Two of his films hit the theater: One, the quiet, eerie Devil's Backbone, was set during the Spanish Civil War; it was extremely well-received by critics, drawing favorable comparisons to moody hits such as The Others and The Sixth Sense. The second, the vampire gore-fest Blade II, set somewhere in the inner reaches of a fanboy's subconscious, got reviews as good as you could hope for, for a movie with Wesley Snipes wearing vampire teeth, sunglasses at night, and a whole lot of leather - and it did better at the box office than its predecessor.
Now both have hit home video, from Columbia/TriStar and New Line, respectively, making it a nice time to get the director's insights about his first real breakthroughs into mainstream cinema. The friendly, rotund man greets me with a plate full of Krispy Kreme donuts, buying my affection, but his thoughtful, spot-on ideas about his chosen field the horror film go further to earn my respect.
John DeFore: Do beauty and horror go together?
Guillermo del Toro: Oh, absolutely! By all means. To me, the horror tale is the by-product of the fairy tale. Fairy tales are equal parts enchantment and horror. I mean, there's no Snow White without the witch, there's no Red Riding Hood without the wolf. The point of fairy tales was to scare children into behaving. They're moral tools to get children to behave. But they have two interesting by-products: One, they gave children protagonism in stories, which is great. Two, they gave birth to a very popular form of oral story, which is the ghost story.
JD: Ghost stories came out of fairy tales?
GDT: Absolutely. I'm certain of that. I think that if you go as far as the 13th-century ghost stories and horror stories, they all have the structure almost of a fairy tale. That's why, in the Gothic tradition that flourishes in Victorian England, one of the prerequisites of those stories is the need of an innocent at the center of the tale, be it a child, or more normally in the Victorian Era, a pure damsel. You know, a chaste, white-as-a-lily soul, who just happens to be a woman.
JD: When you make a film in the horror genre that has a lot of other stuff going on in it, as this film does, do you ever feel concerned that you're not giving, say, enough thrills at a certain time, or that maybe people expect to be kept on the edge of their seat at all times?
GDT: Well, I think that fear is as subjective as arousal. I have watched movies with friends who find a girl so sexy in a movie, where I'd go, "What? What does she do for you?" And horror is like that I think Devil's Backbone, for the right audience, is equal parts scary and elating. It's equal parts sadness, and nostalgia, and scares. Now, some people may not react to the scares in the movie, may find them too light. They may want to see one of the kids decapitated by the ghost or something. But that's not the type of movie I made. I think that film houses are like blind dates, between a filmmaker and his audience. And not all the blind dates go right. What do I care? There is an audience out there for my movies, and I seek it through the want ad of the screen. It's like that. For me, the virtues of Devil's Backbone are far more classic than the scare á la Scream or Friday the 13th. And I enjoy fighting the audience in this way, you know?
JD: Do you like many of the contemporary horror films out there?
GDT: No, I don't like many of them. I mean, I like a few people working in the genre: I like George Romero, I love David Cronenberg. Of recent films, I actually did like The Blair Witch Project a lot. Which a lot of people didn't for precisely the reasons we're talking about. I came out of Blair Witch amazed, and then I sent people to see it, and they came back saying "Nothing happens in the fucking movie!" And I said, "What the fuck are you talking about? They get sieged, they get killed one by one, you find the teeth in the fucking bag of hair what are you talking about, nothing happens?"
JD: And that last image, with the guy standing in the corner that terrified me.
GDT: Terrified me! And it's precisely you cannot get more archetypically fairy tale than Blair Witch: "There were these three kids who went in the woods, looking for a witch..." It's exactly it's a fucking fairy tale. It's a video age fairy tale, a digital age fairy tale. I used to have arguments with people while I was shooting Mimic, and I kept telling them, horror is about context. I can show you a guy walking down a corridor, and then suddenly somebody knocks at the door, and it's the most boring dailies in the world. But in context: If you start the movie, and you show that everybody in the entire world has been burned to death by an atomic explosion, and this is the last guy on earth and then you see one of the corpses move, and you hear the knock on the door people will crap their pants. So horror is about context. And that's what people keep forgetting. You don't have to be over-the-top to be scary. Actually, there is an exacting, much more difficult art in being scary by raising the hairs on the back of the head, than being scary by making you jump out of your seat that's easy. What I say about Devil's Backbone, and I mean it in the nicest way, is it is a horror film for people who normally don't watch horror films. Because the drama of the kids and the drama of the adults is so engrossing, in and of itself, that the ghost story just illuminates it. That's why, when I introduced the film to an audience, I said, "This is not a ghost story. It's a story with a ghost."
JD: Do you feel any kinship with the literary magical realist movement?
GDT: Yes, precisely, and I actually feel that horror stories are the only way to bring that to life in cinema. Because when you get whimsical like, say, House of the Spirits, it's not really magical realism. It's something else, it becomes too literal and specific. And when you deal with horror, you're already opening the door to a different world of possibilities, and there is a way for things to be magically real.
JD: Blade is much more about action and gore.
GDT: Oh yeah, absolutely. It should be, otherwise I wouldn't have accepted the movie. I did Devil's Backbone as a personal, intimate, very quiet kind of horror film, and then I wanted to do something fun and brainless and bombastic. And that's Blade II. And it's truly, truly entertaining. It's like, Devil's Backbone is the more literary side of what I like, and this is more like my teenage side.
JD: Did you worry about the studio or the MPAA's reaction to the level of violence in Blade? You've been pretty vocal about criticizing the MPAA in the past.
GDT: Well, Blade is a cartoon. It's completely like anime, just outlandish. I think that violence is dangerous when it's portrayed outlandishly, in a realistic environment. Meaning, when you go into a real place with real people, and you start shooting them, and you make it fun. That is dangerous. But when you do it in an outlandish setting, an outlandish style, meaning, for example, zombies being blown away in a shopping mall who can take that seriously? And yet, it's a lot of fun. Somehow, censorship cannot see the difference.
JD: How was your experience with Pedro Almodóvar `the famed Spanish director, who produced Devil's Backbone` on Backbone?
GDT: It was exactly the opposite of Mimic. I say that this was my first movie. In the sense that with Cronos, I did what I could because of lack of medium, lack of resources; in Mimic I did what I could with a lack of freedom. And on Devil's Backbone, I was given both resources and freedom. Anything you don't like is completely attributable to me. Almodóvar was the ideal producer in two ways. The first one was, if you needed him he was there, if you didn't he was never there. And B, any time he had any comment on anything, he always did a little epilogue to the comment that was, "But, it's your film, you have to do what you want." Some times, I would be in disagreement with a comment, and I would say I want it like that, and he would go, "And so, we shall not speak about it ever again." And he'd never bring the subject up again.