EXCLUSIVE: It’s easy to see the inspiration for Crimson Peak‘s blood-tinged, ghost-filled haunted house if you have the luck to visit the two memorabilia-stuffed residences where director Guillermo del Toro hatches these plots. To characterize del Toro as a genre collector doesn’t do justice to his obsession. He’s commissioned and lined the rooms and hallways of his houses with life-size figures of movie creatures and the actors, filmmakers and authors behind them. This starts with the giant-sized lifelike head of his favorite, Frankenstein, perched meticulously in all its green-skinned glory atop a staircase in the lobby of one home. In the other sits Regan, from The Exorcist, curled up on a couch in the room where del Toro ravenously watches genre films over and over on a giant-screen TV. She’s so creepily realistic that del Toro’s wife won’t set foot in the house unless he throws a sheet over the wild-eyed demonically possessed child.
These lairs, which have to be seen to be believed, are where del Toro immerses himself to exercise his demons into scary, classically grounded genre films from Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, the TV series The Strain. The latest is Crimson Peak, an R-rated throwback thriller which cross pollinates the gothic romance and haunted house genres.
DEADLINE: Was there a classic haunted house movie that was a touchstone for Crimson Peak?
DEL TORO: In an oblique bleak sense, one of my favorite gothics is Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie, which is not necessarily a classical gothic but is very much Jane Eyre in certain aspects of structure. Another is Dragonwyck with Vincent Price, very sumptuous and luxuriant even if it doesn’t use the supernatural element as openly. I’ve always liked director Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre and think Joan Fontaine makes a really good Jane in sort of the severe German expressionistic, very stark black and white aesthetic that made it special. There’s a difference between a haunted house movie and a gothic romance; in a haunted house movie like The Shining or The Haunting, the house itself is an autonomously malignant spirit. Whereas in gothic romance, the house expresses the spiritual decay of the characters but is not sentient. If you think of The Fall Of The House Of Usher, that is very much the function of the building in a gothic romance. It encapsulates and represents the ghosts of the past or the sins of the fathers, or secrets, but it’s not necessarily a sentient building.
DEADLINE: Those touchstones are mostly from the 1940s, films that young moviegoers that drive opening weekend probably never heard of. The haunted house movies that scared with with suspense and subtlety when we were young gave way to films heavy in gratuitous violence and gore. How much harder is it to scare today’s audience with a haunted house, given the less subtle frights they’re used to?
DEL TORO: Gothic romance is not so much scary as it is creepy or atmospheric. These movies do have a couple of shocks but don’t depend on them as much as they do atmosphere. There’s a pervasive sense of menace or gloom in the air. Audiences today are more anesthetized to those charms, but I feel that film making is not about making foolproof products for a large number of people as it is making movies that are themselves. And then you hope that an audience that will find them, and cherish and love them.
DEADLINE: How much pressure does opening weekends, budgets and P&A spends place on what you just said? Some Crimson Peak reviews seem to grade it against other product that is the foolproof gimmicky scare stuff you mentioned.
DEL TORO: Making a film is like raising a child. You cannot raise a child to be liked by everyone. You raise a child to excel and you teach the child to be true to his own nature. There will be people who’ll dislike your child because he or she is who they are, and there will be people who’ll love your child immensely for the very same reason. As a director, I design every movie to be true to itself, and damn it if they like it and damn it if they don’t. I was a kid when I read Jane Eyre and fell in love with that universe. I didn’t have the acumen to say the prose is old or the prose is too complex. I just fell in love with Jane’s very lonely soul, much the same way I fell in love with Frankenstein’s creature for the same reason. Those old souls exist in every decade in every century.
Crimson is written in a very particular style and it’s very precise in the way it graduates into a gothic romance. The souls that will connect with it will connect deeply. I tried to subvert certain things in the genre to make it live again. There is a beauty to the role of the ghosts that is not dependent on a Judeo-Christian sense of good and evil, which is a very easy way to scare people by invoking demonic or morally dark reasons behind the ghosts. Crimson has a very female-centric figure at the core of the movie and the narrative isn’t dependent on a knight in shining armor coming to save the day. I wanted to play with those dimensions while using classical camera work that makes it luxuriant and opulent, with a very modern sense of design and color that makes the movie feel of today. I think it’s my most painterly movie.
