(This interview was conducted in 2003 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary DVD release of Cronos, Guillermo del Toro’s first film.)
You know who Guillermo del Toro is, right? If you’re a fan of DVD and horror films, he’s the Dude. You’ve probably listened to his entertaining and informative DVD commentaries or seen him animatedly discussing his films in his featurette interviews. He’s a boisterous and enthusiastic personality, gushing in his Mexican accent about his films and his inspirations.
You’re probably most familiar with his work in Blade 2, but del Toro has been sporadically creating impressively creepy horror films for 10 years, since his remarkable debut, Cronos, a beautiful and award-winning treatise on vampirism and immortality. In his American debut, Mimic, he took Mira Sorvino and slathered her with bugs. And in his most personal film, The Devil’s Backbone, he crafted an eerie and poignant ghost story against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Blade 2, a brilliant sequel that is to its predecessor as Aliens is to Alien, cemented del Toro as his generation’s premier horror director.
On the occasion of Lions Gate’s release of a new 10th Anniversary Special Edition of del Toro’s Cronos, I had the opportunity to sit down with the director and talk about the new DVD, as well as his thoughts about the horror genre, his obsession with bugs, and his take on the home-theater experience of his films. I had a wonderful time talking with this contagiously enthusiastic man, who is full of laughter and passion for his craft.
Jason Bovberg: Guillermo, thanks for making the time to talk to me today.
Guillermo del Toro: Oh, it’s my pleasure!
JB: Let’s get right to it. In at least two of your DVD audio commentaries, you’ve talked about the “poetry” of horror, or the “art” of horror. I think that’s a great place to start a conversation with Guillermo del Toro.
GDT: Well, I think that there’s a need that humans have to narrate and interpret what happens to them, through drawings or paintings or drama or whatever. And that is what we call art. One of the most potent things a narrator or raconteur can do is to narrate things that fill you with joy or things that fill you with dread. Horror takes care of the latter part, and it’s a powerful generator of images. A horrific image can be as potent an image as what we normally qualify as art, because it depicts beauty. Some images of horror are very resonant, as fragile and beautiful as things that don’t deal with the ugly side of human nature.
JB: Can you point to any particular painters or writers that served as artistic influences for you?
GDT: Yes, there are a lot of painters from the symbolist school and the surrealist school that have these tendencies. Obviously, in the surrealist school, there’s Magritte, Dali, Delvaux. In the symbolist school, there’s Carlos Schwabe, Odilon Redon, many others. On the writing side, writers like Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde wrote many novels and stories about deformed creatures. Victor Hugo comes to mind with The Man Who Laughs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Oscar Wilde comes to mind with not only the Portrait of Dorian Gray but also some of his short stories.
JB: What about filmmakers?
GDT: Well, I think the supreme master of images that are both beautiful and dreadful at the same time is Mario Bava. After him, there are many others. James Whale gave a very humanistic touch to his creatures, you know. Terence Fisher with the Hammer films. And, you know, I think that Jean Cocteau created very beautiful images that were both fantastic and incredibly poetic.
JB: Which leads me to your film Cronos. Lions Gate has put together a terrific DVD.
JB: I know you’re typically very involved in the production of your DVDs. What’s your philosophy about the home-theater experience of your films?
GDT: I think you have to try not to reproduce the theater experience, which is collective, and instead try to create a more intimate experience. Sadly, on Cronos, I couldn’t oversee the sound mix, but typically I’m involved. With the Hellboy DVD, I’ll get more involved in making a special mix that gives a different experience than in the theater but equally interesting or intense. I also try to reproduce the quality of the image as closely as possible with what you get on film. I will say that technology doesn’t allow you to be 100 percent successful. Ultimately, digital color and what you reproduce on TV is brighter or darker or murkier or sharper than film. It’s very rare that I come out and say that it’s the exact same balance. But I try to create an experience for the home theater.
JB: So, you weren’t involved with the sound mix. Were you involved with the video transfer on Cronos?
