When he is on a movie set, director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro transports himself to another world. Whether it is a world he has created in his mind during production or one that has evolved over time inside the pages of a diary he scribbles in daily, del Toro’s imagination is always in second gear.
He has done this with all his films, from his first, “Cronos,” in 1993 to his comic book adaptation of “Hellboy” in 2004. Most recently, del Toro delves into the most deepest corners of his thought process to conjure up the film “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Set in Spain, post-Civil War, a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) comes to terms with her surroundings by uncovering a mysterious land filled with fairies, fauns and terrible creatures never-before seen by man.
During an interview with me, del Toro talked about where these ideas for his stories come from, Mexican fairy tales and how a film like “Pan’s Labyrinth” could have never been the film it is today without the smaller projects he has worked on.
There is so much imagination in a film like “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As the creator of such a world, where do you start? Creating the characters? The setting?
Everything sort of comes in at the same time. What I do is keep a diary where I write my ideas over the course of years and years. All of a sudden they start to accumulate. Sometimes it’s images, sometimes it’s stories ideas. In this instance what made them come together was the desire to talk about the clash between something magical and something as terrible as the Civil War in Spain or, in this case, the postwar period. That’s what gave birth to this story.
Is this diary something you write in daily or are you the type of person that will wake up in the middle of the night and have to write something you just dreamt about or imagined?
I carry the notebook with me in my bag and I write about anything. I’ll write down a line of dialogue I hear at a restaurant or an idea I have after seeing a painting. For example, when I go to a museum or I go to the movies, I am carrying the notebook around with a pen. If I get any inspiration or see anything I like, I write it down.
I’ve been hearing the phrase “a fairy tale for adults” to describe “Pan’s Labyrinth.” What kind of knowledge do you have on fairy tales and how much of that did you use for this film?
I’ve been collecting fairy since I was a kid. I have a hundred volumes on the classic fairy tales. A lot of were published in the Victorian era, but many of them predate back to the oral tradition. I’ve been an avid compiler of fairy tales all of my life. It’s been one of my main obsessions.
What differences do you see when comparing American and European fairy tales to those that maybe you heard as a child?
What impresses me the most is that both in the European and the Latin American versions of fairy tales, there is far more terrifying elements. There is an overabundance of horrific elements. Whereas in the American versions, once they are incarnated into American books, they are much more cleaned up. The original version, the ones that I heard as a child, are overwhelmingly horrific.
Tell me about the ones that stuck with you?
When I was a child I heard all the classical ones and all the bedtime stories that were told in Mexico. For example, one was about a gambler making a deal with the devil at a crossroad or a man whose death becomes his friend. There are many incarnations of these tales.
In my opinion, you leave it up to each moviegoer to decide for themselves whether or not Ofelia (the young protagonist in “Pan’s Labyrinth”) is imagining everything that is happening or has really found her way into this dark world. Is that what you wanted to do as a screenwriter for “Pan’s” – let everyone make their own choice?
Well, to me everyone will see the movie differently, depending on which side of the fence you are on. I see as many people interpreting it as real as I see as many people interpreting it as part of the girl’s imagination. If you ask me, and I don’t want to be the last word on the subject, that whole world is real. It exists beyond the girl. It is inside of her, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inside her imagination. To me there is a difference between spirituality and imagination.
This is a more intimate story than some of your other bigger blockbusters like “Blade 2” and “Hellboy.” Do you see yourself jumping back and forth between smaller and larger-scale films like this?
I definitely try to. To me it’s impossible to imagine “Pan’s Labyrinth” coming immediately after “Cronos” or “The Devil’s Backbone” because the learning curve is very steep. I learn a lot from doing movies that are very complex technically and then going to what I learn in smaller movies. It’s a process that serves me well.
I’ve liked actor Sergi López since I saw him in “With a Friend Like Harry” where he portrayed another very scary character. Is that one of the films you saw him in where you thought he would be perfect for this dark role?
Actually, I wanted to cast him out of another film, “Dirty Pretty Things,” where he plays this charming guy. I saw him in that one and I though there was something in his work that really had this hard edge. I wrote the character (in “Pan’s Labyrinth”) for him. I went to him even before I wrote the screenplay. It was one of the best experiences – in terms of an actor/director relationship – that I’ve ever had.
As a director, what is the one thing that you have carried on from movie to movie?
The one thing that remains constant is the childlike enthusiasm for monsters. I love monsters and from movie to movie what I love is the creation of places and creatures that don’t exist in real life. I would be bored to tears to make movies that are trying to reproduce a present reality. I like to create something that only, at first, exists in my head.