DEADLINE: You came very close to adapting Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness with Tom Cruise, but Universal got skittish over the $150 million budget and your insistence on deciding whether the picture needed to be R or PG-13, the latter of which would mean bigger grosses. What did Crimson Peak’s R-rating allow you to do that the tamer PG-13 didn’t?
DEL TORO: The nature of the movie is very adult and I have to emphasize the solidarity and fortitude of Legendary Pictures and Thomas Tull who came to me early in the process and said if you want it to be an R it will be an R. He absolutely stuck to his word until the bitter end. Without that, the adult nature of the narrative would have been compromised because at the core of the whole movie there are very risqué, dark relationships. It’s not just that the visuals and the violence is extreme at times; there are sexual elements to it, and the conceit at the core is very adult. There is a sense of perversity in gothic romance that needed this to be an adult movie.
DEADLINE: Knowing PG-13 might mean a wider audience, were there any hard conversations with Tull?
DEL TORO: There came a crucial point where he said look, there are going to be financial repercussions. Would I consider the PG-13? We looked at the picture together and I showed him where the movie would suffer. He said, “I told you it was whatever you said. I stick by you.” That in this business is something rare and that you have to be eternally grateful for.
DEADLINE: You’ve had the opposite experience?
DEL TORO: I remember how hard it was when I made Mimic. I originally tried to do an R-rated movie in a genre in the same way that I had made The Devil’s Backbone. I failed miserably at understanding the studio system and the marketing demands that were going to be put upon a budget that was larger than my first movie. It felt like I was driving on the wrong lane of a road and it was so painful. So I decided I would do my adult movies in Europe or in Spanish-language, like Pan’s Labyrinth, and I would do the more commercial and fun-oriented stuff in English. You know, Blade, Hellboy, Hellboy 2. Those are near and dear to my heart because they were audience-pleasing spectacles, as was Pacific Rim. So Crimson Peak is the first time I have gotten to do an R-rated adult movie. It was so great to feel that I had enough leeway to be able to play, and yet I was fiscally very conservative so I could have the freedom to create the atmosphere and look I wanted, with the R rating. I had enough leeway to build the sets I needed, shooting for not gigantic amounts of time but a good enough schedule that allowed me to once again not utilize a second unit, but rather do everything first unit, myself. The whole thing was refreshing and redemptive.
DEADLINE: I’ve heard the movie came in at $55 million, not an easy number to hit for a period gothic romance and a house filled with ghosts…
DEL TORO: My producing partner Callum Greene and I wanted this to look like a gorgeous $100 million epic, but we delivered it $1 million under our budget and gave that back to the studio. I also took a 30 percent cut on my own salary and forfeited all my backend.
DEL TORO: Yeah. I think if you go into a partnership with a studio on something that is not a safe bet I feel that if they are being brave you have to be brave.
DEADLINE: Media coverage and reviewers seemed to marginalize Pacific Rim for its reported $200 million budget. How did that impact the givebacks on Crimson Peak?
DEL TORO: We actually did equally well if not better on Pacific Rim. Callum and I delivered that film $3 million under the budget that was $195 million and change. There, we needed that movie to be as big as the movies we were competing against. That was summer, and we were not competing with The Intern. We were up against the big boys and had to deliver a movie that felt big, with a budget commensurate to the enterprise. We made smart decisions with the digital effects, the way we utilized and re-purposed sets, and we brought it in under budget and delivered the scope it needed. You are scrutinized in the summer differently than any other release season, and it made me want to take a breather from what is basically a blood sport. That was part of why I decided to do Crimson. If I go back to making summer movies it will be selectively because of the way people scrutinize the enterprise as much as the movie.
DEADLINE: You shuttered your Pacific Rim 2 production offices with a promise to keep developing. Second installments are often pricier, but you’ve told me the sequel will be less expensive. How much so?
DEL TORO: I can safely think we will be almost a quarter down, 20 to 25 percent lower than the first movie because of a very unique pipeline we established with ILM on the first movie. We learned a lot. Not much was made about the incredibly linear and lean way we handled the effects with ILM’s John Knoll, who stuck his neck out for us. We proved the model we created could work, that you could make a movie in that scope and not end up $20 million over budget on VFX. Now we are capable of implementing that model in a more extreme way. It was a big learning curve to do that movie and now we can apply it. As for when that happens, that is entirely above my pay grade. I delivered the budget and we are waiting for Jon Spaihts to deliver the new draft that we did together. Then they will decide if they greenlight it or not.
