Exploring the vibrant darkness of his distinctive worldview, Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro cites a phrase in The Skins of the Fathers, a short story by Clive Barker, the British writer turned filmmaker who helped to refresh and redefine the horror genre back in the 1980s.
“The line refers to a feeling which stirs ‘deep in her, in a place touched only by monsters’,” says del Toro. “Clive, of course, is talking about an existential piece of the soul, in a very Barker-esque fashion, because the woman in question has actually fornicated with monsters. But in my case, I really think that the most creative, most fragile part of the child that lives within me is a child that was literally transformed by monsters. Be they on the screen, or in myth, or in my own imagination.”
For those with a weakness for the beautiful monsters of modem cinema, del Toro has earned himself a deserved reputation as the finest living exponent of fabulist film. Gregarious and personable, with an almost photographic recall of faces and conversations, he has charmed both the hardcore horror fans who gave him a hero’s welcome at London’s Frightfest in August, and now the upmarket critical cognoscenti, who snapped to attention following his Palme d’Or nomination for his new film Pan’s Labyrinth at Cannes in May.
In essence, he is a divided soul, a realist attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural, a lapsed Catholic (“not quite the same thing as an atheist”) with an interest in sacrifice and redemption who turned down the chance to direct last year’s blockbuster The Chronicles of Narnia because he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting.”
Since the early 1990s del Toro has divided his filmmaking endeavours between personal European projects (the modern vampiric chiller Cronos, 1993; the ghostly Spanish Civil War fable The Devil’s Backbone, 2001) and big-budget Hollywood hits (ongoing comic-book franchises Blade II, 2002, and Hellboy, 2004), though he stresses that “I have never made a film just for them – Hellboy represents me as much as The Devil’s Backbone.” And like the artistic refugees from Franco’s Spain who first inspired him, the writer-director currently considers himself an exile from his own home country of Mexico, not least because of the 1997 kidnapping of his father, at the height of a vogue for such ransomed abductions.
“I was 33,” remembers del Toro. “The perfect age to be crucified! I had lived my life believing two things: that pain should not be sought, but by the same token it should never be avoided, because there is a lesson in facing adversity. Having gone through that experience, I can attest, in a non-masochistic way, that pain is a great teacher. I don’t relish it, but I learn from it. I always say, even as an ex-Catholic, that God sends the letter, but not the dictionary. You need to forge your own dictionary.”
This willingness to confront pain and to forge his own cinematic dictionary has informed the blend of innocence and brutality that is a trademark of del Toro’s phantasmagorical cinema. From the crushing addiction of Cronos, whose ageing anti-hero is reduced to licking blood from the tiled floor of a public toilet, to the redemptive fantasy of Hellboy, whose titular demon takes an industrial grinder to the horns of his head in a bid to take control of his destiny, del Toro has returned compulsively to these twinned themes.
Now in Pan’s Labyrinth, which he wrote, directed and produced, this latterday Welles has created a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema – a modem masterpiece made entirely on his own terms. Set against the backdrop of fascist Spain in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth is a “dark fairytale about choice” that distils his distinctive mix of fact and fantasy, poetry and politics, pain and pleasure to form what is, for my money, the best film of the year.
Those familiar with the guilty ghosts of The Devil’s Backbone will recognise key motifs in this new fable about a young girl’s exploration of a labyrinthine underworld in Franco-era Spain. Indeed, del Toro describes Pan’s Labyrinth as a “rhyming movie” for The Devil’s Backbone, a “sister” to the more masculine energies of its celluloid “brother”, whose narrative unfolded against the war-tom events of 1939.
Like its predecessor, Pan’s Labyrinth balances political tensions with a feud between fantasy and reality, between the way the world seems and the way it is.
“The Devil’s Backbone was set in a time that belongs only to Spain – because six months after Franco won, Hitler invaded Poland,” del Toro explains. “But in Pan’s Labyrinth we’re dealing with the end of the Second World War, a moment when the Spanish resistance fully believed, for very good reason, that the Allies would tum around and help them take care of Franco – which, of course, they proved not to do. In conjunction with this historical reality, I was trying to uncover a common thread between the ‘real world’ and the ‘imaginary world’, which I found in one of the seminal bloodlines within fairytales: the bloodline of choice. It’s something that has intrigued me since Cronos, through Hellboy, and now to Pan’s Labyrinth: the way your choices define you. And I thought it would be great to counterpoint an institutional lack of choice, which is fascism, with the chance to choose which the girl takes in this movie.”
