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Director Series-Guilermo del Toro-Pan's Labyrinth

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Director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is gathering pre-Oscar accolades as we go to press—one of the latest being the San Francisco Film Critics’ award for Best Foreign Language film. Pan’s Labyrinth is the second in a proposed trilogy combining the metaphysical horrors of genre films—ghosts, demons, and currently, eldritch demigods who may or may not be benign—with the very real horrors of political systems gone amok. Particularly, for del Toro, the fascism of Franco-era Spain.The first film in this triptych was the well-received ghost-in-a-boarding school The Devil’s Backbone. Then in Hollywood there was a Hellboy to do, along with some other work. Now del Toro is back, directing in Spanish, for the trilogy’s second installment, Pan’s Labyrinth, in which a young girl tries to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the household run by her stepfather, a military man whose “job” is to hunt down and kill those resisting Franco’s rule.For that escape, she flees into a forest world of talking fauns and morphing fairies. It’s undoubtedly a world built from her imagination; unless of course it turns out to be far more real than the political chimeras being clung to by the adults.Del Toro recently took a few moments to talk with Below the Line about the fruitful collisions between his created worlds and the “real” one, and the collaborations he savors to help bring his visions to screen.BTL: I found it interesting that three of the most politically trenchant films of the year were all genre films, one, Children of Men, made by your co-producer Alfonso Cuarón, V for Vendetta earlier in the year, and then your film.Del Toro: I believe that, yes. I think that the only way to address certain issues is in a parable form. I think that parables go a long way into reaching an audience emotionally, in a way that a straight political film doesn’t seem to do. Politics are as personal as religion or sex. And you’re never going to convince somebody that he or she is wrong. But you can address it perhaps as a parable and get the point across without having to be confrontational.BTL: With the themes you dealt with here, looking at Spain’s past, you didn’t have many collaborators from your own past, though you worked with (cinematographer) Guillermo Navarro before.Del Toro: Yes, but Guillermo and I are more than DP and director, we’re really very good friends. He’s one of these guys that is a brother, you know. So, you know other than him and [producer] Bertha Navarro, and [producer] Alfonso [Cuarón], who are above the line, [and composer, Javier Navarrete, who worked on The Devil’s Backbone] the rest were new. BTL: Given that, what was it like working with new collaborators? In things like costume design and editing, did you do that without missing a beat or is there a learning curve for you as a director, especially in a personal work like this?Del Toro: Well it takes a while for them to learn the kinks, because it does get kinky! I believe I do things a little differently than some directors. I am very much a believer in collaboration in certain areas and I am very much a believer in dictatorship in a lot of others. I am very vigilant with the set designs and the palette of colors, the texture and wardrobe design, and all that. The appearance of the movie really goes through an incredible scrutiny. But, for example, with Navarro we know that I’m gonna choose the lens, I’m gonna tell him what the camera move is. But I’m not gonna utter a peep about the light in production. He’s gonna do it and I’m gonna just watch him and enjoy the catering.BTL: So for you a lot of the film is “made” in preproduction, aside from the blocking and working with actors?Del Toro: The visual is all in the preproduction. The storyboard is a great tool, but I am also open to the accident on the set.BTL: Do you do a lot of previs?Del Toro: Well, I don’t believe that much in previs except if it’s something that involves an incredibly complicated camera move or an incredibly complicated effect. I believe that some of the greatest movies in the genre were made without previs. 2001, Star Wars, Close Encounters, were all done without previs. I think that what you do need is to storyboard everything. I do thumbnails myself of the entire movie. In the special effects sequences I do give it to an artist to clean, because I know that no one wants my doodles.BTL: How long does that take? Del Toro: Every day I work two hours during the shoot, because I like to do them during the shoot. I think that it’s a mistake to storyboard anything other than effects in preproduction. You can do key frames, but you shouldn’t storyboard because you are not that familiar with the set. Once you live in a set for let’s say three, four days of shoot you start realizing things that you didn’t know in preproduction. The geometry sort of grows on you.BTL: In this film that’s literally true, especially with the labyrinth itself, which was a character in this film.Del Toro: Yeah, we had very little time to design that because we had about 12 weeks from putting pencil to paper to shooting. And I would do the doodle on the set and that was it. We didn’t go through that process of “show me 20 sets and I’ll choose two.” It went from my doodles straight to conceptual and to blueprints.BTL: Tell me about that collaboration with the group at CafeFX.Del Toro: What I love is the fact that the two guys that were involved with the film were [the two credited visual effects supervisors] Everett Burrell and Edward Irastorza. Edward and I go back to Blade II. And I’ve always admired Everett as a makeup artist. I always loved the fact that this guy was pioneering digital concepts back in the early days when he was doing it with an Amiga 200, and he was doing all this digital design with pre-Photoshop programs. I was a fan of his sense of integration between reality and CG. And I think they did a bang up job, an amazing job for the budget. They did those (FX) shots for so little money.Ed was sort of the Kofi Annan of this whole thing. He was orchestrating meetings between leaders of state. And (CafeFX co-founder) Jeff Barnes made it very clear that he wanted a feature that would put CafeFX on the map, so they took the most insanely complex demo ever made. And that was their approach. They would earn a sort of a showcase for themselves and I would earn 300 plus shots.BTL: What is it like for your collaborators in Spain to work on these subjects? Is it like the rest of Europe looking at the Germans in World War II? Del Toro: The movie has opened in Spain and has been a huge success. But I think up until then most people, the technicians, were frankly worried about my sanity. Because they were saying, you know, how do you combine these two things (fantasy and politics)? And I believe a lot of people really didn’t believe it would work. Most everybody was a little worried about the fat Mexican going insane.BTL: But what a productive insanity it was.Del Toro: It ultimately was.

Written by Mark London Williams

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