EXCLUSIVE Interview: Guillermo delToro talks Criterion and CRONOS

For those who have not yet seen it, Cronos is a vampire film that is unlike any other vampire film before or since its release. It acts as a kind of twisted family drama in which vampirism isn’t introduced via an enigmatic stranger or a bloodthirsty sub-culture, but via the discovery of an ancient clockwork device.

Richard Reynolds: Do you recall how this idea first came about or what inspired it?

Guillermo del Toro: A mixture of things: Catholic communion, Alchemical writings, “living jewelry” in the 1970’s (Beetles were fashioned into “living broches” for women to wear) and the notion in Eastern Europe that the vampire ALWAYS comes home first.  Karloff in Vurdalak episode in Bava’s BLACK SABBATH.

I wanted to make a middle-class story in which the vampire was “adopted” by his granddaughter and kept in a toy box.

Q: Due mainly to the Hellboy films your working relationship with actor Ron Perlman is well known, but it all started when you cast him in Cronos way back in 1993. What brought about this casting idea and how did you acquire him, being that you were a first time director on a relatively obscure project?

A: Well-  Ron was known as a character actor. I was enthralled by his versatility- He was “Salvatore” in THE NAME OF THE ROSE, a caveman in QUEST FOR FIRE and the gentle “Vincent” in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I admired him- he was, and is, my idol.

I sent him the script, asking him to think about the part with humor and innocence.  Angel is a big, spoiled child in the body of a man.  He is a Brute.

We met for dinner at an Indian restaurant THE BOMBAY GRILL in Beverly Hills and –since I was broke- I only ordered dessert.  We became good friends that very night.

We both have made it a BIG POINT to remain loyal to each other. I resisted temptation for 8 years refusing to do HELLBOY wih any other star but Ron- who, back then, was not considered a star in the Hollywood sense.

Q: You have a similar relationship with Federico Luppi, who amongst his vast filmography counts all of your Spanish language films. At that early stage in your career did you feel lucky to be working with an actor who has such a wealth of experience?

A: Tremendously lucky. Federico is an amazing actor and I was extremely lucky with him. Getting him was a coup.  I took a job as make up FX artist for no money in a movie he was shooting in order to deliver him the screenplay.  He thought I was a PA in the film and that the screenplay came from someone else.  Years later he would admit to me that the screenplay just puzzled him and that the things he saw on the set filled him with dread- “what is this young man doing??” When he finally saw the movie he embraced me and kissed me on the cheek with great relief: “I thought it was going to be a piece of shit and it is beautiful!!!” he said.

Q: In Cronos, the young Tamara Shanath (Aurora) displays a much less ‘sugary’, much more ‘honest’ performance than we are perhaps used to seeing from US child actors. This is also true of Ivana Baquero (Ofelia) in Pan’s Labyrinth and the boys from The Devil’s Backbone. Is this something you go out of your way to find during casting or is it that the attitude of child actors and directing child actors is different outside of the States?

A: The latter is true. I hate child actors that “act”.  I need children that can “be” the role.  But I also purposely “underwrite” them in a way that gives them no Hollywood “traits” you know, no “gimmicks” that define them.  They are the antithesis of the Hollywood child characters.  In Hollywood Ofelia would have been seen constantly “reading books to “prove” a point. The Captain would have then burned her books, etc.  I showed her knowledge and imagination by having her tell a story to her unborn brother. Simpler.  Same thing was decided for Aurora she simply “is” next to her Grandfather. She is loyal and silent and loves him without judging.  But look at her when he is using the device in the attic- like a junkie- she doesn’t like it but puts him to bed in the toy box all the same.

Q: Also, along these lines…what advice would you give to filmmakers about not only casting, but also getting the best performance out of a child actor?

A: Same as with any actor: cast the right “energy” actor. One that “looks” and “feels” like the character and check that they can follow instructions. To me the eyes of the child are the most important thing: they need to be wide and searching- full of curiosity and hunger for the world.

