Guillermo del Toro’s lifelong love affair with monsters began at a very young age. When he was three, he visited Disneyland for the first time. At age four, he saw his first dead body; a decapitated body lying by the side of the road. At age seven, a time when he was bullied for his then white-blond hair and being rail thing, he found solace in a library of books that his father bought with lottery winnings. It caused del Toro to discover both art and the macabre, and of prominent voices like HP Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood. By the age of eight, he was experimenting with his father’s Super 8 camera.
His passion for monsters, especially the likes of Frankenstein’s creature or Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, never wavered. Not even when his grandmother, a deeply devout Catholic, would dispense cruel punishments in hopes of ridding him of affection for them. Sometimes her aspirations to cleanse him of his obsession with monsters would take a more benign approach, like throwing holy water at him and attempt to actually exorcise him of demons. Other times, she would place jagged, upside-down bottle caps in his shoes and make him walk to school, as an act to mortify the flesh. Once Guillermo del Toro’s mother learned of this, she put an end to it, but that didn’t lessen the damage done. He may have forgiven her for inflicting pain and guilt, but it forever altered the way he perceived Catholicism and had a profound effect on his future works.
After high school, del Toro studied film in Guadalajara and created his own special effects company, Necropia. After working on special effects makeup through his company for years, he eventually cobbled together enough money, including banker’s fees and his father’s credit cards, to fund his first feature film, Cronos.
He’s risen through the decades as a prolific auteur that sympathizes with every character he creates; both monster and human alike, though it’s usually the humans that turn out to be villainous. There’s a distinct visual element to his work that’s purposeful to the themes of his stories. The color schemes, staging, and design elements are thoughtfully planned in what del Toro refers to as “eye protein,” a play on the opposite eye candy.
His distinct style and passion makes him an in demand director, leaving a long path of abandoned project in his wake. We celebrate his new films and mourn the ones that may never see the light of day, like At the Mountains of Madness or The Haunted Mansion. Though the book Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions by Guillermo del Toro and Marc Zicree reveal that’s actually by design. In the book, del Toro explains that by attaching himself to four or five projects at a time, at least one of them will actually get made. This makes his career trajectory even harder to predict than most.
From special effects to director, his career remains one of the most fascinating. Even with an insanely busy schedule, he still finds time to bring newer voices into the spotlight by way of producing. In honor of his impressive career, and the release of The Shape of Water already receiving Oscar buzz, we look back through his remarkable career.
The first feature-length film, written and directed by del Toro, didn’t make back the money spent in getting it made at the box office, but it did get selected as the Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 66th Academy Awards. That it didn’t get nominated didn’t matter; as his first feature, this was an impressive accomplishment nonetheless. Cronos was an exploration of unique vampire mythology by way of alchemy, a long-time interest of del Toro’s, but it encompassed what would become del Toro’s trademark in film; using genre elements to navigate the dual nature of humanity and its emotional relationships. It was Federico Luppi’s Jesus and his love for his granddaughter that ground the film as Jesus transformed into a marble-white vampire. Cronos also marked the beginning of a long friendship between Ron Perlman and the director. Feeling like his career was over, and not even accepting calls anymore, it was a mysterious letter by del Toro, wooing him to be in his first feature, that changed everything.
Del Toro’s first foray into American studio feature films wasn’t a great first experience for the director. Studio interference consistently undermined his work, starting from the first draft of his screenplay being turned over to multiple people, from John Sayles to Steven Soderbergh, for re-writes. His vision didn’t even include cockroaches; the Judas breed were initially conceived as bark beetles until an executive producer suggested them for its New York setting. From there, the studio’s desire to land a giant cockroach action horror derailed del Toro’s plans for something more religious in theme and introspective. It wasn’t until Mimic was released on Blu ray that a director’s cut would exist, giving us a glimpse of what he originally had in mind. Even with major studio interference, he still managed to put out a decent movie, even if not in line with his vision.
The Devil’s Backbone
Considered to be his most personal of his films, del Toro wrote the first draft of the screenplay before even writing Cronos. A gothic horror story set in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War, it was the first film in which del Toro fully solidified his voice and style. The full creative control also helped to heal wounds inflicted by his experiences with Mimic. The Devil’s Backbone shares spiritual DNA with del Toro’s later works, serving as a companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak. Del Toro begins a common theme in his work here, in that the ghosts or monsters in his story aren’t evil, but man. His fairy tales and gothic stories are harsh and melancholic, because to del Toro, they’re a manifestation of something we need to understand.
