Guillermo Del Toro on ‘Cabinet of Curiosities,’ Collaborating with Kanye West, and More
You know a Guillermo Del Toro film when you see one. It’s a dazzling mélange of ghastly creatures, ornate sets, and beauteous viscera. The work of a true artist.
Now, the Mexican auteur behind movies like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Pacific Rim has provided a gateway into his macabre mind with the release of the tome Guillermo Del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions. The hardcover book contains never-before-seen sketches, notes, and illustrations—all of which are housed at his own personal museum, which he’s dubbed “Bleak House”—affording readers a rare glimpse into his singular cinematic process. The book also contains running commentary, and dedications by longtime pals Alfonso Cuarón and James Cameron, as well as an afterword penned by would-be collaborator Tom Cruise.
In an in-depth interview, Del Toro discussed his diverse career with The Daily Beast.
There’s a really nice foreword in the book by your buddy James Cameron, and in it he says you’ve helped sculpt each other’s films. What were some big Cameron suggestions that led to you tweaking your films?
Yeah! In Cronos he suggested a couple of cuts and said we should add a line where Angel, played by Ron Perlman, says, “Not my nose again!” He’s helped with every one of my movies, except Mimic, where we were sequestered in Toronto and couldn’t show anyone. In Blade II, he gave me a few comments on the cut. I’ve been with him in the editing room for True Lies, Titanic, Avatar, all of them. When I was going to do Pacific Rim, he gave me a private tutoring on 3-D conversion, and on 3-D theory. Can’t ask for anything better! He’s a great friend and an even more extraordinary filmmaker.
What did the early cuts of Titanic look like?
They were much longer! And one of the best sequences in the movie isn’t in the movie. It’s an amazing chase between DiCaprio and Billy Zane’s butler. It was quite an amazing scene, and astounding to see. Jim turned to me and said, “I think it gets in the way of the real story of the movie: the love story.” And you know what? Jim was right.
What’s the weirdest item you have at Bleak House?
There’s a lot of weird stuff. I have a book—and I’ve never tried it—but in theory, it has a demon inside that if I invoke the book with a very simple ceremony, a demon will appear and serve me for 30 years.
Wow. This sounds like something out of The Ninth Gate.
It is! And as you can tell from my career, I haven’t used it.
Please don’t. We’d like to see more films from you.
I won’t! I have a lot of artifacts—books on witchcrafts and talismans. I have a big, big collection of original occult books from the 1800s and 1700s, and some of the oldest books on apparitions and vampires. All original printings. It’s not that I’m a crazy believer, I just find it to be amazing research material.
The sketches in the book really confirm that you’re not just a filmmaker, but an artist. We just had Banksy come through New York City. What are your thoughts on him, from one artist to another?
Yeah, I saw that. He had a little art sale in Central Park, right? The main thing with street art is that it’s sustained by depuration—by boiling down the art elements to the minimum, and the concept elements to the maximum. I think he’s definitely one of the strongest guys in those two departments. He’s always able to give some biting social commentary with very few elements, and is incredibly smart about it. I love him—as both an artist, and an idea—and am grateful that we live in a world where he’s around. Plus, we both did The Simpsons’ couch gag! So I gotta love him.
Are we going to see you direct an episode of The Simpsons, or a Treehouse of Horror segment?
I told Al Jean I have a great story for one of the three Treehouse of Horror segments, and would gladly direct one of them. I think it’s a disturbing story, but I think they do some disturbing stuff!
What about other shows? This is a golden age of television we’ve got going on, any other TV shows you’d like to direct?
I just directed the pilot for The Strain, a vampire series. We just need to do the visual effects, and then it will go to F/X to see if they’ll greenlight the series. I have a couple of projects at HBO that I’m pursuing with my producing partner, Don Murphy. I find that directing a pilot is doable for me because it’s 16-20 days, but directing an episode is too tight, man! It’s similar to my pitch for I Am Legend—I want my vampires to be nasty and mean, like parasites.
You’re also attached to a TV series on The Incredible Hulk. What’s happening there?
Well, that’s the thing with a lot of projects… a lot of them are dormant, or dead. I think the TV series is dead, honestly. After Avengers, there was a huge silence, and I’ve got to think it’s a consequence of how successful the movie was. I don’t know if it means they’re going to make more Hulk movies, but they haven’t spoken to me about it. The Hulk is my favorite character from that lore, because he’s the comic book version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
You were also working on a Justice League project, Dark Universe.
Yes, but the dark Justice League—with Swamp Thing, Etrigan, Constantine, Deadman, and others. It’s the dark side of that universe. It looks positive, but that’s a big universe with DC, so they need to make decisions about where to go with Constantine, Batman, and Superman.
