Words of encouragement are nice to hear, but harsh honesty is what we remember most. That’s true for filmmaker Guillermo del Toro when he looks back on his first meeting with one of his heroes, James Cameron, who listened to the young director proudly explain that he had just mortgaged his house and sold his van so he could finish his first feature film, a small Mexican horror flick called “Cronos.” “You know,” Cameron responded, “that doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be great.”
Del Toro, best known for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” films, recounted the moment Tuesday for a rapt audience of fans and students at a screening of “Cronos” at the Los Angeles Film School. “And it’s absolutely true,” Del Toro said of Cameron’s appraisal. “You hear all those stories about the guys who donated their kidney to make a successful movie, but you never hear the stories about the guy who donated both kidneys and made a piece of [junk].”
Fortunately for Del Toro, “Cronos” was a success. Though it grossed less than $700,000 in U.S. box offices, the 1993 release received widespread critical acclaim and a slew of awards in Mexico. The film tracks the long, horrifying history of a golden, scarab-like device with a startling (and thirsty) secret inside. The terrifying contraption can grant the gift of immortal life, but at a heavy price. Del Toro credits “Cronos” with setting the tone for his future works of dark, rich fantasy, most notably “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which earned the writer-director an Oscar nomination.
The film gets a polished new restoration and presentation as of Tuesday, when it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection. Del Toro, speaking both on stage and in interviews before and after the event, spoke of his fondness for the breakthrough moment in his career. “I look at ‘Cronos’ with great affection and love for the 26-year-old filmmaker that shot it — it took two years to finish, until I was 28 — and read with great affection all the preparation notes I wrote for the crew,” the filmmaker said off-stage.
The anecdote about Cameron was especially interesting because Del Toro is now collaborating with the “Avatar” auteur on an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,“ with Del Toro directing and Cameron producing. It’s a longtime passion project for Del Toro — for years, he has referred to a film version of the Lovecraft epic as an “obsession” — but it comes on the heels of a bitter disappointment. Del Toro walked away from another beloved project, “The Hobbit,” after two years of pre-production work and months of frustration and postponement that can be attributed to the fiscal calamities at MGM. That project had a similar creative-team dynamic — Del Toro was directing and Peter Jackson producing — and the 46-year-old Del Toro exited with some lessons.
“Every experience,” Del Toro said in an off-stage exchange, “leaves behind some knowledge, scars or smiles that can be put to good use.” The good-natured Del Toro doesn’t feel a need to reveal the details of those insights. Asked how weary he is of “Hobbit”-related questions, he offered an answer most succinct: “Sick enough,” he said, “not to answer any more.”
Few filmmakers are as eloquent as the sharp and salty Del Toro, who was born in Guadalajara and has a devotee’s passion for monsters, sci-fi, horror and fantasy. The journey has not been easy — he was advised at one point that horror was “not a Mexican genre” — and “Cronos” was a struggle to finish. “Always out of time, always out of money and always fighting to get it made in a sea of opposition,” is how he remembers the filmmaking ordeal. Now, though, he sees “Cronos” as a time capsule of self.
“[Francois] Truffaut used to say that in the first few thousands of feet of your work is your entire work, and I think that’s true of ‘Cronos,’” Del Toro told Hero Complex before the event. “You have a view of childhood that is not common, not Hollywood childhood, and the girl of ‘Cronos’ perfectly could have grown up to be the girl from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ in a way. You have the idea of the mundane being invaded by the extraordinary, but in a really kind of grungy way; it’s not a spectacular invasion of the fantastic. And the idea for making a genre that is normally spectacle or gore and making it about a family and a small group of people and their relationships, and writing it in a way that is not the Hollywood way of writing. … All of that is in [‘Cronos’], and it’s true of the rest of the movies.”
At the screening, Del Toro told the crowd that “Cronos” was based on his relationship with his grandmother: “My grandmother was not a rotting vampire, but I learned to love her through her flaws,” he said. “We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.”
He said the film — which he wrote when he was 21 — is a “very old soul of a movie” and explained that his own soul has rarely been age-appropriate: “I was a 70-year-old 7-year old, and when I wrote this movie, I was about 65. Right now, I feel like I am seven. I’m super-happy with life. But when I was a kid,” he said, through a grimace, “I was like a pale creature in the corner, thinking about Satan and eternal damnation, always worrying about purgatory and burning in hell.”
Del Toro also discussed his long-time love affair with the horror genre, vividly recalling the 1970s macabre television series “Night Gallery,” which he watched alone, at night, when he was just a child.
“I would go into complete paroxysms of terror,” he said. “The only time I literally, literally peed my pants in fear. I did! I’m not talking figuratively! I released the bladder! It was a ‘Night Gallery’ episode called ‘The Doll’ that was based on the Algernon Blackwood short story. And when the doll smiles, I just started screaming, and” — Del Toro paused to supply an appropriate sound effect and waved his arm around like an escaped garden hose — “I was forever haunted by that. I think that was very formative to me. … Those fears, the corridor to the bathroom in that house, they’re all in my shots.”
As a student and a young filmmaker, Del Toro tried to imitate horror masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento. In “Geometria,” a very early work that was screened along with “Cronos” at the event, fans got to see Del Toro’s mother being mauled by his friends, who were decked out in oven-baked demon prosthetics. For the short, Del Toro adopted composition, color palettes and gore from the Italian horror films he loved.
“Imitation humbles you into realizing how accomplished the people you admire are, and that’s extremely important,” Del Toro said. “It may not be popular, but I think a secret humility is extremely important for a filmmaker. You can be an arrogant [jerk] to the world — I don’t advise it, but you can be — but to yourself you should always be humble. It’s extremely important because that way you will never cease to learn … your path is uniquely you. You create bridges that collapse right behind you. All I can tell you is trust yourself and your instincts. That is not a guarantee of success, but it is a guarantee of spiritual, ethical success.”
– Noelene Clark and Geoff Boucher
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