\Pan’s Labyrinth: A Story that Needed Guillermo Del Toro
When I first meet Guillermo Del Toro, writer/director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” one of the true masterpieces of the decade, he is not promoting his own movie. He is there, along with his friend Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to hold a special screening for their friend, Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, “Children of Men.”
Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu together have produced some of the year’s best offerings, even if “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” hit almost too late for Oscar voters or guild voters to catch up with them. Running the awards circuit can do wonders for films that were difficult to get made, namely in the money department. Being nominated for an Oscar at least doubles your profit out of the gate, which can mean life or death for a labor of love like “Pan’s.”
While “Babel” is a strong best picture contender, and “Pan’s” the frontrunner for the foreign language Oscar [the film ultimately lost to The Lives of Others] “Children of Men” is a highly acclaimed film yet so few Academy members, and perhaps guild members, seem to have seen it. It seemed odd to me that these two lauded directors would be doing anything but trying to gain recognition for their own work, but what you get immediately from them is that they aren’t like the typical Hollywood players.
The Universal lot was not easy to get to on a Wednesday night. With all of the screenings and parties and voting, how can any Academy voter keep straight all that needs to be seen and done. This is why del Toro and Gonzalez Inarritu went to the trouble of holding a special screening — in hopes of giving Academy members a chance to see it on the big screen, which greatly enhances the experience of “Children of Men.”
Friendship, collaboration and relationships are important to them. The question isn’t why were they doing this for their friend but rather, how could they not do it.
Del Toro greeted me with his characteristic warmth and friendliness; so different from the usual limp handshake and cold stare you get when you meet people in this town who’ve met hundreds before you. He is funny and charming and easy to laugh, and has what David Byrne would call “a face with a view,” and a sharp intelligence that takes the conversations places you never thought it could go. With his vast knowledge of film history, his abundant creative energy, I could have talked to him for hours. Unfortunately, so could everyone else. We were all eager to get our time with del Toro and of course, Gonzalez Inarritu ” the celebrated auteurs, along with Alfonso Cuaron, who brought cinema to life this year. Del Toro and I finished our conversation on the phone a few later to discuss his “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Despite it coming in at the very last day of the year, “Pan’s” is catching on like wildfire, and is, at last glance, the best reviewed film of 2006. But it was anything but easy to get made. Financing collapsed at least twice, del Toro says. His director salary and the producers’ salary all went into making the film that no one wanted to fund. “I co-produced with [Alfonso] Cuaron, who is a good friend and I said, ‘Look, I’m going to put in $100,000 to start the design phase because no one is paying for it.’ And Alfonso said, which I will never forget, ‘Count me in for half.’”
When the film was screened at Cannes and enjoyed a twenty minute standing ovation, it was so late in the festival that no one really noticed. By the time it came to the US, only word of mouth was getting the film any kind of buzz. At last it was released, and the reviews were unanimous raves. It seemed like “Pan’s” was on its way.
“When I was a screenplay writing student my teacher used to say, ‘Don’t make movies you need to do, do the movies that need you to do them,’” he says. “‘The movie that needs you is the one you need to do.’” Clearly, “Pan’s” needed del Toro to do it, and he was lucky enough to have friends who had faith in him. Many of the cast members in the film del Toro cast against type. Maribel Verdu, usually playing a sex goddess was reinvented by del Toro as the compassionate revolutionary ” one of the two heroines in the film, yet he wasn’t sure if she’d even want to do it. Del Toro saw a sadness in her, however, he thought would be perfect for the part of Mercedes. When it came time to cast the evil Captain Vidal, Del Toro chose Sergi Lopez.
“In Spain he is considered a melodramatic or comedic actor,” del Toro says. “The producers in Spain said, ‘You should be very careful because you don’t know about these things because you’re Mexican, but this guy is not going to be able to deliver the performance.’ And I used to tell them, ‘Well, it’s not that I don’t know, it’s that I don’t care.’”
Vidal turns out to be a formidable screen villain, someone del Toro describes as clean on the outside but dirty on the inside. “This guy is a very well groomed, very polished, gentlemanly monster. He looks fantastic ” he gets up from his chair when a lady leaves a room. But he’s unfortunately a sociopath.”
Vidal is something del Toro would call a man-made monster, not in the realm of the spiritual world. “I think those are sadly the result of the emotionally disfranchised,” he says. “When you have people that all of a sudden can kill each other for an idea then these monsters are born. Then there are the monsters of the irrational, which I adore ” and the monsters of reason which I deplore and am afraid of.