The young heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth is Ofelia, whose widowed mother Carmen has recently married Vidal, a vicious captain of Spain’s Civil Guard involved in policing anti-fascist maquis resistance in the mountainous wooded northern region. Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes befriends Ofelia, protecting her from her stepfather’s wrath while maintaining secretive connections with the maquis. Meanwhile, Ofelia meets an alarmingly devious faun (not ‘Pan’, incidentally, whose name is absent from the original Spanish title El laberinto del fauna), who suggests that she may be the lost princess of a beautiful and terrifying netherworld. While Mercedes attempts to help the maquis and local villagers in their struggles, Ofelia embarks on a quest that will test her true nature.
Crucially, this quest involves a journey through a labyrinth, a word which has become synonymous with the Civil War (think of key historical accounts such as Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth), and which served as the “perfect metaphor” for del Toro’s endeavours. “A maze is a place where you get lost,” he explains, “but a labyrinth is essentially a place of transit: an ethical, moral transit to one inevitable centre. You think of the transit of Spanish society from the 1940s to the incredible explosion of the post-Franco period. The 1980s in Spain were like the 1960s in the rest of the world! In the movie, Ofelia is a ‘princess who forgot who she was and where she came from’, who progresses through the labyrinth to emerge as a promise that gives children the chance never to know the name of their father – the fascist. It’s a parable – just as The Devil’s Backbone was a parable – of the Spanish Civil War.
“Putting aside the implications of the English-language title, which simply sounded better than The Faun’s Labyrinth, I really needed this creature to be ambiguous. It’s important that Ofelia chooses to enter this new world, despite the fact that her guide is unreliable and unattractive. So we made the faun a creaky, ancient creature who becomes more physically beautiful as he becomes more perverse. It’s subliminal almost, but essentially the girl distrusts him the most the better he looks.”
Del Toro’s faun is just one of the film’s menagerie of fantastical creatures and monsters, drawn from sources that range from Goya’s paintings to Barker’s Books of Blood. Amazingly for a film that features around 300 effects shots and boasts complex creature designs, Pan’s Labyrinth was completed for a mere 15 million euros, a feat del Toro attributes to the lessons learned on Blade II and Hellboy (“I love to play with the big toys… and to learn from them”).
As always, the director sketched each character in the notebooks that are his constant companions, an extraordinary document of his mind at work and obsessive attention to detail. Here we find the original drawings for the ‘vegetable baby’ which Ofelia places beneath her mother’s bed, nurtured with milk and magic, and for the terrifying ‘pale man’ whose ire she arouses by stealing from his table.
“I wanted to represent political power within the creatures,” del Toro says, “and that particular character somehow came to represent the church and the devouring of children. The original design was just an old man who seemed to have lost a lot of weight and was covered in loose skin. Then I removed the face, so it became part of the personality of the institution. But then, what to do about the eyes?
So I decided to place stigmata on the hands and shove the eyes into the stigmata. Then I remembered a Polish poster of a woman screaming, covering her eyes, in which the hands were translucent so you could still see the eyes. [A similar, derivative image was later used as the iconic poster for Don Coscarelli’s eerie cheapie-hit Phantasm.] Having done that, I thought it would be great to make the fingers like peacock feathers that fluff and open. That’s how that figure evolved.”
“As for the faun, he proved more difficult. The idea was to make him very masculine, not aggressively so, just sinuous. I remember talking to Doug Jones [who plays both the faun and the pale man] when he first started working on the role, and saying: ‘More Mick Jagger, less David Bowie!’ I wanted the faun to have a rock-star quality. Everything about the faun and his personality needed to be masculine because you had to pit the female energy of the girl against something monolithic. She is surrounded by these Jungian archetypes.”
Such talk inevitably evokes the work of Angela Carter, whose writings inspired Neil Jordan’s unashamedly Freudian The Company of Wolves, or of Bruno Bettelheim, author of the seminal I970s text The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Yet the key inspiration for Pan’s Labyrinth was a slim volume published in I891: Edwin Sidney Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology, which “classified fairytales, and their oral origins, and broke down the recurring myths – the myth of choice; the ritual of not eating or drinking while you’re in the fairy world; facing very often a figure like the frog. I took all these things and came up with the story of Pan’s Labyrinth.
The psychosexual interpretation is, of course, much more modem, but I find it very reductive. For me, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fairytale in the classic sense. The settings of Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and Oscar Wilde were incredibly brutal: Hansel and Gretel were two children abandoned in the woods in the middle of a famine to die of hunger and cold. But you need to know the brutality for the reality of the magic to happen. That’s why the war made such a perfect backdrop.”
