Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking advice of Guillermo del Toro.
Guillermo del Toro abides by zero perceived distinctions between high and low culture. Whether working with Hollywood popcorn properties like Blade II or Hellboy or creating imaginative, dark arthouse fare like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has demonstrated a singular creative vision that stands out against an unimaginative Hollywood.
That’s why this weekend’s Pacific Rim, despite being marketed as Transformers 4, promises to be a gloriously geeky respite in a summer of largely unsatisfactory blockbusters. Coupled with the recent news that del Toro might be directing a Charlie Kaufman-scripted adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, there are many reasons to celebrate the fact that the restlessly imaginative man who introduced himself with Cronos bounced from the streamlined Hobbit adaptations. Equal parts Jim Henson, Brothers Quay, and Terry Gilliam, del Toro is a visionary who also happens to be a bankable name. That’s a pretty rare commodity these days.
So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who we’ve forgiven for making Mimic.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Guillermo del Toro
1. Lucid dream and share the dark side of Life
In this 2010 BBC interview, del Toro talks about his propensity for lucid dreaming since childhood. Though I’m not sure how accurate del Toro’s definition of lucid dreaming is here, the filmmaker makes explicit how concretely he’s held onto a childhood imagination unencumbered by waking life. His efforts to maintain this lively imagination well into adulthood no doubt accounts for his seemingly boundless creativity and vision, and likely contributes to his interest in the subject of childhood and dreaming on display in Pan’s Labyrinth. Couple this boundless imagination with a decidedly unromantic view of youth, and you have the recipe for a style of filmmaking that possesses a unique ability to address complex, dark themes with astounding vision.
As del Toro told Time in 2011, “As a kid, I dreamed of having a house with secret passages and a room where it rained 24 hours a day. The point of being over 40 is to fulfill the desires you’ve been harboring since you were 7.”
2. Cast the right person for the right part, no matter their seeming limitations
Del Toro, like many directors, has surrounded himself with a reliable set of creative collaborators, like Federico Luppi and the human chameleon Doug Jones. But del Toro is probably best known for his collaborations with actor Ron Perlman. When the director sought to cast Perlman for his first feature, the largely Spanish-language vampire film Cronos, Perlman labored in a futile attempt to master his dialogue in Spanish.
When Perlman finally met with del Toro to try his lines in Spanish, the director casually said that Perlman’s Spanish was terrible, alluding that he had written the part in English with Perlman in mind despite the fact that there was little apparent justification for an English-fluent, Spanish-clunky character named Angel de la Guardia in the film. But no matter; Perlman is so fittingly cast the finished film that the question of language doesn’t beg being asked. And thus began his most important years-long creative partnership.
3. Know the roots of your myths
From vampires to mecha anime to Grimm-style fairy tales to an alt comic book superhero, del Toro’s films deal with characters, properties, and narratives that carry legacies well outside the boundaries of his own films. In his 2011 contribution to the web-based Big Think video series, Del Toro discusses the literary origins and legacy of vampire narratives, describing with precision the character of the vampire and why its original form remains a fascinating and productive narrative tool.
His words exhibit a palpable respect for and knowledge of source material. It’s perhaps the best-reasoned critique of where Twilight-era vampire culture may have gone wrong; but more importantly, it illustrates that proper knowledge of, and respect for, a trope’s origins can enliven creativity, not stifle it.
4. Make one movie you love, over and over again
It’s a mandate of auteurist logic, but beloved directors are perceived to have a common thread in their work because they labor over the same themes, ideas, and aesthetics in film after film. Del Toro will be the first to admit he does this as well. Sure, his movies possess greater differences than what he’s illustrating here, but in a more general sense, if the formula makes for one good movie, why change?
Here’s what he had to say on the subject in a January 2013 interview with TwitchFilm:
“I cannot pontificate about it, but by the time I’m done, I will have done one movie, and it’s all the movies I want. People say, you know, ‘I like your Spanish movies more than I like your English-language movies because they are not as personal,’ and I go ‘Fuck, you’re wrong!’ ‘Hellboy’ is as personal to me as ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ They’re tonally different, and yes, of course, you can like one more than the other – the other one may seem banal or whatever it is that you don’t like. But it really is part of the same movie. You make one movie. Hitchcock did one movie, all his life.”
5. Your own politics belong in movies and may even show up despite you
Del Toro’s films aren’t often thought of as overtly political, but the filmmaker views the genre of horror (and rightly so) as inherently political in its structure, themes, and mythology. In the aforementioned “Time” interview, del Toro states of the horror genre:
“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and anti-establishment.”
Where does Del Toro’s filmmaking lie in this institutional spectrum? With his portrayal of revoltingly oppressive characters like Sergi Lopez’s Francoist patriarch in Pan’s Labyrinth, or the cutthroat industrialists of Cronos, coupled with his Catholic upbringing that he has described as “morbid,” del Toro has a dedicated anti-establishment sensibility that breathes through the conventions of the genres he works in.
Del Toro explained, “I hate structure. I’m completely anti-structural in terms of believing in institutions. I hate them. I hate any institutionalized social, religious, or economic holding.”
6. Pay it forward
Del Toro’s production company, Miranda Studios, has spearheaded quite a few notable genre films of the past few years, including J.A. Bayon’s Spanish import The Orphanage, Vicenso Natali’s Splice, and Andy Muscietti’s Mama, released last year. The company has also backed (in collaboration with Alfonso Cuaron) Spanish-language fare like Sebastian Cordero’s Cronicas and Carlos Cuaron’s Rudo y Cursi.
When the company’s official incorporation launched in 2010, they announced that their focus would be on the practice of storytelling, and they’ve worked largely with first-time filmmakers or filmmakers who might be rejected by the studio system. Del Toro is using his success, and his interest in – if not eye for – storytelling (he’s not always a storyteller; Hellboy II is feather-light on plot but one of my favorites of his), to make sure other visionary genre filmmakers have a chance to get their imaginations realized as well. Here’s the head of Miranda Studios discussing the process of adapting Mama as a three-minute short into a feature-length film:
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
If one thing is for certain about Guillermo del Toro, it’s the fact that he has a solid sense of his own long-developed taste in cinema – a taste that he can justify and discuss through knowledge of the legacy of certain storytelling and generic tropes, a frank admission about his pattern of revisiting similar material, and his eye for perceiving similar talent and taste in others through his production company.
Del Toro’s films are fascinating and rich for many reasons, but one of these is the fact that he’s merged a vulnerable childhood imagination with adult intellect and a seemingly instinctual sense of narrative in a way that compromises none of these components alone. Also, the filmmaker has cast Ron Perlman five times so far. That’s the first step to doing something right.