Most directors would have jumped at the chance to make the next instalment of Harry Potter or Narnia. But Guillermo del Toro is not most directors. And besides, this natural heir to Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam & Co had his own fairytale plans – namely Pan’s Labyrinth, the triple Oscar-winning box-office smash that turned him into a Hollywood sensation. Alan Jones meets the Mexican maestro on the set of his latest offering, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
“I’m into eye protein, not eye candy,” announces Guillermo del Toro as he watches actor Ron Perlman bound into view dressed as red-skinned demon Hellboy. Del Toro, a 43-year-old cuddly bear of a man who inspires Messianic devotion in all around him, is standing in the middle of what looks very like a Manhattan street. In fact we are on the massive Korda Studio back-lot in Budapest for Hellboy II: The Golden Army. It’s been four years since the first Hellboy outing and in that time everything has changed for del Toro. The sequel was dead in the water as far as the moneymen were concerned. Until, that is, Pan’s Labyrinth made del Toro box-office dynamite.
Before Pan’s Labyrinth del Toro had been crafting elaborate fantasy films for 13 years. His 1993 debut Cronos – a south-of-the-border take on the vampire story – won critical acclaim but never found a mass audience. Mimic, a Miramax-backed monster movie, was a text-book sophomore muddle. But del Toro returned to form with his next outing, The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story set in the dying days of Spain’s civil war. Two comic-book adaptations followed: Hellboy, based on the paranormal investigator created by cult graphic novelist Mike Mignola; and vampire-slaying actioner Blade II. Both were lost in a blitz of superhero cinema releases. Del Toro is philosophical about the hit-and-miss nature of his early CV. “It works like this,” he explains. “I do one film for Hollywood, then one for me. Mimic and Blade II were great dates, but the others are commitments for life.”
Del Toro doesn’t include Pan’s Labyrinth in this relationship analogy, instead describing it as a “beautiful daughter”. Its combination of heart-wrenching wartime dramatics with exquisite monsters won over the multiplex-going public. But the film was not originally conceived with a crossover in mind: “I wanted my hardcore audience to see genre possibilities beyond the easy scare,” he says, “to embrace its multi-faceted richness.”
With Oscar glory, though, came a worldwide audience far beyond gore geekdom. Del Toro can now choose between A-List projects like the big-screen remake of The Hobbit (which will be two films budgeted at $150 million each) and Universal’s Frankenstein re-brand. He can now return confidently to the Hellboy franchise, armoured with total creative control, commercial muscle and a $72 million budget.
Unlike other filmmakers who have made the jump to vast budgets, del Toro has changed neither his priorities nor his personality. He has remained fiercely loyal to a troupe of actors that includes ex-Bros singer Luke Goss, on whom del Toro gambled for Blade II, and who now plays Hellboy II’s villain, elf-prince Nuada. And he has retained a highly contagious passion for every aspect of filmmaking. He refuses to start using a 2nd unit camera team, preferring to oversee every shot with trusty cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who has shot all of his movies.
On Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro did much more than just hang fire to make sure the film was right. He put his money where his mouth is. “I ploughed my entire fee back into the film to complete it the way I wanted,” he explains. “So far it’s made over $150 million and I won’t see a penny. My wife is more upset about that than I am, because it got me to the top of my game. It had the audacity not to fit into any category, yet be successful. I used that clout to benefit Hellboy II and my list of people to help if I ever got into that position.”
Top of that “People-To-Help List” were Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero (Crónicas) and Spain’s Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage). Del Toro produced both films. “It’s all about new talent,” he insists. “That’s what keeps our industry alive and fresh. On The Orphanage I made everyone a first-timer from the director downwards, and it worked.”
Brutality is something del Toro knows all about. He was born in 1964 during a particularly volatile period in Mexico’s history. On the streets around his parents’ home in Guadalajara, paramilitary troops regularly executed students, and drug barons dished out revenge. “Blood, guts and violence were a way of life,” he confesses. “I saw my first corpse at four, I worked next door to a morgue as a teenager, I’ve had guns put to my head and seen people killed in front of me. That’s why I turned down directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Chronicles of Narnia – I don’t understand youth because I’ve never had one.”
Violence has persisted into del Toro’s adult life. In 1997 his father was kidnapped and held prisoner for 72 days. “I lost 18 months of my life trying to find out who was responsible,” he tearfully recollects. “Then a cop said, ‘Give me $10,000 and when we catch them I’ll leave you alone with them and a steel pipe for an hour’. I couldn’t do it. I’m not a perfect human being by any means but that wasn’t the way to confront my pain.
“I work in a genre most people don’t take seriously yet, and I try to imbue it with meaning. I don’t care if films like Hellboy II are considered pulp fiction by most. I will always leave breadcrumb trails to follow into the darkest forests if people want to learn more about themselves.”
Words: Alan Jones
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #13, April/May 2008
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is released on August 22