Interview: Guillermo del Toro on Splice


The Frankenstein themes, acting as producer & more

Some folks might not know this, but Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) played an integral part in Splice‘s birth in that he served as the film’s producer. Director Vincenzo Natali sang praises about Del Toro’s involvement when we spoke to him, now we hear the other side. This week, Shock Till You Drop took part in a press conference with Del Toro who spoke to us from New Zealand where he’s in pre-production on The Hobbit. Below, the man talks about Splice, its themes, what limits he’s willing to go as a director, the status of Hobbit and other projects.

Question: You’re such a major name in horror. What should your fans expect when your name is attached as producer?

Guillermo del Toro: The main thing for me is not so much my fans. People should know Vincenzo. Vincenzo scared the hell out of me with Cube and I was very, very impressed by Cypher, which was, sadly, a movie that became sort of invisible. It didn’t reach much of an audience, but I think it’s a really great movie that people should see, as well as his other, smaller, ventures. I think they should go see it because there is always a line in the whole structure of the creator/monster myth.

You know, there’s a line that never gets crossed from the earliest myth of Frankenstein or the Golem. There is always a familiar relationship. They can be father and son. The neglected son and father. They always follow that dynamic at the center. With Splice, Vincenzo has made a really sick family dynamic within the characters of the piece that is Splice. If they do want to see a couple of those lines fully crossed by the filmmakers, they should go see Splice. It takes them places where, normally, movies in the genre are going to play it safe. It’s not often that a major release gets to play with moral borders that we dare not to cross.

Question: If you had the opportunity to have directed this script yourself, would you have?

Del Toro: No, no. I wouldn’t have. And this is the reason. It was a big difference for me, for example, in producing and presenting. When I present a movie, I present one I would have gladly tackled myself. When I produce, I try to take you to places that are different than I would. I try to allow for the voice of the filmmaker to impress me. When I was reading Splice, there was a particular scene towards the end, towards the last third that shocked the hell out of me. It shocked the hell out of me and challenged me. I would never have been as brave or as crazy as Vincenzo was in doing that scene. But reading it, I felt that, if it’s jolting me, that means it has enormous power. But I don’t know how he’s going to solve it and I was intrigued. I think as a producer, you don’t want to have all the answers. You want to be sort of the bodyguard for a guy that you believe has all the answers. I was really intrigued to see this really insane scene come to life. I would have been too prudish and too timid to do that scene.

Question: You’ve said that you’d like to do your own Frankenstein film and this film is very similar, thematically, to Frankenstein. Since your schedule is so full, is this your way of living vicariously through Vincenzo?

Del Toro: In a way, maybe. But the beauty of this is that Vincenzo is essentially not talking about the future. He’s talking about now. It’s not a futuristic tale. Everything in the movie is really sort of low- tech and bound-up equipment. Ultimately, the lab in the movie is not a fantastically designed super movie lab. He’s talking about the here and the now. He’s asking moral questions and ethical questions with the movie that, frankly, should be asked right now. But also the beauty of this that takes it to a terrain different from Frankenstein is that Frankenstein is essentially the embodiment of man’s plight. To be left alone in an uncaring world by an uncaring father than abandons you. That’s the essence of the myth in Frankenstein. What is great in this one is that it kind of condenses the, almost the faction of a family structure that would normally happen during a generation. It condenses it in a few weeks. Because the creature evolves so fast, the father/daughter mother/daughter dynamics are incredibly sick and they are incredibly accelerated by the growth rate of the creature. So you can see a lyot of the dynamic. It’s sort of a fable about responsibility. But it’s also a fable about family and the sickness that can bind a family or destroy it. It’s really quite different in a way.

Question: How involved were you as a producer? Were you involved in the screenplay and also in editing?

Del Toro: Well, I find that the best producers are the ones that trust the director and support. The best description of a producer role came to me from Pedro Almodovar when he produced The Devil’s Backbone. He said to me, “Look, I will be there anytime you need me. But I will never be there if you don’t need me.” So, with Vincenzo, I think we were instrumental in mounting the production and finding the funding and this and that. Obviously, I had my opinions about the screenplay.

