"Movies Are Like Religion"
Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro talks candidly about the state of cinema, why Blade 2 is just as good as Devil's Backbone and why Mimic is not
By Grant Rosenberg

Gadfly: I should confess to you that I haven’t seen Cronos. After I saw Mimic, I had planned to rent it but never did.

Guillermo Del Toro: Lots of people haven’t seen Cronos. After seeing Mimic, Cronos would have rewarded you a little bit.

So you aren’t too happy with Mimic.

I’m happy with it to a degree, but it’s not the movie I wanted to make. It has about 40 or 50 minutes that are the movie I wanted to make and about 40 or 50 minutes that aren’t the movie I wanted to make. It’s a half and half.

How did the opportunity come about to make it? Were you approached by producers after they were impressed with Cronos?

It was actually meant to be a short film, part of an anthology called Light Years. It was going to be Bryan Singer, Danny Boyle, Gary Fleder and myself. And we were going to do one episode each, science fiction but with a different bent for each. Singer’s was to be very abstract, very philosophical. And Boyle’s was called Alien Sex Triangle, which is shot but has never been shown. I haven’t seen it. And then there was Fleder’s, called Impostor, which has since been turned into a feature [starring Gary Sinise, shot in 2000, released in January of 2002]. When we were scouting and doing sketches and designs for the shorts, the studio said, "Why don’t we take ‘Impostor’ and ‘Mimic,’ turn them into features, and abandon the anthology project until we find more shorts to go with it?" I initially said I don’t think there is enough there for a feature. I think it is a perfect short, but there’s not enough there for two hours.

I had done Cronos two years earlier, and I was growing very impatient. Originally, it was just the couple in the short [the Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam characters], and I wanted to add the character of the shoe shiner and his autistic grandchild. And I felt it would be interesting enough for me to do a feature.


And after Mimic?

After Mimic, I moved away from Mexico. I had a very heavy security problem there. We had some terrible experiences with crime in Mexico. I decided to move away from there, which was painful and difficult and essentially took two years of my life to move and find a house and get settled. And I lost two years. During that process, I was pursuing Devil’s Backbone with Pedro Almodovar. Three years into that process, I was ready to shoot and was offered Blade 2. I said to New Line, "If you want me to do this movie, I will do Devil’s Backbone first. And then I will go and do your movie" because I wanted, after Mimic, a movie that I felt I would control 100 percent. And the great deal with Pedro Almodovar is that he is absolutely a champion of the filmmaker, and a filmmaker himself. So I felt it was a very safe creative bet for me to stick to Devil’s Backbone and then do Blade 2. And that’s what happened. I did Devil’s Backbone. Four weeks after the shoot, I locked picture [after editing the film while shooting it], post-produced it from September to December while pre-producing Blade 2, and in January I moved to Prague and shot Blade 2. And they came out about 3 or 4 months apart.

In your comments after the screening of Devil’s Backbone the other night, you seemed to apologize for Blade 2, saying that…

No, I didn’t apologize for it. I love that movie. I said I couldn’t do senseless killing in Devil’s Backbone. If you want senseless killing, go see Blade 2. But I love it. I love the senseless killing in the movie. Because it is a cartoon, like an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. Just completely inconsequential and lighthearted in its somberness. Just absolutely inoffensive.

So it’s definitely not the case that you did this film in order to get more leverage with studios to do things you want to do later.

I would never do that because then you are a hand for hire. And I’m not a hand for hire. I just do movies I love. Blade 2 I love just as much as Devil’s Backbone, but they are completely different.

Blade 2

I’ve read some reviews that say it is far superior to its original, which is a rare compliment for a sequel.

The movie is absolutely in love with its nature. I think when you execute movie material that is comic book or pulp-based, you gotta execute it with your heart on your sleeve. You gotta execute it with all the passion and bravura with which you would execute Shakespeare. You have to give an A execution to what people normally perceive as B material.

I think they were the best experiences of my life. The two movies are exactly what they were meant to be, exactly what I set out to make. There was no damaging interfering in either of the two projects, including my own interference with Blade 2, because I didn’t want to meddle with the screenplay to the point that fans of the first one would suddenly face a slow-moving, deliberate philosophical rambling about eternity with Wesley Snipes. I said, "Screw this, I’m going to concentrate on the movie being what it is and moving fast and entertaining," and I had a blast. I love that fuckin’ movie.


Because Blade 2 and Mimic get such wide release compared to Devil’s Backbone, how does that make you feel?

That’s the market. As long as people are getting what they paid for, I am happy.

So you never considered making Devil’s Backbone in English?

