In an effervescent and expansive conversation with Alec Baldwin on Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival, Guillermo Del Toro shared a Criterion Collection’s worth of filmmaking wisdom and appreciation.
The director’s debut appearance at Tribeca, according to festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal’s brief onstage introduction, was five years in the making. The pairing with Baldwin proved surprisingly fertile, and the two traded stories about their lifelong connection to cinema and travels through the industry. Fans of Del Toro’s work, from the Spanish-language Pan’s Labyrinth to studio fare like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak and the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, gave him several Comic-Con-like ovations. They seemed ready to listen to another hour had the 75-minute chat kept going, which it seemed poised to do.
Baldwin asked whether Del Toro would ever step behind the camera for a remake of a monster movie given he has long been steeped in horror and creature features dating back to the silent era.
“I had an idea to do Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he shrugged, noting he had pitched an early version of Shape of Water to Universal with a more direct tie to the studio’s Creature from the Black Lagoon but it didn’t go anywhere.
“The movies I do, most of the time I do them because the premise is so absolutely bonkers,” he explained. “When you’re on a set and you’ve absorbed 100 years of cinema … you have to stop and say, ‘OK, that’s what would normally happen in that movie. What can I do that is different?’ And you stop yourself. You have to stop yourself. And the older you get, the more you want to go different.”
Del Toro tossed off numerous sharply observed aphorisms about the art of filmmaking and dissected the craft of directing in a way that proved thrilling to the audience, whether or not they aspired to make films. “You’re orchestrating an accident,” he said of directing, later describing it as “hostage negotiations with reality.” He said he prepares so thoroughly, writing 8 to 10 pages of biography on each character, storyboarding and planning each composition that in his career he has done reshoots on just two films: Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim.
Del Toro said he listens to film scores during early-morning storyboarding sessions, preferring Georges Delerue, Nino Rota and the Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack while making The Shape of Water. Among the other memorable insights he shared was the fact that he always writes parts with specific actors in mind. If they prove unavailable to play the part, “I just won’t make the movie,” he said.
The two men compared notes on fitting into the studio system, which they both have had their ups and down with over the years.
“As a director, it is your duty to always responsibly exceed the scope and exceed the budget,” Del Toro said. “If you have enough time and enough money, you’re f–king up.” As the audience laughed, he added, “I may be fat here,” pointing to his stomach, “but not here,” indicating his head. “Up here, it’s like a six-pack.”
Some of the loudest applause came for Del Toro’s explanation of his love of monsters, which deepened into a much more ruminative and powerful series of observations.
“We live in a world right now … that is a narcissistic place. There’s a dichotomy between black and white. Nobody is black and white. All of us exist in between. We have the right to be polychrome. … At 10AM, I’m a motherf*cker. At 12, I’m a saint.”
The complexity of humanity finds its expression in monsters, he added. “Media tells us to be perfect in so many ways,” Del Toro said. “You have to have perfect hair, perfect teeth. Never let them see you sweat. No, no, no, no, no. Let me sweat, motherf*cker. I don’t have perfect teeth. I don’t have perfect hair. I don’t give a f*ck. I want to be a good human being. There’s no commercials for that.”