Hellboy: Guillermo Del Toro

Hellboy: Guillermo Del Toro
Staci Wilson talks to the director about comic books, boxes of kittens, and human frailty.
Updated: 04-03-2004

Hellboy writer/director Guillermo del Toro has a memory that I am convinced must be the envy of elephants everywhere. I have interviewed him just three times over the past couple of years; our most recent chat being several months back, over the phone. Yet, at the Hellboy junket when I reminded him of a light subject we talked about very briefly, he instantly remembered my name (and he didn't even call me "Traci" which earns him extra points). I'm suitably impressed; of course, I already know the nimble-minded auteur has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from film to ferrets, so I'm not necessarily surprised.

What does surprise me -- maybe only a little since del Toro is, after all, one of my favorite directors -- is how much I enjoyed Hellboy. I've been a bit fed up with the mudslide of comic book adaptations over the past few years, and couldn't help but wonder if Hellboy would be just another in a long line of forgettable flicks. I'm pleased to report that the characters are not only fun and memorable, but you actually wind up liking them and wanting to see more of their adventures to come.

Hellboy, the brainchild of artist Mike Mignola, has been in the works for a long time. Bringing it to the big screen has been a real labor of love for the director, as he explained at the junket.

How does it feel to finally see your dream on the big screen?

Guillermo de Toro: I feel very good. This journey was more than half a decade, so I can't believe that we... I was always waiting for the other gigantic shoe to drop. And fortunately in this case, it didn't. I feel that with Devil's Backbone, I reached a point that I was happy with a small, personal movie of mine. I felt that I was happy with that one, and to a degree this is the first movie I've done in the bigger budget scale that I feel I started, I initiated, and I finished the way I wanted. I'm feeling a happy threshold to start new things. I very happy with this one.

Are you nervous about its opening, or is the whole thing behind you now?

I'm nervous until Monday. Whatever it does, it does. Basically, I remember when in high school I was nervous about asking a girl out and I felt much better after the no or the yes. I can deal with that easily, what is really kind of a killer is the impasse. The pendulum swing, the moment where you don't know if it's going to come back. So you know, I think by Monday [after opening weekend] I'll be OK.

It's impossible to tell how a movie is going to be received when you're in the production process, but now you're starting to get some feedback. What's been the word so far?

So far, it's been great. Abraham Lincoln used to say, "For the people that like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like." And I think that when you make a movie and you try to make it with your personality and respect the personality of the source material and all that, it will find it's audience whatever that audience is. That's impossible to calculate, but it's a movie done sincerely, balls to the wall the way it should have been done, and it's shamelessly marching towards its own destiny. The only thing you can say with a movie at the end of the day, the only measure of success to me is when you say, "I'm proud of it," or "I'm not proud of it." And this one, I am. So it's a measure of success for me.

I haven't read the comic books, so I don't know if they were a factor; but I loved the cats in the movie. Can you talk a little bit about that?

In a silly way, I secretly hope that people will see the movies I make more than once. Like, to me, Devil's Backbone is a movie that if you see five times you will still find new things. And Hellboy [Ron Perlman], in the same way, is... I kind of coded who he was in his origin. If you pay attention closely the first time you see him, he is next to a stone statue of a cat. And his father is [gentle] but also a sergeant who has a big cigar and says, "Crap. That's a load of crap!" I said, "I want to make him the son of those circumstances." I felt that it was just so neat to have such a huge guy coexist with these needy little creatures. You know, just rubbing against his chin while he's writing a love letter. It sets him up, and it's not in the comics.

Well, you and I once had an interesting conversation about ferrets. So I hope to see ferrets in your next movie.

Yes, yes. In a way, Staci, they're the equivalent of ferrets. Because these are animals that, when they reach that number, they're almost... This guy has no contact with human beings. He gets taken out with a leash to sniff a trail, and then they put him back in the kennel. So this is his family. That's why in this big action sequence, I wanted to put in a box of kittens. He goes, "Oh my god. I will destroy the entire train station, but I've got to protect these kittens!"

Isn't it a little risky to have a bunch of cats wandering around on a high-tech movie set? Wouldn't they get into stuff?

