'Hellboy' director Guillermo del Toro credits Mexican heritage for his artistic vision

by Rick Bentley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

10 July 2008


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Guadalajara, Mexico, native Guillermo del Toro often gets asked if he considers himself simply a filmmaker, an independent filmmaker or a Mexican filmmaker.

“How could I not be a Mexican filmmaker? If I endeavored not to be, I would not succeed because I was raised in Mexico. I heard all the legends. I drank all the drinks. I ate all the foods. I walked on the streets. The idiosyncracies of my country are in me, not in my passport, not in my sense of geography. They are in my gut, in my head, everywhere,” del Toro says during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss his new movie “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

And this Mexican director has taken the American film world by storm. His 2006 offering “Pan’s Labyrinth” is the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie of all time in the United States. He’s also been the guiding hand behind the film version of very American comic books like “Blade” and the two “Hellboy” movies.

The director, who with his well-trimmed beard and stout shape looks like a distant cousin of American filmmaker Kevin Smith, has been able to capture this attention through a filmmaking style that has pushed the limits of imagination through a surreal cast of creatures.

In “Hellboy II” the creatures range from a hand-size killing machine versions of the Tooth Fairy to the multi-armed Fluid Vendors. He’s created so many bizarre characters for his new movie they often get lost in the crowd.

It is his Mexican heritage, so says del Toro, that planted the seeds for such imaginative work.

“There is a tradition in Mexico of craftsmanship that is called creating alebrijes. Alebrijes are mythical creatures that belong to no particular mythology or set of beliefs,” del Toro says. “The are fanciful five-headed dragons with the tail of a dog and the body of a cow. It doesn’t matter. They come straight from the brain of the artisan creating them.

“It is a culture that loves the bizarre. We love these monsters. We love creating them. The very act of doing them is the artistic gesture.”

He compares the cultural obsession with creating these creatures to Medieval Masons carving gargoyles in a cathedral.

Toss in the influences of Mexican literature by Juan Rulfo, Agustin Daniels, Juan Jose Arreola and Jose Emilio Pacheco, plus the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, Oracio Quiroga and Julio Cortazar, and you have formula for what made del Toro the director he has become.

And his imagination has been running free since winning the Critics’s Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival for his first feature “Cronos.” He has picked up nine Mexican Academy Awards, three Oscars, three BAFTA awards and seven Goya Awards.

Despite having made movies for 15 years, the 43-year-old del Toro feels only now that he has reached the point where he can make movies “like a 12-year-old.”

“Picasso said in painting that it took him 30 years to learn to paint like a 7-year-old. I feel the same way. I am finally making movies straight from the zone of when I was watching movies as a kid,” del Toro says.

Those who have worked for del Toro talk of him in glowing terms. Words like “genius” and “visionary” get thrown around.

Selma Blair, who plays the fire-controlling Liz in the “Hellboy” movies, describes del Toro as being “in a league of his own.”

“The sets he creates, I can’t imagine I will ever be lucky enough to walk on again. He is so creative,” Blair says.

Doug Jones, who has played numerous creatures in three del Toro movies, has an interesting vision of what the director’s life away from film sets must be like.

“I think he lives in a big mansion where he has all these weird creatures as his pets,” Jones says.

The next project for del Toro will give him even more opportunities to create whimsical creatures. He will direct the features “The Hobbit” and “The Hobbit 2” back to back.

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