When I received notice that Guillermo del Toro would be back in town to talk about his latest project, Mama, I scoffed when it showed that we were to be granted 15 minutes for a roundtable. GDT is one of the world’s great conversationalists, and I knew that we’d quickly burn up a quarter of an hour before we even got started.
I wasn’t prepared, however, for how generous with his time del Toro proved to be. It’s one of life’s great pleasures to engage with an artist with the wit and generosity of spirit that GDT exhibits, and he never seems to be playing any particular angle, just genuinely pleased to be discussing some of his favourite things.
With a conversation running a full 90 minutes, the small group of us were able to discuss a wide variety of topics, from the nature of “foreign” films to a shared interest in 70s Italian Progressive rock soundtrack music. We also of course talked about Mama, the very thing that was meant to be the focus of the session.
GDT co-wrote and executive produced Mama, which proves to be an interesting take on the ghost story/cabin in woods tale. The film is a stylish and unflinching debut by first time helmer Andrés Muschietti, complete with an unforgettable ending that’s refreshingly honest and brutal. The film includes several gothic, signature tropes, leaving the film to feel very much a part of the “canon of Guillermo del Toro”. Notably, the film stars the new “it-girl” Jessica Chastain in a very challenging role where she once again proves that she’s a superstar in the making. Annabel is a very different type of character than most audiences are used to seeing Chastain play, one that may well surprise fans of The Help or even Zero Dark Thirty. I was pleased to see the actor showing both her range and her courage at refusing to fall into a narrow, predictable pattern of roles.
In this, the first of five parts of our conversation (which contains more than a few spoilers for Mama and other films) del Toro began with talk of his returning to Toronto, a place he has called home for the last several years…
Welcome back to Toronto – you’re practically becoming a local celebrity!
I hope to become one! I mean, we’re shooting The Strain [a television series based on the book he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan] in July or August. We’re doing the whole series here. I’ve started prepping Crimson Peak in September/October, and then I shoot in January 2014. I’ll be here for at least two years.
To be honest, we really love Toronto so much. I mean, I cannot move my man cave [GDT’s world famous collection of nerdy things], because I cannot move my man cave anywhere, I would rather commit seppuku than trying to move that stuff. As for the family home, we’re thinking of moving it to Toronto.
I love it, I think it’s an amazing city.
We’re happy to have you.
I think the people are amazing, the culture is amazing, the film culture is amazing… and you can find people to disagree about Frenzy!
I already talked to TIFF’s Bell Lightbox about them doing another four Hitchcocks in December [continuing from a lecture series he did in 2012]. Now we’re going to be more coherent – last time it was a sampler, now we’re going to show what I call the “Shadow Trilogy.” It’s going to be fun!
What constitutes the Shadow Trilogy?
Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers On a Train, and Suspicion. And then, uh…
Foreign Correspondent would be perfect! Perfect! And there you go… But it’s that, [back to talking about Toronto] it’s an eminently livable city; the crews are amazing, great comic book stores, great book stores, and as we have discussed, great food!
I already lost 80 pounds [since I was living in Toronto a few months ago]. Unfortunately for me, I go from being a ball to being an ovoid fucking shape, but it’s not like I come in and look like fucking Brad Pitt, but 80 pounds already! But [I blame] the fucking Beer Bistro – the fucking duck fat French fries are not conducive to losing [weight]!
My last time at Pizza Libretto, I broke the bench. I was like “phruchhhhh aghhhh” on the floor.
Anyways… And this is the first question! [Laughs]
I’m hoping to segue into more about Toronto, how you can also make it look like, for example, Virginia, like you have with MAMA.
What I love about Toronto is that from a producer’s point of view, you find a city like this that can handle three, four, or five productions [at once]. There’s enough depth of crew, there’s enough depth of stages, there’s enough depth of looks. Literally, I was prepping Mama when I was prepping Pacific Rim. We were neighbours.
I was able to keep an eye on Andy [Muschietti], I was able to do my work as producer, I was able to check his storyboards and go right into my office on Pacific Rim. I would go to him and ask if there was anything wrong, and go right to my room on Pacific Rim, so it’s a unique situation. I think you rarely find things like that.
You go to a great city where things were made but you have no depth of crew or you have only one stage, and if it’s taken, it’s taken. This is a great city.
Are you planning to keep juggling productions like this then?
I’ll be juggling less than I have over the the last couple of years. I think that the conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to create a company, because I do it all myself.
When you hear J.J. [Abrams] has 10 projects, he has [his company] Bad Robot. When you announce that I have 10 projects, it’s me, it’s me [alone] and when I have an assistant it’s me and my assistant, that’s it. So, you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to keep the rhythm as frantic as the last couple of years, but I also want to create a little bigger infrastructure to help me do this. What is worth [the effort] is to continue to produce first time directors.
Do you have any other people lined up right now?
Yeah, I have Brian Kirk, who’s a hopefully directing a movie called Midnight Delivery. [He’s] a first time director, but he’s directed a lot of the Luther [episodes], Game of Thrones, many many movies and [television] series for BBC. He did Luck for Michael Mann, so he’s not exactly like…
You don’t have to hold his hand.
Yeah, I don’t have to do that. Nevertheless, I’ve found out that even when you’re experienced, like [Juan Antonio] Bayona was when he came up to do The Orphanage, you still have to do certain things with first time directors.
You have to defend [first timers] to the studio in certain ways, you have to find the budget, make them be more comfortable than they think they need to be.
The times with first time directors when I listened to them when they say “no, I can do it in a lot less time!”, I have regretted it. I’d rather give them the time and the resources they need. I spoil them a little bit.
How did the MAMÁ short film come to your attention?
I look at probably 50-60 shorts a year, more sometimes, that people send to me. They send them to my public e-mail, they give them to me on DVD and I try to watch them. And let’s say I answer or write to half of the filmmakers because I don’t I literally don’t have the time, but the half I write to get very surprised! They say, “well i never expected [to hear back from you].”
I don’t write only to the really outstanding ones, I write to a mixture. 80% of the time you’ll find a short that is done very well, but has very little to say. Or, you find a short that is very ambitious, but is badly produced. Rarely then you find a nugget and you go, “WOW!, there’s a voice there, it’s well produced, it’s well thought out.” That’s Mamá, but it’s like, it’s one in 100.
