The great Guillermo del Toro talks about his magnificent Gothic ghost story.
At the climax of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the director conducts a prolonged fight scene atop a system of giant golden cogs. He is fascinated by cogs. And machinery. He says so in interviews. So, from this we can infer an attraction to the rational, a guy who is becalmed by mechanical logic. And yet, his movies are packed full of monsters, ghouls, apparitions and creatures of unspecified origin.
From this we can also infer an attraction to the irrational, a man who sees a world that exists beyond the physical realm. This ideological conflict is what earns del Toro his status as one of the greats. His latest film, Crimson Peak, again combines his abiding obsessions, a story about a macabre clash between the past and the future, modernity and archaism, the realm of the living and that of the dearly departed.
Crimson Peak sees young, bespectacled damsel, Edith (played by Mia Wasikowska), romantically drawn to the English bounder and upstart mining magnate, Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is never seen without his unsmiling sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), by his side. The three depart from the beating heart of the industrial revolution in Boston to the foggy hills of Cumbria, England and a dilapidated country house known by the locals as ʻCrimson Peakʼ on account of the blood-red clay upon which it sits and into which it is slowly subsiding.
Del Toro has namechecked a number of Gothic literary masterworks as his touchstones: ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Rebecca’. It also completes an unofficial trilogy of movies which began with 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone and continued with 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. LWLies chatted with del Toro back in August when he was putting the finishing touches on Crimson Peak.
LWLies: You are over in LA now. Are you finishing up the film, or is it all done?
Del Toro: No, no, I finished the movie literally last week. Itʼs a movie that I have been finishing more than any other movie Iʼve ever done.
Do you have a finite amount of time where you can actually polish a movie?
Well, normally I’m delivering the movie in the nick of time, like a few weeks before it opens. But in this instance, because I finished shooting in October 2014, I’ve had almost a year to tweak it and I spent more time in the edit suite correcting the colour of the movie and the cinematography and doing the final touches. So I became quite obsessed with the movie. It became almost unhealthy.
Were we to see the unadorned footage that you shot compared to the finished product, would there be anything recognisable there?
Oh yes, yes. Listen, the fact is the raw footage looked gorgeous because I always say, the look of a movie is a table of four legs. One is of course cinematography, but the other three are wardrobe, set production design and direction. And I think they are indivisible. You cannot have great cinematography with a bad set. Or terrible costumes. We designed the sets and we specifically designed where the windows were going to be, what the light sources were going to be, and the colour palette of the walls. So the raw footage looks very beautiful, but then we go through months and months of tweaking because I worked with two colours that are very elusive: one is gold, and the other one is cyan. And you know, if you missed the mark a little on cyan, you’ve gone to complete blue or complete green. If you miss the mark with gold, you end up with reddish orange, or you end up with greenish yellow. I don’t know why my life has been like this, but I always work in those two colours and it takes months to get them to the place I want them to be.
Are there digital cameras that capture those colours to your satisfaction?
Yes. But what I find is that if you’re aiming for, say, the look of a more conventional historical period movie, it would be much better to do it with film, because it tends to be softer and it lends itself really beautifully to sort of pastel hue, the desaturation and stuff like that. I’ve been experimenting a lot with over saturation in the colours. Pacific Rim was all about that I wanted to make the colours in this movie very saturated. In some instances, my cinematographer and I jokingly said, ‘Let’s try to get Technicolor on camera’. We were using lights that were very magenta on the set and other were very purple, and I wanted to make a movie that didn’t feel desaturated or pastel like most period movies. And therefore, digital was the way to go with this.
I’m not quite sure how I would describe this form of cinematography, but the interior scenes recalled those in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Yes, you’re absolutely right in the sense that I talked about what is called one source lighting, which means that most of the light in an interior scene came from a large window. And you get this full, almost painterly effect.
It looks stunning.
We also did a lot of shots by candlelight, but with the advantage of having to force the optical, or not having to force depth of field like they did with Barry Lyndon. For example, one scene that creates a beautiful atmosphere is in the ballroom, the waltz scene. We did it mostly with the existing lights, we worked with a light fixture that was very large and mounted above the eye-line of the camera. And that was it. It was almost like the conditions of creating a painting.
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The waltz sequence, which involves a candle not being blown out, even maybe a direct reference to Barry Lyndon.
It was, it was. Curiously, it’s one of my favourite Kubrick films. I like the Kubrick that nobody likes. I love Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon.
I think it’s cool to like Eyes Wide Shut now.
