Prepare for the Guillermo del Toro decade: ‘The Hobbit’ director is just getting started
One of the gentle souls in the movie business is Guillermo del Toro, and I always look forward to my interviews with him. This is a longer version of my latest story on Del Toro, which is scheduled to run Thursday on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calender section.
Fantasy and horror fans, prepare yourself for the Decade of Del Toro.
On the far side of the globe, in New Zealand, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is now in his seventh month of labor on “The Hobbit,” a $300-million epic that will be told over two films in 2011 and 2012. But you can also find the Guadalajara native on the shelf of your local bookstore with his just-released debut novel, “The Strain,” the opening installment of a vampire trilogy he already has mapped out.
That’s only the beginning. The 44-year-old Del Toro, who was nominated for an Oscar for the dark fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” and showed his crowd-pleasing sensibilities with the “Hellboy” films, also has plans to reanimate some musty and monstrous literary classics. He plans to make a “Frankenstein” film as well as an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s epic “At the Mountains of Madness,” a project he breathlessly refers to as “my obsession.”
He would seem to be a full plate but, interviewed by phone recently, he chuckled and added another project to the pile: “I think after ‘The Hobbit,’ my next project may actually turn out to be ‘Drood,’ ” he said, referring to the 2008 novel by Dan Simmons that presents Charles Dickens at the center of an occult mystery in 1860s Victorian London. Those three post-“Hobbit” projects are all for Universal, which also has hopes that Del Toro will continue his library-card approach to filmmaking by taking on “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal antiwar tale of time travel.
If you’re keeping track, that would have Del Toro tied up well past 2015 and perhaps into 2017. He also is flirting with several other projects (“Pinocchio,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and a third “Hellboy” film have
been mentioned at various times) but perhaps only as a producer, as with the acclaimed 2007 Spanish ghost story, “The Orphanage.” He also wants to write more novels and to join in the increasingly popular quest to discover the land of interactive 21st century storytelling, which lies somewhere between Hollywood films and video games as we know them today.
It’s a dizzying career plan for the father of two (his wife and daughters have moved to New Zealand for “The Hobbit”), but in conversation, it’s clear the cheerful storyteller is motivated by his humble, lifelong passion for genre entertainment – he wants to visit the worlds of Tolkien and Shelley, not take them over.
“I love what I do and I feel honored to do it, quite honestly,” Del Toro said.
Right now, no venture has him more enthused than “The Strain,” the 401-page novel that was co-written with Chuck Hogan and released in hardcover this month by William Morrow. The book has gotten generally good reviews (and peer blurbs, too, with novelist Clive Cussler gushing that it “soars with spellbinding intrigue”) and fulfills the earliest ambition of Del Toro. As a boy in Mexico, he dreamed of being an author long before filmmaking captured his heart. He already has found one major benefit of being a novelist – the absence of Hollywood machinations.
“I have written or co-written 15 screenplays and I have only seven movies,” said Del Toro. “I find it frustrating when you write a screenplay and it lives, but you don’t get it produced – which is a lottery – it exists in a limbo that does not allow it to become public. A filmmaker will never be known by the movies he left in the drawer. Unlike a musician, a painter or a poet, nobody is going to open a box after I’m gone and say, ‘Oh, look, another great movie that he didn’t make.’ ”
“The Strain” presents an unsettling tale of a vampiric virus on the loose in New York City. It was about four years ago that the story started taking shape in Del Toro’s imagination and his inspiration was a surprising one.
“I was watching ‘The Wire’ on cable and I was addicted to it,” the filmmaker said. “I really felt caught up in this idea of doing a procedural, a limited cable series, which married the ideas of biology, of anatomy, of vampirism and evolved through the seasons into the spiritual and mythological aspects of the theme – and always with the everyday details and prosaic settings, and the rhythms of a procedural.”
The plan at first was to present “The Strain” as a television series, limited to three seasons, and Del Toro was gripped with excitement as he got deeper into the tale.
“I prepared a ‘bible’ of the three seasons and went to the network that I had a deal with, which was Fox. They read the bible and listened to the pitch with the opening scene of the 747 stopping mysteriously on the runway at JFK and the mystery that followed, and I was very happy with it.”
And how did the network respond? “They said two things: It’s too expensive, first of all, and what we would really love is a vampire comedy. That was my first and only encounter with television. I retreated quickly.”
Fox later aired a somewhat similar sequence to the airport tarmac scene that opens “The Strain” with the series premiere last year of “Fringe,” the science fiction show from the team of J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the same collective behind this summer’s “Star Trek”). Was that more than a coincidence?
