Director's Chair: Guillermo Del Toro - 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark'
Issue: August 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Guillermo Del Toro - 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark'

TORONTO — Since bursting onto the scene –— and winning the Critic’s Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival for his first feature, Cronos, Mexican writer/director/producer Guillermo del Toro has established himself as one of the most assured voices in international cinema. A devotee of the gothic horror genre, he has moved back and forth easily between independent, Spanish-language films and increasingly big-budget studio productions, with credits that include the acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and the Hellboy and Blade franchises.

His latest film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, directed by Troy Nixey, is a scare-fest starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison and enough evil little creatures to keep an army of visual effects artists employed for months. 

Del Toro was in Toronto prepping Pacific Rim when he took time to talk with Post about making the film and his love of post production and visual effects, and why he bowed out of directing The Hobbit.

POST: What makes a really effective horror film? What’s the secret?

GUILLERMO Del Toro: “Characters. Good characters. The scares of course are necessary but it’s the human characters. The movies I’ve tried to produce, write and direct, I’m very proud to say as far as I can remember I’ve never written a female victim, a scream queen or a part like that. I always try to create very strong female characters, in many cases stronger than the guys. Certainly in Don’t Be Afraid.”

POST: So what scares you?

Del Toro: (Laughs) “Politicians… a lot. They are so deranged, especially these days. And human pettiness. Oh my God, that’s scary. It’s so horrifying. I’ve seen a UFO and I’ve heard ghosts twice — once in New Zealand and once in Mexico — but those are not the scariest things. The scary things are real things like every day.”

POST: Why is it that people love to be scared so much?

Del Toro: “I think we live in a regimental world where we don’t experience a lot of the emotions we need almost at a mammalian level, and you need a release for this thing. So a horror movie or a roller coaster, you scream and you get the thrill of that in a regular situation.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making this?

Del Toro: “We wanted to find a language we could apply to all the visual effects. For example, the DP, Oliver Stapleton, and I wanted to use a very shallow depth of focus when shooting the creatures, and we wanted to really simulate the atmospheric dispersion you get when shooting dancing dust motes. Technically, we wanted the movie to be very, very dark, but also to have the creatures be lit that would allow for their translucency to be felt. Every time you do a very dark movie, it’s very challenging for the DP, because a lot of them are, no pun intended, afraid of the dark (laughs). But Oliver, who’s shot wonderful films like The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News,  embraced that approach.”

POST: Why did you shoot in Melbourne, Australia?

Del Toro: “First, I wanted to be close to New Zealand since I was prepping The Hobbit, and it’s a great place. The effects house we used there, Iloura, was fantastic — their work blew me away, and everyone from the editor to set designer and so on was first class.”

POST: This is very much your vision, so why didn’t you want to direct this?

Del Toro: “Because I thought it had a lot of echoes to stuff that I already did on Pan’s Labyrinth, so I brought in a first-time director, Troy Nixey, and it was a great arrangement.”

POST: How closely did you work with Troy?

Del Toro: “Very closely. Normally when I produce I stay back more, but on this I knew it was going to be a tough film technically, especially for a first-time director, so I was very hands-on. On preproduction I stepped back a little, but once production got closer, I was there 90 percent of the time and on the shoot, and I was very involved with the DP and all the editing, visual effects, music, sound effects and sound design.

“This required a lot of attention as it was a tough one to manage for the budget and schedule we had, and I wanted it to look a certain way. Troy made a few choices that were different from mine, and I supported them, but I mainly had to make sure of getting this ‘fairy tale gone wrong’ look and feeling I wanted.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 

Del Toro: “We began the edit and later recorded the creature sounds in Melbourne — I’m one of the voices, and we did the color timing at Park Road Post in Wellington, the sound mix in Melbourne and the final mix in LA. We did one pass at Disney’s mixing stage, and even did another timing pass in New Zealand, so post was all over the place.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 

Del Toro: “I think post is the only part of the whole process I really enjoy. I like designing, but I don’t like shooting, writing or preproduction. It’s like being grilled. Everything is highly scrutinized. You’re always dealing with budget bullshit. The great thing about post is that if you did your job right, then it becomes really easy and you’re on budget and schedule. If you’re not the type of director who ‘fixes it in post,’ then it’s very relaxed.”

