Set Visit: Interview with Hellboy II director Guillermo Del Toro (Part 1 of 2)
Guillermo Del Toro is tired. Not only is he on day 105 of a grueling 120 day shoot for HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, but the entire cast and crew are also weeks in to their schedule of sleep-depriving night shoots, with another three left to go. Even though the typically high-energy director was noticeably fatigued, he was still excited to talk to our group of journalists in between shots and setups, with his geeky and twisted sense of humor quickly shining through.
Since we chatted with Del Toro multiple times throughout the night of our set visit, the result was one very long interview, which has been broken apart in two. In this first half, we caught the director in the Angel of Deaths Lair and got him to spill on all things HELLBOY IIfrom their tight budget and shooting schedule to specific story influences, creature design, and a couple little surprises along the way.
Guillermo Del Toro
You look good. Does it feel like Day 105?
This was a movie that had a very tight prep, so weve had a lot of difficulty getting it going so fast.
Hows shooting been?
Its been really good. I think the budget were trying to make the movie look twice what it is, but its the same as in the first one. We call it the Fat Man Syndrome if you have four donuts you want them all. And the crumbs. And a glass of milk. Thats the problem; you have a budget like this and you say, How can I make it much bigger? Even if you dont have the money, so thats a little problem. And in this one, we didnt have the money and we didnt have much time, so its twice as stressful. I think everybodys aged 10 years. And [production designer] Stephen Scott aged 15.
Hes 32, right?
He was 28 at the beginning and he had all his teeth straight and a full mane of hair.
Do you need to get back to work or can we speak some more?
No, were just preparing wiring the wings for the Angel of Death.
Well, tell us everything then.
The Angel of Death is a drug addict and hes dating the script girl. (laughs) No, no. The thing is the movie has to be compressed in a time and a budget, thats the main thing. Its a pressure cooker. But creatively its been very free. This movie has been much more free than the first one, in the sense that you dont have to set up the rules of the world, so youre allowed to frankly have more fun which I havent had. (laughs) But in theory you should have more fun.
Not even in the writing process?
In the writing it was great! And I think the visuals and everything, thats a feast. But getting them consigned on to the film has been pretty tough because of that pressure cooker. Like Are we gonna start the next day to do prep? Once you reach a certain level, every day costs almost as much as a shooting day. And you cant postpone it, because we knew we were gonna come out in the summer.
So you have to work backwards then.
Its real filmmaking!
How long have you known this was a story you were gonna do for the second film?
Well, I think when we finished the first one we talked about itMike Mignola and Ifor a long time. And I came up with an idea that was very different than this one. It was the one we pitched to Revolution. Actually the idea for the characters evolution was the same, but the anecdote of the Golden Army was not there. It was Four Titans at the four corners of the Earthwind, water, fire, earth. And the idea was that a prince wanted to awaken the Four Titans. And it just felt to me like this [points to the set] was a more a magical idea, a more magical story.
But I thought Titans then all of a sudden I was thinking Golden Army. It sounded great and then we said What can the Golden Army be? And then when I thought about the Princes father having constructed them eons before and him wanting them to conquer the world, it sounded immediately great and thats what we pitched.
So this was an original story? You didnt pull anything from the comics?
No, no, no. Curiously, I was literally driving back from the Long Beach Aquarium with my family and I called Mike and said This is not working. I cannot find this, I cannot find that, and as we drove from Long Beach to Agoura Hills, which is a long drive, I said the only thing that could work is if its a rebellious prince and we started jiving on it. And by the end of it, with what always happens with mental infants, we were both yelling Yeah, and then the prince has has a magic land! And he has a sidekick! And we were happy.
We saw some of the creatures over there. How do you guys divide up the creatures? Do you come up with your own ideas and kinda put them together?
No, what we did is I had a clear guideline on the creatures. I wanted the creatures not to look like movie creatures and not to go with any sort of Celtic type of design and not to go with the Anglo-Saxon style of design in the fantasy creatureswhich is the Brian Froud, Arthur Rackham, Lord of the Rings type of mold, which determines that a troll looks a certain way and a dwarf looks a certain way, and all those things that you always encounter. I said that both the culture and the creatures needed to be more free than that. Some of them I wanted to look like a medieval engraving as you would find in a Dürer or that you would find in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. And then for the culture we went with eastern influences, from Japan, Arabian markets, Muslim architecture. We went with completely different influences that didnt come from the usual, you know, troll in a leather strap with horns in the helmet type of thing.
