Guillermo Del Toro on eggs, ghost sightings, lucid dreaming, Catholicism, the "supranatural," uterine imagery and more
Now is the time to see Pan's Labyrinth -- and to read Sara Schieron's interview with the man behind the movie, Guillermo Del Toro.
Guillermo Del Toro
Gleamy-eyed as Santa Claus and every bit as generous, Guillermo del Toro recently visited SF to discuss his latest film, Pan’s Labyrinth. Already seen by droves of festivalgoers, Pan’s Labyrinth is worthy of profound praise. Both Del Toro and his movies have developed a reputation for converting skeptics to affectionate believers – perhaps this has something to do with his genuine (and apparently altruistic) interest in the world. He’s disarming in his curiosity. (Note: Had Del Toro not said, “Don’t chicken out,” the personal bits that follow would so have been cut.)
Guardian: I’m so excited speak with you; I want to ask mundane questions like “Do you like your scrambled eggs wet or dry?”
Guillermo Del Toro: I like them wet with a lot of catsup.
G: I should get to task: I’ve noticed that ghosts are a recurrent theme in your films. Ghost sightings are something I share with you, that and –
GDT: You have had ghost sightings?
G: Many, yes.
GDT: (with zeal) That’s fantastic! Tell me about it.
The Pale Man (Doug Jones) in Pan's Labyrinth
G: (confused) Um -- okay.
GDT: The most shocking one.
G: I guess that would be when I was working on my college applications; I was sitting at the dining table in my family’s home, which was where everything important was done – always at this table. Usually my experiences were auditory or visual, but this was more tactile. It was like someone was running on the table towards me. It happened a little like the story of your uncle’s ghost experience: it was a slow process to getting scared. I tried to talk myself out of it, not that it should defy logic; but it feels like it does –
GDT: Or logic is unlimited for everything beside that.
G: Completely. Finally, the table moved too much for me to write and I called out for my mother and was amazed that any sound came out of my mouth and that started a week of –
GDT: Did you ever find out what it was?
G: Well, it’s not until recently that I’ve come to a place where I can sort of engage in dialogue.
GDT: -- with them?
G: I think.
GDT: And they answer?
G: In a way…
G: -- less literal than that because what I see is –
GDT: -- not tangible.
G: -- not as limited to what I know.
GDT: …It’s not human?
G: -- sometimes.
GDT: I, I, I, I think you should try knocking. Two for “no,” one for “yes.” See what happens. Seriously!
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and the Pale Man (Doug Jones) in Pan's Labyrinth
G: It’s a good idea. I’m just surprised we’re talking about this.
GDT: It’s interesting! My mother has had many experiences, or so she says. I am a healthy skeptic or a disillusioned believer, whatever you want to call it. Contrary to what people might think, I don’t tend to take things on face value. I have to almost prove to myself that it’s supernatural and I tried that [knocking] because my mother had experiences with the ouija board – very scary ones but very tangible ones. And I have never had a sentient experience with a ghost. I just had my uncle and I had one time, when I was walking down a very long corridor, I turned on the lights, I was alone in the house, and I said “I hope nothing turns off the lights” and something started to turn off the lights and it turned off the lights and I ran out of the house. Those are my only two ghost experiences.
G: Well, the faun.
GDT: The faun, I think, was a lucid dream.
G: A recurrent, lucid dream?
GDT: Yeah, because I tend to have lucid dreams. I tend to go to sleep and wake up in the dream in the place I’m at. And then something happens. Now, that experience I had as a kid, of the faun coming from the armoire, was so startling because I didn’t know what a faun was at that age. I’d never seen a faun like that, it’s actually a peculiar design: it’s almost like the devil.
G: It’s supposed to be the origin of the devil image.
GDT: The Catholic devil comes from the pagan Pan, but how could I know that? I’d never seen a goat-faced human figure – not even in the church and I’m really intrigued by that.
G: It speaks to the idea – when I was saying before, about the things that don’t look --
GDT: -- human.
G: Right, well I mean, they don’t look like things that we have representation for. If it looked like a cat I’d be able to say “it’s a cat” but I remember when I started seeing –
GDT: You have to publish this. Don’t chicken out!
G: I was um…not thinking it was so relevant so…since it wasn’t…I might not need to…I won’t chicken out.
GDT: It’s all on the record, eh?
G: (Laughing) Well, what I saw looked vaguely like golem, and I hadn’t read the books so when I did read them, because my father’s a big fan of the Christian apologists, I was shocked to identify the creature concept there. It speaks to the idea of collective consciousness.
GDT: You realize a lot of what animals do naturally; humans do through two levels of thought. One is conscious and the other unconscious or subconscious.
Animals don’t have that problem, they have just one single ball of thought or a single ball of being.
Our problem is that we divide things that may be instinctive and collective and we have compartmentalized our perception so strongly that we only get them in glimpses and I think this is where the idea of the Jungian archetype comes to work. We all have these images that can recur and that’s where people talk about angel visitations, alien abductions and fairy visitations all being one and the same with different types of logic working from different cultures.
