Last month whilst flicking casually through Empire magazine as I do routinely before reading the film bible of excellence, I came across the sad news that my second favourite director had stepped down as one half of what promised to be the most exciting writer/director partnership of the decade: as Director of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. Three guesses as to my other favourite director? The combined vision of Peter Jackson and the man responsible for Pan’s Labyrinth was too awesome to contemplate and now sadly, too good to be true.
A better time than any then to post an article I wrote in appreciation of Del Toro’s work. Again, I wrote this at uni as part of a research project exploring the making and fruition of the film that finally got Del Toro noticed: the ground-breaking fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth. I hope you find it informative and mildly amusing (although, you can probably thank Del Toro’s soundbites for the latter).
Pan’s Labyrinth has been branded ‘The Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema’. As writer, producer and director of his fantasy tour de force, is Guillermo Del Toro Mexico’s answer to Orson Welles?
The name Del Toro roughly translates as ‘Son of a Bull’. Fitting perhaps for a director unafraid to grab the proverbial by the horns if needs be. Since his debut with Cronos in 1993, his passion for detail and control over a production plays as much a part of the process as his love affair with monsters “I’m like a dictator, I say: ‘These are the colours. These are the textures. These are the shapes’. On the other hand, I have never used a light meter and nor do I want to. I leave all that to my DP!” laughs Del Toro. The long-suffering Cinematographer in question is Guillermo Navarro, Del Toro’s long-term friend and collaborator since his ambitious first outing with Cronos, the tale of a girl and her grandfather, an antique dealer who comes upon a golden scarab. The device grants eternal life unto its owner but simultaneously, fills them with a vampire lust for blood. Set in contemporary Spain, Cronos is Del Toro’s only modern vampire movie to date. Uncharacteristic perhaps for a man obsessed with the Spanish civil war, a theme he explored both in Pan and his next, rather personal outing after Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone. “I’m always doing this stupid experiment. [The Devil’s Backbone] is a microcosm of the Spanish civil war through a gothic romance with a ghost. But I guess it’s not as far-fetched as doing an anti-fascist fairytale!” This anti-fascist fairytale had been brewing in Del Toro’s mind long before Cronos was even released, but he abandoned the project in 2001 to direct Blade II, his only commercial success alongside the comic book franchise, Hellboy.
Pan’s Labyrinth finally brought Del Toro back to home territory: a truly personal film without the creative restrictions imposed on him in 1997, by a demanding Hollywood studio during the making of Mimic. Del Toro regarded the experience as more traumatic than the kidnapping of his father in the same year. “What was happening to the movie [Mimic] was far more illogical than kidnapping, which is brutal, but at least there are rules. When I look at Mimic, I see the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.” To ensure his personal creatures continued to flourish, Del Toro returned to Mexico in 1998 to form his own production company, ‘The Tequila Gang’, co-owned by two of Del Toro’s friends and fellow directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (the men responsible for Babel, Y tu mamá también and 21 Grams) This arrangement allowed Del Toro to work in complete creative freedom with Pan’s Labyrinth and the mathematic attention to detail shines through. To ensure the film reflected his vision, Del Toro even sacrificed his own salary to fund the film’s production and took on the extraordinary responsibility of director, writer and producer of Pan.
“It’s like the difference between Hustler and a gynaecology manual. There is a different approach, even though the graphics are similar” ~ Del Toro (on compromising the violence in Pan)
Making his dream film didn’t come without its drawbacks, however. Most of the main actors (including Doug Jones who plays Pan, the faun of the film’s title), faced severe salary cuts. Jones, however, was simply happy that Guillermo was finally making a film his way “I love that man (Del Toro) and the beautiful art that happens when he creates a sculpture all his own. We did what was needed to make this movie happen and I’m incredibly proud of it”. Making films ‘Del Toro’s way’ has always kept him five miles outside the mainstream fare, generating cult status and a loyal following of horror fans but never reaching the maximum audience it could. Thankfully, to the delight of critics and true fantasy fans the world over, Del Toro keeps his indie card pressed firmly against his chest. At an early screening of Pan’s Labyrinth, someone even suggested he could reach a bigger audience of kids if he toned down the violence. Del Toro replied with a typically polite but very immediate no. “The suggestion was well meant but that is totally self-defeating, isn’t it? It’s like the difference between Hustler and a gynaecology manual. There is a different approach, even though the graphics are similar.”
