Once Upon a Time in Spain
Guillermo del Toro on fairy tales, fascists, and everybody's new favorite movie
We live in a society in which a large percentage of harried parents prefer proffering a bedtime video over the more traditional literary childhood sleep-aids, which leaves the real telling and retelling of these tales to the professionals, like Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose sixth feature, Pan's Labyrinth, is one fairy tale we'd advise you to not take your children to. It's strictly for adults, but it speaks in no uncertain terms to the child within the adult. (And honestly, these days, who needs these mythic tales more desperately than the frightened kid within us all?)
Set in Spain, 1944, just after the rise of Franco, del Toro's masterful film follows the fortunes of 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she and her very pregnant mother move to their new home in the Spanish countryside to be with Ofelia's new stepfather, the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López). There, amid the fascists' daily pursuit and slaughter of the local freedom-fighters, she discovers the magical labyrinth of the title and makes the acquaintance of its representative, a mysterious and quite possibly dangerous half-man, half-goat known only as the Faun, who reveals her destiny to her and charges her with three tasks even as the daily skirmishes between her stepfather's troops and the local rebels become increasingly violent.
Pan's Labyrinth arrives in Austin as the best-reviewed film of the year (according to pop-culture aggregation site Metacritic.com), which comes as little surprise to fans of del Toro, who also helmed another Franco-era phantasm, The Devil's Backbone, and the popular adaptation of Mike Mignola's cult comic book Hellboy. What might is Pan's lyrical depth and emotional resonance: It's one of the most lush and affecting cinematic achievements of the past decade and almost certainly one of the greatest cinematic fairy tales of all time. (For more on all of that, see p.46.)
The Chronicle spoke with del Toro former Austinite and close friend of Harry Knowles by telephone in the weeks leading up to Pan's Labyrinth opening here.
Austin Chronicle: What role did fairy tales and mythology play in your childhood? Did your parents read them to you before bedtime?
Guillermo del Toro: I think that, obviously, you have the bedtime stories, which in Mexico happen to be pretty brutal. They also happen to be very mixed with the supernatural, with ghosts, with the devil, with this and that. I'll give you an example of a completely local one that was told to me by one of my nannies that eventually you find in fairy-tale books, about a guy who went in to play poker with the devil. He was wandering in the mountains and ran into a little demon who asked him if he'd like to play cards. Naturally, the guy says yes ... and so a rock moves away from the mountain, and the two of them go down into the mountain where he discovers the devil playing cards with a bunch of dead people, people he knew from town. They had all died several years before. So the guy plays cards with the devil and the dead people, and after a while he sees that it's about to be dawn and realizes that he has to get out of there before the sun rises or he's going to be trapped there forever. But, he has a really good hand, so he stays playing until the very last moment when he grabs the gold and runs toward the entrance to the cave, with the devil and all the demons chasing him. And then just as he's exiting the cave, the giant rock that seals the cave begins to roll closed and crushes him! That's one of the earliest ones I heard when I was, I don't know, 3 or 4 years old.
AC: I assume you were too young to take away any immediate moral lesson from that, and yet you clearly recall the story after all these years.
GdT: Right, right. I remember that one and many others. They were not necessarily structured in a moral way, like the primal fairy tales of the West; the fairy tales of Germany and Europe tend to have much more of an obvious moral to them. But I read these fairy tales voraciously as a kid. My parents had a couple of books that were, you know, for kids, and they contained a lot of famous Grimm's tales and Jean de La Fontaine and Aesop's fables and so forth, and I really felt transported. I feel that they marked me in the sense of making my imagination a little more free. Today, I find my daughter likes to read longer formats, she loves to read those sort of "young reader" novels, ã la Harry Potter.
AC: Do you read to your children before bed?
GdT: Sometimes, but what I do is quote the stories. I don't bring the book.
AC: Do you think the reading of fairy tales at bedtime is something of a vanishing practice? I'm thinking bedtime videos may be usurping the actual reading of books somewhat.
GdT: Oh, yeah, I feel that people have lost the intimacy of reading.
AC: And what does get read to kids tends to be neutered to the level of Barney the dinosaur.
GdT: Yes, and I think that emasculating the fairy tales does not emasculate life. First of all, fairy tales, at their inception, when they were an oral tradition, were not meant for kids. They were oral folk tales, and they were mostly told to adults. And it is really quite later, when they are collected by the Grimms and so forth, that they started being read to children at all. You can read the texts by [Bruno] Bettelheim or Vladimir Propp or any of the people that truly enjoy and have cataloged fairy tales and their function in our society, and most of them agree as do I that fairy tales are sort of spiritual parables that allow the kid to understand the world. And children need the darkness. That said, Pan's Labyrinth is not intended for kids, but all the fairy tales of yore, when you emasculate them, you are really creating a false sense of the world for the child. When everything has to be sanitized to the point of making Disney look tough, that's doing the children a disservice, you know? Because really, by today's standards, Disney is a tough guy! Everything has been emasculated to the Teletubby level, and I really think that fairy tales help to prepare the kid for the harshness of the outside world.
AC: This is your second film the other being The Devil's Backbone set in Franco's Spain. You grew up in Mexico, not Spain, so what is it that draws you to that period in history?
