Go, Guillermo!

Go, Guillermo!
Director Guillermo Del Toro talks with Horror.com about Hitchcock, Hollywood, horror, and human nature.
Updated: 06-01-2009

Interview by Staci Layne Wilson for Horror.com

When Guadalajara-born director Guillermo del Toro was a young child, about two years old, he woke up one night after watching an Outer Limits episode called The Mutant and was so scared by it that he actually saw green ants marching on his wall and was convinced there were monsters lurking in his closet. That's exactly the moment, he says, when he made a pact with the stuff of nightmares: He told them, "If you're nice to me and let me get up and go to the bathroom, I'll devote my life to you". And that, he says, is the reason he makes horror movies.

He started directing homemade horror when he was eight years old, using a Super-8 camera, then moved on to a 16mm. When del Toro grew up, he founded his own monster and makeup effects company, Necropia, and worked on several features and TV movies. Meanwhile, del Toro wrote and directed numerous episodes of a TV horror anthology, Hora Marcada. Before long, he was making his first feature film, an offbeat vampire story he called Cronos (1993). In its native country, the film swept the Ariel de Oro Awards (Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars), taking the Best Picture and First Feature prizes, as well as Best Director and Screenplay for del Toro. Cronos won the Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was also Mexico's official Best Foreign Film entry for the Academy Awards in 1994.

Del Toro followed Cronos up with something completely different: a big budget Hollywood splash called Mimic (1997). The mutant bug movie was met with mixed reviews, and del Toro felt less than satisfied by his experience making a film under the constraints of a studio. Returning to Mexico, del Toro formed his own production company, The Tequila Gang, and made a much more intimate and personal thriller, which he called The Devil's Backbone (2001). The Devil's Backbone is a poignant ghost story set at the end of the Spanish Civil War, in a run-down and haunted boys' school for Republican Army orphans. Now satisfied and now savvy about what Hollywood could offer him, del Toro went to work on a big-budget sequel, the vampire thriller based on a series of graphic novels, Blade 2 (2002). Next up for del Toro is the devilish adaptation of another comic book character, Hellboy (coming in 2004).

Horror.com sat down with the director - appropriately enough, on Halloween - to talk about the recent release of the special edition DVD of Cronos, and the horror genre in all it darkness and light.


Staci Layne Wilson: Mostly the reaction I get when I tell people about the Cronos 10th Anniversary Edition DVD is, "My god! Has it been 10 years already?" What's yours?

Guillermo del Toro: That's how I feel about it, too! I made the movie when I was 28, 29 and now I'm older on a personal and professional level -- it's very daunting.

SLW: Why that choice of words? Daunting?

GDT: Well, it's daunting just to see how much time has passed. I've done five movies in 10 years, basically a movie every two years. Like everybody, I have some regrets. Like, I should have done more, maybe I should have done this or done that. But at the end of the day, I think it's great to see that the movie I'm doing now, which is Hellboy, and the movie I first did, both reflect what I believe to be a very intimate view of the world. So that much makes me feel satisfied, but it's still very daunting how fast time flies.

SLW: In my experience, I saw your movies in sort of reverse order -- first I saw Mimic, then Blade 2, then The Devil's Backbone, and finally, Cronos.

GDT: Wow, you did go in reverse.

SLW: Yeah, I did. I've got to say, my personal favorite was The Devil's Backbone. When you meet the fans, which movie do you find they most often mention?

GDT: I think there's no disagreement anywhere, even with me, that of the ones that have been released The Devil's Backbone is the best. And it is without a doubt my favorite, but I think Hellboy is going to take it's place, for me at least.

SLW: I can't wait to see it myself, but I must confess complete ignorance about the comic book character of Hellboy.

GDT: Well, Devil's Backbone is much deeper and it's more literary but Hellboy -- I think there are two aspects to my personality. One that is fun and likes to do more pulp stuff, and another one that likes to do more lyrical stuff. More poetic horror, if you would. I think that people, in that sense, like Devil's Backbone and funnily enough, the second one they mention is Blade 2 which is the exact opposite of the coin. In that aspect, I think Hellboy is going to take the place of Blade 2 as the more pulpish comic-book oriented type of fantasy.

