Provoking Through Fantasy

Talking with Guillermo del Toro, Director of Pan’s Labyrinth

by Roger Durling

Pan’s Labyrinth was directed by Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro, who’s responsible for such fantasy/horror films as Hellboy, Cronos, and Blade II. Imagination runs rampant in del Toro’s hand, but underneath the special effects, there’s always a lot of heart and a perceptive view of how we live today. It’s as if del Toro’s mythology were a mirror in which to gaze at our current situation. Pan’s Labyrinth, which opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend, is about a young child during the Spanish Civil War who escapes her harsh reality through fantasy. I recently spoke with del Toro. This is your second film that takes place during the Spanish Civil War (the first was The Devil’s Backbone). Why did you come back to this period? When The Devil’s Backbone was made, I was trying to talk about innocence and brutality, and the idea of how a group of weak kids with a lot of differences would join together to vanquish a protoplast in an orphanage. But the movie came out and I saw it in Toronto on September 9, 2001. It got great reviews, it was all fantastic, and I took the plane back to Los Angeles on September 10. Of course, on September 11, the world took a huge turn. And I just started feeling that I wanted to talk about war and innocence and brutality and all those things. And, now, in five years, things have completely changed. It has really turned into something conversably different. I thought I would love to do a movie that took place in the same place, but five years later — the first one in the Spain of ’39 and now the Spain of ’44, which is this one. I thought it was the perfect sister movie — a female movie, if you would, to the male movie that Devil’s Backbone was. Both movies deal with fascism and the crushing of innocence. I think this movie is concretely talking about choice and disobedience, and how imagination is a form of disobedience, and certainly a form of choice. And how imagination ultimately is one of the first things that goes with fascism and how you display your choices by giving justification with a group: “Well, that’s the way things are,” or “That’s the way I was ordered to act,” or you know, “Somebody told me to do it.” The girl in this movie is the only character who actually makes decisions fully on her own. I thought fascism was the destruction of imagination. Imagination is so dangerous.

Throughout the movie, there’s talk about pain, that in order to fully realize life you have to go through all this pain. I’m not into S&M or anything like that. I just think we spend our lives carefully avoiding pain. The entire conceit after World War II and of the modern world has become the search of a word I find horrifying, which is “comfort.” You know, comfort, accessibility, immediacy, all these things that seem to supposedly make our lives better, but actually are sort of an anesthetic to the soul, and to the need, and to the hunger. Satisfaction is the opposite of hunger, and I feel pain is also dulling, and the lack of pain is dulling to the soul and the threshold for pain in our times becomes thinner and thinner and thinner. I welcome pain. I welcome challenges and I try to decipher them. I am a lax Catholic, but I believe everything happens for a reason. I do think even fractal geometry has come to the conclusion that in chaos there is order, and in order there is chaos, and it’s just like a Chinese puzzle of things that are working, organically. You are one cog of this machinery — if you believe that — and as that cog you are flowing a certain way and things are going through you for a reason. And that’s why I put that phrase in the mouth of the priest, “God sends the letter but doesn’t send a dictionary.” And I believe life is like that.

Talk to me about horror and the fantasy genre in which you excel. When I was a kid and I went to a church, I didn’t care about the saints or the virgins or any of them — I just cared about the gargoyles. I really thought the fantastic creatures and the fantasy literature and any other forms of art were the highest form of creation because then metaphor becomes flesh. You can now almost access palpable, physical, biological poetry when you create monsters. I believe that, and I believe the fantastic genres are one of the last refuges for spirituality, in this age that values reason over emotion and cynicism over intelligence. I believe fantasy has become one of the last places where we can let ourselves go and have a spiritual experience. … It’s a genre that still provokes.

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