Then what I do is I contact the guy and I say “can we meet?” If there’s chemistry, you move it little by little. I don’t mean it’s the good one, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s [about being] the one I respond to.
Like I say to people, if I don’t want do anything with your short or get involved, it doesn’t mean your short is good or bad. You should be able to do something with it with someone else. The film business is survival of the fattest [sic]. If somebody discourages you and you crumble, I have bad news for you, you are not made to be in this fucking business! “Fuck del Toro! Fuck that fat bastard!”, go and make your feature! [In the end], it needs to be done in a very personal way.
What was it about MAMA that resonated with you?
It’s the fact that I think that there’s primal emotions to motherhood and family that you respond to. In the movies I’ve made as producer or director I’m very prone, or at least I have a proclivity towards, orphans, father-daughter and father-son relations. I think family is both the source of all horrors and the source of all blessings — horrors for sure! I am very happy I never shied away from a fist fight, thanks to my brothers, because they trained me to be physically very hot. At the same time, I curse the fact that I got the shit beaten out of me plenty of times! So it’s like that, and I resonate with that.
I think that a horror story needs to have a real emotion at the centre for you to respond. The fact that it’s a ghost in love, well, you know I love that.
There’s the whole notion of what constitutes a “Guillermo Del Toro film”, serving as short form for describing a particular type of film…
A little bit. Look, not all of the them are good, but not all of them are bad. I tell you what, if you get an Orphanage and a Mama… I take great pride in most of them.
Take Splice as an example: I love the notion of Splice, and I take great pride in all of Splice as a proposal from Vincenzo [Natali]. I think those [types of films] are great, they’re really beautiful things that we can do with the genre.
In the case of Vincenzo, I was not as involved. I just helped him finance the movie. In the case of Mama, I was very involved. But it really leaves me saying to an audience, “look at this guy!” It’s not the opposite, it’s not like “hey look at me!”, it’s me saying, “look, this guy is worth really taking attention.”
You’ve also produced stuff like KUNG FU PANDA 2 , yet it doesn’t say “Guillermo Del Toro presents…”
No, but I tell you, that movie, I was involved to the end.
This is my point, that people are getting an idea of what is a Guillermo Del Toro film, in a very particular narrow way, whereas what’s quite remarkable about what you do is this diversity.
Yeah. What is funny, for example, with Rise of the Guardians, people immediately assumed that I was involved with the scary stuff, but I was actually involved more in the fairy tale, whimsical part of the movie.
No, Bunny, and the world of Bunny with the moss and the stones. Or like with Po in Kung Fu Panda… One of the lines that made it that I did was the line where he says “I know who I am, I am your son”, or making the villain more scary, the deranged peacock…
The director [Jennifer Yuh] was phenomenal, and all the Dreamworks producers and Directors are people I learn[ed a lot from]. If I hadn’t done it, I would have faced Pacific Rim very differently. There are long passages where I’m directing animation, and I know how to do it because I’ve been in the trenches now for a couple of years and I’m very precise on the language and gravity and when to do this, when to do that and when to give it weight. I’ve done many plates with Hellboy and Blade and this and that, but it’s different than to weave a sequence, and [Dreamworks] has been a great apprenticeship.
I don’t want to push you on this, but I’m just wondering how conscious you are of ensuring that the whole notion of what constitutes a “Guillermo Del Toro film” is in someway an consistent body of work, or of a particular style
I don’t think about it.
When Alfonso [Cuarón] was going to do Harry Potter [and the Prisoner of Azkaban], I had done Blade II, and Alfonso said “I’m very nervous about taking [on this project] because it’s not a personal movie for me and I didn’t generate the book”, and he said “how do I ensure that I’m really [speaking in my own voice]” , and I said “do you care [about the work]?” He said “I love it”. I said, “Are you invested?”, and he said “yes”. So I told him, “well listen, it’s like a crime scene, some of your DNA is going to make it. You’re going to leave [behind] some DNA.”
He absolutely did, it’s by far the most personal and stylistic of any of the Harry Potter films.
Certainly you can say – That’s Alfonso’s, you know what I’m saying.
So far I’m 48 years old, and I’ve never ever done a thing in films for money or for career at all. Ever. Even Mimic, or anything. It’s always been I would chop my hand to finish the movie, it doesn’t matter what movie it is. So DNA is gonna be left.
In a scene of passion, some DNA is left behind.
But are you going to, say, do a musical?
I am going to, because it’s Paul WiIliams! That’s Phantom of the Paradise, are you kidding me? Meeting Paul Williams for me was like meeting the pope.
I had seen him before, I met him when I was a kid because I went to one of his concerts, the only concert he did in Mexico, I met him behind the stage and we waited and he didn’t remember. I was like gushing because I’m a massive fan of Phantom of the Paradise.
I’m a freak.
Did an R-rating on DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK change how you guys set out to deal with the Mama story?
For me, that was the biggest disappointment [with Don’t Be Afraid]. When I hear from people who are 28, 35, whatever, they say I didn’t like the movie, I say “I’m sorry, it was not meant to be for you!”
I had a company called “Double Dare You” that was created to do scary movies for kids. And Don’t be Afraid of the Dark was going to be the first Double Dare You movie. I was basically doing horror movies for kids. And then the MPAA gave it a fucking R.
I said what can we change? And the MPAA said it’s the pervasive scariness. There’s nothing you can change that would get you out of the R.
I really, really… it doesn’t mean that I was doing it for children, I was doing it for 10, 12, 13 year olds, you know, like PG 13, but the moment that movie was marketed as an adult movie… It’s not an adult movie, and by that I mean it doesn’t have the intensity of an adult movie.
If you ask me, Mama has a more adult tone than Don’t be Afraid, so it was [extremely] disappointing. I still maintain this: ten years from now I hope I meet guys who say to me, “I saw this movie when I was 12 and it fucked my brain,” you know? That is why I put it out there in the world and I still love many things about that movie.
To get back to Jason’s point about the idea of a “Guillermo Del Toro film”, for me what it means is that there will be consequences to the fable to, the horror. I mean, Don’t be Afraid ends with someone being destroyed essentially.
