Guillermo del Toro: "The violence in this movie is calculated to be absolutely, realistically, unpleasant."

Guillermo del Toro talks about Pan's Labyrinth, his dark childhood, exorcisms, fascism and foetuses.
Cannes, May 2006.

Why did you decide to put the god Pan in a story?

“In reality, the god Pan is only in the English title. It’s really a faun, which is more general than Pan. Pan is very specific. Pan has a particular origin that is divine and a faun is very different. A faun is just a guardian of the woods. And a guardian of the woods that is very ambiguous in the sense that in ancient lore a faun both creates the woods and the trees and the flowers, and guards the earth, or it can destroy men and trample men to the ground and kill them. So it was a very ambiguous figure.

“It was a figure, funnily enough, that is not related to Spain, although most of the Celtic culture came to its well known Anglo-Saxon place through the north of Spain. That was something I didn’t know, and then in discovering that, it illuminated a possibility. It was not yet a story or anything, but it gave me the idea of having the combination of having sort of Celtic ruins in the north of Spain, and then the figure of a faun.”

There is also an element of Lewis Carroll in there, like Alice going down the rabbit hole. Did you think of that?

“Yes, of course. I actually drew it, and acknowledged it. When I was doing my notes, I designed her dress and said, ‘Alice.’ But it’s not only from that. I very, very carefully studied fairy tales, from the beginning of the oral tradition going through the known authors, such as Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde, the brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, everything. I have read most children’s books because I, myself, was a child, but also because I think fairy tales are twin sisters to horror stories. They are actually what I think is the source of a lot of horror stories.

“That said there are references to many things. The ending of the movie, particularly, it’s an absolute reference to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl. You know, when the girl lights the last match and she sees the banquet, and she sees herself happy, and she dies. Or the moment the Captain says to her, ‘It’s the other hand, Ophelia’, it’s, I think, chapter three of David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. The trees are a reference to Arthur Rackham. The movie is a sort of love poem to many, many, many of the children’s sources of imagination; the tales, the illustrators and so forth.”

This is very much an adult story. Although some children might like the horror elements in it, they won’t be able to see it in the cinema.

“I don’t think that any of the violence in the movie is enjoyable. I think that violence, it’s a human act, and as such has many representations. Like sex, you know? There is one type of violence that is closer to almost ballet, that is almost like kabuki theatre, that is completely cartoony or representational, and I have done that, even with Blade 2, say, which I think is as ridiculous a cartoon as Tom and Jerry. There is hyper-crazy volume. The violence in this movie is calculated to be absolutely, realistically, unpleasant. It’s not violence that I think kids would watch and go, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ It’s not like that. I think it’s an adult movie about being a child, really. It’s not a child’s movie. I made it not with children in mind.”

It’s the second film you have made around the Spanish Civil War, your first being The Devil’s Backbone. What fascinates you about this period?

“Because it’s one of those wars that maybe people in Europe are more familiar with, but a lot of people in America are very sort of distant from. People read For Whom the Bell Tolls and they think that’s it, you know? They think the war ended in 1939 and everything was somehow fine. I remember growing up, before learning a little more about it, and how in Mexico and America General Franco was seen as a picturesque figure, you know? He was not seen as the absolute fascist dictator he was. He was ‘Generalissimo, the funny little guy with the funny uniform and little moustache’. But it’s a period that haunts me because Mexico’s relationship with Spain and the civil war is very, very peculiar, and closer than a lot of the rest of the world. Our culture, from the 40s on, was extremely shaped by people that emigrated there.”

Did you ever think about putting the film in another time period so it wouldn’t be too close to The Devil’s Backbone?

“No. I wanted it to be close. I wanted it to be a sister movie to Devil’s Backbone. I actually structured the two movies to rhyme together. Devil’s Backbone, I made the movie rhyme inside. It opens and ends with a child in the water, it happens twice; two people fall in the water, there are two ghosts, blah, blah, blah. I made the structure of Pan’s Labyrinth echo Devil’s Backbone. If you ever watch them together, the opening and the ending of the two movies are echoes. They both open with the arrival of a child by car to a place visited one night by an entity. So no, I wanted them to be sister movies. I wanted them to rhyme.”

You were raised in an ultra-Catholic household. Do you relate, therefore, to a child like Ophelia, the young girl in Pan’s Labyrinth, who learns to follow her own heart outside the dictates of an oppressive system?

“Yes. I was exorcised by my grandmother, twice! So yes, literally. [Laughs] It’s funny but it was not funny at the time. My grandmother really went in with a vial of holy water and tried to exorcise me for the shit I was drawing. I started laughing and she got so scared that I was laughing at the holy water that she threw more at me. But not only that, the child in the movie is me because I grew up in a household that told you the right way to act, how to dress – not with that dress [laughs] – how to behave, how to be a little boy, how to be brave and how imagination was weak. I also live in a country where violence was extremely present. I saw my first corpse at four. I saw many more thereafter, not seeking them, but they just happened to be around. [Laughs] I have had guns put to my head. My father was kidnapped in 1997. I have seen shoot-outs happening five metres away from me. So, in many, many ways, I am that child.”

