Ever since his debut feature, Cronos, won the critics’ prize at the 1992 Cannes Festival, and despite the fact it‘s been nearly 10 years since he has directed a story set in Mexico, for many moviegoers Guillermo del Toro has represented contemporary Mexican filmmaking — even as he’s defied its conventions.
His quirky, feverish vision also eludes classification by national identity. Cronos hinges on a mechanized cure for mortality that leaves its gritty, present-day Mexico City landscape crawling with undead bodies; Mimic centers on a mutant insect that easily stalks and kills pedestrians in New York because it stands 6 feet tall and can fold its wings in such a way as to perfectly imitate the Magritte-like silhouette of a man in a fedora and black trench coat. The recent international hit The Devil‘s Backbone gives us an excitingly creepy combination of ghost and coming-of-age story, set in a 1930s boys’ school amid the more everyday horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
Despite his self-imposed exile as a writer-director, del Toro the producer, born in 1964 and presently living in Hollywood, is extremely active promoting the advancement of Mexican film throughout the world. At age 21 he produced Dona Herlinda and Her Son (1985) for filmmaker Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, and organized the production company Tequila Gang together with Bertha Navarro, Laura Esquivel and Rosa Bosch. When we caught up with him by phone, he was putting the finishing touches on his latest American film, Blade 2, starring Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson, and opening March 22.
L.A. WEEKLY: Although it‘s technically correct to refer to you as a Mexican director, you have been able to create a specifically “international” career. Is it wise to even speak in terms of borders?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: For me, boundaries exist less between North and South than between films that are personal, like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and bigger-budget, mass-market films like Mimic and Blade 2. I learned on Mimic that if you work with more money, you have a harder battle to win regarding content. In that film, I thought it was much deeper, more poignant, to suggest that the humans have already had their turn, the planet actually belongs to the insects now. I wanted there to be no happy ending. Only the faintest trace of these intentions can be found in the final movie.
But I‘m not complaining. After a moment of very painful frustration, I decided to use Mimic as a learning experience, and in the end got a lot out of it. On my more personal films, I find I’m able to tap into resources I could only have developed on bigger movies. I lost important battles over the screenplay on Mimic, but I was able to achieve things visually that made it possible to do the digital effects needed for The Devil‘s Backbone, a film of which I am extremely proud. I could not have done The Devil’s Backbone if I had not done Mimic.
Do you ever worry that you might lose contact with your more personal instincts amid the demands of these bigger projects?
I have written many, many screenplays for projects I‘m eager to do, all of which are very personal. It took me 16 years to make The Devil’s Backbone, after I‘d written it. It took me eight years to do Cronos.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced, getting started as a filmmaker?
My biggest obstacle was that people in my country, and in other countries, have a very poor opinion of the genre I like, which is horror. I’m sure I could do a strange, personal movie without horror, but so far that hasn‘t interested me. When I submitted my proposal for Cronos for a grant in Mexico City, they told me, “We want to support works of art. This is just a horror movie.” [Laughs.] That’s the exact opposite of the prejudice I‘ve run into here in the States: “Hey. We’re just here to make money. Don‘t be so artistic.”
So how do you define yourself to each group, when crossing back and forth?
I enjoy it when people understand what I do, but it’s business as usual when they don‘t. One of the things I admire most about Roman Polanski is that he was an art-film director from Poland who came west and then made a William Castle film, Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski‘s personal stamp is everywhere on that movie. Even though if you read the novel you see he filmed it very faithfully, the film is filled with his spirit, especially his sense of humor. If I identify with him in any way, it’s that he‘s had a career which, from film to film, seems unplanned.
I’m that way. Each film has its own center. Lovers of The Devil‘s Backbone may not be expecting Blade 2, but people who loved the first Blade will be satisfied. There’s a great continuity between the two because they both have the same writer, David Goyer. I didn‘t attempt to change the script, though I tried to steer it visually toward a true comic book. The violence in Blade was Hong Kong style, the “wire-fu” style that has become so much the usual after The Matrix and Crouching Tiger. My effort has been to make it more graphic — not in the sense of “graphic violence,” but in the sense of bolder lines, colors, shapes. Blade had that techno, very James Cameron look: brushed metals, blue steel. For Blade 2, we went for decayed techno: abandoned factories, sewers.
So many big-budget American films are made with an eye toward export that they are virtually silent films. In other words, shut off the sound on any blockbuster and you can follow it with perfect lucidity, even without subtitles.
When doing an American movie, I try to keep the language fluid and brisk. With my personal films, it’s the exact opposite — I hate in my personal films for things to pay off. I would have hated in The Devil‘s Backbone for somebody to explain to the boy the fate of his parents, or for one of the characters to be “redeemed.” I find it — not alarming, but very usual for the flavor of European films to become homogenized. The Brotherhood of the Wolves, which I enjoyed, could easily have been made in Hollywood. And much as I enjoyed it, I did so with a sense of loss. When I see a European film with more bite, like No Man’s Land, I feel nostalgic.
One Mexican film I had involvement with, and of which I am extremely proud, is Amores Perros — a savage movie that doesn‘t try at all to be safe. I worked for a few days with the director as an associate editor. It was already a masterpiece by then, but I was able to make a few small recommendations about its shape and rhythm.
What advice do you give to young filmmakers in Mexico? Or here, for that matter?
I have no advice. My crossing over was a complete accident. I’ve been cursed with a Gypsy‘s curse as a filmmaker. I never shoot where I live. I am from Guadalajara, so when I went to Mexico City to make Cronos, it was as a traveler, a stranger in town. When I did Mimic, it was for an American company, and the story was set in New York, and we filmed it in Toronto. We filmed The Devil’s Backbone in Spain. Blade 2 is an American movie made in Prague. I have no idea how I achieved this, and wouldn‘t know what to advise.