They did. [laughs] To me, the movies are about little textures and I love having sort of a moving set. It's a surprise for me when Hellboy is writing, and the cat starts rubbing on the letter. It's the little details. Let me give you an example: We went to great lengths to do a shot in the movie when he is in the background and in the foreground a piece of paper unfolds and you see "Dear Liz." I mean, that's totally an unneeded effect, its not a thing I think most people will notice, but little touches like that make it quirky.

The movie is full of nods and winks to the fans but it's made for anybody to be able to watch it. So if you don't notice the pancake joke as insider, at least you'll notice he's going to swallow fifty pounds of pancakes!

But the Myers character is not in the comic books, right?

What I wanted was, to do a character that leads us into that world. I interviewed every young actor in Hollywood. A lot of them were just too cute and too Calvin Klein beautiful to put in the movie. I liked Rupert [Evans] because he had such an open face, and he had a real innocence about him. If you read the Arthurian legends, you know, there's always Sir Lancelot. There's always that guy that comes in that is pure of heart and comes into an environment that is sort of petering into decadence. He walks in, and he sort of revives that whole thing. I purposely made Myers not the comic relief, and not the guy who says, "Holy crap! What is that?" He's not the guy that says the funny things or this or that, he is actually the straight arrow in the movie. I said to Rupert, "The only thing that your character has to do, instinctively, is do the right thing."

Can you talk about the rest of the cast?

This is a movie that I have felt more blessed, casting-wise, and I have had the best time working with the actors, the most fun working with the actors. I think we were lucky in that everybody from the guy who did Abe Sapien [Doug Jones] to Agent Clay [Corey Johnson], or this or that, to Hellboy -- it was a dream cast for me. The idea was to utilize the actors in a different way from how they'd been used before. Selma [Blair, who plays Liz] is known for her comedy, screwball comedy type of things, and I always saw a haunting quality in her eyes and in her look. Sort of a doomed, gothic beauty in her. John Hurt basically doesn't do genre movies, or big movies. But seeing him in Love and Death in Long Island, I said, "This is the guy to have that little air of tragedy about him, and he is Broom." Jeffrey Tambor, everybody expects him to be riot from the start and I wanted him to be an absolute asshole in the beginning, and play it straight. And then eventually find his footing in his own bright, comedic type of humor. And so on, and so forth. Just using them in a different way than they have been put to test before is real interesting with the actors.

Why did you want so much to make this movie?

I was shooting Mimic and basically going through the equivalent of open-heart surgery without anesthesia. And I was in the middle of that shoot and Hellboy was almost like clove oil in Marathon Man. It was like, "This is heaven. This is purity." And it reminded me of the joy of creating a world and all this -- the comic. I thought it would be impossible in a Hollywood scheme, in a Hollywood structure. Then, years later, I heard about it being made and I said, "I have to do it." This was six years ago, before any comparable movies were being made, before even The Matrix was on the horizon. So it took a lot of effort and work to find the place; it took six years but I was invested personally because in '97 when I started writing it, I decided to make it about two things that were personal to me.

One is, my father had just been kidnapped for 72 days. We freed him, we got him back, and for the first time in my life I felt I was not somebody's son, I was a man. I had my own children, I was alone in another country, I had to leave Mexico. I felt like sort of an outcast, but at the same time was very firm about being a man. And I wanted to also give my own version of what love is. Through my marriage with my wife -- we've been together 21 years so far -- one of the things I find is beautiful is that we love each other because we have defects, as opposed to demanding from each other perfection.

I said, "If we can say all that and still -- as Hitchcock used to say -- put that cyanide inside of a bon-bon and people enjoy it, but you're not giving them a message to be conformed to things that are neat and happy." If you can give then security in their uniqueness and all that, I felt that it would be a very personal movie to make. It took a long time, but it was made.

So that's why you felt the love story was so important?

There's a moment where Myers in the movie says to Liz, "We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects." The love story is sort of an anti-Beauty and the Beast in the sense that normally in the Beauty and the Beast they'll demand purity from the beauty and transformation from the beast. That sort of annuls everything. What I wanted to say is, "It's OK to have a dark side." You have to actually make peace with it, and still make the right decisions.

