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GUILLERMO DEL TORO

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Under the Microscope: The Feo Amante Interviews Monica J. O'Rourke Interview and Report by
Monica J. O'Rourke
Guillermo Del Toro
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GUILLERMO DEL TORO: THIS IS MINE - 2001

'When I die I'll come back and let you know if there's something there.'
- Guillermo del Toro

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.

GdT
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.

Cronos movie image
"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 . . .

Del Toro speaks

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 proud of.

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.

The Ghost Child
Del Toro says of the ghost child:
"I wanted him to be haunting yet beautiful."<
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."

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.

Del Toro

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.

Los Olvidados

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.

U.S.  movie poster

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.

Del Toro and poster
Del Toro's next personal project will be competing in the
Harry Knowles
look-alike contest.
Del 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."

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."

Scene from Blade 2
The "Leather 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.

The 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

End Skull
END

This interview copyright 2001 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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