Guillermo del Toro has written 33 screenplays, but only directed 10 to date. But he’s keen to make up for lost ground, including the recently greenlit Netflix picture “Pinocchio,” his animated feature film directing debut that will be set in 1930s fascist Italy.
Certain common themes run throughout Del Toro’s films, many linked to his childhood influences.
In an in-depth conversation with American journalist and co-screenwriter Kim Morgan at the Marrakech Film Festival, he offered a riveting stream of personal revelations, ranging from the monsters that haunted his crib to his aborted video-game projects with Hideo Kojima, and his upcoming projects “Pinocchio” and “Nightmare Alley.”
Wiping away a tear from his eye while watching the final scene from “The Shape of Water” Del Toro captivated the local Moroccan audience, saying “I have a kinship with Morocco that’s amazing. Perhaps it’s thanks to my couscous god. I feel at home with the people, with the energy, pain and beauty. The craftsmanship. The pride. Everything.”
He explained how his childhood was shaped by the grotesque imaginary universe of Mexican Catholicism, including gory statues of Jesus, in purple and green exposed bones, “always in sexy poses but forensically correct.”
To atone for his sins, his grandmother placed metal bottle caps in his shoes that led his feet to bleed.
Visited by monsters that emerged from the green shaggy rug next to his crib, he made a pact: “Monsters, if you let me go to the bathroom, I will be your friend forever.”
Bullied at school in Mexico because he looked “thin and blonde, like Rutger Hauer’s stepchild, or Little Lord Fauntleroy,” he started eating, to put on weight to defend himself.
When his father won $6 million in the national lottery and bought a compound with a large library, Del Toro immersed himself in art encyclopedias, novels, Hammer horror films, old Mexican movies and Japanese anime.
He says that these multiple influences continue to shape his work, confiding that fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, after seeing “The Shape of Water,” remarked, “You’re so Catholic man. In all your movies everyone dies to create a happy ending.”
“The true North of life is death,” suggested Del Toro. “In Mexico death is everywhere. What makes life have any sense is death. We find immortality in it.”
He added: “When I saw Frankenstein’s monster pass the threshold, I realized this is a messiah. This is a saint. Boris Karloff was like the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (…) As a filmmaker, I’m like a gargoyle sculptor in a gothic church.”
He cited the Japanese principle of Wabi-sabi – that the essence of art is to make peace with the imperfect – and explained how he has used this principle in his films. For example, in the beginning of “The Shape of Water” Colonel Richard Strickland wears a perfectly tailored suit. “I wanted him to look like Sean Connery – to take that immaculate figure and then see it decompose over time.”
He also highlighted the importance of the eyes in his films: “Eyes are the most intimate and most naked part of the human body. Films are made of eyes. As filmmakers all we have to offer is our gaze (…) During two hours you will see many things with my eyes. It’s a talismanic thing (…) What we do is an invocation. It has a symbolic power.”
“The Shape of Water” came after Del Toro’s deep frustration at Universal’s flopped release of “Crimson Peak” – which he says was incorrectly marketed as a horror film.
During this period he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and told that he might only have 72 hours to live.
He says pulling through this traumatic period led him to bet everything on making “The Shape of Water,” and explained that the early shot of a fat man sitting on a bench with a cake and balloons – a birthday party to which no-one came – was how he felt after the release of “Crimson Peak.”
Nonetheless Del Toro emphasized the creative importance of failure. “Failure is a crucial component of any artistic endeavor. Failure is the fuel. Success is the brakes. Failure is painful as hell. It hurts a lot, but you learn from it.”
The helmer added that his frustrated attempts at developing video-game projects with Hideo Kojima had also been beneficial. “Everything is 90% bad and 10% great. The same is true in this case. There are some amazing video games with great storytelling and design. They teach you a different skill of how to guide an audience. I thought it would help me and it has.”
He briefly talked about his next projects, many of which he says are linked to his reservoir of unproduced scripts and will draw upon the same creative wellsprings.
He said that the “Pinocchio,” and “Nightmare Alley” projects are in a “very, very advanced” stage and that a third project, which he didn’t write, and whose details he can’t disclose at present is “very close to happening.”
He also added that he is dedicated to helping young Mexican filmmakers: “The thing I want to do is create viability for other filmmakers in my country to pursue filmmaking.”
“You can create avenues that stay. You’re gone, but the avenue stays. Every morning you take a street or two on your way to work with the name of a guy you’ve never heard of. That’s what you can leave as an artist – a street that can guide people.”
Del Toro offered advice to aspiring Moroccan filmmakers: “When some people ask me what is Mexican in my films. I say it’s me. An Anglo would not come to the solutions I’m coming to. So, I say this to international filmmakers. Have a passport and have roots. They’re both equally important. You will find yourself in your roots and will travel with your passport. Whatever you take to the world, make sure you take Morocco with you.”
He then concluded: “Afonso Cuaron is coming out of ‘Gravity,’ having won the Oscar, made millions of dollars and his choice for his next project is to make a black-and-white film in Mexico [“Roma” – which is screening at Marrakech] about people that nobody looks at. That for me is an example for us all. “