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A Symbol of Transition: Interview with Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro: It's not like there was no cruelty before or no brutality before. But the fact that now people can go out in the open about it, publicly, and not be shamed, even be proud of it!? I think it's a very dark time right now.

As you'd probably guess from his films, Guillermo del Toro is smart, enthusiastic, and in love with what he does. The Guadalajara-born writer-director adores movies and fairy tales, gothic horror and special effects. His love is evident in his work -- Cronos (1993), El Espinazo del diablo (2001), Blade II (2002), and Hellboy (2004). Even the US studio-stifled Mimic (1997) maintains traces of his passion. At 43, he's a proud father of two (five and 10), and as often as not, he acts like a big kid, exploring dream after dream. Whether he's talking about comic books or the Tequila Gang (the production company he co-founded to support new filmmakers in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America), his rejection of organized religion or his childrearing philosophy, del Toro is full of ideas and energy.

At the moment, he's talking about his new movie, El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth). Set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, it follows 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), as she comes into her own, her journey complicated by the desires and fears of adults around her.

Let's start with how you conceive the labyrinth.

There are many permutations. For instance, the labyrinth that Daedalus built to hold the minotaur was really a maze. Daedalus makes it mechanized, to shift and change, so you never find the exit. It makes it its own creature. Then, as time goes by, I think the labyrinth becomes a symbol of transition, of a trip. In many cases during the Holy Wars, the labyrinth becomes a transit that is supposed to allow you to walk along a path while you are meditating or praying. Inevitably, you will end up in the center. It reminds me of the human brain, so a labyrinth for me can be a historical labyrinth, in that metaphorically Spain is a princess who forgot who she was and where she came from. And in that process, she's going to give birth to herself and to a generation that will never know the name of the fascist.

The second aspect of the movie is that it's a journey into the labyrinth of Ofelia's mind, into the core of her being. And finally, the labyrinth is anecdotal. As Borges, Greek mythology, and oral folklore will tell you, the labyrinth reflects the values of its time. I think symbols are individual to everyone reading them, and the labyrinth is a symbol. What does it mean exactly to you? It can vary.

Ofelia made me think of the Last Girls in slasher films, though she's much younger than most of them, so doesn't have to suffer for her overt or budding sexuality. She has a simultaneous naïvete and fearlessness, endearing and also nervous-making for us. How did you conceive her?

The idea was to juxtapose a purely masculine universe with a purely feminine universe. I'm a big fan of Jung, of how he relates feminine and masculine energy and symbols, as these are ultimately archetypes. They are individual to every person who is reading them but they are also collective. I thought that the feminine world needed to be represented by different permutations of that world. So you have the mother who is submissive. You have the housekeeper who is rebellious but hides it. You have the women in the house who form a little society among themselves by gossiping and keeping secrets.

And finally you have Ofelia, who at the age of 11, I think, is the most free of them all. Like the girl in Cronos, she fears nothing. That is the characteristic that makes you invulnerable and immortal. You could be wounded or killed by a bullet, but if you don't care about dying or pain, then you become immortal. To me, immortality is not the absence of death, but the absence of death mattering. I think Ofelia was that.

The masculine concern is embodied in all the other characters, including the worst of them all, the most masculine of them all, the fascist captain. You want this guy to be pure male energy, as the Hindus would say, pure lingam. War and fascism are, I think, boys' games. I've never heard of a great female fascist dictator. I can't think of a woman dictator who started a war. It's a very phallic concern.

Do you think this is genetic?

I think it is in mammalian genes. As mammals, we divide certain tasks according to gender: the male is stupidly territorial, for example, and the female is, in reality, the hunter, the retriever, and the nurturer. It's taken to limits when you add human concerns like religion and politics, absolute perversions of natural order.

As a manifestation of that perversion, Captain Vidal wants to tell the story, be the story, and have his son be the next chapter in the story. But it's Ofelia's story and -- quite unlike most movies -- unpredictable. She challenges his "unnatural" order.

I think this is what the movie has in common with Cronos and Devil's Backbone. They were also freeform in the way they dealt with genre. This is different from something that is fully assumed, like pop, which is Hellboy. I think that in every instance, at a given point, a story or narrator can subvert one aspect, but when you subvert everything, the whole work loses shape. If I subvert the genre and I subvert the usual way of doing the characters and the form, then nothing is left. In this movie, I tried to keep the forms in recognizable order: the very elaborate fairy tale and the realistic movie take completely different styles: color palettes and texture palettes. But I do it with recognizable characters. The princess is the princess and the big red wolf is the big red wolf.

What I change is the storytelling. If you expect everything to be all right in the end, you will be sorely disappointed. By the same token, I show you there is a beautiful hope at the end, if not the one that usually comes in "happy endings." I think that happy endings are different from satisfactory endings, and this movie has a very satisfactory ending.

I imagine you've had different reactions to that ending.

It's a Rorschach test, I think, it's a blot test. Some people come to me incredibly delighted, because they're sure the fantasy is real and others come to me very angry and say, "You are a nihilist, you say fantasy is not real," and still others say, "I love the way you proved it is all in her mind." And I go, "I proved neither." I have my own theory, that it's real, but people do react very differently.

People like their categories.

I think that film is an experience that is the closest to a religious experience -- when it works. When it doesn't work, it's like hearing a bad sermon from a tired priest. It's like Sunday mass, and you're like, "There he goes again, three hours of the same shit." But when the priest is inspired -- it doesn't happen to me because I'm completely lapsed -- but back in the day, I would hear somebody very eloquent and I would be moved.