Oh, that’s very good. I feel like the guy who wore bell bottom pants long enough that they came back around. But I love them because I think the sense of space and time that Barry Lyndon exhibits is unique, and I did a detailed study the fabrics and the colour. Crimson Peak tries to tell the story of a girl who is born at the edge of modernity. Boston is the most electrified city in the world. They have lightbulbs, they have steam trains, they have everything that is modern. That feeling of modernity is created by the first part of the movie being colour coded into gold, sepia and tobacco. And it’s really saturated, rich and golden. She travels to the Old World, which is all this very creepy cyan and greenish gold. That journey is told, for me, as much through the visuals as it is through the writing.
When you’re watching movies by other directors, do you find that they are as attuned to the importance of something like colour as you seem to be?
A lot of people are! There is a thing that I jokingly call ‘eye protein’, which is not to create eye candy but to create something with a little substance to it that helps tell the story. I was watching a movie with one of my daughters and I started to tell her, ‘Pay attention to how the straight lines and the colour blue’, because I knew the movie a little bit and she started seeing it and she said, ‘Oh my god’, that’s red and now it’s, she started reading it as a painting and enjoy it on another level. You know, my two kids are very good illustrators and we have huge discussions about colour and composition when we watch the movies. Some people are very conscious of that colour, how they’ve used it to tell the story, and how they use it to advance the story dramatically. But what is very beautiful is to tell them, ‘Look, storytelling can be done in a purely visual fashion’. One colour that I am very particular about is obviously the red, because the only thing that, all the reds in the movie, which are very very few, all lead to the same past, to the ghosts, to the crime and the passion and the secrets of Crimson Peak.
How did you decide on the shade of red in Crimson Peak? To me it looked to me like ‘Hammer red’.
That’s a great way of naming it, because Hammer did use a particular colour of blood that has a lot of photo fluid liquid in it. It was one of the nicest bloods ever put on film. And because of Hammer being what they were, they used it liberally. I would loved to have called it that, but we did have 30 swatches of colour, and we made sure that we could replicate the colour digitally, physically and using different materials. Some of the floor needed to be painted with waxes and some of the liquids needed to ooze, so we found a way to replicate it everywhere, and red is a really brutal colour because its very voracious. Even the most subtle red burns and obliterate everything else. I mean, I did a movie, two movies, where the protagonist was a red demon. I do know how voracious this colour is.
It’s weird actually, watching this, I was thinking that it’s so rare to see red in a movie that’s not in a symbolic fashion.
It needed to be in the right combination, because red, as you know is never purely red. You can have a bluish red, orange red, red that is more rust colour, and we made many mixes and tested it under every light. When you put red under a blue light, it’s going to become sort of brownish. And we needed to find ways to light the ghosts so the red would remain. It was an interesting experiment. I was trying to make that red the past. To have that past seep through the floor, seep through the snow and reveal its true nature. Crime never stays hidden in classic romance.
Do you see this as the first part of a trilogy that started with The Devil’s Backbone and continued with Pan’s Labyrinth?
It is very much of a piece with them. I wanted to try and do an adult movie in English, because after doing Mimic, I decided I would do my pulp, youngish, light movies in English and do adult stuff in Spanish. Because I had such a bad experience doing that movie. I honest to god was hoping to make a great, giant insect movie and it was very disappointing to find out that the studio had other plans. Unfortunately for me with Legendary and Universal, they gave me creative freedom and they just said, ‘look we got to stay on a budget because we don’t want you to make it incredibly expensive.’ So we were very smart and very frugal with how we made the movie look bigger than it really is.
“In most Gothic romances, the dark brooding hero is proven innocent of all the charges. I wanted to make a movie where he is guilty, he’s complicit.”
Talking of Mimic, on the credits it says that this was co-written by Matthew Robbins. Is this the first time you guys have collaborated since that movie?
No, we actually have co-written about 10 screenplays or so. And we’ve been collaborating on things have not gotten made, or we co-wrote a movie we produced called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I love Matthew and he’s a dear friend. And we wrote this in 2006, and very much did is for ourselves. And you know, I just wanted to embrace Gothic romance which is a side of filmmaking that I don’t see enough anymore. I really miss that genre. It’s a very cagey genre because if you go expecting pure romance, there’s a lot of human and emotional darkness in it. But if you go expecting a straight horror movie, it’s more atmospheric than it is purely scary. It’s a genre that is harder to market.
I found to be an overwhelmingly sad and melancholic film. Is it maybe too sad to be a horror movie? And do you feel horror movies can be sad?
