INTERVIEW: No Mimic; Guillermo del Toro Declares His Independence with "Devil's Backbone"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 11.27.01) -- "If you want to make a personal film, don't fuck around; make a personal film. Don't go and try to do it in a studio," says Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. After a less than pleasant experience shooting the Hollywood bug thriller "Mimic," the 37-year-old filmmaker was more than happy to have left the studios behind for his third picture, "The Devil's Backbone" (now playing from Sony Pictures Classics). After his low budget Mexican horror film "Cronos" put him on the map, del Toro went Hollywood, and lived and learned about the struggles of creative control. Now with those lessons behind him, del Toro has managed to craft a clever, glossy ghost story, set in an orphanage during the Spanish civil war, for a fraction of the price.
While he's currently putting the finishing touches on the studio blockbuster "Blade 2" for his fourth cinematic outing, del Toro says he now knows the difference between making movies for himself and for Hollywood. And he applies his same intensity and focus to both: a week of production for del Toro equals six days of shooting and one day of editing.
Based in Austin and Mexico, the 37-year-old director spoke to indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman about money and freedom, style and language, and knowing what you want. When asked about why he likes to spend time in Austin, del Toro doesn't hesitate.
Guillermo del Toro: In Hollywood, you spend so much time getting your head fucking swelled, and I really enjoy Austin and my bouts of freedom there and doing films the way I want to do them.
indieWIRE: That's what I wanted to ask you first: why make this movie?
del Toro: To declare my independence. With "Cronos," I loved the process of doing it creatively, but I had a terrible time, financially. It was a movie that demanded much more from me economically, but in terms of putting it together piece-by-piece creatively, it was great. But then "Mimic" comes and it has enough funding, but there is just not the freedom. It's a studio process, which is completely different and quite frankly, I did not enjoy it. I had great moments, I forged great friendships -- to this day, I value my friendship with Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam -- but at the end of the day, the product that was put out there was not as commercial as the studio wanted and not as creative as I would have wanted.
After that, I desperately needed to go back and do a movie that I had absolute control over the material. And I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do my own stories. Thanks to Pedro Almodovar and my own production company, this movie allowed me to declare my independence. This was the exact perfect situation. Because I had enough money and all the fucking freedom in the world. For all those who think sacrificing a little bit of freedom for a lot of money is worth it, it isn't. And what I love about having done "Blade 2" after, is that I went into it without the same illusions as I went into "Mimic." I went in, saying, this is going to be a great exercise, I'm going to have fun, and a lot of toys to play with, and some really cool people to play with, but this ain't going to be a personal film. Some of your readers might think that they can access Hollywood on the first try and keep their independence and their spirit, and you may perhaps, but it's really hard. You have to choose your battles. And say, "For this movie, I'm going to win this much." And take your career as a long term plan. As long as you're making a movie that you feel passionately about, even if in the end the result is not exactly what you wanted, it's worth the trip. If you want to make a personal film, don't fuck around; make a personal film. Don't go and try to do it in a studio.
iW: The production values on "Devil's Backbone" look like a studio film. It looks really good. How were you able to make a movie for less money that looks as good as any Hollywood film?
del Toro: There's a lot of lessons I learned by making "Mimic." I'm thankful for "Mimic." I learned a lot about technique and new toys and new camera rigs and simple digital effects and I applied all of that in a much smaller budget of less than 6 million dollars. Most people think that when you do a movie that you're not happy with, it's a bad thing. I think I learned much more from doing "Mimic" than doing "Cronos," not only in terms of valuing my creative freedom, but also as being demanded by the studio, to try new stuff. They pushed me to try new stuff, and I realized I was good at certain things that I never tried. It widened my range of camera moves and storytelling. So you can learn more from a hard experience than a nice one.
iW: What were some specific techniques that you learned to make "Devil's Backbone" for less money and look so good?