I believe that there is a whole dimension that I wouldn’t call supernatural but “supranatural,” that I believe in. I believe I saw my mother walk past our living room. My father and brother and I saw her four hours before she arrived home because she had missed her plane in another city. That astral projection all three of us saw. I saw a UFO once and I know it was a UFO because it was not a normal plane or Venus or Mars or anything like that, it was –
GDT: Irrefutable. I know there are things that you shouldn’t deny until you experience them, so I have a very magical, experimental sense of the world.
Creature sketches for Pan's Labyrinth
G: You identify yourself as a lapsed Catholic and I thought it was curious that your previous Spanish language films like Cronos and Devil’s Backbone are steeped in Catholic lore and iconography, but Pan’s Labyrinth takes on pagan, fairy lore. Why did you feel a need to make this shift?
GDT: It’s curious you say that, because I felt that way, but then I showed the film to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and he said: “Fuck you, you’re more Catholic than ever.” I said “Why?!” and he said “Redemption through blood, redemption through sacrifice, she goes to the other world and there’s a father in a throne and golden light,” and I said “I never thought about it that way.”
But I guess he has a point. I think: once a Catholic, always a Catholic. I think Hitchcock was a Catholic, and he was capable of imagining the most heinous murders. Buñuel was a lapsed Catholic – actually he was an atheist. He declared himself “an atheist, thank God.” And I think that that cosmology of it stays with you because that’s the way you articulate the world. When I was shooting Mimic, I was going through such a hell that I started reading about Taoism and I loved reading about it and the idea of just being but I didn’t adopt that cosmology or point of view. I’m still a lapsed Catholic - that likes Taoism. It’s an imprint.
G: Catholicism is a culture and a faith and faith is something we lean on in times of duress. Ofelia’s story is one of loss and discovery, but I identified with it in large part because I saw it as an allegory for faith.
GDT: It is. It’s very simple. In the world, I believe in the absolute power of faith and will but I think people tend to marry miracles to outcome. You know, people say it’s a miracle if the water turns into wine, but the real miracle is not a material one. I believe that you can fabricate magical things and magical occurrences in your life but they don’t have to be shockingly apparent. Ofelia’s faith saves her. She will live forever, whereas the Captain won’t. The fascists die that night and Ofelia is reborn, and that’s the difference. I can be shot and dying, I’m alive if I choose not to care. I’m immortal if I don’t care. It’s like: I’m dying, I’m going to the super market, I’m washing my teeth, they’re all equally important…in my life.
G: Not in the life of those you love.
GDT: No! I hate facing the death of another. I can’t stand somebody else’s pain. I can stand my own very well and I can stand my death.
We all have a list of things to do in life: sorry man, but that includes dying. So, you go through life putting your shoes on, taking a cab; at one point you’re going to have to check (makes check sign with finger) dying, and it’s as important as taking a cab – to me. So, in that I believe that I’m immortal, because I don’t give a crap about death anymore. I used to be obsessed with dying and upset about death, but there came a point in my life after the kidnapping of my father that I started relinquishing all that. I said “not important anymore” and I’m at peace.
I think the true concept of a miracle, as I annunciate in Cronos, the true concept of immortality is not caring how you die. The true concept of Pan’s Labyrinth is not about dying but about rebirth: she’s reborn, that’s why the blood is there. People say, in western culture, blood means death, but to me it means life – someone is starting to live again. And that’s why the film is so full of maternal and birthing and fallopian, almost uterine, imagery.
G: About the feminine imagery -- how did you come to use uterine imagery in the fables? Why were the specific fables paired with that imagery?
GDT: It’s just a riff. The two schools of paintings I admire the most are the symbolists and the surrealists. The symbolists are incredibly precious about things, they kind of cipher things in an almost medieval way. I like them but I like the surrealists more because they just riff: “It feels like I have to have a melting watch. It feels like I have to have a melting face next to it. It feels like an eye should be floating in the sky.” And you work from your gut, which by the way is the biggest creative motor you can ever access. So I riff on things and I riff like a stream of consciousness. The head of the faun has the horns and so does the reproductive organs of a woman, and the tree and the dagger and there are so many echoes in the movie of this shape, so what I do is I work on my notebook. (Takes out a beautiful leather bound notebook and flips through pages of notes in Spanish with the occasional splash of colored ink drawings.)
G: That’s gorgeous -- it looks like that notebook has always existed.
GDT: I started doing all the coding for the movie in here. The shape on the top of the bed echoes the tree and it echoes the faun and, even when I’m working on the early parts I can see things like the color I want the wall behind him to be. The pit with the staircase and the monolith - which has to be seen from a specific direction so it’s more uterine - the tree: there are many, many of these forms in the movie, some carved on top of doors, or carved in rail guard by the staircase. I did a lot of physical classifying stuff – and you riff! You really go at it in an instinctive way that is closer to the way of a painter than it is the way of a filmmaker. Then the process makes it technical but the first instinct and the first riff is very painterly. The sense of play, the sense of atmosphere and stuff like that is very instinctive.
