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Guillermo del Toro: make-up, monsters and those fucking pavlovas

“I’m a 22-year-old who’s been making films all my life – how can I get a job on the Hobbit?” Towards the end of a remarkable two hours with Guillermo del Toro, this question got a remarkably friendly answer from the 44-year-old Mexican who has made seven movies and who’s getting ready to make his next two in Wellington.

The “evening with Guillermo” was a fund-raiser to help two young Wellington filmmakers, director Sam Kelly and producer Bonnie Slater, finance their first feature One for the Road. Jonathan King, director of Black Sheep and the upcoming Under the Mountain asked the questions – about half of those he had prepared, one suspects – and del Toro answered, openly, honestly and in great and humorous detail.

“It’s not going to be that hard,” said del Toro. “It’s getting to be such an enormous production.” He’s not able to look at scripts or treatments, but he’s “more than happy to look at design portfolios or storyboards or short films.” For two of his features, he says he hired storyboarders who had never worked on films before.

You could feel the 400 people in his young audience getting hopeful.

Earlier he told them: “You have to will your career to happen, but if anything goes wrong and you desist, it was not meant to be. So you can never give up.”

Del Toro was sitting in a black leather armchair alongside the screen at the Paramount Cinema in Wellington where occasional questions were fed to him by Jonathan King. They came on stage 35 minutes after the advertised starting time, not that anyone was complaining, and Del Toro stopped talking over two hours (less a 20-minute break) later, to loud and long applause.

He was modest and forthright and funny and a great teller of stories and prolific user of four-letter words.

The first film he saw was Wuthering Heights. He was four, and went to sleep on his mother’s lap. He awoke to see a gothic storm sequence, which freaked him out so he went back to sleep. The first movie that he fell in love with was Planet of the Apes, which led to painful experiments with creature makeup.

Like his Hobbit producer Peter Jackson, he began filmmaking with a Super 8 camera which was owned by his techno-geek dad. “I started doing little films with my toys … Never again have I felt the thrill of those first projected images on a screen in my home.” He categorized his early short films as “stinky and crappy.” And “all you can expect from short films is learning.” However one of his “crappy” shorts is to be released by Criterion next year on a bluray dvd with his first feature Cronos. “It’s crappy but I have an affection for it.”

He broke into the film business by charging nothing for doing special FX on other people’s movies. Then he worked professionally on 12 features over eight years before he got financing for Cronos. The reluctant Mexican government funders told him his feature would never screen in festivals and would never win any awards. It was selected for Cannes, won there and went on to collect another 30 awards. He remembers the names of those who had no faith in him. (“In Mexico, genre films were looked on as steaming piles of excrement.”)

After Cronos he went to Hollywood, needing to pay off a quarter million dollars of personal debt from his first film. “Being a Mexican filmmaker in Hollywood was not hip at all.” After four years he made “the wrong decision for the right reasons” by accepting an American movie for which the script was still being written during post-production.

He went to Spain to set up his third feature, The Devil’s Backbone. He wanted a ghost that was beautiful … “who becomes a fragile, pitiful creature. The designers wanted it to be a rotting corpse. I said no – it’s a soul. And then we made him translucent. . . . I don’t agree that monsters should be ugly. They can be gorgeous.”

Del Toro believes that what is truly evil should look nice. “I’m so scared of people who think they’re right. I’ll tell you what I think. But I won’t tell you that I’m right. If anyone tells you he knows the truth – run away. Politicians have made an art of that – pieces of shit in great suits.” You can tell why the audience loved him.

He wanted The Devil’s Backbone to be produced by Pedro Almodovar, who told him he didn’t know how to combine a war film and a ghost film “but I trust you.” The film did well in Spain “but elsewhere it was a blip on the radar.” A year later he was back in Hollywood making Blade II with Wesley Snipes, followed quickly by Hellboy.

He sees his first Spanish film as a companion piece to his Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth, also made in Spain. “They echo each other. They make a spectral third movie. A poem.” They are his two favourites. Plus Hellboy.

“Everything went wrong” during the shooting of Pan’s Labyrinth. He lost a lot of weight from the stress, and ended up much slimmer than he is now – “those fucking pavlovas.”

And what of The Hobbit? “I’ve been on it for a year and a half. I’ve been living in Wellington for a year. We design and design and design. I really feel supported. Working with Richard at Weta is an honour. None of us ever stops at the right moment – we keep going till we get toothache.”

Design must follow the needs of the story. “Anyone at Weta will tell you I insist on this. You don’t screw with the form in itself – the form must be the content. Never take a step [in design] till you’ve figured out what it must say.” He’ll be aiming for the best combination of real physical components and CG. “There’s very little room to push the envelope but for that little that is left we intend to push the envelope.”

He may write an online production diary. “The secrecy of the designs must be preserved. But we’ll be as open as the tale can take. . .” The man who tells stories to his two daughters when he’s at home says that “film is an act of magic. For kids who want to study it, you have to show them where you hid the rabbit. But not before the film is completed. You mustn’t spoil the magic.” He’ll find this difficult. “I’m the worst person at keeping secrets.”

His audience wanted him to keep on talking. Frankenstein is one of his three favourite monsters. (“We are doing makeup tests … I would do it like no other Frankenstein movie has ever done.”) He’s written 20 screenplays. We would have stayed to hear about all of them.

The point of the evening was to raise money for a film. It would be nice to hope that the creators of One for the Road don’t repeat del Toro’s experience of ending up a quarter of a million in debt at the end of their debut feature. If you want to help them avoid that fate, call Bonnie on 021 409915 or by email.

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