Most of the stories that I have directed or produced, be it The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth or The Orphanage or many, many others, for me, the beauty of horror is that the movies talk about loss. And they are poetic about that loss. The ending of The Orphanage or the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth make it sort of beautiful. But with Crimson Peak, the ending is very sad and beautiful, but is not at all a happy ending. I was really affected when I was young by a phrase by Henry James, where he said that, you know, ghosts are ultimately the past. And a Gothic romance is about how you are paralysed and you cannot move into the future unless you can solve the past. And I thought it was a very smart analysis, and of course the past is about things that you have lost. It’s not things that are with you, really. And I wanted to make the movie a very melancholic movie where even if you make the villains terrifying and you really make them do horrible things, you almost – if I’ve done my job right – love them, you almost feel for them.
I think this is your most tragic movie.
Yeah, because the movie is about love. I mean, I know this sounds silly to verbalise, but for me the movie is about many types of love. The love of a father, which is very possessive, even if it’s well intentioned. I think that the love of the mother and the father of Thomas and Lucille, which is horrifying, and is encapsulated by that scene where Lucille has the monologue about her mother feeding the porridge to Edith. Or the love of Lucille for Thomas, which is suffocating and then the love of Edith, which is almost all-forgiving and ultimately beautiful.
It is blind. In most Gothic romances, the dark brooding hero is proven innocent of all the charges. And I wanted very much to make a movie where he is guilty, he’s complicit. And yet, the love is still there. You can still love that person. And for me the idea of the movie is what Lucille says: ‘Love makes monsters of us all’.
Pacific Rim is very affirmative about love and the union of souls. This is almost the opposite side of the coin. It’s very pessimistic.
It’s curious because what I wanted to do, and you can see me quoted on pre-production interviews saying this, I wanted to make an anti-romantic romance. I wanted to make a movie about a girl becoming her own person. I wanted to show that she doesn’t need a dashing hero and that she doesn’t need to depend on love to be strong. And it’s very much a movie where I try to take the damsel in distress through all the distress I can until she becomes a damsel no more and starts kicking ass. I wanted to make a movie about butterflies and moths, where the butterfly is seen as a beautiful, useless little object, but fragile little butterfly turns out to be made of steel.
I can’t recall ever seeing a character like Lucille in your films before.
Well, I never loved a bad guy as much as I love Lucille. That’s the reality. I adore Lucille. She is my favourite character of the movie in many ways. Because I understand her point of view. I know she’s horribly wrong, but I can see her being a character that thought she was doing right. When Jessica and I, we always came to her through great sympathy and great love. There is a passage in a Thomas Harris novel, I think it was ‘Red Dragon’, where he was talking about a serial killer and he said, the reason that he kills her is because he is too shy to talk to his victims. I thought that was really interesting, because you always get a serial killer presented as super powerful, and I thought, isn’t it interesting that she is a shy girl. She’s actually a damaged, a dog that has been whipped too many times. My heart goes to her and my heart goes out to Thomas. And I think a good Gothic romance needs you to fall in love with the bad guys, even more than the good guys. If you remember Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, the protagonist doesn’t even have a name, and the most salient character that you remember is Mrs Danvers, the house keeper.
I have never read the novel of ‘Rebecca’, but it’s probably my least favourite Hitchcock.
It was the one Hitchcock where the Selznick tampered with him, you know. Selznick really got in the way of Hitchcock doing a purely Hitchcockian film. But it has, I think, a strange attraction for me. Now I think Hitchcock does sort of an American Gothic, if you will. You think of Shadow of a Doubt you remember Uncle Charlie as the most salient character. In the same way, in Hitchcock, the villain is the key. You remember Bruno in Strangers on a Train. I think that Hitchcock was very influenced by the Gothic romance sensibility, beyond Rebecca and beyond Jamaica Inn. I think his love of Gothic romance was at work in his silent films too.
Even in Psycho and Notorious, there are Gothic elements.
One hundred per cent. I mean the poisoning of Ingrid Bergman, the whole crumbling house in Psycho, and the fact that all Gothic romance needs to be tied to a building. It’s key to reinterpret Psycho as a piece of Gothic. And I think that’s what was fascinating about his American career, that he was able to bring this very old world pulse to the telling of very modern, American stories.
One of the things I don’t like about Rebecca is where it moves away from Joan Fontaine’s perspective about two-thirds in, and then you see the rest of the story from various perspectives. I like the fact that in Crimson Peak it is all told from Edith’s perspective.
Yeah, I think that we cut away from Edith only two times, really. But other than that, it’s not a mystery where you’re going to find a postmodern twist. Oh, they’re all dead! Or she was dead, and she’s a ghost! None of that. It’s a mystery in a very quaint, very classic way. She’s going to need to decipher the clues and, during the course of the movie, the character of the ghosts, the way you see them, changes. Like they did in The Devil’s Backbone.
