Guillermo Del Toro speaks to us about his new film Crimson Peak, strong female roles, Pinocchio and the much-discussed sequel to Pacific Rim…
What were the seeds of the idea for Crimson Peak?
Gothic romance is very important to my childhood and my teenage years and it’s been 40 years since I saw gothic romance treated the way it was during the golden years of movie making, before it went into B-Movie territory of someone with a candle and cobwebs and no sets and I really miss the sort of grandeur of Rebecca or Dragonwyck with Vincent Price these lavish productions that never the less belong to a genre that sort of touched the borders of fairy tale and horror.
I think it’s infected by warmth and I wanted to do…the first movie I saw when I was four was Arabian Nights with my mother-so very Freudianly-it stayed with me. And I think it’s, I wanted to, it’s not a horror film but even if it’s marketed like one but I wanted to sort of bring that unique flavour which I think means that sweet and sour, of love and death.
There’s quite extreme violence in it [Crimson Peak], what was the think behind that?
Well, the funny thing is that gothic romance in its literary form was at the height of popularity in England in the 19th century, it was really titillating; it had sex and extreme violence for its time. There’s a famous engraving of Victorian ladies in a drawing parlour reading The Monk [Matthew Gregory Lewis’ novel], and one of them is watching the door so their husband’s don’t come in and it was really bloody, it had the bloody nun and it had huge sexual perversions and I knew that if I really, there’s a certain heightened form of melodrama and exaggeration that comes with gothic romance, I always quote Lord Byron when he said and this could have been said by any B-Movie producer in the 50s, he said “If everything else fails, shock them.”
Was it a challenge to affectionately pay homage to the golden age of gothic romance while being immediately contemporary?
Well it would be a challenge if you were doing a pastiche. Every movie I make I get high on my own supply and I’m completely in love with the substance. So I’m not rephrasing, I’m phrasing. I try to change things enough, I try to attempt a melodramatic visual tone, I try to make the visuals and the audio design and the camera work to be melodramatic. It accommodates the world where you can have a matron looking at an oil painting or a porridge spoon scraping metal. It needs to be heightened so if you don’t feel it in your gut, it totally wouldn’t work. At the same time you try to reformulate the gender politics of the genre, the idea for example that the bad guys are the villains acquiring more and more humanity as the narrative progresses as opposed to becoming remote and terrible. The use of the ghosts is actually-the more the narrative advances-the really scary elements are human other than ghosts.
Ghosts and ghouls don’t seem to scare you; I was wondering what your biggest fear is?
Actually they do scare me and I’ve had a couple of experiences and I was completely scared but I always answered that what scared me in real life were people, what scared me were politicians, corporations people who were as spectral as ghosts with an equally unfathomable power. Very, very rich people that say global warming isn’t happening that scares me a lot.
Finding the right actors for the parts was of course crucial, how difficult was it to find the right people for this?
When I always work with actors, I say the tone is here but the emotions need to be created, the emotions need to be real in spite of the fact that they’re gonna be delivering monologues and lines that are gonna to be large, they need to internalize them in a different way. It’s not a realistic psychology; it needs to be in another tone. Any big archetypal genre movie, lie The Count of Monte Cristo, if you had left prison after ten years, you’d go to a fishing village and never see anyone ever again. So you need the drive of the genre to be suitable for actors and they also need vulnerability and an intelligence to find the attributes of the character.
Regards the look of the film, every frame, shadow and object feels so deliberate. Did it take a long time to draft and design?
I obsessed over this movie more than any other I’ve ever made and the thing is we wanted to create eye-protein as supposed to eye-candy where creating images is actually nutrition, that we’re telling you what the tone of the movie is, what the characters are. Usually it’s just the wardrobe telling you what type of character they are, is it a character in a shroud, or it a character that’s very flowery and the same with the houses and the sets. I did torture everyone, I was smothering everybody. I needed to have a painterly approach and qualify the movie very carefully. The early period is the golden period in America, there’s modernity and promise and then the old world is cyan and sort of a cold, cold world with old gold and we were incredibly careful that there wasn’t a single red in any dress or any set dressing except for Lucille [Jessica Chastain]. Lucille, the clay and the ghosts so that it’s a single line of red running across the movie. We qualify the shapes so there are empty human shapes in the corridor, or shoulders and heads to almost implicate ghosts. We talk about butterflies and moths and if you watch the movie again you will see that motif in the papers, the shapes of the chairs, the furniture, the clothing, the embroidery, the floor boards because it’s a moth and a butterfly duking it out at the end of the movie. You sort of build it like that. For me, when someone is praising the cinematography, someone’s praising the production design, and if someone is praising the production design they’re praising the wardrobe. For me, the look of a movie is a table with four legs and the cinematography, the production design, the wardrobe and direction and if all four legs don’t completely agree and are equally nutritious, the movie feels out of place. So what I did I created biographies for all the characters in ten pages and gave them to each head of department and said to them you’re gonna tell me how you’re gonna tell the story.
