Del Toro Presents the Chilling "The Orphanage"
(from brinkzine.com 1/1/08)
- Belén Rueda, Guillermo del Toro, Juan Antonio
Guillermo del Toro already had a cult following before "Pan's Labyrinth," elevated the excitingly creative and unpredictable Mexican producer-director into the pantheon of world's significant filmmakers. An imaginative mix of Grimm-like fairytale and brutal and thrilling post-Spanish Civil War polemic, "Pan's Labyrinth" got a nod of respectability with a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. It was arguably 2006's best picture. By breaking rules, Del Toro showed there are infinite possibilities for future fantasy films. It showed Del Toro's maturity as a storyteller and his fans, me included, greatly anticipated his next work. While we waited for "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," "The Orphanage" came out of nowhere. I'm not sure if this "haunted house film" would make my ("Away from Her"-headed) Top Ten list for 2007, but I can say it definitely is the best fantasy film of the year and gave me chills that I haven't experienced at ghost movies since Julie Harris wondered whose hand she was clasping in 1963's "The Haunting." Del Toro isn't the director, but has a producer's credit and is it's "Presenter," which means he proudly stands behind it. As he admits, the real creative forces behind the film are two amiable young first-time filmmakers and film fanatics from Spain: director Juan Antonio and screenwriter Sergio Sánchez, a Tisch-school graduate. The screenplay, in the tradition of "The Haunting," "The Innocents," and "The Others," is about 37-year-old Laura (a riveting performance by Belén Rueda), her in-the-background husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their 7-year-old AIDS-infected adopted son Simón (Roger Prίncep) moving into an abandoned seaside orphanage to open it as a center for sick and disabled children. Thirty years before, Laura was adopted from the orphanage, just before tragedy struck the rest of the children. Naturally, Laura becomes concerned when Simón claims to have unseen child friends. The ending may cause arguments, but it's an extremely creepy picture that no horror-film devotee should miss. During the following roundtable interview, the cheery Del Toro champions the picture and the two filmmakers yet, interestingly, reveals that he wants to remake it in his own way. I note the questions I asked.
Q: How did you end up producing and presenting "The Orphanage," by first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona?
Guillermo Del Toro: Juan Antonio and I met around 1992. I thought he was just posing as a reporter, because he looked so young, and I never saw our interview in print. He asked some really smart questions about technique, and I said to him, "Why are you so interested?" He said, "I’m a filmmaker." We went and had coffee, and I liked him--he was tiny, and I found him really endearing--and we stayed friends for many years. Then a bizarre thing happened, which is a convoluted story. Somebody showed Antonio's short films to me as his own work. He was showing the shorts of Antonio and another guy as his own. I hired that person for storyboard work on "Blade II." Then this guy out of the "Blade II" gig landed a direct-to-video movie in Canada. And while he was shooting the movie in Canada, the other guy he stole from was at Cannes with his short films, and showed them to the guy who was producing the movie in Canada. And the producer said, "These are not your short films, these are the shorts of the director we hired." But the guy insisted they were his shorts and they called the guy in Canada, and he broke down and said, "I lied." It all dominoed to me. I liked Antonio’s shorts so much, even if I don’t know they’re his. I thought that was a good sign. He brought "The Orphanage" to me and I liked the project so much that I committed in pre-production to a non-conditional presentation credit. I believed it was so strong that if the movie came out and was no good, I'd still present it.
Danny Peary: Ivana Baquero said that when preparing for "Pan's Labyrinth," you gave her fairy tales to read, including "Peter Pan." Sergio Sánchez, the screenwriter of "The Orphanage" incorporated "Peter Pan" into the movie. Did he do that after you came on the project to please you? Or was that done independently of you?
Del Toro: Completely independently. Most of the big threads in the film were there when I read the screenplay. We did very little tweaking. We tweaked a couple of the scares, a couple of ideas, and a little bit on the ending. It was minimal. I came up with about ten ideas, they rejected about six. And I think what made it attractive to me is they had such a different take on the material I read. I said: That’s interesting. I want to see how they do it. I don’t want them to do it the way I want it. I was amazed at how solid their take was because these are first-time filmmakers. I loved it. When they said everybody in the key positions was going to be a first-time filmmaker, that blew me away. I said that’s a fantastic idea. I think the genre needs new voices; any genre. I love to see the masters; I love to see the new George Romero movie, but I also love to see a first time guy come in and say, "Hey I’m here and I’m going to stay."