Never. We got offers, and it would have been what happened on Mimic—people trying to contort something into something that the movie was not. Mimic would have been more commercial, would have had more potential had it been left to be what it was, which was a very scary premise. And not try to make it a semi-actiony horror film, which it wasn’t. It was not an action film. I’ve very happy with movies that deliver what I wanted to deliver. And then if someone likes it, great. And if someone doesn’t know the other movie, they shouldn’t see it. We’re not all scholars, you know. My mother may have seen one Kubrick film, and she may like it not, but she doesn’t need to know all of his films. She may be enriched by them, but you know…people that view movies as pure entertainment are the majority of the audience.

How have your tastes in movies changed since you were a kid, versus now when you are yourself a filmmaker?

I can see interference easier. I can look at a film and say to myself, "Someone fucked with it." I see the dirty, greasy fingerprints easier on the film. And at the same time, my view of the homogenization of film is a little despairing. Some foreign films look like American films. It makes me appreciate when a true voice or a truly foreign movie gives me that otherness experience of seeing a different country on the screen. But I still enjoy films that are good, both commercial and not, as much as when I was a kid. I’m blown away by something like Monsters, Inc. even if it is a commercial movie. I don’t care. There is true artistry at work there. I’m amazed at the Argentinean film like Nine Queens, which has ingenuity and resources beyond its budget. I enjoy them all as much as before. The funny thing about right now is that cinemas are full of shit, and people tend to cling onto that. But at the same time, we get as many good movies every year as we did in the 1970s. Yeah, in the ‘70s we had Scorsese and Coppola, but it was also Smokey and the Bandit and Rollerboogie. We have the impossibility of thinking that what we have now, the time in which we live, is any better than another. That is the perpetual human dissatisfaction with what is at hand.

The Devil's Backbone

What I particularly liked about Devil’s Backbone is how it was a supernatural story grounded in a specific historical reality, with the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

It is a very political movie but still has scares and special effects and very genre moments. Which is what attracted me and made me stick to the idea for sixteen years, of doing something that has both. And in that it is very similar to Cronos, which was a very spirited film. But at the same time, it was a hammer movie. And what I love about Devil’s Backbone is that it exists as a very earnest political metaphor and is also very savage. It tries to be a microcosm of what was going on in Spain in 1939.

Have there been criticisms of the film for those reasons? Have you heard from people who felt the film trivialized the historical events?

Quite frankly, I don’t care. I don’t care enough to engage in the discussion. To me, a movie is a blind date with 300 people at the same time. Some go to bed with it, some have a cup of coffee and leave disgusted because it’s not their type of date. I think movies are like religion; people feel as passionately about movies as they do religion or politics. When someone doesn’t like a movie, they don’t say, "Well, the movie had its problems." No. They say, "I hate that fucking movie." And they have the right to do so. I know I crafted Devil’s Backbone carefully and lovingly. And if they do not watch it carefully and lovingly, it’s their prerogative.


I’ve seen movies that I’ve hated passionately and ten years after I love. And vice versa. Movies I thought were the bomb at 15, like DePalma’s Dressed to Kill. I thought that was a masterpiece. But seeing it again at 35, I say, "It’s not so masterful. It’s got some good stuff, and I can see what carried me over, but it’s not a masterpiece." The only thing you can ask from a movie is to be true to itself from beginning to end. And that’s what Devil’s Backbone has that Mimic doesn’t. The shift of gears in the last third of Mimic is not genuine.

Was that evident while you were making the film, or only something you began to perceive when the film was being completed?

It was something I realized during the shoot. I thought it was the wrong route to take, but I didn’t have the strength or the know-how or the tool to make it happen. Essentially, I did my best. Which is not a pretext; a movie is as good as a director that defends it."

The child actors in Devil’s Backbone are remarkable for how un-childlike they carry themselves. They seem quite adult by the end.

More than show them as adults, I wanted to give the impression of them being complete at the end. What happens to the children in the film is that they lose their purity; they get tainted by the war. And at the end, they are sadly less childlike. But I think they are actually childish in a nice way of how they view war. How they discuss pussy and war in that central scene of the movie proves they know nothing about pussy and nothing about war. But they discuss it with equal mystery and fascination.

The Devil's Backbone

How many festivals have you taken this film to?

It has gone alone to several festivals because I was shooting and finishing Blade 2. One of the main things I ask from El Deseo [production company] and which Almodovar and I share is that we hate competitive festivals. And we hate them even more if we are not going to be there. So I asked them not to send the film to competitive festivals in my absence. So essentially the movie has a nice life, but without being in the official selection of festivals. And when it was, I tried to be there.

After the screenings of the film, as you had here, there is a Q & A. It seems to be an environment you are well suited for.

