Lady Vengeance: Interview with Guillermo Del Toro
Guillermo del Toro, best known for directing aesthetically impressive, intellectually thoughtful horror films like Mimic and Pan’s Labyrinth, steps into a slightly different role this summer by presenting Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of one of his favorite films as a child. I spoke to del Toro about his decades-long dream of bringing this film to life, the connection between horror and spirituality, and what makes a dark basement so damn scary.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark opens in theaters on August 26th.
Filmmaker: I wanted to start by asking how you began working on the film and the origins of the story.
Guillermo del Toro: It’s the end of a very long journey with this film for me. We started working on it about 16 years ago; 13 years ago we obtained the rights to the screenplay, so it’s been a while. I saw the original movie in 1973, when I was a kid, and I thought it was the scariest thing I’d seen for years. It was actually a very easy way to scare my brothers.
Filmmaker: So it actually made you afraid of the dark?
Del Toro: Yes! We would chase each other, saying “Sally, Sally,” which is what the creatures did in the movie, and you know back in those days you didn’t have VHS, you didn’t have any resources to re-watch the movie, and we ended up re-telling to our friends, you know, verbally. [Like], “Oh, I saw this movie the other day, or last year, or last month.” We’d describe the movie. And so many, many years passed, a decade at least, until finally, in the 1980s, we were able to get a VHS of the movie. I realized, much to my surprise, that many of the moments that I loved about the movie were actually things I had invented, that were not in the original movie. And I thought I would love to remake it as a different type of story. I started working on finding the rights around 1994-95, I secured them in 1997 and started writing the screenplay with Matthew Robbins in 1998.
Filmmaker: So it was a real childhood dream to make this film.
Del Toro: Absolutely, and I wanted to change it into a sort of dark fairytale, because the original was very specific to the ’70s. And you know the character of Kim Darvey in the original movie was a very passive, very submissive character, and I didn’t like that. I wanted to make the female characters much stronger and more resilient.
Filmmaker: After investing so much time into tracking and writing the film, why did you decide not to direct it?
Del Toro: Well, back in 1998 I had a project for Bob Weinstein at Dimension and Miramax, and having just done Mimic with Bob, which was not a very good experience, I decided not to direct this back then. Then, for a long, long time, the project stayed at Miramax, and in the interim I went to direct Pan’s Labyrinth, which superficially has a little bit of similarity [to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark]. Superficially, like a girl arriving to a new place, with an old building, and she discovers creatures from the underground. I felt that for the first 20 minutes of the film I would be essentially repeating myself in some way, and I wanted to see somebody else tackle the story.
Filmmaker: In the end did you appreciate having that collaborative experience, and having somebody else bring to life a film you’d been thinking about for literally decades?
Del Toro: The way Troy had designed the house and the way Troy designed the visual aspects of the movie is a very different approach than I would have taken, and I really wanted him to go with it and do it the way he wanted to do it. Nevertheless it’s the production that I have been the most present in from the get go and all the way to the end. I was there during the shoot, during post-production, editing, visual effects, mixing – every step of the way, because it’s a movie I was presenting, and presenting is a big commitment.
Filmmaker: You take the responsibility seriously.
Del Toro: Absolutely. For good or bad, the name of the title is mine and I needed to make sure that everything is done in a way that think the audience will find satisfying.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the design of the house, you work with space and set pieces so much in your films; why is it that particular spaces, like the basement, or a twisting garden maze, frighten us?
Del Toro: There is a commonality to the way we imagine the darker worlds. There is a very Freudian tendency to situate the demons and creatures in the darker regions of the earth, which represent in many ways the Id — you know, the subconscious of our mind. So the creatures definitely live in there – the demons and the fairies and the monsters all live in the deep, dark caves and subterranean tunnels of our mind and therefore those are very natural representations in a horror film. The same can be said of the dark forest, and the winding paths by the moonlight and so forth. I think that darkness speaks very naturally about things that are not revealed. So they come very easily to the language of horror film. But I think what’s really prodigious and beautiful is when fear or the supernatural occur in daylight, outside. And I think there’s a very nice moment in Don’t Be Afraid where [Sally] is exploring the garden and it’s daylight but nevertheless, it is really ominous; there is a very quiet feeling. Some of the great films of the past, namely Texas Chainsaw Massacre for example, or a very subtle horror movie like The Innocents – both movies have some of their most shocking moments occur in daylight, and I really like when filmmakers do that.
Filmmaker: I also think when something ominous occurs in broad daylight Sally, as a child, still feels bold enough to investigate.
