If late 20th century cinema bought us anything, it was a new breed of moviemakers who grew up as movie geeks. Prior to the Tarantino era, almost all directors seemed to be from a gilded professional class who went through some mystical course or initiation to receive the keys to a movie set from a big studio, a rite of passage that firmly shut the rest of us out.
Suddenly, along with the likes of Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright and Robert Rodriguez (and any filmmaker worth his or her salt today), moviemakers were the kids who’d grown up transfixed to TV screens and recreated the magic they felt on the floors of suburban bedrooms using their mothers’ make-up for fake blood. Even though JJ Abrams’ Super 8 was set in a bygone era, it was very much a love letter to a modern movement.
Few geeks-turned-directors have conquered Hollywood as much as Guillermo Del Toro. After his breakout indie it looked like his Hollywood career would stall just as it started with the irascible Mimic, a movie he describes somewhat enigmatically as ‘a bad experience’.
Today he has some of the coolest movies around to his name either as producer, director or writer, sometimes more than one. He’s been out of the directing saddle for awhile but his name is never far away from the screen in some form. He’s set to rocket straight into the billion dollar club if early clips from June 2013′s ”Pacific Rim” are anything to go by, and at the moment there are a whiplash-including 27 projects in cinema and TV he’s attached to in some way.
He talked about creatures, stories and being the busiest man in Hollywood in Los Angeles while promoting ”Rise of the Guardians”.
How hands-on is an executive producer on an animated movie?
The role of a producer is very simple, it’s as hands on as you need to be. If you see somebody in danger of not delivering the movie then you can be really hands on. But if you have somebody you love and trust, you’re half bodyguard, half butler. They ring the bell and you’re like ‘yes master?’ You try to work for them.
It’s incredibly important that you don’t try to direct if you’re a producer. That’s the difference I learned in a good and a bad way. I’ve produced 20 movies and after all that time you realise that the best way to produce is the way you want to be produced. You don’t do anything you wouldn’t be able to face yourself. If they need me to get involved with story, I will. If they need to look more at the design, I get involved with the designers.
Isn’t it tempting to take over the design and directing because you’re so known for it in your own films?
You put everything you know about design, story, whatever on the table and they take what they want. For example, Peter [Ramsey, director] and I argued about the lights on the globe [a pivotal prop in Santa's workshop/base of operations] in every meeting from beginning to end and we did it his way.
But in other ways, for example when it comes to the story, my impulse would be to tell it through the young boy, Jamie, and that was not Peter’s impulse. When you’re telling a fable or fairy story, you always talk about your ground floor. That’s where the audience climbs into the elevator and raise into the movie. And Peter was very clear about his ground floor being Jack Frost. Jamie was just another area of the world we’ll visit. It’ll be crucial and we will certainly develop it, but he didn’t want the audience to jump in through Jamie. I pitched an entire way of telling the story through Jamie and he said ‘we’re not doing it like that’.
You’ve said before you wouldn’t have the patience to direct an animated film. How come?
I will direct animation. What I don’t have is the patience to animate. When I was young I was great at building armatures because I was great at sculpting the figures, I was good at painting and dressing them up. But the moment I knew I had to change them to produce some sort of gesture I just wanted to go and have a burger. I don’t have the temperament. I’m really, really impatient.
How does a filmmaker with such a distinctive creative palette live with not directing for four years?
It’s difficult. I was writing and producing and creating a production company but none of that gives you what directing gives you. It’s like having a fish out of the water. It survives, but the sooner you put him back in the water the better. For me, the world is a movie set. That’s the world I understand and that’s the world as it should be.
It’s a lot like the old actor’s troupes. They travelled from town to town and married and had children, and the children married the children of the other guys in the circus or troupe, and that was their world. And that’s a movie set.
On a movie set, everybody goes against the guy not doing his job. If the set has to be ready tomorrow, it is or the entire crew is angry. The world isn’t that. Politicians don’t do their job and we get angry and they still don’t do their job. A movie set is an ideal, it’s a benign form of tyranny because everyone ultimately knows that guy [the director] knows what he’s doing.
Does that mean you’re a tyrant on set?
I’m the nicest tyrant in the world.
Any more pressure or discomfort directing something so big that a studio will be all over it like Pacific Rim rather than something smaller and more personal where you have more freedom like Pan’s Labyrinth?
No, it was actually harder to do Pan’s Labyrinth than Pacific Rim. Any task as a director, producer, whatever is a marriage of what it should be and the tools you have to make it. They can be people or they can be political, social, economical, whatever.
If those things align themselves then you have a great experience like Pacific Rim. If they don’t align themselves, you’re going to have a bad experience like Mimic. In Pan’s Labyrinth we were trying to do something where at the time I swear most people involved thought ‘what a madman’. It was very difficult to do. It was a very tough experience. It was the second hardest movie I have ever done.
Stephen Spielberg told 60 Minutes he was getting less interested in special effects as his career advanced. Can you see yourself getting to a point where the creatures and the fantasy elements don’t grab you as much?
I don’t think you can define what you can be in the future until it happens to you. Art is an impulse. Narration and telling a story is ultimately when you’re sitting by a big fire with a lot of people and if you’re not into the story you’re telling it shows. So I’m into the thing I’m into.
There are childish concerns and concerns about childhood. Those are totally different meditations. And I believe that you can be telling stories that are not childish but are concerned with childhood all of your life and be as valid a narrator as somebody that embraces a hyper-real approach to storytelling. Some of my favourite writers are fabulists. Oscar Wilde, wrote beautiful fairy tales. Charles Dickens is ultimately the author of both gothic and fairy tales.
How do you fit in in Hollywood where it’s all so combative?
Badly. Very badly. I don’t think I belong in any one way of making films. I go to the independent area of making cinema and I don’t quite fit because generic concerns are things that are normally seen as less valid in the real world. And if I go to Hollywood I find it really hard to fit in the structure of power. I don’t feel comfortable. I’m not a power player. I don’t wield power and I don’t like it being wielded on me. So it’s tough, but so is every job.
How does your family cope with all the projects you have on?
I love going home, sitting with my daughters and my wife and telling them exactly how my day went in every sordid detail so they know who is the guy walking in the door. When I was a kid my father would come in and he would be generally tired, and generally in need of rest.
But right now I’m in a critical period of overwork so I sat with my wife and daughters and I said ‘you three have to be patient with me. This is why I’m doing it. This is where it ends.’ And then it’s a shared experience.