In a way that what is funny is with Don’t be Afraid, some people take exception about her voice at the end, and they go “oh that’s a blatant…”, but that’s in the original! She ends up delivering exactly the same speech in the original, that was following the pattern. In any case, [with a “Guillermo Del Toro film”] there’s going to be I think a strong connection with fairy tales and horror, there’s going to be something beautiful about it, whether it’s The Orphanage or Mama, whether it’s a visual or poetic [element] or whatever.
For example, the ending on Mama is not the normal ending of a horror movie.
We go in, as a North American audience anyway, and come to expect that either everyone will die or a balance will be restored – you leave as you came in. And here, the way to solve a problem is to feed the ghost a child
What it is, is a very ballsy ending for the movie.
It’s also a very ballsy ending that I think is satisfying because everybody gets sort of a happy ending, even if it’s sad. That is what I tried to say. What I tell people often, I say this is in my case. I cannot speak for everything, right?
I cannot pontificate about it, but by the time I’m done [with my career], I will have [metaphorically] done one movie, and it’s all the movies I want.
People say, you know, “I like your Spanish movies more than I like your English language movies because [the English ones] are not as personal”, and I go “Fuck, you’re wrong!” Hellboy is as personal to me as Pan’s Labyrinth. They’re tonally different, and yes of course you can like one more than the other, the other one may seem banal or whatever it is that you don’t like. But it really is part of the same movie. You make one movie.
Hitchcock did one movie, all his life.
To push on this, Mama is another director’s movie, and yet this still feels very much like a Guillermo Del Toro movie. This very much feels personal. I know that you played an enormous role in it, but how dangerous is it to be under the shadow of the “Guillermo del Toro personal project” and still be able sell the voice of the individual director?
I’ll tell you the rule, it’s very simple: Even in the most extreme circumstance, which I have gone through, I’ve now produced 20 movies, so I’ve learned how to produce, but the rule is very simple: “Do unto others.” Produce the way you want to be produced.
If I see a choice Andy is making that I don’t agree with, but it’s his choice, I shut my fucking mouth. If I see him about to poke the child in the eye, I do have to say, “Dude, let’s talk,” but at the end of the day, it’s his decision. And I have gone — I’m 350 pounds — I’ve gone on my knees and gone “please, don’t do this”. But it’s the director’s movie.
Whenever I do something, no matter how extreme it is, I do it how I would like it to be handled with me.
If I turn around and somebody said, “would you allow that?” I say, “yeah, fuck I would!” and I’m very conscious of this. Like, painfully conscious of this thing, you know. I’m still a Catholic boy, I have huge guilt, so anytime I have to say something, I really weigh it.
I think that I only produce things I have high affinity with, you know what I’m saying. Or the opposite.
The reason I wanted to help Vincenzo do Splice is because the moment he fucks the monster, I was shocked, I was like “holy fucking shit! I gotta see this on the big screen!” It’s so against every fiber in my nature to see that scene, that I thought it needs to exist because it freaked me out. But it’s different reasons. In the case of VIncenzo, there’s no shadow of me in there. It’s Vincenzo completely.
In the case of The Orphanage or Mama or Don’t be Afraid, to some degree it’s different. There’s more deeper kinship.
Do you ever come in on the design side of things, or do you try to just keep it conceptual in terms of production.
In some things, but not in the case of Mama. Andy had Mama figured out completely from the get go, the design aesthetic he brought to the movie is completely different from mine.
When I read about the Cabin, when I wrote pieces about the cabin in Mama, I was always imagining this sort of 1800s, crumbling, semi-gothic house. Andy came in and said he wanted the Jetsons, he wanted 1950s modern, sleek, low roof, low ceiling.
I thought, that’s wrong, that’s weird, but that’s his choice and I shut my mouth.
The photography, the cinematography in the movie — he went for absolutely a completely different aesthetic than I would have done, very real. The wardrobe design, very real. The house they move to with Mama, it’s not stylized, it’s a real fucking house! I would have stylized it. I would have gone a certain way like in The Devil’s Backbone. The way he went, it looked like a model home that you go for a demonstration. And he said, “I want that, I want the banality of that house, for that house to be a house you can recognize.”
Those are choices that are completely different from the stuff I do. For The Orphanage, it was the same thing with Bayona. There were choices in that movie where I was like, “well, ok, that’s different than [I’d have done].”
Julia’s Eyes had a completely different aesthetic [from my own], and I was like, “go ahead, man!”, but was with [director Guillem Morales] in the editing room, we did take out about 9 minutes of the movie by “frame fucking” it, taking and that this out.
I did insist of a close up of the eye getting the needle in. You have to be a little more Italian.
So those are the things that… I think only if you get involved with things that you really believe in, you know. I don’t present something that I was not that involved with.
With Mama, how involved were you with the writing of script?
They did one pass first and then I did another pass. I came up with ideas like the stains in the wall, the crack in the wall and the insects coming out of that, and him going to investigate.
The idea originally was that it was a social worker rather than an Aunt. Then we gave it to Neil Cross because I was doing Pacific Rim and Neil took it over with them. They wrote the scene, and then I had the input on the scene in the hall of records.
A ghost is an emotion twisted out of shape. I felt we needed to remember what the emotional story was for the ghost. The idea is that basically a ghost is a deranged entity. A ghost bent on revenge will not have the nuances or the emotions like when you have some fully dimensional entity, they will only think of hatred or the same with love.
The same with a bereaved mother.
Yeah, exactly, so this character is not multi-faceted. It’s like one track, a one track mind, don’t fuck with the girls, don’t go near the girls, they’re mine!
That’s why the ending works, because I think that with the ending, Mama becomes a real character, where she’s nuanced. At the end, I get it, you know, I love it because you get to make her a character.
[at this point, the publicist wanted to wrap up… GDT insisted on continuing!]
What was the process like of determining what Mama would look like?
Andy came up with her completely. 100%. I mean like, she was just there.
Andy’s a great draftsman, he’s a very, very good artist, incredibly so. The drawings that are in the movie are his. The drawings that Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau] does are [by Andy].
Andy came in and he was freaked by Modigliani, he really was freaked by the faces Modigliani does where the eyes are more like this. He drew her like a Modigliani ghost.
When the sculptures started, I would get them by e-mail. [Andy and I] were both in Canada, and I would critique them with him, I would say “more feminine” or “less feminine”, [tweak] the nose… [Still], the concept came out of him from the start.
The idea for the insects, for example… Originally they were not moths, I don’t remember what it was, flies? He said we had to have moths, because moths have more the texture that he wanted on Mama.