I gave my opinions, but didn’t believe they were right or wrong. I would just tell them to him and he could do anything he pleased. I gave my opinion of the design of the creature, blah blah blah. But it is Vincenzo’s movie in the same way that The Orphanage is Bayona’s movie. But when the time came for post-production, I did something that very few producers do which is, instead of telling him to cut the movie and make it shorter, I kept telling him to make it longer.

Because I had seem some footage in dailies that I thought was really, really good for him to reconsider not taking out. I gave him a few ideas but, you know, this is Vincenzo’s baby, no pun intended.

Question: Do you know when production is going to begin on The Hobbit and when you’re actually going to get onset?

Del Toro: There can’t be any start date, really, until the MGM situation gets resolved because they do hold a considerable portion of the rights and it’s impossible to make a unilateral decision by New Line or Warner. We really believe that dates will be known after the fact of MGM’s fate. Whether they stay and get supported or they get bought or they transfer some of the rights, nobody knows. We’ve been caught in a very tangled negotiation. Now I’ve been on the project for nearly two years. We have designed all the creatures. We have designed the sets, the wardrobe. We have done animatics and planned very lengthy action sequences. We have scary sequences and funny sequences and we are very, very prepared for when it’s finally triggered, but we don’t know anything until MGM is solved.

Question: What do feel when Joel Silver picked Splice up at Sundance?

Del Toro: I was really, really blown away because, when we made the movie, we made the movie with no intentions to compromise anything, expecting that such a strange and unique take on sci fi would find some form of independent distribution. You know, a small to medium release. This and that. We never expected that a producer the caliber of Joel or a studio the caliber of Warners would react to the movie with the enthusiasm and mad joy they did. But, you know, Joel is a maverick and Warners reacted to the movie very strongly. We are now blessed with a very strong release and the very sincere support of the studio. When the movie became such a mainstream release, my main concern was, “I hope they don’t want to change what’s edgy about it.” In fact, they didn’t change anything in that regard and allowed us to insert a couple of lines of dialogue and add a little bit of footage. But the movie remains essentially exactly as Vincenzo wanted.

Question: When you talk about the scene that you don’t think you could go to as a filmmaker, do you think that you have or will evolve to the point that you could maybe do a scene like that?

Del Toro: I’m a guy who has certain areas that I’m timid about exploring. Almodovar used to joke on Devil’s Backbone, saying, “You can kill 50 people, but you cannot show a normal lovemaking scene.” I don’t know if I will ever be inclined to go in that really daring direction in that sense. I know I can push the limits in certain things, but it’s just not my inclination to do that. But when I’m curious about something like that, do try to get involved as producer. I do try to get involved as producer in the sense of, “I like the voice of this director. I believe in the voice of this director. I should be able to support him into getting his movie made one way or another.” But yeah, I hope I can become braver and braver for the things I do. But what Vincenzo does is what he does. He’s much more perverse in that sense than I am. So much for mild Canadians, you know?

Question: How important was it for you to have a tangible actress playing Dren rather than CGI?

Del Toro: That was a big question mark. Just when I had agreed on the casting, i remember one of the earliest questions I had for Vincenzo. He said, “Well, we have a list of 20 people that we have as approved casting but the guys I really want are not in the top priority for this or this or this.” He described the roles and I said, “Who would you like to have in those roles?” He gave me his ideal casting and we went after it. We said, “Sarah Polley for the main character? Let’s go after her. You want Adrien Brody for the other part? Let’s go for him.” But for the role of Dren, I think he took a very, very strenuous decision for him to know, “This is it. She is Dren.” And it came completely from him. It came fully formed. He was always doing the photoshop tests. The digital tests on the face. He knew what he wanted from the get-go.

Question: Do you plan on collaborating with Vincenzo in the future?

Del Toro: Anytime he wants. I’ve offered him a couple of movies that I have in production here or there and he reacts to them or not. But it would be my privilege to do that. Absolutely. The reason why I wanted to produce for him is because I’m a fan. I’m a fan of him. I think he’s a very unique mind and a guy who is a pleasure, fiscally, to produce. A guy who is, creatively, a real joy to produce. I think that this movie, with a little bit of luck, will make him better known to audiences that can then look for his other movies, you know?

Question: You mention building up strength and that seems like something very necessary for At the Mountains of Madness, getting into Lovecraft. Is this something you’re working on?