Connected to this, I believe, is the recurring image of the foetus in your work. We see one in this film and in The Devil’s Backbone. I remember you telling me when I interviewed you for that film that you saw a pile of foetuses when you visited a morgue as a child.

“To me a foetus is unspoiled perfection. If I could represent a human soul in any, any way, I would say it’s an unborn baby, in the womb, with that sort of heavenly light of the amniotic fluid. Don’t ask me why, maybe I’m wrong. What the fuck do I know? But that’s the way I imagine it. That’s why in Devil’s Backbone the metaphor is the deformed child: children that are fucked before they are born, even; children that are going to be born in an imperfect world, fucked-up before they hit the ground. So to me it represents unspoiled humanity. Frankly, it represents my non-Catholic idea of heaven, to just float there in a blissful light.”

I you in any sense still religious today?

“Oh, no. But, you know, a rabid atheist is just a disappointed Catholic, right?”

You have Catholic images in your films. Do you want to give them another meaning?

“No, no, because they are part of my language. I loved opening Mimic with a priest that is killed by a giant insect under a sign that says ‘Jesus Saves’. I’m not trying to say that Jesus does save, but I really just utilise the images as part of my language of life. Violence is a part of my language not because I’m a violent person but because I grew up in a violent country. I grew up in a country where insects are a part of my daily life and I love them. I grew up in a country where death and cadavers were a part of my daily life and I use them. I try to articulate the movies through the language that is my own.”

You talk about the blood of the innocents at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth. Is this a comment on what’s happening in the world today?

“No, no, but I think comfort is the worst fucking thing that happened to humanity. The moment that word came into play, and the moment that the dream of everybody became to be in fucking Big Brother on TV and have a car and have some money and aspire to be just famous for being famous, this kind of stuff is so absolutely irritating. I feel that life, partially, needs to be composed of effort and sacrifice too. And I don’t mean in the Catholic sense where your life or your sins are the sins of others, but that sometimes you have to really take pain in order to gain a little bit of knowledge or preserve a little bit of purity. Sometimes tough choices are the way to go. I believe that very strongly.”

We see Serge Lopez’s Captain playing with a watch. Clocks and clockwork are another recurring image in your films. Is there a reason why?

“I remember when I was a very young child my great uncle gave me one of his watches that was ruined and I could open it. I opened it, and then I couldn’t put back together. But I saw it move before I couldn’t put it together, and I didn’t understand how somebody would create something like that. Then, very early in my childhood, I read about automatons. Jacques de Vaucanson, the French guy that created automatons for the French court, and how he created a little dog that moved and shat and swam, and he did it all with gears, and it was so fascinating to me. Even more fascinating, it turns out, than the actual automatons, which are pretty okay but not all that great. And the legend of Vaucanson creating an actually functioning automaton for doctors to operate on and the fact that it’s lost because it sank in the middle of the ocean as they were transporting it, blah, blah, blah. All these lived in my head and to me the most fascinating form of technology is gears. In the movie, I think this fascist character may not be nuanced but he is defined. He is defined by the fact that he lives in the shadow of his father and, visually, you can see that the place he lives is full of giant gears, as if he himself lives inside his father’s watch, you know?

“My relationship with my father is not an easy one. You can see that in my movies. But certainly I know what it is for him to feel that he has to top his father. He denies his father having a watch, but he has one. And we know it’s his father’s watch. Everything he has dreamed of in his life is to have a son and break the watch, for then to tell him your father was brave because that’s the biggest thing. That is how small this character is. So, I put them there because I like them and I’m a fetishist. But I also put them there because it makes sense for the story.”

And does the recurring shaving scene in the film follow that analogy?

“You know, I have been fascinated by sharp razors all my life, I don’t know why. I’m sure that if Freud came and talked to me for a little bit he would put me away.”

What strange fascinations you have: razorblades, insects . . .

“Deep wet holes. . ."

There is a shocking moment when the Captain has his cheek sliced and he sews it back together.

“What I like is you have a character so vain that he polishes his own boots, because a Captain would never polish his own boots. These are small things but a Captain would give the boots to a soldier and the soldier would polish them. But he is polishing his boots. He is always incredibly well groomed, and at the end of the movie he starts to look the way he looks inside. You know? You will not notice this the first time you see it but I do this in reverse: I make the Captain look worse as the movie advances, and the faun looks better and better and better as the movie advances. He becomes beautiful at the end and the Captain becomes horrible at the end. So to me in the progress of the movie the characters become what they really are at the end of the film.”

From some of the things you have said, I wonder if filmmaking and these incredible drawings you do in your notebooks help you to deal with some of the issues you’ve mentioned, like your childhood and your relationship with your father, the violence that you’ve witnessed. Is filmmaking cathartic for you?

