It wasn’t that Hollywood wasn’t interested in making “Pan’s Labyrinth,” director Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy about a little girl’s adventures in an alternate universe during war time. It was Del Toro who wasn’t interested in making the movie in Hollywood.
Ever since his 1993 debut “Cronos,” the Mexican-born Del Toro, 42, has switched between flashy, big-budget spectacles like “Blade II” and “Hellboy” and smaller, more personal films like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
The jovial Del Toro, speaking via telephone at machine-gun speed from a New York hotel suite, claims that dichotomy is entirely intentional.
“Making `Mimic’ was a crash course in Hollywood movie making,” says Del Toro about his first studio film, where he endured creative struggles with producer Bob Weinstein. “After that, I decided I would never again attempt to make my darker, more idiosyncratic stuff in Hollywood. I’ll make movies there that represent the fun and crazy side of what I like to do, and I’ll reserve the other stuff for the smaller films.”
This is why, despite considerable interest from American financiers, Del Toro chose to shoot “Pan’s Labyrinth” in Spain and in Spanish—appropriate enough for a story set soon after the Spanish Civil War. “We got incredibly tempting offers from American distributors who offered to double our budget if we made the movie in English. But I didn’t want to do that, because then it would have become a Euro-trash production—one of those movies where you find William Hurt playing a Swiss doctor or Jurgen Prochnow playing a Russian general.”
More importantly, working outside the studio system, where marketing and audience demographics hold sway, gave Del Toro the creative freedom to make exactly the kind of movie he envisioned: a violent, R-rated fairy tale that is definitely not for little kids.
“I wanted `Pan’s Labyrinth’ to speak to the true origin of fairy tales, which were conceived to be parables told by the fire—mostly by a traveling tailor or cobbler—to the entire household,” Del Toro says. “They needed to enrapture adults as well as children, and more often than not, they contained very brutal situations: incest, cannibalism, patricide, infanticide, war, pestilence. They were very brutal, but out of that brutality and darkness, the magic glows deeper. Over the years, people sanitized them. But we forget that at the end of `The Little Mermaid,’ the mermaid dies. And that Cinderella’s sisters have to amputate their toes to fit into their shoes.”
Thus, there is violence and darkness galore in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” most of it coming from Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), an officer in Franco’s army who doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone who dares to question his fascist agenda.
“I have done every type of violence imaginable in my other films, but the violence in `Pan’s Labyrinth’ is different,” Del Toro says. “It’s calculated to serve a function. It’s not gleeful or comedic violence: It’s off-putting and incredibly stomach-churning. If we were being voyeuristic, each killing would be quote-unquote `cooler’ than the last. But as Vidal kills more people, the murders become more and more matter-of-fact.”
By the time a major character dies in the film’s climax, the shooting takes place outside the camera’s range—an intentional decision by Del Toro to illustrate the emotional disenfranchisement men like Vidal need to channel in order to carry out their orders.
The seriousness of that theme is only one of the ways “Pan’s Labyrinth” differs from popcorn-munchers like “Hellboy.”
“I think of `Hellboy’ as a really nice, fat cheeseburger, where this one is more like a dish of homemade nouvelle cuisine,” Del Toro says. “But I couldn’t have made “Pan’s Labyrinth” if I hadn’t made `Hellboy’ first. There is a level of craftsmanship and control in this movie—in the textures, the shapes, the color, the light, the camera work, everything—that I could only attain through experience. We designed and codified everything, from a spoon on the table to a button on a shirt to an arch in a room, because I believe film is very much like painting. We tend to judge films only from a dramaturgical, almost theatrical point of view. But I believe the images need to convey a completely different sense of emotion that speaks to a deeper part of the audience.”
Judging by the praise “Pan’s Labyrinth” has received so far—including a now-legendary 22-minute-long standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last year—it’s safe to say Del Toro has succeeded at making a fantasy film that tears through genre lines and reaches the heart, no matter what your personal tolerance of fairies and fauns may be.
Del Toro even says he prefers not to refer to the movie as a fantasy film at all.
“I think it plays stronger if you’re not expecting a fantasy film,” he says. “If you sell it as a fantasy film, people say, `But there’s only three creatures in the whole movie!’ I prefer to describe it as just a film that happens to have fantasy in it.”
And although audiences have interpreted the film’s bittersweet ending as everything from a religious metaphor to a psychological allegory, Del Toro offers a simpler, but more poetic, explanation.
“I always think of that beautiful quote by Kierkegaard that says the tyrant’s reign ends with his death, but the martyr’s reign starts with his death. I think that is the essence of the movie: It’s about living forever by choosing how you die.”