POST: It was edited by Jill Bilcock, who was Oscar-nominated for Moulin Rouge and whose credits include Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding. How did that relationship work?

Del Toro: “We met up every day before call and every day after wrap, for a couple of hours, and basically kept the movie cut up to date. So a week after wrapping, we already had our first cut, and then we moved the edit room several times — first to Park Road Studios in Wellington, where we did a bunch of sessions. 

“Then finally we moved it to LA, to Jim Cameron’s Lightstorm offices in Santa Monica for a final week. We cut on Lightworks, which I love. It’s very analog — it reminds me a lot of a Kem, and of all the editing systems is more analog. I cut Mimic on it.”

POST: Did Iloura do all the visual effects,  and how many visual effects shots are there?

Del Toro: “Iloura did them all — over 300. They assembled a top-notch animation team and did this amazing previsualization job, to the point where we were very secure running two shooting units at the same time, because the previs was so accurate. They did some early motion and lighting studies of the creatures that became the bible on how we shot the film. Not all the shots were creatures. We also did a lot of sky replacement, set blending, rig removal and so on.”

POST: What were the most difficult to do?

Del Toro: “It’s funny, but the scenes that have the most reality in them are always the hardest to pull off. So when the creatures are in the bathroom, attacking Katie and skidding on the tiles and interacting with a very prosaic environment, it’s very hard to get all the gestures that sell it as real.”

POST: Do you enjoy working with visual effects?

Del Toro: “I adore it. I come from a special effects background, so it’s a language and a rhythm that I know well.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?

Del Toro: “So important, which is why I hired Marco Beltrami again. We’ve done several films together and I knew he’d get what I wanted — a score that used some retro instruments with a very ‘70s sound, like old synthesizers, blended with a bigger score.”

POST: Did you do a DI?

Del Toro: “Yes, at Park Road Post. The advantages for me are huge. I love the fact you can isolate just the highlights, or solidify the blacks and play with saturation and just work on the magenta. I started doing DIs on Blade 2, but we used it very selectively back then as it was so costly. Nobody did it. But after that I used it more and more.”

POST: Is film dead?

Del Toro: “Sadly, I think so. I think it’s inevitable now.”

POST: Hollywood’s gone 3D crazy it seems. Any interest in doing a 3D film?

Del Toro: “Yes, I’m very curious. I don’t pursue 3D, but I think it’s a great expressive tool and I’d love to use it on the right project.”

POST: So what happened to The Hobbit?

Del Toro: “It was like a little Monty Python cartoon, a year later, two years later. It kept going and going and going in a way that it really became personally, professionally completely not manageable in a way to continue. I just wish them the best. I’m super happy they’re shooting. I think the things I’m looking at that are coming out are fantastic. So I think it’s going to be a great movie, but what I couldn’t do was go from three, four years or five years to looking like a threshold of six or more years invested in it.”

POST: What’s next?

Del Toro: “I’m in Toronto prepping Pacific Rim for Warners. It’s giant monsters versus giant robots, so it’ll be a ton of visual effects. I also have a lot of projects I’ve been developing, like Drood and Hater, which are done in terms of screenplays, and they get financed as we get the sources. 

“I’m currently producing Mama for Universal, another horror film with a first-time director, and he’s shooting right next door to me so I can keep an eye on that too. But I don’t dictate everything. And some of these films will get financed, and some won’t.”

POST: What’s going on with Cha Cha Cha Films, your production company with Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu?

Del Toro: “The last one we did was Biutiful. Right now I have a two-year stint on Pacific Rim and the others are busy with other films of their own, so after that we’ll probably do something together again.”

POST: Aren’t you also writing books?

Del Toro: “Yes, I just finished the third book in “The Strain” series and I’m so proud of it. It’s almost like an escape for me, as it gives me so much freedom.”

POST: Will you make them into movies?

Del Toro: “No. It’s a horror trilogy, but I think they’d work better as a TV series.”

POST: How do you find the time for all this? Do you ever sleep?

Del Toro: (Laughs) “I’m lucky. I sleep very little — just four to five hours. I’m a workaholic.”