DEADLINE: The two houses you work from are unassuming from the outside but inside are vastly stocked and meticulously arranged collections of genre memorabilia and life-sized movie figures and gadgets. You showed that off the first time in last Sunday’s New York Times…
DEL TORO: The photos they published represent about 10 percent of a collection that has expanded so much over the years. The house is as bizarre as me and as hopefully as bizarre as my movies, with a unique flavor and a surprise around every corner. A beautiful bronze by a fine sculptor, a vinyl toy from the 1950s. It’s a shrine to all the stuff I love.
DEADLINE: So when you watch TV with the wild-eyed and demonically possessed Regan, what is she constructed of?
DEL TORO: She and most of the others are silicone, which will last you much longer than latex. As latex cures over the years, it disintegrates and you need a lot more elaborate stuff to preserve it. A few are cast in resin and fiberglass because that has a translucence like silicone, with a hard surface.
DEADLINE: They look more real than the stuff you see in a wax museum, down to facial and arm hair. How’s that done?
DEL TORO: I’ve done this myself and my wife has done a bit of it. The way they are made is, you grab one human hair. You thread it, like a needle on a thread, through a hypodermic needle hole and then you insert the needle like an injection on the silicone. You pull it out and the hair stays there. You do this thousands of times. Then you cut them. It gets even crazier for the stubble in the beard, and you are creating a five o’clock shadow. I have a seven-foot-tall Frankenstein monster head, and the eyelashes are ostrich feathers, because they were the right proportion. Because they’re ostrich feathers we used a thicker thread than for the five o’clock shadow on the beard. It’s incredibly painstaking, minute stuff. I have two main guys who compose most of my collection, Mike Hill and Thomas Kuebler.
DEADLINE: There are original props from your movies. Don’t the studios try to auction everything?
DEL TORO: On every movie, when a prop is too expensive, I pay half and I keep it. That was how I made my collection. It happens in every movie. I don’t like arguing about why I need a prop or a set piece. So when something is controversial, and they know I am going to find a way to get it anyway, that is what we do. To give you an example; on Crimson Peak, I wanted a portrait that was going to take six months to paint, so we hired a very good artist to paint it. And it was going to be tremendously expensive. If you hire someone with a classic eye, it’s going to take months to paint, and that means money. That portrait was expensive and I said, look, I’ll pay half and I’ll keep the damn thing. They’re OK with that because normally a studio ends up auctioning the stuff for a tenth of the price. So I’m the silliest client they’ll ever have.
DEADLINE: Your homes are full of this stuff. Doesn’t that take a toll on your bottom line?
DEL TORO: It is exactly why my house is in Calabasas and not in Bel Air.
DEADLINE: What’s the most ambitious recent piece?
DEL TORO: There was an automaton, where a magician makes a ball appear and disappear. I had it carefully crafted, but it almost got cut out of the movie.
DEADLINE: What does that cost?
DEL TORO: About $30,000. There are things you really, really want, but you really don’t know for sure what will be in the movie, until you see the whole thing together and figure out what you’ve got to cut. I try not to be wasteful and so I’d rather share some of that fiscal pain.
DEADLINE: What you didn’t get from that NYT article is how meticulously organized everything is. You’d expect it to smell like a musty museum, but it doesn’t at all. How do you maintain it?
DEL TORO: It’s good to keep everything a little cold and a little dry. Both houses have windows that are carefully sealed and the rooms are 70 degrees and they are kept dark because that is what is best for the figures and the books. A lot of the books are from the 1700s and the 1800s that need a lot of care to be preserved in good enough shape to be read. I’m actually talking to a couple of big museums in a couple of countries to have a partial touring exhibition of some of the pieces that they have selected because I hope people can get a sense of the collection firsthand without me having to be the tour guide.
DEADLINE: How would that work?
DEL TORO: We’re talking about 400 pieces, touring for about four years and combining with other pieces that I like that are in somebody else’s collection, things that I cannot afford but that museums have. It would create a great little gallery that reflects my evangelical love of this genre stuff. I’d love to be able to suggest to people, you may want to know this artist, you may want to read this book. You may want to look at this movie. This exhibition would be the gospel of monster.
