romantic lead myth, which is essentially Gothic fiction. You know, it can be Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights," or it can be Robert Patterson in "Twilight."
The thing that it tells you right now is that human relationships, intimate relationships have become so completely demythified, they have become so prosaic, you know, whenever you talk about a relationship, you’re talking about it in very prosaic terms. How much does he or she make? What job security? Nest egg planning. It’s all very materialistic. Double-income household, it all becomes very prosaic and it’s almost impossible to dream romantic things without sounding corny.
So you know, of the fascination of romantic fiction with a bad boy gets sumlimated and dark angels are created, angels of the night that create a spiritual and physical bond with a love interest that is permanent and eternal. So through that fiction you can abandon yourself to the lull of a romantic fantasy without feeling silly or stupid.
What I find symptomatic I think for the... I daresay, for the first time in the culture of mankind, the vampire has been sort of defanged by making them celibate and asexual as opposed to polysexual, like Anne Rice did and they have been Mormonized, so to speak, into being a sanitized creature. And you know, I’m not in favor or against it. I’m fascinated by it, because I do think it is a very strong symbol of where we are. And I find it intriguing and I try to watch the phenomenon without judging it. But it’s quite peculiar.
Question: Is your vampire trilogy an antidote to that?
Guillermo del Toro: Yeah, what we were trying to figure out though, we were trying to deal with aspects... the only sensuality in the Strain books, is the sensuality of feeding that pleases the predator, but doesn’t please the prey.
Question: How is screenwriting different than other forms of writing?
Guillermo del Toro: Yeah. I tell you, what I’ve learned with dabbling in the media... in the different media is writing a screenplay for an animated film is one thing, writing a screenplay for a live-action film is another thing. Writing a screenplay for a video game is fascinating and great. And the disciplines are very different because you’re not only thinking of a language, you’re thinking about immersion techniques, if you will. How are you going to make the viewer or the player, the gamer, immerse into the world. And as a writer of fiction, that’s again almost a different set of rules.
In some of these mediums, the sort of Aristotelian structure of three acts of beginning, middle and end, goes away at certain points. And I find that truly thrilling, but what has been great for me in writing fiction is that, a) I don’t deal with notes from anyone. I have free reign over what characters do what and the fate of the characters, there’s no, there’s not such a thing as a down ending in writing fiction, you know, you can please the tale rather than please the demographics and the quadrants of a movie. But I would say the same can be done doing an independent European or Mexican film. You have that freedom.
What is great here is that you... moving making, the process of making the movie goes against the product. It’s like sculpting... I think Francis Coppola said, "It’s like sculpting with sand in a sandstorm." You know, things are flying away from your hands as you’re trying to shape the thing. And I agree. And so the process of the moviemaking goes against the product, and at the end of the day you end up with a movie that compromises. You compromise with the budget, with the time, with the elements. There’s no filmmaker that can have absolute control unless you’re making an animated film in abstract.
And instead of that in fiction, the moment that you are writing the scene is as good or as bad as you are writing it. You can see the product come to life and that’s it’s final form. So it’s very much like painting in that, or illustrating, you depend on our abilities, but definitely the product is part of the process. In movies it isn’t.
Question: What is your personal philosophy?
Guillermo del Toro: Well I believe... I believe... I'm semi-agnostic. I believe that there are so many things that are entirely unknowable that it’s better to abandon yourself to the wisdom of the universe, or its indifference, as Albert Camus would say. You know? You can abandon yourself to the cold embrace of the universe or its warm embrace, depending on what vibe are you in. But there is however, like in fractals, like in so many things, there is chaos contained within order and order contained within chaos. And a constant flow between the two. And I think that the beauty of understanding that is that you understand that there is a functional model to the universe. Whether it is expanding, contracting and therefore completely changing the rules of time and space and this and that, and generating everything that we consider paranormal or spiritual. I don’t know. But there is a flow. There is an order; there is a function to it. And I think that that allows us to dream our own mythologies.
So I have constructed my own sort of personal religion, you know? Which doesn’t depend on a guy in the sky that I pray to, but it does depend on trying to be as good a person as I can be. And I’m not a good person all the time, but I allow myself to understand that too. And I just think that, you know, that would be the fundamental belief that... You know, the Greeks used to say, we don’t need good government, we need good citizens. And I think that’s the same way religion and spirituality: it doesn’t need a great church or you don’t need to belong to a great church, you just need try to be a good man, to a certain degree. You know? As good a man as you can be. Whatever that measure is, be it you’re a serial killer or a war hero or a Samaritan, whatever you are, be as good a man as you can be.
Question: How do you create new monsters?
Guillermo del Toro: You know, monster creation is truly a beautiful... it’s like jazz—it’s not like algebra. You don’t take a bunch of ciphers and try to add them or subtract them or multiply them or factor them. You... you’re dealing with almost a musical process and, and like Jazz, what is important is that you riff, you riff by instinct and you riff with the best you can. You try to have Thelonious Monk and you try to have, you know, Charlie Parker and you try to... and so you jam with great people. I jam with Wayne Barlow on “Spectral Motion,” Mike Mignola and you’re doing music together.
