The last time The A.V. Club spoke with Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican filmmaker had completed his Oscar-nominated 2006 fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, which many critics cited as not just one of the best movies of that year, but of the decade. Since then, del Toro has helmed a sequel to his cult-favorite adaptation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and seen his name attached to a number of projects that have yet to come to fruition—including the problem-plagued big-screen version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which del Toro ultimately had to abandon. In the midst of all that, del Toro has kept busy as a producer on other people’s films and overseen a new Criterion Blu-ray edition of his first feature, the offbeat 1993 vampire film Cronos. This time out, del Toro spoke with The A.V. Club about Cronos, horror, being a young filmmaker, and what he’s been up to lately.
The A.V. Club: As a first-time filmmaker, is your primary objective to make something that is going to wow people or is it just to get something done, for the experience of it?
Guillermo del Toro: No, no, never. You never approach a movie casually, I think. I had been trying to make Cronos for eight years when it finally got made. Frankly, I’m 46, and I still approach movies the same way, in the sense that you think that each movie is going to be the last movie you make. [Laughs.] I’m quite a fatalist. In the case of Cronos, it had a good chance of being the only movie I made, because it was so peculiar in many ways. It’s not a regular vampire movie. It’s a Catholic, chemically correct vampire movie. I approached it with the zeal of somebody that was gasping for air, that was holding for dear life.
AVC: Did you set out to reinvent the vampire movie, or did it become a vampire movie as you worked on it?
GDT: I’ve been obsessed with vampires all my life. I’ve never been satisfied with the romantic conception of the vampire, so I was fully conscious, trying to reformulate that myth from a completely new perspective, which is alchemy and addiction and Mexican melodrama all together.
AVC: Can you remember when the image of the mechanical scarab first came to you?
GDT: Yes. Originally, I just wanted to have the insect trapped in a clock. Just like a clockwork machine. I imagined it first as a clock with no hands, symbolically meaning it was a clock not to tell you the time but to give you the time. To make you eternal. When we were designing the machine, I was looking at some very old automatons, from centuries past. I really liked how they were very baroque, and shaped in the form of an egg. Some of the sculptures were circular, and I just thought about it as being an egg. And then the legs came and it became a scarab. But all of this came from the fact that when I was a kid, there was a fad in Mexico called “living jewelry.” What it was was, women would buy really good-looking scarabs and put the golden waistband around them and wear them like living jewelry on their chest. It was very, very strange. I don’t know if it was only in Mexico, or if anywhere else there was such animal cruelty. But it made a big impression, because it was a big, big fad in Mexico.
AVC: How did Ron Perlman get involved with Cronos?
GDT: I’ve always liked Ron. I was a big fan of his work under make-up like The Name Of The Rose and Quest For Fire and the TV series Beauty And The Beast. I was approaching him like a fan. Sort of a proto-geek approaching his hero. I wanted him to do a cartoony bad American guy. You know, Ron is always game for doing cartoony and crazy.
AVC: Do you have the relationship the way Scorsese and De Niro did early on, where he’s your go-to actor?
GDT: I would say on a much lesser scale, of course. [Laughs.] If I can get Ron in every movie I make, I do so. He’s not only an actor I work with often, but also I’d say one of my best friends.
AVC: You’ve said that if you were to make Cronos today, it would be very different. How and why?
GDT: One of the stories that was cut out of the movie that I was very interested in was the story of the wife. I didn’t have a good rapport with the actress. Instead of trying to handle it in a different way, the way I would now that I’m older and slightly a little more skilled at working with actors, I ended up not getting what I wanted and cutting it out of the movie. If I was to do it now, I would still keep a couple of things that I wrote in the screenplay that I was never able to shoot, which was a little bit more backstory on the alchemist, and how he came to build the Cronos device. There was a lot more story there. But you know, re-transferring the movie for the Criterion edition, quite frankly, I have finally fallen in love with it again. It’s taken almost 20 years. I watched it about a week ago when we were checking the test Blu-ray with my wife and my mother-in-law. It’s such a beautiful artifact of youth. I really see myself in the movie as a young guy, and I love it. I’m not even sure I’d attempt to make any more different things with it. I love it.
AVC: When it was finished, it won awards in Mexico, and then went on to play at Cannes and Toronto and the festival circuit. At that time, was there a process in place in the Mexican film industry to get that film into festivals, or did you have to do that all by yourself?
GDT: No, I did it all with my producers and myself, and it was done against all odds, because most of the people in charge of the government office for film disliked the movie intensely. [Laughs.] The normal process for a movie in Mexico to get made is two years. To make Cronos, it took me eight years, but four of those years were trying to get the funding from the Mexican Film Institute. On the third of March, maybe 1991 or 1990, we showed the movie to the head of the Mexican Film Institute, and he told us he disliked it enormously. We were not very well-supported in any of the festival bids. It happened naturally. When we won Cannes, it was a big shock in Mexico, because there were three or four movies in different competitions in Cannes, and we were the only one that won. At the time, when Cronos won, it had been 30 years since a Mexican movie had won anything at Cannes. It was a big, big revolution. Eventually, the movie earned over 20 awards internationally.
AVC: And then it came to the states and didn’t do so well, which is surprising.
GDT: You know, back in the day, business was much smaller. This movie did critically very well, but box office-wise, we were talking about a minuscule art-circuit business. It was not La Femme Nikita, it was not Like Water For Chocolate, but it did all right.
AVC: Do you keep up with the horror genre now?
GDT: Yes, yes I do. But I really try to keep up with things that are interesting. There is a huge overflow of it, and I cannot keep up with everything. I’ve seen some really interesting small horror movies that signal the arrival of interesting directors. I love The House Of The Devil, for example. I thought it was very nice, and I’m a huge fan of Larry Fessenden, of course. Little movies that are interesting in horror from France or Spain or Eastern Europe always find their way to me.
AVC: What do you look for in horror? The ideas presented or the visual style?
GDT: I think the most interesting thing that can happen is when you see a real narrative attempt that goes beyond the genre. I really enjoy when a movie like the Korean film The Host happens, where somebody is talking about family and politics and is talking about their country’s idiosyncrasies. What is not interesting to me is just reflections on the genre. Like horror reflecting on the horror genre. I’m not interested in that.
AVC: Will we ever get the chance in the U.S. to see La Hora Marcada, the TV horror anthology show you and the Cuarón brothers worked on prior to Cronos?
GDT: Whenever we’ve been able to secure a copy, we watch it, and it’s soooo bad. Absolutely… it’s absolutely, horribly bad. It’s interesting, in almost an anthropological way. [Laughs.] We were so young, so inexperienced, and we were doing them so fast, that it would be only for the most die-hard completists out there.
AVC: You’ve had so many projects your name has been attached to in recent years. What are you actually working on now? And do you have any comment on what happened with The Hobbit?
GDT: I’m working very hard on At The Mountains Of Madness. We are hoping that’s my next movie. We are also developing Haunted Mansion for Disney and animated projects for DreamWorks. But as a director, only At The Mountains Of Madness is in my plate right now.
And as to The Hobbit, I’m very happy everything got resolved. I really hope and pray that these are the last obstacles that movie faces, other than the normal ones in production. It’s been an incredibly eventful road for that movie.
AVC: Any regrets that you’re not the one that’s going to be directing it?
GDT: No. There’s a lot of heartbreak, but no regrets.