Once upon a time there was a toddler so scared of monsters emerging from the dark that he would wet himself, night after night. His mother became so angry with him that he made a deal with the monsters, promising to be their friend for ever if they let him go to the toilet.
Guillermo del Toro gave a screen talk in the BFI London Film Festival on 11 October 2017, the day after the festival’s UK premiere of The Shape of Water.
The film is scheduled for UK release on 16 February 2017.
So goes the story of how the affable, self-deprecating and larger than life Mexican cult director Guillermo del Toro fell in love with the dark and its monsters. This master storyteller used this tale to kick off his onstage career interview at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, which was programmed as a companion to his latest feature, the magnificent Venice Golden Lion winner The Shape of Water. All the quotes included in this article are taken from this event, where he delighted fans and press alike with his sharp sense of humour, disarming charm and genuine interest in the human condition.
For an hour and a half, Del Toro talked about his career infectiously and candidly, starting with his TV work on the Mexican series Hora marcada with Alfonso Cuarón; the latter called it “the toilet zone, because it was like The Twilight Zone but shittier. But actually I was really grateful that it gave us the opportunity to practise.” Del Toro also worked as a film critic for a few years, co-ran a cinema club in Guadalajara, which became the now 33-year-old film festival, and set up his own special effects company.
After working on 21 movies for other people, Del Toro took ten years to make his first internationally recognised feature, Cronos (1993). Nobody wanted to produce what Del Toro describes as “the story of a granddaughter and her grandfather, who lives in a toy chest and sucks blood – a metaphor for addiction”. When the Mexican Film Institute refused to offer it to Cannes, Del Toro recalls, “I was like a fat Cinderella: ‘Can I go to the ball?’ ‘No!’” But a Spanish film critic showed it to the festival and it was selected for Critics’ Week, won the top prize there and then another 20 or so around the world. Regardless of that success, the Institute refused to finance his next project, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), which would take eight years to make.
In the meantime, Del Toro undertook what he identifies as his most frustrating experience, making Mimic (1997) with Miramax, his first US project. “Two horrible things happened in the late 1990s,” he recalled. “My father was kidnapped and I was with the Weinsteins. And I don’t know which one was worst… but actually the kidnapping made more sense. I really hated the other experience but I learnt to fight. I lost casting battles, I lost story battles, but the one thing Mimic is it’s visually 100 per cent exactly what I wanted. In Mimic I learned to move the camera in a really beautiful choreography with the actors and that’s the way I shoot now.” It also got really good press for what he describes as “a giant cockroach movie”.
Pedro Almodóvar turned out to be a huge admirer of Cronos and offered to produce The Devil’s Backbone, which Del Toro labels “a gothic, western, horror ghost story set at the end of the [Spanish] Civil War” with one amazing image, “a bomb in the middle of the patio of an orphanage”. Its adult protagonist is the Argentine actor Federico Luppi, who also starred as the vampire in Cronos, and sadly died on 20 October. The director’s tone turns to palpable gratitude when he describes Almodóvar as “incredibly gentle, incredibly respectful – he basically resurrected me. He allowed me to believe that you could make movies again.”
The producer role is one that Del Toro has also adopted in the past, with Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage, 2007) among others; in order to, as he put it, “shield them from the studio, so they have a very good creative experience; because I owe it to life, you know. Almodóvar did it for me. He kind of gave me a second chance at life.”
Vampire action film Blade II and two Hellboy films followed, with such success that Del Toro was offered “every superhero on the face of the earth, and very lucrative, very big movies”. But he turned them all down to make the outstanding parable of fascist destruction, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Again, nobody wanted to finance a 12-year-old girl’s fairytale set in the horrors of post-Civil War Spain at first, until finally Spanish TV channel Tele5 came on board. For Del Toro, “along with Mimic and The Shape of Water, it was one of the hardest, most ungrateful shoots in my life. Incredibly difficult.” It’s also his most awarded film to date.
Work on The Hobbit took him to New Zealand where he lived for two years until the studio famously pulled the plug in 2010. Three years later, he made the sci-fi monster film Pacific Rim, because “I love the idea of a scared girl that lost her parents and who has one red shoe in her hand, living inside herself as an adult and the adult and being inside a 23-storey-high robot. And you still have to conquer that [childhood] fear.” Unfortunately what set out its stall to be a Keijo film was mis-sold as Transformers; which was not dissimilar to the fate that awaited Crimson Peak in 2015, presented as a horror Halloween film when in reality it’s a gothic romance. “That is a lesson I learned, but I think it is the most beautiful movie.”
Del Toro lights up when talking about his latest film, The Shape of Water, which he describes as a film that “breathes”. It’s a stunning love story set in the US, in the midst of 60s Cold War paranoia and racial battles, between two outsiders, a janitor in a high security US governmental compound who falls in love with an amphibian asset about to be dissected in the lab. “The first nine movies I made were permeated by a sense of loss, sadness, nostalgia, and The Shape of Water is the first movie I have made that is hungry for life. It’s life-affirming. It’s almost like I spent nine movies inhaling and it’s the first time I exhale.”
In opposition to the male, rigid and sterile world that the mute protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the creature inhabit, the fluidity of their gestural relationship is impossible to annihilate. The vehicle for their emotional, flowing world, for their love, is water, which Del Toro describes as “the most powerful and malleable element in the universe”. The seed was planted when he was six years old, watching Creature from The Black Lagoon (1954) and wishing that that Julie Adams and the creature had got together in the end. “All I knew is that I wanted to have the moment where the creature carries the girl, not as a moment from a horror movie but a beautiful moment of love.”
The film was made for Hawkins, who Del Toro first saw in the BBC series Fingersmith (2005). “I think she has the most extraordinary beauty, like a luminosity and a power.” Hawkins’ exquisite portrayal of Elisa as the beauty to the beast is certainly not in Disney territory, and as Del Toro points out, “she makes breakfast, shines her shoes and masturbates, and the beast doesn’t turn into a fucking prince. Because I think love is about loving who the other person is exactly. It is about embracing and loving the otherness, which my entire career has been about.”
When prompted at the end by one member of the audience to talk about the autobiographical elements in his films, Del Toro’s response beautifully summed up a perspective that permeates each one of his works. “All art is portraiture and all art is political: those are the things that you cannot avoid. When someone sees you in your entirety for who you are, that’s the greatest act of love, because it’s granting you existence. And the rarest act of love is, like cinema, to see.”