Del Toro is, of course, working within the same tradition of cinematic horror that spawned A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s seminal reinvention of the “classic dark fairytale” in which Freddy Krueger emerged as an 1980s incarnation of the Big Bad Wolf. (“I think that really is one of the best fairytales of any decade – because Craven understands the roots of those myths,” says del Toro.) At the heart of Craven’s shocker is a young girl forced to suffer for the sins of her parents: a heroine tom between dreams and reality who ultimately finds the strength to face down the demons of the past, earning herself a single transformative shock of grey hair. This theme of the innocent child who must banish the darkness of the adult world is also fascinating to del Toro, whose latest movie is promoted in America with the tagline: “Innocence has a power that evil cannot imagine.”
“Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth all feature a child facing a very adult situation,” he agrees, “and dealing with it from a place of grace or purity. I would also add Hellboy to that list, because he too is a child, and he defines himself by choosing who he is and not who he is meant to be. I’m still in love with that character, to which I’m returning with my current project Hellboy 2. I want the film to be really experimental and personal, though it’ll still be ‘pop’, of course, which is very much a side of my personality. I think of it in the same way that Warhol or Lichtenstein would look at a soup tin, or a vignette from a comic book, and see them somehow differently.”
Del Toro had such a passion for Hellboy that he pursued the project in favour of a chance to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He also wrestled briefly with the ill-fated Exorcist prequel Dominion (aka Exorcist The Beginning), the prospect of which appealed to his lapsed-Catholic sensibility. “One of the most important movies in my life, emotionally,” he says, “is William Peter Blatty’s Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane [aka The Ninth Configuration]. It’s a movie about redemption through sacrifice and the giving of your blood to save others that speaks to the soul of somebody who believes in a messiah. It deals with the fragility of faith, which is essential to Blatty’s work – how faith is almost intangible and yet incredibly strong.
“And I think it affected me because, although I am no longer a Catholic, I share the belief that there is a state of grace that can be reached not through moral purity but through almost ethical purity – by being yourself and being immune to the world. It’s a little ascetic, but it’s essentially the thesis of Cronos. In that film the girl who does not mind dying is the truly immortal character. And the character played by Federico Luppi becomes immortal at the moment he decides to die, the moment he says: ‘Fuck it, I don’t want to kill my granddaughter.’ Immortality doesn’t mean you live longer; it means you are immune to death. I think that’s the same thing that occupies Blatty: faith, the state of grace, immortality, redemption. And these are things that are important for me too.”
These themes are central to Pan’s Labyrinth, the climax of which becomes an epiphany of sacrifice and rebirth. “It’s a movie about a girl who gives birth to herself,” del Toro asserts, “into the world she believes in. At that moment, it doesn’t matter if her body lives or dies. And this is something I have experienced. I remember literally the worst experience of my life, even above the kidnapping of my father, was shooting Mimic [del Toro’s first Hollywood feature, 1997, which was severely compromised by producer interference]. Because what was happening to me and the movie was far more illogical than kidnapping – which is brutal, but at least there are rules.
“I remember there was a moment on Mimic that was an almost out-of-body experience, when I achieved an absolute Taoist sense of being there, but being almost in a state of grace and being able to survive that fucking pain. And it is a strange mixture of becoming immune by not engaging, and believing you are not important at all – that the only important thing is the film. Now when I look at Mimic what I see is the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.”
Pain and beauty, damnation and salvation, brutality and innocence: once again del Toro’s conversation finds a way back to the central duality of creation and destruction, death and rebirth. “Those things are one and the same,” he says. “It would be a cliche to say that, because I am a Mexican, I see death in a certain way. But I have seen more than my share of corpses – certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I’ve seen people being shot; I’ve had guns put to my head; I’ve seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated… because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.”
Like the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s own career now seems to be at a point of rebirth and regeneration. “Hopefully, this movie will allow me to start a new path,” he says with deserved confidence. “The way I see my craft, and the way I see the stories I tell, has completely changed as a result of this movie.
“Shooting Pan’s Labyrinth was very painful, but it also became a war about me not compromising. I gave back my entire salary in order to get the film made the way I wanted it. I probably should have abandoned it the moment the funding fell through the first time, but I stuck with it for almost two and a half years and refused to back down. It’s the first time in the six movies I’ve directed where I’ve said, ‘I’m doing this one my way, the whole way, no matter what.’ Financiers ran out on me and everyone involved in my career was saying it was the biggest mistake I could make. But I’m very happy with the result. And for me, nothing will be the same again.”