SLW: On the Cronos DVD, what really fascinated me -- well, there were lots of things, but what struck me most and hooked me in was the very beginning, with the priest in the 1500s who invented the Cronos Device. Do you have any interest in revisiting that time period on film?

GDT: I have a couple of projects that are set in that period, and I think it would be a very interesting time period to do a big horror adventure but it hasn't happened yet for some reason. I have about six or seven screenplays that are on the shelf, that are waiting. Devil's Backbone was one of them for more than a decade and a half. You know, no one wanted to do it for different reasons -- economical, political, whatever -- and I think once it was done, people went 'Oh, so that's what you meant'. So, one of these days one of those will happen. But definitely, I'm very interested.

SLW: I liked what you did with just that little part.

GDT: My idea back then was actually… I wouldn't say subversive, but I really wanted to make Cronos open like a Hollywood movie and then go into a completely different direction, which is almost like a day to day perspective on a boring life and how this person that is very common, how would they react to what is a Hollywood premise? Yes, if you open the movie like that and then you go to Tom Cruise, well…

SLW: Mmm. I have to admit, maybe being a chick, I like Lestat. But I must say Frederico Luppi is an interesting departure from the Hollywoodesque mythology. One thing I must know: how did he react to having to lap nosebleed dregs off a bathroom floor?

GDT: I told him, 'You should lap it as if you were lapping champagne from the navel of the most beautiful model'. Because you know, in reality when you want to represent hunger pure and simple, it's better to do it as a detached concept. Most of us would love to bite Winona Ryder, but not everyone would lick the floor of a toilet. To me, it represents the purest moment of just the urge and the hunger.

SLW: Ron Perlman is also a standout in the movie. You've worked with him several times now, but how did he initially come into your radar?

GDT: The thing with Ron is that he was always an actor I loved watching as a character actor. To me, his best performance was in The Name of the Rose, as Salvatore. I was just amazed that this same guy who created this perfect, Lon Chaney Quasimodo type of character -- that was all at the same time repulsive and sweet and empathic and sad -- could also create The Beast on the TV show. In that he was majestic and beautiful and noble and handsome and powerful. What a guy -- that's quite a range as an actor. I just kept thinking of the characters in Cronos as three-dimensional Latin characters against two very two-dimensional American villains. I felt that Ron was perfect to add a little bit of idiosyncrasy to this character.

SLW: He's always so fun to watch. I liked the part in Cronos where he's in the antique store, and the scenes with his uncle are great, too. He was wonderful in Blade 2, so I really can't wait for Hellboy, in which he plays the title role.

GDT: I loved watching Ron in The Last Supper or in small parts, like Alien 4. He's one of the last tough actors for me like Lee Marvin was, one of these Lee Marvin / James Coburn tough guys but with a heart of gold.

SLW: Alfred Hitchcock once said that production was his least favorite part of the filmmaking process -- he's pretty much already made the movie in his mind and the rest is all just going through the motions. What about you?

GDT: For me, it's an ever-evolving adventure. I think that, obviously, Hitchcock was a genius. Hitchcock was a unique case in film history. Though there might be others that can claim that type of position, like Kubrick or Spielberg. I view film as a discovery. I think you discover film every day. You discover it on the set, you discover it on the page, you discover it in the editing room, and finally, you discover it with an audience. I think the movies never cease to evolve. Movies through time grows apart or grows closer to you. There are many, many movies that I used to not like as a younger guy that as I grew older I fell in love with. And vice versa. There are movies that I used to adore that I watch now and think, 'How juvenile'. Movies to me are ever-evolving and I don't see them as a dissected and mounted creature at any point of the process.

SLW: By that token, 10 years later you are still in the process of making Cronos, what with the new commentary on the DVD and in just talking about it. When you're making a film now, are you already thinking ahead to the DVD?

GDT: Yes. The Devil's Backbone came out a few months after 9/11, and it was a very difficult time to release a movie about war. It was distributed in the States with only 16 copies. But I knew the move would find its true afterlife in DVD. And it happened: it's a very steady seller and it's a movie that has found most of its audience in the DVD format. And so I am extremely careful about, whether or not you already saw the movie in the theatre, when you buy the DVD you get a very rich and informative context into which to watch the movie or know more about it. With Hellboy, we have been preparing the DVD content for as many months as we've been shooting. We are going to come out with a really super-rich DVD edition.