This film is more in the vein of Jean Cocteau, James Whale, Eyes Without A Face, and all these more melancholy fairy tale horror films rather than something that’s out-and-out brutal like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
I’m more attracted to the visuals of horror than I am attracted to the trappings of horror. I really want to make movies where, hopefully, you understand that the darkest and the brightest thing we have is humanity, and I feel that the only difference between a fairytale and a Gothic romance is that in a fairy tale you need to work with more extremes. Like the Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth. He relates a little to Lucille, but he’s a much darker character, he’s much more villainous. He takes pride in his brutality.
Do you think it’s because Lucille is a woman that you couldn’t make her as vile as the Captain?
Very much so. I think that fascism is very much a masculine expression. Fascists are basically enamoured with daddy’s dick, they are all so taken with being male. And it’s all about the strength of the many and unity before a fatherland. It’s really quite creepy. And the soul of Lucille is ultimately a soul I understand more. Lucille is selfless, where as I think fascism is an incredibly egotistic cult. It is the cult of everyone being the supreme male. And fascists are not very nuanced, I find.
I can’t imagine the term sacrifice would come up in fascism, unless it was some kind of blood sacrifice of someone else.
Mostly involving the sacrifice of others.
Who doesn’t want to be sacrificed.
I come from a country where that machismo is enacted in so many brutal ways everyday.
Disney have lately been very successful with live action remakes of classic Disney movies. Things like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Will you make one of these?
Well, I wrote and designed Beauty and the Beast for Warner Brothers, and it pains me that we are not able to do it, because it’s one of the few times I have been typing and weeping at the same time. But, I’m also pursuing the possibility of doing a stop-animation Pinocchio set during the rise of Fascism in Italy. I am actively pursuing these things. But you know, the fact is, people ask, ‘Why do you choose to do this over this?’ You don’t choose. A career mostly is the clash between what you want to do and what you can finance. It was not easy to finance this movie. The market is by definition very conservative and it’s very hard to get them made. For example, for Crimson Peak, I have to give off about 30 per cent of my salary, and change entirely the way that we approach the deal and make the movie. They gave me a hard line – they said this is the cutoff point of the budget and if you go beyond, it comes out of your pocket. And I have to accept these terms. Whereas if we were making a superhero movie, the terms would be much more relaxed. Or if we were making Crimson Peak as a PG-13, they would have given me more money. But I refused it. I felt the movie needed to be an adult movie.
What do you mean by ‘adult movie’?
That it doesn’t deliver the giggle-giggle elbow nudging thrills of a movie where you roar and you’re throwing popcorn and grabbing each other’s arms. It’s a movie that has a very beautiful but very dark soul. And I think it needed to be adult in its concerns. It is about adult emotions. Love has a dark side that needs to exist. And you need to accept it.
Have you ever found a satisfying definition of the term ‘ghost’ in art, literature or film? Something that you find meaningful?
Well, I must say I’m very proud of the definition I created in The Devil’s Backbone, where they say that ghost is an insect in amber, a thing left pending, an awful sealed thing, you know. Like a photograph, like the loop of a movie. I also love very much the Nigel Kneale idea in that BBC movie The Stone Tap, where he says that basically they can be a loop recorded by the house. And it’s very much Nigel’s theory where he says, whether it’s the minerals in the stone or the earth underneath, a house can record something and repeat it. And I think that’s a very interesting theory. I have experienced two ghost encounters in my life and contrary to what people might believe, I’m really a skeptic. I don’t want to believe, and yet two times I have heard ghostly, disembodied voices, very, very clearly. And they were very scary at the time.
Can I ask when that was?
The most terrifying one was in New Zealand. We were scouting locations for The Hobbit, and we came to a hotel in a place called Waitomo, and I had read that there was an old hotel which had a haunted room. It was off-season, and the hotel was closed and they opened it just for me and my group of scouts. It was just eight people. And I foolishly said, ‘Can I get the haunted room?’ I got the haunted room. And in the middle of the night I heard a murder being committed in the room. A woman shrieking for about five minutes, horrible blood curdling shrieks. And then a man sobbing and sighing with great regret. And I was not in the middle of séance, and it wasn’t a stormy night. It was a very nice night and I was watching The Wire on DVD. It was completely inauspicious conditions for a ghost apparition.
And it definitely wasn’t a ruse by the hotel owners?
Oh, no, the hotel owners were actually very disinterested in us. Actually, they were really pissed off that we made them open the hotel.
As someone who is interested in this literary world of ghosts and as someone whose job it is to invent how people would react to a situation like that, what was your reaction?
Well it lasted for about a good five to 10 minutes, and the crying lasted for another 10 minutes. And I was able to actually track the sounds to the bathroom. I tracked them to a vent above the toilet which went down into he cellar. And when I heard it was coming from there, I very cowardly proceeded to put my earphones and listen to The Wire on DVD. I didn’t sleep at all that night.