EXCLUSIVE FROM TORONTO: As co-writer of The Hobbit and director of a 3D adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, Guillermo del Toro plays often in Hollywood’s big budget sandbox. But his heart still beats for foreign film indies. He has two at Toronto: the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-directed Biutiful, and Julia’s Eyes. The latter is an old style fright film by newcomer Guillem Morales that’s looking for distribution and stars Belen Rueda as a woman losing her sight to a degenerative disease. As the world disappears, she’s sure there is someone in the shadows, stalking her every step. Who better than del Toro to dissect the state of foreign and specialty cinema, and the need for studios to take risks again? And watch how deft del Toro is when I ask him to confirm what my sources tell me: that he could have resurrected Superman but instead chose HP Lovecraft’s South Pole terror tale he’ll make with James Cameron.
Deadline New York: What draws you to godfather these films, or Splice, The Orphanage or the others you produce?
Del Toro: I’m the freaky version of that superhero who says, wherever there is injustice, I shall be there. Whenever there is a difficult project, I’d like to be there. Movies that look safe are less interesting. First or second time filmmakers, Alejandro making his first solo movie [without Guillermo Arriaga], or Alfonso Cuaron’s brother Carlos’ first movie. Producing is gambling on a race and hoping you bet on the right horse because that horse is doing something different. When I read Splice, I came to the scene that called for Adrien Brody to have sex with the creature. It was wrong on so many levels that I said, if I am freaking out, then we’ve got to make this movie. The Orphanage was a crazy bet for a first time filmmaker because it was so complicated but fortunately Juan Antonio Bayona was the right guy. In Julia’s Eyes, we’ve got a sub-genre horror that harkens back to Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The symmetry of the movie is the antagonistic characters: a woman losing her sight, and a man that wants to be invisible.
Del Toro: That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the economic crisis hit, we were in the middle of the largest box office year in the history of cinema. Everybody got conservative, and the contraction led to a dismal things. It won’t get better unless you get bold. This timidity has done a lot of damage in the most fragile places. Imagine, there is almost no possibility for a foreign language film to be distributed in America right now. That doesn’t just make the industry poorer, it makes the landscape of cinema poorer, in America. The impossibility to get a good release on a really good European, Latin American, Asian movie is a tragedy.
DNY: And here you are, backing two Spanish language films as producer of Julia’s Eyes and associate producer of Biutiful. How did it feel, watching Biutiful win Best Actor honors for Javier Bardem at Cannes, and then sit all summer waiting for distribution because few can run foreign language films through their ancillary output deals?
Del Toro: As producer, you feel it creating a panorama that is shrinking the way you make movies that will recuperate only in their natural markets. As a director, it’s the one fight I don’t want to give up. You should look not just at the market. Julia’s Eyes and Biutiful are powerful films that have every right to exist.
DNY: What’s in the future for these specialty films?
Del Toro: When distribution has a twist like has happened in this business, it means that somebody is about to make a lot of money, and a big impact if they are bold. The contraction of bidders, distributors and exhibitors that deal in foreign films means someone can take a market that certainly exists, even if you have to be more creative finding it.
DNY: Was the studio infiltration into specialty films was the worst thing that could have happened?
Del Toro: It was. It is a history of the briefest success, and the sharpest downfall. The moment the mini-majors got absorbed by the studios, they got more money, but inherited a lot of the timidity and fear-based decision-making. Now that most are gone, this is a ripe time right now for retaking the fort. However beneficial the money was in the short term, acquiring the fear syndrome in the long term has been really bad. But I can almost bet to you that within the next two years, somebody is going to become a big player in the much smaller pond that is specialty films. I don’t know who that is, if it’s going to be somebody reemerging like a phoenix from the ashes, or a new player. But somebody is going to do it.
DNY: Many Toronto films cover dark subjects. Hollywood is making safe bets. Should indie filmmakers limit themselves to films they know an audience wants to see?
Del Toro: I don’t think so. If film making is magic, there’s a difference between close up magic and David Copperfield. If you’re doing close up magic, which independent filmmakers do, it is a very delicate craft, interpersonal relationship, and being able to enrapture a very small audience. If you’re doing a big spectacle film, you’ve got to be mindful of large masses. Even then, you’ve got to be responsible only to your storytelling.
Del Toro: All you can do is hold the fort until that audience comes back. The trend has gone toward escapism, but it will come back. It’s strange for me, because I do spend half my time doing big budget movies, and half doing small, impossible little movies, but the lessons are the same. You make a good movie, it will find an audience, in this life or the next. The Thing and Blade Runner, films I love, didn’t find an audience when they got released. Now they are absolute classics.
