I consider myself to be pure, but not innocent.
– Guillermo del Toro October 17, 2006 (Morelia International Film Festival 2006)
Guillermo del Toro is one of the most unusually gifted and versatile directors to have emerged in recent years fromMexico. Master of the horror and fantasy genre in the country, since his international debut Cronos, at the International Critics’ Week in Cannes, he has worked non-stop in Hollywood and abroad and has not ceased to surprise audiences with wildly imaginative and visually eloquent films.
He got an early start at the age of eight, shooting Super 8 films, before working as a makeup supervisor for over a decade, and founding his own company Necropia in the 80’s. A self-described “lapsed altar boy,” del Toro combines his affinity for the teratological, with a dark sense of humor and an offbeat Catholic sensibility.
Bringing us memorable characters, from the comic-book inspired Hellboy, to the mutant cockroaches in Mimic, the vampire warrior in Blade II and the proto-fascist Jacinto in The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro explores the poetics of horror in order to reexamine the social dynamics of our world. Using the magic and the monstrous to touch upon a profound humanism, he allows us to experience our current reality paradoxically through the realm of his fantasy.
His most recent feature, Pan’s Labyrinth, returns to some of the themes of The Devil’s Backbone. Set in post-civil warSpain, the film centers on 10-year old Ofelia, her relationship with her estranged fascist stepfather, and her encounter with an ancient satyr named Pan. Perhaps his most ambitious work to date, Pan’s Labyrinth was selected for the Official Section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has garnered reams of critical acclaim.
Del Toro is charismatic and incredibly witty. He can talk about almost any subject. His films are known for their originality and for creating a parallel universe that is inhabited by bugs, ghoulish characters, strange artifacts, fairies and children. Del Toro studied at theUniversityofGuadalajara, where he worked with Jaime Humberto Hermosillo and produced “Doña Hermelinda Linda y su hijo” in 1984. His big brake came with La invención de Cronos, which won the International Film Critics Award atCannes, as well as nine Ariels, the Mexican Oscar. “The world of fantasy is not an escape from reality, but a language that allows me to express and understand reality,” he said. With this language, the Mexican filmmaker has created cinematic parables based on complex historic events, such as the Spanish Civil War. Del Toro’s style of storytelling is very distinctive and engaging. Influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and fantasy filmmakers Fernando Méndez, Carlos Enrique Taboada, and Carlos López Moctezuma, Del Toro’s interior world transports audiences to a land where the his personal fears and the spectators meet.
What types of monsters scare you the most?
I get scared just thinking about politicians, but I’m actually scared of ghosts; I’ve never seen one, but I heard one when I was a kid, and it was really frightening.
Can you tell me more about that?
I was really close to an uncle of mine as a kid, he was also called Guillermo and we both liked to read esoteric literature and horror stories and that kind of thing. One day, we agreed that if one of us died, he would send a sign to the other to prove there was life after death. Of course, it’s easy for an eleven year old to say something like that. When he died, I inherited his room. One day, while I was doing my homework, I heard him breathing and it was really sad, he was moving through the air, it wasn’t a hallucination.
What seems frightening about horror films is facing one’s inner monsters. Do you agree?
Yes, I do. Horrible things are projections; however, I’m scared of ghosts because I know there is some sort of conscience after death. This produces a huge unbalancing effect in me and the way I see life, but yes, all we have is projections.
What’s this unbalancing effect like?
I’m in favor of the tangible things in life, and in favor of fantastic things as a mental or spiritual exercise, but I don’t believe in heaven or hell. There are lots of questions left unanswered, though: what shape does a ghost have, is there consciousness after death, that kind of thing.
Do you sublimate your ghosts?
Absolutely, I exorcize all my unhealthy impulses in a profoundly social way.
El Labyrinth del Fauna is a film about disobedience. When should we disobey?
When things that are unfair or wrong, when your will is being manipulated by others, an essential part of you dies. When someone says, “Things should be done in this way or that way for the sake of religion or politics,” it’s a good idea to question it. One should disobey with intelligence. When my daughter asks, “Why should I wash my hands?” Instead of saying “because I say so,” I explain why. If I, as a citizen, say to a politician, why not do a recount of the votes? I’m doing the same thing my daughter is doing, but it’s somehow seen as a transgression. There should be no guilt in questioning things; it’s a virtue.
Why is it that we, as Mexicans, don’t question things?
We’re too prudent, we think it’s polite not to question, that it’s part of a good upbringing. This “good upbringing,” however, is something that binds us, that doesn’t allow us to call things what they are, or say what we feel. We don’t say things, we allow ourselves to be mistreated and belittled; some times, we ill-treat ourselves, and we should worry about that.
To quote Buñuel, México is a surrealist country. How come more fantasy films aren’t made?
As Mexicans, we fantasize quite a bit. Institutions don’t promote fantasy or emotions. The idea persists that culture should be cold, intellectual, and dignified, and that it should be a museum, that it should be admired, by a select group of old sages. To me, culture is alive, it’s in the street, it should provoke emotions; the fantasy and horror genres are regarded are looked down upon, seen as minor genres.
On kids, fantasy and films…_
Children in your films seem to have a lot of problems with their families. Do you think this is something that is typical of Latin America?
It’s everywhere; kids are not understood. There was an important English inventor once who said that kids were ambassadors from a more civilized world and that we should learn from them instead of instructing them. We teach kids the same bullshit we were taught, with the same form of repression, the same hypocrisy, which brings about a great deal of frustration and pain. We should learn from a child’s freedom, before we spoil them completely.
Much like original fairy tales, your films are harsh, in clear contrast with Disney’s stories, which are somehow phony. Should we be more direct?
I think one should treat kids as intelligent beings that deal everyday with fantasies, joy, pain, indifference, neglect. If you give a child a bicycle, you should also give them a helmet and say, there it is, in case you want to use it, but if you don’t use it and you bang your head it’s ok, I banged my head too, you’ll learn. We shouldn’t isolate them from pain, or create an antiseptic front to ward off the real world. They should be exposed, given reasons for things and advice on how to make life more agreeable, that’s all. Isolating children from pain is no good, you just end up lowering their defense mechanisms, and when they reach adolescence, their relationships are going to be infinitely more abnormal.
Do Santa Claus or the Three Wise Men help in anything?
I think they help the parents more that they do the kids. As a parent, I’m often more excited about Christmas, I don’t know if it’s particularly instructive, but it’s hard to avoid. What you can do is be there for them when it’s time to explain that the Three Wise Men are not real; make that transition with them, I hope I can do it for my daughters.
What does innocence mean to you?
I prefer to talk about purity; to me, innocence has a moralistic connotation. A child is a purer being, his or her feelings of hate, of loyalty, etc., are more intense that an adults’. I’m in favor of purity; it’s a way of facing reality. Innocence eventually gives way to knowledge, but it’s an act of will: I try not to be innocent and believe that dreams come true, but I consciously will myself to make the films I want, and that way I try to preserve my own purity. I think I’m pure, to a certain extent, but not innocent.