The Cannes Film Festival is known as an annual market for movers and shakers, and a great launching pad for international directors as well. It was there, in 1993, that Guillermo del Toro first made a name for himself as a filmmaker, after having established his own special effects and make-up company in Mexico, and years of television work there. His debut feature film, Chronos, picked up a special Critic's Prize in competition at Cannes, and went on to a stunning sweep of eight Ariel Awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars. Since then, del Toro has steadily worked his way up the Hollywood food chain -- all the while never forgetting his roots, and sprinkling his filmography with personal, and often fantastical, Spanish-language period pieces.
His latest movie, this week's Hellboy II: The Golden Army, finds del Toro working with his biggest budget yet -- though surely a drop in the bucket compared to the combined price tag of the two Hobbit prequels he's signed to next direct, for producer Peter Jackson. It may seem strange for a series based around a giant, red, petulant demon spawn who begrudgingly works for a secret government paranormal investigatory unit yet really just wants to watch TV and play with his cats, but the character of Hellboy holds a special, and very personal appeal for del Toro.
“The two Hellboy movies for me are semi-autobiographical,” he says. “I do put a lot of details in from my life, which my wife always recognizes -- including the moment where Hellboy gets asked, 'Do you need everyone to love you, or am I enough?' That has never been verbalized in my relationship, but you have those moments when you are a filmmaker, when you're a storyteller. At some point you have to say, 'Who matters in my life?' You have to make a decision. I think the way Hellboy has evolved, and the way in which he is an irresponsible knucklehead but (also) adorable, is a source empathy for me. There's a great moment in the film that I have gone through, which is when he's asked, 'Why are you with me?' and he just [stammers]. That's a very male idea of conversation. I love that he's unable to verbalize things, and it takes a spear in the heart for him to say, 'Wait, I understand!' So the characters I write, I know, and are very close to my heart.”
If they're close del Toro's heart, they're also very much of his imagination, as the film series takes certain liberties with creator Mike Mignola's comic book source material. Hellboy II in particular has a slightly more fantastical feel than the first film, perhaps a reflection of both the personal growth and success of del Toro's Oscar-winning 2006 film, Pan's Labyrinth. “I've always collected folklore and fairy tales,” says del Toro. “I think a good section of my library is dedicated to that, and mythology. And as I was preparing for Pan's Labyrinth I realized one thing -- that there are a lot of rules that repeat themselves. I started making notations and realized that they intersected with the second Hellboy -- the idea of the underworld, the king, a war with humans and the creation of something to destroy humanity. All of those are floating in the folktales, so I grabbed a lot from that.”
“But the funny thing, because Mike and I did come up with the basic storyline (together), is that I think that's the direction he's taking the magical world in the comics, by coincidence,” del Toro continues. “When I told him [some of my ideas] he said, 'That's exactly what we're plotting already.' And when you go see a movie called Hellboy, already there is an implicit, assumed sense of goofiness -- you then have to say, 'Look, we know we're pulpy, we know we're different, but we take ourselves both seriously and we want to entertain.' I think Mike once said, 'He's not the Hell-Knight or Hell-Spawn, or the Hell-Lord. He's Hellboy.'”
Of course Hellboy, the character, wouldn't be Hellboy, the franchise, without all of the other interestingly designed characters -- from friends like fish-faced empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and fire-starting Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) to giant creatures made of rocks and vines. As with his other films, though, del Toro didn't just lean on CGI effects; he put his practical design and make-up experience to use. “I think films should be handmade, because I love that there are still tangible things,” he explains. “We say that an audience doesn't care whether it's real or CGI, but they do. The average eye of a regular Joe, although they cannot maybe verbalize things, is trained by thousands of hours of TV and visual effects, media hitting you all the time. So your eye knows.”
And del Toro knows how to artfully blend CGI with the sort of puppeteering and practical effects work that still catches one's attention -- all to get the most out of those ever-watching eyes. For example, an important landscape sequence late in Hellboy II was shot next to a freeway. “Instead of the sea, we had the most horrible freeway with red trucks passing,” recalls del Toro. “But what we did was shoot high-definition plates in Ireland and composite them together. So if you know when to go digital and when not to, you end up having the eye fooled.” He pauses, then offers a self-effacing chuckle. “I learned this by screwing up many times!”
While happily busy behind the camera for the foreseeable future with the Hobbit films, del Toro has also joined up with fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to form Cha Cha Cha, a production company that will produce five films for Universal Studios and its arthouse boutique arm, Focus Features. Free from any sort of “art-as-burden” angst, he seems genuinely enthused about this pact, and making movies -- with only the wistfulness of the constraints of a single lifetime serving as a counterbalance to his imagination. “The thing is, every time you take one movie, you are postponing others, like another of the smaller movies I'm trying to write, called Saturn and the End of Days, which is the apocalypse seen through the point-of-view of a 10-year-old boy,” del Toro says. “Every day you drive on the freeway, you're not climbing Mount Everest.”
With his imagination, though, there should be plenty of vistas left for del Toro to explore.
Look for Hellboy II: The Golden Army in theaters everywhere this weekend.