G: History and myth in relation to Pan’s Labyrinth are being argued about a good bit online – possibly because of the rather commonplace American tendency to read incredible happenings as the result of paranoia. I felt your depiction of history and myth communicated the two concepts as inventions of each other.
GDT: Absolutely. Fantasy is inherently political: all of the genres of fantasy. And politics are fantasy.
Pan (Doug Jones) in Pan's Labyrinth
G: Politics are fantasy?
GDT: Absolutely! When you’re arguing about whose side of the concept is better – politics are completely a fabrication. I was talking the other day to Neil Gaiman. He said to me, “You realize, don’t you, that we are at war? The pope is at war with many religions as to whose imaginary friend is strongest.” I think that’s a great way of putting it. I mean my imaginary friend is stronger than yours?
It’s all cosmologies that we fabricate or chose to believe in. I don’t think one is inherently wrong or one is inherently right. I think that we as humans tend to fabricate things to keep us apart and I believe it’s just as easy to believe in the things that unite us. I believe it’s a defect of mammalian territoriality to invent those borders. So yes, politics, borders, geography, time, space: it’s all a fabrication. To me it’s all perception. All fabrication is a form of imagination.
I think that, in my movie. I am in favor of the hope that the world within us is as liberating as the world without us. I believe the girl is resurrected. I believe in the power of the monsters to live within us and give us hope. I believe in that and I accept the monsters as my saviors and I think the movie is a declaration of faith. A declaration that maybe, at the end of your life – your physical life – you will leave a legacy that is just a little white flower blooming in a dead tree. But that’s your legacy, and it’s there. And that’s the legacy of the girl.
The legacy of the fascists is a bunch of ideas and dead people and the legacy of the girl is one flower in one tree. And if that is not hopeful and as real and as tangible as any other thing, then the argument cannot be had. I think this movie is like a Rorschach test of where you stand on these issues. People come out and say, “I like the movie because it comes out and tells you it’s all in her head.” Or people come out and say, “I like the movie because it tells you it’s all real.” It depends on the person seeing it. To me, it’s real. To me. The way I constructed the movie, it’s supposed to be real. That’s not how you have to see the movie; the movie is freer than that.
G: It doesn’t require you to decide.
GDT: It doesn’t require you to work or not work. I was reading the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and in 32 reviews there isn’t one bad one. There was one guy who got angry and wrote that the movie denies that fantasy is real and I said “Really? When?!” And since when is that important, in experiencing a movie? My point of view is that it’s real. But like the best of fables, it has to be open. The best of parables means something to everyone.
G: It leaves room for consciousness.
GDT: It has to.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and Pan in Pan's Labyrinth
G: Did you place the film during the Spanish Civil War to encourage or validate the escape of Ofelia into her stories or did you intend to place the war in your story as an allegory of political conditions past, present or future?
GDT: All of it, because I think the film is a fable in favor of disobedience. It’s a deeper disobedience than a social or religious one. I think that you can disobey everything: the rules of aesthetics, the rules of nature. You should disobey everything and trust only your compass, which is your instinct.
We live in a society that values thought and reason over emotion. And I don’t. I value emotion beyond everything else. I am all in favor of a completely subjective existence. I really think that if you found attractive the things everybody considers repulsive - you’re not wrong. You should not choose to deem that wrong. As long as you allow the flow of life, I think that anything you desire or have a point of view on is right. If you get in the way of the flow of life, then that’s different: then you are clogging yourself with a lot of bad stuff. You should be creating your own reality.
The first thing I said when I was a film student was “I want to make horror and fantasy films,” and one of my teachers said, “That’s impossible. Film in Mexico would not support that.” And I said, “I don’t care. I’m gonna make fantasy films.” And I’ve done it. And that’s the important thing. I always say that success is not measured by outcome. Success is measured by fucking up in your own terms. That’s success. Trying and failing: that’s success. We live in a world where we say: which movie succeeded this year? “Well this one made $300 million, this movie made $1 million, so the one that made more was more successful.” Or: “This movie was critically praised, and this one was not, so the praised one was successful.” I don’t think so. Success doesn’t have to do with how many people a film connects with but how deeply it connects with them. How that movie becomes a tool for them to construct their philosophy, cosmology and reality. That’s success for a movie. And if it reaches a lot of people deeply, that’s great, but if it makes one person unable to leave the theatre because that person’s crying; that’s success.
G: You make it sound like a religious experience.
GDT: It is! We don’t go to church on Sunday: we go to the movies. So, when you go to the movies and you get the same crappy old sermon, you get angry. You go, “What a piece of shit!”
G: The world’s bigger than that.
GDT: The world is. But when you go to the church, or the movies, and you get a fresh perspective on an intimate truth, you come out of the theatre converted: believing again in the power of movies. It’s a religious experience and an intimate experience and that’s why when we don’t like a movie we get that pissed off and when we like it we get so jazzed.