GDT: Oh, yes. Very much. The director of photography and I spent several nights making sure this was as good-looking a DVD transfer as possible. You know, I was never consulted for the other versions of Cronos. I was not consulted on the laserdisc or the VHS or even the international DVD release. So, this is the first time we had that chance, and we were very careful, and I would say we enjoyed it quite a bit. (laughs)
JB: I reviewed Cronos for DVD Talk, and I was impressed with how the disc seemed to accurately translate your color palette to the screen.
GDT: Color is one of the things we paid a lot of attention to. People who saw Cronos theatrically and then later in its early video incarnations used to ask, “What happened? What went wrong?” And what went wrong is not only did they make it a much brighter transfer but also they didn’t worry about the balance of color—which, in the case of this movie, is symbolically important! (copious laughter) For example, we were very careful with the balance of red and black, which you see throughout the movie, and we came away very pleased with it because red is a very hard color to control digitally, as you know. Once you go into electronic reproduction of red, it tends to—no pun intended—bleed a lot. (laughs)
JB: Let’s move on to your DVD commentaries, which are some of the best I’ve had the pleasure to listen to.
GDT: Thank you!
JB: Cronos is no exception. I’d like to know how you approach recording a commentary. How do you prepare?
GDT: I prepare a few notes, just a few notes of things I must hit. But then, more often than not, I find myself at the end of the commentary finding out that I forgot to hit several things.
JB: Sounds like you need to be recording two commentaries per film.
GDT: (Laughs) Well what happens is … I mean, I love commentaries. I’m one of these guys who really listens to commentaries on DVDs and tries to learn from them. Because I think that DVDs—I’ve said it in the past—are the school of future filmmakers. I try to make them very casual but also informative. I try not to dwell on set anecdotes, because set anecdotes, nearly 100 percent of the time, are never exceptional and are interesting only to me—not to the people watching the movie. I try to guide you through the movie. I used to go to museums in Europe or in Mexico and I’d usually hire a guide or buy a guidebook because I’d want to stop at every painting and learn a little about the painting. That is what a DVD commentary should be: a guided tour through the movie.
JB: Well, I know I’m speaking for many of your fans when I say that we appreciate how entertaining and informative and nonstop they are.
GDT: Yes. I hate silent moments.
JB: In your commentary over Cronos, you talk about your love for cockroaches.
GDT: Yes! (laughing)
JB: Considering the bug imagery that runs through all your films (the cockroaches in Cronos, the entire plot of Mimic, the slugs in The Devil’s Backbone, the Reapers’ mandibles in Blade 2), I’m just wondering where the fascination with bugs comes from?
GDT: Well, you know, when I was a kid, I marveled at biology. I still do. I wanted to be a biologist when I was very young. To this day, I not only obsessively watch the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, I also love to read about evolutionary theories or simply biological treatises. You know, my wife is a veterinary doctor, an animal doctor, and I find some of her books quite fascinating, actually. (chuckling)
JB: I was hoping you would point to a traumatic incident in your childhood involving cockroaches.
GDT: There was. There were several. Mexico, as you may know, is a country that is no stranger to insects. (laughing) Especially cockroaches. We even have composed a song about it—La Cucaracha. (laughing) But what happened was, in my grandmother’s house, where I spent long years of my childhood, there was a corridor through the garage to enter the house that was always plagued with black widows. Since the cars were parked very close to the walls, we had to walk next to a ledge that was always festering with eggs and black widow females. And it was really nasty. On Sundays, we would go to church in the morning, and we would kill the spiders after church. (laughing) That’s one incident, and the other is—I remember when my grandmother gave my brother and me a few pesos in exchange for cleaning the water reservoir of the house. We lifted a lid, a metal lid about two feet wide, and when we lifted it, the entire bottom of the lid was entirely—entirely—covered with roaches.
JB: (Laughs) There it is, there’s the traumatic moment. Jesus.