Q: I remember reading a story about you as a small child, making a deal of friendship with the monsters you thought hid in your bedroom. This story stuck with me because the children who are the subject matter of many of your productions are often imaginative, somewhat lonely and brave. Are these characters in some way a reflection of your own young self?

A: 100% I am Aurora, I am Ofelia but I am also Angel and Dieter and the Captain and Broom and Hellboy, etc.  I love all my characters. But the children I write are entirely autobiographical.  That is why CRONOS is dedicated to the memory of my Grandma.

Q: Like many filmmakers of your generation, you started out making short films that screened at festivals, then moved on to TV work, but what was the major factor in your making the leap to a funded feature film? How did the opportunity arise?

A: It took 8 years to make it happen. Opportunity never arises if you are not in the hunt 24/7. It only happens when you will it so and put your shoulder to it.

I wrote CRONOS, founded a company that did Make up FX to do  CRONOS, I worked in 12 films and over 20 TV episodes and commercials until my FX company was well-known and then I storyboarded, built the devices and concept art etc to do a big presentation for the Mexican Institute of Film.  The normal process for them to fund a film is a year. It took me 4 years to get them to agree. Nobody there wanted the film to happen.

Q: And what would be the one piece of advice you would give to young filmmakers still at the bottom of the ladder?

A: To be happy they are in the ladder at all and to hold on to it. It never gets easy..  Making movies is like eating a shit sandwich: sometimes you get more bread, sometimes you get less bread, but you will always eat some shit.

Q: The first act of Cronos is predominantly set in an antique store, a setting that lends itself to mature, rich visuals. A trait enhanced by the work of (director of photography) Guillermo Navarro. Was this a conscious choice during the writing phase to infuse your first feature with gravitas, a sort of declaration for the audience to take the film seriously, so to speak?

A: Well, I believe that form is content.  The store IS Jesus Gris:  something preserved and frozen with things past.  A guy that is a relic until he dies.  He learns to live again only after he dies.  That was the whole point of the story.  Within the budget of our film, the store is as well- art directed as possible. I wanted more clutter but we couldn’t afford it.

Q: Speaking of Guillermo Navarro, some may not realise that he has been your DOP for every one of your films barring Mimic. Can you talk a bit about how your partnership began, and your relationship, if any, prior to Cronos?

A: He didn’t do MIMIC or BLADE II.  I met Guillermo the same way I met Federico Luppi: I willed it so.  I took a storyboard artist job in a movie he was shooting in order to meet him and offer him CRONOS as a DoP.  The first day of shooting he changed the lens on one camera- he dismissed my storyboard- and I got pugnacious.  Navarro is famous for his temper.  He got angry and asked me to prove that I knew my lenses. Which I did.  We have never argued since and it’s been over 22 years of friendship and collaboration.

Q: Through the making of Cronos, what were the lessons learned that you still value today?

A: Too many to enumerate- the most valuable was that you have to always believe in yourself. No matter what and no matter who tries to go against you-  you can never give up.  Even if you are wrong, your mistakes are very useful. Succumbing to someone else’s mistakes or virtues is conducive to failure.

Q: What were the major influences on you around this time, not just cinematically, but through the various literary and artistic mediums?

A: Terence Fisher, Borzage, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Bava, Cronenberg, Gilliam, Borges, Dickens, Wilde, Capote, Victor Hugo, Juan Rulfo, Horacio Quiroga, Odilon Redon, Julio Ruelas, Richard Corben, Wrightson, Moebius, Bilal and many, many others

Q: And do they remain an influence with you still?

A: Most of them do. I am but a well-financed 11 year old!!

Q: The marble skin look of the fully developed vampires in Cronos has a lot in common with that of the ancient vampire Damaskinos in Blade 2. Was this a sneaky way of tying the Blade mythos in with that of Cronos or just a stylistic choice?

A: I guess a bit of both.  I still feel that skin (form is content, remember??) perfectly expresses the ancient quality and the inhuman, unnatural beauty of things beyond time.