Del Toro: What I wanted very much was to make the character of Sally, the little girl, very resourceful. Not in the Hollywood way where she would construct a Home Alone sort of defense mechanism but resourceful in the sense that she has natural curiosity. With all the things that she is discovering, she is not afraid of them, but eventually when they prove to be really nasty creatures she, nevertheless ends up being perhaps the most resourceful character in the movie. She finds a way to fight back, she actually kills a few of them, which is very satisfactory. And also, she is the one character who leaves the house. She just gets the hell out of there. And because she is a child, she is forced to return, which is what would happen in real life.
Filmmaker: As in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a child at the center of the story who is able to see things that the adults around them can’t see until it’s too late. Can you speak to your interest in children as heroes with the power to see what others cannot?
Del Toro: Well the main difference is that we in fact open Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark with a set piece that leaves no room for people to think these creatures are imaginary. We open the movie with a very frank, very brutal sequence in the 1800s that shows there are things living in the chimney that do take people away, you know? So we know in this case that the creatures may be linked to the girl somehow but they are not in her imagination. What I think is common between fairy tales and horror is that the character with the pure heart is the one who is aware of the other side before the rest of mankind. The character that is able to believe in these things is the character to see them first. And that is very much an element inherited from fairytales. I do believe that as a child we have the power to see the world in a different way than adults. We can make it a more magical world than the adults. We have the power of belief rather than the power of make believe. We have the power of believing in things, thus making them real.
Filmmaker: It also sets up a difficulty for the central characters in both Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark where, because they are children, nobody will believe them. Even in this film where the creatures are ostensibly real.
Del Toro: That’s why it was imperative in this movie that we made it clear to the audience in the first four minutes of the film that these things were real.
Filmmaker: I want to go back to what you were saying about your experience with the original film, about how you transformed the story through oral retellings. That is often how folklore and mythology are passed on. Can you speak about the film’s connection to existing folklore, and why you like to reference these things in your films?
Del Toro: The realistic novel, in my mind, is a relatively young genre in storytelling. It really is a modern genre. Before realism, before literature was so absorbed with realism, the main tools of storytelling, the main tools of teaching and fabulation were fairy tales, oral stories, folklore, fable, and the parable. They were ancient forms of storytelling and they were very powerful and very primal, because they allowed you to tap into the elements that are about nature. Supernatural, above nature, above the everyday life. So you can talk about demons and monsters and angels, other worlds, and fairy lore and this and that, and they automatically tap into something in us that is very much ingrained in our childhood, and make us more vulnerable to fear. But also makes us more vulnerable to awe. And I think fear and awe are really things that the civilized world is extinguishing, and they go hand in hand. I think the sense of wonder you get as a child shouldn’t disappear with your iPhone and the Nintendo and the sense of mundane security that electronic gadgets and mass communications give you. I think the moment of communion between man and nature has always had a mythical dimension. When we leave the gadgets, so to speak, the gadgets of the modern conceit of literature and you go back to powerful forms like the fable or the parable, you can tap into that very primal place.
Filmmaker: Do you think we are more fearful nature of nature because we are less connected to it than we used to be?
Del Toro: I think we live in a world that seeks to reassure us, and the dependency on communications and gadgets and things, materialistic stuff, you know, automatically… things are created for your comfort, things are created for your safety. And safety and comfort and security are almost products that we are sold in the modern world, and we fully buy into them. Fear requires the suspension of disbelief and the sense of wonder that you get when you reconnect with primal stuff that is spiritual. I think that we live in strangely non-spiritual times, incredibly materialistic, and horror is one of the bastions of the spiritual. Even if you have a dark spiritual experience, horror is a spiritual experience.
Filmmaker: Are you afraid of the dark?
Del Toro: You know, I don’t think I am that much anymore. As a child I was very much so. I really am not that afraid of the dark. I am very much a believer in ghosts and the spiritual world and stuff like that but no, I’m not as easily scared as I was as a child. But then again, I do have my moments. [Laughs].
Filmmaker: Sometimes I get that chill where I have to cross a dark house by myself. Suddenly I just want to run to my bed as quickly as possible.
Del Toro: Oh, absolutely, 100%. I still am not very good at being alone, by the way. I get paranoid really quick.
Filmmaker: It’s a good thing we build our families around us. It’s part of the product of security.
Del Toro: Absolutely.
FARIHAH ZAMAN began working in film as a Programmer for Film South Asia documentary film festival before moving to New York in 2005, where she was the Acquisitions Manager at independent film distribution company Magnolia Pictures. In 2008 she coordinated IFP’s No Borders program, the only international co-production market in the US, before becoming Program Manager of The Flaherty Seminar until 2010. Farihah currently writes for The Huffington Post, as well as online film journal Reverse Shot, among others.