“There’s a love in the marvelous that intertwines in all my projects.” —Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”
“What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion, suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.” — “The Devil’s Backbone”
Guillermo del Toro has trouble saying no. On the verge of starting production in Toronto on Fox Searchlight’s Cold War fantasy “The Shape of Water” and flying in to promote the opening of his Los Angeles Museum of Art exhibition “At Home with Monsters,” the Mexican filmmaker got on the phone with IndieWire. “I’m exhausted,” he admitted, “but this is light for me!”
Culled by LACMA curator Britt Salvesen from Del Toro’s extensive and eclectic home collection, which he calls Bleak House (after Charles Dickens), “At Home with Monsters” is on view at LACMA through November 27, and then tours to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario, in partnership with TIFF.
A few days later, after signing some 750 books the night before, at a morning LACMA press conference and “At Home with Monsters” exhibit tour (see video), Del Toro confessed that he was tortured when the staff came to remove things from Bleak House. He loves his objects; he’s not a collector worrying about market value. He likes to touch and play with his things. (Frustratingly, one glass case at LACMA’s “At Home with Monsters” contains elaborate period automatons and music boxes that we cannot manipulate.) And he was still bringing objects in his car for Salvesen to add to the exhibition at the last minute. “I have a very promiscuous relationship with all my objects,” he said. “It’s a shrine.”
“At Home with Monsters” is unlike most such museum exhibits, because Del Toro’s taste travels high and low, from paintings and illustrations borrowed from the museum to pieces “inspired” by the likes of the James Whale movie “Frankenstein.” An entire section of the exhibit is devoted to Mary Shelley’s character.
“Monsters are the patron saints of otherness,” Del Toro said. “When I was a child, I was raised Catholic. Somewhere I didn’t fit with the saints and holy men. I discovered the monsters—in Boris Karloff, I saw a beautiful innocent creature in a state of grace, sacrificed by sins he did not commit. I saw a martyr in the Wolf Man, who is the very moving essence of outsiderness, with which I identified fully. Those monsters did not pretend to be something else, they presented themselves in their essence and in an immediate way. There’s nothing more political than fantasy.”
You see in Del Toro’s movies, from “Mimic” and “Cronos” to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” that he does adore monsters. “I absolutely love them,” he said. “We are humans. We are pretty repulsive. We’ve invented a series of fantasies that we accept that are socially terrifying about geography, gender and race, accepted fictions by which we have managed to separate from each other.”
“I am not a horror filmmaker,” he continued. “I am attracted to the forms of beauty and the graveyard poetry of horror, not attracted to the mechanical devices of horror. My movies lie somewhere at the crossroads between horror and fairy tale. My movies are fables that have the beauty and aesthetics of the horror movie. Monsters worship imperfection.”
I suggest first touring the Del Toro collection, from pictures of dead children in “Innocence and Children” through “Victoriana,” “Magic, Alchemy and the Occult,” and “Freaks and Monsters” to “Frankenstein and Horror,” then watching a series of themed movie clips edited by Javier Soto, including my favorite, “Insects.” The exhibit ranges from horror literature to Dickens, Borges, and Lewis Carroll, from fantastic art to Piranesi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and William Blake.
“It will show you the beauty in the horrific and the horror of beauty,” said Del Toro. “Bleak House is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Anne Thompson: Did you ever see the Tim Burton museum exhibition?
Guillermo del Toro: No. This has been 31/2 years in planning. One day at the LACMA film series, they said, “We want to show one of your movies, do you have objects?”
They came to see Bleak House. And immediately the notion is, there is a single theme line that cuts across my notebooks and my movies, what I produce, direct and write, the same vein of inspiration. It’s revealed slower in the movies, but is instantly revealed in the house. Each movie tackles almost a different genre: intimate horror with “Devil’s Backbone,” big anime mecha like “Pacific Rim,” historic Gothic like “Crimson Peak.”