So from that point on, everybody started chipping in and what I did was I asked the designers, for example [visual designer] Wayne Barlow and Mike in the preproduction stage, I asked everybody to design things that you want to see. Except when they were dictated, I said, Draw twenty drawings that you really want to see on the screen. And each one got one or two. And with the creature guys I said, Forget what you usually do, which is youre afraid to bring stuff that is crazy. Bring the stuff that is completely crazy, that you wanna do. And lets enjoy it. And each designer brought three or four that they were completely passionate about and we then started working on one or two of those.
And the way the creatures were treated is very much the way you treat creatures or characters in animation, where each designer took a character from beginning to end. It was not an assembly line. So for example, Chad at Spectral Motion took a character called the Chamberlain that looks exactly like his paintings. He took it from that stage of design to wardrobe, costumes, sculpting, painting, assembly, designall the way, like an animated movie. And Norman Cabrera designed the Angel of Death, again from the first concept to the last piece; he supervised that character all the way. And so on and so forth. So what I wanted was for the creatures to be fun to do. Because then they come out more alive, as opposed to the studio heads and the producers and the director saying, Could it be a little more We tried to give them fun.
So you went to Universal with the first film and now youre back here again.
We started at Universal.
Its great, because when I got involved with the first HELLBOY, I always wanted Hellboy to be part of the pantheon of monsters; be with Lon Chaney, be with Boris Karloff. And I just wanted it as a fan, as a geek. And then we went out from there and went to Sony and Revolution, who did the first movie. And it was beautifully ironic that we came back to Universal with this.
Is Mike gonna do a comic book adaptation of the movie with his own artwork?
No, but were doing a little comic with the prologue of the movie. That is the story of the Golden Army and its been laid out by Mike and its being drawn by Francisco Ruiz Velasco. And Dark Horse is gonna put it out with the movie. The prologue is an example of how we went at it. We had a sprawling narrative that took place in five minutes. It was a little five minute movie like in LORD OF THE RINGS. And then the budget had to go down. So theres a line that a director says jokingly and that is, Well do it with puppets! And then they laugh and we said, Well do it with puppets! So were doing it with puppets. Were doing a beautifully designed carefully animated puppet theater to explain the legend, which is both better and cheaper. Which is the way everything has been in the movie. So its a freer style I would say. But its also more beautiful, you know. Youre not gonna out-Lord of the Rings LORD OF THE RINGS on scale, but you can make it almost like a Japanese shadow theater. Its a beautiful prologue.
At this point, the next shot is set up and Guillermo goes back to resume filming. The scene takes place in the Angel of Deaths lair, which is a dark and dirty room filled with large amber colored jars, similar to those in THE DEVILS BACKBONE. We watch them film for a few takes, before Director of Photography (and recent Oscar winner) Guillermo Navarro decides he isnt 100% satisfied with the framing compared to the previous shot. So they stop to fix a few things, which is a slow process because in the Angel of Death costume, and with the heavy wings wired to his back, Doug Jones can only shift about an inch at a time.
Tell us whats shooting in there right now.
Its a scene with Hellboy and the Angel of Death and it takes place in Bethmoora, which is the dead world, the world of magic, the world of the sons of the earth, which are magical creatures. But its dead, as you may see from the aesthetic. And theres a little goblin in the background which has no legs.
Are all those fetuses or something?
Those are the souls. Its the pantry of the Angel of Death. He has to keep the snacks nearby.
Where does this take place in terms of the first film? Is it shortly after?
Its about a year later, in theory. The idea was that you have the happy ending in the first one with the fire and the orchestra and theyre kissing and to just see what happens a year later. Its gently in the background but its therethe idea of these epic films and what happens after, you know, Cassius conquers Rome and then the next day he has to wake up and send the sandals to be shined and
Guillermo suddenly gets pulled away again to call the shots. We watch a number of takes between Selma Blair and the Angel of Death, one of which sees Doug lose his balance and nearly fallalmost getting his spine crushed under the weight of the massive wings and scaring the hell out of Selma in the processes. Guillermo yells cut and they stop to fix the rigging (and make sure poor Doug is okay).
You got a real startled reaction out of Selma.
Theres days where youll have Johann, Abe and Hellboy and a goblin in the same frame. And you know none of them can see. Its like an Ionesco play.
Youre a fan of fairy tales, do you find that helps shape the stories that you tell?
I think so. Ive always knew that it was a component of the things I wanted to do. If you see interviews as early as CRONOS or MIMIC Im quoting Rackham and talking about the imaginary world. And that was something that I always felt very comfortable with, the aesthetics of horror but not very interested in the mechanisms of it, like the startle and the scare. I feel like Im very happy creating creepy, eerie, atmospheric things, but Im more interested in the life of the creatures and the monsters than I am interested in making and creating mechanical diversions of horror. Im more interested in the aesthetics and I think Im now finding its the playground I enjoy the most. You know, this dark horror/monster realm that I enjoy.
