MOTW: Inside the Imaginarium of Guillermo del Toro

July 9th, 2013

MOTW: Inside the Imaginarium of Guillermo del Toro

Delving into the unconventional, yet focused and very productive, imagination of the celebrated filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is not for the faint of heart. After all, this is the man who used to celebrate Halloween by professionally applying makeup-an art he learned under the legendary Dick Smith of "The Exorcist" fame-to make himself look like a zombie and adopting a method approach to the role by leaving the candy at home and throwing himself totally into character: staggering around the neighborhood, grabbing at passersby, and terrifying kids. Obviously, what he brings to the screen is going to be an approximate translation of what's in his head.

Guillermo del Toro is the Mexican-born writer, director, and producer behind some of Hollywood's biggest horror and fantasy hits over the last two decades. He wrote "Hellboy" and "The Devil's Backbone" and directed "Blade II" and "Mimic." He led almost every stage of development for "Pan's Labyrinth," and for good measure, he even choreographed the fight scenes in "Hellboy," for which he earned a stunt credit. Over a career that has stretched across nearly thirty years, he's worked in just about every capacity, from makeup and assistant editor to executive producer on such films as "Puss in Boots" and "Rise of the Guardians."

Most kids born in the Western world after around 1940 or so grew up with science fiction and horror movies on as part of the background noise. While the majority of these kids seem to have let those early exposures roll right off their backs, some fraction of the audience, especially among the kids, always take the entire thing seriously and assign these influences a weight out of all proportion. Guillermo del Toro seems to have been that one-in-a-hundred kid. His first taste of the world of monsters and ghouls came from watching the renowned Mexican wrestlers Santo and The Blue Demon, whose elaborate costumes and over-the-top antics brought a theatrical touch and a sense of fantasy to the sport. Later, it would be classic movie monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula that would craft the young Guillermo del Toro's view of the macabre.

Another shaping influence was found in popular Spanish-language magazines such as "Tradiciones y Leyendas de la Colonia," which explored the folklore of the early Spanish settlements in the New World. The stories in these magazines were heavily reimagined retellings of old stories that were notable for their evocative and hard-edged take on the human condition. One of the more famous stories has crossed over into the English-speaking world as "la Llorona," the story of a mother who, spurned by her soldier lover, decides to kill their two young children and whose punishment is to haunt the night crying for them. The influence of such tales is most evident in del Toro's early works, "Cronos" and "The Devil's Backbone" in particular.

Hollywood hasn't always been del Toro's primary creative residence. His early work was largely done in his home country, mostly for Mexican television. As a clue to the sort of mindset behind his decade as a successful makeup artist, the production company he founded during this time went by the name "Necropia." He seems to have become the go-to guy for gore, always turning in an imaginative twist on old themes by incorporating insect imagery, sly religious references, and the liberal use of the color amber, perhaps as an homage to amber's ability to petrify insects and other creepy crawlies.

These themes emerged in an even stronger way when del Toro agreed to work with Mira Sorvino on the 1997 American film "Mimic." Del Toro directed the film in addition to sharing a writer's credit, and the dark, monstrous atmosphere of the film can largely be traced to his influence on it. The same trademark desperation of an off-kilter humanity that could learn a thing or two from monsters was later to be applied to "Blade II," which marked Guillermo del Toro's successful return to major Hollywood productions, as well as to 2004's "Hellboy," which the director wanted badly enough to pass up other opportunities to direct "Blade: Trinity" and "AVP: Alien vs. Predator."

Guillermo del Toro is the modern film industry's equivalent of an outside artist. He came to the industry three decades ago with a lot of ideas and a fresh perspective on how to realize them. After a long apprenticeship in the trenches of behind-the-scenes work, del Toro emerged, one could say insect-like, as one of the most vivid and original craftsmen in the industry. His work continues and will no doubt serve to influence the next one-in-a-hundred kid with big dreams and a thing for centipedes.