Guillermo del Toro: The monster man

Does the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro make fantasy, action or art-house cinema? The answer is all three - and often in the same breathtaking film. Jonathan Romney meets a true maverick
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The Independent Culture

Looking into a film-maker's private notebook ought to be like peering directly into the recesses of someone's brain, or so you'd hope. With some that I've seen, you might as well be scanning their tax returns.

But with Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, you're not disappointed. He proudly offers his journal for inspection: it's covered in a nubbly antique leather binding, like some arcane grimoire - and that's pretty much what it is. On every page, neat handwriting is wrapped around ghoulish, meticulously detailed ink drawings of cockroaches, robots, human-faced mandrake roots. Scanning the Spanish text, you recognise the occasional name of a Hollywood character actor or a Marvel Comics artist, while here and there English phrases jump out at you in excitable block capitals: "IRON SHOES", "GIANT PIG MAN", "INTESTINE THROWER".

Del Toro has been keeping such notebooks since 1982, on the advice of a screenwriting teacher: he used to carry a little palette of watercolours too, he says, "like a moronic Van Gogh". He has stacks of these books for each of his films, but he sincerely misses the hundred or so devoted to his first feature Cronos: "I gave them away to James Cameron in a drunken stupor."

With most directors, the journal is where the wild stuff stays. Not so with del Toro. His work is baroque, eerie and equally rich in nightmare resonance whether he is making a special-effects blockbuster, such as comic-strip adaptation Hellboy, or his new Spanish drama Pan's Labyrinth. The latter is a remarkably daring venture: a brutal tale of childhood in 1940s Spain, imagined as a fairy-tale rite of passage. Its young heroine Ofelia (11-year-old Ivana Baquero) retreats into a fairy-tale world of the imagination to escape from the real horrors around her, notably her mother's remarriage to Captain Vidal (chillingly played by Catalan actor Sergi López), a ruthless, authoritarian officer in Franco's Civil Guard, who is determined to hunt down a group of guerrilla resistants.

Ofelia is summoned (or believes she is - and more importantly, we believe she is) by a creature from the underworld, an ancient faun who seems half flesh, half creaking wood. He tells her she is a princess and sets her a series of tasks. If I add that Ofelia is often accompanied by a CGI fairy in the form of a grasshopper, you'll probably recoil at the prospect of more sugar-frosted Narnia tweeness.

Yet, despite the deliberate note of preciousness, Pan's Labyrinth is a powerful and disturbing film. Not only are Ofelia's fantasy travails unnerving in the extreme (expect your nightmares to be haunted by the bogeyman with eyes in his hands), but they are accompanied by Vidal's forensically realistic brutality in the real world. Pan's Labyrinth is an audaciously contradictory achievement: it uses the language of children's film, but it's absolutely not a film for children (in the UK, it has a "15" certificate). Del Toro, whose own two daughters are aged 5 and 10, says, "I would not responsibly take an eight-year-old." When Steven Spielberg saw the film, he asked del Toro whether there was any way to make a version suitable for younger viewers. "I said, 'Impossible', because the social interaction in the movie is very adult, beyond the violence, the torture. The idea of the war itself is a very adult concern."

Pan's Labyrinth is a thematic companion piece to del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001), set a few years earlier during the Civil War itself. That film similarly walked a precarious line between genre and historical realism. Its ghost story set in a school casts light on the traumas of an orphaned generation. The period fascinates del Toro, who plans to make a third feature inspired by the theme. "To talk about the Spanish spirit, you have to go back and find the huge imprint of the Civil War. As a Mexican, it was something that was pretty close to us - we were very close to Spain, to the Republican side, when the Civil War was happening. It's an event that is as much a testimony of the world as it is of Spain. There is a certain element of shame in the fact that the entire world looked the other way for 30 fucking years at least, allowing a Fascist dictator to exist fully sanctioned."

