Among the small group of filmmakers who would help save Mexican cinema from near-extinction. Guillermo del Toro is one of the key figures of Nuevo Cine Mexicano (New Mexican Cinema) that featured a group of young filmmakers who brought a new voice for the country. While del Toro focused more on horror and fantasy throughout his entire career. He would bring a new sensibility that harkened back to his love for comics and dark fiction as well as Spanish history. Set to return in 2013 with his eight feature film Pacific Rim, del Toro has already stamped an importance place in cinema.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico on October 9, 1964, del Toro grew up in a Catholic upbringing as he was a lover of comics, dark fiction, and horror films. Notably the works of Mario Bava and Italian giallo horror films that would later inspire his work in the years to come. In the mid-1980s, del Toro would take part in creating makeup effects and special effects work under the tutelage of famed effects guru Dick Smith. In 1985, he would make a short called Dona Lupe that would play to his interest in horror and fantasy. While also taking work to do makeup effects for other films, he would take part in the cult Mexican show La Hora Marcada. While writing and directing episodes for that series, del Toro would meet another young filmmaker in Alfonso Cuaron who also had aspirations to create his own films. Though the two would forge different paths into the kind of films they would make, the two would definitely support each other throughout their career.
During his time working on La Hora Marcada, del Toro made a short in 1987 that would combine his love for horror mixed in with his fascination towards religious themes and imagery due to his Catholic background. Loosely based on a short story by Fredric Brown, Geometria is the story of a teenager who refuses to take an upcoming geometry test by wishing for his father’s return from the dead with very dark results.
The short would feature many of the colored palettes del Toro would use in his films inspired by the works of Mario Bava. Though the $2000 budgeted short played to a local short film festival in Guadalajara in 1987, del Toro felt the short was unfinished due to sound issues where he would later revisit the short in 2010 for the Criterion DVD release of his 1993 debut film Cronos. With a new sound mix, del Toro decided to have the short be shown to the public as it would exemplify not just his fascination with horror but also emphasizing his own quirky sense of humor.
After the end of La Hora Marcada in the late 1980s, del Toro and Cuaron decided to forge their own careers where del Toro would create a project that would eventually become his first film. Eventually titled Cronos, the film told the story of an old antiques dealer who finds a mysterious device with a bug inside where he would look and feel young. Yet, he would also deal with a dying businessman and his brutish nephew who both want the device for different reasons. The film would explore del Toro’s fascination with dark fiction that would include vampires and alchemy while infusing it with his fascination for Catholic imagery. The latter of which was inspired by his childhood in his tumultuous with his grandmother whom he dedicated the film to.
The film, that would eventually have a final budget of $2 million, was a co-production between Mexican producers Bertha Navarro and Alejandro Springall with American producer Arthur H. Gorason. The latter of which had already worked with the likes of top Hollywood filmmakers like Tony Scott and Taylor Hackford as del Toro wanted to make a film that had a high budget, in terms of Mexican film standards, but also looked like it was a low-budget film, from an international film industry perspective. With a largely Mexican film crew that was on board which would include an emerging art director named Brigitte Broch, who would become Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s regular art director. The most important collaborator for del Toro, in the majority of his career, would be cinematographer Guillermo Navarro whom he met in the late 80s.
Wanting to have a palette that paid tribute to the visual style of the films by Mario Bava, del Toro and Navarro would create different palettes that would become definitive of their collaboration. Notably a mix of yellowish colors for daytime scenes while nighttime scenes would often be dominated by a mixture of blue and black. A lot of the look is to play up some of the film’s mystical tone while del Toro wanted to create something real for the scenes inside the device as he got help from his father-in-law with some of the special effects.