While The Devil’s Backbone was touring, del Toro was ramping up his reputation for nonstop work by being hard at work on post-production on his return to studio filmmaking with this sequel. Del Toro, giving hints to what was yet to come with his vampire series The Strain, wanted to make Blade’s foe in this outing something much scarier. So, he introduced a breed of vampires far more grotesque than the baddies of the first film. Along with the gore and the unique design of the Reapers, del Toro also brought mainstay Ron Perlman and his trademark sense of humor along for the ride. Of course, casting Perlman wasn’t just because he liked working with the actor, but because he was priming the studios for…
A long-time passion project of del Toro’s, the director was attempting to get this comic book adaptation made for 7 years, but with the caveat that Ron Perlman fill the big red right hand of doom. Thanks to the massive hit that was Blade II, del Toro earned some clout in Hollywood and was finally granted his wish. The film continued del Toro’s streak of sympathizing with monsters, to the point that most of the humans were downright terrible, but boy was Perlman fun in the role. A lot more light-hearted than Mike Mignola’s original comics, with del Toro’s creative flourishes, Hellboy didn’t perform as well in theaters. That didn’t stop it from developing a devoted cult following once it hit home release, though.
The twisted, dark fairy tale that would really make people stop and take notice of del Toro’s work, this violent tale followed in the thematic footsteps of The Devil’s Backbone. Having dreamed of the faun character since childhood, del Toro saw no other fill the role other than actor Doug Jones, whom he’d become of a fan of since working together on reshoots for Mimic. The idea for the story came from the director’s famed notebooks, filled with doodles, drawings, and ideas, that he’d been keeping for over twenty years. In fact, it was due to the potential loss of the notebook containing ideas for the film that made del Toro make it in the first place; he was at a crossroads on whether to scale back and make this film or sign on for another studio made film. When forgetting the notebook in a cab, he mourned the loss of the notebook. It wasn’t until the cab driver, having a piece of hotel paper with an address on it for a comic shop, called the hotel and offered to bring the notebook back to del Toro that the director took it as a sign of fate. Thus, Pan’s Labyrinth was made, and viewers all the richer for it.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The intent from the beginning was to create a trilogy around Hellboy, but the studio, Revolution Studios, had gone out of business by 2006. Universal Pictures acquired the project and scheduled release for 2008. Mignola and del Toro set about coming up with a concept for the sequel, before settling on something original over the source material, using mythology and folklore as a base. The result was a grand spectacle of fairy tales and a hint of Hellboy’s larger story to come. Despite a huge opening weekend at the box office, del Toro and Perlman’s version of the character would never complete his trilogy. For years del Toro struggled to find another studio to acquire the third film to no avail, and eventually the in-demand director moved on to other projects.
Intrigued by Travis Beacham’s concept of jaeger versus kaiju epic, and the idea of pilot drifting, del Toro struck a deal with Legendary Pictures to co-write and produce Pacific Rim while directing At the Mountains of Madness. When conflicting production schedules came up, he would then direct Pacific Rim only if At the Mountains of Madness was cancelled. Turns out, At the Mountains of Madness got cancelled due to del Toro’s unwavering on compromising the R-rating he felt the story warranted. Thus, del Toro’s biggest film yet became reality. Envisioned as a colorful adventure story, a departure from his brooding, melancholic tone, Pacific Rim was all vivid coloring and style, with del Toro intending the film to by theatrical and operatic in tone. The summer blockbuster underperformed domestically, despite favorable critical reception, but became a huge hit overseas.
Originally having co-written the spec script with Matthew Robbins after Pan’s Labyrinth release in 2006, del Toro planned to direct until multiple projects, including Hellboy II, side-tracked the director. While working on Pacific Rim, he sent Legendary multiple screenplays for what he wanted to do next; Legendary chose Crimson Peak for its size. Del Toro wanted to pay homage to classics like The Haunting and The Innocents in his gothic romance tale, again using color and textures to tell the story beyond what was on the page. Visually arresting and darkly gothic, the film earned critical accolades and many award nominations. It also suffered from contradictive marketing, touting the film as a straight horror/haunted house fare versus the gothic romance it really was. The film underperformed at the box office as a result.
The Shape of Water
At a certain point, del Toro was in talks to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon for Universal, who rejected his concept of focusing on the creature’s perspective where the Creature wooed the girl. So, he made his own story that explored that very concept. While most of his career so far had been about exploring childhood fears and dreams, The Shape of Water marks the first project that del Toro directed that explores his adult fears and worries. While it’s still making its way through platform release, the award nominations are already racking up, with critical acclaim that this is his best work yet.
The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror XXIV”
Guillermo del Toro only helmed the opening sequence, but that short opening was crammed full of so many references to both his works and others that you’d have to replay it many, many times over to be able to catch them all. From Stephen King, Ray Harryhausen, Alfred Hitchcock, his own catalog, and so, so much more, it was possibly the most memorable couch gag sequence in the long-running cartoon sitcom.