GdT: I can say anecdotally that as a young man I was very good friends with a Spanish refugee, and one of them became something of a father figure and so forth. But the reality is that even before that I was very influenced by films that were done right around the time of Franco's death. The Spanish films that dealt with the war and the postwar climate of repression. And, also, I started reading comic books that were published in the 1980s, when I was about 20 years old, and they all dealt with repression in Franco's Spain. These were comic books that were published in Spain. At the time, they were sort of the equivalent of the underground comics in the Sixties in America. They were very anarchic, very against the system, against the establishment, and a lot of them dealt with the situation of postwar Spain. There was one in particular that influenced The Devil's Backbone more than Pan's Labyrinth that dealt with an orphanage in postwar Spain; that was called Paracuellos [by Carlos Giménez, 1981]. Like any other artist, you are not limited geographically to the influences that are indigenous to your home city or country. And also, historically, Mexico had an incredibly intense and deep relationship with Spain during the Civil War. We basically stood up for Spain. So, you know, I've always felt that war very closely.
AC: Would it be fair to say that both The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth are anti-fascist statements?
GdT: Oh, definitely. Pan's more so than Devil's. Because The Devil's Backbone deals with a character who is sort of a proto-fascist. He's a guy that, left to his own devices, he would turn into a fascist, but he lacks the political sophistication, he lacks the capacity for choice. He's really just a brutalized kid that has chosen violence, you know? But the fascist in Pan's Labyrinth is a full-fledged fascist. And I think that the way I understand but nevertheless am shocked or horrified the character is perhaps particular to somebody who knows the culture as I think I know the culture. I think the Spanish brand of fascism is probably incredibly disturbing to see, for example, for an American. But these guys were not subtle. These guys were absolutely full of entitlement, full of an almost religious wrath, and, like the fascists in the movie, they really believed they were doing the right thing by killing these quote-unquote "vermin."
AC: Societally speaking, repression, if not outright fascism, appears to be in the wind. Did you intend Pan's Labyrinth to speak to the current political climate?
GdT: Pan's Labyrinth tries to be a parable, and I believe that the parable works across time it is as pertinent today as it would be in 1944 in Spain. Sadly, the political conditions right now make it even more pertinent. I don't put the blame in the institutions; I believe that you have to put the blame on the people who do not resist them. The people who do not choose to be disobedient. And the movie is therefore in favor of disobedience, and most of the characters in the movie are presented with the chance to choose the right thing, to choose beyond their selfish needs. And some of them do choose to look beyond that, and some of them don't. And that parable works as well today as it would in 1944. The problem is today we have enthroned blind obedience as a virtue, and in reality I think it's a horrible defect.
AC: Have you been able to discern differing reactions to the film based on the audience's nationalities? I know it's already opened in the EU, and I was wondering if it plays at all differently in, say, Spain than it does in the U.S.
GdT: I think that part of the movie plays differently, but it's a gradation, it's a tone. In general, the movie plays the same way in the sense that it seems to hit the same chords. One of the things that I feel is particularly American in the way that movies are perceived because of Hollywood is that you need to have the characters almost explain themselves. For example, the fascist captain, in Spain, is a known reality, that is something that is in their past, so it's easier to understand there than here, perhaps. But it's played pretty similarly in most places.
AC: One particular aspect of Pan's Labyrinth that's just breathtaking is the film's amazingly intricate sound design, particularly with the character of the Faun, whose every appearance is accompanied by a wonderful symphony of creaks and whispers. Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with this aspect of the film?
GdT: I normally get as involved if not more involved with the sound as I do with any other department, because I believe that screenwriting is an exercise in visuals and audio. When people talk about screenwriting, all they think about is a screenplay, but to me, the reality is that you're telling the story through both the sounds and the visuals. I tried to utilize the 180 degrees of the entire theatre's sound system, all surround, all the back, front, and center surround channels everything comes alive in the movie, and it becomes a very immersive experience. One of the things I told [the sound designers] was that each of the three main characters needed to be personalized by a particular noise. So the Faun creaks like he is made of wood, the Captain creaks, also, but it is the creak of leather, and the girl sounds like silk or satin. And these are little things that are codified or are in my notes that I give to the sound designer but which are meant to be subliminal, if you would. And I can tell you, I love sound so much that many of the Foley effects or the ambient effects are actually me being recorded. I play several voice elements of the monsters. I am part of the frog voice; I am part of the Pale Man; I am part of the fairy. Because I really think it has to be that way.
AC: And the sound of the Faun was?
GdT: The creaking sound of the Faun was an element that we got from Martin Hernandez, who was the sound designer. He spent a little bit of time recording the trees in the woods and then eventually he generated a sound in Foley, so it was a Foley element, but Martin Hernandez is a brilliant guy. He did 21 Grams, Amores Perros, City of God, and Babel.
AC: What's your own, personal favorite cinematic fairy tale?
GdT: I would say my top four would be Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, perhaps Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, and, funny enough, I don't think people think about it as a fairy tale, but I would say Wild at Heart by David Lynch.
AC: Care to explain that last one?
GdT: I think that some movies are structured like a fairy tale, although they may not be seen as such. For example, [Tom Tykwer's new film] Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is very much like a fairy tale. It's about a tone and the way the characters are sketched. Most of the characters in fairy tales need to be types that are not necessarily psychologically fleshed-out but that they are nevertheless incredibly strong characters. So, to me, Wild at Heart has that sort of a journey structure, a journey into the darkness, if you will, and I think Lynch generally utilizes a lot of fairy tale elements in his films.
Pan's Labyrinth opens in Austin on Friday, Jan. 12. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.