GDT: That’s two for you, but there are many others! (Copious laughter)
JB: I want to talk a little about Federico Luppi, the star of both Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. I noticed that in both Cronos and Devil’s Backbone, you put him through absolute hell.
JB: Just wondered what you had against him.
GDT: You know, I actually love to take characters that are leading a very calm life and torture the fuck out of them.
JB: (Great heaving laughter)
GDT: This is something that I enjoy very much. It’s a kinship—an homage, if you would—but a deep, deep kinship with Hitchcock. You know, Hitchcock used to punish banality in his films. He would start with Doris Day and James Stewart in the perfect location with their son, and then the son would be kidnapped, and they would be degraded into many a peril, you know? And I find that complacency and banality are—for me, as a staunch ex-Catholic (laughing)—forms of the sin of pride, and I so love to take such characters and put them through hell.
JB: On the Devil’s Backbone and Blade 2 commentaries, you mention your short films, and according to the Cronos DVD announcement, they were supposed to be included on the new disc. What happened?
GDT: Well, this was a two-pronged problem. (chuckling) We were going to include the short, but it had a soundtrack composed of popular Mexican songs. When we tried to clear the rights, we found that they would cost close to the budget of Cronos! (laughs) The short had, like, you know, eight or nine songs, and each song was over $5,000. So, it was unwise to spend close to $50,000 to clear a short film that, on top of everything, was quite bad. So what we did was include some excerpts of it.
JB: In the featurette.
GDT: In the featurette, in the background, without having to clear the songs. But now, for Hellboy, we have a more substantial budget. And although I cannot clear that short—because it’s 30 minutes long and has all those songs—I’m clearing another four short films, and they’re going to be included on the DVD rerelease of The Devil’s Backbone, which will happen early next year, and the Hellboy DVD.
JB: Did you ever consider incorporating new music for the film, or is that music too close to your heart?
GDT: Unfortunately, the way the movie is constructed, the music makes sense. To me, it’s the best short I did as a kid. The others are stinky and crappy, and this one is kind of crappy, but it’s still very close to my heart, as you say, and I wouldn’t touch it.
JB: I must see it.
GDT: (Laughs) Well, that won’t be available, because it’s too expensive to clear. But you’ll see another three that are also crappy.
JB: All of your movies have received terrific DVD treatment, except Mimic. Any plans to work on a special edition of that one?
GDT: Not really, because how special could it be? The movie was never exactly what I intended it to be. It’s a movie that, along the way, got tampered with and we changed the screenplay, and we changed this and we changed that. And we talked about giving it a special treatment, but then I thought, What are we gonna do? I cannot go and film the last 20 minutes again. The ending was completely different in the original screenplay.
JB: So it’s not that you have footage that you could use to assemble a director’s cut? It was never shot.
GDT: Actually, the director’s cut of Mimic would probably be shorter than the cut that exists.
JB: Oh, very interesting.
GDT: To this day, I have yet to shoot and include in a movie a false scare. I hate false scares. Mimic has false scares. The reason why I hate them is they were shot by second unit when I refused to shoot them. So, I would remove the false scares. I would just keep the atmospheric stuff. I would restore a couple of scenes that were good—but they’re not good enough to make me go back and reassemble the movie, so I really don’t see the point. I wish I liked the movie more. There are parts of it that I adore, like when Vera is kidnapped off the platform on the subway or the killing of the kids. (chuckling)
JB: Well, who wouldn’t love that?
GDT: (Laughs) And some of the stuff in the abandoned subway area. But, other than that, it’s not a movie that can be presented in what I think is a correct “frame” on DVD. For example, whether you enjoyed Blade 2 or not in its theatrical run, if you buy the DVD, at least I try to give you in the extras and in the commentaries enough reference material and a “frame” for understanding the movie as it is. And I think that with Mimic, that would be very difficult, and I don’t see a way of doing it.
JB: I didn’t realize you were unhappy with the film.
