With one title left to screen, the Cannes Film Festival is beginning to wind down and the jury is poised to enter its final deliberations before announcing this year’s prize winners on Sunday evening. Earlier this week, we had the chance to chat with jury member Guillermo del Toro about his experience as part of what is arguably the world’s most prestigious film panel — this year led by co-presidents Joel and Ethan Coen. There are no spoilers here since we clearly couldn’t talk about the selection of Competition films, but del Toro did offer rare insight into the process and what he’ll take away from it.
The respected filmmaker first came to Cannes with Cronos in 1993; taking the Mercedes Benz Award in Critics’ Week. A little more than a decade later, he turned up in Competition with Pan’s Labyrinth which thrust him onto the world stage and scored three Oscar wins and a further three nominations. A self-professed workaholic, del Toro is currently in post on Legendary and Universal’s Crimson Peak which releases in October, while Season 2 of his vampire drama The Strain premieres on FX in July. In the midst of all that, he made time for two weeks of movie-watching on the Riviera, and for us. Check out our chat below:
DEADLINE: The big question we want to ask you is the one question we’re not allowed to ask you: ‘How good are the films you’re seeing?’
DEL TORO: [laughs] You can ask it, I can’t answer it.
DEADLINE: How did the approach for the Cannes jury happen?
DEL TORO: It has been quite a few times that Thierry [Frémaux] has invited me, but you’re always in pre-production or post-production and it’s too stressful. I mean, it’s never easy to carve out two weeks, especially if you are a workaholic. But right now we are finishing Crimson Peak. It comes out in October, so that means my final mix could be moved a little bit. So I really thought this was the chance. I was very, very excited for the Coens to be the presidents of the jury, so that was sort of the closer.
DEADLINE: Is the festival treating you well?
DEL TORO: Absolutely. It’s probably the 4th or 5th Cannes I’ve come to, but you’re always coming with projects, so you watch one or two movies and then you have interviews and promotions and shows and, you know, I never go to parties. I haven’t had any interest in going to parties since I was eight, when there were balloons and clowns and gelatin. But it always ends up being a lot of work, and the occasional escape to a little town or whatever, but this time it’s been such a fabulous movie time.
DEADLINE: Is it hard to put yourself in the position to judge when you’ve actually had a movie in Cannes?
DEL TORO: The process of being a jury member is that you know a competition is an imperfect process. I mean, I have been given awards and I have not won awards, and many times in festivals your movie gets a lot of buzz but doesn’t win awards. A lot of times you sneak quietly in, and the movie becomes a dark horse so the only position you have to be in — and I think it’s the position the entire jury is in — is to not be judges. We are not judges, we are people who are going to share the things that make them enthusiastic about a particular movie. We can argue back and forth, but the salient point is basically to talk about the elements of the movie that we would like to showcase and point at. At the end of the day, what you end up with is a democratic primer guideline of what we thought. It’s almost like, ‘This is the elements we would like to point to and what we were enthusiastic about.’ By defining that, and not defining that one is better than the other or that the rest of the movies measured up differently, is because we have a group of people and we’re pointing out, ‘Hey, look at this actor or look at this screenplay or look at this film’.
DEADLINE: Is everybody getting along?
DEL TORO: Yeah! Yeah! But the main thing is, I’ve been a juror before and I was on the selection committee for the Spirit Awards for about three years and I must say this is really a good experience because we do have the chance to counterpoint and be very passionate about it. But it’s coming from a place of great respect and a place of great passion. To me it’s been a unique experience. I’m 50 and I’m at least halfway through my life, and this is probably one of the most delicious collegiate and enthralling forms of discussions I’ve had with people I admire, people I want to learn from and people that have a different way of seeing movies than I do and sharing. It’s been incredibly energizing for me and I think everybody seems to be having the same feeling.
DEADLINE: Is it a chance to start future collaborations as well?