“With the captain ” the particular brand of fascism that was in Spain at the time was born out of the arrogance, the entitlement of the privileged classes and the very Catholic right wing,” he says.
One of the reasons “Pan’s” works as well as it does is the battle between idealism and fascism occurring between the people in the woods and Vidal. And so does a war rage on in the Labyrinth, with Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) in charge of keeping the flame alive forever so that the Labyrinth will last. So too does Mercedes (Verdu) keep the flame alive by working for Vidal yet betraying him at the same time forwhat she sees to be the greater good.
Del Toro doesn’t believe Vidal to be spiritually evil, more like someone who does what others tell him to do. This very flaw informs the film’s central question. This intolerance is born out of buying into someone else’s truth and making that the truth. When somebody tells you you have to push this button and you don’t know what it does, you lose your humanity.
The movie shows you that choice is what defines who you are,” he says. “The girl is at the crossroads of being a woman or being a child; the mother is at the crossroads of giving birth ” everybody is in the Labyrinth.” When del Toro says these words the hair on my arms stood up – because he carries this story around inside him, he’s able to put into words what it is about this film that stays with you.
“Everybody is in transit,” he says. “You realize that you turning to the right or you turning to the left defines who you’ll eventually become.”
My experience of “Pan’s Labyrinth” was to see the gritty, real life story of Franco-era Spain as the film’s sole reality. However, audiences have been tearing up message boards arguing that point, because the Labyrinth that Ofelia enters seems so real.
Del Toro says, “I think it’s real but it’s real not in the pejorative sense. It’s a spiritual reality ” she really goes on a real adventure ” by that, I don’t mean the faun is there, or the mandrake is there, but she really is transported — saved by herself.”
Because del Toro is such a visual director, as a writer he sees the movie he wants to make, along with concentrating on the themes and story. He calls it “visual rhyming,” this idea of writing even the way the shot transition works. “It gives a cadence to the film that’s almost musical.”
As a visual piece, Pan’s parallels two opposing worlds — the fantasy realm in Ofelia’s world and the oppressive environment in the home of the fascist captain. Since he is to be Ofelia’s new father, and because she is so scared of him, of losing her mother — her imaginary world springs to life, which is my take (up for debate). To illustrate this, del Toro matched recurring objects in both worlds through the little details, like the key, like the knife, like the doors, like the dining room of the ‘Pale Man’ being exactly the same symmetry as the dining room of the fascist. If you see it again you’ll see that the banquet in both instances is exactly the same. The guy sitting at the head of the table with the all of the food laid out, that it’s the same size in both, with the chimney behind him.”
Guided by a faun, who may or may not be Pan himself, Ofelia is given tasks to complete in order that she take her rightful place as princess in the Labyrinth. But del Toro believes that the key to spiritual salvation is not obedience.
“It’s a matter of creating a fairy tale that is in favor of disobedience — obedience disguised as blind patriotism is often invoked for the worst causes. It’s at a time when we are supposed to be better people by not questioning anything and in reality we are better people by doing it.”
Del Toro believes that how you interpret the ending of the film works like a mirror test; it tells you more than you need to know about your belief system. “I know which side of the fence I stand on,” he says. “When you see the movie, even if you see it with two, three different people, you get mixed reactions to the last ten minutes. People say it’s all in her head or it’s all real.”
But del Toro believes that we all have our own invented belief systems we adhere to, like the concept of time, or doing our taxes ” these are ideologies that are mutually agreed upon but they aren’t, literally, reality. “You are faced with the option of not believing what lives inside you and buying into dreams are far cheaper and a bad imitation of magic,” he says. “People argue when you’re growing up. “When you’re a kid, everybody argues against you keeping childish concerns and then you contemplate the world of politics and religion and you wonder what those are there for, if organized politics and organized religion are not childish concerns of imaginary boundaries and imaginary friends badgering each other. When I see religious wars I just wonder whose imaginary friend is stronger.”
Although del Toro was telling his own story, to a degree, with Ofelia the embodiment of his own inner world as a child, the story was difficult for him to write. Eventually he got what he wanted to say in the first ten pages and the movie was all there from that point on. To talk about the image he locked into would spoil the movie and no one wants to do that. But it amounts to the idea of rebirth, of personal choices.
“We all go through that moment in life when you put your toys away and you leave the fairy tales on the shelf and never open them again.” In writing “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro has opened up a treasure chest of ideas and ways of looking back and perhaps digging back up the imaginary world we once drew upon to take us away.