On producing the Spanish ghost story & its English remake
There is a good reason why Guillermo del Toro is one of the most beloved directors among genre and horror fans, and it isn’t just because his body of work is so solid, many of them setting the standards for horror in whichever sub-genre he chooses to work at any given time.
For instance, del Toro’s 2001 Spanish Civil War ghost story The Devil’s Backbone is still considered one of the filmmaker’s first true masterpieces and a standard for ghost stories, so it’s not surprising to see his name attached as producer and “presenter” on Juan Antonio Bayona’s directorial debut, a Spanish ghost story called The Orphanage. Based on a screenplay by Sergio SÃ¡nchez, it stars the beautiful BelÃ©n Rueda (The Sea Inside) as Laura, a woman who moves back into the orphanage where she spent time as a girl along with her husband and young adoptive son Simon. She immediately starts to experience all sorts of bizarre happenings, culminating in the disappearance of the boy, and desperate to find him, Laura turns to a group of spiritualists to convince the ghosts that inhabit the house to help her find the boy, who she’s convinced is still alive.
ShockTillYouDrop had a chance to sit down with Guillermo in New York where he turned up to help support the first-time filmmakers of what is clearly one of the year’s best horror films.
ShockTillYouDrop: What is the difference between producing a film and presenting a film and why did you choose to present this film?
Guillermo del Toro: Producing is like dating and presenting is like marriage. No matter what disagreements might happen down the line, the kid is going to carry your name the rest of its life, and the reality of the commitment, which always seems easy in retrospect, it’s a huge commitment when there’s no movie. When you have a screenplay and a director, who knows what can come out of those–sometimes good, sometimes bad–and this was the first time I committed to presenting a movie because I felt that it was that sure of a bet. My presentation credit was committed to in pre-production and it was non-conditional, which meant if the movie came out and it was an absolute revolting piece of crap, I would have still had to have “Guillermo del Toro Presents.” And that’s how much I believed in the project.
Shock: What in the movie convinced you to want to get that deeply involved?
del Toro: The last turn of the movie in the last ten minutes, because everything thematically that has been threaded through the movie, not “seeing is believing” but “believing is seeing”, “what is a ghost?”, all these threads transform so nicely into an emotional pay-off in the last ten minutes. I cried when I read the screenplay and I still cry every time I see the movie. I’m going to start going to the ballet, because I’ve discovered an incredibly sensitive side of myself.
Shock: How did you first find out about the movie? Did the screenplay just show up on your desk or did you know Juan and his short films beforehand?
del Toro: No, there’s a couple of truly bizarre stories, but we met in ’92, ’93. He was either a reporter or posing as a reporter when we were promoting “Chronos.” I believe he was a fake, but he started asking really good questions and said, “Do you want a cup of coffee?” and we went for a talk and he said, “I do short films.” He showed me some of the stuff he was doing. We maintained some contact through the years, and I always admired his short films, then in “Devil’s Backbone”, we met again, and he said, “When I do a feature, would you be interested in doing it?” and I said, “Absolutely.” But you know, he didn’t have a screenplay then. Then in “Pan’s Labyrinth” when I was in the early early pre-production, he gave me the screenplay, and in between, there was a really freaky story, which is too long to recount, but there was a guy that was using (Juan’s) short films and passing them for his own. They were new short films and video clips so I didn’t know, and this guy showed up and showed me the short films and I thought this guy has real talent and I hired him as a storyboard guy on “Blade 2.” Then this guy was revealed to be a complete fake, and I realized I liked the short films even without knowing they were Juan Antonio’s, so I really believed in this guy even with the name withheld, I liked them.
Shock: There are a number of similar themes in this movie with some of your own work like “Devil’s Backbone” so how did you work with the two of them to develop the movie once you came on board?
del Toro: I read the script and everything you see in the movie was already there, and I guess I reacted to the fact that the movie postulates a thing I believe, which is “believing is seeing” and that you can will the world to become the place you need to inhabit. Faith is stronger than brutality or destiny and all those things, so there are many threads like the analysis of what is a ghost, things that I really find compatible, but what we did was that I said to Juan Antonio, I met with him and said, “I need to meet the screenwriter and we need to talk, the three of us, in a room, before I commit.” I met with the two of them, and I gave them like ten suggestions and they refused six and four stayed in the movie. What is great is I really liked the way they really had a chemistry together, and I realized they have a very clear vision of what they wanted to do, so it’s out of those rejections that I got really interested in doing it, because I said, “These guys are really onto something they really believe in.” The ideas or anything I came up with, it’s an honor that it’s still in the movie but the creation of it was them. People say, “Did you put that thematicâ¦?” No, it was all there already.
Shock: In the last few years, there’ve been a number of strong horror movies from Spain, but movies like “Darkness” didn’t really find that big an audience over here. Was that why it was important for you to get involved with a film this strong, to put your name on it to help get it that exposure?
del Toro: I think that if anything, that’s why it was important for the movie that I could act as a bodyguard or a godfather to really push open doors financially, in terms of access, and ultimately, in terms of exposure. There were a couple of moments where it was easier to get a kick at a festival if I was godfathering it or it was easier to get a distributor to look at it. Those are moments where you feel useful as a producer or getting the budget or getting an actor, but I think what was really important for me was that it didn’t come out and you were just saying, “It’s a commercial horror project that was done without any finesse” and I really knew Juan Antonio and Sergio and BelÃ©n and the rest of the team had crafted something special.