That sort of tattered quality…
Right, that sort of woody, earthy, you know. And they’re freaky.
When the creature was was designed, did you know it was going to be that actor [Javier Botet] performing it?
Andy knew Javier, and I plan to use him again in the Strain, and will be using him in Crimson Peak. He’s thinner than [usual GDT character performer] Doug Jones! I am fascinated by thin people.
The “Guillermo Del Toro basketball team”?
[Laughs] Very freaky!
Andy came up with the whole puppetry of the actor. He created these bands for the wrists and the ankles of the actor playing Mama, and the actor would be walking and we would have technicians pulling him. He had cables attached to wrist bands and ankle bands. A lot of people think it’s digital, but it isn’t!
Somebody said to me the only effect I didn’t buy was Mama, the body appeared “too CG.” I said, “it’s a fucking guy!”
Even early on, when you don’t see his face?
Oh, yeah! The only CGI on the Mama creature is the hair.
This actor has a thing called “Marfan syndrome“. Supposedly people think it’s the thing Abraham Lincoln also had. He probably got it from killing vampires!
It’s something that allows you to dislocate all of your joints, so he literally can go with the arm both ways in the same fucking shot. I mean, there’s a shot in the movie where he unbends the arm and you go “what the fuck!” So it looks like CG.
The tests that we did with the actor were more extreme. I’m happy that we didn’t use them because I’m going to use them on The Strain! But he’s capable of so many things.
Andy came up with great ideas. There’s one shot he came up with, when he falls down the stairs, I mean we were talking about the detective Arbogast [shot] in Psycho [GDT flails his arms], you know and you know, it’s the Psycho shot, or The Omen, we were talking about Lee Remick, you know… [these are all traditional shots of falling down stairs]. Andy came up with this method that I was fascinated by – he came up with the idea of shooting upside down, meaning the steps are on top on a rig, and the actor is on a little car being flipped and it looks like [he’s banging his head].
Andy has such a great mind.
The British Television show LUTHER seems to be the sort of keystone of your current and future projects!
Yeah, in many ways.
You got the show’s star Idris Elba in PACIFIC RIM, you got the show creator Neil Cross as a writer for MAMA, you got your next project…
[interrupts]…And Neil Cross re-wrote incredibly well [the] At The Mountains of Madness [script]. And he wrote Midnight Delivery for Brian Kirk…
Is this coincidental or is there something about LUTHER in particular that really spoke to you?
No, what happened was there was a series in the UK called Spooks, and Neal created a couple of the best episodes. My assistant at the time said to me, you know, that guy lives in New Zealand, in Wellington.
And you happened to be down in New Zealand for a few years working on some little film project…
Yeah! I thought, “Oh, I found the perfect guy to have lunch with!”
Neil and I started just as lunch dates. We would talk, and I realized there was somebody very fucking twisted in there.
When Luther came out, and I was blown away. I was amazed at the level of humanity and darkness, and [Neil and I] started collaborating. I knew Idris from Stringer Bell on The Wire, but I always thought he was an American actor. I see him in Luther and I go, “No. Fucking. Way!”
I love his North London accent, and when he came in for Pacific Rim he said “what accent do you want me to do?”, and I said “just do your north London!”, and I wrote the character [that way]. The backstory is not in the movie, but I write the backstories of the characters and I wrote it so he could be North London comfortably.
A great actor.
Can you talk about landing Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for MAMA?
Nikolai is one of those moments in which I went to Andy and said “That’s the guy”. Andy was thinking this, thinking that, I said, “no, you need a guy!”, so that the audience understands why she is sticking with him.
You knew him from GAME OF THRONES? HEADHUNTERS?
Well, I knew him from [both] GoT and Headhunters.
I think he has great warmth and that’s impossible to predict from GoT, and I thought it would be great to show that side of him. He is super because basically he’s playing “the girlfriend” and it’s a very hard part to play. I know it because it was super hard for Guy Pearce to play the girlfriend in Don’t be Afraid, so you need somebody that is able to be warm and casual and make the audience feel at home, but at the same time, he has to be so good looking and so warm and accessible that you understand why she puts up with this shit.
It’s one of those [things] where Andy was not as familiar with him and I said “Dude, trust me on this guy.”
On Jessica, we showed him her footage.
What did you have?
Back then, literally it was a very difficult moment because her representatives knew who she was and knew where she was going to be, so they were like “don’t do a thriller! Don’t do a genre movie!” And at the same time, the studio didn’t know who she was.
So we saw The Debt, which was frozen in the same hell as Don’t be Afraid of the Dark. [Chastain] was not a logical choice back then, it was a lot of effort to convince the studio she was the one, and a lot of effort to convince her camp for her to do the movie.
We ended up meeting and she immediately wanted to play the part. She said, “look, I want to transform. I don’t want to be the girl that I was in The Help, I don’t want to be the girl that I was in The Debt, I want to be completely different.”
I think that [Jessica] is close to the personality of Annabel in the sense that she is incredibly accessible as a person, easy to read, what you see is what you get. She is very “non-actory” in that way. In dealing with her she is very non-actory every day and then snap, she is on, the camera rolls and she goes bang, completely on.
Chastain is also physically looser in MAMA. So many of her roles are about being solid and physically fixed in place, giving very little emotionally and mentally. With the tattoos and the guitar she just has this really interesting interaction with everything that’s around her, and it sort of eventually extends to the young girls.
Andy cast the girls, and the chemistry that developed between [Chastain] and the girls was fantastic. She came in and she said “I don’t want to meet the girls because I want to go through the same distance,” but by the end of the first day they were just piling up and having donuts. It was a love fest.
That allowed Jessica to go to a scene that I consider beautiful, when she starts blowing warmth into the hand of the girl. The only mother that girl has known is cold, the only flesh that that girl has touched is the flesh of a ghost. The girl discovers the warmth of the breath and it is so beautiful. [Chastain] allowed the girl to really smack the shit out of her, and that’s unique.
[Chastain] had the intelligence… I tell you this because an actor can panic and say “oh, it’s a genre [film], so I’m going to make my character super complex and I want a scene where I talk about where I come from and my childhood was this and my father didn’t understand,” whatever. Jessica’s method is fantastic, she goes, “the moment I walk in, what I’m wearing, the way I am tattoos, is going to tell the story”. She knows she doesn’t want a family but she doesn’t need to explain why, and she was smart about that.
