What Guillermo del Toro Does to Help Me Write

But... the title says "del Toro!" Whyfor is Simmons' pic on here? Details to follow.

But… the title says “del Toro!” Whyfor is Simmons’ pic on here?
Details to follow.

So. Confessional booth time. Guillermo is possibly the best director out there. Better than Peter Jackson. Better than Christopher Nolan (only by a little). Better than Wes Craven and Terry Gilliam. Simply watching the movies he directed should assist with inspiration (with the exception of Pacific Rim: that movie, in my opinion, was horrible). But I did something a little unorthodox last night, and researched two of his movies (Hellboy and Hellboy 2) with a pad of paper and a pen and his director’s commentary on.

Whoa nelly I didn’t expect such an analysis from a director. I love it. Why? He’s a writer, too. Not just screenplay writer, or blog-writer. But actual novel writer. In my genre. Yum.

First, a quick overview of what Mr. del Toro directed (Taken from IMDB.com)

Blade II
Hellboy II
Pan’s Labyrinth
Pacific Rim

And a quick overview of what Mr. del Toro wrote (also taken from IMDB.com)

(same as above but with the addition of)

The 3 Hobbit movies
The Strain (Book series, and subsequent TV series that came from it)

Upcoming on Mr. del Toro’s list of writing/directing (taken from IMDB and wikipedia)

Hellboy III (YES)
Pacific Rim II (NO)
Drood (adaptation from Dan Simmons’ novel. I’m literally salivating over this. Hence, the pic.)

Okay. Details out of the way. Why should every writer listen to Guillermo del Toro’s director commentary on Hellboy and Hellboy II?

For one, it’s brilliant. Del Toro is a creatures guy. A characters guy. He represents ideas, tropes, societal foci through exaggerated characters and creatures.

He is also an environment guy, though he explains it a lot less thoroughly than he does the characters.

Finally, he is a storyteller. He tells his stories through saturation, hues, colors, and themes (who doesn’t, right?). BUT IN THE COMMENTARY, HE EXPLAINS IT ALL.

For example, in Hellboy, del Toro starts straight off saying he wanted to make a Lovecraftian evil. Very daring for a writer/director. Why? Lovecraftian horror is complex, large-scale, and intimate with ideas that exist within themselves. To elaborate, del Toro starts the story with a quote about gods sleeping in crystal, but didn’t want to find something from the Necronomicon, a classic tome created by, and used exclusively within, Lovecraft’s mythos. The idea of sleeping gods is very much an original (or, as original as a concept can get) concept not found in other works before Lovecraft. It is wholly his own. So to use this type of horror is difficult–even though Hellboy’s comic book creator, Mike Mignola, also used Lovecraftian horror.

He worked hard to stay within the boundaries of Hellboy’s comic feel. But even farther in, he wanted absolutely nothing in the movie with the color red unless it pertained directly to Hellboy. So the only red came from Hellboy’s room, his girlfriend Liz’s lipstick, etc. Quite stunning. He used green for intelligence, red for passion/aggression, blue for fear–and these are all details I missed while watching. Yeah, Hellboy’s room is a little red. He at a lot of Chili. So what? Abe Sapien’s aquarium is green, as it should be. It wasn’t obvious.

Yet the way he showed the story instead of said it was pretty impressive, once he starts pointing everything out. He even explained how Rasputin’s hand–the electric/mechanical device he used to open a portal to the sleeping god–was literally the exact same hand Hellboy had throughout the movie, and eventually used, in a magical way, to open the portal again. Del Toro’s focus was on showing the parallels, religious concepts, and vaguely Christian motifs throughout that, even as a critic and hardcore book writer, I missed the first two times watching. Beautiful.

As writers, if we were to outline a book as well as del Toro outlines a movie, you’d have a bangarang novel without writing a single paragraph. Step-by-step analysis of everything, from the start to finish. And the way he tied it all together, ouroboros-style, felt very clean and final.

If Hellboy was a great jog to inspiration and story creation, Hellboy II was a fistful of boomstick. Del Toro had a lot more freedom with this film, incorporated a whole bunch of fantasy elements, and had some of the production crew from Pan’s Labyrinth to assist. That being said, it’s less clean-cut, clear, crisp than the first, because Guillermo had something to say.