Q: Did you agree on the lead actress?
Del Toro: I came in and Antonio said I’m thinking of an actress, and I said you should go for Belén Rueda, and he said, "That’s exactly who I want." We completely agreed on that. I saw her in "The Sea Inside Me," and she was fantastic. I thought, this is great, because if he had come in and said to me, I want to cast a scream queen from Spain, I would have not been interested, but to me Belén Rueda is really recognized as a solid actor and I thought that is the way to go. To me there are actors who we look at beyond any talent, any training, any technique; there are actors that empathize with the audience and others who you say: "That’s a fabulous actor, and I don’t give a fuck what happens to him. He's amazing, yet if he explodes in a bowl of blood or if he becomes successful, I don't care." Belén has this brutal empathy with the audience, from the moment she comes in you want her to do well and prosper and be happy and you care. This is a thing in horror: if she’s walking down a corridor, and there’s a presence at the end of the corridor, if there’s no empathy for her then that’s a horrible scene. But if there’s empathy it’s a great working scene. Some actors have it, some don't. And I knew she had that in spades.
Q: What about the boy who plays Sίmon?
Del Toro: When Antonio found him, I saw his pictures and didn’t see him as a fragile kid. I had a completely different picture of Sίmon in mind. He seemed a little two full of zest and life, but they way he plays him in the movie is perfect; instead of playing him weak, fragile, he plays him as tantrum-driven, and temperamental, and that’s when I say, I would have gone completely the other way. I would have gone Ivana Baqueroish, casting a withdrawn pale kid; these things are different of opinion, and that’s what was so interesting for me. To this day, I see the kid on the screen and say that's not the kid I would have cast. And I still love it.
Q: Sergio and Antonio say that when they struggled to find financing for their film, they were told horror and drama can't mix. Were you told similar things when trying to pitch your films?
Del Toro: Since the first day I approach horror with "Cronos," the things that were said to me were very similar. Essentially the way Mexican cinema funding works is thaty fund for the "arts." And one of the things they said to me is a horror movie cannot be art. And I kept saying it could be. So funding for “Cronos” took about four times longer than funding for a regular film. And when I met them for "The Ophanage," their sources were completely gone and they couldn’t approach certain actors because they wouldn’t read a horror film, so on and so forth. I came in and in my subtle ways bumped the doors open any way I could. It’s a prejudice. I’m not saying there are no grounds for prejudice because there are plenty of bad horror films, but that could be said for comedies and melodramas and any other genre. I think horror is a more daunting genre for some people because it tends to break taboos that rub us the wrong way.
Q: Like what?
Del Toro: I don’t think any other genre explores something like cannibalism or eating your own kind, or consuming the soul of another being. No genre portrays the destruction of innocence in quite the same way that horror does. I personally don’t see a way of exploring such taboo things without resorting to the horror genre. Beauty and horror coexist.
DP: In terms of horror movies breaking taboos, the two filmmakers talk about their interest in child characters. This film and yours go where few others do in regard to kids. They were influenced by Truffaut, who had a troubled youth and made films about children. Watching their film, were you relating to the film in that way or experiencing the same emotions?
Del Toro: There is discrimination against children as characters in mainstream cinema. They can be either spunky, one-liner-spewing skateboarding little guys or as sweet, loving, smiling chocolate-covered-faces little guys who are part of perfect families. I’ve been saying they should be treated as any other character. Therefore they are mortal, they are complex, and they are imperfect. The child is on equal footing both in reach and in possibilities of danger as any of the adult characters. If this movie had gone through the usual mainstream route, Laura would have arrive at that cellar just in time and give Sίmon mouth to mouth and he would cling to her happily and they would run into the forest safely as the house explodes in a ball of flames. The reason I'm moved so much by the last ten minutes is that there is a very different ending from what you would expect in this genre, and those aspects I’m attracted in exploring.
DP: You mention you had a different take on some aspects of the movie than Bayona or Sánchez. How was your take different?
Del Toro: For instance, I was interested in seeing the husband be a more dynamic force in the movie. Also, I was interested in exploring some of the supernatural things in a different way. Little things. "The Orphanage" is so close and yet so far from me. If I’d done the movie I would have done it differently and in pre-production I said to them, "Don’t take my notes, but allow me to do a remake with another director and find a way of making a completely different twist on the same tale. In return I won't push any of my suggestions."
