"When people say, what is Mexican about your movies? I say, 'me.'"
Born in Guadalajara, Guillermo del Toro fell in love with movies at a young age. By 8, he was using his toys to shoot short stop-motion films with his dad's Super 8 camera. As a teenager, he taught Claymation classes in Mexico and, in his 20s, intended to make his feature debut with a full-length animated movie. When those plans were derailed, del Toro instead directed the indie horror film Cronos (1993). The inspiration for that film, and every film he's made since, can be traced back to the movies he watched growing up.
"When you watched a genre movie in Mexico, it was four genres in one. It was a spy movie, it was a horror movie, it was a mad scientist movie, all in one," del Toro reflects. "The wrestler movies, they were like James Bond meets Universal monsters meets science fiction. And you're thinking outside the box automatically, because the Anglo-Saxon sensibility is going to be very different than the Mexican sensibility."
A master of monsters and auteur of fantasies, del Toro has spent his career helming grotesque fairy tales about misunderstood creatures in such films as The Devil's Backbone (2001), Hellboy (2004), and Pan's Labyrinth (2006). The latter earned the filmmaker his first Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. In 2018, he won two Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director with The Shape of Water.
"I have twice experienced instant healing," muses del Toro. "Imagine a point of view and you're in your seat and you're looking at the stage, and then, you walk up the steps, you turn around, and you see the auditorium. You're there and you see everybody that you consider a peer, or you have admired, or you have followed all your life, applauding. And there's an instant rush of acceptance that is very moving and it never goes away."
At the 95th Oscars, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, his animation debut 30 years in the making, is up for Best Animated Feature Film. "We are so grateful to the Academy, and honored that the medium of animation is accepted for the art form that it truly is," the filmmaker said of his latest nomination. "We made this film to reaffirm what it means to be human and to share a fable about life, love and loss."
MORE: Guillermo del Toro on Art, Death, and Why He Will Always Relate to 'Pinocchio' (Exclusive)
Below, del Toro shares with A.frame the five (technically, six) films that have made him into the filmmaker that he is. "I am aware of one thing: I've never really quite belonged in any ledger of filmmakers. I'm not the super blockbuster guy. I'm not the purely arthouse guy. I'm not the purely genre guy," he acknowledges. And so, the movies that made him are equally as eclectic.
Directed by: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee | Story by: Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, and Aurelius Battaglia
If I can fuse Pinocchio and Frankenstein into one, and please indulge me on that... I saw Pinocchio and Frankenstein very close to each other. I saw Pinocchio in a theater with my mom, and a few weeks later, Frankenstein was on the TV. Every Sunday in Mexico, they would show Universal movies on TV. And they melded in my head. And they both felt biographical because, as a kid, I felt the world was a very scary place, and that I didn't quite fit the model that my father would've liked me to be. The kind of boy my dad wanted me to be. Where other boys were outgoing, and ferocious, and they played football, and they were forces of nature, I was quiet. I was interested in reading. I was interested in watching. I was a very young hypochondriac, and I felt Pinocchio and the creature of Frankenstein both felt really close to me. They felt very autobiographical, and they fused in my head at a very early age.
Directed by: James Whale | Written by: Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
I love the idea that Pinocchio and Frankenstein are primal experiences of what it is to be human. Because you are thrown into a world that you don't understand, that is wrong for you and you're a wrong fit for it, and you have to figure yourself and the world as you go along. You either change the world or the world destroys you. And those two movies, which are one, do that. One is a man creating out of grief, and the other one is creating out of hubris, but they are both not worried with the consequences. That is very strong for me.
Directed by: Don Chaffey | Written by: Jan Read and Beverley Cross
As I kept growing up, Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts was key. And you will find that's the big bang for many stop-motion lovers. That's like the Citizen Kane of stop-motion monster movies. Because, first of all, Harryhausen does every single variety of monster that you can dream of there: He does Talos, which is gigantic and stiff in his movements — it's gorgeous — and then the skeletons, which are an impossibility, and then the Hydra, which is this serpentine fluid monster. To me, that was Star Wars before Star Wars.
I would watch it in a row. When it was showing, I would go to every showing. When it was showing on TV, I would mark the calendar. It was like a religious occasion.
Directed by: Luis Buñuel | Written by: Luis Alcoriza and Luis Buñuel
Los olvidados is a Mexican movie that Luis Buñuel did during his period in Mexico. And it showed me that you could make movies about something meaningful in my language, in my country. And it started the idea of maybe I can be a film director.
When people say what is Mexican about your movies, I say, 'me.' I mean, I'm a hundred percent Mexican. I think my relationship with death, my nearness and love for the idea that death is the great purveyor of life, that there's wisdom in death, that I'm not afraid and I'm actually physically interested in the beauty of the representation of death, that all comes from my culture.
The melodrama of Pinocchio is completely a Mexican melodrama. I think the essence of my quirkiness and the way I assemble the dissimilar pieces of a thing, like Pan's Labyrinth, where I go, 'Let's do an anti-fascist fairy tale.' I remember pitching Devil's Backbone to Pedro Almodóvar, and Pedro said, 'Those are three movies. It's not one.' And I go, 'No, no, no. They go together really well.' We were combining an orphanage movie with a ghost story, with a civil war story. The seasoning of these things that shouldn't be together.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader
I saw it with my uncle, and it was at the end of the first run of the movie showing. Movies in Mexico used to last four, five months. Now, we are used to a movie getting out of the theaters in four weeks. Back then, a movie could open and still be playing six months later. My uncle and I were very good friends. He was very weird, and he liked horror and supernatural. I remember I was very, very young, and he said, 'You're going to really dig this movie.' Back then, the ticket sellers didn't care or something. And we went in, and it was like I had read a piece of literature.
I was blown away by the depth of the movie and how he was able to do an incredible psychological portrait of this lonely outsider, which was not monstrous on the outside. But his view of the world was all askew. It was really interesting for me.
Written and directed by: Charles Chaplin
City Lights made me understand that, in storytelling, if you want to laugh, you have to come close to crying, and if you want to cry, you've got to come close to laughter. And Chaplin was extremely precise as an artist. Although I admire Stan Laurel as a minimalist, I admire Buster Keaton as a immense showman, and Harold Lloyd for the athleticism of his comedy, I think Chaplin is still the one that I gravitate towards because he uses melodrama to access laughter. He has this patheticism, in the best sense of the word. He uses the pathetic in a really great way.