Jennifer Merin interviews Guillermo del Toro re “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S A-MAZE-ING MYTHOLOGY

Guillermo del Toro’s amazing gift for fantasy, known to and appreciated by “Hellboy” and “Devil’s Backbone” fans, reaches new heights in “Pan’s 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 Ofelia’s 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. It’s like yin and yang: the fantasy world’s feminine, positively uterine, with everything round in shape, and a palette of fallopian colors, crimsons and golds in warm light– because, really, Ofelia’s idea of heaven is going back to the womb. The real world has cold colors and harsh light, straight linear borders, nothing round– it’s male and fascist. The design’s deliberately, absolutely symbolic,” says del Toro.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is the sister of “Devil’s Backbone,” also about the Spanish Civil War, but it’s a gothic romance with a ghost and it’s a boy’s story. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is an anti-fascist fairytale, and the girl’s story. But they‘re both reflections on brutality and innocence.”

“Maybe that sounds more logical if I put it into context: I’d just premiered “Devil’s 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 “Devil’s Backbone”– one that would reflect the changes in the world. In “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it’s 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 “Pan’s Labyrinth,” are peopled with truly terrifying monsters and threatening creatures that you‘ve 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, I’m 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 I’m 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 Ofelia’s 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, you’re tempted to but forbidden to take anything– that situation is presented quite often in different ways. Images, the way they’re used in stories, I think are quite universal. Honestly, I’ve 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? How’s what’s on the page transformed into what’s 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 everything’s clear before we go into production. We work out the effects, how we’re going to create and shoot environments and make monsters absolutely real– and do it within our budget.

For “Pan’s Labyrinth,” we built all the sets– even for the real world of the captain‘s quarters. And we had to be digitally inventive to, for example, make the faun‘s gestures and movements convincingly realistic, yet fantastic– and avoiding the qualities of Disney.

MERIN: You’ve described the care taken with visuals, but the sound in the film is amazing– not just Javier Navarerrete’s score, but different audio environments for Ofelia’s real and fantasy worlds….

DEL TORO: Yes, I’d 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. There’s 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 it’s 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 apprehension’s a huge factor in film genres for which you‘re best known. What is it about fear, about the horror genre fascinating for you?

DEL TORO: I think the horror genre underestimated. It’s 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

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).