“Knowing J.J.’s imagination — and perverse imagination — I can only chalk it up to the fact that we all seem to walk on a thin line of ideas, one after the other,” Del Toro said. “But when it first was raised, when I heard how ‘Fringe’ opened, I did get a jolt of recognition. Que sera, sera.”
“I was trying to re-create the spirit of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ back in the time it was written,” Del Toro said. “And what I mean is it was a very procedural novel. It was an epistolary novel – it was all written in letters, documents and recordings. It utilized cutting-edge technology for the time with typewriters and voice recorders. It was very much supposed to be ‘on right now’ for readers except now it’s contemplated as a classic. At the time, it was a very vibrant, almost Michael Crichton approach to the theme. It was a marriage of the old European lore and the modern.”
There’s a surge in vampires in pop culture right now, a sort of crimson wave of interest, with “True Blood” pumping up the ratings on HBO and a second “Twilight” film due later this year. The Swedish bloodsucking romance “Let the Right One In” was a hit at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, and an English-language version will be released next year. There’s also talk of film revivals for both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dark Shadows.” And, on cable and home video, “30 Days of Night” and the “Underworld” films are still in circulation, while bookstores have replaced their “Harry Potter” sales with the melodramatic swoon of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” titles.
“They never go away, it’s a staple in human imagination – the idea of the self-consuming, cannibalistic monster,” Del Toro said. “The consumption of our essence by a human monster lends itself to so many variations. The romantic vampire is right at the Big Bang of the myth in literature. And so is the brutal depiction of the undead corpse that needs to feed, which is the most horrifying one. The romantic one is perfectly valid and has produced really good pieces, but that’s not the one I was hooked on as a kid. I was hooked on the idea of an undead creature inhabited by an eternal spirit that hungers for your life. That scared the bejesus out of me.”
The vampires of “The Strain” are no emo pretty boys, not with skin that, on close inspection, reminds one young human character of a “pickled pig fetus” he saw back in science class.
“That’s a scene from the second novel,” Del Toro said with a satisfied giggle. “The idea is to keep reminding people that these are undead things. To start with biology and then also help the audience make sense of all the vampire traits that they already know.”
Don’t expect to see “The Strain” as a film series at any point – Del Toro said it’s not just written for that sort of storytelling — but he is intrigued by the idea of a pay cable series if that ever presents itself. Wouldn’t that be treading too close to the Louisiana turf of “True Blood”? That doesn’t seem to bother Del Toro, and considering his career bravery, that’s no surprise.
In nine months, he will begin shooting “The Hobbit,” and all he has to do is match the Tolkien achievement of Peter Jackson, the “Lord of the Rings” director whose three films pulled in more than $2.9 billion at the box office worldwide and collected 17 Oscars, including one for best picture and another for director. (Jackson is back as producer on “The Hobbit” and said last year that he “cannot think of a more inspired filmmaker to take the journey back to Middle-earth.”)
Del Toro’s future projects also will be judged against potent history. Vonnegut used the word “flawless” when talking about director George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of “Slaughterhouse,” and recent revivals of Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork man (“Van Helsing” and the Kenneth Branagh-directed “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”) haven’t stirred moviegoers or come close to the towering 1930s work of Boris Karloff and director James Whale.
“Everything I’m working on is something I love,” Del Toro said of his deep list of projects. “On ‘Frankenstein,’ I think my version would be unique. People forget that Shelley’s creature was an undead mass of flesh and bone. It’s unholy and lumbering not because it wants to be a monster but because it once had a soul and is now looking for it. It’s a profound mediation of man abandoned by his creator in a world he doesn’t understand. It has rarely been explored as such on film. The novel has not been filmed, in my opinion, and I have a very concrete approach, but it would ruin it of I told you.
“I also love this novel ‘Drood’ that deals with Dickens in a very strange way and his relationship with [fellow author] Wilke Collins, and it uses a resource that is used beautifully in literature by people such as Nabakov but it is not very often in film, which is the unreliable narrator.”
As for “The Hobbit,” Del Toro is in the midst of intense pre-production, doing work with models, script pages, set blueprints and thousands of decisions on details.
Asked about the film and what he wants to avoid with it, Del Toro said: “What I want to do is make the best movie I have ever done. What I want to avoid is to make some fastidious tracing of lines that were established by the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. We’re trying to be respectful of it, and what was shown in the trilogy is canon, but we are gleefully exploring new creatures, new set pieces, new territory and new avenues.
“As with everything, there is always something new to get excited about.”
– Geoff Boucher
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Photo, above: Guillermo Del Toro with “Hellboy” hand. Credit: Egon Endrenyi / Universal Pictures.
Photo at bottom: : Neil Gaiman. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times