It Came From Beyond
Telling Horror Stories With Austin Director Guillermo del Toro
"I saw my first cadaver when I was about five years old. I saw my first rotting corpse at 10." Now, at 35, Guillermo del Toro is probably the world's most promising horror film director. His award-winning 1993 feature debut Cronos, an inventive variation on the vampire mythology, established him as an up-and-coming filmmaker and garnered relationships with James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. This summer, del Toro is in Madrid filming a Spanish-language feature, The Devil's Backbone, a savage ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. His friend, Academy Award-winning director Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother), is co-producing the independent film as the first "Pedro Almodóvar Presents" project. When del Toro returns to the United States, pre-production will begin for his next directorial outing, Blade: Bloodhunt, the sequel to 1998's vampire hunter film Blade, starring Wesley Snipes and written by David S. Goyer. The sequel will be steeped in Samurai mythology. "Hong Kong has been done," del Toro says, "Samurai hasn't. The movie is called Blade, after all, not Kick." Tornadoes threatened Austin earlier this spring when I sat down to talk with the ample del Toro about his childhood, movies, and plans for the future. At the time, del Toro was still adjusting to domestic life in Austin with his wife Lorenza, a former veterinarian, the couple's young daughter, and a white minivan. "I mowed the lawn for the first time in my life," he explains, "It was horrible! The fire ants devoured my stubby legs!" Their Oak Hill residence could pass for that of any upwardly mobile young family, except for the print hanging in the living room. It's an engraving from the Musée du Louvre of a man turning into a werewolf, a precisely drawn study of lycanthropy. And then there's the stairs to his second-floor library whose walls are covered with art by Wayne Barlowe, Richard Corben, Edward Gorey, Ted McKeever, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, the French fantasy artist Moebius, and original pages from the Arkham Asylum graphic novel.
Not long before I arrived, the burglar alarm of his comfortable residence had been tripped, and del Toro was inspecting a suspicious trail of leaves in the kitchen. He chalked it up to an overactive imagination. Then the smoke detector chirped.
"It's been beeping for months," del Toro says, laughing. "We call it 'the bird.'" The battery needs to be replaced, but he has no idea how to do it. "If there is a piece of knowledge that serves no practical purpose, I know it. But if it serves any practical purpose, I don't know it. Today I was absolutely, genuinely moved and grateful for the guy who did the pool's backflow inspection. I had no idea what it was."
Like most days, del Toro is dressed in black T-shirts and jeans; it eliminates the guesswork. "I got the idea from watching The Fly," he admits. So his wardrobe consists of a few dozen black shirts and five or six pairs of black jeans, white socks, and black New Balance sneakers. As he begins to reminisce, del Toro shakes his Coke bottle slightly and carefully to let the carbonation escape. "I take out the gas," he offers. "I hate the gas."
"I have been a strange child all my life," del Toro explains. A "corner kid" who went to church every day, del Toro also taught himself English by translating MAD magazine and watching subtitled movies, and he had read all of the works of the late horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft by age 10.
He remembers vividly when his fascination with horror started. "I was sleeping in a crib, and my brother and I were watching The Outer Limits. It was an episode called "The Mutants." Warren Oates played this bald guy [Reese Fowler] with big bug eyes who was a mutant. I saw that image, and I started crying, and my brother turned off the television." Not surprisingly, the del Toro brothers were watching the television program without permission while their parents were out for the evening. Later that night, when del Toro was asleep in his crib, his brother snuck back into the room. "The bastard put two plastic fried eggs -- the kind they sell in novelty stores -- on his eyes and pulled a stocking over his head, so he looked like the mutant. He peered into the crib, and I started screaming. From that night on, I started peeing on my bed."
And that was only the beginning. His childhood recollections are filled with tales of "goat monsters" behind his grandmother's armoire and an imagination run wild. "We had one of those 1960s hairy carpets, like shag, with a lot of fibers sticking out, horrible carpet, very Sixties," he recalls. "I always saw it at night like a sea of fingers. It was moving like hands, and I would freak out, and I would see monsters in the corner. I told the monsters, 'If you let me go pee every night, I will be your friend forever.' I never saw anything again in my life. From that day on, I have always had them in my imagination, but never saw them again with my eyes. I only saw them as a kid."
At an age when most kids are outside playing, del Toro stayed indoors, feeding his morbid fascination. "Every single horror movie that came out since I was eight, nine years old, I would go to. I had an uncle who took me to see The Attack of the Blind Dead. He took me to see Raw Meat (aka Death Line). He was a pothead, a really great pothead, and he would take me to all the things. I saw all the cannibal movies, Vampyros Lesbos, all the Italian horror movies by Lucio Fulci. Anything you name, I saw it." On television he watched The Night Stalker, the 1974-75 series about paranormal investigative reporter Carl Kolchak that was an inspiration for X-Files creator Chris Carter. "Kolchak was my absolute hero," del Toro says. "He was one of the first role models in my life. That's why I don't change the fire alarm battery. Kolchak wouldn't. He can face a vampire and kill a gorgon, but not change a fire alarm battery." Even del Toro's mother fed young Guillermo's fascination with horror. "She took our entire family to The Exorcist at a drive-in, and my brother and I were drinking chocolate milkshakes in the back of the station wagon watching Linda Blair puking and masturbating with a crucifix, and we would say, 'That's not so tough.' Mexican horror and Italian horror, some of it is much more visceral."
When del Toro was nine, he took a bus to "the wrong side of town" to see War of the Gargantuans. "A large soda glass full of pee fell from the balcony on my head," he remembers. "I was such a good cinema lover that I stayed and watched the rest of the movie. I came out with crispy hair. They never did this in lowlife cinemas? They did in Mexico. It was the worst cinema. They were showing Onibaba, a Japanese movie, with War of the Gargantuans. Onibaba freaked me out."