Neither of his Spanish films is what one might have expected from a film-maker so closely associated with the supposedly trivial pleasures of special-effects horror. But there were already signs of an imagination that was seriously philosophical, as well as exuberant, in del Toro's 1993 debut Cronos, still the only feature he has made in his native Mexico: a horror story about an elderly and very sympathetic vampire, racked with hunger and beset by agonies inherited from Mexico's past. Del Toro has interspersed these smaller, artier films with big-budget Hollywood projects. Mimic (1997) was a partly successful scarer about giant cockroaches, and the casualty of major disagreements with Miramax subsidiary Dimension about del Toro's original conception ("It was very anarchic, very disruptive, and they hated that. My ending was, the insects won.")

He has also made arguably the best American comic-strip adaptation of all, the genially pugnacious Hellboy (2004), based on Mike Mignola's series about a wisecracking, cigar-chomping, scarlet-skinned demon; he's currently preparing the follow-up, which he promises will be "more sombre - Mignola and I hope that if we do a third one, it'll be really fragile." There's also a a straighter superhero franchise sequel, the Wesley Snipes actioner Blade II (2002), but even on a non-personal project like the latter, del Toro insists he puts heart and soul into his work: "I've never made a film for 'them' - I think 'them' is just an excuse for weakness. Blade II has one of the most offensively simplistic storylines in the history of film, but I view it like a musical. You go to a Gene Kelly movie and what do you want to see? Gene Kelly dancing. What, you want the movie to stop and Blade recite Keats? But I approached it with as much zest or fun as anything else."

Zest and fun are clearly the whole game for del Toro: Falstaff-sized and unstoppably enthusiastic, he chats effusively in near-perfect English, coming across like a 12-year-old fantasy buff who struck lucky and turned a lonely hobby into a life's pursuit. Born in Guadalajara in 1964, he started making films with his father's 8mm camera at the age of eight. Even then, by all accounts, his mind ran on the ghoulish side: he persuaded his mother to play a giant foetus in one of his early films.

For much of his childhood he was brought up by a severe, devoutly Catholic grandmother. "My parents were going through the Sixties - they were out a lot. I was basically raised by her. She was very scary, but she loved me, and one of the things I try to say in my movies is: no matter how fucked up, scary, co-dependent, flawed a love story is, it's still a love story." Even so, del Toro and his grandmother appear to have put each other through hell. "She exorcised me twice - with holy water, literally. The more holy water she threw at me, the more ridiculous I thought it was, and I was laughing harder, and of course she was shitting in her pants, it was so scary for her." The last time he saw her alive, he remembers, "I showed her some of my sculptures and my drawings and she started crying. She was very feeble, she had had a stroke, and she said, 'Why could you never do a beautiful thing?' I said, 'These are beautiful things."

Other film-makers noticed Del Toro's talent for special effects make-up, and he began to work for them to finance his own shorts. When he made his own first feature, it was immediately clear that he was a perfectionist with an eye for texture (one of the most memorable things in Cronos is the vampire's pale, waxy flesh). Del Toro's films are sculptural and richly conceived: Pan's Labyrinth ranges in imagery from bloodstained Gothic to an ornate picturebook style in a Arthur Rackham mould. Even its CGI effects - notably a comically repellent encounter with a giant toad - are more tactile than most.

"I believe form is content," Del Toro insists. "It's impossible to conceive a movie without first conceiving it in the texture of colour, shape, sets. I taught myself how to draw and sculpt, and I really believe you have to calculate every single thing that goes in front of a camera, be it a button, a piece of a suit, or a piece of a set. In Pan's Labyrinth, the entire film is set construction, there's not a single real building. When people talk about 'eye candy', I say I try to do 'eye protein'."

The brilliantly conceived nursery-tale factor in Pan's Labyrinth suggests that del Toro could, if he chose, excel at doing straight-down children's fantasy films, what with the market booming. In fact, he says proudly, he was the very first director approached to make The Chronicles of Narnia, even before there was a script. "I said, 'I love the books, but I'm not a practising Catholic, and it's a little too fucking straight for me.' If I did Narnia, the lion would not resurrect." He was also offered the third Harry Potter film (which his friend, compatriot and sometime producer Alfonso Cuarón finally directed), and similarly said, "'Look, I won't do this one, but if you kill one of the kids, I'll be happy to come back and do it.' I think that the most powerful stuff in fairy tales is the fact that everything has a price. When something has no price, then it's worthless, isn't it?" (Significantly, both del Toro's Franco-era dramas start with images of dead or wounded children).