The cast would include consist of mostly veterans that included Mexican actress Margarita Isabel and Claudio Brook, the latter of which was a regular for some of the films by Luis Bunuel in the 1960s. The biggest coup for the film’s co-production would be getting two actors who would become del Toro’s regulars. The first is Argentine actor Federico Luppi in the lead role of Jesus Gris while the other is American cult actor Ron Perlman in the role of the antagonist’s brutish nephew Angel. With a child actress named Tamara Shanath to play Jesus’ granddaughter Aurora, del Toro wanted to maintain a sense of childlike innocence as she was a character that rarely spoke. In emphasizing this very touching relationship between grandfather and granddaughter to balance a lot of the chaos that involved this device. It would allow del Toro to give the film an emotional center to a genre that often emphasized on shock and gore.
The film was first released through Mexican film festivals in early 1993 as it later got a chance to play at the Cannes Film Festival for the Critics Week section where it got a surprisingly enthusiastic reaction. While the film would win several Ariel awards in Mexico despite some mixed reviews with Mexican film critics at the time. Though it got a limited release in the U.S., the film did draw a cult following among horror film fans as it would later receive a Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray release in 2010 to a great reaction.
The success of Cronos along with other films from Mexico in the early 1990s including Alfonso Cuaron’s 1991 film Solo con tu Pareja would help start a new wave for Mexican cinema. Though del Toro wanted to go beyond his native country, he was able to get the attention of the Weinstein brothers who were heading the already successful Miramax studios. The Weinstein brothers wanted to go beyond the world of art-house driven independent films as they were interested in the horror genre where del Toro would be involved in the development of a new project in the works called Mimic.
Based on Donald A. Wollheim’s short story, the film told the story of a scientist who creates an insect to stop a disease-carrying cockroaches only for the insect to later create a new breed a few years later. Collaborating with renowned screenwriter Matthew Robbins for the script adaptation with additional re-writes from Matt Greenberg and famed indie filmmaker John Sayles, the film carried del Toro’s interests in insects and dark places as he went straight ahead for the project. With a cast that would include Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton, F. Murray Abraham, Josh Brolin, and Giancarlo Giannini. The film would also mark del Toro’s first collaboration with Doug Jones who would play the creature that is killing everyone in the film.
With Guillermo Navarro unable to shoot the film due to scheduling conflicts as he worked with Quentin Tarantino for his 1997 film Jackie Brown. Dan Laustsen was hired to shoot the film while del Toro was able to get the services of production designer Carol Spier, who is a regular collaborator of one of del Toro’s favorite filmmakers in David Cronenberg. Utilizing computer visual effects for the first time as well as make-up effects for the creature, del Toro got a chance to create a creature that was to wreak havoc in tradition with the monster movies he loved.
Despite the chance he could take a horror movie premise something more, del Toro would have on-set clashes with Miramax co-founder Bob Weinstein over what should be shot and such. With producer Ole Bornedal shooting one of the film’s early sequences, del Toro had no creative control as he would later disown the film after its release in August of 1997 to decent reviews and a disappointing box office tally. Though the film would spawn straight-to-video sequels due to the film’s small popularity on TV and home video, del Toro chose not to discuss it due to its troubled production as well as personal issues over his father’s kidnapping in Mexico. The latter of which had del Toro’s family to pay more than the amounted ransom for his father’s safety that led to del Toro moving his entire family to California.
In 2011, del Toro revisited the film for a Blu-Ray release as he decided to create a new director’s cut version of the film. Wanting to add things to help improve the story a bit, del Toro removed a lot of second unit shots and some unnecessary subplots from the original film while revealing newly-expanded scenes to help add weight to some of the film’s dramatic narrative. While the film’s original look was awash with sepia-drenched colored schemes, del Toro stripped that down for many of the film’s scenes not shot in the dark subways. Though the director’s cut was a bit of an improvement, many fans cite the film as del Toro’s weakest film of his career.
Following the tumultuous production of Mimic as well as the personal turmoil over his father’s kidnapping. The director decided to return to his monster roots for a project that he would describe to be his most personal project to date. Entitled El espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone), the film would mark del Toro’s first film that is set during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. In collaboration with screenwriters Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz, the film told the story of a boy who goes to an orphanage where he discovers a ghost who had been murdered by a man who had been an orphan in the same orphanage.
