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Guillermo del Toro: The monster man

Cinema's king of macabre has found time between directing Pan's Labyrinth and The Hobbit for a series of novels. He tells Guy Adams about his insatiable appetite for fantasy – and his 'Man Cave'

Guillermo del Toro is sorry that we are meeting at a Beverly Hills luxury hotel. He'd prefer to have hooked up at the "Man Cave", a famous property five blocks from his LA home, which is filled with his vast collection of fantasy memorabilia and functions both as a source of inspiration, and a shrine to his standing as one of contemporary cinema's most original story-tellers.

The Man Cave has blood-red wallpaper. Its hallways are filled with monster statuettes, mock-baroque paintings, and Gothic objets d'art. The bookshelves are stacked with leather-bound notebooks, on which he sketched out plot-lines and characters for his best-known films: Blade II, Hellboy, and the critically acclaimed Pan's Labyrinth. It is, in other words, his creative hub.

"I bought it because my crap used to take up three-quarters of the house, and my wife couldn't stand it," he explains. "One day we were fighting because I wanted wall-space near the kitchen for a statue of a rutting woman zombie. And she said, 'you should live in a cave'. So I did what I was told. Now the family home is pristine, and all my crap is in this crazy place where I write."

Sadly, a scheduling conflict means that we must forego del Toro's natural habitat, and instead cross swords at the Four Seasons. Sunk into the sofa, dressed in black, and resembling an enormous hairy adolescent who could use a little more sunlight, he seems almost comically out of place against the opulence of the surroundings.

Del Toro has every right to swan around luxury hotels, though. He is unthinkably prolific: at present, the production charts suggest that he's got no less than eight films "in development" including an eagerly awaited version of Roald Dahl's The Witches, and is due to produce at least eight more, some in English, others in his mother tongue of Spanish.

On top of that, his day job for most of the next three years involves taking on one of the biggest tasks in Hollywood: creating and then directing not one, but two movies based on Tolkien's The Hobbit in partnership with the Lord of the Rings impresario, Peter Jackson.

And to cap it all, he's also found time to write his first novel, which is the project we're meeting to discuss. It's a modern vampire tale called The Strain, which was launched last week with a series of late-night signing sessions at Los Angeles bookstores, where he sat up into the wee hours to exchange pleasantries with thousands of "fan-boy" punters, to whom he has iconic status.

The book is part one of a trilogy, co-authored by the thriller writer Chuck Hogan, which revolves around a re-working of the Bram Stoker myth. It begins when a 777 airliner lands at JFK airport, containing a cargo of corpses and a coffin filled with soil. Pretty soon, the un-dead are wandering round New York, infecting everyone they encounter and threatening the future of mankind in convincingly apocalyptic fashion.

Originally, del Toro intended The Strain to be a procedural TV series, filmed in an episodic style like The Wire, the Baltimore cop show of which he's a huge fan. He sketched out three seasons, and began mulling over a script, but the show was thwarted by the dead hand of network TV executives.

"I prepared what is called a Bible: a massive document about the show's story arc," he recalls. "I prepared three seasons. I went to Fox and showed them the Bible. And they came back to me saying, 'we would love to do a vampire series, but we'd prefer a comedy'."

Instead, del Toro settled for the next best thing: hiring Hogan as a co-writer to help turn it into three horror novels, which will be released each summer until 2011. He describes their partnership as a "promiscuous, beautiful affair" in which they batted drafts back and forth (he claims he was insufficiently skilled at writing dialogue to do the project alone), and wonders why more screen-writers haven't turned to the old-fashioned literary form.

"Writing a novel was liberating," he recalls. "People don't realise how incredibly punitive it is to write screenplays all the time. If you try to adjectivise in a screenplay, you have to be able to do it audio-visually. For example, if I write in a screenplay, 'the room has an aura of mystery', that's bullshit. What is the aura? Does the camera move slowly? Are there funny lights? But in a book, I could simply hint at things."

Like almost every vampire film, The Strain revolves squarely around monsters, which are cleverly used to explore the human condition. His vampires – which share the Bram Stoker model's aversion to sunlight, but are unaffected by garlic or holy water – nest in places of tragedy: the Eastern Europe of the Nazi holocaust, or the sewer system of New York post 9/11.

A similar technique has characterised most of del Toro's films, which movingly and sometimes sinisterly render the supernatural. In fact, he relies on monsters to educate his audience about themselves, from the fauns in Pan's Labyrinth, which won three Oscars in 2007, to the putty-faced grotesques in 2004's Hellboy, which confirmed him as a sort of poet laureate of the modern geek.

