Guillermo del Toro doesn’t half-ass anything. From immaculately crafted sets and carefully thought out color patterns to a web of intertextual allusions that extend his visual storytelling, he’s a world-builder who pays attention to the smallest detail. Living in a house that doubles as a shrine to all things fantastical he’s surrounded by a collection of monster memorabilia and thousands of books, the majority of which he has read and internalized. Del Toro is a vessel of knowledge and yet, one of the first things you’ll notice when meeting him is a total lack of conceitedness. The opposite of an intimidating presence, he’s as welcoming as his films and a person for whom the phrase ‘generosity of spirit’ was seemingly invented.
Naturally then, when del Toro visited Belgium as the guest of honor at the 36th edition of the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival he did a lot more than pick up his Silver Raven for Cronos (an award which he won back in 1994 but never received on account of a shipping error). He would honor the BIFFF tradition of treating the audience to a chanson in a way that none have before: backed by a mariachi band and bringing the place down with his version of the Mexican classic “Cielito Lindo”, before preaching the value of making fantastic cinema to an enraptured crowd during a two hour masterclass.
Prior to the evening festivities we got to speak to the fabulistic monster aficionado. We picked up where his previous conversation ended, with del Toro explaining how fantasy connects him to reality, how parable and fable allow for abstraction, and how monsters are perfect metaphors for discussing difference because they embody Otherness: “that’s their beauty”.
[The interview below contains spoilers for Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and The Shape of Water]
ScreenAnarchy: First of all, congratulations on a very successful year, the many awards for THE SHAPE OF WATER but also on your recently announced continued partnership with Fox Searchlight.
Guillermo del Toro: Oh yes, I’m very happy about that.
It sounds like a match made in heaven.
It’s great because it allows me to create a system of support for first-time filmmakers both with the genre label, and with filmmakers who don’t normally work in genre. I want to invite them to do genre, like in the case of Scott Cooper with Antlers. He’s a filmmaker that can bring a real sense of menace and dread.
In addition to this being a big year for you, 2018 also marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Considering how much of an impact her novel had on you, it must’ve been a great honor when last year you got to write the intro to Leslie Klinger’s THE NEW ANNOTATED FRANKENSTEIN.
Of course it was.
Was it difficult to write an essay about a person you admire greatly?
Yes and no because, first of all, Leslie’s book is so thorough that it was very hard to not say what was already said in the book. But what is important and the only thing I know: this is a remarkable work because I’m a 53-year-old Mexican man in the 21st century and I’m affected by the words of a 19-year-old that wrote a book hundreds of years ago. That is a testament to her power and her sincerity and how much that book is truly autobiographical to her in many tragic ways, you know? How she is the creature, how she is the doctor, how she is representing herself and the universe as she understands it is a monumental work … I loved doing it.
You also praised Shelley as a rebellious spirit, someone who couldn’t be contained by the constraints of her time. That transgressive spirit very much lives on in your films, which have also often reminded me of the writings of Angela Carter in the manner in which you draw from disparate sources and recontextualize and reimagine the received.
Angela Carter has an incredibly articulate and incredibly reconstructive way of looking at fairy tales. She uses that matrix in a way that is very original and very powerful. I think that when you take a fairy tale and you take the social, Jungian, philosophical and artistic aspects of that medium, subgenre or whatever you wanna call it, and you translate it to your medium is really rewarding because I think there are fairy tale elements in all of my movies. It can be Pacific Rim, Cronos or The Shape of Water ... there’s elements of fairy tales everywhere. I think it’s a very beautiful thing what Carter does and I admire her.
In NOTES FROM THE FRONTLINE (1983) Carter wrote: “Most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode.” That strikes me as instantly applicable to, for instance, THE SHAPE OF WATER.
That could very well be. I mean I absolutely feel that way because obviously when we talk about the new and the old, nothing is really new and by the same token nothing is really old. So if you assume that you are not discovering new colors but that you are combining them in a completely new way, that is possible. You’re not going to invent a new color but you can invent a new combination. I think when you approach a movie like The Shape of Water, you don’t want to ‘quote’ another B horror movie. You want to quote a musical, a melodrama and that combination, which normally is not done, makes it very powerful.
When did you first become interested in challenging the certainties found in old narratives?
From the beginning. After I did my short films and I started planning Cronos I wanted Cronos to be ‘counter’ to every vampire film I had ever seen, with the exception of Martin. I thought Romero’s Martin was very close to what I would like to do in Cronos because you’re feeling pity for the vampire.
Given the day and age that we live in, with radicalization being a go-to reaction, do you feel a greater responsibility of going against the grain? Of addressing politics through fantasy and destabilizing binary thinking?
I think it is always important and it has been since at least The Devil’s Backbone, even in Cronos I would say. But I don’t think you should make it your primary concern. We gotta be careful that the first concern is narrative.
You have often used fantasy as a means of commenting on historical events, specifically insofar as these historical events don’t exclusively pertain to the past but remain present as open wounds. In THE SHAPE OF WATER ‘time’ is also something very fluid …
Something that exists on a continuum that can’t easily be compartmentalized into past, present and future insofar as it’s a film set in the sixties, with themes that are relevant today while also being concerned with what tomorrow could look like.
Was this notion present from the beginning? Making a film that simultaneously feels timeless and timely?
Yes, always been, because when you do a movie about the past, for it to really have a value you need to make it about the past that is still relevant in the present, meaning: if the wounds of the Civil War in Spain have healed completely and there was no rift in society because of it why make The Devil’s Backbone? But if you think like I do, that the wounds of the Civil War in Spain have never completely healed, then it’s important to do movies that are fabulations or parables of that.