I've had a dark side in my imagination and my mind since I was a child. I could have easily just fabricated bombs or robbed banks, or... put that intelligence or that craftsmanship to work in that. But I decided to create something in an art form. And I feel that in Hellboy, what is incredible is, the movie doesn't deny his nature. Selma Blair, at the end of the movie, makes peace with her fire nature, you know? She takes charge of her fire nature, and to me the almost fairy-tale kiss at the end is "Beast and the Beast" saying, "We can live happily ever after, because you don't have to be perfect."

Are these classic themes what makes comic books and movies so popular?

Well, I'm not attracted to Superman because he is white bread. He is almost like a CIA operative. It's like, he is always right and blindly embraces the principles of land and country. Batman is a darker character in the book, but not like he's been done in movies so far. To me, the great thing about Hellboy is that he is an incredibly flawed and human comic book figure. I mean, the guy is ninety-percent Achilles' Heel. First of all, there are unspoken rules in Hollywood where they say, "You cannot see the hero fail. You have to have your hero save the day, always. You cannot see him vanquished."

Hellboy screws up. People under him die. People he loves, he fails to protect. I mean, he is not there -- he is doing a jealously / rage number when his father [gets into trouble]. Those are things that make him human. The fact that he miscalculates a Matrix jump, and he falls. These things, for me, make him more touchable. It makes him more human. Usually superhero fantasies are power trips. I think it's very nice to say, "If I had super powers, I would steal a beer. I would throw a stone at the guy courting my girl." These are petty, but I think they're incredibly human things that make him reachable.

Were you just reading the comic book as a fan when you first discovered it?

Yeah. It'd been years since I read a superhero comic, a decade or more. I went to it [because of] Mignola who is one of my favorite gothic artists, you know, doing the adaptation of Dracula and Batman, Gotham By Gaslight, things like that. And when I read Hellboy the comic, I thought, "I want to be Hellboy when I grow up." And I was 33 [laughs]. That made me recognize there is a sort of a very childish admiration, if you would, for this. I think that there is this dumb, male, big male quality about Hellboy that makes him endearing. I like that he wears his heart on his sleeve.

He faces danger with a dismissive sense of humor.

But what it is, is all the humor in the movie comes from him being a blue collar guy. I mean really, the guy is... his attitude is that of a plumber who is there to fix your leaky faucet. "Once again, we're here." He says, "Could we talk about this? Could we not fight? I just want to go home and drink a beer and watch TV." It doesn't happen and he goes, "Oh crap, I gotta go in and bang those pipes again." It's a very blue collar sense of the superhero duty.

I heard you were interested in making Mountain Madness. Didn't you do that with Hellboy?

The H.P. Lovecraft aspect of Mignola's universe, I think is, touched on only in that there are tentacles and stuff like that. But the great thing about Lovecraft is that it's almost like the loneliness of man before the universe. Lovecraft is about us -- instead of being the center of creation and God's greatest work, Lovecraft says, "You know, you're not!" [laughs] -- we're like an afterthought, a joke. It's those infinite, empty spaces that scare me so much.

Obviously, a movie is separate from a comic book and you have to make your own thing but I saw certain parts of the movie where you replicated panels from the comic book. Can you talk about that?

The main thing with that is, there were and there are emblematic moments that are pure Hellboy. There are certain watermarks that you need to hit, in the same way that Batman has to have that damn bat-cave and a bat-mobile. Or Spiderman has to shoot a web. Those are pulp elements that you have to hit for it not to be an indiscernible comic book origin. We tried to hit all those Hellboy [things] -- beating the crap out of a falling monster, or standing in front of a statue with a gun, etc., etc. All those iconic Mignola moments. But at the same time, the movie is a movie and the comic is a comic, and they live next-door to each other. But they're different guys, and what we tried to do was, "If we cannot translate the comic exactly, we can try to be as visually experimental as the comic book is." I really forced myself to find a color language and a texture language. In a movie, that was very exacting. Like the comic book is limited to a certain palette and certain type of shapes and textures and all that, you know, it's a movie that says as much through textures and colors as it says through story.

Were you hoping, at first, to have a big star? A "name"?