Hellboy’s girlfriend is pregnant at the beginning of this movie, but neither she nor Hellboy knows. But, as del Toro points out, the watcher should know, if he pays attention to the background. It’s a major theme in the movie: creating life, birthing a child, and so on. The way he does it is fantastic: nothing shoved down your throat, but symbolic.

Another theme is “who is the monster?” While Hellboy aggressively fights for the side of humanity, the movie repeatedly draws light on the idea that Hellboy isn’t. Del Toro even goes so far to say “Prince Nuada (antagonist) is the only character in this movie with ideals. No one else–even Hellboy is, well, a rascal. He blindly attacks things he sees as a threat. But really, what is he fighting against? What is he fighting for?”

Nothing in this movie shows this more than when the vine elemental wrecks havoc on downtown New York, and Hellboy’s holding a baby in his arms (a la birthing symbolism), and shooting at this thing that, as del Toro states, is a beautiful, destructive thing. The two have it out, and before Hellboy gets the kill shot, Prince Nuada stops him and says, “Look at what you are destroying. It is the last of its kind.” The threat to human life aside, it’s a pretty profound moment. A moment most writers would kill for in their novels. The hero, who up until now has blindly pursued an internal compass of right and wrong, is presented with the idea that he’s actually doing more harm than good, upholding the steel towers of humanity.

It hits home when, after he kills the elemental (spoiler), the baby’s mother tears the baby out of his arms and police threaten to shoot him. He’s a monster, too, when looked at from humanity’s eyes. Again, huge deal, and directly plays into his decisions later in the movie. (THAT’S CALLED CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT)

My favorite part of the movie came when Hellboy walks into the angel of death’s lair (and, as del Toro points out, His Angel of Death and nobody else’s), the textures and environment was taken from “a symbolist painter…” by the name of Zdzislaw Beksinski, a late polish painter who painted pictures of the apocalypse (and my favorite painter).

I’ll only add, the best moment in the movie (and I consider the climax), is when Nuada stabs Hellboy in the chest and said, “Before you might have mused, am I mortal? Now you are made so.” It made such an impact that the normally very glib del Toro actually is silent while the elf prince says this line, it is so important to him.

I won’t dissect the whole thing.

He says it’s a fairy tale. He says he was able to tell the story through Hellboy II that he wanted through Pan’s Labyrinth, but couldn’t due to the subject matter. He wanted children to be able to watch the movie and take life lessons from it. This movie is, literally, all about the children. I’m certain it’s mirrored by his own family, on many levels (write what you know, and are passionate about).

To be frank I didn’t expect this experience. I figured I could take some notes about thematic use, environment, etc., and apply it to my writing. Listening to the man discuss every hue, set piece, animatronic character, and theme, blew me away. I stopped writing a while before the movie ended, I just wanted to absorb it all or risk losing details due to writing them down.

If you haven’t already, watch these two movies with director commentary on. On top of the inspiration you’ll garner, you’ll also collect (possibly) some very strong thematic understandings of writing, narrating, and telling a story.

Also, if you have a chance before this man makes the movie, read Drood by Dan Simmons. It’s horror at its best, and the single greatest novel I’ve ever read.


3 thoughts on “What Guillermo del Toro Does to Help Me Write

  1. Oh, del Toro. Don’t know if I’d go with him over Terry Gilliam, but it’s close. Pacific Rim doesn’t count as a del Toro movie to me. It doesn’t even LOOK like del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth and both the Hellboy movies rocked my socks. And yes, the angel of death in the second one is a beautiful creature-piece. And the goblin market scenes–holy hell. I wish my writing looked like a del Toro movie.

    I have to say, I actually DID find the elemental scene a little overdone, but it was so visually stunning that I found myself not giving a shit. He’s usually a master of the symbolic, though, you’re right about that. Just enough and not too much.

    Now I want to go watch Pan’s Labyrinth again.

  2. DO IT. 🙂 It almost feels as if, when del Toro is not given restrictions, he just runs through the forests and fields exploring the extent of the story. WITH restrictions, he’s all super-tight and amazing (I almost wrote cocksure, but that seems somehow sexist. And somehow the wrong word. Not that the sentence looks any less sexualized. Nevermind).

    I’m a whole lotta inspired by the man. Mmm.

  3. Pingback: Your NoWri Voice, and Why It Doesn’t Have to Sing | Modern Fantastic

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