It's commonplace to observe that del Toro is himself like an overgrown child (the hulking scarlet demon Hellboy, with his sulks, tantrums and lumbering shyness is generally taken as a self-portrait of sorts). But where Orson Welles called a film studio the best train set a boy could have, in del Toro's case, film-making is like creating his own huge Dungeons and Dragons figurine collection. "I'm a collector, I'm a geek," he admits. "I own thousand of DVDs, I own hundreds and hundreds of toys." He doesn't take things as far as keeping his toys in the boxes in mint condition, like true merchandising obsessives. "I play with the toys," he says. "My daughters play with the toys, more importantly."

Then he confesses that he recently bought the V for Vendetta box with the Guy Fawkes mask to wear, "and a spare one to keep". He loves the collectables, he says. Often, in interviews, directors of comic-strip blockbusters will primly recoil at any question implying that a superhero film is as much a merchandising opportunity as a work of art. Not del Toro. "I approach these films with as much enthusiasm to make the toys as to make the film."

Del Toro these days divides his time between Mexico, Spain and Los Angeles, though you can only wonder at the problems this must cause in deciding where to store his toys. "The reality is," he says, "I don't fit very well anywhere but I fit well everywhere." No one would deny that he is one of the film-makers who put contemporary Mexican cinema back on the world map, and Cronos was one of the ground-breaking films in that respect, along with Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también. But when he made Cronos, it was largely written off by the Mexican film institutions as an unwanted orphan - neither straight "low" horror nor legitimate "high" art - and was unceremoniously sent off to Cannes on a minimal marketing budget, only to be feted as a major revelation, or at least, as del Toro puts it, an "odd dog" par excellence.

"When I did Cronos it was a very odd film for Mexico, and it was born against the grain - the Mexico film industry didn't understand what the fuck that movie was. And making Pan's Labyrinth was no different," chuckles del Toro. "It's still an odd dog. And Hellboy was an odd dog for the American blockbuster mentality, almost like a this-is-not-a-pipe statement: this-is-not-an-American blockbuster - and yet it looks like one, right?"

It's surprising that, while he has twice established himself twice as a successful director in Spain, del Toro has still only made one feature in his own country. He continues to work there, in fact, but producing rather than directing, through Tequila Gang, the production company he set up with Cuarón and other colleagues. "As a director," he explains, "I want a certain degree of technical difficulty that would be very hard to finance as a Mexican film. If I made a Mexican film, I would have to scale it down even more. Pan's Labyrinth is a pretty big movie for $15m, but to try and do that as a Mexican film would be almost suicidal. I'll do it, by the way," he adds, looking mischievously piqued by the challenge.

In a sense, it doesn't matter where del Toro actually operates: his mental geography is so idiosyncratic that he's virtually his own portable republic of the imagination. More than most film-makers (the great exception being David Cronenberg, who is arguably del Toro's nearest imaginative kin), del Toro has his own extensive repertoire of obsessions and leitmotifs: clockwork, entomology, prosthetic body parts, unsavoury macho men...

"These are images that I go to in the same way that a fetishist would be drawn to the same type of fishnet stocking. They are not by design - it's not, 'Where do I put the clockwork in this movie?', it's just what arouses my imagination." Fans track his iconography like assiduous psychoanalysts and occasionally catch him out: del Toro insisted there were no insects in Blade II until a viewer proved him wrong. "I'm a big fan of the Jungian, almost psycho-magical conception of the world. I believe we see the world, and create the world we live in, in a specific sphere of consciousness. You're attuned to a certain wave, and my wave is in all the movies I make." He places a lot of faith in the analysts among his fans. "My hope is someday, when someone has a lot of free time, they can watch the movies back to back, and they'll find a sense of cohesion that comes not from me designing it, but from my gut."

And they do come from his gut, del Toro insists. "You can fault my films for succeeding or failing, but you can never fault me for not being earnest. I am a true fucking believer."

* 'Pan's Labyrinth' is released on Friday