Gorber's Epic Guillermo del Toro Interview, Part 2: On Producing and Building a Canon of Work

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Gorber's Epic Guillermo del Toro Interview, Part 2: On Producing and Building a Canon of Work

Scheduled to last a mere 15 minutes, the famously loquacious and erudite filmmaker spent 90 minutes at our roundtable discussion. In this, the second part of our five part series, he talked about his role as a producer, and just what it meant to have a film with his name attached.

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

Please Note: There may be spoilers below for Mama and other works.

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 [CuarĂ³n] 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.

Click here for Part 3

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