How did you come to set Pan's Labyrinth in the post-civil war period?

I wanted it to be a companion piece to Devil's Backbone, which was released pre-9/11. In America, it was released in the winter of 2001. It was the wrong time to tell a story about cruelty of war and children...

Or the right time...

True. But it proved to be neither, because it was only unleashed in 16 theaters in the U.S. I felt very frustrated by the way the world was changing, almost week by week, turning into a place where it was harder and harder to disobey, to not just line up with the majority. I thought it was time to do a second movie that was like a sister to Devil's Backbone. That movie was like a Tom Sawyer adventure and a Western and a ghost story all in one. It was a boys' movie, the female characters were not as strong as in this one.

Marisa Paredes [as Carmen] was pretty great.

She is a great actress. But I wanted to show how the world back then, from 1939 to '44, in five years, completely mutated. The symmetry being that Devil's Backbone was released in 2001, and this film is released and takes place five years later. That made me believe that it would speak about the past and the present, both crucial times. The movie deals with crossroads, moments of decision. And 1944, after Normandy, becomes a moment of decision for the entire world and Spain, because the Spanish resistance has been in the woods, in the mountains, for years, in many ways supporting the Allies in their war against Hitler and fascism. And they are rewarded by indifference by the Allies.

So it's a crucial moment, because it kind of crushes their idealism. I believe that now, we've come to another crucial point. It's not like there was no cruelty before or no brutality before. But the fact that now people can go out in the open about it, publicly, and not be shamed, even be proud of it!? I think it's a very dark time right now.

In the midst of this darkness, Ofelia is not only resourceful but brave and mature. She's not like other "kids" in movies, she's not "cute" or relegated to reaction shots.

I'm a parent myself, I have a five-year-old and a 10-year-old, and when I'm doing something wrong, they will tell me what it is when they grow up. The way I view childhood is that it should not be a time of isolation. You can isolate a child by overprotecting or underprotecting. I think we keep creating these thin-skinned little brats who reach the age of 25 and have the same system to deal with pain as they had when they were five. They have the same level of indifference, the same "effort" and "reward" equations, they had when they were five. The result is you have 25-year-olds, 30-year-olds, throwing tantrums at life, suing someone because they got burned by coffee or because they crashed their Maserati against a wall that "should not" have been there. They're hating their wives and children because they take up their time. We're creating these little assholes who never grow up.

I think a child should not be isolated from pain, she should be educated about pain. And they should understand that the world is a messy, imperfect, fucked up place where there are people who love you. The world is not Barney and not ever seeing the news. The world needs to be the place it is.

If this isolationist politics of parenting had taken us to a better place, that would be different. But I'm not seeing that place. The iconoclast culture that came before us tore down a lot of "sacred cows" that deservedly needed to be taken out and shot, but they didn't replace it with anything but materialism. So the children are growing in a void, where you have no sacred cows and rampant materialism. This is creating monsters, I think.

Kids of a certain class today live overstructured lives.

A few parents came over the other day to have dinner with us and I was fascinated to hear how together and structured their plans were. They were discussing the minutiae about schools and I thought, "My parents put me in the school that was closest." The way my parents raised us was like glorified herding. I think that's an extreme, but the other extreme is parents who raise their kids listening to Baby Einstein tapes, who know exactly where they're going to be in preschool and after. I think there's something perverse about that. But I guess it's a sign of the times.

Parents are immersed in information, an industry that teaches them to parent.

The only thing parents do perfectly is pass on our hang-ups to the kids. That is flawless. We do it like a system. If we were as instinctive about the good stuff, we would be doing a bang-up job. The amount of literature that parents read to be good parents is enormous. We read an entire series called "What to Expect" -- when your child is two, when your child is in the toddler years. But the best thing you can teach your child is to "do unto others." There was an inventor in England during World War II who said something to the effect of, "Children should be treated like ambassadors from a higher culture who come to us to teach us, not to be taught our stupid rules." I agree with that. We should be in awe, and try to help them with the things they don't know and try not to teach them they don't need to know. I was four years old when my grandmother introduced me to the notion of original sin. Why? To tell a kid that he's going to the flames of purgatory. I don't understand how that helps anyone. But then again, I hate anything that is organized -- political, religious -- when it becomes institutional.

For then again, it becomes unthinking, something to fall back on like "instinct."

Exactly: "This is what I do. I guess these guys are bad, so I'm going to shoot them all." Films can help to destabilize that.

This film also respects Ofelia's mistakes: she's a kid who's trying to figure things out.

The problem I find is that the world is learning to think like Hollywood. The average filmgoer starts to think like a test audience, in terms of payoff and order -- Act One, Act Two, all that kind of crap. I was thinking, if this movie was made in Hollywood, it would be an ever increasing skirmish between Ofelia and her nasty stepfather, and she would defeat him. Or you would need to show Ofelia watching an act of brutality by her stepfather, which I was completely opposed to. Or you have to keep confirming, like in a Disney movie, that Ofelia loves books. And the father burns the books, or she discovers her father's library, something like that.

What I love is that the way you respect a character is letting her be in the story. And that character is going to rub the other characters the right or the wrong way. That is the respect that I try to put into Ofelia. I don't try to make her into a little adult. She is 11. She's hungry, she eats the grape. Does that make her stupid? In a Hollywood movie, it would. In my movie, she's a flawed character. And like they say in Hellboy, "We like people for their qualities, we love them for their defects." I think Ofelia is a lovable character for that.

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