Helping to develop the film into production would be renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar as he would help fund the film with his brother Augustin serving as executive producer. With Guillermo Navarro back in the cinematographer seat along with his sister/producer Bertha and Federico Luppi in the role of the kind Dr. Casares. The film’s cast would include some of Spain’s best actors including Almodovar regular Marisa Parades as the ailing orphanage administrator Carmen and Eduard Noriega as the film’s main antagonist Jacinto. The rest of the cast would be led by younger actors that included Fernando Tielve as the film’s protagonist Carlos.
The film explored a young boy’s meeting with this ghost as it would be a film that bended genres. Ranging from suspense, mystery, horror, and melodrama, it would become a key film in del Toro’s career where it would break him out of the horror genre. Notably as he chose to tell the film from the perspective of a young boy as he would deal with all sorts of things while is able to stand up for himself against the orphanage bully who would become his friend. A key part of the film’s success is del Toro’s way to build up suspense as it would slowly unravel throughout the course of the film.
Another part of del Toro’s success in his approach to storytelling is having characters that could play certain stereotypes to become more fleshed out. Notably the character of Carmen is a woman that cares for these kids but has a hard time dealing with the very manipulative Jacinto while being unaware of Dr. Casares’ feelings towards her. It’s del Toro finding a balance between the adult and children characters where their relationships prove to be far more complex than what is suggested in a suspense film.
Released in April of 2001 in Spain and a U.S. release later in November of that year, the film garnered rave reviews with critics. Particularly as it proved that there’s more to Guillermo del Toro than creepy insects and other chilling horror ideas. The film also proved to be a big art house hit internationally helping del Toro to recover from the disastrous experience in making Mimic.
During the time he was set to release El espinazo del Diablo, del Toro was asked by New Line Cinema president Michael de Luca to helm the sequel to the 1998 hit vampire film Blade. Based on Marvel comic by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, Blade was about a man who was born with vampire powers as he becomes a powerful vampire hunter. The first film directed by Stephen Norrington back in 1998 was a surprise hit as it starred Wesley Snipes in the title character. For del Toro to be involved in the sequel, he teamed with screenwriter David S. Goyer to create a sequel that would stand out from the first film. With Snipes and Kris Kristofferson returning for the sequel, del Toro also brought in Ron Perlman to play a key supporting role as well as another del Toro associate in Norman Reedus in the role of Blade‘s gadget-inventor Scud. The cast would include a group of international actors to play various parts that included Leonor Valera, Thomas Krestchmann, Luke Goss, Karel Roden, Donnie Yen, and Tony Curran. Though Guillermo Navarro was unavailable to shoot the film, del Toro was able to have some control for what he wanted unlike the experience he had in making Mimic.
With help from cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and production designer Carol Spier, del Toro wanted a look that was very different from its 1998 predecessor while going for bigger production values to create this world that Blade is unaware of. Notably as the film would have Blade make an unlikely alliance with a vampire council to fight a new form of vampire that feeds on both humans and vampires.
While the film is to have some of the attributes of the first film in terms of its martial-arts fighting and action sequences, del Toro also wanted to do different things where he and Goyer added bits of subtle humor to the film. Notably as it would come from Kristofferson and Perlman where the latter is always butting heads with Blade. Notably in the third act when a twist is revealed forcing Hellboy to fight off various forces to help save humanity as he is also this half-human, half-vampire that is still struggling with who he is. It is there that drew del Toro into making the film as he would allow Wesley Snipes to play that struggle in a very restrained manner.
The film was released in March of 2002 to mixed reviews though its box office proved to be very successful drawing $80 million in the U.S. with a $150 million worldwide total take. The critics who did praise the film found it to be more than just another action-blockbuster as famed film critic Roger Ebert highly praised the film as he had been one of the few critics to champion del Toro early in his career. The film would eventually be considered the best of the three Blade films as it would up del Toro’s reputation as a filmmaker who can get the job done.
