In this special episode we are going to talk about Guillermo Del Toro. As many of you may know, he’s a legendary writer, author, producer, director, makeup effects artist, and more. He’s worn every hat in the film industry. A rebel since he was a child, he read comic books, drew his own monsters, owned several snakes and mice, and read Alarma!, a Mexican magazine that featured gore and violent crime scene photos that are used to shock people. But Guillermo wasn’t trying to shock. In fact, his motivations seem to be more romantic goth: appreciating the grotesque as beautiful, not just to do it but to really understand the story behind every creature, art work, life. He is primarily known as the director of Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy 1 and 2, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water.
He has been highly regarded within the industry and considered an artist, not just some director for hire. He brings his own creations to life, whether it’s in his dialogue, storyboarding, or set design. As he’s said himself, he creates a story where the audience is not a tourist, but rather a traveler.
Guillermo was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and raised in strict Catholic household with his parents and brothers. He started making Super 8 movies with his brother using his Planet of the Apes action figures. One of his earliest childhood movies was of a serial killer potato who dreamt of conquering the world. The deadly potato kills his mother and brothers, then walks out of the house onto the street where he is run over by a car. In high school, he made one about a monster that crawls out of a toilet only to find people around him despicable, which makes the monster descend back to the sewers in disgust.
He graduated from Centro de Investigacion y Estudios Cinematograficos in Guadalajara and made ten short films, two of which you can find: Doña Lupe and Geometria. It was at this time that he met his mentor, Dick Smith. Guillermo wrote to him explaining him that he was a young director from Mexico who couldn’t find nor afford an American special effects makeup artist where he was. He needed help with his first feature film, Cronos, and realized he needed to take Dick’s courses because he had to do all the art, paint and sculpting. What he ultimately learned from Dick Smith was to strive for realism. Make the monster a real monster, go for reality instead of effect. A lesson that has stayed with Guillermo for decades since.
He worked on a Twilight Zone-esque show called La Hora Marcada, writing, directing and doing special makeup effects for several episodes while still trying to get his first feature film off the ground. After 8 years, he finally released Cronos in 1993, a horror fantasy film about an older man who owns an antique shop and leads a seemingly ordinary life with his loving wife and sweet granddaughter, Aurora. One day he and Aurora find a special device from hundreds of years ago that makes man young and immortal. Upon discovering its special power, the older man, Jesus Gris, soon gets killed by the nephew of a dying wealthy industrialist who will stop at nothing to get to the fountain of youth.
Now he does get killed, but he is immortal. Jesus is condemned to live without freedom because of his newfound vampirism that’s never talked about but implied in the film. Also, the notion of resurrection is present, given that his name is Jesus and his killer’s is Angel, played by Ron Perlman. This was Guillermo’s first movie with Ron, a classically trained actor who had already won a Golden Globe. Because of the fragile budget of movie, Ron had to take a deep pay cut and trust Guillermo that he would get paid eventually. Luckily, the movie was a success and they established a deep friendship that has lasted decades.
Ron Perlman has talked about how he grew to love the story of Cronos. He had received a parcel from Guillermo, and in it was the script and a letter about his great appreciation of Ron’s work in unknown fringe projects. Ron started reading it at the gym on his exercise bicycle and noticed a young filmmaker behind him. She asked him what it was that he was reading, and he said, “It’s the weirdest little vampire movie I’ve ever seen. But it’s also the smartest. Never in a million years would it ever get greenlit in Hollywood. And just for that reason alone, I’m going to fucking do it.”
(Taken from GDT’s Cabinet of Curiosities)
After the success of Cronos, he was finally welcomed by Hollywood to produce a big budget film, Mimic, starring Mira Sorvino, that was released in 1997. He has often talked about his discontent with the outcome of the movie and his arguments over production with the Weinstein brothers. They tried to take over the movie, tell him what to do, and even hire a second unit director to shoot more “cheap scares,” because to them, the movie wasn’t scary enough. Even after it came out, the fight got worse! It’s a bit of gossip, but interesting nonetheless.
