By • Nov 22nd, 2001 •

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Ghost story. Political allegory. Coming-of-age film. [Anti-] war movie. Spanish-style soap opera. According to director and co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone is all of these. Films in Review’s Adam Blair caught up with the filmmaker to learn how he mixes and matches art film elements with Hollywood know-how.

Q: In the visual structure of the film, there’s a predominance of certain colors. What are your reasons for making this type of visual impression?

DEL TORO: The reason is that the entire movie is a memory; the movie is also supposed to be where ghosts are like insects in amber, or like old photographs. So taking that, we decided the entire color palette was going to be limited to sepia, amber, earth colors and very muted forms of green. This color palette renders the entire frame sort of like an amber image, and helps give the sense of encapsulating the characters, like amber would encapsulate an insect. At the same time, it would make the movie more quiet, and visually the blood, when it appears, would be far more striking and violent.

What I wanted very much was for the movie to have a very affecting use of blood and violence. Not violence as amusement at any point. Because if it’s a an anti-war movie, I could not allow any death, including that of the bad guy, to be pleasurable for the audience. So I tried to make it really shocking and really brutal and not a pleasurable experience-even when you may find a reason [to kill]. If you make a war movie where someone enjoys a killing, it’s not an anti-war movie; it’s something else.

Q: There’s a lot of duality in the film. Can you talk about how you developed that structure?

DEL TORO: The whole movie, I felt, needed to be constructed on a rhyme. The movie was about a big war but contained inside a small war. If one was a mirror image of the other, the best way to refer to the rest of the movie was by having an opening that was exactly like, or similar to, the ending-but different. And every time one thing repeated itself, it actually enhanced the one before.

The same character, for example, recites poetry twice. [Cásares, the older man in love with the widow played by Marisa Paredes]. The first time he’s just doing it as a courtship exercise, and the second time he’s on the verge of tears, and really reciting for dear life. Two kids fall in the water. Two characters whose names begin with “J” are bullies, one of him amends his ways, the other one doesn’t. Every time you achieve a rhythm of rhyme, through repetition.

I felt that this movie needed that visually-even to the point where I repeat exact camera moves in totally different circumstances. There are visual quotes for different moments that are exactly like each other. The bomb falls twice: the first time it’s an act of war; the second time it’s the hand of God telling the guy “you’re a coward.” Everything is done in pairs to give that sense of rhythm-as if you were understanding a little more of the world you are entering by repetition.

Q: This story is based on a novel?

DEL TORO: No, it’s totally original. The movie is a story that I’ve been writing for 16 years. It was originally my screenplay writing thesis, and I graduated with it. But then I kept writing and writing and writing. Eventually I found a screenplay by two Spanish guys that contained elements-like the bomb-that I was totally taken with, and I decided I was going to fuse it with my own. Curiously enough, it was my screenplay that happened in the [Spanish] Civil War. Their screenplay occurred in a war with no exact geography.

Q: Could you talk about the political aspects of the film, particularly given what’s been happening today?

DEL TORO: It’s completely a terrible accident in a way, and in another way it liberates me from having to articulate how I feel about it. I think that evidently the movie has characters that have to resort to violence, but they do not embrace it as a way of life. It has the kids coming together as one-once every single adult has let them down. Every single adult is disappointing, as they are often in childhood. They promise you things they don’t deliver; they theorize about things they don’t act upon; and all of them seem incomplete characters. One lacks a leg, one lacks a heart, and the other one’s impotent-he is ultimately a revolutionary man that is incapable of firing a shot. A revolution, now and then, requires a shot.

This revolutionary character, Cásares, is incapable of taking action. He just likes poetry, and likes talking about hope and freedom and all that. And then all of a sudden everybody and everything starts dying around him. It’s a completely impotent character beyond the sexual aspects of it-he’s politically impotent, philosophically impotent.

The thing with politics is very simple-if you don’t care about politics, politics are going to end up taking care of you. If people try to negate the war enough, and for enough time, long enough, ultimately it catches up with them, in the worst, most intimate way. And that’s what happens in the movie.