She wanted an octopus on her arm because she said “if one of its arms gets trapped, it just leaves it behind, so I’m like that. My character’s like that, if I get trapped in a relationship, I just fucking leave my arm behind”. She rationalized every part of the wardrobe and the costume and everything, she knew what was her favourite band, we knew what records she listened to, we knew what LPs she had in the box. We didn’t need her to, but she was smart about that. Rare.
I think that in these movies a lot of people forget that they need a great lady at the core. You need somebody that is not just a scream-Queen. You need somebody that understands the character in all three dimensions.
The character is very important in the movie because one thing we all agreed upon is that we didn’t want her to become a mother. It would be completely hypocritical to make a movie that says motherhood is monstrous and then have her become a mother. She literally bonds with one of the girls, bonds with the other one, but she bonds woman to woman, you know? She never mothers them.
She actively resists it.
Yes, even when she’s feeding them, it’s like “oh yeah!” [throwing food]
She even slaps them on the head
She’s like a pal. But she’s nevertheless heroic at the end.
What do you look for in casting kids?
In this case, Andy narrowed it down to 7 or 8 kids, and then we narrowed it down even further. Even then, I would have gone very different with the kids. I would have gone with kids that looked more like kids from the short – dark hair, dark eyes, because I find dark eyes and dark hair have a mystery. Andy wanted them to be blonde and be physically very different from each other.
I always thought they should be like twins, so you know, completely different.
You like Kubrick too much. That’s your problem!
Probably! [Laughs] Only in the fact that I have a beard!
The thing with [casting] kids, you look for [those] that can play. Acting is just playing.
When you’re a kid you say “I’m a cowboy, I’m an Indian,” and you never discuss it again. You never say “What’s my motivation? Am I the chief of the Indians or am I the hunter?” You play.
With kid [actors] it’s the same, [those] that can physically feel like they’re there. With these kids you physically feel like they’re there and these kids are remarkable. They feel like they are real.
The worst thing you can do is cast a “child actor.” When they come into the audition and the mother is like “don’t forget dear, say hello and be courteous” and all that. it’s horrible. When the kid goes into acting mode, it’s horrifying.
Just going back to Jessica, it’s so interesting that she really made the role her own. How does Annabel as she portrays her compare to what was on the page?
A great actor can understand what’s on the page and make it sing.
When we do a read-through of a screenplay, if a good actor hits one of your lines, you say “I’m a great writer! Oh my god, how good am I?” But when a bad actor hits the same line or a different line and you go “holy fuck, who’s going to deliver this shit!?” It’s like that. It’s an alchemy.
What I think is really great is an actor trying to say, “look, I’m going to serve the part”. The wrong thing for an actor in any movie, especially a genre movie, is to have an agenda, to say “OK, this is what is not on the page, and I need it.” The movie starts changing, balancing towards the actor rather than the story. So, all I can say is she’s close to what is on the page, except [with her] it sings.
I want to talk to you about music in your films. In your own works, it’s there, but tends not to be as showy as in other works.
I think with Pacific Rim I’m doing stuff a little different because I caught myself doing stuff in the movies I’ve done that I’m not happy with. I like the idea of starting with no music and designing the sound, and then you go to the mixing room, and that’s when both of them live together and you end up realizing that it’s not a waltz, it’s a tango. One of them needs to lead, and it’s very hard to bet.
It’s very easy to fall on the side of music and let music lead. Curiously enough on Pacific Rim, I’m very consciously making those choices now, before I’m in the mixing room, where I let sound design lead on this one scene to make it real.
Music will make it emotionally real in a way that if you have a good composer it doesn’t qualify, but if you have anything less it qualifies, and really it’s a hard choice. I think the perfect scores in all the movies I’ve the done are the scores for Pan’s Labyrinth and [laughs] the one in Mimic!
The others, they have good, great parts, and parts where I shouldn’t have used music, so I’m not as happy.
The Devil’s Backbone has a great score, but I think [Javier Navarrete] wrote a better score for Pan’s. That’s the one thing where I love, the only thing I can remember in Devil’s Backbone is the part [sings] “la de da”, the ghost’s voice. But Mimic was also a perfect score, it’s I think one of the best Marco [Beltrami] ever wrote
Was the scoring the happiest part of that whole production of MIMIC?
There was no happy part.
Even then, I really I find it is difficult because I am fan of music. I’m a soundtrack lover, so I sometimes, as a director, end up being a soundtrack lover when I shouldn’t be, so that’s a mea culpa. I really don’t think this is an area where I can go that I’m proud of.
I think soundtracks are still the last part of modern filmmaking that use other people’s works in lieu of the own work during the editing process. When Lucas is cutting Star Wars he’s was using WWII footage as a placeholder, but now you’d do that with your own animatics. Temping in music with existing scores has resulted in the charge from some that a lot of film scores sound the same, as you plop the same Zimmer track from X movie in, and then get your composer to mimic it.
Yeah, but that’s a trap, as if everybody is having an affair and a marriage on the side.
This is a bizarre piece of trivia. Ridley Scott bought a cue from Blade II that is in Kingdom of Heaven! If you see Kingdom of Heaven and wait for the credits you’ll see that there is a cue [Ridley Scott] fell in love with to the point of buying it. Michael Mann bought a cue from an [Alejandro González] Iñárritu movie for The Insider. You end up falling in love with a piece of music.
Almodóvar bought a piece from I think it was Ryûichi Sakamoto for Kika . I think sometimes you cannot even get over it because the affair was so strong with that piece of music, but what you try to do is actually when you know who you’re working with, you try to temp with that.
The most famous, the most brutal case of this that we’re talking about is Kubrick temping 2001: A Space Odyssey while Alex North was writing [the eventually unused score].
I’ll give you a real geeky piece of trivia: The track called “Docking” from the 2001 [North] score is actually later put to good use in Dragon’s Lair.
The video game?
No, not the video game, the Matthew Robbins movie
With Ennio Morricone, the rhythm base of an Italian movie called Revolver [Sergio Sollima, 1973] Revolver, which is amazing and with Oliver Reed. There’s this rhythm [sings “ta…. tatatat a, ta tata”] which is The Untouchables.