James Cameron had just won his Oscar for Titanic and was backstage with his statue when Harvey Weinstein came up to him to congratulate him on his win. Harvey went on about how he respects artists in the film industry but James stopped him right there and told him he knew all about Guillermo’s experience with the Weinsteins. James said he almost hit Harvey with his Oscar. It got close to that!
We’d like to get into the making of Mimic, but there are so many movies to talk about so we should skip over to what may be Guillermo’s favorite project of all time: The Devil’s Backbone, a film about an orphanage run by a doctor and Franco rebel widow set at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The main protagonist, 11-year-old Carlos, arrives at the orphanage without any idea that he is being left there indefinitely. He gets to know the other boys and stands up to the oldest, Jaime, who dares him to fetch a jar of water in the middle of the night, which is strictly prohibited. It’s there in the quiet night where he finds out there’s a spirit nicknamed “The One Who Sighs” that haunts the area. The spirit whispers to Carlos a prophetic warning that many will die soon. Soon the boys reveal that one of their friends, Santi, had been missing for some time, since an unexploded bomb landed on their courtyard. They think it may have scared him and he could’ve run away and ultimately kidnapped and murdered for parts.
Back then, many young boys and girls were being abducted, killed and sold for their bones, fat, and blood. We did an episode on Enriqueta Marti, the Vampire of Barcelona. The story of a young five year old girl who was abducted by Enriqueta in Barcelona for that same reason.
In the film, a doctor explains how he keeps fetuses in jars with spices and old rum. He then sells them to soldiers in town to cure their illnesses and impotence. Some of these fetuses were born with Spina Bifida, which they called The Devil’s Backbone. The ones who were not meant to be born but meant to heal. As Doctor Casares explains, it is all mere superstition, just like the ghost the boys keep talking about.
The other main characters in the film are Conchita and Jacinto, the epitome of good and evil. They are a young couple waiting for enough money to escape to Ibiza to set up a farm. Jacinto is a former orphan turned caretaker who abuses anyone who gets in his way. And even though they are all on the same side of the Republic, Jacinto can’t help but destroy the only place that has ever accepted him. The film ends beautifully with the answer to the first question, the first line of the movie: “What is a ghost?”
Guillermo first started coming up with the Devil’s Backbone story in 1980. He attempted to write it again after he made Cronos. According to him, the first thing that he created was the ghost in the story. The result was the ghost of a young boy who looked more like a broken porcelain doll with traces of a skeleton and a head injury with blood flowing upwards, indicating how he died.
The fetuses came from Guillermo’s experience visiting embalmers he had befriended when he was young. He recalls one instance where a new pile of fetuses arrived stacked up to his waist. He went on to say, “Humans could not possibly have souls; even the most blameless lives ended as rotting garbage.” Even though Guillermo was raised Catholic, he then called himself a lapsed Catholic and then later, an atheist. He believes that maybe nothing happens after you die, but he also believes that there are so many mysteries in the universe that nobody can truly be sure. He say that his own spirituality lives within his storytelling and art.
The Devil’s Backbone was a huge success thanks to Pedro Almodovar for believing in Guillermo and producing the film. Guillermo got out of the Mimic failure rut and moved on to another great achievement. Pan’s Labyrinth, released in 2006, is a story of a young girl named Ofelia who goes to live with her pregnant mother and her step-father, the evil Fascist Captain Vidal. They are stationed in a border post to fight off any guerrilla rebels even though the Fascist Nationalists have won. She almost immediately encounters an insect-like fairy who leads her to a labyrinth. It’s there where she first meets the Faun. He tells to her that she is the lost princess Moanna who had one day snuck out of her kingdom of the underground realm to the human world, a place she dreamed of. She loses all memory of herself and her kingdom and soon dies of pain and misery. Her father, the King, does not give up hope for his daughter and knows her soul will return one day. The Faun had been sent to give her three tasks to get her back to her home, where she belongs.
The setting of the border post, where Captain Vidal is fighting the rebels hidden in the woods, may represent the border between the human world and the fantasy world that only Ofelia sees. It can be easily interpreted that maybe this girl tries to find an escape from her reality. She carries around fairy tale books with her everywhere she goes and has no friends her age. That’s an Alice in Wonderland parallel that does make sense. But what Guillermo might be saying is that there’s no clear line to what is fantasy or reality. The Faun and the fairies come into her bedroom and the Captain walks into the Labyrinth at night just like the maid and doctor, who are allies with the rebels and live with and work for the Captain. Like the tide, they come in and out of different realms. I’m not high.
