Feo Amante's Under the Microscope:
An interview with
Guillermo del Toro
by Monica J. O'Rourke
Last week in Manhattan I attended an advance screening of the new Guillermo
Del Toro film, THE
DEVIL'S BACKBONE. Having no advance knowledge of
the film, and without a press release or even an article in hand,
I went into the theater blind - no expectations. The title itself
seemed to indicate that this was going to be some low-budget, indie-film
experimentation, and I have to admit I was less than happy walking
into the theater.
Ah, but when will I learn? The title of the film is a reference to spina
bifida, a genetic disease that cripples children before they can
even get their start in life. The title is not indicative of some
Grade-B Ed Wood fiasco but is a profoundly insightful title worthy
of such a great film. Paralleling spina bifida with the disease
of poverty and war is inspired.
At home in the theater, relaxing against the back of a seat, mic in
hand, Del Toro shared with the crowd a riveting tale from his childhood,
the inspiration behind his riveting movie The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo).
A charismatic, soft-spoken man, Del Toro greeted fans and colleagues alike with
the same genuine enthusiasm, anticipating audience response to his
film like a child eagerly awaiting Christmas.
"This is a movie that I wanted to do for sixteen years before it came
to be," Del Toro told us. "I wanted it to be my first
film before CRONOS-" (a well-received 1993
retelling of the Vampire mythos, about an aging antique dealer who
is stabbed by a mysterious object that creates a craving for blood)
"-which will show you how completely deluded I am in life, thinking
that I was going to get a ghost story with a war as a background
for my first film.
"Also, it's a movie that is extremely autobiographical for me - not because
I was part of the Spanish Civil War, which I was not - but because
most everything that the kids live or experience in the movie were
things that I saw as a child, and that includes hearing a ghost
at the age of eleven, my one and only brush with the supernatural.
"I had inherited the room of my late uncle, who was one of my best
friends in childhood, and he and I used to talk about horror, he
took me to all the horror movies, all the great ones. He gave me
a few of my first literary anthologies of horror.
"And one day he said to me, 'When I die I'll come back and let you know
if there's something there.' And at the time, that sounded really
good." And I inherited the room after he passed away, and three years later,
after he'd died, I was in the room and I started hearing a really,
very sad human sigh, like a foot away from my head. One part of
me really didn't get scared. I turned off the TV to investigate
all the possibilities -- was I breathing through my ears? Was the
window open? Etcetera etcetera . . . and after I go through the
room this voice becomes more and more irritated, and I recognized
the timbre of the voice as my uncle and I ran away, never to return
to that room.
"What struck me more about that voice, more than anything, was the sadness,
and that's what I wanted to do, I wanted a ghost story at the bottom
of a war that is all about sadness, and loss."
And this is exactly what he accomplishes. The Devil's Backbone succeeds
on all levels, a riveting story about survival, with enough visual
imagery to satisfy the artsy crowd, scary and haunting enough to
satisfy genre lovers.
Why a movie about orphans? In 1997, Del Toro's father was kidnapped . . .
After the movie, Del Toro resumed his place at the front of the audience
for a laid-back Q&A session that offered even more insight into
the mind of this brilliant director.
The concept of The Devil's Backbone was born sixteen years earlier,
although Del Toro explained that about two and a half years ago
he came across another screenplay (by two Spanish writers: Antonio Trashorras & David Muñoz) with
similarities to his original idea. He bought the screenplay from
them, fused it with his ideas, and a third draft was born. The concept
of using the Spanish Civil War was his own, something he seems quite
Why a movie about orphans? In 1997, Del Toro's father was kidnapped
and held for seventy-two days. They paid the ransom and got his father back, which Del Toro says made him appreciate the fact that his parents are still alive.
He said it was time for him to do a movie about, "what it is to be
alone in the world as a child, and celebrate the movie for myself
the fact that I still have parents, instead of doing it as a memorial.
Let them enjoy it a little bit too."
Del Toro says of the ghost child:
"I wanted him to be haunting yet beautiful."
The child's ghost is one of the most disquieting parts of the film,
and Del Toro uses water in a most visually disturbing way. "The
thing I thought about the water was, since the child had died in
the water it would be really almost magical, because the ghost was
supposed to be kind of beautiful to look at."
Fernando Tielve, who played young Carlos in the film, . . . was offered the lead
in the movie, something that made him and his mother quite happy as they were having financial problems.
Again Del Toro succeeded, creating a mysterious, beautiful ghost that
was both terrifying and compelling. "In so many ways, the movie
tries to deal with the ghost of something from the life of the kids,
a ghost of something that you lost, something that haunts you, something
that you never did." It is a metaphor for the ghosts that haunt
one's life, a universal understanding of fear.
Were the images of violence toward children too disturbing for America
audiences? American movie-goers tend to shy away from anything too
graphic where children are concerned. Del Toro discussed
Los Olvidados, a 1950 movie about a group of violent juvenile delinquents
living in the festering slums of Mexico City, which deals with the
corruption of youth.
Del Toro says, "What I loved about Los Olvidados was that it portrayed
childhood as a mixture of innocence and rebellion. That's exactly
what (childhood) is for me. As adults
I think we tend to idealize childhood as something like a Care Bears
cartoon." Del Toro contends that universally, audiences who have
seen The Devil's Backbone are reacting favorable, and are connecting
strongly with the film.
More than five hundred children auditioned for the movie. Del Toro searched
for youngsters "really eager to do the job, intelligent, with a
quality that related to the character." Fernando Tielve, who played
young Carlos in the film, initially auditioned as an extra, but
after a lengthy interview and an opportunity to read lines, was
offered the lead in the movie, something that made him and his mother
quite happy as they were having financial problems.
Toro feels close to his films, feels that they are a part of him
that he eagerly shares with his audiences. However, perhaps revealing
the closeness he feels to his art, he adds with a laugh, "The Devil's
Backbone - this is mine. If any one of you doesn't like it, tough
shit. There will always be someone who will. This is my movie in
that sense, because whatever in the film is criticized, it's like
my personality - some people like it, some people don't."
Del Toro's next personal project will be competing in the
Harry Knowles look-alike contest.
Up next for Del Toro is Blade
2, a movie he jokingly describes as "an escapist, explosive
movie that has nothing to do with the real world. It's about a guy
that dresses like a leather freak and slices vampires at night.
Which has nothing to do with the horror we're living right now."
Freak" dishes out a bit of the old "Ultra-Violence"
And after that: "Mephisto's Bridge, another personal movie. I'd like
to make one to one (one personal, one mainstream)".
Mephisto's Bridge is the story about a yuppie designer who makes
a deal with the devil in order to get the girl of his dreams. Written
and directed by Del Toro, with Martin Scorsese as Executive producer.
overall response from the crowd attending the screening was one
of enthusiasm and excited anticipation. Not since The
Others (also notable, perhaps not so coincidentally, as another Spanish film triumph) has a
crowd so fully appreciated a subtle ghost story told in such a remarkable
way. If Del Toro continues on this trend, we may have another Tim
Burton on our hands, perhaps another Scorcese, in terms of commercial
success and audience appreciation. Losing Del Toro to the masses
would be a loss for those aficionados of true art-house films but
it would be a sacrifice for the good of moviegoers everywhere.
First posted on December
19 , 2001