Q&A: Guillermo del Toro on 'Rise of the Guardians'

Besides being one of the top-tier filmmakers in Hollywood, "Rise of the Guardians" producer Guillermo del Toro is also an enthusiast of the highest order, and by "enthusiast" we mean nerd, and in the best way possible.

We had the opportunity to spend a glorious half hour one on one with the jovial Mexican nerding out about all sorts of topics, from his role as godfather of the DreamWorks animated film that teams up Santa, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, to his upcoming Japanese monster epic "Pacific Rim." We also talk about how "Prometheus" might help get his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" off the ground, and the tantalizing future of his Los Angeles man cave, Bleak House.

That classic children's book feel that writer William Joyce and director Peter Ramsey brings to "Rise of the Guardians" makes it very distinctive among the other, more in-your-face animated movies.

That's something that attracted me too, because when I saw it, I thought it looked like an illustrated book. Not that I don't like those movies, but it didn't feel like a pop culture reference-filled movie. It's the same thing that attracted me to "Puss in Boots," that Chris [Miller] was making an earnest spaghetti western where the hero happened to be a very small cat. The same thing attracted me to help Jen [Yuh Nelson] on "Kung Fu Panda" where she really was serious about showing Po making peace with his roots and making a serious martial arts movie. I don't jibe very well with post-modern, self-referencing stuff.

Rise of the GuardiansYou're one of the guiding lights of this project, and a self-professed folklore and mythology hound. What did you bring to the table in terms of your expertise in that area?

Bill was doing it before I came in, but going back to the older roots of the myth. To make Bunny an elemental as opposed to a guy associated with a particular religious holiday. With North, to make him go back to the wild man roots of the myth, this almost feral Cossack knight. I also went very carefully with them through the whole story and tried to help them find a mythological function for the characters, not just a physical one. The teeth were not important because of the teeth but because of the memories. Easter was not important just because of the eggs, but it was about renewal. To ascribe a value to each of the Guardians, to have them function as the things that make us human. Fear goes against that. Every time we are afraid, we are not alive. We wanted to make Fear very mellifluous, very sophisticated, articulate in a way he tells you not to do things.

The pagan egg stones in Bunny's world were a nice touch!

That's the thing; when I came in, Bunny had a factory environment. We started redesigning his environment, and we went and said, "Why are we doing these shapes? Why are we doing these colors? Why are we referencing these textures?" We really wanted the world to feel ancient — ancient stones, ancient moss, lots of wilderness, a primordial feel.

You've stated your work with DreamWorks is kind of a crash-course grad-level immersion into animation. How do you plan to funnel what you've learned into your own projects like "Pinocchio"?

I did animation, and in fact had an animation studio in Mexico. My studio in Guadalajara was the birthplace of a lot of animators in that region. I had a big studio with a lot of lights and two cameras, Mitchells. We did stop-motion, but after "Cronos" I stopped doing animation. But I've been a devoted fan of animation and collect pre-production art from "Sleeping Beauty," "Fantasia," Ichabod Crane, "Alice in Wonderland." I approached Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and said, "Look, I want to do animation, but I want to go into an apprenticeship." Right now we just renewed for another three years. I've really been trying to be a supporter of all the directors at DreamWorks, and the direction of the studio is taking a really interesting turn.

Rise of the GuardiansThe most interesting thing is you've got all these A-list directors like Steven Spielberg, Zack Snyder, Wes Anderson, probably starting with Robert Zemeckis, just coming out of the woodwork and diving into animation. What Walt Disney angel dust are all you guys smoking?

Look, Disney is without a doubt one of the great creators. He was influential not by directing the films but by creating with a group of great artists. Zemeckis is the personification of an impulse that all those directors have, which is total control. He likes total control. That's why I'm doing animation, because I want to control everything in the frame if we can. It's a great exercise. One of the things people don't realize is if you see a leaf go by or a car splash in a puddle of water in "Guardians," we put the water, we put the leaf, it's an exercise in absolute control. You cannot blame anybody else, that's the other thing!

Is it true we'll be getting Tom Waits as Geppetto in your "Pinocchio"?

I would love that. I called him, wrote to him. They wrote back, they seem interested. I would love to formalize the deal, but we won't start shooting voices until the summer next year.

Some people have responded negatively to the idea. "We don't want a mean Geppetto!" But if you're a fan of Waits music, you know there's a lot of warmth and nostalgia to him, too.

What is funny is people assume we're gonna be a mean movie. It's actually a beautiful movie. It has elements of darkness because the original Collodi tale, the original book is dark, but it has a huge heart, the "Pinocchio" I'm doing. It's not by any means a punk goth "Pinocchio." I'm doing the book, an earnest, beautiful fairy tale. Geppetto is an incredible character but is not mean at all. When I listen to Tom Waits, I don't think of him as a mean voice; it's warm.

It was awesome seeing a tour of Bleak House on the "Cronos" Blu-ray.

Oh yeah, much bigger now.

Really? Somewhere, way off in the distance, when you stop making movies, will you go all Forry Ackerman on us and open it to the public?

I will, I would love to. One of my desires is, if I can… it's two houses now, I bought the house next door and I expanded. The idea is to create a compound, an internship for when I'm not directing or active any more to allow people to live in the house for six months at a time. Get their needs covered, let an artist go there and write a movie, write a symphony or whatever they want and live in the house for free. Use all the books, all the DVDs, whatever they want, and then come out and just put us in the thank you's at the end of the work. But I do tours! I actually give two tours every week. They're not easy to book, but I literally can't escape. Two mornings a week I give a tour.