GDT: To a point. The frustrating thing about Mimic is not what it is. I think it’s a pretty decent giant bug movie. (laughs) It’s what it could have been.
JB: I’ve noticed that you’ve shot all your films in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, even Blade 2, which is the sequel of a film that was shot in 2.35:1. Are you not a fan of the wider image?
GDT: I’m a fan of the wider image if I’m watching an epic. I’m a fan of the wider image when I’m watching David Lean or John Ford or Jim Cameron. (chuckling) One of my favorite architectural styles is the gothic style, and that needs a little more room on top in terms of composition, and I think that 1.85:1 approximates a little closer what the Greeks called the measure for composition. The wider palette, the wider scope, the wider canvas is better for and useful only on epics—for me.
JB: On the Blade 2 commentary, you mention that you’re a big fan of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.
GDT: Yes! Oh!
JB: It’s one of my favorite books, too. I think you would be an ideal choice for adapting it.
GDT: Well, it’s the property of Warner. They have an adaptation, and I think they have Will Smith attached to it. The adaptation I read got rid of the word vampire. They don’t suck blood anymore. It’s really transformed quite a bit, so I’m not sure I could really do it that way. But there are some vampire crowds in Blade 2 that resemble moments of that book, hopefully. I mean—I wish. (laughs) Wishful thinking. But it’s such a great book. You have to either do it perfectly or not do it at all.
JB: Sounds like Warner has chosen a third option.
GDT: To me, when you approach horror and you’re shy about it, it’s like doing a timid striptease. You cannot—
JB: Yeah, it’s like, Why bother?
GDT: Why bother? It’s exactly like doing a prudish striptease.
JB: Where are you now in the production of Hellboy?
GDT: We’re done with the first phase of the editing. I’ll have my director’s cut ready to preview for the studio in the next couple of weeks.
JB: Can we look forward to more insect imagery in Hellboy?
GDT: You know, I don’t know if there’s any.
JB: Oh, a first in your filmography.
GDT: Someone asked me if there were any insects in The Devil’s Backbone, and I said “I don’t think so,” but ultimately there were. There were not only the slugs—which aren’t insects but bugs—but also the flies announcing Federico Luppi. (laughing) So, I don’t know. I don’t remember any insects in Hellboy—not so far. (laughs)
JB: What are your lingering thoughts about the Blade character? You’ve had your shot at the character, and you’re invested in the franchise, so—for example—what will your reaction be if the third film sucks?
GDT: It’s hard for me to believe that it would. Doing the second one, I knew that the real masterminds behind the Blade character were Wesley Snipes and David Goyer. I concerned myself more with the bad guys and with the Blood Pack than with Blade. I mean, Blade was fully formed when I arrived. Wesley has the pulse of the character perfectly, and when I arrived I said I’m going to concern myself with the Reapers, which I loved— (laughs)
JB: Me too.
GDT: —and the Blood Pack and all the peripheral characters, which I had fun with. And, you know, Blade is Blade. He’s not a character that changes much. Wesley and I talked about it in preproduction. I said, you know, there are no real big dramatic arcs for Blade. Yes, he kinda falls in love, but it’s a very “capital letters” Kinda. (laughs) He’s not really in love, and at the end of the movie he’s still killing vampires, so he didn’t learn much. Wesley defines Blade like a guy that has an oath, and his honor and his oath are above him. So it’s a very interesting take, one that I quite frankly cannot relate to. (hearty laugh) Of all the characters in Blade 2, the most interesting guys to me were the bad guys.
JB: Just a couple more questions. What are you looking forward to after Hellboy?
GDT: You know, what I’m looking forward to after Hellboy is putting out the DVD.
JB: There’s my final question. Can you give us a sneak peek?
GDT: Hellboy is going to come out nice, because it’s going to be a “2.5 DVD.” We’re going to have two big ones and one tiny one. There will be a CD-ROM with a lot of goodies.