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Guillermo del Toro is a busy guy: He’s directing the sci-fi epic Pacific Rim, beginning pre-production for his stop-motion take on Pinocchio, executive producing the January horror release Mama, co-producing an Incredible Hulk television pilot, maintaining his current apprenticeship with DreamWorks for a minimum of three more years and, well, the list goes on. Most recently, under the DreamWorks study, he executive produced Rise of the Guardians, an animated film based on Bill Joyce’s children’s books.
The movie centers on icons of childhood – the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) – who band together in a decidedly Avengers-esque manner to defeat the evil boogeyman Pitch (Jude Law). As should be expected of any project del Toro is attached to, the film has a decidedly dark bent, a departure from the DreamWorks catalog.
While the filmmaker was in New York City promoting Rise of the Guardians, Spinoff Online spoke to del Toro about Pacific Rim, growing up reading Swamp Thing (and how it connects to those Justice League Dark discussions), the artist Francisco de Goya’s influence on his work, and much more.
So I gotta say, you hit it out of the park it this year at San Diego Comic-Con. The Pacific Rim panel was amazing.
Oh, thank you! You know, even the projected screens – they were done for Pacific Rim. All the surround screens. It was really, really rewarding, that day.
And of course I’m psyched for giant robots and giant monsters, but I gotta say my preferred tagline would be, “Idris Elba, with giant robots and giant monsters.”
[laughs] I think a lot of female audience members would agree!
I don’t know what it is about that guy, but he’s got it.
They love him! He’s really magnificent in the movie, by the way. He is incredible.
I can’t wait to see it! I was sad that he didn’t have a more prominent part in Prometheus, and I feel like this is going to make up for it in spades.
Yeah, well here he is a true starring role. He is, I would say, the center of the wheel. Everything revolves around him in a way.
I grew up reading pretty dark stuff – Hans Christian Andersen, Edgar Allen Poe – and I think that’s a big part of why I’m so drawn to your films. They remind me of the wonder I had for this really heavy material at a young age. What did you grow up reading?
I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. I read all the childhood classics – Tom Sawyer, Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Red Badge of Courage – all that. But I also read a whole encyclopedia of art, an encyclopedia of medicine, I read a lot of horror. A lot of horror! I bought my first horror book at age 7. And a lot of fairy tales. So all that combined is what I do. I believe very strongly and very seriously that fairy tales are the root of horror tales. They share a lot in common, they come from essentially the same oral tradition, and I think there’s much to be said about that.
I actually see a lot of the artist Franscisco de Goya in your stuff. Especially his 14 Black Paintings. I saw those at the Prado when I was 17 and they upended my world.
They’re very, very soul-shattering. There’s so much anguish and so much pain in those paintings.
I love that Saturn Devouring His Son was painted on the wall in his dining room. The juxtaposition is just ridiculous, and kind of brilliant.
Yeah! That was the base for Cronos! Because Cronos is Saturn, of course. The inspiration for Pacific Rim came from a painting of his called Colossus. Where the Colossus is moving above the village.
Oooh, that’s a good one! Goya is my favorite artist.
He’s probably one of my favorites! And his etchings, they’re so profound. And the Caprices.
I’ve read that you grew up reading a lot of Swamp Thing as well – especially in the context of the fact that you’re in discussions right now regarding a Justice League Dark film.
The Dark Universe, yeah. See, to me I was drawn to superheroes as a kid, but they didn’t capture my imagination like Demon did. Like Swamp Thing, like Constantine. One of the things I drew the most as a kid was a moment in Demon when the actor Farley Fairfax uncovers his face and he’s the Phantom of the Opera, basically. I copied that panel so many times when I was a kid. And Mike Mignola has that page! I envy him!
Well, maybe you guys can strike up a deal at some point!
He doesn’t make deals like that! [laughs]
Switching gears from horror, you’ve had this incredible apprenticeship at DreamWorks – was that so you could make something your girls can finally watch?
