GUILLERMO DEL TOROS A-MAZE-ING MYTHOLOGY
Guillermo del Toros amazing gift for fantasy, known to and appreciated by Hellboy and Devils Backbone fans, reaches new heights in Pans Labyrinth, a film in which this brilliant cinematic auteur catapults the horror genre into the realm of mythology.
Set in rural Spain in 1944, just after the civil war that left Franco in power, the film follows Ofelia (the phenomenal Ivana Banquero), an 11-year-old who enters a fantasy world to escape the harshness of real life with her pregnant, critically ill mother (Ariadna Gil) and her stepfather, a sadistic fascist captain (Sergi Lopez) commissioned to exterminate resistance fighters hiding in the hills. In her fantasy world, Ofelia must complete three challenging tasks with the promise of immortality. The gripping scenario shifts between Ofelias real and fantasy worlds, each of which del Toro has carefully constructed to mirror the other.
We designed the real and fantasy worlds very specifically so everyone knows immediately where they are. The differences become more distinctive but less distinguishable as the film progresses. Its like yin and yang: the fantasy worlds feminine, positively uterine, with everything round in shape, and a palette of fallopian colors, crimsons and golds in warm light because, really, Ofelias idea of heaven is going back to the womb. The real world has cold colors and harsh light, straight linear borders, nothing round its male and fascist. The designs deliberately, absolutely symbolic, says del Toro.
“Pans Labyrinth is the sister of Devils Backbone, also about the Spanish Civil War, but its a gothic romance with a ghost and its a boys story. Pans Labyrinth is an anti-fascist fairytale, and the girls story. But theyre both reflections on brutality and innocence.
Maybe that sounds more logical if I put it into context: Id just premiered Devils Backbone when 9/11 changed everything, turned everything inside out including my way of thinking. I felt I had to make a movie that structurally echoed Devils Backbone one that would reflect the changes in the world. In Pans Labyrinth, its the female energy expressed in the creative fantasy of an 11-year-old girl that triumphs. Seen together, I think the films express my belief that really the only monsters are human. Not ghosts, not creatures but people.MERIN: That message is clear. But your films, including Pans Labyrinth, are peopled with truly terrifying monsters and threatening creatures that youve created. Where do these images come from?
DEL TORO: I have a lot in my head, some have been with me from my childhood. Images from personal experiences, and, you know, Im Mexican, and our culture, our mythologies are very rich and complex, and so pervasive they can make daily life which can be unusually harsh surrealistic in some ways. And, now, I collect fairy tales and folklore from different cultures, and Im sure they influence me. For example, the idea of the symmetry of three that you have a trilogy of ogres, doors or witches, or, as Ofelia has, three tasks is in many cultures folklore. Another example: one of Ofelias tasks retrieving a key from the frog who nests beneath a tree, causing the tree to rot well, the clogging frog and a fabled key are very usual in European lore. Or being put among hidden treasuries where, like Ofelia at the banquet, youre tempted to but forbidden to take anything that situation is presented quite often in different ways. Images, the way theyre used in stories, I think are quite universal. Honestly, Ive drawn, unabashedly, from many sources.
MERIN: Speaking of drawing, I understand you initiate your work on films by drawing characters and writing their stories in blank notebooks. Do you create these quasi-graphic novels in chronological order, from start to finish? Hows whats on the page transformed into whats on screen?
DEL TORO: I create stories pretty much from start to finish each one in a new notebook, and the graphic style of each is different, depending on the story. Then, other notebooks volumes, really, each dealing specifically with sets, characters and costumes and so forth evolve as we work. From very early on, I collaborate closely with (cinematographer) Guillermo Navarro, developing and working out details, so everythings clear before we go into production. We work out the effects, how were going to create and shoot environments and make monsters absolutely real and do it within our budget.
For Pans Labyrinth, we built all the sets even for the real world of the captains quarters. And we had to be digitally inventive to, for example, make the fauns gestures and movements convincingly realistic, yet fantastic and avoiding the qualities of Disney.
MERIN: Youve described the care taken with visuals, but the sound in the film is amazing not just Javier Navarerretes score, but different audio environments for Ofelias real and fantasy worlds .
DEL TORO: Yes, Id say the soundscape even more detailed and specific, and equally important as the visual images. In the real world, voices and ambient sounds are natural. Theres no music. But sound in the fantasy world is very manipulated with music and strange voices some of which are mine and low pitch frequencies. I read somewhere that low pitch frequency resonates in humans on a primal level because its reminiscent of volcanic rumblings and other warning sounds from nature that humans have heard and responded to since the birth of the species. They create apprehension.
MERIN: Creating apprehensions a huge factor in film genres for which youre best known. What is it about fear, about the horror genre fascinating for you?
DEL TORO: I think the horror genre underestimated. Its the place where humans contemplate and confront their deepest fears and, in a way, their own evil instincts which we all have. And, to that end, it has an important cultural and social function. I see this in graphic novels, too, and that, aside from the art value, is what attracts me to them. And I also think the horror genre is one place that really most gives filmmakers the chance to experiment, and the opportunity to express their vision. In fact, it challenges them to their greatest creativity.
Portions of this interview originally published in New York Press