DNY: The studio infiltration into independent films inflated a small game to artificial proportions. Maybe the current struggle is the way it’s supposed to be?
Del Toro: Any genre is hurt by the people transients here for a fad. Same thing if you’re directing horror movies to make money and couldn’t care less about the genre, which is a tragedy. Same with what I’d glibly call ‘Sundance lite’ movies, or fake indies. A rash of them devalued the currency. Even now in the mainstream, I see people doing transgressive movies that I find incredibly right-wing or reactionary. They are disguised with the right veneer of boldness and hipness but the content is not what the real independent spirit of movie making is about. It’s a veneer.
DNY: What do look for before signing on to godfather one of these films?
Del Toro: Certainty from the director. There are several big bets that both Bayona and Guillem have in their respective movies that I thought were not possible, but I supported them and they won. In Julia’s Eyes, Guillem put in the screenplay that for the next 20 minutes, while Julia has bandages on her eyes, the audience won’t see the faces of the characters. We will hide them.’ I told him, that’s nice to say, but you can’t. He said, you’ll see. I didn’t believe it, but then you see the movie, and it’s fantastically daring. It’s easy in retrospect to say, of course Guillermo would produce The Orphanage. But when you haven’t made the movie or seen any work by that filmmaker, it’s a true bet and you are putting your name on the line and saying to the director, either we both swim to land, or we sink together.
DNY: What else do you bring to the table as producer?
Del Toro: I am the nice adversary, the guy that’s going to ask the tough questions and is not going to be happy with the quick answer. But once I see the certainty, the whites of their eyes, and know they are coming to take the fort, I’ll say, do it. What I bring to the table is mostly in pre-production and post production. I think that during the shoot, you should never be there, unless something goes really wrong and as producer, you’re responsible. The sign you did your job right is if you are not there. This is the way I was shown by Pedro Almodovar when he produced Devil’s Backbone for me. He gave his opinion about the screenplay, he went to the editing room and gave his notes. But he visited the shoot just once.
Del Toro: I believe we were making two different movies. When I was going to produce The Orphanage with Bayona, I had a lot of notes, and out of 20, Antonio took 2. My notes took the movie in such a different direction, which is what I thought it should be, that I told Juan Antonio, I’ll come on board, but I want to remake the movie after, as producer. I believe there is a second chance at the same tale, from a very different perspective. On Mimic, they had a different movie in mind than I did as the director, and they wanted me to execute their movie. As opposed to them seeing what movie I had in me.
DNY: Are you still bruised by the experience?
Del Toro: I was, until 2 years ago, when I finally did the director’s cut. It’s not exactly the movie I wanted to do, but it definitely healed a lot of wounds. As soon as Miramax goes one way or the other as a company, those DVDs will come out. I am happy with the cut. I wouldn’t work again with a studio or a producer that is not interested in seeing my movie, first. I’m not saying I’m always going to be right, but look at the movie the way I wanted it. And if I really failed to deliver, then we can have a chat.
DNY: How hands-on do you get as producer, given your Mimic experience?
Del Toro: Now and then, when there is a real emergency, you have to protect the movie from producer partners, the elements, and sometimes the director making a blatantly wrong decision. When we started Julia’s Eyes, I was fighting with Guillem to take 5 more days. Guillem wanted to be fiscally responsible, but at the end of the movie, we were over…5 days. I was very happy to say that as a producer, I was fighting for and not against those 5 days. When I see a short schedule, my question to the director is, are you really comfortable with this, or are you doing it to be a good boy? At the end, you only win the medal if the film is good, you don’t win a medal if the movie is on time.
Del Toro: There were other projects [he laughs].
DNY: That’s diplomatic. Why did you instead choose At the Mountains of Madness, a much harder picture to get greenlit?
Del Toro : I came out of The Hobbit, and it was the biggest heartbreak I’ve experienced as a filmmaker, because I will never know what that movie would have been. I was very mindful that I didn’t want to have a rebound movie, as happens sometimes when somebody comes off a long romance. There were very big, lucrative, beautiful projects on the table, and I was developing one of them with Jim Cameron. In my stubborn fashion, I slipped Jim the script, again, when we were meeting on that other project. He said, you still want to do that? To his credit, he said, well, let’s pursue that instead. This is the movie I most want to do. I haven’t done horror in a long time. Devil’s Backbone tries to make the ghost a victim, and not a scary character. Blade 2 is more action than horror. I really love the genre and last time I did a horror film was Mimic, and that was not a horror for the right reasons. That’s a muscle I want to flex. Frankenstein has the mitigating factor that for a length of the narrative, you favor the monster. For horror to work, you have to be afraid. You have to keep the monster in a black and white light. I mostly love monsters too much to see them in that light, but Lovecraft allows me to.