Del Toro: No, no. I am a fan with a set of tools and can be brave when it happens. It’s just that when you see someone doing something you would never do, you admire it, you know? But Mountains is exactly the movie I would like to do. It’s extreme and it pushes buttons in many areas. It’s a hard R-rated big production tentpole in the genre of horror. What I love about tent pole horror – which is not done much anymore, if at all – is that there was a time when you could see something like Aliens or The Shining or The Thing. Movies that came not as a B movie product of a studio, but as A tentpole new release, high-end production like The Exorcist and so far. What I would love for Mountain is for it to have all the luster and scope of a tent pole movie but have it be R rated. Not because I want to do gore for gore’s sake, but because it is a very adult movie and the consequences of things are really deep and disturbing. So hopefully one day I will have the clout to do it. But I am equipped with the right tools to go crazy on all the movies I make.

Question: What kind of satisfaction do you get from taking directors under your wing? And as a second part to that, what is happening with The Orphanage?

Del Toro: One of the life-changing things for me was, after Mimic, I essentially met with Pedro Almodovar and he allowed me to operate in complete freedom and reinvent my life doing Devil’s Backbone. I always say that Devil’s Backbone was my first movie. It’s a movie that I like as much, at the very least, as Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s not as well known, but I was really given in the most generous and uncompromising way. He said to me, “Run with it.” I guess it’s about paying it back and saying that the biggest role of the producer is to support your director. The hardest role a producer can take is to be the hard ass or to be the tough guy. I have been that in some instances, but it’s not pleasurable. The greatest thrill as a producer comes from being able to tell how many weeks we want. Tell me your ideal number of weeks and let’s go for it. Or tell Vincenzo, “Who do you want to cast? Let’s go for it.” Or, “Where do we get the resources? What do we need? How can I support you?” It’s really, really great. And finding people to do new things that haven’t been tried before is great. So that’s a reward. It’s being able to either do classic pieces like The Orphanage or pieces that push some envelope in some way like Splice. I think the other thing that really attracted me to Splice was wondering, “How is he going to pull off the creature?” Vincenzo had such a daring design in mind. He showed me when we first met his own sketches for Dren.

He’s a very good artist. He already had that idea fully formed. I was telling him, “This is going to be a really hard creature to solve, technically.” I was very curious and the reward is how much I learned in seeing Vincenzo do it and do it the right way, amazingly. All of that, you learn. Somebody once told me when I used to teach film language at the University in Mexico, somebody said to me that famous saying, “If you want to learn, teach.” I think that you learn a lot about directing by producing people that have a different voice from you.

Question: Just to absolutely clear, the story that was reported earlier that The Hobbit has been greenlit for 3-D, that is false?

Del Toro: In both counts, there is absolutely no final answers. It’s not greenlit. That’s categorical. It’s not greenlit. 3-D has been discussed literally once in the room. The budget and the schedule and everything we’re handling – the cost of the film and the number of days it would take to shoot – is being handled right now without looking towards 3-D. Is there a chance it would become 3-D in the future? Maybe. But right now it’s not being planned as such.

Question: While you’re waiting are you finding time to work on anything else?

Del Toro: I always have what I call my early mornings and my late night. I need very little sleep and I’m able to multi-task because of that. I’m developing the properties I have at Universal. There will be some interesting announcements on those coming soon. And I’ve been helping develop other properties at other studios. There will probably be a few announcements before or during comic-con. And I’ve gleefully been writing the second book of “The Strain” trilogy with Chuck Hogan which is, frankly, almost my escape from reality because whenever I start on anything in the morning, I know I have “The Strain” to fall back on, the second book. I can do whatever I want. There will be no budget constraints. There will be no logistical problems. I can stage a riot without having to worry about budget or any technicalities. That has been a great escape. Now the second book is coming out in September and we are a quarter or almost half in on the third book, the final book of the trilogy. And I’ve been writing short stories for an upcoming anthology that I’m going to publish. So I keep busy. I keep writing and I keep developing stuff. I’m trying to get rights on a couple of properties that I think are going to be really strong. I keep moving because the wait has been so long on The Hobbit that it allows me to compartmentalize my time.

Source: Shock Till You Drop