SLW: As a fan of the DVD format, I appreciate your thinking ahead that way, because so many of the special editions simply aren't. I mean, if a movie is to be added to your permanent collection and not just rented, there needs to be a little extra incentive to buy.

GDT: I think so. There are actually very few studios or filmmakers that really care for the DVD. I see in some cases the studio just puts a movie out with no frills because they think it's going to sell anyway. But to me, it's the most beautiful dialogue with an audience. That is why I try, for example with the commentary tracks, to be wall-to-wall.

SLW: You did make an interesting comment in an interview I read recently, where you likened DVD commentaries to home-schooling for aspiring filmmakers. I thought that was a brilliant observation.

GDT: Yeah. I know that for me, there's nothing better than a giant glass of Diet Coke with ice, and watching a DVD with the commentary track on. I just put a little notebook on my lap and prepare to learn, you know?

SLW: I once interviewed you on the press line at the L.A. premiere for CQ. Talk about a great DVD, jam-packed with information. And the movie was wonderful, too. I know you liked it. I must say, I felt almost a personal affront when audiences didn't respond to that movie either on the big screen or DVD. So much was put into that movie; it must be a bit of soul-crusher for the filmmaker when that happens.

GDT: I feel the same way. But CQ came out at a relatively weird time. They were very serious times I mean, and I think everyone was discussing the war or the possibility or war, and terrorism and this and that, and there were some very heavy topics in the air. CQ was, to me, one of the most beautiful, brisk, breezy, smart homages to a very small area of interest to filmmakers, which is the pop sci-fi that was done in Europe in the 60s and 70s -- Danger Diabolique, Barbarella, and so forth. It was so perfect. I think, as you say, people don't realize how much went into making it. It was so effortlessly charming, people must have thought, 'Well, it doesn't look like a hard movie to do'. It's a great DVD, and I think [director] Roman Coppola is a true talent.



"One simple truth is clear to me in this: film is like religion. Film is as strong to people and as personal to people as religion." (Image (c) 2003 Enzo Giobbe)


SLW: I hope he'll do more.

GDT: I do, too.

SLW: On your own films, do you read the reviews?

GDT: Yes, I do. I read every review, good or bad. I never believed that there would come a time where I would learn to take them with a grain of salt. I took them personally when I was younger. I've tried to learn -- quite frankly -- to learn from them. I tried to see where something failed, where something was wrecked, and I found the true conclusion is that there is no such a thing as someone being right.

I used to review movies, and I was brutal when I didn't like them. One simple truth is clear to me in this: film is like religion. Film is as strong to people and as personal to people as religion. Ultimately, cinema has evolved beyond an art form and has become the iconography of the end of the century. You know, people have their saints and their demons, and they see the world through their eyes and the media's eyes. And when a movie reflects an opposite view of how they think things should be, they take it very personally. They take it incredibly personal, and they get… you cannot have someone not like a movie and not be passionate about it: 'I haaated that thing!' Or if you go onto the Internet there are no middle grounds on message boards. They'll say either Brian de Palma is a genius, or Brian de Palma sucks eggs in hell. There is no middle ground.

SLW: American movies have a bad rep for bloodiness. There was one Mexican movie…I can't remember the name, but there was an armless woman in a traveling carnival, terrible child abuse, and...

GDT: Oh, Santa Sangre.Yes, but that's quite different because that's [Alejandro] Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky, starting with his first movie, which was El Topo, utilizes blood like no one else. I mean, Jodorowsky is a master of what I call transcendental violence. The guy has an incredibly spiritual view of the world, but he understands that part of human nature is the physical nature of bodies and violence is the best way to reflect that. I remember in El Topo, there are literally lakes and lakes and rivers of blood. People are walking for miles on blood, and I was always intrigued by how ultimately poetic his movies were. I think that Jodorowsky is a unique case and to me is a true genius.

SLW: Sometimes when I tell people I write horror, they ask, 'Why actively put horror into the world? Isn't there enough already?' Do people give you that line, too?