But in terms of story, do you actually go to the structure of fairy tales?
Well, I try to. Both in PANS LABYRINTH and here theres many references to different types of fairy tales and the whole realm of a fallen prince coming back to reclaim a world that is fading and there is some stuff youll see that I tried to give more of a fantasy feel, like THE WIZARD OF OZ. And we go to worlds, as opposed to having creatures in our world. We try to show other areas of other places of existence for the monsters. In the first movie we have monsters living amongst us, so to speak, and the difference is in this movie you go more to the environment where the wild things are.
We saw some of the production art upstairs for Hellboy Jr. What kind of back story are you going to reveal and how does that play in to the movie?
First of all, we very much wanted to see one of my favorite episodes is the one where Hellboy is a kid, you know like in Pancakes. Thats not in this movie, but the idea is I wanted to show the New Mexico base life in the 50s. Show the place where they lived, Broom and him, and see a little bit of that domestic life of the father and son even if its a vignette. So we have Brooms clothes drying in the background and you see a little kitchen and you see how they live and you see a little bit of how he came to be the father. Its a little vignette and I also wanted very much John Hurt to be part of the texture of the second film.
You also mentioned Johann and Im curious as to how he plays in to things and how big his part is going to be?
I think that Mike and I spoke about hoping against hope that if there is a third movie, then the third movie would bejust as the second one is very much about Abe in many ways, Abe takes a full step forward and its about Hellboy as much as its about Abeand we hope that if there is a third one it will be about Johann. So here he plays a concrete function, which is the new guy that sort of wants to bring order to the BPRD that is in chaos because Hellboy basically came out and everybody saw him. So were throwing lines out for that story to take the center if there would be a third movie.
How are you executing him?
Well, the original concept, when the budget was much higher, we were going for the empty light bulb look that is in the comic books, in the Guy Davis-Mike Mignola comics. But that meant replacing the entire head with a CG head for, I dont know, a thousand shots? And it was prohibitive, so we went, gladlyfrankly I like itwe went with a more Jules Verne containment suit type of look. So we used sort of perspective and mirror tricks inside the helmet to keep the head sort of disappeared. Were not doing it with optical or digitals. We angled the helmet and the reflections and we created sort of a magnifying glass bubble so that you can feel that theres more empty space inside the helmet than there actually is. And then build the suit to show the fishbowl head, like a Jules Verne containment suit from the19th century.
What kind of references are you making to the first movie? Any kinds of flashback or recap or is that not possible
To me, that was not very interesting. Maybe at the end of the process well have a roller in the beginning, after an audience raises a hand at a test screening and says Whos that red guy? Then we may be in trouble. But until then Im treating it like the sequels I love. For example, in the ROAD WARRIOR theres a quick recap of how the world collapsed, but the only thing thats set up about Max is that hes a man who lost everything. And thats what you know about Max. It doesnt say He was a policeman. His family was killed by a motorcycle gang. Hes just a man who lost everything and thats about it. A recap in this is embedded in the prologue, when you see Hellboy in the 1950sand what would be a very short recap saying that in 1944 a secret project did this and this is where theyre living.
Can you show footage from the first movie if you wanted to?
I never explored that because I never thought I would. I think the same was done when we did BLADE, Goyer made it clear that we were not recapping anything. And I went with that because thats the way I like it. You know, like the Austin Powers movies, he was frozen and then he came back and now hes swinging.
Is the Liz and Hellboy relationship whats at the heart of the movie for you?
What I like is that its sort of a reversal of the first movie, in that Hellboy had to make a choice in the first movie about who he was and what he wanted and save her and in a strange way shes saving him. Theyre dilemma is what makes him race back at the end of the movie. There again, its threaded so that hopefully the third one would have a very moving, perhaps even heartbreaking conclusion to that relationship. I think if everything went well that the idea is to end up like most couples end up after the first year, and then in the third movie we take it somewhere else. The banter and the character relationships I think goes beyond Liz and Hellboy. Abe and Hellboy have a far looser relationship and Abe has his own story with the Princess from Bethmoora. And I find it more entertaining, the character interactions, as opposed to having ten lines of dialogue to explain everything, which is what we had in the first movie. We had to explain the BPRD, how Abe existed, how Hellboy existed, how Broom came to beall these things, is in general, more fun.
Are you doing anything to actively expand the audience for the sequel?
Im making a second movie. (laughs) I hope thats enough because its killing me.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview, where the Mad Mexican talks about the future of his career and pretty much every movie hes ever been rumored to make!
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