In the same manner I started making The Shape of Water before Trump was elected but as a Mexican I felt already the tension that was building up socially. You make a movie about 1962 but you’re really making it about today, you know? So in that way you only make the past urgent if it is urgent in the present.
There’s a terrific quote in THE SHAPE OF WATER: “time is but a river flowing from our past”.
Which is constant. That’s in Cronos, it’s in The Shape of Water and in my other movies too.
Is it pessimistic because we keep repeating the same mistakes? Or optimistic because you feel there are lessons to be gleaned from looking back?
The idea in The Shape of Water is that there are characters that are obsessed with the past, like Giles. Giles is thinking ‘when I was young, I was beautiful and I was free and perfect and the movies that I like are the ones with Shirley Temple or Jimmy Cagney. They’re all in the past and I don’t wanna see the present. I don’t wanna see the news, I don’t wanna see all that and take responsibility’.
Then you have the other side, which is interested in the future and they say ‘I want to win the Space Race, and everything is modern, I’m the man of the future, I want a great car, I want a TV.’ It’s all about the Space Race and the future and they don’t see the present either.
The only two characters that are constantly in the present, floating in the present, are Elisa and the River God. The comment of the movie is about that and about how she is constantly under the clock …
I noticed several close-ups of clocks on the wall, watches, punch cards, timers in the first forty minutes.
Yeah, but she is immune to it. That was very important for me, that she never arrives early and Zelda saying ‘You should arrive early, come on!’ but she never does. The only time she looks at her watch, really, is when she’s trying to rescue the creature [Laughs]. Because it matters to her, you know? But all the rest of the time, she’s free of those concerns.
Taking into account your veneration for James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN and also given the fact that THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was a direct influence, did you ever consider shooting your latest in black and white?
Yes, at one point we pitched it to Searchlight like that but they thought it was going to make the movie impossible to market. They said, ‘Look we’re going to have problems and should shoot in color anyway because we don’t wanna lose the Asian market, the Middle East’ and this and that. They don’t buy black and white. And I thought ‘You know what? Let’s just make it beautiful in color and make it count’.
Tomorrow at 2pm the retrospective screening of CRONOS starts here at BIFFF. I was wondering how now, all those years later, you look back on your first film and how you personally feel that your style as a filmmaker has evolved?
Well, the instruments that you have to make a movie … as a filmmaker you become infinitely more sophisticated but if you see Cronos and The Shape of Water and realize that they are both about time, both about timelessness, and about a protagonist that is silent and both are about the monster being monstrous but not being feared but loved and cared for, and one is a vampire that sleeps in a toybox and the other one is a creature that sleeps in a bathtub, and they are so similar, so similar that it’s almost shocking … What is beautiful is that the essence of a filmmaker is the same but the tools by which that filmmaker expresses himself are far more sophisticated now than then.
You consider THE SHAPE OF WATER your most accomplished work to date. How did you come up with the film’s final image and does it represent transformation for you? A moment where Elisa’s scars are touched by the River God, becoming gills and imbuing her with life once more?
The way I interpreted it is ‘they were always gills’ [Laughs]. That’s my own, and doesn’t need to be the definitive [interpretation] … When I was calibrating the movie, I was talking to Sally Hawkins and I had this idea of the scars turning into gills and she talked to me about the idea that maybe the scars were always gills, you know? And I thought that was a great idea from her because … a love never transforms. If it’s real love it just reveals the nature of the other. That’s why ‘the beast’ doesn’t transform into a prince. It’s important for me that it reveals what she really always was, which was a river creature. That’s why she was found in the water, why she had these scars since she was a baby, why she cooks in the water, masturbates in the water, and dreams of water … She was always meant to be in the water.
The final image, I felt, was the true moment of magic of the film. The image of her leaving the material world behind with the red shoe falling away … And it was digital, you know, because they were not in water, they were floating in wires, dry-for-wet, and I thought the shoe floating away could make for a very precise, very poetic, very painterly image; the two of them floating in the water.
With a gorgeous poem as well, delivered by the narrator. What is the exact source of that poem?
Originally the movie ended with another voiceover by Giles that said ‘Did they live happily ever after? I think they did’ and he said something very nice but it wasn’t the poem. Then we were shooting and I found a book about illuminated Persian poets, and it was called The Book About Nothing or The Book of Nothing, I don’t remember the title … But the poem is credited in the movie, it’s in the titles. I read this poem in this book and I said: ‘This is the ending of the movie’.
One final question before heading out: How excited are you about Jordan Peele’s and J.J. Abrams’ upcoming LOVECRAFT COUNTRY tv-series and, hypothetically speaking, if you were offered the chance to direct an episode, would you take it?
I love it. I think that anybody doing Lovecraft is great and J.J. and I have been friends for 27 years and I know he loves Lovecraft so he is going to make something terrific with Jordan. And Jordan and I became friends as well. I’m looking forward to it. I myself will approach Lovecraft at one point or another in my career but I’d rather do it in my own anthology or my own movie.
It’s great to hear that you haven’t given up on that considering AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was a pet project of yours that had been in development for a long time and unfortunately fell through. I hope it comes to fruition.
A few hours after our interview, Guillermo del Toro was warmly embraced by likeminded souls of the fantastic film festival circuit. Treated to a standing ovation at BIFFF, his optimism, love of poetry and all things beautiful shone through in his rendition of "Cielito Lindo", which we would be remiss not to include below. "Canta y no llores ... Viva Méjico cabrón!"