GDT: Very rarely, but I had to hear that for years from my family, especially my grandmother, whom I grew up with. She was on her deathbed, and I was showing her my portfolio of makeup effects and she said, 'Why were you never able to do something beautiful?' I said to her, 'To me, this is beautiful.' I think it's a very simple question and people have the right to ask it, but the answer is equally simple: Art is a reconstruction of the world, and violence and horror are absolutely as much part of the world as butterflies and happy faces. There are so many more people trying to sell us the bullshit that the world has to be happy and the world has to be sunny, and you have to have good breath and shiny hair. With this, we lose touch with imperfection and that makes for a really harsh, cold measure to live by. I think horror makes us human, because it reminds us of our imperfection.

SLW: Have you ever considered doing a movie of a different genre?

GDT: Never. No, part of the fact that I've done only five movies in 10 years comes from that. If I wanted to cash in and be rich, I could be a super-millionaire by now and done 10 movies. I've been offered in the past incredibly lucrative movies and franchises, and basically I say no and I explain it the best way I can, but I tell people I cannot really see myself arriving to the set and realize I have to do a movie I am not interested in. I really can't. I don't see myself ever doing a movie I don't believe could be great. I can fail doing horror -- I mean, to me, Mimic is a terribly flawed movie. But it could have been great. The only thing you cannot allow of yourself is to phone it in. If you ever see a movie of mine that you dislike, that is wrongly done, take one thing for granted: I busted my ass making it.

SLW: But you do enjoy watching films of other genres, don't you?

GDT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! In the same way that I love movies with a lot of dialogue, I hate shooting dialogue. Actually, most of my DVD collection is taken up by comedy, anime, animation, and children's films. The section of horror is very selective actually, because I've seen so much and don't just like everything. I'm not a mindless fan. I don't go to every horror movie there is and like them. I like the ones I find interesting and thought-provoking.

SLW: That's interesting, because it kind of leads to my next question, which is that some of the best horror directors really aren't considered horror directors. Like David Fincher. Or for me, an underrated director of horror is Neal Jordan who did a magnificent job with vampires in Interview with the Vampire and with werewolves in In the Company of Wolves.

GDT: I just bought that DVD. In the Company of Wolves.


"Art is a reconstruction of the world, and violence and horror are absolutely as much part of the world as butterflies and happy faces." (Image (c) 2003 Enzo Giobbe)

SLW: So, can you recommend some directors to our readers at Horror.com that are sort of underrated?

GDT: I think that if you open yourself wider to the definition of horror, you can enjoy a lot of movies that have truly deep, earth-shattering horror moments without being necessarily classified as horror. As you said, In the Company of Wolves, is a prime example of that. I think even things like The Seventh Seal, the Bergman movie, that is to me a beautiful fantasy, or Beauty and the Beast, the Jean Cocteau movie. Eyes Without a Face, George Franju, which is a neglected masterpiece. You can find a lot of European horror that was done without saying, 'We're doing horror movies' -- movies that were just closer to fantasy.

The same is true in Japan. There are two movies that are fantastic: Kuroneko and Onibaba, which were made in the 60s or 70s in black and white, and they were ghost stories but they were not done exploitatively. They were samurai movies set in Medieval Japan with ghosts and goblins and horrible things that go bump in the night but were not necessarily done with an exploitation mind. There is Kwaidan, which is a beautiful and traditional Japanese tale and it was made in the 70s and is really a terrific movie. And so on and so forth. There are so many that contain moments of true without being about a guy with a machete chopping people up, you know?

SLW: I did want to get your take on a couple of specific movies that I thought were somewhat overlooked by American audiences, which do contain moments of real horror and yet don't fit into the box. They're more dark fantasies, but I think horror fans would really like them. One is The Red Violin. Did you see that one?

GDT: Absolutely, and I agree with you totally. I think it's a beautiful dark faerie tale. But that's the main thing: To me, what is attractive about horror is the fantasy element of it. I think that whenever a movie makes you dream and transports you to another place and even a another reality, that is certainly in The Red Violin. That's a great fantasy movie.

SLW: Another one is The Brotherhood of the Wolf, which blends so many genres without losing it's focus. I mean, there's horror, there's legend, there's mystery, a bit of CSI, and bit of Western, there's romance, and even some out of this world martial arts… and yet it all totally works together.