You also speak of your fondness for Roald Dahl. I grew up loving his books, and I’m curious as to why there’s never been a live-action BFG movie. You should direct it.
Ever, and it’s such a great story. I wrote a screenplay for The Witches, which Alfonso Cuarón was producing, but we couldn’t get it made! The studio just wouldn’t greenlight that movie. It’s my favorite Roald Dahl book, The Witches, because I grew up with my grandmother a lot of the time, and the relationship between the boy and the grandmother speaks volumes to me. There’s a moment toward the end of the book where the kid accepts the fact that the grandmother is going to die one day, and it’s so moving. The great thing about Roald Dahl is he tackled the big questions of life without any fear of being shocking or brutal, because he knew the kids could take it. The parents, educators, and studio owners are far more conservative than that. There’s that song where the witches talk about eating the kids—boil them, chop them—and the studios are too sanitized to handle it.
That’s a shame.
It’s very unfortunate. I have a darker version of Pinocchio, and a dark version of The Witches, but they’re not getting done. And The Witches is part of a catalog, so I can’t even control it. If I could, I’d just take it and get it financed for whatever I could. But that’s the way things work.
In the book, it says you had a failed pitch for I Am Legend, and also that you turned down some big Hollywood projects over the years and made Pan’s Labyrinth instead. What were some of those big projects you passed on?
I’ve been blessed and cursed. Right after Cronos, Mike De Luca offered me Se7en. I said, “It’s a brilliant script but it needs a cynic, not a romantic,” and I’m ultimately a romantic. When I saw the movie I thought, “Perfect.” I’m a huge David Fincher fan, and to me, Zodiac is a masterpiece. I re-watch that movie all the time.
And Tom Cruise pens the afterword of your book, about your aborted project At the Mountains of Madness. Was the studio just loath to finance a $200 million R-rated film?
I wish it was $200 million! It was $150 million, and R-rated, and at the time, I said it had to be R-rated. But now, I think we could release a dual cut—a PG-13 cut and an R-rated cut at the same time—and you could see it PG-13, or see it R. I tend to share in Tom’s optimism that it will happen, and I think it can be done with new tools that I have acquired or became familiar with after Pacific Rim, which was such a big, technical exercise.
With Pacific Rim, I loved the Kanye West tweet that he sent out prior to the film saying it was “easily one of my favorite movies of all time.” Did he also contact you directly to congratulate you on the film?
[Laughs] You know, he sent a very nice message and I think he’s a brilliant musician. I admire him enormously. We’ve talked a few times about other projects we were going to do together through my company, Mirada. He wanted to do a multimedia show that I was going to direct, but we’ve never met. We’ve only spoken on the phone. We’re trying to do something together.
Are we going to see Pacific Rim 2?
We are writing the screenplay right now, and the DVD and Blu-ray have really exceeded predictions, so I don’t know! It’s up to Legendary still to say yes and pull the trigger on that.
With Pacific Rim, you were the first one to really cast Charlie Hunnam as the lead in a big Hollywood film, so you must have seen something special in him. Do you think he made the right move dropping out of Fifty Shades of Grey?
I can only say that wise people make wise decisions, and Charlie is a really wise human being. He’s a very deep thinker, he has a very good soul, and I love him like a younger, much better-looking brother. I’m sure he thought about it long and hard.
There’s another project you’re attached to which sounds interesting, which is a live action Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson starring.
Yes! We have a great screenplay that I wrote with Andrew Davies, the guy that created all the great Charles Dickens series for the BBC. He’s one of the best writers I know. We’re budgeting it right now with Warner Bros., and coming up with a way to realize the Beast in a way that nobody has seen. If we can do it, I’d love to jump on that.
It’s getting to be awards season, and I know you’re a big lover of cinema as well. Do you have any favorite films so far this year?
I was shooting The Strain, so I’m still catching up! I can tell you I’ve seen Gravity many, many times, which is amazing. I loved the Jim Jarmusch movie Only Lovers Left Alive, and I enjoyed the hell out of Ron Howard’s Rush. That was a complete reinvention for him. If I told you it was shot by a 23-year-old filmmaker from Denmark, you’d say, “Yeah, this is edgy,” and I was really surprised that he directed it.
I have certain weaknesses, as far as “bad movies” go. Teen comedies from the ‘80s and ‘90s, etc. Are there any movies you love that people would be surprised you like?
Certainly! When people come to Bleak House, I have a very hefty horror section, for sure, but the biggest section is comedy. I love comedies. I can talk very fluently about Buster Keaton and Chaplin, but I can tell you this: I love fucking Dodgeball to death! I can watch Dodgeball any afternoon, with a glass of iced tea. And I love romantic comedies. One of my favorite movies, that I live by, is Tom Hanks’ Big. It’s basically my biography! Every time I get a check for a movie, I think, “Really? I should be paying you for it!”