Guillermo del Toro gets it. The 47 year old Mexican director has more than 35 feature films, shorts and animations behind his name either as director, producer, script writer or all of the above, with at least another five currently in production.
He is the co-author of the best selling novel series, The Strain and he is working on production of a video game, Insane. His films have won and been nominated for more than 50 international awards including numerous Academy Awards and the Festival de Cannes’ Palm d’Or.
Fans and critics alike regard del Toro as a master of the horror and wider speculative fiction genres. His films are less movies and more delicate, visual events crafted within often chilling, always entertaining tales. His work is rich with religious imagery and themes, delving deep into the archetypes of horror, and how and why monsters and the fantastique affect us both culturally and psychologically. So, what does Guillermo del Toro get? Guillermo del Toro gets how horror works at the most primal level. He gets how to make stunning pieces of cinema. And he gets how not to.
In this, the first on Vivid Scribe’s Guillermo del Toro Features, we’ll take a survey of his major film works and career defining moments.
Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, del Toro was raised in a strict catholic household. Like many of his characters, he was a solitary child and lived in a world of his own imagination. His obsessive inventions of fantastical, monstrous creatures and stories distressed his pious Grandmother who twice on numerous occasions to exorcise the child. ”It’s funny, but it was not funny at the time: she went in with a vial of holy water and tried to exorcise me for the shit I was drawing. I started laughing and she got so scared that she threw more at me.”[1. Appelbaum, Stephen. 'Like his Blue-Collar Demon Hero Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro has a Few Issues With Authority'. Scotsman, 16 August 2008.] These were the beginnings of del Toro’s famous notebooks, the working journals he uses to visualise and plan his creations.
The story of the young del Toro and his pact with monsters is recounted in numerous interviews has become canon in the horror master’s legend. After watching ‘The Mutant’ episode of The Outer Limits when he was very young, del Toro woke in the night, frightened by the monsters he was certain were lurking in his room. He told them, “If you’re nice to me and let me get up and go to the bathroom, I’ll devote my life to you”. And so, he says, he had to make horror movies.
Del Toro’s first introduction to film making came in his teens, studying special effects and make up with renowned The Exorcist (1973) special effects artist, Dick Smith and shooting short pieces on Super 8. From here, del Toro went on to form his own make-up and special effects company, Necropia and In 1985, del Toro co-founded the Guadalajara International Film Festival, an annual event that continues to be a prestigious showcase of Mexican and Ibero-American films. Between 1986 and 1989 several of del Toro’s own short films appeared Hora Marcada, a Mexican television series specialising in speculative fiction, similar to The Twilight Zone.
Del Toro made his first feature film in 1993. Cronos, the story of an unsuspecting antiques dealer who finds an alchemist’s device that gives him eternal life. Cronos blends religious iconography and Christian themes with stylish horror and delivers a unique version of vampire lore. Many of the aesthetics and thematics del Toro would later become renowned for were already at work in this early film. Cronos won and was nominated for numerous different international cinema awards including the Festival de Cannes Mercedes-Benz Award.
In 1997, del Toro wrote and directed Mimic, his first Hollywood film. Mimic tells the story of a monstrous breed of genetically engineered insects terrorising New York. The film was poorly received by critics and audiences. Del Toro remains unhappy with the film, describing it as the worst experience of his life. Production was plagued with setbacks, and del Toro was reluctant to allow studio executives to dictate the development of the story and the way in which he was able to shoot it.
These days he is renowned, perhaps notoriously for refusing to work unless he gets to do it the way he wants to. “The one word I learned on Mimic was the word no,” he says.[2. Wloszczyna, Susan. 'In Director's Fantastical World, Violence Has Reason for Being'. USA Today, 1 February 2007.] “Do whatever the fuck you want, even if it’s wrong, and then tell about it with honesty. That is filmmaking to me…Success is fucking up on your own terms.”[3. Henriksen, Erik. 'A Few Notes on Guillermo del Toro's Q&A'. Portland Mercury, 30 September 2010.] In recent years, del Toro has declined and abandoned work on numerous projects, including At the Mountains of Madness, and The Hobbit, due to corporate and studio pressures he declined to work with.
