As a youth, Guillermo del Toro “was blessed or cursed with” lucid dreams.
“I would go to sleep and wake up in my room and see monsters,” he said.
He prefers to believe they were real rather than his imagination. Tangible or not, they set his life in motion.
Films are lucid dreams of another kind and, today, as a highly regarded director of films about the otherworldly and supernatural, del Toro is blessing, or cursing, the rest of us with his nightmares, including the stark “The Devil’s Backbone,” the Oscar-winning fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” and two “Hellboy” films.
His upcoming project is his most demanding yet: “The Hobbit,” a two-part prequel to Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. Del Toro said he is writing and designing the new film on a daily basis.
“My ‘Hobbit’ day starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m.,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life.”
He has not announced who will play the central character of Bilbo Baggins, but whoever gets the role must be able “to transmit a certain aura of damaged innocence, integrity and innate goodness that are very Hobbity.”
In addition to all this, del Toro has just released the first volume in a horror novel trilogy called “The Strain.”
He co-wrote it with Chuck Hogan, “whose novels were vibrant, immersive thrillers that dealt with procedural stuff,” del Toro said. “So I thought, ‘OK, he’ll bring that, and I’ll bring the madness.’ “
In “The Strain,” the curse of an ancient vampire spreads like a virus in modern-day New York and is being tracked by an investigator for the Centers for Disease Control. Part two will be done before he starts filming “The Hobbit” in 2010, and the final volume will be released after filming, in 2011 or 2012.
Del Toro, 44, was born in Mexico and speaks slightly accented English, sometimes mangling his syntax. But in an interview with him this month — as he was being driven through Manhattan traffic — he was rich with ideas effortlessly expressed.
Q. When two writers collaborate, do you end up creating a third voice?
A. I originally came to (Hogan) with a 12-page proposal ... outlining the arc of the characters and some of the events. But through the process of writing, Chuck came up with new characters and new events. It was a true back and forth. Some of the most sickening stuff is his, and some of the most visual stuff is his. We would send each other the chapters we wrote, and we’d be the first editor of each other and we’d be merciless. And that I think helps to create a single voice.
Q. How does writing to be read compare to writing a screenplay?
A. In screenwriting, you have to be very precise in the description of atmosphere and visuals. I’m used to writing characters by their actions and not by introspection. Screenplay writing is in the present tense. Everything is doing and happening.
And anything you qualify in a screenplay, you have to objectify. You cannot say, “The door opened slowly and a sense of menace invaded the room.” Because all you’re going to see is a door opening slowly. You have to be descriptive: “The camera pushes slowly as the door creaks open. The light is this way. There’s a low rumble.” You have to dictate objective stuff.
Q. How did your interest in vampires develop?
A. Actually, I’ve been writing about vampires most of my life. My first movie, “Cronos,” was about vampires, and “Blade 2” is a big vampire action film. I’ve collected vampire mythology since I was a kid. I think I read my first vampire book at age 7. I have hundreds of books on vampire lore and literature. In a few cases, I have the original manuscripts or pamphlets from the 18th and 19th century.
Q. Your portrait of vampirism in “The Strain” is as a plague that spreads virally.
A. The bouts of vampire legend rise and fall with the rise and fall of things like the Black Death. There is a belief in me that the vampire myth resides in the aftermath of great tragedy. And I tried to make sense of that in the book by placing some episodes at the epicenter of great sadness and pain.
Q. Specifically the Holocaust and Sept. 11.
A. That is correct. And through the three books, we have planned little by little to elaborate on why that is.
Q. Where does the vampire myth stem from us culturally?
A. Back when we were tribally nomadic, I believe we were cannibalistic. And as we became social and sedentary, our collective memory was, how do we deal with the fact that we drank the blood of our enemies or ate their hearts? And so we tried to deal with a mythological creature to explain this.
Q. Is the horror genre cathartic, a sort of psychological allegory used to express or relieve contemporary anxiety?
A. I think it’s all of that and more. We desperately need things to believe that are not material. We are living in a ... 24-hour reality show. Everybody dreams of becoming a star for whatever reason or becoming rich at whatever cost. There is all this absolutely boring concern and an equally banal sense of evil. There is nobody who accepts things that are not tangible.
And that’s why I think, for example, viral scares take on a spiritual stature, they become almost a witch hunt hysteria.
Q. In “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the scariest character is not a monster but a man. Isn’t it true that reality is far more frightening than anything you can make up?
A. But frightening in a different way.
I think you have two basic impulses. To define anthropomorphic clues in everything and run is a mammalian instinct. You try to find the tiger in the jungle and run away. That is physical fear.
But beyond that is spiritual fear. That is purely human. I think the only way you get spirituality, positive or negative, is through fantasy or religion. Because fantasy is a form of faith. You have to believe in this or that in order to experience it.