This becomes a geeky pursuit.
If you rip off a shot, or pay homage to a shot, it’s made much more explicit, whereas scores tend to be either incredibly bombastic or incredibly repetitive and derivative
Tarantino gets around this through his use of source music, for the most part, although in DJANGO UNCHAINED he changed that slightly.
Yeah, and also in Inglorious Basterds he just put soundtrack [cues from other films]. I think that’s valid because you’re talking somebody for who every movie is a love letter to cinema, period. He is is the only case I think that is not just doing meta, that’s life for him. I think cinema is life, there’s no distinction.
There’s not a guy that’s escaping…cinema is life, end of discussion. Therefore, I think without cinema the world would not make sense for Quentin. It’s beyond a wink and a nod or a post-modern approach, that’s coming completely from the gut.
You should get Goblin back together, now that Dario’s not using them.
The other day I was listening to the score of Zombie, the Fulci movie, it’s Goblin-esque, without a doubt.
Did you get to see Looper?
There’s my every movie movie.
Well, I’ll tell you this, Rian came to see Pacific Rim, he saw the whole thing, because we may be doing a project together. “The Fly” [episode of Breaking Bad] is the best “bottle episode” ever! A cool guy, he said about PacRim “I felt exactly as a kid playing with my robots and my monsters, clashing…”
I’m going to ask a really complicated question.
Please. Not about Frenzy! [laughs]
I’m fascinated by films like MAMA because I think in some ways, while financially they wouldn’t do as well, I think critically they would do better if they were in Spanish.
It’s funny, when we started, I wanted the movie [to be] in Spanish. And I said to Andy, let’s do it in Spain.
Andy wanted it in English. I gave him the choice. I said, “Look, we have two models. We have the model where we don’t get the money, but you can do whatever the fuck you want, or the second one, where we go into a system. I’m going be your safeguard, but you’re still going to encounter a system of approvals and 20 times more people are involved in every step. You get notes, you get all these things.”
He said, “I want the second experience. The first experience I’ve had on my commercials, I’ve had on my short films.” He definitely chose. All I can do as a producer is follow the director’s choices, you know?
You’re obviously bilingual, so when you see a Spanish film, it’s just a film to you. For us, a North American audience, there’s a certain cachet about it being “different” or “foreign.” I think PAN’S LABYRINTH, independent of its subject matter, by being Spanish, by being a subtitled film, played extremely different from something which you said was equally personal like some of your bigger, more bombastic genre films.
Well, it happens the other way. For example, in Europe, the American films have that fascination in reverse. I don’t disagree. I always say that Danny DeVito’s War of the Roses, if it was in French, in France it would be considered a masterpiece.
Or if COSMOPOLIS was subtitled like HOLY MOTORS
I didn’t happen to love COSMOPOLIS, but Cronenberg is someone who I think would have even more cachet in America if he was “foreign.”
You know why? I think that the moment you have the subtitles you start appreciating the nuance in the genres in a different way.
Let me put it this way: When you see Alain Delon in a crime thriller [ie., Melville’s Le Samourï], you can shoot exactly the same moment with Matt Damon in English, and you’re assuming it’s an American movie, and you appreciate the nuance differently.
When it’s Alain Delon you pay attention to every inflection on the genre: Oh, they didn’t do this, oh they did that, and all the choices that are different. They flesh out because you’re already accepting you’re seeing a literally foreign experience.
…Starting with the decision not to do in the lingua franca of “talkie” cinema, English.
Correct. By the same token, if Pan’s Labyrinth, exactly the same actors, exactly the same story, was in English, meaning, it was one of these Euro trash movies that end up, you know — It’s a story about the survivor of a Czech family but it’s done with x actor and x actress that do TV movies, whatever, it acquires a completely different weight.
You know, it’s an English actor playing the Nazi, it’s completely different.
I think in the meta level of cinema, it’s not only postmodern this or that, we as an audience have a relationship with nuance like that. A foreign film is a foreign film, and you are more open [with Mama] to Andy choosing to go all the way to grabbing the closet and then closing the door. Which is the opposite of [expectation] – normally she would open it and there would be nothing behind it. He goes, “no!” Or you pay attention to the shot where she is fighting with the blanket, which is a static shot. You go, “that’s a European choice,” but now if it’s in English, you may not pay attention to all that. It’s just a horror movie.
I adore THE DEPARTED, and as much as I like the original INFERNAL AFFAIRS, I think that Scorsese just absolutely elevated that story to a greater level. Yes, it won best picture, yes it got acclaim, but there’s still many people that I think prefer the Hong Kong version in part because of exactly what you’re talking about, that whole notion that when it’s subtitled you’re watching different things as a genre film.
Well, they are different, completely different movies many ways, with the same anecdotes. When people complain about remakes and this and that and you go, if you really know your history of cinema, it’s always been like that..
I’d just point to a certain Falcon from Malta.
Yeah! I always quote the fact that Gaslight , the fabulous movie with Ingrid Bergman, was a remake of a movie that had been done four years ago! It was a reboot, so to speak.
I always say that’s exclusive to the world of movies that we can be that snarky, because in reality, if every time a motherfucker puts Macbeth or Hamlet on the stage and had it called a remake, then there would be derision.
It’s not an anecdote business, we’re not in the business of telling anecdotes or storylines. We’re in the business of so much more. The same exact storyline can produce a completely different movie in the hands of a different director.
I find it irritating.
It’s completely understandable that the first point of contact with a movie is story and plot and characters, I agree, no doubt about it. But movies sometimes stay for the other things that you didn’t notice — the character, the world, the colours, the design, the design sensibility, the tone, other things that you don’t notice on the first viewing. That is what makes movies movies, and not a written thing that is immutable. Whoever reads a book, the text is not going to change, at the end of the day. But watching a movie, a different director means a different thing. Even in music – for me, a symphony conducted by X or by Y, they sound completely different. It’s not that it reinvents the work, but it certainly makes you appreciate it in a different way.
That being said, what do you watch and think I really want to do this film for myself?
Movies? I was really envious of Let the Right One In. I mean, I watched that movie and I was just like, “Fuck!” I called him to say I saw it, I gave them a quote and I told him, I said, “Dude, motherfucker, I hate you,!” I mean, like, I would kill for that, you know.