More visually arresting even than the fantasy creatures in Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)’s escapist world or the effects is the blunt violence throughout the film and Del Toro’s admirable grapple with brutally honest storytelling. At the onset of sexual maturity, the young heroine Ofelia is forced to undergo tasks beyond her emotional comprehension, all occurring within the ruthless backdrop of 1944 fascist Spain. Del Toro’s desire to direct a fairytale in its original, truthful intent stems from a love of religious parables as a child “I was moved by stories that taught you something and I think that parables and ideas were, in the oldest ways, transmitted through tales about demons and angels.” The demons that feature so prominently in The Devil’s Backbone and its sister movie, Pan’s Labyrinth serve an important purpose in Del Toro’s movies. They hold up a mirror to humanity in the context of war and suggest that the only real monsters are human. And that the only thing we have to be afraid of is people, not creatures or ghosts. While this may have provided Guillermo with the social commentary and narrative structure for Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro’s relationship with monsters have their origins in personal experience. The inspiration for the film came from Del Toro’s own childhood fears and visions, notably of a faun-like creature he imagined appeared from behind his bedroom closet whenever the young Del Toro slept at his grandmother’s house. “When the church would strike midnight in the village, a faun would come out from behind the armoire in my grandmother’s house. I would see the hand first and then the goat’s face and his leg. And I screamed. Go figure, man!” The faun consequently became the basis for Pan, the eponymous faun played by Doug Jones.
Insofar as translating these visions into a fully realised film, Pan’s Labyrinth took shape in Del Toro’s imagination as long ago as 1993 in the form of sketches. In typically meticulous fashion, Del Toro researched into monsters and the logic behind them long before he had a hard script to work with, recording his ideas and childhood visions in his various notebooks, a ‘security blanket’ he keeps with him at all times throughout the production process. Del Toro began using these notebooks in 1992 during the making of Cronos and studied ‘The Science of fairy tales’ by Edwin Sidney Hartland, an 18th century index of fairytale folklore and their meaning. Del Toro looked to it again while shaping Pan, “This guy (Hartland) just did a really studious and thorough systematisation of mythology from throughout the world, not just fairy tales but also oral traditions and the heroic narrative. Without an agenda or a desire to prove that these fairy tales had ‘heroes’. There was a point to them and a moral and that is what fascinates me”. It wasn’t until early 2001 that Del Toro began working on a premise for Pan and if his initial draft is anything to go by, Pan’s Labyrinth could have resulted in a very different film, “Originally the idea was that it was a married couple and the wife was pregnant. She fell in love with the faun in the labyrinth. The faun said to her, ‘If you give me your child and you trust me with killing your child, you will find him and I, both, on the other side, and the labyrinth will flourish again,’ and she made that leap of faith. It was a shocking tale and it started changing”.
During post-production on Hellboy in 2004, Del Toro’s ever-evolving story arrived at the real thing over a chicken dinner at fellow director Alfonso Cuarón’s house, “At that dinner table, I had made the decision. I believe it happened over the course of a couple of days.” Cuarón himself can verify that fact, stating in 2007 that the emotions and mood of the film matched Guillermo’s pitch more accurately than the script. This is in part because Del Toro is a visual story-teller, a gift admired and envied by fellow director and friend Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Every single shot of his film [Pan’s Labyrinth] is like the mechanism of a clock. Everything works. It is like watching a beautiful, complex dance”. Del Toro has described his visual style as ‘eye protein’ rather than eye candy, believing the themes and motifs within his films (the tree in Pan, the scarab beetle in Cronos etc) each have nutritional value. This trademark attention to detail has, at long-last established Del Toro as one of the most sought-after international writer-directors, making him a household name in world cinema. One of many producers working on Pan, Frida Torresblanco, reveals that the extraordinary faith Del Toro has in his vision is what attracted and continues to attract her into working with him, “The minute Guillermo transfers that imagination to paper, everything makes sense; there is nothing arbitrary in the movie or script. And it’s a script that makes you cry, you feel all the emotions there, and the rhythm is incredible”.
Four years on, Del Toro is proud of the film that has opened so many doors for him but remembers his adult fairytale as a creative uphill-struggle, “Sketching a film can sometimes be more fun than actually making one, particularly with all the economic problems you have to deal with”. Del Toro sacrificed everything at a director’s disposal to ensure Pan would get made. “Maybe one day I’ll have my own gallery, paint full-time and express my ideas that way”. Indeed, if you could take one screen capture from Del Toro’s labour of love and hang it on a wall, it wouldn’t look out of place. Pan’s Labyrinth is nothing short of a masterpiece.