“It absolutely is. Look, when I was growing up and I was reading books about art, and I read the line that art was cathartic, I thought it was bullshit. [Laughs] I thought how can it be? How can it really happen? But it does. It happens. I know that I am slightly safer because of my art, and slightly saner. Many, many times in my life, when I have been really, really low, movies have saved my life. They literally have. And they have made me look at things again. And I’m not talking about It’s a Wonderful Life, it can be any movie. Images give me hope. There is a painting by a Hudson River School painter in America called Thomas Cole which is called Exit from Paradise. I don’t know why the fuck that painting moves me so much but when I look at it there’s something I understand. I understand that creating images like that is worth living through the shit we live through. So it is cathartic in that way.”

Is there a specific movie you can mention that has given you hope at a very dark time?

“If I tell you, you will laugh, because a lot of them are shitty movies. It absolutely doesn’t have to be a work of art. Some of them are really good, some of them are not. But one of the few prestigious examples that I can give you is Los Olvidados, the Bunuel movie, you know? When I saw on the screen somebody that was doing Charles Dickens, hardcore, because, ultimately, Los Olvidados is taken from Oliver Twist, I understood. All of a sudden it was as if all the Dickens I had read as a kid was there in cinematic form. I was watching it 30 years after it was made but it was today’s kids. It was incredibly cathartic.

“A less prestigious example is Road Warrior [Mad Max]. I saw that movie and the world changed. It was like a fucking acid trip. Blade Runner – I came out of that movie and the world looked different, and the possibilities of making movies was just light years ahead of what I thought they could be. When a movie does that to you, it’s great. It has also happened to me with Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. It happened to me with Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face. Frankenstein by James Whale, I lived and died by that movie for so many years. And I still hate that the restored version has the guy throwing the girl in the water. They should have left it cut.”

What were some of your other visual influences for Pan’s Labyrinth?

“For this particular movie, I love some of the great Victorian illustrators of fairy tales. I’m a great collector of books and I collect some original art.”

The drawings in your notebook remind me a little of Edward Lear’s drawings.

“Yeah, yeah. To me Edward Lear is such a beautifully tragic character. A guy that was, like me, a fat guy, incredibly out of place in the world, and his work and his rhymes and his little things are so delicate and so childish, I admire him very much.”

He is also dark.

“Yeah, but I think he is dark unvoluntarily. I am dark voluntarily.”

When you make movies like Blade 2 and Hellboy, is it the same process for you? Is it the same approach with drawings and so on?

“Yes, yes. Look, Hellboy to me is a personal movie. It may look like whatever, or to you it may look like Blade 2, and that’s fine by me, but to me it’s a personal movie. Blade 2, nevertheless, was a movie I jumped onboard because I liked the monsters; I didn’t like the good guys that much, but I liked the monsters very much. And I wanted to have that scene between the father and the son where the son bites the father and kills him. [Laughs] The way I see these things is you can approach like work that when it happens, it only happened once with Blade 2; Mimic started off being a personal film and along the way got fucked into what it is, and an hour of that movie I love. I love and I own and I fought for one hour of that movie as a movie I loved.

“What I’m trying to say is you can have two approaches and some of my fellow filmmakers take one approach, and I take another. One is, ‘Okay, this is not a personal movie. Fuck it, I’ll go in, I’ll work, I’ll get my money and get the fuck out of there.’ Or you can work as seriously at it as you would a personal film. I take that approach. I think it is as hard to make a movie that taxes you and is as beautiful as you can make it as it is to make a movie not caring. It’s equally hard but it makes you poorer if you just approach it like a fucking prostitution job, you know? I went in to Blade 2 and I knew I was making a gory version of An American in Paris, with very little storyline and a shit-load of dancing. So I went in and said, ‘Who the fuck cares what Gene Kelly is trying to do as long as we get to see him dance a lot, and that dance is choreographed as carefully as you can and as flamboyantly as you can?’ So I think about it as a movie that I would enjoy with a large pizza and a six pack. I don’t aspire for it to be analysed and deconstructed, but I do think the visual work I put into it, with the material that was there, was as careful as any other movie I’ve made. There is a book for that and some of the drawings I did are in one of chapters on the double DVD for the movie.”

Would you do a Harry Potter movie if they offered you one again?

“They offered me the third one but no one died in that one. I want one where somebody dies. The way I see it is in every fantasy tale there must be a price to pay, because you cannot teach children that everything is for free. I don’t think the world works that way, the universe works that way, or the soul works that way. I think everything has a particular price. I would love to do one if they let me snuff somebody.”

So you don’t like happy endings?

“No, no. I hate unsatisfactory endings. I like happy endings. I love Frank Capra. Everybody may love Frank Capra, but I also think that Amores Perros ends with a very bleak landscape and the guy walking and I love that ending. I think as long as the ending feels consequent with the movie, I am happy. I think Pan’s Labyrinth, the very, very end image of the flower blooming, is a tiny, tiny hope that there may be something out there. But would I call it a happy ending? Fuck no. But I think to tell a story about fascism versus innocence, showing innocence winning in here [touches his forehead] is one thing; to have innocence winning out here is a cheat.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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