Guillermo del Toro Interview, Hellboy 2

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline had the pleasure of sitting down with visionary writer/director Guillermo del Toro at the Los Angeles press day for his new movie, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

Since winning the Critic’s Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and nine Mexican Academy Awards for his first feature, the Mexican-American co-production “Cronos,” Guillermo del Toro has established himself among the most admired and sought-after international writer-directors. With the release of his Spanish-language film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which drew an unprecedented 25-minute standing ovation at its 2006 Cannes Film Festival premiere, del Toro sealed his position as both a critical and commercial success.

Del Toro has built his career by moving back and forth between independent, Spanish-language films and increasingly big-budget studio productions. A devotee of the gothic horror genre, del Toro followed “Cronos” with the environmental horror film “Mimic,” which he directed and co-wrote. He then returned to Spanish-language subject matter with the supernatural, Spanish Civil War film “The Devil’s Backbone.” The film appeared on the “Best of 2001” lists of such publications as The New York Times and Newsweek.

In 2004, after completing the vampire film “Blade II,” del Toro brought Mike Mignola’s comic-book hero Hellboy (Ron Perlman) to the screen. The overly muscled occult detective, complete with horns, tail and hard-boiled attitude, was an every man who’d become a favorite of fanboys around the world, including del Toro. Del Toro introduced the reluctant crimefighter to a global audience with the feature “Hellboy,” and his film’s wit, action and ingenious practical effects launched a critical and commercial hit for comic lovers and general audiences alike.

The filmmaker’s epic odyssey continues with the action-thriller “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” the feature follow-up to his 2006 triple Oscar-winning masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Bringing bigger muscle, badder weapons, multitudes of monsters and a little domestic conflict at home, our favorite kitten-loving red hero is back. And this time, he kicks even more evil ass.

Guillermo del Toro is an extraordinary filmmaker and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”:

Q: This Hellboy is a little bit more Guillermo and a little less Mike Mignola?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: I’m not sure about that, I think the first part of the sentence I agree with, but the funny thing is there are accidentally Mignolaesque stuff and purposely Mignolaesque stuff because Mike and I did come up with the basic storyline and I think that’s the direction he’s taking the magical world in the comics. By coincidence, when I told him he said, ‘That’s exactly what we are planning on writing.’ And there are moments in the film, like the moment the Golden Army opens, that is completely chiaroscuro, backlit by the fire. If you freeze-framed it, that would be a Mignola frame. That was in the forefront aesthetically, but the difference was there was a lot more freedom for me to -- I wouldn’t say appropriate, because it was not an act of will -- but to just feel liberated to do my stuff.

Q: It was interesting that you chose not to remind people of the back-story. Was that on purpose?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: We did very briefly in the opening titles. We say, ‘In 1944 a creature was rescued.’ But I didn’t want to because actually I only wanted to put in, or agreed to put in, that title at the beginning because of the photograph. I love the photograph and I loved the sentence where he says ‘He loves candy and TV’ because I thought that defines the character. When you go see a movie called ‘Hellboy,’ already there is an implicit, assumed certain sense of goofiness that you have to then say, ‘Look, we know we’re pulpy, but we take ourselves both seriously and we want to entertain’ and the opening already summarized that. I think Mike said it, he’s not the Hell Knight or the Hell Spawn or the Hell Lord. He’s the Hellboy. So, it was only because of that we agreed. We said, we’re not gonna make one of those sequels that tells you, ‘You were bitten by a radioactive spider!’

Q: Why, with all your beautiful imagery, the 1:85 versus the wider aspect ratio?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Why 1:85? I believe – for example, ‘The Hobbit’ will be 2:35 – but the idea for me is that should be left for movies that are horizontal vistas, westerns, landscape movies, epics, exploration of the Antarctic where you have a horizontal line and a sense of composition in that regard. In the strictest sense of the classical compositional frame, 1:85 is closer to the Greek idea of the golden measure. It is actually easier to do the composition. And the other format, which is gorgeous now, was actually invented by producers and studios because they were competing with TV. There was no legitimate filmmaker saying, ‘We cannot make it like this,’ they said, ‘Let’s give them more picture than TV’ and they changed the format. Now, we have a love for it because we grew up with it and it became a mark of prestige. I use it compositionally and I use a lot of arches which is vertical information, so in order to do the composition with the arches and I am very obsessive about composition, I prefer 1:85.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Troll Market?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: The idea was we would create a whole back-story and a whole back-story for the characters but we would never verbalize it. In the same way, we would move the camera around as if we were in any other location -- a shopping mall, a bazaar in the Far East.  We would not do what is done so often in this thing where you do a close-up of each monster that you’ve spent money on and you give them each a little vignette. We are going to keep them in the background as if we have wandered into a real place and we are just shooting a real place. So I think that instead of detracting, because we did get some notes and concerns and they were saying, ‘Why don’t we shoot each creature? We spent $100,000 on this creature and it’s just in the background.’ I said, ‘Because that’s where you are flaunting it. When you are flaunting it, you really don’t care. Yes, there is a 20-foot monster lurking in the background but I’m never going to see it again.’ We have some things we designed called the Striders which were creatures that were only seen in the opening shot. They are like headless elephants. I based them on a Dali drawing, the long legged elephant, and we never see them again. Never again and we spent $100,000 or something modeling them. But that’s the whole point. Because we were fighting about the budget and each thing counted and they said, ‘But this is only one shot.’ I said, ‘Yes, but you need it!’ On the first date with a girl you leave a big tip and that’s really impressive. And they go, ‘That’s a 40% tip. What a nice guy.’ It’s the details, you know?