"It's a kinkiness," he declares, of this apparent obsession with the supernatural. "In this life, whatever gets your juices flowing, that's what you do. You don't act decent. Now me: I'm just indecent, fat and I'm attracted to monsters. So that's what I do."

This puts del Toro in an old tradition. "When mankind needed to eat and sleep as cavemen, we spent time making fire or finding water. We dealt with material things. But as soon as we wanted to figure out ourselves, we came up with angels and demons," he says. "We invented them to figure out ourselves. So I believe monsters are the key to understanding the universe. And I always try to write, and make movies where I play with that idea."

Del Toro's other recurring theme is childhood, which he often uses to explore and subvert the accepted mores of adult society. Pan's Labyrinth revolved around the collision between a little girl's over-active imagination, and the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The Strain's protagonist, Ephraim Goodweather, a scientist at the Centre for Disease Control, has a troubled son called Zack, who del Toro suggests will be at the centre of future books in the trilogy.

These children are often troubled (in The Orphanage, which he produced last year, they are downright disturbing). But there is a darkness to much of del Toro's work, which fits strangely with his naturally bubbly personality. His literary worlds are often Godless (he describes himself as a "hopeful atheist") and his films are sometimes unsettling.

Part of this tone may stem from his childhood, which was not universally happy. Born into a well-off family in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1964, his upbringing was sometimes overshadowed by a punitively strict Catholic Grandmother, and he continues to view adults, and the restraints of their social code, as a malign influence on youthful innocence.

"I think we come to the world perfectly formed as personalities, and the world dedicates itself to messing us up," he says, with regard to the innocence of youth. "Life tries to dent us and mould us into a halfway-there person that fits. I admire children so much. They have this innocence and bravado, which I find so captivating."

Del Toro moved swiftly into film-making after leaving school in the early 1980s, and spent most of the decade working as a make-up artist (and writing screenplays and short stories on the side). He began directing mostly Spanish-language films in his native country in the early 1990s, and was soon churning out critically acclaimed films like Cronos and El Espinazo del Diablo, in the native language that is still thickly in evidence in his accent.

His Hollywood breakthrough arrived with Blade II in 2002, which gave him the pedigree to be put in charge of the Hellboy comic-book adaptations. Now he's landed what in commercial terms is probably the biggest gig in Hollywood, based in New Zealand, churning out the Hobbit films with Peter Jackson.

The big question is how del Toro will fit this in with the plethora of projects that will imminently cross his desk. He is naturally energetic, often propelling himself from the sofa with an enthusiastic "yeahyeahyeah!" during our conversation. But for them all to come good, his genius will have to be of the 99-per-cent perspiration variety.

"I compartmentalise my life very easily," he says. "When I'm doing one thing, I'm really doing one thing. I have a sign on my office at the studio. It says 'fuck off I'm writing'. When that sign is on the door, nobody knocks. I just put music on and I occupy myself very hard. And that is how I get things done. And I never stop. I hate free time. I hate down time. This is what I do."

Right now, that translates into getting up early in New Zealand, swinging by his office in Wellington (he has a "foreign man cave" there) and spending two hours on personal business. Then he devotes eleven straight hours to designing characters and scenes for The Hobbit. Finally, he spends between two and four more hours overseeing The Tequila Gang, his production company, which is busy buying up film rights to dozens of novels and comics.

Recently, del Toro has had more hours in his day than usual, since his wife and two daughters have been based in LA. "It extends everything," he says. "I've had so much time that I've even started painting model monsters, from some old kit that Peter [Jackson] has given me."

When the family does arrive, del Toro intends to spend time playing video games with his girls. The eldest is 13, and has a role he describes as "wingman", helping him get to grips with the Playstation. This should cement his standing as a passionate advocate of video games, which he sees competing in future with films for domination of a shared "story platform" for fiction.

"I play addictively," he says. "Most of the people who despise video games do so out of prejudice. But they are a living, breathing thing, narrating stories, and illustrating them in the most incredible way. If you really think you've nothing to learn from that, I arrogantly tell you, you're wrong."

In many ways, this openness sums up Guillermo del Toro: whether he's in a Man Cave, or a luxury hotel, or at the controls of an electronic games console, he's always thinking, always learning, and always working out new ways to hone the storyteller's art.

'The Strain' by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is published in hardback by HarperCollins, £12.99