Guillermo del Toro on the Catholic Church, his Holy Trinity and Boris Karloff Epiphany

The great Mexican delivers a vibrant masterclass at France’s Lumière Festival

Guillermo del Toro Masterclass at the
Festival Lumière / Jean Luc Mege

LYON, France  —  In a wide-ranging discussion at Lyon’s Lumière Festival on Monday, Guillermo del Toro talked about the creative and disturbing influence of the Catholic Church, his own personal Holy Trinity, the unique aspects of cinema, his desire to work with Michael Mann and George Miller on a book project and his Boris Karloff-inspired epiphany.

Asked how he is able to translate nightmares into beautiful dreams, Del Toro quipped, “I had a f****d up childhood.”

The imagery of Mexico’s Catholic Church, which Del Toro described as second only to that of the Philippines in goriness and anatomical accurateness, was a main factor.

“There was a Christ in my church with an exposed bone fracture, and it was kind of green and purple, but his face looked like he was coming. And then they said, ‘The body of Christ,’ and I said, ‘No thank you.’

“In Guadalajara, of all f*****g cities, there is a Gothic church. It’s like seeing an Aztec pyramid in the middle of Paris,” del Toro said. As a child, he and other boys would explore the church’s catacombs and look for opened crypts. “One of them was loose and we moved it and we saw the two feet. The soles of the shoes had been eaten and you could see the bones and the dry muscles. That made a big impression on me.”

The biblical myths read in church were “so f****** gory,” he added, pointing out that to give a kid that “mixture of virtue and violence is f****d up.”

Del Toro ultimately found his salvation in classic movie monsters. “I started seeing in the monsters as a more sincere form of religion because the priests were not that great, but Frankenstein was great,” he recalled.

He added: “The creature of Frankenstein to me was a more beautiful martyr figure than Jesus with the exposed fracture. And I started adoring him.” For Del Toro, the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – “was the creature of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Wolf Man.”

“I started loving the monsters because, with the monsters, as a child, you don’t have to think. The adults that were supposed to be good with you were bad. The adults that were supposed to protect you, beat you. But the monsters, they did what they looked like [they would do]. You swim with the f*****g Creature of the Black Lagoon and you’re gonna die.”

Discussing the state of cinema today, Del Toro said he would like to work with leading filmmakers, including Michael Mann and George Miller, on a new project. “What I offered to Michael yesterday is something I offered to George Miller a few months ago. I offered to go interview him for two weeks to make a book in which we discuss cinema as a craft.

“There is a belief right now that is partially true … that cinema is fading and long-arc television is rising, which is true – demographically, it’s true. I’m addicted to both mediums. The supremacy of the long arc, in terms of plot and character, is tremendous.

“The big difference is that film generates myth and images,” he stressed, something television does not. Iconic images like the blood pouring out of the elevator doors in “The Shining,” the star baby in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Indiana Jones cresting the mountain as he’s being chased in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Charlie Chaplin going through the machine in “Modern Times” are specific to cinematic works, del Toro said. “These are images that stay as mythology.”

While adding that he loved series like “Deadwood” and “The Sopranos,” del Toro said he didn’t know the lens, the angle or the composition of specific scenes from those shows.

“Our craft is seldom discussed in those terms. … I believe that we will elevate and differentiate the discourse of cinema the more we discuss image creation in specific terms. I think the master Michael Mann and the master George Miller are fierce, undomesticated mother f*****s and anyone else who wants to do it as a lover of movies, I would love to discuss films – for anyone coming up, as I was when I read Truffaut and Hitchcock.”

Commenting on his new film, “The Shape of Water,” which won the Golden Lion in Venice and which had its French premiere at the Lumière Festival, Del Toro said he put his salary and invested money of his own to get the creature visually the way he wanted it. “The way I saw it is, I’m buying a big painting. I’m buying a really nice, beautiful crazy piece of art that is going to live with me and that I can share with the world.”

On his beloved horror and fantasy genre, del Toro noted: “We have to admit and enshrine the fact that this is a genre that has given us some of the most indelible images in the history of cinema,” adding that that was the purpose of his exhibition, Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters: “To say, the road to monsters is deeply ingrained in us and deeply revealing of us.

“When I saw Karloff at the threshold, I was Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, and my main labor is evangelical.”