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August 16, 2011

‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ director’s guru: Guillermo del Toro

Posted in: Movies

Big breaks rarely happen quite this way. Aspiring filmmaker Troy Nixey submitted his short film “Latchkey’s Lament” to Guillermo del Toro, looking for some guidance; what he got was the opportunity to direct his first feature, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” An update of the 1973 TV movie, the R-rated  film, co-written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, traces what happens when a precocious young girl (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) and begins to hear strange voices issuing from the basement of the historic home the couple is restoring. The 39-year-old Canadian  recently took time out to discuss the origins of the project with Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre — readers living in Southern California can check out a preview screening of the movie, which opens in theaters Aug. 26, Tuesday night at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.

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Guillermo del Toro, left, with Troy Nixey at the New York premiere of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

G.M.: What was it like to have your first feature come about in this way and to work on the film so closely with Guillermo del Toro?

T.N.: I don’t say this because I worked with him or he sort of handpicked me to direct the movie — before that, he was my favorite working director. I thought his movies were incredible and really talked to me on a creative level, an emotional level. Probably the same things that inspire him inspire me, to go from finishing the short and hoping to have him look at it and give me some advice or to comment, to him actually offering me the opportunity to direct “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” was amazing. It came from left field, and I still remember the call very, very well: him just telling me this script that he had that he had written 13 years ago for himself, I guess it would be 17 years now, but at the time it was 13, and it was a movie he loved as a kid. He was planning to direct it himself, but he was sort of past that and was looking to find a first-time director and would I be interested in reading the script? My jaw dropped.

G.M. What initially spurred your interest in film?

T.N.: I grew up on the prairies — born in Alberta, grew up in Saskatchewan. When I graduated in 1990, I did want to pursue film school, but at that time there weren’t really any avenues that my family, my parents, could find for me to do that except to send me to California. We were middle class — we certainly weren’t poor — but we couldn’t afford to send me to film school in California. I had always drawn, was a huge comic guy back then, and so with this desire, need to tell stories and the ability to draw, I just naturally gravitated to work in the comic industry, which I did for 17 years. That’s where all that comes from – storytelling and design and writing.  I bounced all over the place, from publisher to publisher. I did a lot of Batman stuff for DC and I did a lot of work for Dark Horse and Oni Press. There was always still that burning question about making movies in the back of my head. I needed to see if I could do it. That’s where “Latchkey’s” came from. As soon as I started working on “Latchkey’s” and it was really the first day on set, I knew. It was like a light bulb going off, this is what I’m supposed to do.

G.M. How did you raise the money for the short?

T.N.: Phoenix Pictures helped a little bit, but I always joke and say it was paid for by the bank of Troy. I self-financed it, and it took five years to finish. There was obviously a lot of stopping and starting just so I could make more money and bank it away to be able to take the next step in the process. I knew I had to get it done because I knew that movies were what I wanted to do, and you can’t really show people you can direct until you show them that you can direct. A half-finished short wasn’t going to do that; it was that thing that kept driving me and driving me for five years to get it done. Basically I’d work and work and work and put some money away, and when I had a chunk enough to take the next step I would.

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Bailee Madison with Guillermo del Toro on the set of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (Carolyn Johns/Miramax)

G.M. I understand Guillermo del Toro was very hands-on in terms of producing this film. How was it working so closely with him during production?

T.N.: It was really great. He said from the very beginning, “This is your movie. I’m obviously here and going to give opinions, but unless you’re really screwing up, I’m going to side on your decisions and choices.” To have that kind of faith from your producer and the co-writer of the movie gave me the confidence to keep moving forward and making the decisions that I felt were best for the version of the movie that I wanted to direct. Having a very visual background in comics and design, I felt very comfortable in that aspect of the decisions I was making. He was very open, [saying], “You know, I wouldn’t have gone that way, but it works and it’s yours.” I felt really supported by him more than anything. He always sort of said, I’m here when you need me and I’m not when you don’t. To have that out there, if you had a question about something, why wouldn’t you want to go to Guillermo, who’s this massive creative mind, and say, “How about this?” When I didn’t need to, I didn’t need to. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, this needs to look like a Guillermo movie or this is the way Guillermo would do it.” I think because we do have similar sensibilities and inspirations that it would just naturally sort of feel like a Guillermo movie, but that’s just because I like the same stuff he does. I love moving cameras and I’m very, very particular about color palette, which he is as well. We kept kind of discovering these things as we went along and had conversations. I think it worked really well. I wasn’t trying to do something that was so completely far afield of maybe what he was thinking for the movie, but at the same time I felt very confident that I was able to put my stamp on it from the beginning.

G.M.: Had you seen the original?

T.N.: I hadn’t. I was born in 1972, it came out in 1973, so when Guillermo was talking about it, I was thinking, I have no idea what this movie is.  Because it was a made-for-TV movie, obviously, it was only going to ever air on TV again. I guess it did from time to time throughout the years, but I knew nothing of it. Miramax had copies of the original, and I remember watching it. It’s still very effective even now, but there were some limitations at the time. I know people are still really fond of it and I completely understand why.

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Katie Holmes in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." (Carolyn Johns/Miramax Film Corp.)

G.M.: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” had been due to come out much earlier but was delayed because of some studio shuffling involving Miramax. Was that especially frustrating for you?

T.N.: It is frustrating, I’m really proud of the movie, and you just want it to come out and have people see it. That’s why you make movies. OK, yes, I needed to tell the story, I needed to get it out of me, but at the end of the day the other side of that is now I need people to see it. I understand that the film industry is half creative and half business. I completely understood that, so I was never resentful towards anyone. But it was frustrating because you just want the movie to come out and exist. At the end of the day, the new group that came in and bought Miramax really supported the movie, and then them teaming up with Film District, you really couldn’t ask for a better situation. They supported it 100%, they supported it being restricted. I think they’ve been doing a tremendous job getting it out to the public.

G.M.: You mentioned that you might next do a project that you wrote. Is that also in the genre?

T.N: I’m a genre guy. When the movie comes out – it has been labeled a horror movie because that’s what they have to do, but I always felt more comfortable calling it a dark fantasy movie, much more in line with “Pan’s Labyrinth” – I think people will see what the movie really is. It’s not like a slasher film or anything like that. I definitely work in the fantasy realm of storytelling. I loved all the Amblin movies growing up. The movie that I wrote exists much more in the “Latchkey’s” world than it does in a more modern setting like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” I definitely have some ideas that perhaps people haven’t seen before, so I look forward to putting those on film. Hopefully people like the kinds of stories that I want to tell and I can start pursuing those more, writing movies as well as finding good material to adapt or just finding really good scripts out there that fit my sensibility.

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Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." (Carolyn Johns/Miramax Film Corp.)

G.M.: Do you anticipate working with Guillermo del Toro again?

T.N.: We have, not in a movie sense. There’s a publisher that is doing these really great editions of [“The Strain”] books he wrote with Chuck Hogan. I’m doing 20 illustrations for each book. Cemetery Dance publishing out of New York is doing these beautiful leather-bound editions of the books, which they sold out of, like, instantly. It was really neat to be able to adapt Guillermo and Chuck’s words into images. Once again, he gave me a lot of leeway in terms of what I wanted to do. I would send him roughs, and he’d have little suggestions here and there, but mostly, he’d just let me run with what I wanted to do.

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