I wish I was that altruistic! It really is me loving animation so much. I collect animation preproduction art, I have pieces from Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow. And I practiced, in my youth. I had an animation workshop, and I taught animation in the university, in high school. And I’ve been obsessed by animation all my life, and now finally I’m able to go at it the way I want to go at it. DreamWorks has – I’m there for another minimum of three years, if I can be there all my life I’m going to.
Pinocchio isn’t part of that, though, right?
No, I’m very conscious that DreamWorks has a brand and a style and we can go one way or not, but we cannot go against it yet. I think we are taking steps into making that identity a little more malleable, and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] is very encouraging about it. But Pinocchio is darker than that.
Rise of the Guardians is 3D, and now Pacific Rim is being post-converted – are you considering Pinocchio for 3D?
Yeah, I think Pinocchio could be beautiful in 3D. Because I think that, since they are stop-motion puppets, it creates a beautiful illusion — a sort of a glass box where you can see these creatures.
Is Christopher Walken officially on board?
No, I would love for him to be The Fox! My ideal cast would be him as The Fox, Ron Perlman as Mangiafuoco, Tom Waits as Gepetto. I would love my ideal cast for that – I’ll approach them all.
You’re a busy guy – you’ve always got multiple projects in development at the same time. How do you decide which ones you’ll produce and which ones you’ll direct?
Look at The Goon. It has David Fincher behind it, and it can’t happen. And Fincher also has X, Y and Z developing. And the same is true of J.J. Abrams, for example. The reality is that I learned the hard way that you have to keep things moving, because then one of them actually happens. What normally happens is when one happens, the other four, five say, “Oh, we were just about to happen!” And it’s not true. So it is an accident between financing and creative impulse that produces the movies. The natural state of a movie is for it not to want to be done.
Yeah, movies are basically tiny miracles.
They’re miracles! It’s a miracle that they happen! And to me, every time a movie happens – from the outside, people go, “Oh, why did he choose this, why is he involved in that?” And you know what, from the inside it’s like a miracle every time one happens. You don’t do it by design like that. I’ve done it only once – no, twice, actually. Once with Devil’s Backbone, I said, “I’m gonna do that before Blade II” and I made it a point to do that one and let Blade wait. And the second time with Pan’s Labyrinth.
What do you think of the fact that The Hobbit is now three movies instead of two?
It doesn’t surprise me. The appendices have a lot of material. I wish I had the “inside track” but I’ve been busy doing Pacific Rim.
Speaking of Pacific Rim, I asked a friend of mine, who is a huge fan of your work, the one thing he’d like you to elaborate on, and he said, “Ask him why I’ll care about the film’s human characters.” I told him that the humans operate the giant robots, so the robots are basically an extension of them, but – well, I’ll just let you answer.
I think that’s a valid answer, but what I like about the story is that the melodrama or the dramas in the characters’ lives in Pacific Rim are very intimate. In other words, it’s a father-and-son story, it’s a father-and-daughter type of story. It’s a friendship story, and all these little stories are interesting to me because these guys then are put to the test through the battle with giant odds. So you put two people that don’t get quite along in the outside world and then when they’re fighting a monster they’re really good together, for example. So these stories are interesting in that regard. In the other regard, it’s an essential story of a hero that basically has to learn to trust again. Because in order to drive the robots, they need to connect neurally. So each pilot knows exactly what the other one’s thinking. So it’s like, no matter how crazy your thoughts are or who you are, you need to be visible for everyone. And he doesn’t want anyone else to see him. So there’s good stuff in there.
I think it’s interesting that you mentioned a father/daughter and father/son story in there – even in a film with adult protagonists, you’re still working with the themes of childhood that are so prevalent in your previous films.
Well, I have father issues. You can see them on Hellboy, you can see them on Pan’s Labyrinth. They are benign figures or they’re malignant figures, depending. But I’m convinced that the best and the worst in our lives is in the family. Both. It’s the greatest miracle and the worst curse!
Rise of the Guardians opens Nov. 21.