I come up the first few notes and then they answer with rhythm, and then, and it’s a truly organic process. To give you an example, the Paleman in “Pan’s Labyrinth” I originally said to DDT, make it a fat guy that lost a little weight so that he’s skinny but he has a lot of sagging skin on his bones. And they sculpted this realistic face and then I was having dinner with my wife and I said, I’m not comfortable with the character, I think that it should be an incomplete character. So I was thinking maybe he would have wooden hands and a platter in front of him and he would put those hands in his amputated stumps. Or he could have no eyes and have a flat face like a manta ray and just have a little tiny mouth—because she always jokes with me that I’m fat, she says, “How did you get that fat with that tiny little mouth with little teeth?” And I felt the voracity of this character was better enhanced with a little mouth with tiny baby teeth than making it a big mouth.
And then riffing on that, I said to my wife, “What do you like the best?” And she says, “I think the eyes.” And then I then told DDT to take the sculpture and erase... and they were outraged and shocked and they got angry at me for a long, long, long—I think they were angry with me all the way to the Oscars, or past that. But that’s how we started riffing. And I said, let’s make a hole here, a stigmata because the guy was kind of the church in the movie. And then I said, let’s... And then I thought of a... it’s an organic process. As you can see by my bulk, I am an instinctive man that tries to organize his thinking, but impulse is 90% of it.
Question: What monsters scare you?
Guillermo del Toro: You know, I’m not scared by any monsters. I don’t think... I think the only monster that ever scared me as a kid, the only one as a monster, I think was “Alien,” when I was a kid, and “Phantom of the Opera.” You know, the first, the Lon Chaney one. Not the musical. The musical scares me in a different way.
Question: What scares you in real life?
Guillermo del Toro: I hate politicians. I hate most everything organized. I hate organized movie making, like institutions. I hate big churches, whatever denomination, they scare me. When you go to a church and they have their own giant palace or fortress, it’s for me like walking to the Death Star, you know. I don’t care if Darth Vader is wearing nice robes or not.
I don't like the army, I don't like the cops. I don't like any institution. I am mortally afraid of cops. The Los Angeles police scares the crap out of me. They have these black and white mobile sharks on the freeway. And they are like these machines out of a horror movie.
So I like everything to be liberty and individual, but, you know, if you get great individuals, you get a great society. So to counteract the cop cars in L.A., I am right now in a product that is very freaky and personal. I’m hand-making, from scratch, the most brutal car I ever saw, which was in a “B” movie I saw as a kid in the '70s called “The Car,” with James Brolin. And I fell in love with that car and I am making it expressively to drive on the freeways looking at the cops.
But I have a hard time... I mean I think that when people talk about the collapse of society, there an anarchist inside of me that kind of digs it. You know, I really... I’m very afraid of institutions. And especially the ones that do anything but what they were supposed to do. You know, like politicians were meant to be there for the people, you know, serve the people. And I think that if you really made a scan of their brain, it would be like 50% sex, 45% power, I don’t know, but it would be like .000 something, caring about the public. Really, it would be a very discouraging scan.
Question: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Guillermo del Toro: You know, when anyone approaches me and says "I want to be a director," I always tell them, then you should be a director and don’t say, "I'm going to be…" because you can direct good or bad but you can direct from your iPhone, from your cell phone with your sister's cousin's video camera with a web cam. Right now, except in the most abject circumstances, most people can get a hold of an image audio/visual generating machine and they can be directing and then realize that they are already directing.
Directing doesn’t mean any more and shouldn’t mean any more directing feature films. I think... as I said, with series like "Breaking Bad" I was not only amazed at the way it was written, but the way it was staged on camera. It was a really well-directed series. And video games also can do that. And I think that as long as you have minimal access to any media you should be a director if you feel like you want to.
And the advice I feel is that, it’s always better to answer through your work the things you don’t like in a media, in a piece of media. If you dislike the movies that are being made, make your own. Show the world what you want to do, what you think this medium should be. And I find that much more creative than simply putting it down and complaining about it. It is a more active, fascinating role to take.
So the advice is that if you want to direct, direct. And even easier: if you want to write, write. You now, I think that writing is the only... one of the only things that can be done with very little resources and even if you die and you were unpublished, you still have a chance. You know, it’s truly... you cannot do that with directing. You need other people, you need a little bit of help, you need at least an actor in front of the camera, you know. But I think these are what I say is go and do it. And you know, when they say, "I would like you to do this for me"—and I produce a lot of first-time filmmakers, but I don’t produce all the first-time filmmakers that approach me—and I say, “Look, if I say, no, and you give up, I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s the wrong job for you.” Because you live with rejection for decades sometimes as a director and you end up making the movie you want to make. So, if I say no, that doesn’t mean that I’m right or I’m wrong, you just say, "Fuck him, I’ll show him later. I’m gonna make it and that fat bastard is gonna have to say I was so wrong and hit himself in the head because he didn’t do it." And I think that’s the thing to do is like, show us. Don’t tell us. You know? Do the things. And if you do them wrong, what you do on your own terms, that’s how I define success; failing on your own terms.
Recorded on September 22, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the filmmaker and author.
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