DEL TORO: Maybe, but the main thing is that I feel that the bonds that you create in a jury or a selection committee are bonds that you’re going to carry for the rest of your life. The most important thing is the way you are far more regimented and far more analytical about other people’s movies somewhat wakes you up and makes you more analytical about your own work. And that’s a big change. You recognize the virtues and hopefully they illuminate the path towards them in movies. And if you see something that failed, you may have an insight on why your failures occur. It’s really a great process of learning.
When I teach, or do a masterclass, or taught film language when I was younger, people would ask ‘Why do you love that?’ and I say ‘Because I love it, and to learn.’ When I’m explaining and dissecting a particular sequence — let’s say, the staircase sequence in Notorious — when you’re dissecting that for an audience and you’re taking them through it step by step, what you’re really doing is almost rephrasing it for yourself and rephrasing what you think of cinema, what you think of stories and so forth.
DEADLINE: Is that something that can carry forth to Crimson Peak?
DEL TORO: My post supervisor says, ‘I thought you were locked!’ I keep sending emails saying ‘What if we move this cut by 13 frames to the left? The outgoing shot should be shorter by six frames…’ I arrive from Cannes the 26th and we are mixing the 26th and so I’m sending every day at least three emails. Not to change the movie, but to refine. Because you do find yourself thinking about that and everybody seems to be rejuvenated and re-energized.
DEADLINE: How exposed are you to what’s going on peripherally here? Do you guys read reviews of the films?
DEL TORO: No, I myself, I’m very regimented about the way I watch the movies. I’m always there in the morning. I am on the red carpet three times, I do not go to social occasions. I have been to one dinner since I’ve been here. I am pretty monastic about this. I am writing, so at 11 or 12 I watch my last movie and I go to the hotel and write. I think that it’s tough enough to deal with the opinions in one room, and to remain in that arena, to start thinking about polling or talking to the people that inevitably want to talk to you about what they think. Every time I’ve served as a jury member I’ve tried to not think of it as a vacation. For me, that would be a big mistake, to think that I am able to socialize in a completely unguarded manner and it’s not going to affect my judgement. I think you have to be very careful.
DEADLINE: You love genre movies, and you brought one to the festival — Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006 — but critics often look down their noses at genre cinema. Do you think movies like that have to try harder to impress the art-house crowd?
DEL TORO: I think a genre movie is not defined exclusively like that. If you talk about Birdman for example as a comedy, well, there’s comedies and there’s comedies. Or Gravity as a sci-fi or action movie, even within that I think the way the movie defines itself in that genre makes a festival a natural habitat for it or not. I think that you really have to be meditative about what you bring because watching movies in a festival is not the same experience as discovering them individually. They illuminate each other for example. I remember in the Spirit Awards, every year you would notice a pattern. We were watching literally hundreds of movies — I had boxes and boxes of movies that I had to watch and then we had to argue about them. And then eventually even in indie film you end up with patterns.
And it’s curious, a festival does the same thing and it’s very serendipitous how your movie fits in that puzzle. Your movie can be perfectly suited for the last day of the festival or perfectly suited for the Thursday or Wednesday of the first week. And the genre is the same. With the genre if you are more towards one side of the genre and less towards the auteur/art-house side, it depends on the day. It’s really an alchemy. It’s not a science, it’s pure alchemy. There’s a part of it that is magic. So to answer that blatantly and say yes or no is very difficult.
DEADLINE: Now having had this jury experience, and with Alfonso Cuaron going to be president of the Venice jury, do you have advice for him?
DEL TORO: He’s been on juries before. I think that what I must say is that the responsibility of being the president in a jury is just that it’s very much the entity behaves and lives and breathes by you setting or not setting rules and by you making it a really open forum or by regimenting it to the point of suffocation. And I know Alfonso is an incredibly democratic guy, incredibly interested in what other people have to say so it will be probably permeated by that.
DEADLINE: We keep speculating that you must be in Venice this year if it’s to be three years in a row after your friends Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu opened the festival. Does that mean you’ll be there?
DEL TORO: Festivals to me are very interesting and I think that they are forums where a movie can breathe and live or it can lose itself in a labyrinth. So I find it really beautiful that Gravity was in Venice and that Birdman was in Venice. But you know, statistically it’s not like we’re following a pattern.