Renowned horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro took time out from his busy schedule to speak with Esplatter on December 4, 2001, two weeks before his film "The Devil's Backbone" was set to see limited release. The Mexican-born filmmaker was also in the middle of finishing post-production on "Blade 2," his sequel to the 1998 comic book/horror film starring Wesley Snipes. He got his start as a "name" director with the now-classic 1993 vampire film "Kronos." In addition to being a great filmmaker, del Toro is also one hell of a nice guy and really opened up when it came to his childhood and his love of horror.
So what was the inspiration for 'The Devil's Backbone'?
I was toying with the idea of doing a ghost story set against the background of a war, since I felt it was really interesting to make a political ghost story and to also do one that was also an allegory of what was going on outside those walls. I started trying to set it against the background of the revolution in Mexico. That proved to be a little dodgy. One of the ideas that was behind this tale was that the war should not be shown that much, yet be reenacted within the walls of the building. The Mexican Revolution kept popping into the foreground. There is a huge and very deep connection between Mexico and Spain, especially concerning the Spanish Civil War. Mexico was one of the few countries in the world that made its position clear and received a massive immigration of Spanish refugees during that period, many of whom came to shape a lot of the culture and arts in Mexico. Some of these people became very dear friends of mine. They told me stories, firsthand accounts from themselves or from their families. It was a war that was very vivid in my memory.
It was a war that served the tale in the sort that it was sort of an indoors war. It was family members against family members. In the walls of the orphanage, people are killing people they broke bread with the night before.
As for the origin of the movie, it contains every episode that happens in the movie that I lived or saw as a child. It's extremely autobiographical.
Are you yourself an orphan?
No. And I wasn't in the Spanish Civil War. But those are the fantasy elements. The childhood I lived in provincial Mexico in an all-male Jesuit school was pretty brutal. I saw some pretty brutal stuff. The most violent stuff I've seen is between fights between children. They went from fists to stakes to stones in a space of a few minutes.
And there were some stakes used by children in the film.
I noticed some parallels with "Lord of the Flies."
Yes. The moment you have a child with a sharp stick, there's no way around it. But I think "The Devil's Backbone" is an anti-"Lord of the Flies." That story used the children to show the inhumanity of the children. This shows the children coming together rather than coming apart. The only hopeful group in this film is the children.
I noticed some shades of "Who Can Kill a Child?" in the movie as well. Have you seen that film?
It's a beautiful movie. The director did another one called "The House That Screamed."
Yes. So you're obviously a big horror movie fan.
As big as it gets. I've been a horror fan since memory. The anecdote I often tell is that I was on the crib. I must have been about 3 years old. I had a crib that I unzipped to take a pee at the toilet.
This crib had like a little fabric thing on top, like a mosquito net. I unzipped it.
I remember a few nights when I would unzip the crib and my room was full of monsters. The rug itself turned into a monster. Every little piece of fabric looked like a finger. I got so scared at that early age. One night I said, "Let me go pee and I will be your friend forever." From that day on, I have not seen a monster. But I saw them that night.
You also saw many of them on the silver screen while you were growing up?
Yes. Horror films in the '50s and '60s were very cheap to acquire. I went to see every Japanese horror film ever made. "Frankenstein Conquered the World," "Godzilla." I saw all the Hammer films. All the Universal movies were on TV every Sunday.
I just loved it. There's a certain enormous beauty to monsters. They are as rare as anything. What I find absolutely nauseating is the "beauty" of a coffee commercial. Or the look of a corny American melodrama. That's fake. Number one, it doesn't exist in life and it's the crap people want us to believe life is. Monster movies remind you of the other side, a side that is much more real and accessible in a way. Monsters are the ultimate feat of craftsmanship. We are creating creatures have never lived. The sculptor who is sculpting a gargoyle is sculpting exclusively from his imagination. I find that the ultimate feat of craftsmanship.
So is "Blade 2" finished?
It won't be finished until February. We're doing audience testings. We just did the first one and we're onto the second one.
Was it tough to make a comic book movie?
No. I'm a huge comic book fan. It's tough to do a bad comic book movie. So many people don't understand that comic books are one of the most sophisticated forms of entertainment. There are some comic books that rank up with the greatest works of humanity for me. All the work of Robert Crumb, I can easily compare him to satirist of any medium. Then there is a much smaller stuff
Alan Moore has a couple of graphic novels.
