Filmmaker Feature by Jack Bottomley
In the world of cinema and the pages of literature there are many influential names that have inspired the evolution of fantasy. Most people dare to dream but not everyone can make those dreams a reality, so these creators and innovators share their dreams with us all. And in modern fantasy, arguably the greatest dreamer and creator is one Guillermo del Toro, the bearded filmmaking fellow behind some of this generation’s most visually dazzling and innovatively assembled features. Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, del Toro is perhaps the greatest advertisement for how much mainstream markets can benefit from international imagination. Switching from Spanish language features to English tongued blockbusters, del Toro’s work has range and constantly alternates but the one constant is that you can guarantee is vision. So with this said, we at UK Film Review take a look at the man, the myth, the maker; we look at Guillermo del Toro and consider his career thus far.
From an early age del Toro, despite being raised in a strict Catholic environment, had a wild imagination. Aged 8 he began making weird and wonderful super 8 short films, including a film about a megalomaniac killer potato. This early love of the fantastical, the odd and, yes, the dark, was arguably the best platform for del Toro’s long established motifs. Indeed del Toro’s work has constantly altered but the director’s loves and trademarks (insectoid creatures/machines, intricate steampunk-esque devices and religious imagery) are always there to remind you of whose art you are viewing. Monsters, creatures and other dark entities have always been a part of del Toro’s life, so naturally would make it into his work. The director studied at Guadalajara’s Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos and his budding work in short films and writing was also furthered by his 10 years of experience in make-up and special effects. In this time he worked alongside Academy Award winning make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Amadeus, Scanners). This experience aided his short film work no end and it is hardly a surprise that the talented young filmmaker was soon noticed.
Even before making his cinematic feature-length debut in 1993, del Toro had amassed a back catalogue of numerous short films (many of which haven’t since been shown) but with Doña Lupe (1985) and Geometría (1987) early signs of del Toro’s directorial evolution were there to be seen. Both shorts had troubled productions and journeys to the screen, which later became a consistent issue in the production of certain del Toro projects and del Toro’s pursuit for realizing his visions was already a motivating factor for the young filmmaker. So in 1993, with the vampiric Horror Cronos, Guillermo del Toro would make his big screen debut and the Mexican genre film was a well-received treat. A clever film with style, violence and some of the aforementioned themes that would act as trademarks for his later films, Cronos was a striking debut feature. The film saw a strange clockwork/living insect device that could grant eternal life, resurface 400 years after it was created and in the process cause gruesome mayhem. Starring the respected Argentinian actor Federico Luppi and also marking the first of many collaborations with actor/friend Ron Perlman (who took a pay cut to help complete the film), Cronos remains one of the vampire sub-genre’s most well cast, unique and stylish offerings. The movies’ effects were provided by del Toro’s own FX company (a result of his learning of the industry) Necropia and despite going over budget (resulting in some financial issues), del Toro completed the film and would gain attention quickly.
Hollywood had already offered to buy the rights to remake Cronos, which del Toro jokingly replied with, "Who wants to see Jack Lemmon lick blood off a bathroom floor?” However American cinema would soon come calling again, as Miramax Films gave del Toro a big budget (or at least far bigger than what he had worked with up until this point) of $30 million to work with on his next film, the dark creature feature Sci-Fi/Horror Mimic. What should have been a time of excitement became one of heartache however, as del Toro’s father Frederico was kidnapped and held to ransom, del Toro’s family under immense pressure paid the increased amount for his safe release but the traumatic event would urge del Toro’s family to move to the United States. As upsetting as the event was, it didn’t stop this directorial prowess from ushering in his first major American motion picture in 1997.
In the grand scheme of things, Mimic is often seen as a lesser work from del Toro but the film, despite not being released the way the director had wanted (until 2011’s Director’s Cut Blu-Ray that is), was another interesting piece of work from the filmmaker and further embellished his beloved themes. The film starred Mira Sorvino as a doctor who aims to stop a disease spread by cockroaches by creating a mutant insect that can kill them. This mutant is engineered to last only one generation but something obviously goes wrong, as they have survived and evolved. Financially it fell short of its budget (an unfortunate trend that has plagued other del Toro projects) but attained a cult following for its dark and creeping story and ideas, so much so the film inspired two (unlinked) straight to disc sequels. Mimic was not an outstanding mainstream debut for del Toro but it would be his first step in becoming a big name in international cinema.
