Interview with Guillermo del Toro, from Fortean Times no. 337
Guillermo del Toro is a self-confessed fan of the Gothic Romance. Maria J. Pérez Cuervo spoke to him about early influences and the pleasures and pains of reviving the genre on screen.
FT: You’ve spoken before about how important Gothic Romance is to you. What started your interest? What is it that fascinates you about it?
Guillermo del Toro: When I was a boy, my father won the national lottery and he became –overnight– a wealthy man. He began acquiring the accoutrements of what he perceived as a baronial life, and chief among those was a wood-pannelled home office/ library. He basically never used it, so it became my playground. I read all these books that he had acquired for purely decorative purposes. I read an entire encyclopedia of art and another one about family health. He had also acquired a huge selection of “youth classics”, which included two books that became essential to me at that age: Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. I realised that the two books were, in an odd way, very similar: they were sort of emotional autobiographies of their authors. I was also very taken by the fact that they were both written by women but spoke deeply about the loneliness and outcast condition that I felt as a child.
Jane Eyre is, in my opinion, the touchstone of the Gothic genre. Of course Ann Radcliffe was immensely popular and gave birth to a lot of the tropes that we associate with the genre, but Jane Eyre has influenced works as disparate as Rebecca, The Secret Garden, Great Expectations, Dragonwyck and I Walked With a Zombie. It is a quintessential structure.
Just as fairy tales re-enact the process of discovery of the world for a child, Gothic is a rite-of-passage genre for young women blossoming into adulthood.
The Brontës were a fascinating family –even more so because they were so dramatically insular in many ways. They were almost a tribe: you can see how their personalities and works flow from one to the other, even though they are remarkably different.
Anyway, Jane Eyre led to Radcliffe in my literary quest, and then Radcliffe led me to discover Walpole, Lewis, Beckford, and so on…
FT: Did your Catholic upbringing have something to do with your love of Gothic?
Of course! Something that’s essential to the Gothic genre is the sensation of impending doom – which is somewhat similar to the burden of original sin. The ideas of Romantic love are usually entangled with repression and self-immolation. Melancholy is essential to the genre, and there is no more powerful sense of loss tan that of having lost paradise!
FT: Gothic Romance doesn’t seem to be as popular as it used to be. Why do you think this is?
As a recognisable genre perhaps it isn’t, but you can feel its echoes in things like Twilight for sure. It’s a genre that will always connect very strongly only with certain spirits – spirits of a melancholic disposition. Hence the tragic decision to market Crimson Peak as a horror film – which it is not; at least not in the way we understand the genre today.
In Gothic literature you can have manifestly supernatural elements, like the Bloody Nun in Lewis’s The Monk, but a lot of the time these elements are revealed to be of natural origin – always tied to sins of the past. I wanted both things in Crimson Peak: I wanted the ghosts… but I wanted them to be a representation of those sins and to become elements of dread, not fear. I wanted to make not a ‘ghost story’, but a story with ghosts in it, as the character of Edith says in the film.
FT: Was the decision to make Crimson Peak female-centric due to your respect for the source novels?
Absolutely. But even more, it was about trying to honour how incredibly revolutionary the spirit of the Brontë sisters was to me as a kid, and the very spirit of Mary Shelley. These were not damsels in distress. They were complex women of great character. I wanted to allow for more modern ideas to come into play within a very traditional genre structure. I wanted the ending to be entirely dependent on two incredibly strong female figures – opposites of one another.
I also wanted to suggest a Henry Jamesian clash between Europe and America. I wanted Edith to be a thoroughly modern girl, one who was more curious than afraid.
FT: The house and the landscape are crucial elements in the genre. What did you want Allerdale Hall and its surroundings to represent in Crimson Peak, and how did you make use of them?
Essential to Gothic is the rooting of the sins of the past in a building – Otranto, Manderley, Dragonwyck – and the idea that the landscape has moulded the very souls of the characters. This was definitely true of the Brontës. The moors seep up into the spirits of the people tat inhabit them and the edifices erected there weigh heavily upon their shoulders. They are monuments to the secrets and sins of the past – like the wedding banquet hall in Great Expectations or the murder mystery in Rebecca.
The mansion is a reservoir of cruelty — cruelty that has been passed from father to mother, and from mother to child, and then into a sociopathic career of murder for profit. To me, the most delicate spirit of that lineage was Thomas. He was the lamb to the slaughter, not Edith. Edith was raised strong — and very American — while Thomas dies for everyone’s sins. He is the focus of all this evil — him and his beautiful, silly dreams of machines and toys.
At any rate, we knew we needed to design that mansion to within an inch of its life and we did. It was one of the most painstakingly designed movies I have ever made and –without a doubt — the most beautiful. But I knew that in order to capture the heartbreak, you needed beauty.
FT: The ghosts you’ve created are unique, more organic than ethereal. Why did you choose to present them that way?
I knew I eanted to use make-up effects rather than CGI (except with the free-floating ghost), so it was a very elaborate process to shoot them. I actually built the sets around the apparitions – measured the corridors and designed their shapes to ‘enshrine’ the ghosts. I knew I wanted them to be red, which is a striking colour to represent the sins of the past, but that has led to some confusion. Some people have thought that they are all actually CGI, purely because the colour is so vivid and so eye-catching. Well, that, and the fact that nestled within them lies a CGI skeletal structure, and CGI ectoplasm surrounds them. But they were shot for real and in situ – not on a green screen or as elements of a composite.
FT: Would you tackle the genre again?
I would love to, in one way… but doing Crimson Peak was very hard. It was a movie that was so personal, and so close to my heart, that it really took its pound of flesh – but maybe… Fortunately, I still have too many pounds of flesh left!