Guillermo del Toro on Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim 2 and more

He's the mayor of the geek universe, the fan who ended up becoming what he always dreamed about, and his knowledge and love of all things horror, sci-fi and fantasy are second to none. He's Guillermo del Toro, and he's back in movie theaters this Friday with his new Gothic romance, Crimson Peak.

That's right: Crimson Peak may look like a horror film on the exterior, but on the inside it's something different. There are ghosts in the movie, but one of the recurring motifs of del Toro's work that's on display here is that the supernatural entities are not always the monsters. It's in the human heart where we can find the most profound love and the blackest evil, and the collision between the two is what lies at the crux of this fever dream of a movie.

The film stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith, a young American woman in 1901 who falls in love with the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and travels with him to his family home in a remote patch of England -- Allerdale Hall, where Thomas resides with his reptilian sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Del Toro has created another indelible character in the house, itself, a crumbling Gothic edifice built atop a clay mine that literally turns the frozen ground around it blood red. Within its breathing, whispering walls and shadowy corridors is where Edith discovers the secrets of her new family and their history.

It's a sweeping, operatic and yet intimate movie, and it could only come from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, who recently spoke with us about the film, its influences and more...

Blastr: Crimson Peak feels like a Nathaniel Hawthorne story shot by Mario Bava. Would you say that that’s accurate?

Guillermo Del Toro: [laughs] That would be a beautiful way to describe it, because Hawthorne is one of my favorite authors. He deals with human obsession and the supernatural and the uncanny in a way that is so powerful. And he is not, I think, often enough acknowledged as someone who shaped the literature of the uncanny. And Bava is and will always be present in all my movies. Certainly, many, many moments that use colored lights in this movie are Mario Bava-esque. I would absolutely agree with that. No problem. 

The inspiration of the film is very much based on books and paintings even more than movies, but if I had to choose movies, I would choose the black and white Gothic romances of days gone by like Jane Eyre by Robert Stevenson, or Great Expectations by David Lean, or The Innocents by Jack Clayton. But then also Terence Fisher and Mario Bava, they’re the most baroque.


This definitely feels like more of a personal film and sort of back to your roots in some ways. What came first, the story or just the idea to create a big, lush gothic horror film again?

When I did Mimic, it was such a difficult experience to try to make. Believe it or not, I did try to make a really adult, giant bug movie. And then in the course of the process, it kind of died a horrible death and gave birth to the movie that exists now, which now in retrospect, I like. But it’s not the movie I set out to do.

So, I decided I would do my more pop, youth-oriented movies in English and the more dark and weird movies in Spanish. This is the first time I've tried an adult, kind of twisted movie in English and it’s only because of the trust from Legendary (Pictures).

What’s interesting about this is that when you talk about those Spanish-language films like The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth being more adult, the central characters of those films were children. The central characters of this film are all adults. 

Absolutely. But you realize in the movie, both the good guys and the bad guys, the entire back story is rooted in childhood. Like Edith, you see her as a child. And you hear about Thomas and Lucille’s childhood. And you see the little mural with them as children playing with an insect. And they tell stories about how their father and their mother were, which were monstrous. 

But to your question earlier, my first desire was to take the Gothic romance, which is not horror -- it’s a mixture of sort of really dark, eerie, almost a dark fairy tale atmosphere with melodrama and the darkness of love. And that Gothic romance that was once produced lavishly in Hollywood had fallen out of favor in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It kind of died after the Corman movies when it became B-movie territory, and I wanted to recapture the lush, almost Technicolor feel of the earlier Hollywood films. 


I was going to mention Corman's Poe movies too, because I think people are really reappraising them a bit more these days for just how complex they were, from the design to the psychosexual nature of a lot of those stories.

Yeah, particularly The Masque of the Red Death. That one is really quite gorgeous looking. But I think it is great to tackle the genre and then update it a little bit with slightly more violence, slightly more sexual content, different gender politics. It’s good to be almost old-fashioned in the lavish production, but it’s also nice to push it a little bit.

What I also find interesting, too, is the fact that the ghosts are not really the villains.

The role of the ghosts in the movie, I think, is answering to a central conceit that is spoken by Edith. She says, "This is not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it." In a way, the ghosts are scary, but the humans are the scariest element in the film. The role of the ghosts keeps changing as the movie keeps evolving into a more complicated role than just "boo" figures. I think that’s addressed in and of itself because we were not going for the easiest route to make the ghosts scary, which is to make them evil or demonic, which instantly jives with the audience’s religious education or background. It really is about making them characters, in a way.


You also created a very large character named Allerdale Hall. How did you approach creating it?

