“The guy who made Hellboy and Blade 2 made one of the best films of 2006.” It doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue with ease. However, after watching Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, you’ll find yourself forced to say it. But maybe this isn’t such a shocker. For years del Toro’s been living a dual identity. On the one hand, he’s a purveyor of high grossing special effects laden blockbusters that cause popcorn munchers around the world to squeal with delight. On the other, he’s the auteur responsible for stylish arthouse horror classics like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone that appeal to the snobby chin stroker in all of us. With Pan’s Labyrinth, he offers a new experience that’s sure to appease fans of both. Those familiar with del Toro’s body of work will immediately recognize the structure in Pan’s Labyrinth as the same used in Devil’s Backbone—a fantasy/horror story told from a child’s perspective set against the backdrop of fascist Spain. A young girl named Ofelia, who loves fantasy books, accompanies her pregnant mom to live with her new stepfather, Capitán Vidal. As far as evil step-parents in fairy tales go, Vidal takes the cake. He’s the evil leader of a fascist army maintaining a military stronghold in the hills of post civil war Spain.
While Ofelia explores her new surroundings, she stumbles across a labyrinth and meets a creature named Pan, played by Doug Jones under about 100 pounds of latex (Jones plays another equally latex heavy creature called the Pale Man). Pan is a faun—half man, half, goat, all monster. He informs Ofelia that’s she’s actually princess of the underworld and her parents would like her to return. But before she can do so, she must complete three mystic tasks to prove herself worthy. What follows is equal parts horror and drama as Ofelia is forced to fight her way through a magical world of fantasy as well as the cruel real world of Franco’s Spain at the end of World War II. True, there are monsters and gore but Pan’s Labyrinth is anything but your run-of-the-mill horror film. Guillermo del Toro took a break from working at the Hellboy 2 production office to talk about his latest and greatest film.
It seems pretty unreal how much praise is being heaped on your movie. Does this surprise you at all?
I’m very happy. I’m very surprised? I guess not. Sometimes you do a movie you actually like when you do it. This one is one of those. I really like it. I’m very happy that it’s getting that reception. No movie I’ve done—The Devil’s Backbone or Cronos included—have gotten this type of reception. So I’m very happy about that.
This movie has some pretty overt references to a lot of your previous work. Why did you choose to do that?
I guess it does. I was actually only trying to reference The Devil’s Backbone [structurally]. Other than that, I guess it’s more proclivity than actual referencing.
Well what is it about the Spanish Civil War and fascism that made you want to use them as the backdrops for The Devil’s Backbone as well as Pan’s Labyrinth?
Well it’s a war that’s incredibly important for the world at large, not only Spain. It is a prologue and an epilogue to World War II. It is of high importance in the outcome of World War II. In Pan’s Labyrinth we’re not talking about the actual civil war but the resistance that followed in 1944. Which is a moment where the resistance is actually helping the Allies to vanquish fascism in Europe. They are hoping that they’ll be liberated by the Allies once they win the war, which doesn’t happen. But in 1944 Normandy happened and the Allies should have turned and helped this resistance that was crucial in vanquishing the Nazis. They didn’t. They made a deal with Franco to keep an eye on the Soviets. So it’s a very important moment and it’s a brutal moment of despair. You have a country that lived through a war that is officially over but enduring five years of killing fields in Spain, so to speak. This is the fifth year that they’ve been held up in the mountains resisting a very powerful, well-fed and well-armed military police.
Why did you have to go to Europe to make this movie?
Because a movie like this would be impossible to do in America.
Because movies are done in America, more and more, by being able to be identified as a marketing product. As such, they have to be audience tested and they have to be tested marketwise. It’s a whole different process. You wouldn’t go very far with a movie that opens with an 11 year getting shot in the gut. I don’t think marketing would like that. Or the ending. Or the violence. Or the gore.
Did you encounter any resistance when trying to make this movie? I’m sure there are quite a few people who’d be happy to have you rest on your laurels and just keep adapting comic books into films.
No, I actually found it very difficult to mount up the production for other reasons but I did not find any resistance. Anybody that got invited to the movie got invited. That’s one of the reasons, why I wanted to be one of the producers myself. I didn’t need to answer to anyone. Everybody that got in, got in by invitation and fully knowing what movie they were coming into.
So being the producer, this meant there was no pressure to cut the gore out of the movie?
Amongst other things. When you try and please one audience and that audience is essentially yourself, then it’s much better when you’re nervous about what the head of the studio is going to say when he or she sees the movie. I’m very happy that’s the position this movie was made in.
What do you like most about gore and violence? Because it comes pretty heavy in this film.
I’m not sure that I would use the word “like”. I’m not sure I like it. It fascinates me in the sense that I cannot take my eyes off of it. It has different values. When I do a balletic, almost cartoony, thing out of it like in Blade or Hellboy (which is comic book violence) then that’s one type. But the [violence] in The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth is meant to be heartbreaking, very realistic and very unpleasant. I think that violence, like sex, has many permutations. You can have erotic scenes, porno, or you can have it used for comedic purposes or whatever. Violence is no different than that.