GDT: I agree with you on that, too. That's a movie I really enjoyed, because when I was doing Cronos I was thinking, I'm going to put everything I can think of in cinema in this movie.

SLW: And you could do that, because a big studio's marketing department wasn't calling the shots.

GDT: Yes. In reality, in Mexico and Europe and all those places except America, the director is the one that calls the shots. But not in the studio system. The studio system is run by the accountants and most of the time they don't care, but there are rare exceptions. Most of these guys will try to apply a stupid, obtuse logic to a genre that thrives on fantasy. They'll go, 'But, uh, do you really need martial arts for the werewolf movie in that era? I think you should have more romance and an explosion or two'. To them, it's so linear. It's actually a surprise that America can generate the great horror movies that is does, every now and then.

SLW: We've seen a lot of chainsaw dismemberments and teenager-kabobs being consumed in horror movies this year. As a filmmaker, is there anything that's taboo for you?

GDT: I think there are many things I could do that would bother people, that would just make them nauseated, but if you don't think in your most sincere mind that it's going to create a deeper resonance, then you should just go for the effect for fun. If you're going to do something disturbing, then you should make it truly disturbing. Something that is going to stay with people for decades to come. I tried to do some of that on Devil's Backbone, but if you're going to do something really disgusting it should be in a lighter spirit, like, we tried to be very light in Blade 2. Yet, people come out offended sometimes. That was a very gory movie, and I try to explain it was cartoon. It's Tom and Jerry. They say, 'But it has no screenplay'. I didn't write it, and it's a cartoon. Once again, do you need to have a great story behind Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote? Blade is the Roadrunner, and the vampires are the Coyote.

SLW: You mentioned scenes that stay with you, even if they're not so-called 'taboo'. For me, the visual of the melancholy, drowned ghost child in The Devil's Backbone sticks with me. I thought it was brilliant how you had him always with phantom water around him and tendrils of his blood floating up from his fatal head wound. It's not an overt thing with guts hanging out and his corpse isn't rotting, but still, it sears in the mind.

GDT: It think that horror has the power to amuse you, if it's just a giggly scare, or it has the power to transform you if it's a deeply-seated horror movie. For example, for some people, The Exorcist was that. For me, there is a European movie called Possession, which deeply affected me. We're talking about a Polish filmmaker that did this movie without saying, 'I'm doing horror'. But you see, Eastern Europe lived that brutal chapter in World War II which gets reflected in the films of that generation of Polish and Slavic and German filmmakers. Like Polanski, or Slavski, and Tchaicovski. They do some horror elements without being necessarily horror.

SLW: Going back to The Exorcist, which had an impact on me as a young child, was re-released a few years ago. And now Alien, a movie I saw when I was 12 or 13 and scared me, is currently being re-released on the big screen. What I find somewhat disconcerting with younger, modern audiences now is that they are laughing out loud at these movies, as if they were sheer comedy. Do you think our sense of horror has been diluted by too many spoofs, or what? Are young audiences just jaded now?

GDT: I read an article about 10 years ago called "The Tyranny of Cool". It basically implied that in the 50s there was the beatnik concept of being cool, which meant being against The Man and being laid back and doing your own thing, and not being a puppet of the system -- and sort of tweaked it into being cynical and cold just for the sake of being cynical and cold. I think that we live in a world in which there is an enormous amount of disdain associated with any act that has any emotional content in it. We live in a world where we are afraid to cry, afraid to laugh [with joy], we're afraid to show our tender side or our vulnerable side. And with some reason, because this same world has created an enormous amount of people that are ready to poke, with a very sharp stick, anything soft. And I think that The Exorcist was done in much less cynical times, and it was playing to principals of quote-unquote normalcy and quote-unquote decency that are not applicable anymore. Now it is a much more anarchic time and the audience wants to be not only with the movie, but ahead of the movie in a very post-modern way. I find these interesting times in which to be alive but not necessarily the most rewarding.

SLW: Wow. You're deep, Guillermo. And here I thought these kids were just little ankle biters out to waste the my $9.50 admission fee! For example, I saw The Ring as reviewer, and I liked it well enough to go back with a friend and pay to see it. The whole experience was ruined by a group of adolescent girls who not only heckled and laughed throughout the whole thing, but even shouted with glee when the horse was killed. I found it not only annoying, but disturbing. Since when is the death of an innocent animal amusing?

