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The del Toro method: inside the mind of a genius

Screenwriter Karin Johnstone weighs up the genius of Guillermo del Toro…

What makes a genius? Philosophers through the ages have pondered on this question but can never truly find an answer. Schopenhauer commented that ’the genius lights on his age like a comet into the path of the planets.’ In other words, work of a genius will outlast the genius. Hippocrates who developed the medical system of the 4 humors thought that those rich in black bile would have ‘exalted powers.’

One man who must be flowing with black bile is creative genius and director Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro grew up in Mexico a skinny blue eyed blond-haired kid who was bullied by the more tanned dark-haired boys. Hence Del Toro’s dark haired, tanned skinned villains. As a child he was obsessed with drawing and modelling the Frankenstein’ monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Phantom of the Opera.

In his twenties he built up his special effects and makeup company called Necropia. He visualises most of his ideas by drawing monsters, creatures and macabre oddities in his Da Vinci style notebooks which then form the foundation for his film-making. Del Toro’s films such as Hell Boy, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are dark fantasy crossing over to horror. It’s a good old-fashioned type of horror with a healthy amount of gore.

Pan's Lab 3

Del Toro’s films clearly deal with concepts which are binary opposite – good vs evil. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is set in Falangist Spain in 1944 and plays with these themes. Innocence vs corruption, reality vs fantasy, obedience vs disobedience. A mother and daughter go to stay with the mother’s new partner, and father of her unborn baby in a house in the country. Her partner, a General in the army is one of those dark-haired tanned villains that I mentioned earlier. Ophelia the young girl gets drawn down under the earth into a labyrinth where she is set tasks by a fawn that she meets. Ophelia escapes from the violence of war torn Spain by retreating into the Labyrinth. Many of the servants in the house are involved in fighting in the resistance movement. Gradually the fantasy world of Ophelia starts to creep into the real world. The role of the director in producing a film like Pan’s Labyrinth is incredible.

Pan's Lab 1

Del Toro writes the script then visualises every detail of how he wants each shot to look. He will even consider the colour of the stitching on a dress and how that will look under certain lights. Del Toro’s passion for literature and art is referenced in imagery throughout this film. This film will outlast Del Toro. I suspect it will remain in my personal top 10 canon until I’m gone. You can see Pan’s Labyrinth at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse but will have to wait a few weeks longer for his recent film The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water has been nominated for 13 Oscars including best actress for Sally Hawkins. Hawkins gives a subtle performance as Eliza a delicate but strong woman who is mute. When working as a cleaner in a government laboratory she falls in love with a specimen that is imprisoned there – a creature, not from the lagoon but from South America. The beautiful creature has all the hallmarks of a Del Toro manifestation. The film deals with the cruelty of prejudice in 60’s America. The film is poetic with the stamp of Del Toro’s magic realism but there is a veneer of Hollywood about it.
Right, I’m now off to consider how to increase the black bile content of my humor in the hope that it may help…

Screening at Errol Flynn
The Devil’s Backbone Sun 18 February 2:00pm
Pan’s Labyrinth Sun 25 February 2:00pm

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