Guillermo del Toro: Horror filmmaking is like hostage negotiation

Oct. 31, 2010 | 10:34 a.m.

It’s a pity, really, that the word ” horror” is so elastic that it extends to gore-and-torture movies, which should be rated by blood type, and also to the phantasmagorical films of Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican-born filmmaker/writer/producer, who made his bones in special-effects makeup, crafts elegant and poignant monsters of complex character in movies such as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and unleashes creatures of unexpected heart as well as fearsome mien in the “Hellboy” series. In the last few years, he’s added writer of novels to his list of job titles. With coauthor Chuck Hogan, he’s just published volume two of a modern vampire trilogy.  Children, with their qualities of wonder and vulnerability, carry many of del Toro’s stories, but it’s monsters he says he loves. At the heart of it all is an imagination that finds inspiration and terror in everything from comic books to the Spanish Civil War — and, of course, the Halloween season. Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison interviewed del Toro for some Halloween insights, here’s an excerpt…

Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro (Jay Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

PM: What are you going to be on Halloween?

GDT: A rotting zombie.

PM: Halloween versus Day of the Dead — which do you like better?

GDT: [ Mexico] has a deeper gateway into the supernatural; we are not a country that believes in practical daily life. Halloween and Day of the Dead — I really celebrate them as one single holiday. I love the idea that it is permitted for supernatural things to occur in daily life. To be honest with you, it’s the only [holiday] I have any interest in celebrating. Sadly, in Mexico, the All Saints’ Day aspect of it has faded into straight Halloween. I miss being able to show my daughters what it is to pay your respects to a grave and bring food and drink and spend the day in the cemetery.

PM: And then there’s your Catholic upbringing, which populates your imagination.

pans Guillermo del Toro: Horror filmmaking is like hostage negotiation

"Pan's Labyrinth"

GDT: All Saints’ Day and Day of the Dead often were celebrated next to the church, a huge market where they would sell rubber skulls, candy skulls, pottery skulls. So it was one and the same, the church and the holiday. They would sell insanely complex papier-mache demons and devils. Next to them, the carved saints or angels looked quite frankly boring. It’s easy to be praised for beauty. It’s very hard to be praised for creating something outlandish and terrible.

PM: What is the role of fear in our psyches?

GDT: It’s an ingrained fight-or-flight reflex that we don’t flex enough in real life, so we have to create artificial springs to flex it in fiction, sort of the rollercoaster-ride equivalent in storytelling. Fear in fiction plays that role. On the other hand, fear [is] an instinct absolutely necessary to achieve some form of spiritual perspective. One can go on for hours about the absolutely intimidating aspects of Catholic lore — purgatory, hell, original sin, all those things that make a child’s life more terrifying. Fear of something unknown allows us to take a leap into faith. Believing in supernatural things allows you to actually have a spiritual experience in a time when you cannot do that in a sort of uplifting way without sounding somewhat foolish. In a time when everybody’s texting, Facebooking, Twittering — they have GPS, they never get lost — all of a sudden, through horror fiction, you are allowed to suspend your disbelief.

PM: In Greek drama the actual horror takes place offstage, so you just imagine it. Modern movies put it all on film. Why the difference?

GDT: If you think of a horror film as a sort of hostage negotiation between the narrator and the audience, you know there is a lot of tension to not knowing what is going on inside the bank. But now and then the narrator has to shoot a hostage to prove that [he is] serious. If there is any genre where the audience goes in entirely antagonistic, it is horror. Because, like a carnival attraction, you go in saying, “I want to see them try and scare me.”

PM: There are real horrors in the world, like the Spanish Civil War, a theme in your film “The Devil’s Backbone,” and the kidnapping of your own father, which ended with his release. How do you compare made-up horrors to those?

GDT: One can help us understand the other. I have been able to articulate a lot of what has shocked me and scared me in my life through the movies I do. To me, it’s not escapism; it’s actually the opposite of escaping — it’s staring those things straight in the eye and starting a dialogue with them.

PM: Then do you make your films in part to understand yourself better?

GDT: Not in part — entirely! “Hellboy” or “Hellboy 2” are ultimately as biographical to me as “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Devil’s Backbone.” I write the good guys and the bad guys with equal autobiographical intention; I recognize the best and the worst of my impulses in all of them.

PM: In “The Fall,” the second book of your trilogy, are you then El Angel de Plata, the aging Mexican wrestler who fights evil?

GDT: Yes! It’s a character that I’ve been wanting to write since I was 15. I wanted to create a situation in fiction where you can actually say with a straight face that that’s the scene where the masked wrestler fights the [villains].

PM: How do you decide what kind of monster is most effective?

GDT: Each monster in my movies represents something different. “In Hellboy II,” it represents nature; it’s a life-giver and destroyer in equal measure. I love the way that the creature is terrifying and beautiful and fragile at the same time. On the other hand, a monster like the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” represents blind power, interested in eating and destroying innocence. Carvers of Gothic cathedrals understood: Monsters depend entirely on context…


— Patt Morrison


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One Response to Guillermo del Toro: Horror filmmaking is like hostage negotiation

  1. Rich Van Ort says:

    Guillermo del Toro Is one of the most inspirational filmmaking artists out there.

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