Before that point, del Toro would go to a very personal place for his next project, in fact his next project was inspired by his own experiences with his uncle. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is a Spanish Horror/Drama and was the culmination of an idea that del Toro had developed over 16 years (he wrote the film in college). As already stated the film came from a personal place for the director, as well as drawing inspiration from Japanese Horror and many rank the ghostly picture as one of the director’s finest features. Backed by iconic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almòdovar, The Devil’s Backbone was set during the Spanish Civil war as 12 year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) loses his father to the conflict and is relocated to an orphanage, that he discovers holds many dark and haunted secrets. The film would go onto receive- at that point- the greatest reviews of any of del Toro’s work and would later come to be the prelude to a film that cemented the Director’s place in dark fantasy cinema.
However before that point would arrive del Toro would get behind the camera to make his first ever film that was adapted from an existing property. Though ironically, this film would introduce his original approaches to a wider audience. Blade II was the follow-up film to the Wesley Snipes led adaptation of the Marvel comics’ character in 1998. It was a massive change of speed for the director with a hip-hop heavy soundtrack and kinetic action-drenched R-Rated pacing. European vampires (specifically Nosferatu’s Count Orlock), folklore and the mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes all influenced the vampiric characters, as did del Toro’s own designs, adding even more distinctive touches. And while reviews were mixed, audiences have cited this as the very best adaptation of Blade ever made. They responded well to the excitingly choreographed fights and the unique and violent story which saw Blade (Snipes) begrudgingly team with the vampire council to face off against ‘the reapers’- a breed of vampire that fed on vampires. This would not be del Toro’s last brush with the fanged fiends, as years later he would write The Strain Trilogy (2009-11) with Chuck Hogan and both would bring the books to the TV screen in the FX series The Strain (2014-now). Blade II gave del Toro’s name more of a mainstream punch than Mimic did, making three times its budget.
In 2004, del Toro would try his hand at adapting another superhero property, although as we all know del Toro is not one to go the safe route and his chosen hero would be dark, different and devilish. Dark Horse Comics character Hellboy was a hard sell to a majority audience (at that point used to more flamboyant heroes) and as such the film surpassed its budget but not in convincing fashion. That being said the reviews for del Toro’s Hellboy were positive and went on to amass a strong following. Starring Ron Perlman as big red himself, alongside the likes of del Toro regular Doug Jones, Selma Blair and John Hurt, the cast was as diverse as the highly innovative onscreen creatures. Like Blade II, Hellboy incorporated action set pieces with creative visuals and thus stood out from standard genre fare. The plot saw a highly ambitious young agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) recruited to the secretive Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, made up of unique creatures that acted as paranormal problem solvers. The lead problem solver was Hellboy, a demon rescued from the Nazis in WWII and raised to fight evil and he would face the ultimate evil in the resurrected Rasputin (Karel Roden). Working with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, del Toro refused attempts to alter the character by the studio and both he and Mignola’s top choice for the lead was immediately Perlman. The project may not have lit the box office on fire but it had cemented del Toro’s omnipotence in the realm of the fantastical, which would neatly lead to his most acclaimed film in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
A rare instance of foreign language film achieving crossover popular fame, del Toro’s return to Spanish-language cinema would yield what many still call his masterpiece. Considered by the director himself as the “younger sister” to The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth was a spellbinding adult Fantasy again motivated by personal passion, del Toro even gave up his entire salary to ensure the film was completed (regularly turning down Hollywood offers to double the budget, so as not to alter the story to meet perceived populist tastes). Set in falangist Spain of 1944, the film focused on a young imaginative girl called Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who escapes the brutal reality of her ruthless falangist officer Stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López) by escaping into an unusual fantasy world. The narrative was filled with violent acts, penetrated by harsh but strangely beautiful imagination, both aspects married together to tell a moving story of sacrifice, war and empowerment. Starring tantalizing creatures- most famously Doug Jones’ Faun and Pale Man- this was a memorable and magical experience that was lined with powerful themes. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received a 22-minute standing ovation, before going onto win 3 of its 6 nominated Academy Awards in 2007. Making $83 million on a $19 million budget, Pan’s Labyrinth is the fifth highest grossing foreign feature of all time. Pan’s Labyrinth elevated del Toro to the top of the fantasy field and he has remained there ever since.