Never. The secret of this movie is that Ron Perlman has been a star for me since 1992. I first saw him in Quest For Fire, then I saw him in Name of the Rose and I was really blown away. I wanted to know who this guy was, and when the time came to cast him in Cronos, my first movie, without any commercial intentions, obviously, my producer said, "Who is the guy you want for the part?" And I was talking about this Mexican actor, that Mexican actor, and he said, "He can be French, he can be Italian; who is the perfect guy for you?" And I said, "The guy from Name of the Rose. That guy!"

It's taken twelve years for me to make my sort of love poem to Ron Perlman [laughs]. I am so disgusted with all this obsession with youth; you know, I addressed it in Cronos and I've addressed it in other things. I think Hollywood lives to see the Calvin Klein model of the moment, and I miss Lee Marvin; I miss Steve McQueen; I miss these guys that are rugged, no bullshit Robert Duvall type action guys that are character actors and that take charge of a movie. I think Ron is that. Someone on the Internet said I have a crush on him. They're probably right [laughs].

What was it like working with Mignola? He's an associate producer on this.

Mike and I have the blessing of [working together previously]. When I did Blade 2 I had passed on the screenplay twice and third time I was about to pass, David [Goyer's] lawyer said to me, "You want to do Hellboy? Do Blade 2, that will get you Hellboy. Then they will see you can do spectacle and action and all that, instead of these creepy and atmospheric movies." And I said, "Wait. If I'm going to do that, I'm to take it and I'm going to work with Mignola and make it our rehearsal for Hellboy."

We started blending our sensibilities all the way through Blade 2, and we are pretty much the same guy in a way. We read the same comics, we read the same pulp, we read the same classic gothic horror. One day, we were arguing about something and he said, "You know, it's your movie." And I said, "Mike, your duty on this movie is not to say that." [laughs] "Unpleasant as that may be, you have to fight me, and I have to fight you, and we will not leave this room until one convinces the other about something." We argued a lot, but it's the greatest collaboration. It has been really a joy because we never threw the towel. We stuck.

What made you choose the Hellboy Seed of Destruction to adapt, rather than, say, Dark Night?

I think that would be an even harder journey, and I think that it's a lose / lose situation. Because I think that of all the graphic novels of Hellboy, I was able to do Seed of Destruction, sort of, because it was the one graphic novel that was not perfect. There were flaws and things that could be expanded upon and things like that. I think Dark Night is a perfect world. There's no way you can do it and elevate it any more than what it is. And I think that with Hellboy you take it and you have the same guy that created it, and you say, "What if you had the chance of recombining the DNA of your creation and doing something different?" And we had fun with that. Mike really was part of it. With Dark Night, it would almost be like adapting the Genesis and saying, "Well, what if Adam never met Eve? What if it didn't happen?" It think it's better as the comic it is.

Would a sequel to Hellboy continue along the lines established in the movie, or the comic book?

We made it very clear from the beginning, "Let's keep the two entities separate. Let's just have fun with it, and go with it and not worry about it." In the same vein, Mike Mignola will not start altering the drawings in the comics to match the movie. The comic is a comic, and the movie is a movie. We're going separate routes. If there was a second movie, we would just be a little more insane. One of the things we agreed upon is that in the second movie, one of the attractions would be that Hellboy will be outed.

Outed? I'll leave that to the imagination of the reader!

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Click here to read more of our exclusive Hellboy coverage.

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Interview by Staci Layne Wilson for Horror.com.

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Latest User Comments:
[QUOTE=totem;967377][tIMG]http://i1354.photobucket.com/albums/q687/sconolgra/horror_com/kidnhellboy_zps8256c1b4.jpg[/tIMG] I always feel like that kid when I watch Hellboy. ::cool::[/QUOTE] This is just an AWESOME picture, Totem.
04-11-2014 by The Bloofer Lady discuss
[tIMG]http://i1354.photobucket.com/albums/q687/sconolgra/horror_com/kidnhellboy_zps8256c1b4.jpg[/tIMG] I always feel like that kid when I watch Hellboy. ::cool::
04-10-2014 by totem discuss
hellboy is one of those kind of movies that you have to watch! because is really great. And it has good acting, cool make up and great people. And really good toys and comics about the movie.
04-10-2014 by Jigsaw 666 discuss