Horror's New King

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After Pan’s Labyrinth last year, it’s surprising not to have a film in theaters by Guillermo del Toro, our newest expert of horror/fantasy. He did produce The Orphanage, however, the first feature by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sánchez, which resonates with cinematic overtones of films of the Mexican director.

“These guys and I use gothic motifs to explore fundamental human emotions,” explains del Toro. “The idea that the strength of internal reality can affect external reality, and that childhood is painful and plagued with disease. The Orphanage, like Pan’s Labyrinth, is a child’s narrative—like Peter Pan—played out with the trappings and aesthetic of the horror genre.”

NYPress: I understand you agreed in pre-production to unconditionally “present” the film. That’s an enormous expression of faith in these first-feature filmmakers. What gave you that level of confidence in the project?
DEL TORO: Actually, this has the feeling of fate about it. I’ve known Juan Antonio since 1983. He was a kid pretending to be a journalist to get into the movies, but he asked smart questions about technique, so we went for a coffee and talked. He was tiny and endearing and said he was a filmmaker, and we stayed in touch. Later—well, it’s bizarre, convoluted: Another guy showed me his short films and I hired him to storyboard Blade II. Based on that gig, he got a gig directing a movie in Canada. That movie’s producer was in Cannes and saw Juan Antonio’s shorts, but they were the films this other guy used to get the Blade II gig. The producer called the other guy, who confessed. Juan Antonio’s shorts were terrific—I knew he could make this film. I loved the idea and Sergio’s script.

How much guidance did you give?
We talked. I offered maybe 10 ideas; they rejected six of them. I tweaked some of the scares. But it’s completely their film and, actually, very different from the movie I would have made.

How so?
Well, I’d make the husband a stronger presence—but not to make the film male-dominated. This must be a female-centric film because, ultimately—well, I believe that the female gender transforms the world, gives it a different spin, is the creative force. In The Orphanage, the mother wants her son back, and she wills the world to bend to her perceptions—like the girl bends the world to her perceptions in Pan’s Labyrinth. That wouldn’t change. But I think a stronger husband creates an interesting triangle, a dynamic balance between the mother, son and husband in this creepy house, which is also a character.

And I would treat Simón differently. I didn’t imagine him as Juan Antonio cast him—full of zest and temper tantrums. The kid who plays Simón is perfect in this movie, but I would have gone another way—with a pale, withdrawn kid. And, he has AIDS, so I’d explore where it came from, how it resonates with the history of the parents, feelings of survivor’s guilt and the legacy of the orphanage, where the mother grew up.

Mainstream cinema discriminates against children as characters: They’re either spunky skateboarding kids or sweet-loving chocolate-covered faces, but I say make them as complex, imperfect—mortal—as any other character. I’m interested in exploring that. If this movie had taken the mainstream route, the mother would have arrived at the cellar in time to give the kid mouth-to-mouth, and he would happily cling to her and they’d run into the forest as the house explodes in a ball of flames. What moves me about the ending of this film is that it’s very different—even from what you’d expect in this genre. That’s what I’m interested in exploring: The child has equal possibility of danger as any adult character.

And I’d treat the supernatural elements a little differently—expand them. Actually, this script, this story, fascinates me so much, I’m gonna do this film again—my way. That’s a first for me because I don’t like remakes. But this is different.

Will you direct?
No. I have someone great in mind, but I won’t say who because if I do, it will never happen.

Will Belén Rueda star again? She’s so strong in this version. Were you instrumental in casting her?
I’d be delighted to work with her again. She was Juan Antonio’s first choice, and if he’d wanted to cast a Spanish scream queen, I wouldn’t have been interested in the project. But Belén’s a really solid actor, and audiences empathize with her. Some actors have that quality. Others, you say, “That’s a fabulous actor, and I don’t give a fuck what happens to her.” But Belén has brutal empathy with the audience. From the moment she enters, you want her to do well, prosper, be happy. In horror, if a character’s walking down a corridor, and there’s a presence at the end of the corridor—if there’s no empathy, it’s a horrible scene. If there’s empathy it’s a great scene. Belén has empathy in spades.

This film, Pan’s Labyrinth and the upcoming 3993—the project you’re developing with Sergio Sánchez—are all set in and made in Spain. Why is your connection to Spanish cinema so strong?
Well, I’m Mexican, and we have Spanish roots. But the actual connection is because of Almodóvar. He’s my mentor, my inspiration and he gave me the possibility to make The Devil’s Backbone. Now, I’m passing that on to Juan Antonio and Sergio. There’s such talent and vitality in Spanish cinema now. It’s exciting to see where it’s going, to be part of making it happen.

Juan Antonio and Sergio were halfway into pre-production and completely out of money when they came to me, having the problems I’d had when Almodóvar backed me: Their funding sources doubted the effective interplay of the horror genre and emotion-based drama. They were finding that good actors they wanted to cast didn’t want to make horror movies. I knew I could bump open some doors for Juan Antonio and Sergio, and that felt right. The freshness they bring to the genre excites me. Sure, it’s great to watch the masters—the new Cronenberg or Romero—but I love seeing the new guys come in and say, “I’m here, and I’m gonna stay.”

Getting back to your connection with Almodóvar, you both have such strong commitment to the female as the creative force...
Yes, it’s very strong and that commitment, that mutual belief, really connects us strongly. But female isn’t always gender specific. I mean, it’s possible for the female creative force to be more present in men sometimes than it is in women. But that female creative force is what transforms the world, and female characters in Almodóvar’s films and mine—and in The Orphanage—do have the power to bend reality to their will.

I think you have some of that, too. What’s next for you?
I’m going back to London to finish editing Hellboy II, which will be released in July, 2008. But, that’s a male-centric film.

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