Q: You have a very cool love story for Abe and the princess, plus Hellboy has some domestic problems. Was that to humanize the characters more?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: ‘Hellboy’ for me, the two movies are semi-autographical. And I do put a lot -- my wife recognizes a lot of the details, including the moment when you get asked, ‘Do you need everyone to love you or am I enough?’ which has never been verbalized, but you have those moments. When you are a filmmaker, when you are a storyteller, at some point in your life you have to say, ‘Who matters in my life?’ and you have to make a decision. And I think Hellboy, the way he has evolved and the way he is an adorable but irresponsible knucklehead, I think is empathy for me. There is a great moment which I have gone through, when he is asked, ‘Why are you with me?’ and he goes,’Eh, eh, eh.’ (Laughs.) He can’t speak because that’s a male conversation. That’s a male idea of conversation. That and the beer. Usually when guys are together, you have the beer and you go, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And that’s an idea of a shared afternoon. And I love that he’s unable to verbalize things, but then it take a spear in the heart for him to say, ‘No, no, no, wait! Let me tell you, I understand.’ I like that.
I write the characters from exactly the things I do know and are close to my heart. They are very relatable because if they happen to you, then they happen to a lot of people.

Q: In your other films, you’ve gone to folklore and mythology for some of the creatures and Mike Mignola uses a lot of folklore in his Hellboy books. Is there a lot of that in this or is it all made up?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: There is -- As I was studying. I always collected folklore and fairy tales. I think a good section of my library is dedicated to that and mythology. And as I was preparing for ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ I realized one thing: there were a lot of rules that repeated themselves. I started making annotations and realized that they interacted also with Hellboy in the second movie, you know, the idea of the underworld or the world beneath and the King and the war with humans and the creation of something to destroy … all that is somewhere floating in the sagas or in the folktales and I grabbed a lot from that. For example, trolls are afraid of canaries is something I made up, but it sounds perfectly reasonable. And what I found in life is that if you actually do the research – I’ll give you an example. In 1944, in the first ‘Hellboy,’ I say Nazi submarines disembarked in Scotland. And I just came up with that. And then I did the research and it took me awhile, but I found many sightings. There was actually a high trafficked area by Nazi submarines in 1944 in Scotland. For ‘Chronos’ I knew several embalmers when I was young, but I never saw a suit like the one I put in ‘Chronos’ which was the suit that you close from behind. But it exists. So, I put it in the movie and then eventually one of those embalmer friends saw the movie and said, ‘Oh, there’s a suit like that in real life.’ I think if you are attuned with the material, you end up jiving with it.

Q: Can you talk about the lack of CG vs. real effects in the movie? Do you feel that with CG you lose a sense of character?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: You know, there was a film company George Harrison had that was called Handmade Films. And I think films should be handmade. I have this idea, a notion that I think is the same thing that leads me to keep the props from my film sometimes. I find a way to buy them or get them from the studio and I give them back a piece of salary, because I love that there are tangible things. And I think the eye, we say, ‘For an audience they don’t care if it’s a real set’ and they do. The average eye of just a regular Joe, although they cannot verbalize things, you are trained by thousands of hours of TV, thousands of hours of digital effects, media hitting you all the time and your eye knows. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes my daughters, who are pretty savvy at the ages of 7 and 12, they look at the movies and they say ‘Those monsters are computer generated’ and I’ll say, ‘No, it’s real.’ But what is nice is that they are confounded. And I know if I am fooling a 12-year-old’s eye which plays more video games than anyone and watches more TV than I, I’m happy. I will tell you one effect I used that I’ll bet you didn’t notice. The Irish landscape, it was shot next to a freeway in Hungary. Instead of the sea and the cliffs, we had the most horrible freeway with red trucks passing and what we did was we shot high definition plates in Ireland and we composited them together and that’s invisible. So, if you know when to go digital and when not to go digital, you end up having the eye fooled. I learned this by screwing up many times in other movies.

