Guillermo del Toro – RT’s Dinner and the Movies Interview

The visionary director spends an hour talking to us about his career.

by | July 13, 2008 | Comments

Guillermo del Toro - Jeff Vespa/

The Hellboy II posters rightly – and finally – tout Guillermo del Toro as the visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth, but his films have had a visionary streak since his first, Cronos, a decidedly different twist on a vampire movie.

All through his dabbles with Hollywood with the likes of Mimic, Blade 2 and Hellboy, del Toro has successfully managed to remain true to his roots, with the masterful Devil’s Backbone and 2006’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth.

But it’s his unwillingness to compromise that makes del Toro a powerful filmmaker, even if it often means he’s had to turn down projects that would otherwise have been a good fit. And it’s a talent learned, no doubt, from the bad experience he had with the brothers Weinstein on Mimic.

Now he faces his greatest challenges. Hellboy II has just been released in the US and he’s already hard at work adapting JRR Tolkien’s book The Hobbit with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Can Hellboy II prove del Toro a master of audience moviemaking, and will he be able to make the same impact with The Hobbit as Jackson did with the Rings?

As part of our ongoing series of Dinner and the Movies conversations – which kicked off with a mammoth chat with Kevin Smith and continued with similarly-gargantuan catch-ups with Neil Gaiman and Edgar Wright – we visited del Toro last month at De Lane Lea post-production facility in London where he was hard at work putting the finishing touches to Hellboy II.

For an hour we talked about his career past, present and future, and for the first time in Dinner and the Movies‘ short history, we present the entire experience as video. With our apologies for some technical troubles with sound, over twelve parts which can be watched back-to-back for a full experience, our Dinner and the Movies conversation with Guillermo del Toro is about as comprehensive as it could be.

Dinner and the Movies
Left to Right: RT-UK Writer Orlando Parfitt, RT-UK Editor Joe Utichi and Guillermo del Toro.

The topics under discussion in each part include:

Part 1 – On finishing Hellboy II and where the character goes from here…
Part 2 – On the projects he’s turned down over the years…
Part 3 – On a change of plans after being offered The Hobbit
Part 4 – On the weight of expectation on his back for The Hobbit
Part 5 – On the so-called “bridge” film and how it will be shaped…
Part 6 – On why characters like Bilbo appeal…
Part 7 – On his grand ambitions from early on in his career…
Part 8 – On learning when to say no…
Part 9 – On the Mimic experience, and talk of a special edition…
Part 10 – On critical and commercial success and balancing the two…
Part 11 – On his love of idiosyncrasy…
Part 12 – On the trouble with modern moviemaking…

On each page you can watch the segments in full and enjoy text highlights should you be so inclined. So get watching!

Part 1 of 12: On finishing Hellboy II and where the character goes from here…

Highlights from the video:

We were shooting in Budapest and we wanted to post in Europe. London has some of the best VFX facilities in the world right now, and a tax rebate!

I think we would all come back [to do a third Hellboy], if they can wait for me to get out of Middle Earth, but we don’t know. Ron may want to do it sooner, but I certainly know where we’re going with the movie on the third one.

Continue on part 2, in which del Toro expands on the many film projects he’s turned down over the years…

Part 2 of 12: On the projects he’s turned down over the years…

Highlights from the video:

I wish I could work every twenty seconds but the problem is making a movie – if you’re really invested in it – takes at least two years of your life, if not three.

I rightfully said no to Se7en, because it was a great script but it was a very cynical view of the world. I loved it, I wanted to see it, but I’m a romantic, fat bastard and I don’t subscribe to that view.

When I read Blade 2, I turned it down three times … Goyer said, “Do you want Hellboy?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Then do Blade. They’re not going to finance Hellboy from looking at Devil’s Backbone.”

Continue on part 3, as we get stuck into The Hobbit and discuss the plans that had to change to make room for the diminutive hero.