Q: So you actually want to remake this?
Del Toro: Of course. I’m very curious to have those six ideas tried! It's still pretty much open. I don’t want to start mounting the production while this movie is yet to come out. I don’t want this to be coming out on DVD and us to be in production.
DP: Will the themes be different?
Del Toro: No, I think the themes can stay the same. But, I’m interested in what synergy occurs between those three characters--the male, the female, and the child--if you make them three different forces in the house. What happens if they are not gyrating in such harmony; what happens if these people are really isolated near the sea, far away from the police and psychics.
DP: But I don’t think they are in harmony in this film.
Del Toro: No, but there is more domestic bliss than in the version I would love to explore. I would love to know where the boy's HIV comes from, I would love for it to be the legacy of one of them, I would love one of them to have responsibility for it…
Q: For the mother or father to have given it to their adopted son?
Del Toro: That would be more interesting for me, to see that possibility of what happens in a family when the sin of a father or a mother is passed on, and you have to live with that.
Q: Would you consider making the husband the main character?
Del Toro: No. It’s to me a female-centric story. I believe the only gender that can transform the world is a female gender. It’s what creates and gives the world a different spin. We battle it and most of the time blindly, but the way Laura wills the world, the way she says, "I want Sίmon back," and everything bends to that perception. It's the same way the girl in "Pan’s Labyrinth" bends the entire world to her perception.
Q: Would you still use the "Peter Pan" metaphor?
Del Toro: Yes. I think it’s intrinsic to the story. One of the themes that’s not explored in the movie that I’m really interested in exploring is what is called "survivors guilt," which is when someone survives an ill-fated group and has a drive to die. And I believe Laura has that because she was extracted from the orphanage right before that group of kids was killed. And I want to see what happens to that character coming back to the place where everyone but her died. And that, to me, is one of the reasons why she should come back. There are many dots that are unconnected in this way in the movie and I would love to see what happens there. I hate to use the word "re-invention" in describing what I want to do.
DP: Maybe it's like "Rashomon," the same story from a different perspective.
Del Toro: I think so. Again, when the ghosts of the kids recognize her at the end, and say "Laura," if that were a moment of forgiveness, I would be moved in a different way. It’s all about: Can we propose this in a different configuration and still make it a compelling one? Without an explosion and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation! And the answer to me is a resounding YES.
DP: And at the end the house blows up as they run out!
Del Toro: I promise that won't happen!
Q: If you direct that film, if you went to a trilogy, what would you want to do?
Del Toro: I don’t know. At that point I’m out of ideas. These are all the ideas I thought would be interesting that they didn't find interesting; my duty is to respect that, but I also feel that the tale can be told again. If there is such a force in motion where a remake could be a positive force as opposed to a commercial strategy, it would be the first time I remake anything. So it’s also a first for me.
Q: Is it correct that you liked Sergio Sanchez's script for "The Orphanage" so much that you are working with him on another film?
Del Toro: It’s funny, Sergio and I met after he did a short film called 7337. He then pitched me an idea about 1939 and 1993 and I said, I love the idea, let's do the movie. A year passes, I come back and I tell him my idea for the movie and he says, "That has nothing to do with what I pitched you!" I said, "Oh, well. That's the way I like it!" And now he’s writing a mixture of whatever's left of what we thought together and what we came up with later. I like him so much I’m saying, do a draft for me.
Q: What’s it about?
Del Toro: The idea is to show how much of the war from 1939 in Spain is still alive in 1993 and how there is a direct connection between the two. In Spain we’re saying the war happened so long ago it’s like a distant past, and it’s not. So the idea is to show two different time frames and how they contaminate each other.
Q: How is Cha Cha Cha [a multi-film collaboration with other Mexican directors, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu] going?
Del Toro: Great. We finished our first film with Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It's called "Rudo y Cursi"—I guess "Tough and Sappy" would be the translation. We’re in post with that. The beauty of Cha Cha Cha is we each sponsor one film and shoot a film ourselves. This is a soccer comedy, and certainly soccer is far away from my concerns in life. I played only pocket billiards, nothing else. But I think is great is to get involved in things you don’t do. We enjoyed making it, and it’s coming out next year
Q: What about "Hellboy II?"
Del Toro: We're in London right now because I'm producing it. It will be released in July. It's not like "The Orphanage." It’s a male-centric movie!