I think what happens then is the kids-who are an incomplete group, afraid, injured, poorly organized-have to take each other as a group and act upon what they know is inevitable. But to me the importance of the movie, or the significance of that gesture, is that it’s not a violence that anyone in the group enjoys. It’s not as if the kids are stabbing this man and squealing with joy, or as if, at the end of the movie, they go into the desert with the shotgun. They do what they need to do and return the shotgun to the adults. What you have at the end is an almost metaphorical image of kids facing a desert, and they’re no longer kids, they’re fragile adults, in the sense that they mature through the rite of passage.

Q: What type of technology did you use to achieve the special effects-such as the ghost seeming to have water around him all the time.

DEL TORO: For the digital effects, most of the stuff is off-the-shelf programs. We did not write code for this or anything, but we use them in a more offbeat way than a Hollywood production would. The normal procedure for the ghost would be to hang the poor kid on wires, shoot him against green screen, probably put an aura of glow around him, make him transparent all the time, and make the whole presence of the ghost digital. The ghost then becomes an abstraction, it becomes something that doesn’t coexist with the character in the same frame. I wanted to avoid that, so I approached the ghost as a kid in makeup, physically there in the frame, then enhanced later by digital effects.

Q: So the blood coming out . . .

DEL TORO: Is digital, and it’s composed in, and we have a two-dimensional effect on the distortion around him. We have 3-D animated particles around his forehead for the blood and diffusion, and then we have a series of 3-D objects floating around that are like debris in the water. So ultimately when we composite these elements together, the presence of the ghost becomes both physical and beautifully ethereal, because we’re using elements that are floating in the air, but he’s really there in the frame. And there’s a sense of not being a Hollywood ghost that just glows and is not really there.

Q: You got some remarkable performances, especially from the child actors. Is that another reason you wanted to have the actor playing the ghost on the set?

DEL TORO: Yes, but actually the kids seemed to respond to that kind of stuff in a normal way, because they see the whole process, they see the makeup, and there are about 80 technicians around. It’s like shooting lovemaking-you don’t get aroused.

The two main kids and I went into about three months of theater exercises, theater games. We went into everything from finding a breathing exercise that would work to have them hyperventilate at the moment; all the way to teaching them the basics of what I understand in my experience to work, from methods such as Sanford Meisner’s method, or things I find practical in life.

The one thing I did with the kids is I treated them like adult actors. I think the best way to deal with kids in life is never to condescend. You talk to them equal to equal, and they, more often than not, surprise you in how sophisticated they are mentally.

Q: As you developed the story, did it always have the supernatural ghost story elements?

DEL TORO: Yes, always. What I wanted very much was to talk about ghosts as things you lose, or don’t get, or that get destroyed in front of your face, and haunt you for the rest of your life. I wanted to do that very much with a war. Have a guy that loses something that can never recover it, or a guy that hates his childhood and would love to have another childhood but can’t-and that haunts him. These elements were born at the same time, in and of the same impulse. I think the beauty of understanding evil or good is if we understand it in the small ways that it happens and the big ways that it happens, and one reflects the other.

One of my favorite directors is Sam Fuller. He had a way of making B movies that were great allegories for something else. I think it would be a failure of the movie if it were an allegory that weren’t entertaining enough. I try to keep them simple and entertaining enough, but if you want to dig a little deeper there’s a lot more. But the first duty of the movie is to flow, as simply and effortlessly as possible.

Q: What was the budget of The Devil’s Backbone?

DEL TORO: Total cost of the movie is between $5 and $6 million.

Q: And the potential profit?

DEL TORO: I have no idea. The reality is that, as far as our production company, we were already in the black by the time we finished the movie, because we were pre-selling. As far as box-office success, that actually benefits the distributor/exhibitor more than the production company.

Q: There’s been a resurgence in Mexican cinema-you’re one of the leaders of that.

DEL TORO: The way I view myself is as a Mexican filmmaker. But I feel myself as a Mexican filmmaker with the right to have adventures all over the world. I think that the point of view I bring, whatever country I go to, is different than a guy who was born in Spain and lives in Spain. I think the most beautiful thing that has happened to Mexican cinema in the last few years is that we’ve reached our own market, and found audiences and profits in it.

What is terrible is that in the last few years, we find less and less movies from the indigenous cinemas of other countries. It’s a shame if we lose world cinema to Hollywood product in one single way. If we view movies as a world buffet, as a banquet-of course burgers are great, but shouldn’t you sample all the other platters? And it’s so great that there are other platters that I just hope people treasure that and support those movies-whether in their own countries or when they travel abroad.

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