I met up with Guillermo Del Toro at the Ritz Carlton for a brief chat about his latest film Pan's Labyrinth. Without question, Del Toro has been one of the individuals I have most wanted to talk with all year. I didn't have access at Toronto and wasn't able to attend San Diego's Comicon as originally planned and so the opportunity to hook up today felt very much like a gift for the holiday season. Guillermo is friendly, down-to-earth and charmingly cusses a blue streak. Not for the prudish nor the spoiler-wary.
Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on winning the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Language film earlier this week.
Guillermo Del Toro: I love it.
MG: As well as comparable accolades and nominations across the board, including the recently-announced Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Del Toro: It's just fantastic.
MG: …and well-deserved. Pan's Labyrinth is certainly my favorite movie of the year.
Del Toro: Fuckin' A!
MG: Foreign-language, whatever, it is my favorite movie of the year; a truly visionary piece.
Del Toro: Thank you.
MG: I first saw Pan's Labyrinth at the Elgin Theater during the Toronto International where you and Ivana Baquero introduced the film, then again here in San Francisco, and will be seeing it again this evening at the San Francisco Film Society screening.
Del Toro: You're going to see it again tonight?
Del Toro: That's great. Because I think one of the things the movie has, hopefully, is every time you see it there's little details that [surface].
MG: That's what I've noticed so far; it's rich in detail. Pan's Labyrinth is textured with redemptive transgression. Can you speak to why doing the wrong thing ends up being so right?
Del Toro: I love the way you put it. There's a song by Rufus Wainwright—"Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk" it's called, I think—and it says, "Why is it that everything I like is a little bad for me?" Instinct will guide you more than intellect towards what's right for you and actually more naturally right. Disobedience is one of the strongest signals of your conscience of what is right and what is wrong. When you disobey in an intelligent way, you disobey in a natural way, it turns out to be more beneficial than blind obedience. Blind obedience castrates, negates, hides, and destroys what makes us human. On the other hand, instinct and disobedience will always point you in a direction that should be natural, should be organic to the world. So I think that disobedience is a virtue and blind obedience is a sin.
MG: Why do you eroticize cruelty? Your villains are thrillingly virile. First, Eduardo Noriega in The Devil's Backbone; now, Sergi López in Pan's Labyrinth. You've made it near to impossible for me—a queer-identified male—to trust a handsome stud! [Guillermo laughs.] At the least you have revealed to me that—if I'm going to go out on the town tonight—I really would rather leave Dr. Jeckyl in the lab and go out with fucking Mr. Hyde. [Guillermo laughs again.]
Del Toro: Well, it's the revenge of the guy who grew up being a chubby, not-very-attractive guy. That's the revenge of the nerd. One of the dangers of fascism and one of the dangers of true evil in our world—which I believe exists—is that it's very attractive. That it is incredibly attractive in a way that most people negate. Most people make their villains ugly and nasty and I think, no, fascism has a whole concept of design, and a whole concept of uniforms and set design that made it attractive to the weak-willed. I tried to make Sergi López like all politicians that are truly evil—well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken, gets up from his chair when a lady enters the room, gets up from his chair when a lady leaves the room. I'd much rather be with a slob that is cool. It's very rarely that when somebody is that worried about the outward appearance, there's something truly truly wrong within. The opposite is often true. When people aren't comfortable just being in their normal level, just being—I don't have a cool pair of shoes, I don't have a cool pair of pants, but I'm all right—that's actually a sign of comfort, that something's at peace within. Extremes are incredibly powerful in cinema and the fact that this 11-year-old girl is much more comfortable in her skin than this fascist that hates himself so much that he slits his own throat in the mirror and negates his father's watch and does these crazy things, that gives the girl power and gives the other guy the illusion of power and the choice of cruelty. Choice is key in what we are. You choose to be destructive or you choose to be all encompassing and love-giving. Each choice defines who we are, no matter what the reason behind it is, because everybody values the reason behind the act, or the idea behind the act more than the reason. The idea behind the act, they value it more than the act these days.
MG: The contrast between the two is profound in this film. In your fantastic Guardian interview with Mark Kermode you contrasted the curvilinear, uterine design and the fallopian color palette of Ofelia's fantasy world against the colorless right angles of the fascist world. That comment reminded me of the Austrian painter Hundertwasser who has a line I've long loved: "The straight line is godless."
Del Toro: I agree. What a great line! Who said that?
Del Toro: Oh fuck. Can you write it down for me?