Envisioning the story as a television series, del Toro was unable to find a buyer. So, then he turned it into a series of books with writer Chuck Hogan. Of course, once the first book was published, offers for television adaptation rights came pouring in. It wasn’t until publication of the final book that Hogan and del Toro went with FX for wanting to follow the books closely in their adaptation. Del Toro had been heavily involved in the series’ creation, from writing, producing, serving as second unit director on an episode, to directing two major episodes in the series. The series ran for four seasons, concluding in September this year.
Following a similar path as The Strain, del Toro’s original vision to create a live-action TV series was subsequently turned into a book. From there, DreamWorks turned the book into an animated series. Modeling the series after shows from his youth, like Johnny Quest, he wanted someone pure in spirit for the lead character. Actor Anton Yelchin embodied the precise qualities del Toro wanted expressed, thought the actor’s unfortunate passing left some of the dialogue recording unfinished. Del Toro, an executive producer of the series, refused to replace Yelchin’s recordings, so Yelchin will continue to be the voice of lead character Jim Lake in season 2. In addition to serving as producer, creator, and director of two episodes, del Toro also lent his voice in two episodes of the series as minor characters.
With an overflowing plate full of his own projects, del Toro also uses his clout to help burgeoning new filmmakers as well. Movies that look risky and less likely to find backing; Guillermo del Toro wants to pay it forward and signs on as producer. For indie filmmakers, there’s probably no one better to have in your corner.
Based on a script by Sergio G. Sanchez, he was turned down to direct multiple times. Eventually, he met with director Juan Antonio Bayona and tapped him to direct. Bayona altered some things, like making Laura the focus of the story, and therefore doubled the filming time and budget needed to complete his vision. Enter del Toro, someone he’d met during the Sitges film festival. Del Toro offered to produce as soon as her learned about it, which makes sense, as it’s right in line with the type of parables del Toro is known for. The result is a masterful horror film with genuine scares; it received a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. There have been rumors of an English remake for years since release.
There was a moment in the script, and the final film, in which Adrien Brody’s character has sex with the very creature he’s responsible for bringing to life by splicing various animal DNA together. It’s so bonkers that del Toro was freaking out while reading it. Which meant, to him, that it had to be made. Vincenzo Natali’s film is every bit as bonkers as that moment, bolstered by a tremendous cast lead by Brody and leading lady Sara Polley. It’s those very insane moments that’s been polarizing for audiences, but thanks to del Toro, at least it exists.
For del Toro, it was a scene in the screenplay that featured 20 minutes of lead character Julia with bandages on her eyes, unable to see the characters around her. Which meant neither could the audience. It was a scene that del Toro thought director Guillem Morales wouldn’t be able to pull off, which intrigued him enough to produce. Morales did pull it off; and the final film is a thriller that feels in the vein of Mario Bava or Dario Argento.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Del Toro co-wrote the script with Crimson Peak collaborator Matthew Robbins, but del Toro chose comic book artist Troy Nixey to helm the project, serving as producer instead. It may be a remake of a 1973 made-for-television film, but the fairy tale creatures are all del Toro. Inspired by author Arthur Machen’s dark fairy lore, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was another in a line of del Toro projects influenced by Machen. But del Toro ultimately gives his directors control over their projects, having learned firsthand the sting of interference, and gave Nixey control over the film’s visual design. Between Nixey’s directing and del Toro’s writing, the film earned an R-rating despite a child lead, a badge of honor in horror.
In a way, we have Guillermo del Toro to thank for the blowout smash hit IT this year at the box office. Andy Muschietti’s short film Mama scared the pants off the director so much so that he was inspired to get involved with the feature-length production. As executive producer, del Toro went to bat for his director on the project, ensuring he had final cut so that they could preserve Muschietti’s unconventional ending if the studio hated it. Del Toro built up a defense, prepared to fight them for Muschietti’s ending, but the studio turned out to have loved it as well. Muschietti’s next project after Mama? IT.
And these are just the major milestones. This doesn’t touch on many other projects produced by del Toro outside of the scope of genre work. I’d need an entirely new article dedicated to mourning the loss of films that could have been, like a stop-motion film remake of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, or his dark take on Pinocchio. Del Toro isn’t just a champion of monsters, but also of independent upcoming voices with something unique to say. Even without all those projects that’ll never be realized, he’s given more than enough to solidify his legacy with the genre.
What’s your favorite Guillermo del Toro film?
AROUND THE WEB
this week in horror
More in Editorials
In case the recent coverage hasn’t clued you in, today marks 20 years since...
As both a woman and a longtime horror fan, I can’t help but notice...
Paramount Pictures announced yet another shift in release for the next installment of perhaps...
In 1989, just three short years after Tobe Hooper drove the serrated end of...