Jonathan Crocker

Editorial Director | Journalist

Pan’s Labyrinth: Womb With A View

Posted by Jonathan On November - 29 - 2006

deltoroOnce upon a time… Guillermo del Toro’s WWII fairytale journeys into his heart of darkness.

Guillermo del Toro is crying. Crying his eyes out. He’s given up his salary, re-mortgaged his house and sold everything he owns. It’s 1993 and the young filmmaker has flat run out of ideas to escape from the gigantic bank loans used to fund his debut feature Cronos. In desperation, he enters a South American film competition for a last-chance shot at the meaty cash prize. Cronos wins. Del Toro bursts into floods. “I couldn’t stop crying,” he remembers fondly. “It was partly the relief of receiving recognition. And partly that I wasn’t going to be sodomised in a Mexican jail at a tender age.”

Thirteen years on and del Toro is in tears again. Happily, sodomy and imprisonment are no longer pending. Emerging under the French sun after six long months of post-production, the now-42-year-old filmmaker has arrived at Cannes, planet’s Earth’s biggest film festival, for the lavish world premiere of his sixth film: Pan’s Labyrinth. The audience loves it. The critics love it. And so does the bespectacled director, wearing a beaming smile as he greets Total Film on our hotel patio. “I had to watch the film 70 times in the editing room and I cried every time,” he smiles Why?. “It’s my most personal film, the one I’m most proud of.” He shakes his head. “And I still had to give up my salary to finish it…”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Pan’s Labyrinth is without question the apotheosis of obsessions that have been boiling irrepressibly since the start of del Toro’s career. Set against the war-scarred backdrop of 1944 fascist Spain, it sees a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) escaping the savage grip of her sadistic Nazi step-father (Sergi Lopez) as she discovers an ancient maze in the forest. Deep within it waits Pan, (Hellboy’s Ape Sapian, Doug Jones), a mythical faun with the power to grant her immortality. Rich, enigmatic and beautifully rendered, del Toro’s magical-realist fable balances brutal war drama with the strange, fantastical adventure in Pan’s netherworld.

But really – crying over a fairytale? Has the pulp horror auteur behind likes of Cronos, Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone gone soft? Far from it. Del Toro’s most personal project might also be his harshest. “I have this feeling,” says the director, taking his seat in the shade, “and I know in my gut that it’s right, that horror stories are nothing but the stepchildren of fairytales. For me, the most striking images in history of motion pictures come from the fantastic: La Belle Et La Bete by Cocteau, Nosferatu by Murnau or The Mask Of Satan by Mario Bava are truly unforgettable. For me, The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos were more genre films. Pan’s Labyrinth is something different. I would call it a dark fairytale about fascism.”

The sweeter sell came at last year’s Cannes, when del Toro announced his new film to us as “a womb with a view”. It’s typical of his playful smarts. (On Hitchcock: “I have the same pants size. I’m a 52. We’re both Catholic and repressed and we like to murder people.”) His new fable thrusts us into a dark, stunningly realised vision, inspired by Freudian angst, the paintings of Spanish artist Goya, gothic literature, Hammer horror and then some. Clapping a brotherly arm around Total Film’s shoulder, del Toro’s makes like world cinema’s most loveable geek. But his sprawling reference points belie a startling erudition kicking under the amiable persona. “Fairytales invoke and evoke profoundly Freudian images in all of us,” he explains, of the cheeky pitch. “As a guy who has collected and read fairytales obsessively over decades, I believe that all fairytales are about two things: either going back to your mother’s womb or about getting out of your mother’s womb, facing the monster and becoming an adult. So in essence, this is a movie very nurtured by images that seemed to be inside the body – the entrance of the tree, womb-like rooms and birth-canal tunnels.”

If we can grok Pan’s Labyrinth as a subterranean road-map of del Toro’s psyche, the movie’s birth was suitably traumatic. A Spanish-language production made completely outside the Hollywood system, its genesis coils back even before Cronos (“It would have been my first film if I’d managed to find the money”). Once the $15 million budget had been co-financed by no less than six producers (including del Toro himself and countryman Alfonso Cauron), the director hurtled into a year’s intense preparation, a helter-skelter four-month shoot and that final six month post-production haul, “The shoot was highly stressful – I lost 3 kilos a week,” grins the filmmaker, hands knitted across his comfortable paunch. “We only had 12 weeks to prepare concretely what I had initially sketched. We worked day and night. I wanted audiences to believe that the film cost upwards of $30- or $40-million dollars, while in reality it cost us barely one-third of that.”