There are the minor masterpieces, "The Killing Joke," "Dark Knight Returns," which are more mainstream but they're great. "Hellboy" is a masterpiece.
And you're doing the film of that, right?
I hope so. It's like Weird Tales, and all those pulps, combined with all the horrors of Lovecraft.
It's an ecosystem of imagination.
Will it be made?
I have no idea. The best laid plans of mice and men. I have a simple understanding about careers. The more you plan them the more they fuck you.
What about "Blade 3"?
They've talked to me about it. Right now it depends on the story. We came up with a couple of great premises. If the studio likes of them, there's a chance.
What were some other premises for "Blade 2"?
One of them was a travel in time. One was a post-Apocalyptic one.
So what filmmakers have influenced you?
More than one or two. Some filmmakers have been very important. Bunuel and Hitchcock. Cronenberg. Terry Gilliam. Terence Fisher. Mario Bava. Renoir, whom I absolutely adore. David Lynch. Almodovar. Those are important directors to me. On top of that I've had movies that hit me at the right time -- anything James Whale does, even "Showboat." I love "Road Warrior," I love "Blade Runner." These are just things that hit me in my youth and made me want more and more -- "Mad Max." I love the prestigious and the absolutely popular movies without any discerning taste. I love Terence Fisher as much as I love Bunuel.
What do you think of today's horror films in general?
Horror has always been a genre that generates a lot of crap and some really great ones. The problem is that people identify it with exploitation. People do not identify it with the great ones.
What are some of the great ones that have come out lately?
"Ginger Snaps" is fantastic. "The Ring" is fucking amazing. "Blair Witch Project" I loved, contrary to what other people thought. I enjoyed "The Sixth Sense." I loved "Unbreakable." I think now and then a good one crops up.
Most foreign filmmakers that come to the U.S. seem to stay here, strictly making American movies. But you filmed "The Devil's Backbone" in Spain and in Spanish. Why?
I want to go where the story takes me. I certainly don't want to just become a Hollywood filmmaker. It would be so boring. Then you get lulled into crap. If I do crap I want to do my own crap. It depends on how your lifestyle is. I life a subnormal life. I dress like shit. I drive a crappy car. My only vices are collecting comics, DVDs and original comic book art. I'm really low maintenance in that sense. I don't ever want a fucking great mansion. I want to stay simple. Then my options become more simple. Once I have a $3 million mansion and an apartment in Paris, I'm fucked. Then I start doing crap I didn't intend to make. I've only done four movies. Whether any failed or not, they were what I wanted to do.
"Mimic" was not successful. It failed. I didn't know what I facing when I made it. I lost the war, although I won a few battles. I would have done so much differently.
What happened with "Mimic"? You were told to change it? How did they tell you? Did you get a phone call? An order from a producer?
It starts with budget. Then memos. Then it goes into the gladiator arena with audience testing. Today, a movie is foremost a product. It has to be packaged. It has to fit the package and it has to fit the shelf. I have found a way to get away with stuff on "Blade 2." But I'm making "Blade 2." I'm not making "Devil's Backbone" with Wesley Snipes. I make no illusions of doing a personal statement about anything. I'm just doing the most kick-ass popcorn munching movie.
How did you avoid some of those problems with "Blade 2"?
I went into a franchise I did not own. I assumed command on a screenplay that already existed it. I tweaked it, but didn't fuck with it. On "Mimic," I was trying to do a personal movie. The last third of the movie was completely different. I think the beginning and middle of "Mimic" were what was planned.
"The Matrix" seemed to be influenced greatly by "Blade."
Do you think anything in "Blade 2" will have as great an influence on other movies?
I think there's a return to the vampire as a more brutal creature. We have all these vampires that are savvy or smart. But ultimately the fear of vampirism, if you go back to the origins of the myth, is that vampirism is something that will drain you of life. I think this one re-establishes that norm a little bit.
What was your favorite vampire movie?
George Romero's "Martin."
Any vampire films from the past influence "Blade 2"?
"Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires."
That's a great movie.
I tried to bring the same sense of fun to "Blade 2."