DEADLINE: I visited Peter Jackson in Wellington, and he’s got a spectacular collection of genre memorabilia from classic movies, and every prop from Middle Earth, that he’ll eventually display in his own museum. For guys like you and Peter, how does surrounding yourselves with these touchstones help you create?
DEL TORO: Peter and I share a love of collecting. He is evidently much better funded than I am but he also curates his collection with enormous care and in my estimation he has the most important movie memorabilia literally in the world right now, a one-man museum. For me, it is important that I’m surrounded by things that make me feel the same love for the genre that I felt as a kid. In a strange way, I’m living in a house that was designed in my mind when I was 10 or 11 years old. I have work from artists I didn’t know of when I was a kid, fine illustrators from the Victorian Era and work from European magazines. But the emotional feeling of the house is one of enormous, enormous love for the genre. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and I have never ever made a movie for a financial or career decision. I always make movies because I adore madly an element or the whole thing, enough to sacrifice two, three years of my life and give everything to get them to a good completion. You might say that’s my religion, and those houses are my church and a covenant I keep with the movies that I love. There’s a continuum of love from Tod Browning’s Freaks or James Whale’s Frankenstein or Ray Harryhausen, or Fantastic Voyage or anime and manga. There is all this iconography like in every church and for my imagination, it has a spiritual function. It anchors me.
DEADLINE: Ridley Scott recently told Deadline that despite its failure to find an audience, he dearly loves his Cormac McCarthy-scripted film The Counselor. You’ve told me that aside from immersing yourself in your genre world, you watch certain movies over and over for inspiration. Why is The Counselor one of them?
DEL TORO: Here’s what I love. Cormac McCarthy’s writing is so true to itself. It doesn’t want to comply with the screenplay manuals and it doesn’t try to conform to the conventional breaks of the three-act structure. Nevertheless, the movie has a really nightmarishly escalating structure. It is beautifully structured and I can tell you, as somebody who first hand has suffered the devastating consequences of violence more than once, the movie captures three of the fundamental stages of a human’s life. You meet the counselor at the moment where he is at his most shielded and placid, when he is buying the diamond and is all but oblivious to the transcendentally destructive power of violence. He very glibly dabbles into that on the second stage, where he’s very ambitious and all about a future life with a new bride and newly acquired wealth. All through that journey, the counselor meets these guides into the underworld who warn him. Beware, here there be dragons, and the counselor ignores all those signals and signposts. Then the movie tells you, once you cross this line, the world as you know it disappears. For anyone that has not experienced violence, this may seem like an intellectual or literary conceit. I know, from a very painful place, what it is to lose people you love.
DEADLINE: You’ve said that while you lived in Mexico your father was kidnapped and held for months before you paid a ransom to bring him back. Is that what you mean?
DEL TORO: I am talking about both in the past with my father, and more recently I have experienced people being taken and disappearing. I can tell you the movie articulates the cosmic power of violence to destroy one’s concept of the universe in a way that nobody else has and nobody else will. It is not post-modern fascination with violence where we want to play gangster by being tough. This is a movie that tells you violence is the destroyer of worlds. It will scorch your earth and you will be banned and it has an almost Old Testament power that is unique. And, very sadly, it is out of touch with what audiences want.
DEADLINE: For all its star power, the movie failed to capture an audience…
DEL TORO: But we need to not be confused in these times by equating popularity with quality. And when a movie comes in that is as well-thought and as contemplative as this one, we owe it to ourselves to honor that creation with the time and attention it demands and not watch it like one would an in-flight entertainment movie or a Sunday outing. It’s a true, powerful meditation on violence.
DEADLINE: I find myself vexed that Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk hasn’t caught on. When I saw it in 3D Imax, it left me sweating and feeling I’d never seen that on a movie screen before. The way Zemeckis put you on that wire, 110 stories up between those Twin Towers…
DEL TORO: I think there is a certainty you have as a filmmaker, that when you raise your child to be itself, as we were discussing, the child will grow even after you’re gone. There are movies like The Walk or The Counselor that one makes with the hope of finding an audience like a message in a bottle will find the shore and be read in the right way, with the right amount of pure love. With most Zemeckis movies in the last couple of decades — including Flight which I find enormously rewarding — I see a master, talking to me and talking to everyone that wants to hear. We have a history of not always listening to those that are right. We’ve even crucified them. I don’t think that people with something to say are necessarily the same people that are heard. Zemeckis is one of the most singular talents working in film. A monumental talent that we take for granted in a way that we shouldn’t.