Q: An odd little quirk of Cronos is that though filmed in 1993 it is set in 1997. This is not stated by any of the characters and is only evident by such things as newspaper cover-dates and slightly futurised background touches, like street signs and so forth. What’s the story behind this little realised nuance?

A: NAFTA was about to come to fruition and I thought it necessary to include it as part of the context of Vampirism- in this case commercial, International vampirism.

Q: Do you still have props from the production, and if so which ones?

A: I have the Alchemsit’s diary, one of the silicone replica’s of Luppi’s hands, his watch, one of his antiquarian cards, some of the interior filters of the CRONOS DEVICE and a replica of the CRONOS itself.  The original 13 devices needed in the film were stolen the last day of shooting. It was well-know amongst the crew that they were made of real silver and gold.

I don’t blame them!!

Q: Many filmmakers, writers and artists state a certain dissatisfaction of their early work, not being able to see past their ‘mistakes’ and ‘naivety’. Is this something you suffer with Cronos or do you still see it as a work to be proud of?

A: For many years I felt that way but seeing it again 2 weeks ago I was moved and fell in love with it again. I shot that film at age 26!!  I find it really touching to think that-  I wanted to hug that kid. The film took 2 more years of post and almost didn’t happen.

Q: From watching your films it is obvious you have a preoccupation with clockwork mechanisms, from the Cronos devise to Kroenen and the golden army in the Hellboy films. What is the origin of this fascination?  and the same can be said about preserved oddities in jars. Any comments on that matter?

A: At the most fetishistic level- I just love them. They are beautiful, they have a ritualistic, talismanic grace and beauty.  They are like relic from unholy saints or unborn angels abandoned to formaldehyde!!

Q: Can you share with us some of your favourite films, TV shows, comics and books from your childhood, and the stuff you’re into today?

A: I already mentioned a few- but  Magritte, the early [Salvador] Dali, [Paul] Delvaux, Carlos Schwabe, [Odilon] Redon, [Zdzisław] Beksinski, [Edward] Gorey, [Lee Brown] Coye, [Mike] Mignola, Guy Davis, Rick Geary, [Carl Theodor] Dreyer, Berman, Jean Cocteau, James Whale, etc.

Parker [Lyons; webmaster of the official fan site] has that stored blog of mine at deltorofilms.com. Have him put it all up again and my archived answers. It is all there!

Q: What would you say are your three favourite vampire movies, ones by other filmmakers? Besides the obvious titles like Coppola’s Dracula, Murnau’s Nosferatu, or even something like Fright Night.

A: As I said, The Vurdalak episode in Bava’s film, Coppola’s Dracula, yes, Nosferatu and Vampyr, yes, Terence Fisher’s early Dracula films, Let the Right One In, Near Dark, Blood for Dracula, ofcourse Night Stalker and a few others-

Q: And in closing, why, in your opinion, should the readers buy the new Cronos Blu-Ray? What does it have that has not been featured on any of the previous releases?

A: The very best transfer is always the keystone. It also has a 10 minute tour through BLEAK HOUSE, my home office where I keep my crazy museum of art and oddities.  The tour cover 2/3 of the house but is a great primer!! And GEOMETRIA, my short film that I completed properly for the DVD after 23 years!!! It is a crazy-colored madcap short that homages Bava and Argento. Criterion is the Rolls Royce of Blurays and DVD’s You know that-

Go get the new Criterion release: on DVD or BD

Also, recommended — check out deltorofilms.com for like minded del Toro fans.  del Toro pops in on their forums to interact occasionally.


A UK based Contributor; Richard Reynolds splits his time writing articles and interviews for Fanboy Confidential with running his own comicbook shop, Ground Zero Comics, as well as sticking his thumb in far too many pies, including illustration, writing and filmmaking, he also consumes fiction in all its forms like its going out of fashion.

1 Comment

  • December 6, 2010

    Richard Reynolds

    What a cool guy!