Since leaving the Labyrinth, the Mexican filmmaker would continue his side works in production, acting as executive producer in J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) and creative producer in animated Hellboy tales Blood and Stone and Iron Shoes. This neatly led to del Toro’s return, through sheer determination (he turned down the chance to direct the then in the works Peter Jackson backed film adaptation of Halo for the chance to return) to his live-action feature-length sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). The film would mark his first and (until the day Pacific Rim 2 comes along) only ever time making a sequel to his own work. In this sequel he amplified the creativity of the first movie to an unbelievable scale- as clear by the Troll Market scene alone created through sets and prosthetics. The film saw Hellboy (Perlman) and Liz’s (Blair) relationship deepened and alongside amphibious co-worker Abe (Jones), the group was challenged by the threat of an embittered prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who tired of the truce with man. During production Sony had abandoned the film, believing Hellboy to lack profit making elements but Universal stepped in and the film nearly doubled its $85 million budget, it was no match for other superhero capers that year- Iron Man, The Dark Knight- but offered an alternative and as such strengthened and expanded its following, who to this day are still asking, pleading and just desperate for a sequel (as are many of the crew).
After another well received work, del Toro’s workload unsurprisingly increased, as he would act as executive producer of oddball Horror Splice (2009) and paternal ghost story Mama (2013), as well as producing and/or writing projects like Guillem Morales dark mystery Horror Julias Eyes (2010) and Troy Nixey’s remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011). He would also act as creative consultant and/or producer on some major studio animated productions including Puss in Boots (2011), Rise of the Guardians (2012) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011). However in this period del Toro was heavily involved in the making of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy, involved writing the films and for long enough was directing the then two-part adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s famed Fantasy. However financial issues and delays with MGM and the team, led to del Toro dropping out as Director in 2010- a position Peter Jackson would take over for the newly announced trilogy. However del Toro’s next film was a vast departure from the pitter patter of hairy feet and indeed from many of the Fantasy features for which he had made himself a big directorial power. In 2013, del Toro would return with Pacific Rim, an action heavy manga influenced monster movie that relished the designs of anime and kaiju cinema that del Toro had witnessed over his years.
The film saw an unspecified future devastated by an invading race of monstrous kaiju’s from beneath the seas, until man fought back by building Jaegers (huge mecha-suits operated by two pilots sharing a psychological link) to do battle with the kaijus. The film is centered on ex-Jaeger pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) who is forced to return to help the ailing Jaeger program, led by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), on a go for broke operation to save the world. Along with Travis Beacham, del Toro wrote the film in the vein of a mecha or kaiju film, drawing inspiration from Francisco Goya’s The Colossus too. This was a project squarely aimed as a loving homage and with its IMAX 3D sequences and scale based machine vs. monster scraps, this was a departure from del Toro’s other work in terms of scope and content. Thus, the film drew some mixed (though still positive) responses, and while struggling a tad domestically, worldwide numbers boosted the film to successful box office status, making the sequel a go, which, Del Toro assures, is soon upcoming.
And with that comment on the future we arrive in the now, as del Toro’s newest feature- and return to his gothic and haunting roots- Crimson Peak, is in cinemas now. The film is del Toro’s answer to the 70s style old fashioned ghost story with stylistic lashings of Hammer Horror and Italian giallo thrown in for good measure. The film tells the story of author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who falls for and weds Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). The two move in together at his old mansion home, however all is far from well with this place and worse still Sharpe and his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) might just know more than they are letting on. The film has drawn mostly positive reviews, with critics calling Peak a gorgeously dressed and assembled (the sets were all built from scratch) film that is far removed from what fills modern multiplexes. Sadly this has shown, as the film has flopped next to other more openly conventional (and less ambitious) fare.
In many ways this typifies Guillermo del Toro, he is not the man that helms the cash machine breaker, nor the guy that busts blocks regularly but nor does he want to be. Looking back through Guillermo del Toro’s career and life, we can see a consistency that remains. Be he successful or not, del Toro has never made a lazy film, with each passing project he puts a piece of himself on the screen, be it the personal experiences found within The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth or the influences of Pacific Rim. You always know when you have seen a del Toro movie but at the same time you don’t always know what to expect from one. He is a director who does not sacrifice creativity for cash or passion for payment and as a result he is a modern day cinematic mind that will continue to flourish and tick before our gaze and in turn will likely never cease to amaze us all.
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