Pacific RimAs a fan of the kaiju genre, there are so many amazing works out there like "Destroy All Monsters," Geof Darrow's "Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot." "Pacific Rim" looks to be the ultimate evolution of that genre, but what were some direct influences you and your team had?

We made it a point that everybody that came in that room to design was a fan of either mecha or kaijus, but we made it a second point not to discuss it. I wanted to make a movie by fans, but not a fan movie. I didn't want a movie that was a quotation. We were trying to be fresh. We were seriously actually thinking, "What happened weeks in?" We're quoting the religious iconography: lifting the kaiju above the head, people running down the street with the kaiju parting the buildings in the background. Stuff like that. We're doing those, but in and of the fights we said, "Let's go crazier than a normal kaiju fight. What can we do that we've never seen?" The fights are insane. They're literally insane.

I talked to Idris Elba back in May, and he said the scale of it is ridiculous.

It is ridiculous. What is beautiful is we made the movie under schedule and under budget. If you like, it's artistically excessive, but fiscally it's an incredibly well-run movie. You can enjoy it with the satisfaction that no one was indulging.

Are you familiar with the performance group Kaiju Big Battel?


You have to check this out. It started in Boston, and it's literally a live-action monster movie wrestling match. They have a little miniature city inside of a cage; they dress up as giant monsters, Japanese noodle soup cans, you name it.

Really? Oh my God. And that's in Boston?

They started in Boston, but it's all over the country now.

I'm gonna check it out. Hopefully they'll find some inspiration in our material!

Whenever a comic book, genre, sci-fi project comes up your name is on the tippy-top of every fanboy and journalist's list to make it. So you can clarify to your fans, what are the criteria you're looking for in a project?

It has to be something you want to marry for at least two years. Directing a movie is not an affair, it's a marriage. You're not there in-and-out, you're there for a lot of time. You're gonna be faulted by the movie being bad, and you're going to have to respond to that saying, "I did it because of this and this and that." All I try to do is do the movies I really want to do. You could be talking about "Slaughterhouse 5," "Frankenstein," "Beauty and the Beast," I'm all there.

"Mountains of Madness."

"Mountains of Madness," for sure. They all cost materially so much that when I do a smaller movie like "Devil's Backbone," I gotta raise $4 million Euros, I can do that in a rapid way with complete freedom. When you're talking about "Mountains of Madness," I need to raise $150 million. When the time comes, a lot of commercial preoccupations are going to come into the mind of the investors.

Before "Prometheus" came out, you said you were frightened it might cramp your style on "Mountains of Madness."

Not anymore! I saw it, I love "Prometheus," I think it was a visual feast. Does it tread on the thematic stuff? Yeah, and I knew it the moment I heard the title. "Prometheus" in the "Alien" universe, I'm f**ked. It turns out, I think the movie can happen.

Cool. Do you think that it could even help get "Mountains" interest up since, despite being tangentially related to the "Alien" mythos, it was essentially an original R-rated, big-budget horror movie that did well?

Thing is, Hollywood always learns the wrong lesson. It's like that joke about the guy that goes to a drinking seminar and they put a worm inside of a bottle of whiskey and the worm dissolves. They say, "What do you learn from this?" The guy says, "If I drink whiskey, I'll never have worms!" [Laughs] That's Hollywood, they learn the wrong lesson. They will go and do the wrong thing. "Prometheus" makes money, "Avatar" makes money, world creation, original visuals, rich world texturing. They don't say, "Oh, we should have more people be bold and creative." They go and do something that is like the bizarro world version of why that movie happened.

You'd think that after those movies they would realize people are hungry for new visions, new experiences, not just the same bottle with a different label. Hopefully, "Pacific Rim" reinforces that.

I'm good friends with Neill Blomkamp; we became very close in New Zealand. Neill is fiercely independent for that reason. I talked to him and said, "Don't you want to do something with a bigger budget?" He said, "No. If the budget is going to make me do things I don't want to do, then I don't want to have a bigger budget." He's absolutely right. He's like the Sex Pistols of sci-fi, you know what I'm saying? It's solid, it's contagious, it's smart and it's happening. He's not just doing found footage, he's really created a style of his own.

If it's a perfect world and "Pac Rim" does tremendous, "ID4"-level business and you can write your own blank check, what would you do next?

I don't know, because you change with every movie. After "Pac Rim," the way I feel right now I would love to do a small and weird movie but I don't have the screenplay, or I would like to do horror right away. I don't necessarily think I need to do a huge-scale movie, I'd like to do something with a reduced budget. At the end of the movie, you know what you want to have for dinner.

Do you operate that way, though? It seems like you're very meticulous about how you construct things. I don't see you being like a Steven Soderbergh or David Gordon Green who can just go off and clandestinely whip up a little movie.

No, no, no, I can't do that. I'm really slow. For example, I shot TV in Mexico when I was a young director. We used to shoot a half-hour in two days. One camera. I need to plan the camera moves really carefully. I'm a slow shooter, I don't do second unit. The shoot of "Hellboy," I need to find a country where I can shoot long, because I take a long time making and designing them. I'm afraid I can't do that; that's Neill's talent, that's what he excels at, off-the-cuff. That's him, that's his personality. I can't do it, I wish I could, eh? I really do, but my stories are not like that, it takes so f**king long. I tell people "Cronos" was 41 days, "Hellboy 2" was 132, "Pac Rim" was 103. Months and months and months of stuff.