They got to my house, and all it takes is to walk through the Victoriana room and the Robot and Monster room to see that the house is an exploded view of my brain. They said: “You have nine movies. Thematically there’s a clear line between the movies and notebooks and what you collect.” That’s the beauty of it. It’s a journey through the collection: the notebooks, the pre-production sketches, the memorabilia of the movies. This is the type of exhibition you’d like to see as young filmmaker.
How many sketchbooks do you have?
Approximately four or five. One has been missing since 1994. It covers “Cronos,” “Mimic,” and some projects that became “The Devil’s Backbone.” I gave it to James Cameron, he swears it’s still at his office. I forgave him that. He gave me pre-production art from “Aliens,” that was an advantageous trade for me. I don’t give it much thought.
The sketchbooks are digital, you can browse through them on iPads, so you can go closer and read every note. Some original notebooks are under glass; they change a couple of pages every week.
How did you organize Bleak House for LACMA?
Britt Salvesen found 13 working libraries: crime and murder, historical research, alchemy and the occult, horror… She said: “Why don’t we organize the exhibit around the themes of your movies?” So there’s childhood and innocence, beauty and brutality—the exhibit strolls down those themes, plus “Frankenstein,” Ray Harryhausen, Edgar Allen Poe, P.G. Lovecraft.
In the exhibit is a curation of images that show the world that exists in my head, not only the movies I’ve made, but the things I liked. And we wanted to have this line through what is considered pop art or comic book illustration and join it with famous European and American artists. A production cartoon drawing is sitting next to a sketch by James Ensor. You find a Goya next to a Mexican engraver. It’s a very eclectic collection. There are actually a few pop elements, and a lot of artists I adore.
You like to share what you love on Twitter, from art to books.
My mission is evangelical—I am a sharer— an enthusiast. The exhibit is like that, you see some of the first books I bought when I was 7 or 8 or 10, beautiful objects, mechanical automatons, rare children’s illustrated books with original illustrations by Arthur Rackham, a beautiful large format painting of “The Ring of the Nibelung,” one of the key illustrations for “Gulliver’s Travels,” pieces by Kay Nielson [concept artist for Disney’s “Fantasia” and “Sleeping Beauty”] and [19th century watercolor painter] Edmund Dulac.
I woke up in the morning today and I’m finishing, helping them to arrange the shelves and hang paintings. We have kept this dialogue going, this haggling back and forth for two years, how to arrange it, we went through many models. There’s a lot of thought behind it.
Did you see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit?
We’re basically using the same area, 80% of that footprint. It’s a labyrinth designed with corridors that merge on each theme. It’s a huge space with different atmospheres and soundscapes. Some of it is violent—the footage from the movies tends to have violence, also some of the art is pretty dark or shocking, you know? There is that combination of the beautiful and the brutal.
Coming out of the first walk-through I was incredibly happy and eager to share. The videos are organized thematically, and there are little dioramas, of course props and wardrobe, a wealth of preproduction art from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy” and “Hellboy 2.”
You are also re-releasing your Spanish Trilogy on Criterion?
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is the latest title. We first did “Cronos.” We collaborated for a year and a half putting that out. And “Devils’ Backbone,” the same amount of time. Ever since we released “Cronos” we’ve been planning the release of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Its tenth anniversary is this year. We did the narrative to the Criterion Collection for the 10th anniversary release and the Spanish trilogy on a Collector’s Box, available in limited fashion in the museums showing the Bleak House collection.
Why did you choose to make “The Shape of Water,” of all the projects you’ve been preparing?
I started working on it before “Pacific Rim.” I was lucky that it was one thing that didn’t get announced in the trades. The ones that get announced never get made. The ones that get made never get announced in the trades! “Pacific Rim” the sequel I am producing with Mary Parent and Legendary, but I am not directing that. I was, but when the project was pushed nine months, I went back to “The Shape of Water,” as a smaller more personal movie that needed all my attention.