Part 3 of 12: On a change of plans after being offered The Hobbit

Highlights from the video:

I was planning to stay in Los Angeles and start two animation companies to start doing genre animated films, but doing them in a different way – doing them through an anime house in Japan and doing them 3D in America.

And then I got the call and my life changed completely. I’m still finishing the building for the company, but I’m not going to use it for three or four years!

Continue on part 4, as del Toro explains his approach to The Hobbit and how he’s been managing the incredible weight of expectation hanging over the project.

Part 4 of 12: On the weight of expectation on his back for The Hobbit

Highlights from the video:

I feel very comfortable with it technically and creatively. In the writing of it I’m partnering up with people I absolutely admire – Peter, Fran and Philippa, when you re-watch the Lord of the Rings movies, which I’ve done recently many, many times, you realise the human and emotional quality of the writing is suberb.

It’s a very different book than the trilogy. It’s a book that’s written from a start of innocence and an ending of disappointment. The ending is quite bittersweet and melancholic. The Hobbit as a self-contained movie will have its own personality.

The reason I connect with The Hobbit is because it’s all seen from a really humble, honest, little guy point of view. I’m not saying Bilbo is a child, but he is a very sheltered character and I love the journey. The dynamic of the hobbit with the dwarves is a great interaction. You have the proper guy and these foul, adorable creatures around him.

Continue on to part 5, as del Toro talks about the so-called “bridge” movie and explains how he plans to shape it.

Part 5 of 12: On the so-called “bridge” film and how it will be shaped…

Highlights from the video:

I’ll only do it if it works and if it feels like it’s going to work on paper. I don’t think any of us is going to do it just to do it. There’s no outside pressure. We’re coming to the idea of the second film with glee and with the desire to utilise something that expands rather than bridges.

If you think of the Lord of the Rings films as a symphony than the Hobbit films – or film if it’s decided to be a movie in two parts or whatever we come to – is an overture. It’s a grand way of not repeating the colours of the rest of the symphony, but expanding it. I believe it’s going to expand that universe.

When Tolkien wrote the book he was not making a prequel … and if there are gaps in the logic of the use or the powers of the ring between the first film and the trilogy, they will be the same gaps that Tolkien had writing the book. We’ll try to deal with it, but I’m not going to betray the spirit of the book in order to fit the cinematic incarnation.

Continue on to part 6, as del Toro explains why he loves Bilbo as a character and why he can’t wait to explore his journey.

Part 6 of 12: On why characters like Bilbo appeal…

Highlights from the video:

War either creates an affirmation of ethics and morality or destroys them. It has that effect, there’s nothing in between. For example in Pan’s Labyrinth the girl becomes so absolutely certain of her internal reality that she does not mind her physical death. She conquers death by absolutely just saying, “I’m in a throne room with my family, I’m happy.” It’s a conquest, but she dies. In my mind that’s not a failure.

In Bilbo’s case, the easiest thing for him to do would be to stay loyal to the dwarves and, frankly, to take a different stance on Smaug. Who knows what the easier choices were – many of them – but he takes the hardest choice.

Continue on to part 7, as we discuss del Toro’s ambitions and he tells details the projects he couldn’t that have come and gone.

Part 7 of 12: On his grand ambitions from early on in his career…

Highlights from the video:

The journey has been a difficult one because people think the movies I’ve made are exactly the movies I planned to make. The movies that I planned to make after Cronos are still screenplays – I never got to make them. But they’re beautiful pieces and I’m in love with them.

We developed a great, crazy adaptation of the novel List of Seven with Mark Frost, At the Mountains of Madness, The Count of Monte Cristo done as a gothic Western, an adaptation of Christopher Fowler’s novel, Spanky. Wind in the Willows, which I adapted to do animated. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and all that – it was a beautiful book, and then I went to meet with the executives and they said, “Could you give Toad a skateboard and make him say, “radical, dude,” things, and that’s when I said, “It’s been a pleasure!”