Shock: Were there any instances as the godfather of the film where you wanted to step in or meddle or think that you could bring more to it with your experience as a director?
del Toro: No, there’ve been cases of that in the past. I’ve produced many movies and I’d rather not say, but it’s just a thing where at the end of the day, I always say, “It’s your decision.” I can only push so far, because I believe that the director is the ultimate arbiter. In the case of this movie, there was not a single time where that happened. Never. The only time was in post. I said to them, “The mix of the scares is too loud.” I thought the sound mix was too loud. It was louder than what is there now, it’s the only time I said, “Really, really, the movie works. Trust it a little more. Don’t mix it so hyper” That was the only time I said anything.
Shock: Did they agree with that?
del Toro: They did because I think a couple of eardrums busted in one of the screenings, but I think other than that, the movie is completely at the merit of those guys. But there have been instances in the past of producing where you step in and I always at the end of the day say what any of the nine producers I have worked with says to me, “It’s your call.” I remember when we showed “Blade 2” to New Line, I remember a meeting where Bob Shaye said, “It’s really violent, it’s really disgusting, but if that’s how hardcore you want to go, it’s your call,” and I said, “That’s how hardcore I want to go” and he said, “We won’t change it.” There were some people who wanted to make the violence less graphic and I said, “If you make it any less graphic, it’s going to be more pernicious, because it’s so over the top that it’s not serious violence. Splitting a guy in two is better than hearing the sound of him being cut in two. It’s less realistic.”
Shock: With “House of Voices,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and now “The Orphanage,” it seems that a lot of the ghost movies set in orphanages were European films.
del Toro: “House of Voices” is the French one, no? That Christopher Ganz produced? I met with Christopher when he was doing it and he said, “I hope you don’t mind. We’re trying to do something close to ‘Devil’s Backbone'” and I said, “I don’t mind at all.” But I think there is certainly a European sense of war that you can see in many movies that have, shall we say, an artistic streak to them, a sense of tempo, a sense of composition, a sense of camerawork that is more sedate, far more aesthetically inclined and then there’s the propulsive head-banging horror that people associate normally with American horror, which I think is a mistake. I think Romero is a very American filmmaker but he’s not a headbanger. Cronenberg is a guy that is very influenced by European filmmaking for sure, but he’s still an American filmmaker. (Actually, he’s Canadian.)
Shock: Horror movies tend to not get a fair shake from the critics, except for the ones you’re involved with like this one, so what do you consider horror and where do you think the genre is heading?
del Toro: Well, there is a generically, the definitely of any film that would be labeled “horror” in my mind, it needs to have the supernatural elements to it. People make the difference between terror and horror and it varies according to who you talk to, but to me, in order to really exist in that genre, it needs the intervention of a supernatural element, imagined or not. It’s all the same to me. I believe that what I admired the most when I was growing up was the work of people that were threading acceptability as creators like Cronenberg or Romero, who absolutely to me are socially important filmmakers in that genre. With “The Orphanage,” I wanted to introduce a new voice into the genre. I wanted to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Juan Antonio Bayona, now I’m going to leave the stage.” And that’s all I’m doing. I’m saying, “This is a guy you should pay attention to, now let me get the f*ck out of here.”
Shock: You’re also producing the English language remake of this movie. Has Juan shown any interest in directing that or has he already made the movie he wanted to make?
del Toro: No, we’ve talked about it early on because early on, when I came up with the ten ideas, I said to him, “The other six I’ll save for when and if I do (the remake)” because a part of me really thinks there’s other incarnations of the tale. What would have been a mistake would be to try to screw with the movie to make it fit what I thought. What I tried to do was to give them complete freedom and then having the chance of presenting a new version of it.
Shock: Would this material work as well in English or in America? There’s always this question whenever a foreign film is remade, especially horror films, because when you move them to America, it’s a completely different feel and you lose something in the change of setting.
del Toro: The thing is that some stories have a template that is so universal that it’s possible. One of those things is a ghost story, and a ghost story is almost like transposing a template that is universal. You have no problems, but what you have to do, which I do in my movies and I do in the movies I produce, is to bring the idiosyncracies of the place where you shoot. If you see a movie like “Chronicas” which we produced a couple of years ago, it’s a serial killer movie, but it has the idiosyncracies of what would happen in an Ecuadorian serial killer movie. Will the bad guys be punished? Will the good guys be that good? When I see a good genre movie, I like when it has idiosyncratic elements. When I saw the movie the guy who did “The Host” did before, which is called “Memories of Murder.” What I loved about it was completely Korean in its idiosyncracies, the way they investigated, the flood techniques, that is what makes a movie particular, so if I just translate Spain for another geographical location, it
would be a mistake, but if you really give it an American set of idiosyncracies, it will be a very strong movie.
Shock: What are you going to do after you finish up “Hellboy”?
del Toro: I love quoting my agent that says “after Hellboy, you are unemployed.” So I’m openâ¦ do you have any offers? Send them over.
Shock: But you had a whole list of things when we talked in Budapest and you’ve been attached to even more since then.
del Toro: I know, but things like for example “Hater,” the notice came out on “Hater” that I was producing/directing but I’m just producing.
You can see del Toro’s latest production The Orphanage, when it opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, December 28th, or when it expands over the coming weeks until its nationwide release on January 11, 2008. Also check out Ryan Rotten’s exclusive interview with Juan and Sergio here.
Source: Edward Douglas