Del Toro: Thank you. The straight lines are an obsession with perfection and perfection is unattainable. Perfection is a conceit. Perfection actually lies in fully loving the defect. I think that's perfection. It's like what the guy says in Hellboy, he says, "We like people for their qualities; we love them for their defects." It's true in life. It's the same. I remember that one of the first reactions that the critics had to Edvard Munch's paintings was that they were technically flawed and "ugly to look at." They were saying, "He not only is a bad painter, he chooses to paint only disgusting subjects." And you go, "What the hell are you talking about?" Humanity is like that. Humanity should be flawed and imperfect and fucked up and loved because of that, not in spite of that, because of that. I remember also the Marquis de Sade who used to say a beautiful line; he said, "I understand murder for passion." He said, "I not only understand it, but I condone it. What I don't understand is murder for an idea. Or for a law. That is perverse." To kill somebody because he broke an idea or he broke a law? I agree with him. When we send somebody to the electric chair because he killed one person but we give a purple heart to somebody because he killed dozens for the "right" idea—patriotism, liberty, democracy, whatever the fuck you want to invent—I find it completely perverse.
MG: It borders on the insane. All of your previous films have a fairly prevalent and overt use of Catholic imagery, but Pan's Labyrinth almost completely avoids it, and yet your friend Iñarrítu said this is probably your most Catholic film.
Del Toro: He said that, yes.
MG: Is the omission of visible Catholic detail just a coincidence? Or was the church's position and sympathies with the Francoists during the civil war something you considered as you planned out the symbolic strategy of the film?
Del Toro: When I was researching the movie The Devil's Backbone, I found the absolutely horrifying—not only complicity—but participation of the Church in the entire fascist movement in Spain. The words that the priest speaks at the table in Pan's Labyrinth are taken verbatim from a speech a priest used to give to the Republican prisoners in a fascist concentration camp. He would come to give them communion and he would say before he left, "Remember, my sons, you should confess what you know because God doesn't care what happens to your bodies; he already saved your souls." This is taken verbatim from that speech. The Pale Man represents the Church for me, y'know? [He] represents fascism and the Church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them. There is almost a hunger to eat innocence. A hunger to eat purity. I didn't want to avoid it, but I did not seek Catholic imagery. Nevertheless, I understand that redemption by blood and the rebirth by sacrifice is a Catholic conceit. So I accept it without any problems because I think that sexuality and religion come from your imprint in an early age. Whatever arouses your spirit or arouses your body at an early age, that's what is going to arouse it the rest of your life. Everything will be subordinate to that. It's a personal choice and it's a personal experience. I don't shame myself about being a lapsed Catholic and so if that cosmology appears in my movies, I'm fine with it.
MG: When I was a student of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, he taught me that it was—in some ways—inappropriate the way kids in the '60s went gaga over Eastern mysticism. They could learn from it. They could enjoy it. But it wasn't really their path no matter how much they wanted it to be and they would always deep down at heart be Christians needing to resolve spiritual issues in a Christian way. Their template—or as you say imprint—had been set.
Del Toro: They will always be a Western man looking at the East. Where your feet stand does not limit your gaze but it does limit what perspective you judge it from.
MG: Your orientation.
Del Toro: I can read all the fucking books about Taoism I want; I'll still be a Catholic boy reading them. There's no way of avoiding that.
MG: Another thematic image that I kept picking up from Pan's Labyrinth involves the relationship between Ofelia and Mercedes. First, you have the stelae in the middle of the labyrinth with the sculpted image of the faun/father, the girl and the baby; then you have Ofelia holding her baby brother; then Ofelia is killed and you have Mercedes holding Ofelia's baby brother. These three images were equivalent for me and served as symbolic substitutes for each other, insinuating a parallel structure between Ofelia and Mercedes. Moreso than between Ofelia and her mother.
Del Toro: You're absofuckinglutely right!! I'm amazed and happy. You win the prize. You're the only fucking guy that has noticed that! I thank you very much. The idea for me is that you're born with a mother and then you find another on the way. You are born with a brother and you find another one on your way. You fabricate your family as you grow up. Mercedes is the future of Ofelia if Ofelia chose to stop believing. Ofelia asks Mercedes, "Do you believe in fairies?" And Mercedes says, "I used to when I was a child. I used to believe many things that I don't believe in any more." That's why the attraction is so strong. They see each other in each other. They see their strength. Mercedes loves the purity of this girl and Ofelia instinctively knows the nature of this woman. They form a mother and daughter bond. That's why it's so tragic for me that Mercedes cries for [Ofelia] at the end because for Mercedes the girl died but we know she didn't. That is very Catholic. [Ofelia] is in a better place within herself. She may objectively cease to exist but this is where I think the epilog of the movie is incredibly important and moving. If you die and your legacy is one little flower blooming in a dry tree, that's enough of a legacy for me. And that's a magical legacy. If she had not done the things she did, the tree would have never bloomed, but, because she did them, there is a little flower blooming. On the other hand, she dies at peace. She dies at peace with what she did. She's the only character in the film who decides not to enact any violence. Not to take any lives. Even the doctor takes a life. But the only one who chooses "I will not take any life because I own only mine", that's the character that survives, spiritually. The fascist dies the loneliest death you could ever experience and the girl … [I'm reminded] of the quote by Kierkegaard that said, "The tyrant's rule ends with his death. The martyr's rule begins with it." It is the legacy—no matter how small it is—that makes [Ofelia] survive that episode. The movie is like a Rorschach test where, if you view it and you don't believe, you'll view the movie as, "Oh, it was all in her head." If you view it as a believer, you'll see clearly where I stand, which is it is real. My last image in the movie is an objective little white flower blooming in a dead tree with the bug watching it. So….