Then there’s Shaun of the Dead. I don’t want to redo it, but Edgar Wright has such an incredible filmic vocabulary that it creates envy, and I’m, like, “Fuck!”
For me it always goes back to this – I was in high school, reading Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN. It’s the first work I ever read that I thought, wow, this is me, like if I was in this position, it’s what I’d write. I could never write HAMLET, but if I was in a position, this fits with my sensibility…
This is the best version of me.
I’m wondering if there’s film that, even classic films that you think like this…
Phantom of the Paradise.
Sure. Which is why I think you’re crazy!
[Laughs] Or obviously for me The Curse of the Werewolf . It’s funny because that movie is based on an incredible novel called “The Werewolf of Paris,” which is amazing, completely different from the movie. It’s basically an S&M relationship between a werewolf and a girl that likes to be eaten.
It’s an amazingly destructive romance, and when I read the novel, I read it after seeing the movie, which is my favourite werewolf in the history of cinema. I have him, in the big house, life-size, in silicone, in the man cave, and this movie I would like to have done.
I would have loved to have worked with Oliver Reed! Fucking Ken Russell! [I look at] The Devils  and [Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film] Don’t Look Now and I go, holy fuck!
Funny enough, I always wanted to do a noir. One of my biggest libraries contains [noir writers like] James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Sax Rhomer, Cornell Woolrich… I wanted to do a crime movie, and then I saw Reservoir Dogs and I said, “Oh fuck it, it’s taken.”
I literally was thinking, there’s a lot of the dialogue like the Bonanza conversation from Barry Levinson’s Diner, in Reservoir Dogs in a way. It’s a meta-absorption of the “Barry Levinson’s inconsequential conversation” – [Levinson] is the first one that really did it in cinema.
I always wanted to show those sort of non glamorous sides of the noir, like what Hitchcock does with the assassination of Gromek in Torn Curtain, the fact that, when you get into a fist fight, it’s messy and pathetic. There’s two guys fighting and grabbing, your belly pops out and it’s sad. I wanted to sort of do assassinations like that, and then Reservoir Dogs comes in and I go, “oh, that’s the best version of that.”
But one day I would love to do a noir.
I think that at this point [I’d do it in colour]. Chinatown and L.A. Confidential are certainly “California noir.” One of my favourite movies you saw [at BNAT], Nightmare Alley ! Nightmare Alley is a fucking masterpiece. Crazy, and the fucking ending is like, “What? No fucking way!”
It’s interesting you mention Levinson, as for me he absolutely fits in with a sort of not-so-secret history of Hollywood. The guy is still very much underappreciated. Because from DINER you get RESERVOIR DOGS, while from HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS you get the aesthetic of Von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES
The Natural is fucking amazing! Tin Men… I mean, he was in a state of grace for “X” period, you know, and he’s still solid.
I liked the biography of Kavorkian he did with Pacino, it was pretty good. It had great moments in it. He’s a great filmmaker. Avalon? Mind-boggling. Him and Randy Newman — Holy fucking shit.
Since we’ve got the extra time, I do have to ask you what you thought of THE HOBBIT.
I haven’t seen it. Between Mama, Rise of the Guardians and Pacific Rim, I’m seeing it in the next week.
Since it was broached, when I interviewed Richard Armitage and Peter Jackson when they were at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, I asked them specifically how much Guillermo is in the film. Armitage pointed out he felt that there are certain elements that definitely are left over. Are there elements that you would still like to see left in THE HOBBIT, as part of the unified “Guillermo Del Toro film”?
You know, I really think it’s better for me to come to a conclusion retrospectively, rather than right now, because I haven’t seen it.
I read the script, because when the guild goes to arbitration they send the screenplay to everyone, final script, so I know there’s stuff that we did together that is there.
Tonally, I think that it’ll be different, but the more important thing is it happened, finally! I think it’s in the right hands so I’m happy for that, happy for Peter, happy for the success.
It’s the moment you make the decision. You say, “I’m leaving the country, I’m going to do other stuff.” You cannot spend your nights thinking what could have been, it’s like gone.
Forgive me for pushing this, I’m not at all suggesting as a term of regret or anything like that, I’m just wondering, were there times during that development stage where you felt yourself trying to inject your sensibilities into the world of Tolkien.
Yeah, but not like that.
I identify with Bilbo, completely. I knew that there was something in Bilbo that Gandalf once saw that he used to have, a life, and it was not there anymore and this was going to make him find it again. The world was not in his maps and his books, it was out there, stuff like that.
It certainly is just the way I go at every character. I identify with Charlie in Pacific Rim. I identify with Hellboy 100%.
It’s like what you do when you go and make a movie, is identify with a little bit of every character. I mean, I can be an asshole like the captain in Pan’s Labyrinth – I’m not extreme like him, but I can recognize the worst traits of myself in the villains. I identify with Rasputin in Hellboy, I identify with [the character] Broom.
In order to puppeteer, you have to get your hand up the ass of the puppet, every puppet in the theatre. You cannot puppeteer from afar, so you go basically and write the characters from inside.
Rightly or wrongly, HELLBOY, for me, is yours. As a non-comic book guy, HELLBOY – the character, the aesthetic – all of it for me is Guillermo del Toro. Inevitably, your hand’s in the puppet, as you said, but when you’re against forces for PACIFIC RIM that are going to compare you to MACROSS, say, or pushing you to be (or not be) TRANSFORMERS, it must be a challenge.
Well, you don’t think like that, I don’t think like that, but let me put it this way. Aesthetically, I use Transformers in order to not be even remotely close to that aesthetic. That’s taken, that’s somebody else’s house. I am not going to cook in somebody else’s kitchen.
Not because it’s bad or good.
No, it’s not because I’m qualifying it. I’m just saying that parking space is taken, that’s it. So the aesthetic from which Michael Bay evolves comes partially from the aesthetic of Tony Scott’s maybe and partially from Cameron’s perhaps- but it’s now his. The “full monty”… There are things that can be traced, but by now Michael Bay has a strong aesthetic all of his own now and it’s based on a very conscious design of glossy cool fluorescence, polished metals, this and that.
When I went to Pacific Rim, I went with a very romantic palette like windswept, rainstorms, saturated colours, a huge base of blacks. Everything is rusty, beaten, used, and dinged. It feels used. Everything is dripping or smoking or drenched in liquids. It’s the thing I do with my stuff.