DEADLINE: What other movies have obsessed you?
DEL TORO: I have a handful I watch over and over. The Big Lebowski is one. Catch Me if You Can. Duel. Every day, I watch one or two movies and those are almost like symphonic music or favorite songs. The one that accidentally entered that realm lately is No Country for Old Men because I was reviewing it to interview the Coens. And all of a sudden that one started to echo a lot the way The Counselor and some of the ideas of the world. I started to watch them back to back. Road Warrior is another.
DEADLINE: You mean George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which came out this summer and was another film that didn’t do as well as deserved, given its ballsy, audacious vision?
DEL TORO: I meant the original, because it was so important when it came out. Now, Fury Road is an amazing feat, just an amazing spectacle. It’s choreographed and orchestrated in a way that is like a caravan, a moving three-ring circus of action. It’s almost Cirque du Soleil, the most acrobatic action film ever made. What I love most of all is the fable of a filmmaker who remains untamed. This guy is over 70 years old and, very much like Ridley Scott, he keeps responding to his own impulses. These are guys delivering some of their best work at an age where most people have retired. These are grand masters. I find the exuberance of George’ Miller’s work to be the same that comes out in an unexpected way in The Wolf Of Wall Street with Marty Scorsese. You would believe these movies were made by a new director who is 22 years old.
DEADLINE: Quentin Tarantino has said he’ll retire soon, before he begins repeating himself and his next movie cannot be his best one. Are you saying the accumulation of craftsmanship skills and creative recklessness can keep you from that decline?
DEL TORO: I think so. What is very beautiful in my opinion is that you can get that second wind if you are given the chance to work with a certain continuity. These are people who are still working at the top of their game, in a language that was always their own. They don’t betray that. I for one actually hope and expect that Quentin changes his mind.
DEADLINE: The film you’ve told me you watch most often as a primer on structure and staging is Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Why?
DEL TORO: Because it’s preternaturally nimble with such grace in the way it’s staged. It’s so brisk. It’s so breathless. It’s so apparently effortless and so damn fluid. The hardest thing to accomplish on film is to make time stand still, or make a story completely fluid. Those are two truly, truly difficult things to do, and they mostly come most naturally through the narrator’s voice. Spielberg seems to me supernaturally suited for the story of Catch Me If You Can. It’s in my opinion one of the nimblest movies with fantastic performances.
DEADLINE: Is that because both Leonardo DiCaprio’s dysfunctional relationship with Chris Walken and the surrogate/pursuer Tom Hanks is heartbreaking and relatable?
DEL TORO: It is all that. But it’s also the way he does what Stanley Donen did so well. He’s brisk. He is muscular. The way his narrative flows is just almost miraculous and so beautifully staged. As a filmmaker, you want to see it dissected and savored the way you would if you had a sumptuous meal in a restaurant. Little by little, you taste the coriander, then you think, how did you get this far in a life without these cloves? The more you chew on a movie like that, the more you discover the subtle flavors and the materials it’s made of.
DEADLINE: When you, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu first called yourselves The Three Amigos, you were three Mexican filmmakers with big dreams. You’ve all soared higher than you probably imagined. What is the biggest benefit of this alliance to each of you?
DEL TORO: It’s a friendship first and foremost and we connect very intensely with one another on personal and creative stuff. They were involved in the editing of Crimson many, many times. I’ve been in the editing room of The Revenant many times. I know these guys will keep me honest and I do the same for them. Whenever we are in each other’s editing room, it’s funny when the editors start to giggle because you know the other person is being very brutal with you in a way that leaves the editor thinking, I told you so but you as a director didn’t want to listen. We are very different filmmakers. I work in a very particular genre that has a very dedicated, loving audience that I cherish. Alejandro does very, very intellectually complex wire work. Alfonzo is just a visual wizard. Though we have very different careers, very different ambitions, that friendship keeps us even-keeled and honest in who we are.
DEADLINE: As an immigrant from Mexico who has gotten a piece of the American dream, I can only imagine what you feel when you see Republican Presidential aspirant Donald Trump vilify the illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. What is he not understanding about people who come to the U.S. by hook or crook to better their lives, as has been done for the past two hundred years and change?