MG: I'm glad to hear you say that. This is the dispute going on among people who have seen your film. Was Ofelia in her fantasy world? Was it a real world? I keep saying such questions pose a false dichotomy.
Del Toro: Yes, of course. And it's intimate. If the movie works as a piece of storytelling, as a piece of artistic creation, it should tell something different to everyone. It should be a matter of personal discussion. Now objectively, the way I structured it, there are three clues in the movie that tell you where I stand. I stand in that it's real. The most important clues are the flower at the end, and the fact that there's no way other than the chalk door to get from the attic to the Captain's office.
MG: Yes, and again referring back to the dynamic of their dyad, Mercedes notices the chalk door; they aren't just in Ofelia's imagination.
Del Toro: Objectively, those two clues tell you it's real. The third clue is she's running away from her stepfather, she reaches a dead end, by the time he shows up she's not there. Because the walls open for her. So sorry, there are clues that tell you where I stand and I stand by the fantasy. Those are objective things if you want. The film is a Rorschach test of where people stand.
MG: In your interview with Will Lawrence for The Telegraph you stated: "There is a moment in everyone's life when they have the chance to be immortal, not literally, but like at the moment they don't give a fuck about death—then they're immortal." Could you talk a little more about that? I thought that was a fascinating comment.
Del Toro: Here's the deal. My father was kidnapped in 1997. He was objectively kept hostage for 72 days, right? The first day you think you're going to die. The second day you're absolutely certain you won't survive. The third day you cry at the drop of a hat because you think this is hell and this and that. And then there comes a point in which you realize that you are made prisoner along with him. You are also a hostage of the hostage situation. There is a moment in which you have to will yourself to be free because you are. You say, "If it is true that he is a prisoner, it is also true I am not." There's a moment where you start functioning again. You have to will it. People think that when they talk about immortality, they talk about immortality in the most pejorative terms. A guy who lives 180 years or 1000 years, that's immortality? It isn't. It's physically impossible. I don't believe in it. But I believe in a form of immortality which is: if you think of your life as a long laundry list of things to do, which is I have to wipe my ass, brush my teeth, change my clothes, get laid, experience oral sex, all this stuff, you have to do it. You have to go through your check list, right? One of them, it says: dying. Why should one of them be more important than the rest? The moment it ceases to be important—your death, not other people's death; I really have a tough time with somebody dying because of the love I feel for them—but in my personal life dying is as unimportant as changing my shoes and my socks or [brushing] my teeth. It's just another thing I have to do. It's part of the laundry list. So at that moment you become somewhat immortal, which means you're immune to death. That is in Pan's Labyrinth actually. If people watch it carefully, the precise wording of the faun's words to the girl is: "You have to pass three tests before the full moon shines in the sky. We have to make sure that your spirit is intact and not become mortal." That's the real purpose of the tests. It's not if she gets the dagger and she gets the key, those are the mechanics of the test, mechanics which she can then proceed to fault. She can flunk the tests. The mechanics of the test she succeeds in. She believes in herself. She does what she thinks is right. She fucks up here and there but—when the real test come, when she is cornered with no other options but to either kill or give her own life—she chooses to put her own life at risk rather than the kid's. That's a real test. That's what makes her immortal. That's what makes her that she has not become a mortal. So [in] the movie all the tests are a misdirection and you actually go back and watch the movie and realize that my thesis is that the Faun is the Pale Man in another guise. He's the trickster in another guise. So is the Faun. And the proof of that in the movie is that at the end when she goes and rejoins her father and her mother and the baby in the other world, the fairies that the Pale Man ate are all around her. The same fairies. I coded them in three colors—green, blue and red—so when they reappear you could know, "Oh, those are the green, blue and red fairies."
MG: I'll watch for that tonight.
Del Toro: Watch for it tonight! The great thing about the movie, the beauty about the movie is that you can watch it many many times and every time you'll find a new little layer and a new little detail.
MG: Well, I wish I had the chance for multiple interviews like I've had the chance for multiple viewings of Pan's Labyrinth. But I need to wrap up. Thank you so much.
Del Toro: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.