Doug Jones, who has portrayed a lot of the creatures for Guillermo’s films, played the part of the Faun and the Pale Man. When he was offered the part of the Faun, Doug said “but I don’t speak Spanish.” Guillermo said, “I don’t care if you can count to ten in Spanish, I need you in that role.” Doug learned the entire dialogue phonetically in Spanish including Ofelia’s because he couldn’t hear her through his costume.
The Pale Man was the most frightening part of the whole movie. The eyes rest on a plate in front of him and only wakes up when Ofelia disobeys and eats a grape. He then grabs his eyes from the plate puts them in the eye sockets of the palm of his hand. He advances to her threatenly with his hands outstretched and his eyes staring at her. It’s another example of how eyes are important to fairy tales and myths, the cyclops, the gorgons, the blind witches that share one eye, etc.
While making the movie, he ran into a couple of options: an old man with stumps on his wrist and his wooden hands on the plate where he puts them on when awakened, or the eyes. They had already made a sculpture of the man and it was set and ready to go until Guillermo asked his wife over dinner what she thought. She said, “Go with the eyes,” and he agreed.
Even when Ofelia disobeys, she is still given another chance to go back to her home and be a princess. Her mother died during childbirth and her step-father had her locked and guarded in her room. Her final mission is to get her baby brother from the Captain’s room and take him to the Labyrinth to the Faun. When she manages to escape with her baby brother, the Faun asks for a drop of blood from the innocent, the baby. She refuses and makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Guillermo’s decision to end the movie the way it did had to do with the fact that we can change the world in small ways because in the end, we are insignificant beings. But it is our actions that can make a bigger change. Consider the Captain, who only cares about being remembered so much that he obsesses over his watch. Even if he is an important captain in the Spanish civil war, he will be forgotten, as opposed to Ofelia, who gets rewarded in the end.
Guillermo went on to make Hellboy 2 and Pacific Rim, which were fun and enjoyable. But his next movie after Crimson Peak was the highly regarded film, The Shape of Water. Released last year, in 2017, it’s another fairy tale but this time featuring an adult deaf mute woman set in 1962. Elisa meets a strange half-man half-fish creature at the government laboratory where she works as a cleaning woman. As a lonely person who cannot speak, she befriends the creature known as “the Asset” to the government. The Amphibian Man (Hombre Pez) was brought in by Richard Strickland, who frightens Elisa and abuses the Amphibian Man horribly.
He is soon given orders to kill the Amphibian Man to study him further since they have no use of him alive. The government is looking to get ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race and in espionage, having no idea one of their scientists is a Soviet spy who shows his courage as a scientist even if he is working for the other side.
Guillermo has said he was influenced by Creature from the Black Lagoon and it broke his heart that the story didn’t end well for the Creature. He wanted a story of a janitor woman who falls in love with a sea creature and procures the help of her friends, her next door neighbor, Giles, and her coworker, Zelda. The three of them are very different from each other except of one thing, oppression. Elisa is deaf-mute, Giles a homosexual, and Zelda a black woman married to a chauvinist. These three manage to help the Amphibian Man escape in the hopes of releasing him back to his home in the water even with the American and Soviet governments chasing them.
Guillermo’s original idea was to make the movie black and white and silent. But then he thought of the set design. The first and last underwater sequences of the movie are all smoke, high speed, wires, and wind called Dry For Wet, which gives the film a dreamlike quality, explaining Elisa’s character and her mysterious past as an orphan found by a river.
Guillermo has already begun working on a new, darker adaptation of Pinocchio to be released in 2021. We are excited to see what he’s going to do next, and to finish this off, here’s a quote by Guillermo that describes his work perfectly:
“To celebrate love in all its forms – or rather, lack of form. The shape of water is the shape of love, it has no shape it breaks through every barrier. It’s the most powerful thing in the world.”