The juxtaposition of cyan with amber and all the stuff that I love to do, I saturate it, I make it feel like what I love about the Alexander Korda movies, which were saturated in colour. [I’m] consciously moving away from that, and in every aspect of the movie I move away from the things that people would codify. People will say with these kind of movies there’s [hints] of Godzilla, Transformers … those are their points of reference and that’s OK. I tried to not quote at all in Pacific Rim, just my own take and that of my team. We all love anime, yes, love Kaiju films, yes,but we wanted to make a movie without direct quotes.
It’s my take on the thing in the same way that when I did Blade II – I looked at the Norrington movie, which I admired and loved, and I said, “OK, I’m gonna do something else!”
With MAMA, what, if anything, were you consciously choosing to quote or not quote?
I’m the producer, I’m not quoting. I mean, I’m supporting a guy that may quote or not quote.
Along these lines, have you thought about your approach to [future project for Disney] THE HAUNTED MANSION, how you’re going to take on that aesthetic?
Haunted Mansion [the theme park experience] was born out of the clash of two sensibilities. By the time the haunted mansion opened, Walt Disney was dead.
The Mansion was birthed out of Mark Davis’ initial impulse of making it funny. And then you had a different sensibility [from Rollie Crump] that wanted to make it scary, and the clash of those two ended up. Normally what would happen is at the end of the day, Disney would intercede and balance the funny and the scary. Since Disney was not there to intercede, it’s a clash, and it produces the unique thing that the Mansion is, which is [both] funny and scary. But it should be scary, but it should be beautiful. It’s a world you want to belong to.
It’s like a house, I want to live there. You really want to join the ghosts!
I’m writing and I’m certainly producing with them, but if I directed it would be a very close to [that balance]. We went back to the Disney archives. They opened the archives for us and I spent a day in the vault.
I’m sure you didn’t enjoy that at all.
I literally went through all the concept art, used and unused, by all the concept guys at Disney. I saw a lot of stuff that was not used in the Mansion that was great. I also saw a little bit of the basic coding of the thing, the colour coding and all that. It was very precise. At this stage we are changing our writer, we’re getting another writer to do a pass. It’s still very active.
You’re so busy, yet you make the time to help aspiring filmmakers and first time filmmakers. Why is it important to you and what do you like about it?
Because people did that for me when I was starting!
Bertha Navarro, who produced Chronos… People knew me as a person who did weird shorts and was a makeup effects guy. She believed in me, and she helped me in the best way. Pedro Almodóvar produced The Devil’s Backbone in the way I like to be produced. They gave me the best producer experience I have had in Spanish – Bertha and Almodóvar together doing Devil’s Backbone was amazing.
It was right after Mimic. I was suicidal. It was during the kidnapping of my father when Pedro came to Mexico. We met before, but he came to Mexico right in the middle of the kidnapping and it was an escape, literally. If you get that, you want to give it back.
In the 20 movies that I’ve done, I have good and bad experiences producing. There’s movies that no one has seen. There’s a movie I’m very, very proud of that I co-produced with Alfonso called Crónicas with John Leguizamo [2004, retitled as Chronicles and directed by Sebastián Cordero]. It’s a great movie, nobody has seen it!
It’s about a serial killer, but it’s really, really a mean guy. It was a great experience, very beautiful.
There are other movies that have been terrible experiences where I kneel… I know that I’m right, and I kneel [to beg them to do something]l, and the [director] says “No!” I say, “OK, it’s your last word,” and then the movie doesn’t come out good.
But still, every single time, I’ve been respectful. Even in the most extreme circumstances. As Brad Pitt says in Thelma and Louise, “if handled properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.”
I saw from the Criterion New Year’s doodle that a certain diabolic backbone-themed film is coming out…
Yeah, I’m so happy because it’s my favourite movie of the Spanish language.
I’ve never seen it!
Every time someone says to me “I love Pan’s Labyrinth,” I always say “have you seen The Devil’s Backbone? It’s not that it’s a better or worse movie, for me. It’s just I like it maybe because the experience of shooting Pan’s was so difficult, and the experience of shooting Backbone was so nice.
It’s a lot more subtle in many ways. Pan’s is a lot more flashy, it has more things to display and all that, but The Devil’s Backbone is so difficult, tonally and it requires a lot of work and is ambitious in a different way. I’m so so happy it’s coming out on Criterion
I jealously watched your visit to their magic closet of wonder! Do you still spend time between producing all these films delving into classic films, even into the on-disc supplemental materials?
Two days ago I was watching They Drive By Night [1940, Raoul Walsh]. You can never bathe in the same river twice, and you never see the same movie twice. When you’re older and you revisit a movie that you saw as a kid, you go, “Wow! I didn’t remember it at all!”
The only movies I realize that I remember exactly as they are are Frankenstein  and Bride of Frankenstein . I took my daughters to The Academy [theatre in LA], and they showed brand new prints. I’ve never seen Frankenstein on a huge screen, I’d only seen it on TV, and I was like “Wow!” It’s amazing! We saw Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3D – the girls fell in love with “Gill-man,” which was great!
About a week ago I saw To Have and Have Not again, so, no, I have the time. Then again, on the way here, I saw The Dictator! [laughs]
No, it’s great too! I see at least a movie every day, at least. Sometimes, if I’m revisiting something, I don’t revisit it the whole way, but I would look at 30-40 minutes. And then there are movies that I call “one sock movies,” because they’re the kind of movies that you’re putting on, you’re going out, you put on one sock, and then you start watching and you stay and start watching with the sock you were supposed to put on.
Some of them I watch compulsively. The Big Lebowski, that’s a one sock movie. No matter where you are, what part of the movie you are caught, you stop and you watch it.
[There’s also Scorsese’s] Casino. People say “Oh, Casino” [comparing it negatively to Goodfellas]. Casino for me is superior. Not just superior…Amazing! Some it’s lesser, but it’s great, and it’s a one sock movie. You literally like, stop [and watch the film].
Sharon Stone is in such a state of grace.
I’ve always argued she deserved a Nobel Prize for giving even a fake blowjob to Pesci.
I love the fact that Pesci is narrating and then it just… stops! [Laughs] I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point.
Thanks once again to Guillermo del Toro for being so extraordinarily generous with his time.
Originally appeared in a series of five articles at Twitchfilm.com