The success of Blade II would give del Toro attention from Hollywood as a filmmaker who can take an action film and make it successful. For his next film, del Toro would develop another comic book film that would be very different from Blade II by taking on a comic that was a bit more obscure. It would be in Mike Mignola’s comic Hellboy about the son of the devil who was raised to do good by a professor while working secretly with the U.S. government to battle demons. The story would carry lots of del Toro’s themes that he teamed up with Revolution Studios to develop the film with help from Mike Mignola and co-screenwriter Peter Briggs.
To play the role of Hellboy, del Toro and Mignola only wanted one man to play the part in Ron Perlman. Though it was an unconventional choice as Perlman was already an internationally-recognized actor. The idea of him to carry a comic book film seemed risky but del Toro insisted as the cast would expand to include del Toro associates Doug Jones as Hellboy’s amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien and Karel Roden in the role of the film’s antagonist Rasputin. Along with Selma Blair as Hellboy‘s pyro-kinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman, Rupert Evans, Jeffrey Tambor, David Hyde Pierce as the voice of Abe Sapien, and John Hurt as Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, del Toro was ready to create his adaptation of Mignola’s comic.
Basing largely on Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, the film doesn’t delve into a lot of Hellboy’s origin but rather how he would learn about his roots as he faces the villainous Rasputin with help from Liz Sherman and members of Bureau of Paranormal Research and Department. Wanting to stray away from the conventions of the comics, del Toro wanted to focus more on Hellboy’s persona as a crime fighter as well as the complex relationship he has with Liz and Professor Bruttenholm who would raise Hellboy as a child. The latter of which was something del Toro wanted to delve into as Bruttenholm is a man that is falling ill as he is concerned with Hellboy who he knows is destined to bring destruction to the world.
Through Ron Perlman’s performance, the character of Hellboy is a monster with a soul. At times, he’s flawed due to his reckless behavior in his love for Liz while is always willing to risk the people he’s working with to fight off demons. Unlike a lot of monsters who are destined to bring chaos to the world, Hellboy had choices that would define his character. Notably in a moment when he had to do things to save those he cared for where just as he was to take part in his destiny, he would make a decision that would reveal his true character.
It’s among one of the key reasons for the film’s success as another is the work del Toro would do on a visual scale. Due to his mastery in the art of effects makeup, del Toro made sure that the Hellboy character would look just as real to the naked eye as well as the character of Abe Sapien and the other creatures they face. While del Toro would also employ some computer visual effects for some of the film’s action scenes as well as displaying Liz’s pyro-kinetic powers. He was smart enough to not have the visual effects overwhelm everything like a lot of blockbuster films of the time while was willing to create nice set pieces with a visual palette that he and Guillermo Navarro wanted for the different locations of the film.
Released in the spring of 2004, Hellboy was a modest hit in the U.S. box office despite having to contend with the already popular yet controversial Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. Though it’s worldwide gross would help the film cover the $66 million budget, it would be through its DVD release and showing on TV that would help the film become successful. Critically, the film garnered excellent reviews as there was a lot of praise towards Ron Perlman’s performance as the titular character. More importantly, of all the films that del Toro had made before and since this one. This is definitely his most accessible work in terms of displaying the themes he wanted as well as creating something that is entertaining.
With some success under his belt, del Toro decided to go back to Spain to create another film that was set in the Spanish Civil War. This time around, it would center on the post-Spanish Civil War period under the regime of Franco where a rebellion is still happening a small group of Spaniards. Wanting to continue some of the themes from El espinazo del Diablo, del Toro would also draw back into another Spanish film in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive as a key influence for what would become his best film of his career so far.
Entitled El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), the film told the story of a young girl who is accompanied by her pregnant mother to a remote home in the middle of Spain where she would meet her cruel stepfather in Captain Vidal. There, she would discover a fantasy world that would save her from her cruel stepfather’s tyranny while getting help from a sympathetic housekeeper who would become her mother figure. The film would be a mixture of fairy tale and fantasy with the harshness of war as a backdrop for the film. Yet, a lot of the film would be told from the perspective of its young protagonist Ofelia.