Del Toro: Because the proportion is so big. When the monster has a dimension that allows you to humanize it, that’s the route I usually want to go. The cosmic proportions of the Lovecraft horror are so immense, it forces you to find humanity in other aspects of the tale. You can keep the monster inhuman, remote and scary, which is a great benefit.
DNY: Universal needed to be convinced to make this film, which is a bold play. I’ve heard there was a meeting with you, Jim, Ron Meyer and his Universal execs that swung the deal. How did you walk away with a yes?
Del Toro: Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley have always been friends of the project. The screenplay that is on the internet is an old screenplay, and the one I gave to Jim and Universal is different. When I came back from The Hobbit, I gave my Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington speech at Universal. I pitch with heart on sleeve, and Donna and Adam were moved, liked the new take and said, let’s develop it hard. But I wanted to be shooting by June next year. I didn’t want to let another year go by without shooting, it made no sense. So Jim, Jon Landau, Rae Sanchini, came with me for that big meeting. Jim and I were able to do a double tag team, talking about the world and the experience that Mountains would be. We found new ways for them to see it, and they agreed to investigate it further. We are not green lit, we are still budgeting and designing, and we are partners on this. I believe in my heart we are going to be making this movie in June of next year. We are budgeting the creatures and met with Spectral Motion and ILM, where Dennis Muren told me the sweetest words ever when he said, no one has ever seen monsters like this. That was truly one of the highlights of my fat life, a demigod like Muren saying that.
DNY: Is that because of the way the creatures are enhanced by Cameron’s 3D?
Del Toro: Not only that. It’s hard to say without spoiling it. The way the creatures are rendered and done is going to bring forth an aspect of Lovecraft that has not been done on live action films. Part of my speech was, I’m putting all the chips I have accumulated in 20 years as a director, betting them on a single number. This is not just a movie and then move on to the next. It’s do or die time for me. Cameron does his movies like that every time and I find it surprising the way people judge success in retrospect, like, of course, I would have done that. Avatar was the largest gamble, again, so were Titanic and Terminator 2. I love that type of filmmaker, with those gigantic stainless steel balls, Alec Baldwin-style in Glengarry Glen Ross, fucking clanking together. You can’t explain success in retrospect. The moment you leap into the void, that moment is impossible to negate, after success. He leaped into the void. Peter Jackson leaped into the void with The Lord or the Rings. George Lucas did with Star Wars.
DNY: Universal is turning Stephen King’s The Dark Tower into 3 movies, with TV series in, something Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman and Brian Grazer have to figure out. Maybe boldness isn’t dead?
Del Toro: I’ll tell you. This is the time to be bold. There is a saying in Spanish, ‘The raging river is a fisherman’s gain.’ Which means, when the river is raging, few people jump in, but they bring out a lot of fish. This is the time to be bold. If we are not, the self fulfilling prophecy is dying. I love that Chris Nolan did Inception. He did it because he can, but I assure you, this was not easy to push through. Whether bold movies succeed or fail, they don’t go unnoticed. Movies that are timid definitely are not succeeding in this time. The problem we have as a craft and artistry medium, we can only hope to be defined by our hearts. This industry gets defined weekend by fucking weekend, and that is as impossible as chronicling your autobiography day by day. You assume certain people in the industry will be lemmings, but the one who has my sympathy is the lemming who steps back and says, ‘oh, fuck you all, I’m going to do this other thing.’
Del Toro: There is a horizon of hope. We talk about this geek comic book generation, but it wasn’t long ago that nobody made those movies. Look at people like Chris Nolan, or Alfonso Cuaron, these are guys equally at home doing Memento, Y tu Mama Tambien as they are with Harry Potter or Inception. There’s a generation here that is marrying independent filmmaking sensibilities with mainstream, the pop version of what Easy Riders did for the 70s. We’re not going to have another 70s, but we are finding a generation of people like Neill Blomkamp, in movies like Monsters and Buried, that are incredibly innovative pieces of entertainment that have the verve and the audacity that come from independent filmmaking. Nolan and Alfonso are the Mac Daddies of that breed, but Blomkamp, Rodrigo Cortes, they are coming up all over the world. I don’t think the aversion to risk can suffocate this.