Writer and director Guillermo del Toro’s vision of Hellboy, based on Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse Comics series, finally hits the big screen on Friday. del Toro has been on the project for six years and came on board for all the right reasons. “When I was shooting ‘Mimic’ in 1997, the best memory I have of the entire shoot was reading the comic of Mike Mignola. I think there was a pang of joy that I felt at the age of 33 that was very childish where I was feeling, when I grow up I wanna be like Hellboy, but I was painfully grown up, and if anything, painfully growing larger by the second. I felt that if a character elicited that kind of response from me, that was a character I wanted to basically marry and make a movie out of him. As the movie progressed, the pre-production and through the production and pre-production on ‘Blade,’ Mike Mignola and I had come to discover that we’re basically twins. We really read the same pulpish horror literature, we love ‘Doc Savage,’ we love mythology, we like the same artists, etc. etc. So it was a perfect match.”
Another perfect match happened when Revolution Studios agreed to let del Toro cast Ron Perlman in the title role. “I think that it has taken me 12 years to communicate to the world what I feel about Ron Perlman. Somebody on the internet said I have a crush on him. I guess it’s true, but really, to me, there is, as you say, a body-fixation when casting these roles where Hollywood tries to cast Calvin Klein models on every movie. There’s such an obsession with youth that I find repulsive. The great thing about Ron is that he’s a throwback to Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, James Coburn, all these guys that were hard cool to watch.
Guillermo tried to stick close to the comics. “What I love about the character, and what I tried to do in the movie, was make him as fallible as he is in the comics. He’s not perfect. Some people die under his command in the beginning. He uses superpowers in a neat, petty way, that is non-Hollywood, like I would. He steals a beer, he throws a rock at the boy courting his girl, he does these things that when I was a kid reading “Spider Man,” I would go, I would do that. I would throw a little spiderweb at Flash in the comic books. I think that there is a humanity to that superheroic aspect of the character that I like.”
The humor from the comics is also present in the film. “Yeah, it’s a very dry sense of humor. I love the fact that almost every line that Hellboy says comes from the comic. ‘I’ll be sore in the morning/Aw crap/You can do better than that, a big monster like you.’ I think that there’s a colloquialism to the way the characters react. Imagine this character – he has grown isolated for 40 years, 560 years and he deals with the same people every day. They go and hunt monsters, that’s the only time he gets out. And there would be almost like oil-riggers. There will be a cynicism to them and the way they encounter their environment that allows them to survive. I think that all those lines that are in the comic and are translated into the movie are very dry humor. Ultimately, there’s not the big slap on your knee moment, but there is a lot of tenderness and humor in the movie that makes it human, as opposed to only superhuman.”
There’s a balance between the Catholic and demonic themes in Hellboy. “There is a much more cosmic point of view of what hell is in the movie,” says Guillermo. “It’s not just the Catholic interpretation. There’s a moment where the place that is alluded in the movie is more like a dark dimension. I think it’s not just pitchforks and bubbling cauldrons and flames. It’s really more about what we can learn from a fairy tale. What lesson, what little idea we can give through that character. It’s ultimately a parable of what makes us human. What makes us human is not where we come from, what geography we come from, what color is the skin, but the choices we make. I think that most Hollywood movies that deal with superheroes are just power trips. The movie tries to say that there’s a very fragile thing that you have to treasure and that is your defects being part of who you are. Instead of avoiding them, saying, ‘That’s who I am,’ but I still can take the right decision. Ultimately it’s not a moral thing, it’s not an ethical thing, and I like that.
Guillermo’s films have a unique look which continues here. “There are many gothic aspects about the way the movie looks. One of my biggest heroes in the genre is Mario Bava. Mario Bavaa was a guy that when he was doing black and white, he was doing the most beautiful black and white, atmospheric gothics ever, and then when he said, ‘Well now you gotta do color because that’s the thing,’ he took it and he started creating these incredible, beautiful, crazy primary palette of colors in ‘Planet of the Vampires,’ ‘Kill Baby Kill,’ all his work, and I admire that boldness. Seeing that you can not ever translate the comic exactly to the movie screen – you can’t. It’s impossible. Two different forms. Some people say, ‘They’re like storyboards.’ Bullsh*t. They’re not. I think that the great thing about doing that is saying, ‘How can I be bold and experimental as the comic is, and preserve the spirit?'” For Hellboy, del Toro stuck to a very rigid color palette. “You can see the movie and check that red appears in circumstances where characters or places are directly linked with Hellboy’s birthright, origin, his heart or people who are close to him. The rest of the palette is taken straight from the comics. It’s in a strange way the most experimental movie I’ve made formally. It’s really, there’s a gray scene, a blue, scene, a white scene, a red scene, a purple scene, it’s very experimental. Some things I would like to just frame and have as almost paintings for me.”
The director wasn’t afraid to take ideas from others, including what the flame of Selma Blair’s character, Liz Sherman, would look like. “It’s not that I trust some people or not. It’s that I trust dialogue. When anyone can come up with a good idea, and for me to get really happy about it – we were discussing the flame and I was worried about making it just a stove-colored flame. We were just chatting about the color and she said, ‘Blue is pure.’ And I liked the idea because of the primary colors we were handling, that the flame would start blue around her body. But when in contact with other surfaces it would be orange. I’ve always been, since ‘Cronos,’ extremely attracted to the marriage of orange and blue, for some inexplixable, possibly Freudian reason. But I like that idea.”
Water, in various forms, is a big factor in the $60 million adaptation. “I’ve been obsessed with one thing about comics which is kinetic lines. When they hit, and there’s a line that trails the fist, that’s impossible to do in reality so one of the tools I tried to use, to give that motion, is water. Fights in water. Shooting the opening sequence in the 1940s was an absolute nightmare. Because we were in sub-zero temperatures, so every time we would start shooting and stop, we would have to break the ice of the helmets, of the extras. Rosaries were dangling from the tip of the rifles and after each take, they would raise the rifles and the rosaries would be horizontal. Frozen solid. I was in the rain with two pellet guns shooting sparks, so I was also frozen. I think the look was worth it.”
Guillermo says that the DVD will be packed with special features. “The DVD is gonna be loaded and incredibly sort of didactic in a way. I think there are some people that feel like DVDs reveal too much. I feel the opposite. For people who can not afford a rich film school, buying a DVD that is loaded is a good lesson in how things are done, and you have to be open and actually sort of candid about things that work and don’t work on DVDs. I remember one of the most offensive commentary tracks in DVD history is mine on ‘Blade 2′ probably. But at the same time, it was extremely candid about things that didn’t work and things that worked. I would say, ‘That was a piece of crap, that’s why it’s out,’ or ‘This was a horrible CG and this is why.’ I think if you keep that – there’s a direct relationship with the people behind the DVD that try to learn the tricks behind the curtain that help.”
And what about a franchise? “It’s way in the background because I wanted to make a self-contained movie. But obviously when Mike Mignola and I get together, I say, ‘If you ever wanna make a second one, we would have to come up with a storyline that takes ’ I was proposing this or that. And Mike would say, ‘Yeah, but we would have to come up with really great ideas, what about this?’ And we would start talking and 10 minutes later, we were in a frenzy, ‘And then ! And then !’ It’s almost like inviting your best friend to play with your toys, and then you work up into a frenzy. ‘And then he explodes ! And then he has a mechanical body ! He has a head in a jar and it’s floating around!’ It would be great, but for now, it’s still a self-contained movie.”