I love interacting with the audience. What I have learned through the years is not to engage one way or the other. If someone likes the movie for the wrong reason and tries to railroad you into saying the movie is something that it isn’t, you say no. And if somebody tries to railroad you into having a Stalin-esque purge and say, "I’m so sorry I made this movie, that it is so bad," that doesn’t work either. I give people equal time and respond as clearly as I can and move on. I used to be a projectionist/moderator in a cinema club for seven years. So I would take the tickets, project the movie and have a Q & A after. So it was seven years of debate, which helped me—I was also a critic for those years in radio and print—learn that the audience enjoys much more the next question than it enjoys a battle of wits between the filmmaker and someone there. Now if someone finds something that is genuinely wrong with the movie and engages on that weak aspect of the movie, I will engage with them on that. I am really not ashamed when something if kind of weak in a movie, like if Cronos lacked production or was naïve in certain things or was kind of a "first movie" in the way it was handled with the camera. I would be the first one to admit it, even back then. Cronos was a film very influenced by alchemy, and some people took that aspect of it, particularly in Europe, a little too deep. And I said, "Well, these are the chemical aspects of it; if you think it beyond that, I’m glad. But it’s not my reading." And mind you, I think a true reading of a film is the one the storyteller does and the reader has. They are both valid.

Blade 2

I think that comes across at your Q & A session, that the audience can smell how much you are just a guy that loves making and seeing movies.

That’s true. I am a fan. A lot of directors don’t like other movies, other directors. I love other directors. It’s rare that I find something as fascinated as I was at 15, but sometimes it happens. But I discover gladly that at least four or five movies every year make me a fan again, and I can’t wait to have them on DVD and watch them again.

Would you do a director’s commentary for a new DVD of Mimic?

For a little bit after that movie, I was convinced it was as good as it could have been, that all the changes that happened to it were right. Then as you distance yourself, you can be far more objective. You cannot ask one way or another for a director to be objective about a movie he just finished. We are blinded by love or something, and the moment you give birth, you cannot be expected to criticize it. Maybe when the child is 12 or 13 or 14, you realize he is a bit of a fuck-up. But early on, he is just your baby.

So yeah, I would love to do a DVD commentary, but I don’t think they would ever let me. I would not do one that is fake. I jokingly say it, but it is true. If they allow me to do a director’s cut of that movie, it would be the first one that is shorter. I would take out the ten offending minutes of crap.

Why were you not free to do that?

Because the studio’s idea of the movie was not the idea I had of it. And what I considered ten minutes of crap, they considered ten minutes of absolute gold. And my feeling is that I failed the movie as its ambassador, and that’s what hurts. I think it is a pretty decent giant bug movie that you can watch on a Sunday afternoon. But what hurts me is what it could have been. It could have been a classic, and it is far from it.

Wesley Snipes and Del Toro on the set of Blade 2

How much input or control of the marketing do you have for your films?

Blade 2 was a great experience because the marketing side was completely open. They truly heard me, and I got the chance of doing my own version of a trailer. And some of the ideas were used in the trailers they released. I just think the campaign for the movie was beautiful. I was hoping it would be elegant and muted and not loud and that the trailers would be interesting and enticing but not reveal the full, long, crazy balls-to-the-wall nature of the movie, and they didn’t. I actually thought the trailers were extremely effective in that people were thinking, "Well, if the trailer contains the best of the movie, it’s going to be okay but not fantastic." I hate when the trailer is better than the movie. And with Blade 2, they were enticing but didn’t give it all away.

About my Hollywood experience, I just joke about it a lot. I am apologetic for Mimic, but in general I am sarcastic about the whole experience. What you cannot say about Hollywood is that it is the best way of making all types of films. It is the best way of making some types of films that are big and bombastic and loud and beautiful. If you want quiet horror, more mysterious gothic things, you can go another route or finance it independently in English. I love Hollywood for how it is such a fascinating machine. To be absolutely frank, those are the movies for people who are not involved in the arts, in the culture, and just go to the movies to see what is playing.

Guillermo Del Toro

It seems wise to take a film for what it is trying to do, much like going to a concert and evaluating the show based on the band’s connection to the audience and how they respond to him, whether or not you actually like their music.

That happened to me with Independence Day. I think it was one of the most appalling movie-going experiences of my life. And all around me people were cheering. I hated the movie so much. I felt it was the end of filmmaking, as we knew it. The movie affected me so deeply in how it connected to the audience that I realized it was jealousy. The fact that something that I didn’t like, didn’t control, didn’t approve dared to connect so well with an audience. And what I did was probably the wisest thing I’ve ever chosen to do: I stayed for a second show. I didn’t like the movie, but I enjoyed seeing it work with the audience.

You seem to be in a pretty good position, to be able to make both kinds of film and even tell a major studio, "Hold on, yes, I will make Blade 2, but I’m going to make my movie first." Not many people get that opportunity.

As many people as who fight for it. That’s the funny thing. I learned that half the fight is wanting to have it. With Mimic, I was coming from an environment—which is Mexico—where essentially being agreeable and being nice is part of the deal, part of making a movie, because it is so difficult. In Hollywood, it’s not that you pick fights. But half the victory is knowing what you won’t give up. I’m older, I’m heavier and I’m a little wiser.