Guillermo Del Toro has too much to do.
The Mexican wunderkind has been away from screens for so long you’d think he’s been on holiday. Instead, a couple of very high profile false starts (The Hobbit, which he was slated to direct before dropping out, then In the Mountains of Madness) blindsided the 48-year-old director and kept him away from the director’s chair for four years.
But as he explained in Los Angeles promoting Rise of the Guardians, which he produced for Dreamworks Animation, his plate never really emptied, and with a frankly mental number of projects in development (almost 20), we’ll be seeing the fruit of all that labour very soon. Rise of the Guardians is first up, then horror story Mama (as producer) but the one many fans are slavering for is Pacific Rim, his giant aliens versus giant robot smackdown (May 2013).
How hands-on is the executive producer of an animated family movie?
The role as a producer is very simple – it’s as hands on as you need to be. You can go by your own criteria, which can be difficult when you see the director is in great danger of not delivering the movie. But if you have somebody you love and trust, you’re as hands-on as they need. You’re half bodyguard, half butler. They ring the bell and you’re like, ‘Yes master?’
You try to work for them. It’s incredibly important that you don’t try to direct it yourself. That’s the difference I learned in a good and a bad way. I’ve now produced 20 movies in total and the role is simple, you produce the way you want to be produced. You don’t do anything you wouldn’t be able to face yourself.
But if they need me to get involved with the story or the design, I would. I put as many hours in as needed and I worked a lot. If you work for Jeffrey [Katzenberg, Dreamworks Animation CEO] you work a lot. Everybody who knows him knows he’s not the kind of guy who says ‘I’ll see you when I see you’. He expects you here, working. And that’s beautiful for me because the one thing they always get from me that’s guaranteed is my sincerity.
But isn’t it tempting not to direct and design because you’re so known for that in your own directing career?
You put everything you know about design or story on the table and they take what they want. Peter [Ramsey, Rise of the Guardians director] and I argued over the lights on the globe in Santa’s workshop all the way through and we finally did it his way.
It’s the same with the story. My impulse was to tell the story through Jamie, one of the kids, and that wasn’t Peter’s impulse. His idea was because we were telling a fable you always talk about your ground floor, where the audience climbs into the elevator to be taken up into the movie. Peter was very clear his ground floor was the character of Jack Frost. He agreed Jamie was another area that was crucial to develop but I pitched the entire way of telling the story through Jamie and Peter said ‘we’re not doing that’.
You joked before about not having the patience to direct an animated film.
I will direct animation. What I don’t have the patience for is to animate. When I was young I was great at sculpting figures and painting and dressing them. But the moment they had to make some sort of gesture to be recorded I threw my hands up and wanted to go and bet a burger. I don’t have the temperament. I’m really impatient.
Your usual themes are strong fantasy and a child-like outlook. How do you fit them into Pacific Rim, a movie about giant robots and monsters?
I don’t come in with a checklist and say ‘Where do I do this, where do I that?’ Ultimately when you work with material eventually you end up living some evidence of your time there. If you force it then it really destroys the spontaneity of the material.
How does a kid who grew up in Mexico get exposed to the Japanese sci-fi animation that inspired Pacific Rim?
For whatever reason Mexico was flooded with anime, kaiju and Japanese horror movies in the 60s. You know, we got everything from Horror of Dracula to Astroboy.
So a lot of us had an infancy that was fed by anime and all these things. It’s in my gut as a creator and has been all my life. I want to do what I want with that as opposed to doing something I saw in this movie. I just went and honoured things I love.
A lot of your best movies are the small ones. How do you not lose quality in a big production like Pacific Rim?
I approach each with the same degree of creativity and try to visually create different universes. When my movies are successful on their own terms I’m happy. I don’t approach them thinking it’s the big one or the small one. All of them are personal. Even Mimic was personal.
What did you like about Pacific Rim for your next project?
I started on Pacific Rim as producer because I was doing In the Mountains of Madness, which never happened. We were very close and it fell through as I was developing Pacific Rim. I mean, Devil’s Backbone took more than 12 years to get made. Hellboy took seven and a half years to get made, and the space between movies can get really crazy. So I’ve fortunately learned through the years to have three or four things going.
But Pacific Rim was shaping up so beautifully and as producer I was really envious of whoever was going to develop the visual styles. So on the Friday afternoon Mountains collapsed and on Monday afternoon I was lined up to direct Pacific Rim.