While the film would feature cameos from Federico Luppi and El espinazo del Diablo actors Fernando Tielve and Inigo Garces as guerilla soldiers. The cast largely included some of Spain’s great actors like Sergi Lopez as the villainous Captain Vidal, Ariadna Gil as Ofelia’s mother, and Maribel Verdu as the housekeeper Mercedes. For the role of Ofelia, young Spanish actress Ivana Baquero was selected for the part through the film’s casting process though she was older than what del Toro wanted where he would make changes for her in the script. Another del Toro regular in Doug Jones would play dual roles as the creature that Ofelia meets in the Faun who guides Ofelia into the fantasy world. Another character Jones played would be a monster known as the Pale Man.
With complete control of the film’s production in its $19 million budget, del Toro would gain a few new collaborators to join his team. Among them was sound designer Martin Hernandez whom del Toro knew as he worked with del Toro’s fellow Mexican friends in Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Editor Bernat Villaplana would join the group while Javier Navarrete would contribute music to the film as he had previously worked with del Toro in El espinazo del Diablo. Shooting on location in Spain, del Toro and Guillermo Navarro wanted a look that was dream-like but also menacing to contrast Ofelia’s fantasy world and the harsh world led by Captain Vidal.
The palette of naturalistic yet yellowish colors for some of the film’s daytime scenes as well as the fantasy world would play up the world Ofelia lives in. For some dark scenes including nighttime exteriors and scenes in the rain, the palette would be blue. With emphasis for the film’s look to have a sense of realism of fantasy, production designer Eugenio Caballero and visual effects supervisors Everett Burrell and Edward Irastorza wanted to make something that looked and felt real. Even in the design of the creatures were Doug Jones had to play these creatures with intricate make-up work from Jose Quetglas where it added to a style that was unlike anything in a production that is ambitious though seems modestly budgeted in comparison to Hollywood features.
Another factor to what del Toro wanted was to have the film be centered on this young girl as Ivana Baquero’s performance as Ofelia was key to the film’s success. Notably as she’s a girl who has to deal with the brutal presence of her stepfather while her mother is falling ill. It’s in the surprising relationship that Ofelia forms with Mercedes that becomes the heart of the film as Mercedes becomes this unlikely mother figure which is performed in a very stunning manner by Maribel Verdu. Since the character of Ofelia is a child, del Toro wanted to make sure that she is just as flawed when dealing with the creature of the Faun who would later give her another chance to help her be free from Captain Vidal. What del Toro would create is this fairy tale that goes beyond the parameters of what is expected in a fantasy film.
Making its premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival along with another film by del Toro’s fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu with Babel. The film became a major hit scoring rave reviews as it’s official release in Spain in the fall that year would follow through several countries becoming an international hit. The film’s limited U.S. release in late December also became a surprise as it would expand through theaters all over the U.S. making it the highest-grossing Spanish-language of all-time for the American box office at over $37 million with an overall $80 million gross worldwide. The film would garner several awards from critics and other international prizes including six Oscar nominations where it won three for its art direction, makeup, and cinematography to Guillermo Navarro. The film would officially establish del Toro as one of the top filmmakers working in the international scene as it would also give rise to the Mexican film scene.
The success of El laberinto del Fauno gave del Toro the clout to create a sequel to his 2004 film Hellboy after its plans had been scuttled due to the closing of Revolution Studios in 2006. With Universal Studios becoming its major distributor, del Toro had the chance to make a much grander film as well as a summer blockbuster release for Universal. Teaming up with its comic’s creator Mike Mignola to develop the story, del Toro decided to delve into the world of mythology and folklore for the film’s sequel.
Entitled Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the film would have Hellboy, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman, and the BPRD deal with an elf prince intent on vengeance for the decline of the forest world his elf-father had run as he hopes to revive an indestructible army. With Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, and Doug Jones returning for the sequel along with an appearance from John Hurt. The film would also feature Luke Goss, who had appeared in Blade II, as the film’s main protagonist Prince Nuada while Anna Walton would play his twin sister Princess Nuala and comedy actor Seth McFarlane as the voice of new BPRD agent Johann Krauss.