When his favorite pothead uncle died, however, it forced del Toro to become more creative about getting into the adult movies. "I went out and bought myself a fake mustache," he remembers. "It was a terrible mustache. There was a store in Guadalajara that sold fake chest hair in a thick vinyl, so they cut the vinyl in the shape of a mustache. You could see the vinyl over my skin, but I still glued that thing on and went to see Holocaust 2000 with Kirk Douglas. I was allergic to the glue and never used it again."
But even away from the theatres, del Toro's education in humanity's dark side continued. "When I was an altar boy," he explains, "we would rehearse in the crypts and look for an open crypt, and one of them contained a guy, mummified!" Later, he worked at an insane asylum around the corner from a "fantastic cemetery" in his hometown. "I got to know a lot of really weird people there," he says. "There was this short, chubby axe murderer. He had murdered all his family. He had not murdered anyone else, just chopped up his family. He was crazy. And there was another guy, who every Friday would pack his bag and say goodbye to everyone, 'It was great being here. My family is picking me up today.' Every Friday he would go through the whole routine, and no one would show up."
And although the monsters had disappeared from his bedroom long ago, other unusual occurrences kept him awake at night. "I was 17 or 18 years old, and I was hearing a human breath inside a mattress in my house. It was there! It was in a room where my uncle, the pothead, used to sleep, and he and I made a deal. He said, 'If I die first I'll send you a signal.' I inherited his room. One night I was doing my homework and I started hearing heavy breathing. I was watching TV. 'Maybe I'm pushing the air out of the pillow.' So I moved the pillow. It happened again, but I didn't panic. 'Maybe it's coming out of my ears.' I stopped breathing, but the sound continued. I felt the mattress, and it was vibrating a little bit, and I put my ear to it and could hear the voice bouncing in the springs. So it was in there, and that's when I freaked out."
When del Toro started to make his own films, however, all these experiences paid off. After directing some shorts and a few TV episodes ("They're crappy as hell"), del Toro took a job doing make-up effects on a television horror series with his friend Alfonso Cuarón (who went on to direct the recent screen adaptations of Great Expectations and A Little Princess). "I did 21 chapters as make-up effect supervisor. I would sculpt, design, and sometimes be the monster of the series. I played an ogre, a guy that is consumed by alien fungi, and a fat, melting woman."
Hellboy to Pay
But it was his 1993 feature film debut, Cronos, that put del Toro on the map. In it, the golden, egg-shaped Cronos device is invented by an ingenious alchemist who wants the key to immortality. When he dies more than 400 years later, the secrets of the remarkable device go to the grave with him. An elderly antique dealer finds the machine in a statue and becomes obsessed with its powers. The more he uses the device, the younger he becomes, but there is "hell to pay" when a ruthless millionaire comes looking for the bloody fountain of youth. The film won nine Ariels, the Mexican Academy's equivalent of the Oscar, and the Critics Week prize at the Cannes Film Festival. "My father has probably seen about 10 movies in his life," del Toro explains, "two of which were mine. When he saw Cronos he said to me, 'My son, it's a masterpiece.' I said, 'Dad, I'm flattered, but you never go to the movies.' 'I tell you it's a masterpiece. But there's one thing I don't understand: What was that golden thing?' "
Del Toro's 1997 film Mimic, however, didn't fare as well, garnering mixed reviews from the critics and tepid box-office business. The movie, starring Academy Award-winner Mira Sorvino, is a cautionary tale of genetically manipulated insects that terrorize New York City. Despite the conventional Hollywood ending that was not as del Toro had envisioned it, Roger Ebert wrote, "Del Toro is a director with a genuine visual sense, with a way of drawing us into his story and evoking the mood with the very look and texture of his shots."
Del Toro has a theory about the respective success of each film. "In Cronos, the only explanation you need is there's an insect that acts like a living filter. Resurrection is not as strange to insects. They are known to come crawling out of rocks after hundreds of years. That's all you need. That's all the audience is thinking. That was my big fight on Mimic. We explained too much in a very poor way. There was too much science. Science always sounds fake if you don't make it a mythology. If you make science a mythology, it's attractive to the audience. But if you try to use science as a tool of truth, it's horrible. In Mimic, the moment you say 'DNA,' it's screwed."
Although his two upcoming movies are currently demanding his attention, another one is clearly a labor of love. That project is a film based on the comic book Hellboy in development with Lawrence Gordon Productions. The series centers on a demon child, brought to Earth in 1944 during a bizarre Nazi experiment, who is saved and raised by a kindly scientist. Hellboy grows up to be an investigator for the pseudo-governmental Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He is a monster that tracks down and destroys other monsters. Del Toro has completed several drafts of a Hellboy adventure script titled Seed of Destruction. There's a gravity to the Hellboy character and story that attracts del Toro. Maybe it reminds him of the "corner kid" in Guadalajara.
In a volatile entertainment industry where deals fall apart daily, Hellboy is the movie del Toro would hate to lose the most. Two exquisite Hellboy paintings hang on the walls of his library, commissioned and paid for out of his own pocket. "I would literally do that movie for no money up front. I would bet my entire salary on the back end. Not a dollar for my services." That would be a safe bet after his Blade: Bloodhunt payday.
He realizes horror films do not command much artistic respect. "Most people are ashamed of doing horror. Most of the guys I know that do horror are ashamed of doing horror. A lot of them just dream of going legit and doing Music of the Heart [directed by Wes Craven]. My other director friends tell me they worry about me."
But for del Toro, since watching that ill-fated episode of The Outer Limits from his crib, there was no turning back. "If I were doing porn, I'd do porn with a passion. If I don't do horror movies, I will not do movies at all."