Most of that cash poured into the movie’s elaborate special-effects, birthing some of the most terrifying creatures ever to crawl off del Toro’s brainpan. “It starts here, with my drawings,” explains director, leaning forward to show off his leather notebook, its pages stacked with lines of tightly etched handwriting and vivid illustrations. He points to an early design of one of Labyrinth’s most menacing and original creations – a spindly, white-skinned revenant who holds his eyeballs in his hands. “This was one of the early incarnations of the Pale Man,” he adds. “I came up with the faceless look while watching a stingray documentary. I asked my wife, ‘Should he have hollow eyes or eyes on the palms?’ Lovely marital talk, eh?” The Pale Man is just one the chilling creatures that Ofelia must face when Pan sets her three dangerous tasks. “You never know if you should trust Pan or not,” expains del Toro, flicking through several illustrations of his horned beast. “There’s a very subtle thing where as the movie progresses he gets younger and more beautiful. And the more beautiful he gets, the more menacing he becomes.” So how about those hoofs and horns? He smiles. “I think that you can only call him a Satanic figure if you’re Catholic.”

Point taken. Raised by his strictly Catholic grandmother, del Toro is a famously lapsed alter boy. Granny, no doubt, would not approve. “That’s true,” he laughs, “I was a choir boy but then at the age of 14 I discovered masturbation and all that went out the window. Being a proper Catholic means being a repressed Catholic, so the kinds of images that Catholicism deals with and the kinds of native mythology create the most horrific monsters. Now they all live inside me. I’m big enough now that I’m a housing project for the monsters. I identify with them, because by being the ultimate inhuman, they illuminate our humanity.”

This pulp poetry of del Toro’s nightmare fantasies – like all great horror – has always been sucked from externalising the internal. And in Pan’s Labyrinth’s dual reality, we find the monsters of the labyrinth echoed and eclipsed by the chill-factor of those in the real world. The film’s most terrifying beast is Ofelia’s father-figure, the sadistic Captain Vidal, who brutally tortures and murders anyone who opposes the fascist regime – and in graphic detail. “The violence is not meant to be fun,” assures del Toro, seriously. “People are used to seeing images of war that are sanctioned by TV. But as a Mexican, I have lived the reality of violence all my life. I saw my first corpse when I was four years old. I’ve seen people being killed. I have had guns put to my head. I have had my father kidnapped. When we freed him, for the first time in my life I felt I was not somebody’s son. I was a man.”

It’s a telling tale, one that chimes loudly with the turbulent coming-of-age themes, personal and political, throbbing hard at the heart of Pan’s Labyrinth. And del Toro, who survived his anxious, lonely childhood at a Jesuit boarding-school by tunnelling into the pages of medical textbooks and gothic literature, knows it. “Children are not happy creatures that go around oblivious to pain and betrayal and sin – the massive amount of time we spent in sexual or existential confusion is never talked about. The way Hollywood views children, this would be an impossible movie to make there. I really love movies like The Night Of The Hunter, Los Olvidados, Au Revoir Les Enfants, where children are submerged in a very challenging reality that exists all around us. It is necessary to have courage to be a child because you’re constantly being told what to do and what to think. Ofelia steps into this fantastic world to face the real world, not to flee it. That’s what the movie is about for me. Fascism is where somebody or something gives you a single option. Liberty is the fact that you can choose. Like in a labyrinth: go to the right, go to the left. Choices.”

And that’s the magic word. Pan’s Labyrinth is another triumph for the filmmaker in what’s been a long, bitter battle for creative control over his movies. Once he’d dried his eyes, it took four years for del Toro to pay back what he owed for Cronos – which he did with his fee for Hollywood bug-horror Mimic. His first studio film is, to date, the most unhappiest of his career. “Shooting Mimic was basically going through the equivalent of open-heart surgery without anaesthesia,” he recalls wistfully. “But I’m thankful for it. There’s a lot of lessons I learned. It widened my range of camera moves and storytelling – and this is a direct result of the studio telling me, ‘Move the camera around.’ You can learn more from a hard experience than a nice one, but for all those who think sacrificing a little bit of freedom for a lot of money is worth it, it isn’t.” For del Toro, the reverse was true: on his least favourite film, he’d still ponied up $120,000 to add extra effects shots.

