The Passion of Del Toro
Watching Pan's Labyrinth for the second time with my Sneak Previews class, which is a great sampling of an older smart-house audience, I realized that while they were utterly sucked into this beautifully realized magical fable of Civil War Spain, its violence assaulted many of them. Afterward, director Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Blade II, Hellboy), dressed in black jeans and t-shirt, talked about how important it was for him to be free to do what he wanted with this film. He put his entire salary back into the movie, which cost about $20 million. "It's about choice and disobedience," he said.
During his violent childhood in Mexico, he was beaten with a chain while a friend was beaten with a bottle in the back of a car. "Unlike the movies, the bottle never broke," he said. He spent time during his high school years "volunteering" at an insane asylum, where he used to walk through the morgue, where illegally aborted dead fetuses were piled up, on his way to have lunch in the cemetary. Hmmm.
When del Toro was 33, his father was kidnapped and held for 72 days as everyone waited. A cop told him that if they found the kidnappers, he knew how to get them to talk. "Break the nose," he told del Toro. "Then move it back and forth." This is one of the sources of the violence in Pan's Labyrinth. For del Toro, who is a lapsed Catholic, the world is harsh and full of pain. "We are in bad times," he said. And he doesn't expect them to get better, as countries around the globe, except for perhaps America, move to the right. Pan's Labyrinth itself references the younger generation in Spain who no longer remember the Civil War and fear Fascism the way they should, he said.
Del Toro talked about how he and his countrymen Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron were forged in the crucible of a new freedom to express themselves— with urgency, as if they might never have that chance again. His debut film Cronos, Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros and Cuaron's Love in the Time of Hysteria were the results.
He talked about horror and genre as the last refuge of spiritual filmmaking. (While admitting that much of today's horror glut is "cynical," he said.)
When I had met del Toro before, it was in social situations where he wore a more genial and light-hearted guise. This evening, he was fiercely polemic and dead serious, passionate about fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness. The Weinsteins clearly fall in that category, as they gave del Toro his worst experience in Hollywood, with his first English-language film, Mimic. "It became a movie about giant cockroaches," he said. He recalled thinking that when you make a film in Hollywood you would push back against a large wave. Instead it was like being infected with mold and mildew that slowly ate away at the walls around you until they suddenly crumbled, he said. He was the classic innocent who was devastated by his film not turning out to be the thing of beauty he had envisioned. He then vowed to use the studios as an opportunity to learn the tricks of his craft and play with big toys, and take that knowledge to his independent work, like Devil's Backbone and its sister film, Pan's Labyrinth.
He brought along two of his six brown leather embossed notebooks (originally purchased in Venice, Italy), full of tiny writing in both Spanish and English in brown sepia ink, with full-color drawings of some of the creatures in Pan's Labyrinth. Like Gonzalez Inarritu, he hung out for a few minutes answering questions from my younger for-credit UCLA Extension students afterwards.
Here's a bit from an excellent interview in The Guardian:
In essence, del Toro is a divided soul, a realist attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural, a lapsed Catholic ('not quite the same thing as an atheist') with an interest in sacrifice and redemption who turned down the chance to direct The Chronicles of Narnia because he 'wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting'. Crucially, like the artistic refugees from Franco's Spain who first inspired him, the writer-director considers himself an exile from his home country, Mexico, not least because of the 1997 kidnapping of his father, at the height of a vogue for such ransomed abductions. He was released after 72 days.