We based everything on photographs of old Victorian houses. But we kind of did a portrait, a composite, that would serve us. I wanted it to feel like a living being, so I gave it round windows so it could feel like eyes watching the characters. In some instances we hid human shapes in the shape of the archways or in the paneling of the house. We hid faces in the architecture. Even the entrance has these two lights and sort of an open mouth of a portico. We hid symbols of butterflies and moths, which is a central image of the film, on the woodwork, on the floorboards, on the furniture, on the clothing patterns, everywhere. Then I had the house breathe, bleed, and even sort of speak with the sound design of the creaking winds.

Was it important for you from the start that you build the house as a full-scale set? 

We actually built the house in its entirety. We built all 3 1/2 stories and the cellar. The 3 1/2 story set was the largest sound stage in North America, the mega stage at Pinewood Studios Toronto. I was behind the idea that I wanted this to feel like a handmade film. I wanted very much for the wardrobe, and the house, and the set design to feel handmade. We even handstitched the Victorian dresses on Lucille and the Victorian wardrobe on Thomas, and then machine-sewed the more modern American garments of McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and Edith, for example. I wanted the movie to feel handmade and to tell the story through the wardrobe and the sets and to create not only just beauty, but content in it.

I imagine the actors were very responsive to that, as well.

You are absolutely right. If you give an actor a green screen, the shot may work, but that green screen will not inspire you on the set as a director or as an actor. I think the beauty of this is the beauty of the ghosts being actors in make-up on the set on the day you are shooting. I didn’t want to make the ghosts a digital effect. I wanted to enhance them digitally, but we actually went and did beautiful head-to-toe prosthetics with the ghosts so that they could really be there to get a reaction from the actors, to direct the performance. Whether they were walking or hanging on wires, whatever the solution was, I wanted to do that. 

And then we came up with a really ingenious and simple way to make them translucent in post-production without shooting them on green screen. We shot them right there. So, the same thing. You give actors a piece of wardrobe that is rigid and brutal, but it teaches them how the character breathes and stands. And you can even give clues about the movie through that wardrobe. And then you give them a real ghost and you give you them a real house and it’s a lot of pleasure.


Are you building a new wing in Bleak House (Del Toro's private archive/museum where he keeps all his books, art, toys and genre memorabilia) to store all the artifacts from this movie?

I’ve got quite a bit. But I did buy a man cave in Toronto and it’s filled with Crimson Peak stuff. [laughs]

So, you are going to have a Bleak House in every city you work in?

I will try, my friend. [laughs]

Let’s touch on a couple of other quick things. First of all, no room for Ron Perlman in this one? 

No. I really thought about it and I think, to me, Ron reads so eminently modern. He reads so 20th century (laughs). I know he did The Name of the Rose and he was perfect on that. But he doesn’t read Victorian at all, man. 

Let’s address this Pacific Rim 2 situation. 

The movie needed to move -- they decided to move it because we wanted to present our final draft of the script and our final approach to the budget, which needs to hit a number to make the movie financially smart. And I needed to find a way to make the movie bigger than the first one for less money than the first one. So we did a lot of R&D and learned a lot of tricks and what works and what doesn’t on the first one. We are applying all that. And then we'll turn in a new screenplay, a new budget, and then they’ll decide.

I’ll probably do another movie in the meantime between this and Pacific Rim, a small movie that I want to do. But Pacific Rim is not yet dead. It may be. Deciding that is out of my hands. But so far, no.

Do you know what you would do in the meantime? Can you give us any hint what that might be?

I have decided, but until it’s a reality I’d rather keep it quiet, because things have a way of having a life of their own, as we have seen. [laughs]

Have you built a professional armor at this point? You've been through these situations with At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit where you were close to directing both and it fell through. Hopefully that's not the case with Pacific Rim 2. But do you just hope for the best and prepare for the worst these days?

To a point only. Mountains of Madness really, really devastated me, man. It was really hard. The Hobbit was really quite a natural process. I came out of that very happy and I’m still very happy. I’m grateful of my time in New Zealand and I enjoyed the hell out of it. But Mountains really, really hurt. 

The fact is this happens more often because my projects, for some reason, get announced very rapidly on the Internet. But for example, the gap that Alfonso (Cuaron) had between Children of Men and Gravity was six or seven years and I can tell you two or three of his projects went up and went down during that time. I knew them and they were getting written and they were getting financed, but no one leaked that information. For whatever reason, my information gets leaked often. 

A blessing and a curse, I guess.

I’m very grateful of my life and my career and the movies I’ve been able to make. You will get no complaints from me, man.

Crimson Peak is out in theaters this Friday (October 16).

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