TimesTalks: Del Toro on At the Mountains of Madness

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Adaptation, design and crafting a big monster movie

Last night, Guillermo del Toro spoke as part of The New York Times’ “TimesTalks” series in Manhattan, partly to discuss this week’s release of he and Chuck Hogan’s second vampire novel in the “Strain” series, “The Fall.” Of course, the discussion hosted by Jason Zinoman eventually became focused on del Toro’s filmmaking career, and the always-articulate director spoke enthusiastically about his next project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, which he and screenwriter Matthew Robbins have been trying to get onscreen for over a decade. Here are a few revealing, sometimes hilarious select quotes regarding the project…

“We’ve been designing for the last 3-weeks. It’s being produced by James Cameron, who’s been a friend for 20-years,” del Toro said, “we have avoided working together until the time came for the right project. Obviously, the difference between the novella and the movie is that Lovecraft had a gift for making everything specifically ambiguous. He would say ‘the leering face loaded with madness,’ or ‘the evil perverse entity of unnamable’… everything was unnamable, indescribable. When you’re reading you go,’Whoa!’ your brain fills those spaces. For every creature, everyone has a secret mental image of what those creatures look like. It’s going to be impossible to please everyone.”

“The other thing that Lovecraft does in the novella, brilliantly, is essentially a very dry document,” he added. “Thee reason why I read folklore is because folklore is almost stated as fact. It makes it all the more scary. You read a book that says, ‘In the moors of so-and-so I had this dog who wanders the land of so-and-so, and a woman wails behind him, a pale spectrum,’ and that’s it! You go, ‘Oh, well… I guess that happens.’ When you read books like ‘Passport to the Supernatural’ or ‘Chronicle of Vampirism’, they just state it. ‘In the town of so-and-so a shoemaker dies. Three days later he came back to haunt his family, and his rotting corpse…’ [laughs] It’s so factual. Lovecraft was the same. It’s a very scientific expedition, only things go really wrong by him, and then by the end there’s a few visible moments. Everything that is non-specific in literature has to be specific.”

“You are loyal to the adaptation of the tale to another medium. I think the worst thing you can do is be slavish to the original document and then destroy the movie. You’re not going to get a medal for being loyal. You’re going to get a medal for making a good movie. I always say, jokingly, that adapting somebody else’s work is like marrying a widow. You have to be respectful of the memory of the late husband but at some point [slaps hand suggestively].”

Del Toro went on to enthuse, “I’ve been thinking of those monsters for twenty years. Fortunately for me no one has done monsters like the ones I’m doing. In all the movies ever made there’s never been monsters like the ones we’re doing. About two weeks ago we were visited by Dennis Muren. He looked at the designs, and he turned to us and said, ‘No one has seen monsters like this ever.’ I was like, [boyish grin] ‘Yeah!’ I was happy and vindicated and all that. All I’m telling you is to me some of these monsters are more real than many of my cousins. [laughs] I mean, I have to point to them when we’re at dinner, [whispers] ‘who’s that, Pedro? PEDRO!’ But monsters I know what they had for lunch, for dinner, the biological condition, where they come from. I know all these questions because I live with them in my mind all the time.”

“It’s not only because I want it to be unique, it’s because the way I have imagined the creatures for years is my own. I think monsters have to be powerful, fascinating, and you have to be fascinated in the most strict sense of the word. You cannot avert your eyes from them. There’s a school of thought that says the unseen is more powerful, and I agree to a point. Then there is another type of horror movie that is a monster movie, in which the fascination of seeing the monster, and seeing the monster do its deed, is very powerful. Most people watch National Geographic secretly waiting to watch the lion attack the gazelle. [laughs] Ultimately, I think there is a part of monster lore that requires the payoff.”

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s “The Fall” is in bookstores now. A Criterion Collection edition of del Toro’s debut movie Cronos will be available on December 7th.

Source: Max Evry