del Toro: I learned that you could utilize far more temp effects and they would still look as good, ultimately, if you kept them in the dark and used them creatively. We did stuff that was slapped together, sometimes, but it looked good. I understood the value of a free-roaming camera. One of the things that I do like about "Mimic" is the camera style, and it's very much applied to "Devil's Backbone." And this is a direct result of the studio telling me, "Move the camera around." And I started moving it without rhyme or reason, and then I learned a new way of telling the story. "Devil's Backbone" has that fluid camera that becomes like a voyeur. Every time you push your muscles past what you feel comfortable with, its' really useful. Like "Blade 2" was a shoot that I was nervous about, with these big action scenes. But after enjoying it so much, I'm not afraid of any sequence, technically that you might throw at me. I'm not prudish about writing any kind of crazy crap and trying to make it real. And again, all of this can be applied to a lower budget movie in the future.
iW: After seeing your movie, I thought of Amenabar's "The Others," with Nicole Kidman. Here's a Spanish language director making an English language thriller, which was largely successful. Are you at all concerned about the audience for "Devil's Backbone" being limited because it is in Spanish?
del Toro: It will be an arthouse movie, most probably. In Spain, the movie was a huge box office hit -- for a Spanish movie. But "The Others" made 10 times the movie because it was an American movie. But the equation doesn't add up that way in my head. I'd rather communicate the right story to a lesser number of people than the wrong story to a larger number of people. I'm sure Amenabar, being as smart as he is, made the movie he wanted. Because his strategy was flawless. He made the movie in Spain with his people, his technical crew, his producer. So he essentially kept control. I didn't do that on "Mimic," and I doubt most "imported" directors can try it, but he was smart about it.
iW: I want to reiterate how good your movie looks, and I wanted to ask you about creating the film with a Spanish crew verses the kinds of crews you've worked with in Hollywood?
del Toro: There's not much of a difference. I bust my ass for the movies I do to, at least, look really good. I try to make them gorgeous and I try to make them look big, within their budget, but it's all about communication with the crew. I create these significant memos where I describe the color palette of the movie and this is why. These are the shades of the movie and this is why. And these are the types of filters we're going to experiment with and this is why. Then I talk to my D.P. and my wardrobe designer, and production designer and my art director -- those are the four points of the entire structure. And as long as those four are working together, the movie will have a single voice. So I try to implement them and make the communication between the departments good. And that's it. If you have a clarity of a vision, then it looks twice as good, because there's a concept behind it.
iW: How do you feel being compared to Alfred Hitchcock?
del Toro: I have the same pants size. I'm a 52. We're both Catholic and repressed and we like to murder people.
iW: I mention it because you seem to have a very confident and thorough sense of your filmmaking. To trust your decisions must be the hardest thing.
del Toro: In life it is, in life, it's a fucking hell, but I find that you should place all your bets on red and don't chicken out. You're betting the movie, but you have to be ballsy enough. That's why tests are important. We test the effect of this thing or that thing, and then you fly by the seat of your pants. Alejandro Jodorowksy, the director of "Santa Sangre," has what he calls the panic method: the man intellectualizes what he's going to do a lot, but then he just goes crazy on it and goes by instinct. It's almost like you're channeling the movie. I say, a director is not God; he's just the Pope. You're truly channeling something else. You're not talking, the movie is. If you understand that position, there comes a moment when your decisions become organic. Just try to serve the movie, as opposed to: how brilliant I am because I chose this shade of red.
iW: So now what are you doing?
del Toro: I have two options, one in English, which is called "Mephisto's Bridge," the story of a billboard designer that sells his soul to the devil. It's my metaphor for my experiences in Hollywood. And the other one is a small movie called "An Honest Man," which I'm writing for Federico Luppi, who plays a meek office employee that murders his entire office in order to preserve his reputation as a good accountant. Those are the two prospects. I hope I can do either of them.
iW: You must be excited to go back to that after doing "Blade"?
del Toro: Oh, yes, very much so. Having enjoyed "Blade," I am very curious about going back and enjoying again a movie that I control completely. All I want in this life is that for people who don't like anything in my movies to blame it completely on me.