DEL TORO: I think you just said it already, Mike. To be completely honest, you have to stop and think and ask, is this a man with a genuine public service vocation or is he a public figure? There is a big difference for me. I do have to wonder if this is a guy with a public service vocation that requires a certain fiber and a certain makeup of a human being that wants to wake up at 4 AM to discuss fair trade with the Colombian delegation or the ambassador of Kuwait. Someone who needs to know the name of every secretary of state in every country in the world. It requires a dedication along with a political talent that I just have to weigh before considering whether the remarks are anything but offensive and lacking thought.
If an incumbent president or a vice president talks like that, or somebody with a trajectory in public service talks like that, I get greatly concerned. If somebody that is a public figure talks like that, I consider it a sadly misinformed opinion rather than anything else. I’m reminded of the old Robert Redford movie, The Candidate, where it ends with Redford winning and saying, ‘Now what?’ It’s almost like the political race is always tempered with these incredibly colorful characters who seem more enamored of the thought of the presidency than the nuts and bolts of it.
DEADLINE: So Trump might be the latter, a person willing to vilify or polarize one group or another in an attempt to create a lightning rod issue, rather than having actually thought it through?
DEL TORO: Everything that divides us is an illusion. I am not singing Kumbaya, but I am saying we are controlled by people that make us feel that there is such a thing as “the others.” It can be gender. It can be color. It can be sex. It can be nationality. You know, we are all on top of the same ball floating through space and there’s nothing on that ball but “us.” And religious leaders, political leaders, industry leaders create this horrible straw man to make us direct our hate in a way that allows us to be guided like a bull with a ring on the nose. I find that an incredibly poor political act and an incredibly poor human act, to do that. For us to buy it, for us to believe that myth of the superman or the super-enemy, it makes us much poorer. There are no supermen and there are no super-evil enemies. There is only us. I think that we get more passionate about building walls than we do about building bridges. I find that one communicates and the other isolates. I truly think that the solutions of the future are much more complex than the rhetoric.
DEADLINE: A moment on your TV series The Strain. It has gotten pretty nasty by the end of Season 2, and Carlton Cuse and Chuck Hogan are mostly running it now. But there has always been an element in your un-romanticized vision of vampires that reminded me of that great 70s series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
DEL TORO: Bull’s-eye. That was the inspiration. I loved what Richard Matheson did with Jeffrey Grant Rice’s novel, and for me, Kolchak was almost a religion as a kid. He was a superhero for me.
DEADLINE: Why? As a journalist, he’d never have lasted. He uncovered all this crazy stuff, and never seemed to get a story published because of pressure from City Hall, or general disbelief. He was looked at as his peers as disreputable.
DEL TORO: That’s why I love him. All his stories got suppressed, but I love the everyman quality that Darren McGavin had, down to his disheveled look. He was the first hero I saw on TV that didn’t look like a hero. The crumpled clothes and ratty hat. What was fun is, everybody involved in that show, especially Richard Matheson, understood that ultimately they were doing the classic monsters, set in the middle of an urban or suburban environment. And they made a horror show that had Kolchak doing things that are not lovable. You knew by the end, he was going to show up alone, at midnight, severely unprepared to face a monster. They were scary. My favorite Kolchak was the one with the zombie.
DEADLINE: Is that the one where all of a sudden its eyes open before Kolchak could kill it?
DEL TORO: Yes. The makeup effects for that zombie, he really looked like a decomposing body, just bloating from the gasses. Kolchak has to show up in the middle of the night, in an abandoned junkyard, and sew a bag of salt in the zombie’s mouth. He goes alone, of course. And you’re sweating and you’re going, oh my God. And then the mummy’s eyes open! It’s the fun of that kind of horror. I’ve jokingly called The Strain a refreshing gazpacho of brutality, because it’s meant to be trashy fun, in the way that those shows live in my memory. It’s also the reason I wasn’t able to watch X-Files beyond three episodes. Kolchak was so embedded in my memory as a prelude to that, that I kept bumping into him every time I tried to watch. I never became addicted to X-Files because of Kolchak, who like Eph in The Strain, is unprepared to be a hero. Kolchak had a rumpled suit, a typewriter. And his cross.
DEADLINE: The Strain avoided the dreamy romanticism of vampires in everything from Dracula to Twilight Saga. How did Kolchak inspire your decision to make these bloodsuckers such filthy decaying parasites?