Q: Do you also do this for the actors so they have something to relate to?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Yes, absolutely. Actors are great sports and especially in junkets, they will say, ‘Oh, it was great because I was reacting to a mark on a green screen.’ But it’s fucked up. (Laughs.) If you come home from theater, if you know the very essence of the craft, an actor only acts in reaction. A real actor doesn’t throw, he catches. The guy who looks in the eye of the other actor, he is not waiting for the other line, but being surprised by it. And in the same way, by the second day you are fed up with any set, but when you walk in the first day and the Golden Army Chamber is the size of a football stadium, because we built it in a stadium and you receive that first impression, it’s an imprint that is going to inform the rest of your acting. Even by the second day, it’s a stinky set and you are tired of it.

Q: When you are adapting someone else’s material like Mike Mignola’s comic series, is it a struggle or a pleasure to try and find ways to make it yours?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Well, I said in the past, obviously, no matter how respectful you are of the material there is a moment – I said in the past, an analogy, it’s like marrying a widow. You have to be very respectful of the late husband, but at some point you’re going to get in bed and the late husband is not going to matter anymore or he’d better not. (Laughs.) And I think that it’s the same with material. There is a point where you go, ‘I have only my instinct to guide me through this section.’ But it’s co-exploring. In the case of Hellboy, I’ve been blessed with a guy like Mike, who is the most generous landlord of the Hellboy real estate. He essentially says, ‘Move in, decorate as you want, and make it yours.’ And he has done that and I have interacted with him on the animated series which is a very different entity from the movies and the video games, and I have interacted with him on the video game which is a very different entity than the comics or the animated movies. And each of them has something in common, but each of them is also different from one another. And he says, ‘Make it yours because the worst thing that can happen is for it to try to look like me.’ I’m friends with a lot of chefs and we always end up eating in slums. We go and eat in markets or when they visit LA I take them to eat at a birria stand and they say, ‘It’s better for us, because when we go to a posh restaurant that is trying to do the same thing we do, I can tell when it’s not right. But if you hit me with a tortilla and some cheese and beans, I love it!’

Q: So ‘Hellboy II’ is Tortilla cinema?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Oh my God, it’sTortilla at its best!

Q: Regarding ‘The Hobbit,’ there has been some question for the second movie about what material you would be able to use if the first movie is the book? Are there copyright issues? Have you given any thought to what the second movie might be?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: What we are talking is, obviously, utilizing the materials that are available to us and the discipline has been to try and know, from my part, everything else and not to know it and use it, but to know it and [try] not to step on those things. There are enough sort of narrative abridgements in some of the pieces of the narrative and suggestions and appendix notes to guide and create something that will not infringe on anything else. But, it’s too early for me to swear by it. I think that is the real creative endeavor on the second film. On the first film the real creative endeavor is to be faithful to the feel and the drive and spirit of the book. I think a lot of people say it’s a children’s book and I say therefore it should be taken seriously, you know?

Q: Is it overwhelming to come into a franchise like that or is it a challenge that you just love?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Well, if I thought in those terms I would actually be more daunted. But the way I see it, I see the five films, provided that we do everything right, as a symphony. And I believe that what I am doing is an overture. So, therefore, it can be a different color and a different energy and lead you into something that is already a film legacy. All we have to do is create an almost freestanding piece that can then, if viewed together, make sense as a symphonic work. If the two first pieces are crafted with their independent merit, but also the second film does lead seamlessly into the first film of the trilogy, we will have created perhaps one of the most beautiful symphonies filmically that has been done. And the level of craftsmanship that I like to bring and like to do is obsessively detailed. And really the idea that I am going to have the tools that exist at WETA and in New Zealand to create those, I’m ready to build the pyramids, to do the Temple of Ra. (Laughs.)

Q: Would you do ‘Hellboy III’?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: I would love that. There was a gap of four years between the first ‘Hellboy’ and second ‘Hellboy,’ and provided that Ron takes his medicines, I think that he can stay healthy enough and we can have a ‘Hellboy III’ on the other end. The thing is, every time you take a movie, you are inevitably postponing [another]. There is  ‘Mountains of Madness’ or another of the small movies I’m trying to write called ‘Saturn and the End of Days’ which is the Apocalypse seen from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. Every day you drive on the freeway, you are not climbing Mt. Everest.

Q: Do you still have your sketchbook?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Yes, I do. And the one I have right now, I just started a new one and it’s kind of pathetic. It’s two pages long, so I don’t carry it around because it’s not exactly ta da!

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” opens in theaters on July 11th.

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