Guillermo del Toro: 'I love monsters the way people worship holy images'
The film-maker’s fantastical world is not only expressed in his work but in his home – and now, thanks to a new exhibition in Los Angeles, anyone can visit
When film-maker Guillermo del Toro was directing his 2006 fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth, he told his art department to conjure a make-believe world more real than the actual world. He was talking about the alternative realm into which his protagonist disappears in order to avoid the harsh realities of fascist Spain, but he could have been talking about his own Bleak House, a Westlake Village residence crammed full of mementoes, toys, illustrations, models, literature and art, all centered on the macabre. While it may seem like the indulgence of a rich Hollywood egomaniac, instead it is the brain trust of the most prolific and distinctive horror and sci-fi/fantasy film-maker working in movies today.
“It’s everything,” Del Toro struggles to find the words to describe Bleak House, (actually two houses side by side). “It’s the single thing that I have done that expresses me most completely, more than any of my movies.” The house could never withstand regular public visits but an ample sampling of the collection – including models, sculpture, first-edition literary classics, art work, illustrations and props – have been removed to Lacma for Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters through 27 November, then will travel to Minneapolis and Toronto.
Highlights include two figures from Pan’s Labyrinth, winner of best makeup, art direction and cinematography Oscars. In the movie, young Ofelia is guided through a fantasy realm by a woodland spirit called the Faun who at first appears menacing but later proves friendly. Seen out of context under dim incandescent light at Lacma, the Faun’s artistry is enhanced rather than diminished, its etched, circular patterns and otherworldly countenance still as beguiling and repellent as on screen.
His counterpart, the Pale Man, a demon with his eyes in the palms of his hands, is as terrifying in real life as he is in the movie. Only here you can casually study his ashen complexion and loose, sagging flesh (inspired by Del Toro’s own struggles with weight loss), without fear of reprisal.
The sculpture gallery’s most prominent works are by Thomas Kuebler and Mike Hill, whose life-size reproduction of Boris Karloff, shirtless, reclining in a barber chair while makeup man Jack Pierce puts the finishing touches on his Frankenstein makeup, is modeled from a behind-the-scenes photo. Del Toro considers the 1931 Karloff version of the monster, a predominant fixture within the collection, to be a seminal figure in the horror genre.
Kuebler’s sculptures include three life-sized characters from Tod Browning’s classic, Freaks as well as a life-sized Edgar Alan Poe seated at a desk, and novelist HP Lovecraft, whose At the Mountains of Madness Del Toro has long tried to bring to the big screen.
A glance at the manically crowded pages of the artist’s notebooks offers early attempts at various creatures that evolved dramatically over time. The final product usually incorporates outlandish physical attributes based on design motifs as well as the creature’s nature, origin, survival needs and behavior. For instance the Angel of Death costume from Hellboy II features a blind face covered by a bony crescent-shaped plate above a lipless set of teeth. To solve the problem of how the Angel might see, del Toro turned to a peacock’s tail for inspiration, placing a series of eyes, each actively watching and blinking, among the black feathers of the creature’s wings.
While some movie fans will find themselves in horror heaven, others might wonder what these toys and models are doing in an art museum. In 2011, MoMA caused controversy – while inspiring huge ticket sales – with an exhibition dedicated to film-maker Tim Burton. In fact Britt Salvesen, the curator of At Home With Monsters, was co-coordinating curator on that show.
She says that Del Toro’s collection taps into a long tradition – the cabinet of curiosities. “There is a mode of collecting that has this tradition even before museums as institutions existed,” she says. “And Guillermo del Toro is really an heir to that type of collecting. The cabinet of curiosities is a way of creating a world in miniature and uniting various objects often endowed with some kind of power, value or beauty and aggregating them together in often seemingly random arrangements that made sense maybe only to the collector.”
Salvesen organized the show by theme with one room dedicated to death and the afterlife, and others on the subjects of magic, horror, occultism and monsters, with the show ending, the way Hollywood movies often do, on themes of innocence and redemption. “It’s not a collection in the sense a church is not a collection of images or icons,” del Toro explains. “To me, it has a spiritual calling. I love monsters the way people worship holy images. To me, they really connect in a very fundamental way to my identity.”
It’s a character trait he didn’t pass on to his daughter who, when she was younger, wouldn’t set foot in Bleak House. Then again, neither would the guy from the telephone company. Del Toro is a skeptic when it comes to ghosts but recalled feeling an otherworldly presence that may have come with a dining room set he purchased a while back. Alone in the house, he would hear footsteps until his mother, whom he describes as “a bit of a witch”, visited and did a cleansing. After that, no more footsteps.
The house is silent most of the time, as Del Toro is its only occupant. If he is working on a screenplay, he will go through his copious library and pull out books for research, as well as illustrations and models that might help him conjure the look of his intended movie. Then he takes a seat at a well-lit table and gets to work.
With research complete, he’ll begin to write in his usual place, the rain room, a space with a fake window outside of which there is a rainstorm on a 24-hour loop (duplicated for the Lacma show). “I drop on a huge sofa and I go into a delicious trance and write for a few hours. And if I want to watch a movie, I have two home theaters where I can watch a movie and relax. To me, movies are books. They are texts to be consulted.”
The son of a car salesman who won the national lottery, Del Toro was raised in a strict Catholic home. Even as a child he was obsessed with monsters and horror, collecting figurines and dressing up. One of Bleak House’s earliest pieces is a stuffed werewolf from when he was seven years old.
“A lot of Mexican Catholic dogma, the way it’s taught, it’s about existing in a state of grace, which I found impossible to reconcile with the much darker view of the world and myself, even as a child,” says the film-maker who has dedicated his career to dreaming up new creatures. “I couldn’t make sense of impulses like rage or envy and, when I was older, more complex ones, you know. I felt there was a deep cleansing allowing for imperfection through the figure of a monster. Monsters are the patron saints of imperfection.”
And if imperfection is everywhere, then more monsters are needed. To fill the gap, del Toro will be bringing back the Kaiju – giant, city-destroying monsters – in the sequel to Pacific Rim, which he will produce but not direct, starring John Boyega and Scott Eastwood. An amphibious man forms a bond with a mortal woman in The Shape of Water, his cold war relationship story currently filming in Toronto. And on the small screen his Trollhunters, based on his children’s book, airs on Netflix beginning in December, and his vampire series, The Strain, moves into what’s likely to be its final season. That covers TV, movies and publishing, and as for theatre, the Faun and the Pale Man will return in Pan’s Labyrinth the musical, which is aiming for European previews before moving to Broadway next year. To say Del Toro is prolific is an understatement, and it all begins with Bleak House.
“I walk into the house and I feel I’m home,” says the director. “I feel very blessed and immensely grateful about the fact that I’m 51 and I’m able to live there, because it’s the place I dreamt of living in since I was a seven-year-old child.”