DEL TORO: The first vampire I was afraid of as a kid was on the first Night Stalker telepic, because he was animal-like. There’s a scene in that first season where the airline captain is drinking the bags in the blood bank of the hospital in The Strain. That’s straight out of Night Stalker, the scene where Janos Skorzeny hits the blood bank in Vegas and he’s throwing orderlies around. When I saw that I thought, oh my God, that’s an unholy creature. He’s not some sophisticated Count, speaking in tongues, in a beautiful night tuxedo and gala outfit, seducing his victims. He’s this brutal creature.
DEADLINE: What has been most gratifying about working in TV?
DEL TORO: When we were going to shoot The Strain, I got this amazing phone call from John Landgrath at FX who said, we want you to know that we hired you not as the director who does blockbusters, but somebody we love when you get quirky and strange. So know that we encourage creators to take creative risk.
DEADLINE: What’s an example of them backing you when you rose to that challenge?
DEL TORO: That call convinced me to do stuff in that pilot without running it by anybody, just to see if the other shoe would drop. So no one knew I storyboarded and timed a violent morgue scene to the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline.” I figured I’d get the phone call about song rights and I didn’t. I shot that scene choreographed to the beats of an iconic song we didn’t have rights to, with me listening to the soundtrack on my iPhone. What I liked about the song is it’s like a hymn. Everybody knows it, everybody can sing it. Every wedding, it’s there. Every Saturday night, someone is dropping a coin and punching up that song. But for this, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you, that is basically the mechanism of an epidemic. We did get permission and it was an iconic moment in that pilot.
DEADLINE: Who could have imagined TV being edgier than features?
DEL TORO: It has also given ammunition to Cary Fukunaga, Billy Bob Thornton and others as they move back and forth from one medium to another. All you had was indie and studio films, and now you have TV making such a statement.
DEADLINE: How’s that going to shape the next Guillermo del Toro who right now is a 15-year-old kid sitting in his room in Mexico or in Argentina or…
DEL TORO: Well, if I could speak to him, first thing I would advise is that he avoid carbs. I couldn’t tell him much else. But barriers have been so completely broken that it’s like a two-way mirror, where you blog after watching their episodes, and you know those creators are reading and reacting to what you say. That was unheard of for our generation. You can resent all the criticism and cynicism that comes with that, but when you start lamenting, you become reactionary and show your age. You have to appreciate, adapt and celebrate the fact it’s all changing so fast. Where will it go? I am no Mexican Nostradamus, so who knows? But that’s the exciting part of it. When I was a kid, there was zero chance of me contacting or ever meeting Peter Cushing or Vincent Price. The only way I could see them was on the screen. The chances now of a kid meeting or having a Twitter encounter with an actor he likes, it’s 90 percent. All this changes the equation in a way that is not foreseeable. We won’t be able to quantify until five years from now, 10 years from now.
DEADLINE: Last question, in the spirit of this movie about being haunted. I’ve watched your career go in directions you might not have predicted. You were once going to do all the classic monster films as Universal, but left to direct The Hobbit, which you helped write but didn’t make because MGM was frozen in bankruptcy. You were making At The Mountains Of Madness with Tom Cruise until that last moment when Universal wouldn’t fund such an expensive movie unless it was PG-13. What professional experience, an underperforming film or one that didn’t happen, most haunts you?
DEL TORO: At The Mountains of Madness. Ultimately, I think that in a career, like in life, it’s a waste of time to blame anyone. There are probably ways in which that movie could have happened that I did not acquiesce to, wisely or unwisely. I find it heartbreaking for very different reasons to not have made either The Witches or Beauty And The Beast at Warner Brothers, both of which were written and in my opinion are incredibly beautiful scripts I felt could have been really gorgeous movies. They don’t happen mostly for financial reasons where you don’t agree on a budget or for creative reasons. Then you have to just move on and keep working.
DEADLINE: Anything that would qualify as a regret?
DEL TORO: No. I find regrets not very useful, honestly. I think that when you’re driving, use a rear view mirror sparingly. You have to use it, but you don’t drive looking back. The greatest lesson about gothic romance that Henry James ever said was that gothic romance is about the clash between the possibility of the future, and the burden of the past. That’s what ghosts represent, the past. So in that way, I have to try and live without too many ghosts around me.