Bitterly disappointed, del Toro ensured that his next movie, Spanish ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, was made far from the claws of meddling Hollywood execs. He found unlikely support in the shape of fruity drama-queen Pedro Almodóvar, whose production company gave him his fullest taste of freedom since he’d started shooting monster-movies with ketchup and a Super-8 camera as a child. Del Toro hasn’t forgotten: “When we were starting to produce Devil’s Backbone, Almodovar said to me, ‘Your films and my films have something in common.’ I asked, ‘What? What is it that you found?’ And he said, ‘Well, in your films, everyone seems to either be family or they kill each other. And in my films, everyone is either family or they fuck each other.’ I like that description very much.”

So did Hollywood. Backbone’s success (buoyed by Alejandro Amenabar’s chiller The Others released the same year) brought del Toro his second US studio blockbuster, Blade II. A hardcore comic-book fanboy, he couldn’t resist – the budget or the job. He seemed happy to fly with John Huston’s old one-for-them-and-one-for-me mantra, using the cash from his Hollywood pay-gigs to support his own endeavours. But even here, del Toro’s own obsessions burrow into the action: insect-fear, body horror, religious iconography, wicked slashes of Bunuelian humour and doomy romanticism. Things changed, though, with Hellboy. Snubbing Hollywood mega-franchises Blade: Trinity and The Prisoner Of Azkaban to make his dream project happen, del Toro fought for seven years to ensure fave actor Ron Perlman took the lead. Result? A solid hit and franchise of his own. More importantly, del Toro had finally succeeded in making a major English-language blockbuster on his own terms. “Hellboy was almost like clove oil in Marathon Man,” he remembers, with a chuckle. Again, he’d deferred half his salary to do it. “To get more freedom,” he says simply. “In Hollywood, you spend so much time getting your head fucking swelled. I really enjoy doing films the way I want to do them. If they’re not worth giving up your money for, they’re not worth doing.”

Del Toro, for sure, occupies a curious position, distanced from his both South American colleagues (Amenabar, Cauron, Fernando Meirelles, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) and Tinseltown by his uneasy flirtations with commercial/mainstream and arthouse/independent moviemaking. “I’ve always been rather difficult to pigeon-hole,” he agrees. “I believe that a filmmaker has to have the freedom to do what he wants, and speak about what he knows. You need to keep one foot on either side of the Atlantic to remain both independent and free.”

Successfully co-produced with Cauron (who did accept Potter 4), Pan’s Labyrinth may have cleared a new path for unshackled creativity in del Toro’s future. Hellboy 2 is next (“It’s something really special”), but thriller Mephisto’s Bridge has been long-mooted (“It’s the story of a billboard designer who sells his soul to the devil. It’s my metaphor for my experiences in Hollywood”) and an adap of Roald Dahl’s twisted kiddie classic The Witches could even be on the slate. But for the man who waited 16 years to make Devil’s Backbone and 10 years to make Hellboy is in no hurry to rush. “All I want in this life is for people who don’t like my movies to blame it completely on me,” he shrugs. “I’m talking to Alfonso about keeping the partnership going. He can watch my back and I can watch his. You have much more control.” More control, less tears, almost no risk of sodomy or jail time. But there’s just one thing. “I’m 41 and I’m still equally as stupid and romantic as when I was 16,” he sighs. “I can’t stop giving up salary…”


1. He owns more than 6,000 DVDS. “No, it’s true. I keep them alphabetically by author. When my family borrows a movie, I force them to put it back in order.”

2. He became a vegetarian after watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. “For four years. Then one day, after eating too much muesli, I just ate four chickens in a row.”

3. Does he have a photographic memory? “Yes, I would say so.”

4. He thinks that Ron Perlman has “has the sexiest male voice this side of Barry White. What more can one ask for?”

5. His favourite movies include Viridiana, Greed, Frankenstein, Mad Max 2 and Great Expectations.

4 Responses to “Pan’s Labyrinth: Womb With A View”

  1. […] religious iconography, wicked slashes of Bunuelian humour… through the looking glass into Guillermo del Toro’s psyche itself. His most personal film, the one he’s wanted to make from the […]

  2. […] ingenious and frighteningly close to home, Selick’s new nightmare puts him closer to Guillermo del Toro and David Lynch than Tim Burton. See it in 3D. Then go to sleep with the light […]

  3. […] alt=”" /> Lit up on HD, Guillermo del Toro’s stunningly textured world now feels even more beautiful, ominous and /alive/… Check out […]

  4. […] Rich, ingenious and frighteningly close to home, Henry Selick’s new nightmare puts him closer to Guillermo del Toro and David Lynch than Tim Burton. See it in 3D. Then go to sleep with the light […]


About Me

Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.



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