The adventure has been weird.

Continue onto part 8, in which del Toro explains the importance of saying “no”.

Part 8 of 12: On learning when to say no…

Highlights from the video:

When I go through a project for a first-time filmmaker, or I hear the horror stories of European filmmakers that have gone to Hollywood and they come back and say they don’t want to do a Hollywood movie, it’s because there are still a lot of people in Hollywood in power positions who don’t listen.

No is a very peculiar word. It’s a word, as a filmmaker, that you have to learn to use and a word that the power people in Hollywood use very often but hear very little.

That’s the lesson to be learned from Mimic – you have to say it. The pulse that can only be gained with experience is when to say it. If you say it too soon, it’s useless. If you say it too late, it’s useless. Better to say it, at some point, than never to say it. You have to be 300lbs and 42 years old at least to know exactly when!

Continue onto part 9, in which we further explore Mimic and the possibility of a Director’s Cut.

Part 9 of 12: On the Mimic experience, and talk of a special edition…

Highlights from the video:

It’s worth going back [to Mimic] for me, and I’m trying to do it. It’ll not make a massive difference, but I think tonally it will.

I would retrieve those fake scares, I would put back some of the other content, and I would hope it makes a different. But who knows?

It’s not going to be the Director’s Cut to end all Director’s Cuts, it’s just going to make a minute difference to a movie that is not a lost classic by any stretch of the imagination but I do believe the screenplay is really good and I urge people to read it on the net.

Continue onto part 10, as del Toro weighs commercial and critical success and shares his troubles balancing the two.

Part 10 of 12: On critical and commercial success and balancing the two…

Highlights from the video:

What I do think is intriguing is that in the past there was either success on the critical front or the economical front but it never really came together. It is my hope that that is not viewed as one movie was more successful than another – by either camp.

I remember the first review out of Cannes on the ‘net for Pan’s Labyrinth was a very genuine review, and it said, “Well, it ain’t Blade 2!” I find, a lot of the time the people that like the movies hate others.

Continue onto part 11, as del Toro speaks of his love of idiosyncrasy and why it’s important to include it in Hollywood movies.

Part 11 of 12: On his love of idiosyncrasy…

Highlights from the video:

The only moral crossroads, really, is when it really happens. You cannot be an armchair moralist. You can be a film purist only if you have gone through the grinder. You can’t be a film purist from the comfort of your home. It’s the same thing as saying, “I never sold out.” How would you know if no-one has ever tried to buy you? In that sense, the degree to which you reaffirm your personality is important.

That was one of the reasons I didn’t do [the third Harry Potter film] – because the books I loved – but the first two movies didn’t connect with me. Alfonso went in and did what remains my favourite of the movies so far.

I think Hellboy II is going to be an interesting thing because it is infinitely more idiosyncratic than the first. Hellboy is kind-of a klutz, and I love him for that. What is the everyday life of one of these super-powerful guys? Does he have to pick his socks? Who rinses the ball-sweat from the Batsuit? Those are aspects that intrigue me to a point!

Continue onto part 12, as we conclude our conversation with del Toro by discussing the trouble with modern-day Hollywood.

Part 12 of 12: On the trouble with modern moviemaking…

Highlights from the video:

The way we view film is really vertical. We look up to filmmakers in the way that we look up to classic painters or writers or so on. But the leeway for failure that we give a painter or a writer or a poet is far less public or far wider than a filmmaker has.

We’re coming to a dangerous point in many ways, both as creators and as spectators we’re responding to the model of moviemaking and screenplay writing that Hollywood has created and has been enunciated by people like Syd Field. Even people with a deeper cinematic culture, people that you think should know that there’s no need for a “payoff” – they still can say, “That or that didn’t pay off.”

So many characters get thwarted that way because they’re made to have logical journeys instead of emotionally charged journeys.

Back to the start.

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