In producing “The Orphanage,” director Guillermo del Toro is giving to Jose Antonio Bayona, the Spanish first-time director the kind of opportunity that was several years ago given to him by Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish master filmmaker. Del Toro talks with Jennifer Merin about a belief the three men have in common–that the female force is that of creativity and transformation.
In The Orphanage, Laura (Belen Rueda), a desperately concerned mother, brings her ailing son, Simon (Roger Princep), to her childhood home, in hope that the place will help to heal him. This first feature by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sanchez resonates with cinematic overtones of films directed by its producer, Guillermo del Toro.< That comes from similar thematic concerns, says del Toro. These guys and I use Gothic motifs to explore fundamental human emotions, the idea that the strength of internal reality can affect external reality, and that childhood is painful and plagued with disease. The Orphanage, like Pans Labyrinth, is a childs narrative--like Peter Pan--played out with the trappings and aesthetic of the horror genre.< MERIN: I understand youd agreed in pre-production to unconditionally present the film. Thats an enormous expression of faith in these first-feature filmmakers. What gave you that level of confidence in the project?< DEL TORO: Actually, this has the feeling of fate about it. Ive known Juan Antonio since 1983. He was a kid pretending to be a journalist to get into the movies, but he asked smart questions about technique, so we went for a coffee and talked. He was tiny and endearing, and said he was a filmmaker, and we stayed in touch. Later--well, its bizarre, convoluted: another guy showed me his short films and I hired him to storyboard Blade II. Based on that gig, he got a gig directing a movie in Canada. That movies producer was in Cannes and saw Juan Antonios shorts--but they were the films this other guy used to get the Blade II gig. The producer called the other guy, who confessed. Juan Antonios shorts were terrific--I knew he could make this film. I loved the idea and Sergios script.< MERIN: How much guidance did you give?< DEL TORO: We talked. I offered maybe ten ideas--they rejected six of them. I tweaked some of the scares. But its completely their film, and actually very different from the movie I would have made.< MERIN: How so?< DEL TORO: Well, Id make the husband a stronger presence--but not to make the film male-dominated. This must be a female-centric film because, ultimately--well, I believe that the female gender transforms the world, gives it a different spin, is the creative force. In The Orphanage, the mother wants her son back, and she wills the world to bend to her perceptions--like the girl bends the world to her perceptions in Pans Labyrinth. That wouldnt change. But I think a stronger husband creates an interesting triangle, a dynamic balance between the mother, son and husband in this creepy house, which is also a character.< And I would treat Simon differently. I didnt imagine him as Juan Antonio cast him--full of zest and temper tantrums. The kid who plays Simon is perfect in this movie, but I would have gone another way--with a pale, withdrawn kid. And, he has AIDS--Id explore where it came from, how it resonates with the history of the parents, feelings of survivors guilt, and the legacy of the orphanage, where the mother grew up.< Mainstream cinema discriminates against children as characters--theyre either spunky skateboarding kids or sweet-loving chocolate covered faces, but I say make them as complex, imperfect--mortal--as any other character. Im interested in exploring that. If this movie had taken the mainstream route, the mother would have arrived at the cellar in time to give the kid mouth to mouth and he would happily cling to her and theyd run into the forest as the house explodes in a ball of flames. What moves me about the ending of this film is that its very different--even from what youd expect in this genre. Thats what Im interested in exploring: the child has equal possibility of danger as any adult character. And Id treat the supernatural elements a little differently--expand them. Actually, this script, this story, fascinates me so much, Im gonna do this film again--my way. Thats a first for me because I dont like remakes. But this is different.< MERIN: Will you direct?< DEL TORO: No. I have someone great in mind, but I wont say who because if I do, it will never happen.< MERIN: Will Belen Rueda star again? Shes so strong in this version. Were you instrumental in casting her? DEL TORO: Id be delighted to work with her again. She was Juan Antonios first choice, and if hed wanted to cast a Spanish scream queen, I wouldnt have been interested in the project. But Belens a really solid actor, and audiences empathize with her. Some actors have that quality. Others, you say, thats a fabulous actor, and I dont give a fuck what happens to her. But Belen has brutal empathy with the audience, from the moment she enters, you want her to do well, prosper, be happy. In horror, if a characters walking down a corridor, and theres a presence at the end of the corridor--if theres no empathy, its a horrible scene. If theres empathy its a great scene. Belen has empathy in spades.< MERIN: This film, Pans Labyrinth, and the upcoming 3993 (the project del Toros developing with Sergio Sanchez), are all set in, made in Spain. Why is your connection to Spanish cinema so strong?< DEL TORO: Well, Im Mexican, and we have Spanish roots. But the actual connection is because of Almodovar--hes my mentor, my inspiration and he gave me the possibility to make Devils Backbone. Now, Im passing that on to Juan Antonio and Sergio. Theres such talent and vitality in Spanish cinema now. Its exciting to see where its going, to be part of making it happen.< Juan Antonio and Sergio were half way into pre-production and completely out of money when they came to me, having the problems Id had when Almodovar backed me--their funding sources doubted the effective interplay of the horror genre and emotion-based drama, they were finding that good actors they wanted to cast didnt want to make horror movies. I knew I could bump open some doors for Juan Antonio and Sergio, and that felt right. The freshness they bring to the genre excites me. Sure, its great to watch the masters--the new Cronenberg or Romero--but I love seeing the new guys come in and say, Im here, and Im gonna stay. MERIN: Getting back to your connection with Almodovar, you both have such strong commitment to the female as the creative force < DEL TORO: Yes, its very strong and that commitment, that mutual belief, really connects us strongly. But female isnt always gender specific--I mean, its possible for the female creative force to be more present in men sometimes than it is in women. But that female creative force is what transforms the world and female characters in Almodovars films and mine--and in The Orphanage--do have the power to bend reality to their will.< MERIN: I think you have some of that, too. Whats next for you?< DEL TORO: Im going back to London to finish editing Hellboy II, which will be released in July, 2008. But, thats a male-centric film.< ###30###