Guillermo del Toro on Tyrannical Producers, Hammer-and-Chisel Scenes

Making “Don't Be Afraid of the Dark”: “I said, Let me tell you this, Troy: You're shooting that scene. It has to open like that. It doesn’t go, it stays”

It's been three years since Guillermo del Toro last directed a film (2008's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"), but the imaginative Mexican director has hardly been idle in that time. 

Guillermo del Toro

It's just that there have been a few false starts. There was the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation "At the Mountains of Madness," with which James Cameron was also involved and which Universal backed out of last spring.

He also was originally slated to direct "The Hobbit," but pulled out because the project was in financial limbo — though he did write the scripts. And he's been toying with the idea of a new version of "Frankenstein," which would be one of a series of classic horror reimaginings he wants to make for Universal.

Also read Alonso Duralde's review: 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' Will Have You Sleeping With the Light On

But he's also produced several films in that time, including the Oscar-nominated "Biutiful" and this weekend's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," which opens this weekend, was itself delayed for a year by business problems at Miramax. (It's now being released by Film District.) 

A new version of a 1973 television movie, the film is directed by comic-book artist and first-time director Troy Nixey, The tense and terrifying movie, which del Toro co-wrote, stars Bailee Madison as a young girl who encounters small but deadly creatures in the basement of an old house where she's taken by her father (Guy Pearce) and stepmother (Katie Holmes).  

Del Toro talked to TheWrap while preparing to begin principal photography on his next directorial effort, the monster movie "Pacific Rim." "As far as I can tell, it's going," he said with a laugh. "But I've been surprised some times in the last few years."  

Bailee Madison

You've said that you thought you were making a PG-13 movie, and were surprised when the MPAA gave it an R for "pervasive scariness." But watching the film, I couldn't imagine that it'd ever warrant a PG-13. It may not be graphic, but it's terrifying.
Apparently, we were deluded. I must say, seeing it last night, I actually see the point of view of the MPAA. Especially with the opening scene. It's not graphic, because you don’t see the moment, but it's brutal nevertheless.

The movie begins with a very brutal scene involving a hammer and a chisel, set a century earlier. Did you always intend to begin the movie that way?
This is one of the few moments where I have pride in my tyranny. At one point Troy removed that scene. He said, "Well, I think it's too disturbing." And I said, "Let me tell you this, Troy: You're shooting that scene. It has to open like that. It doesn’t go, it stays."

Look, without that we're going to go for almost 30 minutes without anything happening. They arrive, she gets her room, she fights with them, she has dinner, she wanders around, she discovers the basement, they open the basement, she goes up to her room, she comes down, and finally she opens the door.

If you have an opening like that, you mentally or physically walk out of the movie after 15 or 20 minutes. I'm very glad that I obligated Troy to do it.

Were you a less dictatorial producer in other instances?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The wardrobe and the house are designed exactly like he wanted them. I would have gone a different route, but I let him run with it. And I think it's part of the producer-director dialogue.

And there's one scene that Troy shot exactly opposite the way I thought he should shoot it. He was right. It's the scene in the dining room, where Sally has a napkin battle with the creature. In the original movie, in '73, it's a very tense scene. And Troy shot it for comedy. And I really thought, my God, that’s the wrong choice.

Guillermo del Toro, Bailee Madison and Troy Nixey

What I realized was that had he shot it seriously, for a modern audience, it would have been a laugh-inducing scene. So him shooting it as a comedic moment defused it. 

(At left: del Toro, Bailee Madison and Troy Nixey)

At any point did you want to direct the film?
In the 1990s, but not past that. I lived with this movie for 15 years as a producer and 30 years as a fan – but after I did "The Devil's Backbone" in 2001, it was very clear that I didn’t want to direct "Don’t Be Afraid" because they had too much in common.

Then, after "Pan's Labyrinth," which has a lot in common with "Devil's Backbone" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," I was completely sure that I didn't want to direct it. 

What is it that appeals to you in that basic story of a young person under stress, often a young girl, and the fantastic worlds that may or may not be real?
Well, in a way, the character of Sally is very close to my character when I was a kid watching horror movies. Lonely in her own world, fascinated by things that live in subterranean places – that's what I was.

In all the movies, I start with a group of people in an extreme situation. And what I try to ask myself is, Would I love to watch this movie without the monsters? I would love to watch the movie of Bailee finding the support of Katie, and the father being self-absorbed, and how they become friends. It could be a story about drug dependency or something else, and the creatures could turn out to be imaginary.

"Devil's Backbone," same thing. It's the end of the rope for a group of resistance fighters, this kid lost his father, they're dropping him there … I'm interested in seeing what happens without the ghost.  It's not so much the other stuff that interests me, but how extreme the characters can be.

Admit it, though: It's fun to have those creatures.
Oh, look, watching the movie for the first time, I was interested — and then the creature shows up, and I really perk up. I love those creatures, and it was my decision definitely to show them. Some people might think it's more interesting not to show them at all, or to show more, but it's part of what I calibrate as a creator.

In this case, it certainly gives you a classic reveal when she finds a creature under her covers.
It's funny, because that reveal was different from the reveal in the screenplay. Originally, it was identical to the reveal of the fairies in "Pan's Labyrinth": The creature climbed on top of the bed covers and walked toward her, and then she turned on the light and saw it. And two days before we shot it, I went to Troy and said, "You know what, we should do it under the sheets." And he went with it.

We spent many, many hours shooting what we called "sheet unit." We created a giant bed, really long, to shoot through many meters of sheets. And I think that scene, along with the opening scene the ending of the film, are absolutely fantastic set pieces that stand on their own, without having anything to do with the first movie.

[A part of the scene in question can be seen at the end of this trailer:]

After producing a movie like this, do you feel, damn, I've got to get back to directing now?
Oh, yeah. Listen, if I had a time machine and I could avoid having the nine months of "Mountains of Madness," and the two years on "The Hobbit," and I could go back and step from "Hellboy 2" straight into directing "The Wolfman," which is what was planned at Universal at the time, I would do it in a second. But you never know.

I feel it's time for me to direct again, but really, I had an incredible experience in New Zealand [working on "The Hobbit"]. I bless every minute of it, because it was alive, and a fantastic learning experience. I bless every second of the development of "Mountains" – having Jim Cameron there, the pleasure of developing the monsters. Part of the reward of directing films is that process. So in a way, prepping movies is one of the parts I enjoy the most.

We spoke late last year with you and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and you talked about how dramatically the business had changed, to the detriment of the kind of movies you like to make. Is the business climate your biggest stumbling block?
If I had complete freedom, I would produce constantly. I would be producing three first-time directors every year, first of all, because I think it's vital to the genre. This year we're producing a movie called "Mama," at Universal, with a first-time director, and I'm very proud of that work. But I would love to systematize this and create a company that just produces first-time directors.

That's number one. Number two, if I could guide my career the way I wanted, I would do "Frankenstein" or "Mountains of Madness" right after "Pacific Rim," for sure.  But the reality is, I don’t rule the world. And the hardest thing in the industry right now is that it's becoming more conservative.

Like John Lennon said about life, career is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.