Following his experiences with Mimic, del Toro founded his own film production company, The Tequila Gang and with El Espinazo Del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) (2001), returned to making Spanish language films. The Devil’s Backbone is a chilling ghost story set in a boys’ orphanage in Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The story and many of the visuals had been with del Toro for more than a decade before he was able to film it. The film was highly regarded, despite its limited release and won numerous awards.
Despite his experiences working with a Hollywood company on Mimic, in 2002 del Toro returned to Hollywood with Blade II. Blade II, starring Wesley Snipes carries on the story of the vampire hunter from Stephen Norrington’s Blade. Del Toro has said that he set out to make “the most ass kicking pop corn munching movie” rather than attempt to personalise the project like he did with Mimic. “[With Blade 2] I went into a franchise I did not own. I assumed command on a screenplay that already existed it. I tweaked it, but didn’t fuck with it. On Mimic, I was trying to do a personal movie.”[4. Fischer, Paul. 'Blade 2 Interview'. A List Star Interviews. 21 March 2002.]
Following Blade 2, del Toro passed up directing Blade Trinity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Alien vs. Predator to focus on his next project, an adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic Hellboy. Hellboy is a demon summoned by the Nazis at the end of World War II. He is raised by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, and works to defend the world from evil, while struggling with his demon identity. Hellboy is played by Ron Perlman, who had worked previously with del Toro on Cronos and Blade 2. Production was delayed for months while del Toro fought against the studio to secure Perlman in the role. Hellboy received mixed reviews in general circles, though was well received in speculative fiction communities, winning numerous Fantasy cinema awards including a Saturn Award, from the American Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
2006 brought what is widely considered del Toro’s masterpiece, El Laberinto Del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth). Set in the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is as harrowing as it is magical. Delving into the dark archetypes of fairy tales, it tells the story of the young Ophelia, whose mother takes her to live with her new step-father, the tyrannous Captain Vidal. She meets a faun and escapes into a fantasy world, discovering she is really a lost princess who must undergo a series of challenges in order to return to her true parents, the King and Queen. Pan’s Labyrinth is regarded by many critics to be one of the greatest fantasy films, and it is the most nominated and awarded of any of del Toro’s films, including winning three Academy awards.
Following the success of Pan’s Labyrinth del Toro returned to the Hellboy franchise in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Again, he turned down several high profile films including Halo (2012), I Am Legend (2007), One Missed Call (2008), and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009).
Besides writing and directing, Guillermo del Toro has also produced a myriad of films, many of which share his particular style of horror including The Orphanage (2007). Julia’s Eyes , Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (. He has also produced the animated Hellboy features Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. A number of new films, both Hollywood and European productions are currently in the works from del Toro including a new adaptations of Pinocchio, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Roald Dahl’s The Witches.
In 2009, Guillermo del Toro released his first novel The Strain, co-authored with Chuck Hogan. The Strain, the first in a series is an action, horror thriller about a vampiric infection that spreads through New York. The second book in the series The Fall was released in 2010. The Strain was not del Toro’s first book. He also published an academic text on Alfred Hitchcock while he was studying at Guadalajara University. The book is currently only available in Spanish.
Guillermo Del Toro is currently working on Insane, a video game in collaboration with THQ and Volition Inc. “With this new series of videogames, I want to take players to a place they have never seen before, where every single action makes them question their own senses of morality and reality,” he said when the production was announced last year. Insane is due for release in 2013.
Watch the Official Insane Trailer
This is not the first video game work del Toro has been involved with. He also worked on Hellboy: The Science of Evil in 2008.
Guillermo del Toro is one of those rare creators whose talent shows no end, and no boundaries. Over the coming weeks Vivid Scribe will over the coming weeks, tap into a few of del Toro’s creations, reveal some truths, some horrors and uncover more about this rare type of genius.
by Kate Murphy
© 2011, Kate Murphy