With an $85 million budget, del Toro retained most of the crew he worked with on El laberinto del Fauno to work on various set pieces, make-up design, and visual ideas that would be different from the first film. Notably as del Toro would have Jones play two different characters to emphasize these unique worlds that Prince Nuada is a part of that Hellboy would later visit for his climatic battle with Nuada. One key segment to establish the conflict that Hellboy would later encounter is in a rich prologue set in the 1950s where Professor Bruttenholm tells the story of the Golden Army to a young Hellboy. It is told in this gorgeous animated sequence where it reveals the conflict between man and magical creatures that led to a truce that Prince Nuada disagreed with as he left in exile.
It is among the many things that made Hellboy II stand out from its predecessor as well as del Toro’s emphasis to give more room to its supporting characters like Liz and Abe Sapien. The latter of which would fall for Princess Nuala as he asks Hellboy for advice on love in one of the film’s comical moments that involved music by Barry Manilow. Particularly as Abe Sapien is the most innocent character of the group who is known as this intellectual psychic that doesn’t understand a lot about human emotions. Jones’ performance in that role, as he also gets to voice the character for this film, would add a new dynamic to his relationship with Hellboy as they’re these two strange creatures both wanting to be accepted by the human race.
It’s part of the quirks that del Toro wanted for the film as it plays to his themes of finding the heart and soul of the monster and making them more relatable to the audience. Particularly for the Hellboy character who finds himself confused over humanity and whether Prince Nuada was right about humanity though Hellboy is still convinced that there’s good in them. Notably as the one human that Hellboy loves in his life, at this moment, is the pyro-kinetic Liz who also has a hard time believing that Nuada might be right about humans. Yet, she would play part into aiding Hellboy in this climatic battle as it allowed Selma Blair to bring more depth to her character while making her a compassionate badass.
The film was released in July of 2008 to excellent reviews while debuting at #1 in the North American box office with nearly $36 million in its opening weekend. Despite having to be release a week before Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that would force the film to have a considerable drop-off. The film did manage to make more than $75 million in the U.S. while its overall worldwide gross was over $160 million. Still, the film was successful enough to help maintain del Toro’s status as one of the top filmmakers working in Hollywood as he would be attached to various projects in the coming years.
Following the release of Hellboy II, del Toro took a break to help develop various film projects for other filmmakers including friends like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2010 film Biutiful and Carlo Cuaron’s 2008 debut film Rudo y Cursi both for the Cha Cha Cha Films studio that del Toro co-founded with Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron. Along with acclaimed horror films in Spain as well as involving himself as a producer for a few animated features for Dreamworks Animation. It was around the same time where del Toro was attached to direct The Hobbit with Peter Jackson serving as the producer. Excitement was in the air for del Toro’s involvement in the adaptation for J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed novel but delays over MGM Studio’s financial issues forced del Toro to leave the project in 2010.
It would be the many projects del Toro was attached to that included an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness went through development hell. After the project’s shutdown, it was announced that del Toro would have a project that he would helm in the form of a monster movie entitled Pacific Rim. The film told the story of a futuristic world where soldiers controlling giant robots as they try to fight off giant monsters. The film is stated to be a homage to the monster films as its cast will include another collaboration with Ron Perlman while Idris Elba is set to play the lead role. Along with appearances from Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Clifton Collins Jr., it is likely that this won’t be a typical blockbuster film as it’s slated for a July 2013 release.
With six features under his belt along with a new one coming out, it is clear that Guillermo del Toro is one of the best filmmakers working today. Whereas most filmmakers often try to stray away from the world of horror and monsters in order to go into more refined styles of filmmaking. Guillermo del Toro is still the kid who loves those monsters and is willing to tell stories about these fascinating monsters. Notably as he is willing to find the beauty of these monsters which often brings his audience back to see his films and fall for these monsters. It’s an indication into why Guillermo del Toro is among one of the most imaginative storytellers working today.
© thevoid99 2012