GDT: Yes, but you must remember, we are going through the adolescence of the human experience. I think in these times we are all the teenagers of this world. And as teenagers, you try to show how tough you are and you show it at the least provocation.

"I think that if you open yourself wider to the definition of horror, you can enjoy a lot of movies that have truly deep, earth-shattering horror moments without being necessarily classified as horror." (Image (c) 2003 Enzo Giobbe)

SLW: Can you recommend some of your favorite non-horror movies?

GDT: Obviously, this is going to be a very incomplete list. There are a lot of them.

SLW: Just reel off whatever comes to mind.

GDT: I would say that for comedy, Chaplin's City Lights, The Great Dictator, Modern Times, The Gold Rush. The Young and the Damned and The Brute; those are great movies by Buñuel. And then from Hitchcock Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, Frenzy, Psycho, The Birds, and North By Northwest. I would recommend from Mario Bava; Black Sunday and Kill Baby Kill. And I would recommend The Shop Around The Corner from Ernst Lubich, and That Uncertain Feeling, The Student Prince, also by Lubich, and from Von Stroheim, Greed. From Orson Wells I would recommend very much The Stranger, and A Touch of Evil even beyond and above Citizen Kane. In comedy, definitely Preston Sturgess's Sullivan's Travels. I think those are timeless movies.

I have an anecdote: When laserdisk started, I was very broke and I was just going to buy my 10 favorite movies… that collection grew to 800. My 'favorites' in movies are about 800, and still its very incomplete. I mean, I can talk about film and recommend movies for hours and hours.

SLW: We've talked about Hitchcock; one of my favorite films of his, which I suppose isn't very 'Hitchcockian', is Rebecca. What did you think of that movie?

GDT: It's a movie in which he was so screwed up with by Selznick, I don't see it as a really Hitchcockian movie, either. Although I do love the movie. But I think that it changed Hitchcock's life in a good and in a bad way. I think that his British period was purer than his American period, but his American period was technically more proficient and in some cases in terms of content, more perverse -- which was great. I mean, some of his American movies were truly perverse and anarchic. He was always so well-respected, so that was a beautiful dichotomy.

SLW: Since this interview is for Horror.com, I must ask what you think of the Internet in terms of films. On the one hand Titanic owes much of its success to the Internet buzz amongst the fan girls, and I don't think a lot of people really realize that. There were email campaigns on the newsgroups and such, urging everyone to see it again and again to break box office records. And yet, some pretty virulent stuff has been posted about movies, and now it's gone so far as some actors refusing to speak to Internet journalists. What's your take on all that?

GDT: Well, I think [filmmakers] need to ask not what the Internet can do for them, but what they can do the Internet, so to speak. I personally like to dive in. I find it a real reflection of reality. I dive into it, and I love it. It's not going to go away, and I really enjoy it. I have been praised and I have been maligned on the Internet. I have been called bad names and I have been called nice names. I think it's sort of a cyber public market. It's a place where you can see a film being saved, or you can see a pretty good movie actually being damned.

As you say, this is the case of Titanic and so forth, and there are other movies I find are not as well-received and I still go to see them and I ultimately like them. But there is so much media other than the Internet, but I'd say the Internet keeps a very fresh, smart and I would say very open balance in comparison to the fluff TV shows. I think it's important to not lose your perspective, and a lot of Hollywood people just don't like to read anything negative about themselves. It's not going away, and I think if you use it positively, it's a fantastic form of communication. I think that if you find the Internet too aggressive, then you're too old.

SLW: Agreed. Thank you, Guillermo. Happy Halloween.

GDT: It's been a pleasure.

(left to right) Leonor Varela, Wesley Snipes, and Guillermo del Toro. (Image (c) 2003 Enzo Giobbe)

Latest User Comments:
guillermo del toro
It's nice to see that a great modern mexican filmmaker gives props to a legend from underground mexican cinema chilenean Alejandro Jodorowsky, viva del toro!
04-07-2004 by aaron soto discuss
JOswa of ROswell EDition
it´s cool, bye.
01-03-2004 by jOswa discuss