This year’s Irving M. Levin Directing Award recipient at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Guillermo del Toro, may be most famous for his monster work in horror and comic book movies, but he should be famous for just how ingratiating a person he is in conversation. Executive Director Noah Cowan spent over an hour talking with del Toro on stage at the Castro Theatre, covering just about any topic he and del Toro and the crowd could think up, from monsters imagined to the 72-day kidnapping of his father in 1998. Profane, animated, self-described as “100% Mexican,” del Toro was a perfect guest and host. The crowd was more than happy to lap up his jokes, and his generosity with answering questions — stopping himself multiple times to ask if he’d satisfied the query’s curiosity — was a true act of love.
Cowan started the evening describing del Toro’s career up to now, how he’s only made 9 movies, but each rich with unique imagery, before a clip reel showed some “greatest hits” from across his filmography. I was reminded of the graceful camera work, evident from the start in “Chronos,” and the often puerile but always sincere sense of humor that pervades his movies. In the talk that followed, it was del Toro’s sense of humor that won me over, as well as his evident passion for everything he does and touches.
“I’m the best funded 10 year old I know!”
“I was 70 when I was 7 and I’m 10 now that I’m 50.”
At heart, I think I agree with del Toro about a great many things, none more than his answer to a fan asking whether the ending of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is pessimistic or optimistic. His first reply, “Well, I think it says more about you than it does about me, how you asked the question,” got a huge laugh, but I know he meant it, even with his wicked smile. However, he proved his love for his fans by going further, vowing to give him an answer, and elucidating what motivated his storytelling, because he admitted he wants to know these things, too, as a fan of movies. (He also said he would do everything to dissect a film, shot by shot, to come up with his own answers, but that’s another matter.) In short, del Toro stated he is both a pessimist and optimist, that by saying “fuck you” to the fascists and saving her brother, Ofelia may have sealed her fate, dying in the real world, but her reign to come helped sprout a flower on the dead fig tree, a small thing he said, which are the only things we can truly do in the world.
When asked about his involvement in the “Silent Hill” video game series, del Toro sadly admitted it wasn’t going to happen, eliciting many groans. But he quickly followed up with, “I’m 50 now, and I told myself, all I’m going to do now is direct. Direct, direct, direct.” This of course got the crowd, and Cowan, excited. “Yeah! Make some more movies!” Cowan interjected.
When asked if he’d ever make a nominally straight film, without the special effects, del Toro said he could, that he has three scripts that may fit that bill. An acid western adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo” might come close, he said, before he remembered that the Count has a mechanical hand that allows him to be the fastest draw in the west, ever, of all time. He has a WWII story born from his voracious reading, too, but ultimately, he said, “we are like trees; we give the fruit we are meant to give. You don’t make grapefruits and then decided, oh, let me apple this grapefruit.” Further, he said, “There are so many people who do that so well, better than I could ever do it, and I do what I do, whatever it is I do, better than anybody else, but I also may be the only one doing it.”
Maybe. He admitted he thought “The Babadook” was a “masterpiece” and he spent a couple years “obsessed” with “I Saw the Devil,” another masterpiece in his eyes. So he knows there are other horror films out there ready to scare with jumps and design.
What surprised me most, maybe, was del Toro’s passion for literature, and reading. “What I love most is books,” he stumped, before an aside: “and movies.” His two favorites, he said, are Juan Rulfo and Jorge Luis Borges. Any fan of Borges knows this affinity to be true from the very title of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but this name dropping echoed an earlier statement in the talk, when del Toro talked about how most of his movies are set in a house, or some closed structure, that is meant to be an analogy for a brain, how it compartmentalizes things, how it isn’t linear, how it, too, is encased.
The film shown after the talk, “The Devil’s Backbone,” bears more family resemblance to Rulfo’s work, though, del Toro said, in its tactility. He quoted a passage describing the air as thick with sand and nails that could scratch into your throat. He also said Pedro Almodóvar, who produced ‘Backbone,’ thought it was two movies at first, and asked how del Toro would pull them off at the same time. “Sheer will!” he exclaimed, which seems to carry over to the present day. Describing his upcoming “Crimson Peak,” which he showed an extended preview for, a kind of exhibitor’s reel, he said he gave up all his back end, all his points, just to be able to make an R-rated horror movie. Even the trailer tells us the crimson is evident everywhere, most notably the snow drenched in blood surrounding waif Mia Wasikowska, alone in that dead space with only a knife and a nightgown.
But before the final clip reel and the intermission before ‘Backbone,’ del Toro returned to an important point echoing his “Pan’s Labyrinth” answer: “Do you think there is really a line between America and Mexico? It’s a story we agreed upon! … Hopefully, as the world grows beyond gender, we too will grow beyond borders and realize we are all in this together, we are the same country… The genocide and atrocities committed by the drug cartels and their reach into the government should not be ignored. Here, there. There are terrible things happening in my home and I urge you to speak out about them, forward messages, emails, whatever you young people do, tweet. I don’t even check my mail, so what do I know. Just tell people.” I may not be a fan of his art, but he won me over big time as a man.