Where did the industrial angle come from?
I wanted a girl that came from the modern world but could see ghosts and I wanted a guy that came from an old world with ghosts and comes to the future and wants to build machines. They’re both out of place in their own respective worlds and they meet. I agree with Henry James in the gothic is very much the clash of the past and the future. I thought it was really great to have a character in a world where you have a character trying to explain the science of ghosts and then to experience them in a different way. Also, it was taking a modern girl from a very modern world and take her almost back in time in a fairy tale like journey after meeting a dark prince to a haunted castle and visa versa for him to see in her everything he doesn’t have. She liberates him more than him her and that’s another thing in gothic and in horror normally the sex is scene as having negative connotations and the girl needs to stay virginal for the whole thing and I wanted to show a sex scene that transforms them both in a powerful way.
It feels like a film about women and with Tom Hiddleston being the pin-up, was it deliberate to play up against his charm?
When I got Charlie Hunnam, I told him you are playing the damsel in distress and I said you have to know this and very deliberately in the script we made it about two women who looked like they weren’t going to face each other but they end up facing each other at the end. That’s partly why it was difficult to mount because it was R-rated and female centric. Some people have a hard time that she doesn’t get rescued, she actually rescues herself. Every actor knew, every male actor knew they were useless. The core of gothic romance is very feminine, the Bronte’s, Radcliffe. It was very deliberate yes.
What’s your general opinion on those [found footage] horrors?
I love any good movie in horror or any form I just think that what is nice is if we give more leeway to the genres, you know, if we actually say look, it’s worth fighting for a larger body. I wanted the movie to look $100 million with $50 million. I do think that it makes a difference for me to try to give it an old Hollywood charm. I mean my camera movements are very deliberate, they feel like cranes and dollies from a Douglas Sirk movie, other than rapid chases and stuff like that to give it a voluptuous rich flavor that when I was a kid and I watched James Welles Frankenstein you had a top director from the UK working on a classic with a top budget and it was lavish and beautiful and charming and I think little by little, the horror movie became an exercise in profitability.
Does it ever frustrate you that films are marketed in a different way to what you want?
Actually, I think marketing gothic romance is actually quite heroic because it’s a feathered fish. If you were expecting a romance, you’re not gonna get When Harry Met Sally, you’re gonna get when Harry Murdered Sally and hid her under the floorboards.
You’re obviously doing Pinocchio, what is it about the need to retell classic stories from childhood in a darker, more different way?
I did a Beauty and the Beast for Warner that we didn’t shoot but I wrote and wanted to direct it but for me it’s a life long passion. The fascination of Hollywood is because they make money, that’s it, but the fascination for me is can we tell them in a way that changes them somewhat. Pinocchio is set between World War One and World War Two during the rise of fascism so everybody behaves like a puppet apart from the puppet. But if it was just doing Pinocchio to see if it works it would be an incredibly hard life to lead.
Could you tell us anything about your next film which is going to be a small independent film?
Not right now. I’m still writing, we’re already in pre-production and designing a character for seven months.
Would you ever contemplate going back to the blockbuster?
I would do Pacific Rim 2 in a second. I would do Hellboy 3 in a second. I love the big crazy toys but I also love the small obscenely obsessive toys. I had a lot of fun with both and I think it’s good to go from on to another, it helps you catch your breath.
Did you have to tear down the house set?
Yeah, they’re almost installations, like [Banksy’s] Dismaland. You’d almost love them to leave them there for people to visit and as I’ve always said, it’s the ephemeral natural of what we do that makes me truly try to capture the entire set as a character. I’m very build driven, I build sets I do make up effects, the ghosts are actors in make up because I feel it’s ephemeral to see an actor in that house.
Crimson Peak is set for release on October 16th, with a cast that includes Jessica Chastain (Interstellar), Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World) and Mia Wasikowska (Maps to the Stars).
Many thanks to Guillermo del Toro for taking the time for this interview.