by Tim Birkbeck
With his latest film The Shape of Water nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, Guillermo del Toro has once again shown he has an eye for the unusual.
Having already picked up two Golden Globes, the momentum seems to be with the Mexican film director and having previously been nominated for an Oscar with Pan’s Labyrinth, 2018 could be the year of del Toro.
The director has turned his hand to many different genres, from dark fantasy to science-fiction, but the one common thread is you can look at any one of these films and instantly know it is a del Toro masterpiece.
As the Shape of Water looks set to be del Toro’s most moving and ambitious piece to date, VultureHound takes a look at some of his landmark directorial films and how they have shaped the much-loved directors vision.
A 400-year-old scarab which, when it attaches itself to its host, grants them youth and eternal life, was the basis for del Toro’s first feature length film.
At the age of 29, del Toro had already made many a critic stand up and pay attention to his work with his witty, stylish and imaginative variation on the vampire movie. This was the first example for many of the director using simple, poetic imagery and gothic sound effects to create an atmosphere which has become so synonymous with his work alongside the various striking set pieces. If this was how the young film maker is going to announce himself on the big screen, then it was not a bad start at all.
The film went over budget from the original $1,5 million to $2 million (the highest budget for a Mexican movie at the time); the extra money having been acquired by del Toro himself through loans and bank debts. In order to complete the film, changes had to be made, and the subsequent film only saw a small release, after which many critics commented on how it deserved a more widespread showing.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
After what many regard as a bit of a flop with Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone was a return to del Toro’s Spanish language roots, showcasing a mystery based around a haunted orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. Delving deeper into his love of horror, The Devil’s Backbone gave audiences a very different approach to the War.
The command of sound and colour is breathtaking and shows how the vibrancy of colour began to play a huge role through del Toro’s career. It was rated as number 61 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, which was well deserved, as this labour of love for del Toro was sixteen years in development.
Blade II (2002)
Following the vampire theme which gave del Toro great success with Cronos, the director took his first step into the world of comic books, creating what Wesley Snipes has since admitted to be his personal favourite Blade movie.
Del Toro’s gore-drenched follow-up to Stephen Norrington’s vastly underrated 1999 cult hit Blade is up there when it comes to supernatural action films. The film is hectic and hyper-violent; something which del Toro at this stage in his career (2002) was starting to gain a reputation for; making violence feel real and brutal at the same time.
This was also one of the early forays into intricate costume design. Something the Mexican would carry forward with him into his latter films.
‘Hellboy’ might not have the name-recognition factor of the Spider or Batmen, but del Toro brings the audience swiftly up to speed on artist-writer Mike Mignola’s comic book anti-hero, as the story, wherein a demon rescued from the Nazis and raised to fight occult threats, gave del Toro the canvas he may have been waiting for. Bright colours, over the top characters, with action and violence thrown in to boot – was right up the Mexican film-maker’s alley.
Having been influenced by monster such as Frankenstein’s monster, the Thing and Godzilla, del Toro was given the chance to cast his net and see what he could deliver.
Del Toro turned down opportunities to make this with a bigger budget in return for putting a star in Hellboy‘s giant boots. For years del Toro considered this film a dream project, and had always wanted to cast Ron Perlman in the lead, but could never secure a budget or studio approval, but after the success of Blade II it became a reality.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
For many, this was the film that cemented del Toro as an innovative and unique film maker.
One of the darkest children’s stories out there, Pan’s Labyrinth gained huge critical acclaim and gave the director the platform to show off his love of dark fantasy in the real world. Not only was it a return to the director’s Spanish language roots, but it also gave birth to one of his most iconic characters in the Pale Man.
Pan’s Labyrinth is almost a sister-film to The Devil’s Backbone in that it is set in a similar era and has some of the same connotations, but the greater experience behind the film maker added more finesse to the final product.
Del Toro is famous for compiling books full of notes and drawings about his ideas before turning them into films, something he regards as essential to the process. He left years worth of notes for this film in the back of a cab, and when he discovered them missing, he thought it was the end of the project. However, the cab driver found them and, realising their importance, tracked him down and returned them at great personal difficulty and expense. Del Toro was convinced that this was a blessing and it made him ever more determined to complete the film.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Nuclear-powered robots built to defend Earth may not be where you expect to see del Toro take his next step, but the director’s foray into action films received critical acclaim, as del Toro has once again delved into his childhood influences for inspiration.
Even though the film may not have had huge success, it has, like many of del Toro’s films, gained a cult following. And being as far removed from the Gothic dream realm of Pan’s Labyrinth as it was just showed that the director could add another string to his bow.
Visual effects supervisor John Knoll and del Toro spent several weeks discussing the physics of the giant characters and went into very specific detail, such as how the air displacement from a Jaeger moving between skyscrapers would shake the building’s windows.
Crimson Peak (2015)
After tackling giant robots, del Toro returned to his Gothic roots, producing a movie more about mystery and suspense than gore.
Up until this point you could easily scratch a thick, red line through the middle of del Toro’s work. On one side you’d have his ‘grown-up’ movies, on the other his North American pictures. Crimson Peak was his first film that seemed to straddle that line.
With its Victorian undertones, it had all the costume and colour we have come to associate with the director, but rather than the horror-based fantasy of some of his Spanish language films, Crimson Peak is arguably one of the most accessible films del Toro has put his name to.
Visually, del Toro wanted the film to look like a Mario Bava Technicolor movie and when designing the house which is the films centrepiece, everything was crafted specifically for this movie, using no salvaged or secondhand parts.
It is all of these elements put together that contributed to shaping the director of the upcoming Cold War Era Valentine’s Day The Shape of Water.
It looks set to be del Toro’s most mesmerising masterpiece to date, and it is believed that he wrote lengthy backstories for each of the major characters, some of them allegedly running over 40 pages long. After casting the roles, he offered them to the actors and said they could choose to utilize or ignore the backstories for their own character, proving that del Toro is one of the most thorough and dedicated film-makers of our time.
The Shape of Water is out in Cinemas everywhere on February 14.