One specific scene I wanted to ask you about: when Capitán Vidal gets his cheek slashed open so it extends his mouth all the way to the side of his face, was that a nod to Ichi the Killer?
No No. If I remember it correctly, when they do that in the English gangs, they call it a Birmingham smile.
Birmingham smile. And I remembered that. That was sort of a half-Birmingham smile.
One of the things that struck me in Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as The Devil’s Backbone, is how the real world terror is more frightening that the supernatural terror.
Yeah, that’s the idea in both movies. The slogan for The Devil’s Backbone’s European release was “The living ones are scarier than the dead.” That’s the idea. The worst monster in this movie is the human monster.
Well what exactly are you trying to say with that?
The idea is that evil needs intention and choice to truly be evil. If a tiger eats your child, well the tiger is doing what the tiger is supposed to do. It has no choice. But if your neighbour eats your child, then that’s choice and therefore it contains evil. The creatures in the movie do what they are supposed to do. Same with the ghost in Devil’s Backbone, it can’t help being a ghost. But being a fascist is a choice. Being a military man is a choice. If your job description includes “must shoot people”, it’s not a great job description is it?
I wasn’t going to bring it up but you mentioned tigers so I gotta ask: Are you a fan of Calvin and Hobbes comics? Because I see a lot of that comic in this film.
Yes, I love them. I think the universe of the girl is that type of Calvin and Hobbes universe where it’s not important if it’s real or not. People say to me is it real? Well to me it is real. But it doesn’t matter if they think it’s not. It makes no difference to me. It’s that same childhood stage where Calvin and Hobbes exists. Before Calvin and Hobbes it was Winnie the Pooh. Same thing. Christopher Robin thought Winnie was a living creature and it doesn’t matter if he was or wasn’t.
Ofelia exists in two worlds: one real and one fantasy. It kind of seems like you exist in two worlds as well. You have your Hollywood popcorn films and then you have your arty foreign horror films.
I think at the end of the day I do both with an equal glee or zeal. But they are definitely very different. First of all, in the smaller movies I control most every aspect of them. I’m not talking visually only. I’m talking about content and I’m not worried about reaching an audience, perceived or not, whereas in the other movies you have to be very conscious of making some things a little more accessible, even if you’re going against the grain. They’re very different but they’re ultimately different parts of the same universe.
The creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth are pretty spectacular and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. What were you drawing influences from to create them?
I actually tried to do the creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth as removed from any movie creatures as I could. I didn’t want movie creatures. I wanted creatures that had the subtlety and beauty of Victorian illustrated books. Or that had the scary simplicity of a children’s drawing with crayons. I was inspired by the symbolist painters, particularly by Arnold Bocklin and Carlos Schwabe. Or late Victorian illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Edmund Dulac. The influence of the design of the creatures comes more from books or paintings than any movies.
How does Doug Jones occupy himself while he’s sitting through these epic make-up sessions for your films?
I never even dared to ask. I hear him singing now and then. Or see him sleeping peacefully like a baby in the make-up chair. But it’s one of those questions that I think might upset the balance of his brain if I ask him.
It almost seems cruel to cast him for two roles for the same movie. How long did it take to transform him into the Pale Man and Pan the Faun.
It was usually that horrible number that is always true. It was four to five hours of make-up.
And how many days was he shooting?
I would say he shot for a good 20 days or so.
That’s quite a feat.
The real monster in the movie is Sergi Lopez, who plays the fascist leader Capitán Vidal. What made you want to cast him and can I get you to talk a bit about his performance?
The guy is mainly known in Spain for comedy and melodrama. When I saw him in other performances—like With a Friend Like Harry—I thought he’d be a fantastic villain. The Captain is an incredibly fascinating, attractive, stern, powerful figure. He understands how his performance nuances the character. We talked about it in the beginning, I said, ‘look I cannot falsely nuance this fascist character by making him sensitive.’ He’s a hardass and his job is to destroy and kill people. So we have to nuance him through the pain and the shame and the moments where he’s almost human. He kept that nuance going. He knew that his function in the fairy tale was that of the big bad wolf. Sergi understands all those layers, the mythic content and the human content. He understands that it’s his duty to nuance and contrast what is on the page with his performance.
I read Pan’s Labyrinth’s going to be Mexico’s entry for best foreign film at the Oscars?
Yeah, It still has to make the cut to the final nomination but it is certainly Mexico’s nominee.
So there are Oscar aspirations for this film?
I would love that. I’m very happy that Mexico chose it. It’s completely fortuitous if it happens or not. It’s out of our hands. The movie seems to connect with the audience. I hope that audience includes some of the less stringent Academy members. There’s not exactly a rule book on how these things work.
As a genre, what do you think horror needs to do to get respect? It’s certainly got financial respect, but what about artistic respect?
I don’t think it’s a genre that needs it. I think it has love. A lot of people love it, me included. I think that’s the important part. No audience is as faithful and as rabid about what we like as fans of the fantastic films. I believe that horror has given us some of the most beautiful and poetic images in the history of cinema. Those are the legacies that count.
published december 2006 in ion magazine