Guillermo Del Toro on Writing, Directing and the Essence of Being
Visionary writer/director Guillermo Del Toro sat down with actor/producer Alec Baldwin at Tribeca 2019: a Masterclass filled with wisdom and laughter.
Their sit-down was so rich that the Tribeca staff was finally forced to wave them off-stage, with no time for the expected Q&A—but fear not. NFS was on deck to gather choice insights.
As most will agree, Del Toro is one of the great auteurs of our time: a deeply empathetic soul with a distinct creative voice. You know the drill. Cronos (1993). The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Hellboy (2004). Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Pacific Rim (2013). Crimson Peak (2015). In 2017, he won four Oscars for The Shape of Water, including Best Picture and Best Director (with a record-breaking thirteen nominations). “You are truly an artist,” Alec Baldwin told him with unmistakable reverence. “The whole risk-averse world admires you for your artistic soul.” Del Toro grinned and swatted Baldwin’s praise away like a fly.
So what wisdom should we glean from this Mexican master? In my earlier conversations with Del Toro, in Annecy and Toronto, we’ve discussed Mexican Zen and the necessity of going over-budget—philosophies that he continues to live by. But the real meat of his message, both then and now, is his advice for aspiring writer/directors. How do you get to be that good? Or, for starters, any good at all?
Feed Your Mind
Born in 1964 in Guadalajara, Del Toro created his own No Film School education at an early age. An autodidact, he learned English by reading Mad Magazine and Famous Monsters with a dictionary at his side; he was fluent by age seven. After that, he never stopped reading.
“I read omnivorously. I’m insatiable.” Del Toro laughed and slapped his belly. “I lived with my grandmother for many years, she was very Catholic and exorcized me, twice. I would’ve done the same. I just wish she had controlled my carb intake as strictly, but she gave me fried chicken at the least provocation.”
Self-deprecating humor is one of Del Toro’s trademarks—right before he turns serious.
“This hunger—It’s an innate part of my soul. I’m insatiable about life...images, art, architecture, traveling. You don’t learn film from film—you learn it by devouring all that other stuff.”
It helped when, in 1999, Del Toro’s father won a six-million-dollar lottery—and spent a large chunk of the funds on a library. “I read it all,” Del Toro stated matter-of-factly. “There was an encyclopedia about human health, one about literature, one about fine arts. So I learned about Degas, Monet, Manet at the same time I was learning about Stan Lee.” Del Toro paused, then added, deadpan: “I read everything I could until puberty hit, then my interests changed a little, and I read a little less.”
His eyes twinkled as he tried to hold in a laugh, like some sort of warm-weather Santa Claus.
Develop an Ear
Then came writing. As a young reader, Del Toro recalled being fascinated by two authors in particular: in English, the precise adjectives of novelist Ray Bradbury; and in Spanish, the musical language of screenwriter Juan Rulfo. His voracious appetite for reading evolved into a love of writing: first, his own short horror stories, then, recording radio plays on cassettes. The birth of a screenwriter.
“When I write a screenplay in English, the thing I belabor the most is dialogue,” Del Toro gave a hopeless chuckle. “I think I finally got it right in Shape of Water.”
Alec Baldwin and the crowd suddenly burst into laughter, as if to call out the Oscar-winner for false modesty. But this wasn’t self-deprecation. Del Toro simply holds himself to a higher standard.
“When I was writing The Shape of Water, I was watching this beautiful documentary, Salesman, from the ‘60s, in order to learn the rhythm of the language at that time.” He paused, searching for the right words. “Language is music. English is very percussive, Spanish is very melodic. We say ten words when you guys say two of three.” Laughter again—but Del Toro had a more important message. “Writing a good script, that takes giving a very specific voice to every character. Above all in the structure of Dramaturgy, the ear for language is key. You must make each person speak as a fully-formed character: the idiosyncrasies, the mistakes, the charm, the overwrought, all of that is really the art.”
Be Your Own Teacher
Del Toro was a directing autodidact as well. His earliest ambition was to be a marine biologist, living by the sea, studying creatures of the deep while writing horror stories about them. “But then, when I discovered directing, I was like ‘That tops it.’” He literally beamed, a beacon of proof that childhood dreams can be realized.
“And I learned by doing.” You may already know the story: he borrowed his dad’s Super 8 camera and filmed his action toys killing each other. “I would fill a plastic figure with ketchup, run up to my roof, throw it off and watch it explode,” Del Toro laughed. The birth of a director.
Del Toro absorbed movies the way he absorbed books (and fried chicken). He hosted a revival club every week, recycling movies by Buñuel, Fellini, Hitchcock. There was no film festival in Guadalejara, so he and his friends created one. Now, 35 years later, it’s one of the world’s biggest with 306 films from 45 different countries. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. The first year of the festival, Del Toro recalls, he was director, ticket salesman, projectionist, concessions vendor, and treasurer.
The best part of it all, however, was teaching. “I still love teaching whenever I have the chance,” he gushed. “There’s no better way to learn something than by explaining it to others.”
Trust Your Team
Of all the tools in Del Toro’s arsenal, one of the most important is trust. Trust in his own vision, and trust in the team who will help make it happen.
Take Del Toro’s writing process: he has written 28 screenplays, many of them with collaborators, including The Shape of Water which he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor. Del Toro’s recipe for collaboration is trust.
“At first I write an outline, usually between 70 and 90 pages. Then I give it to my co-writer and say ‘Do whatever you want.’ If I don’t give them this freedom,” he explained, “I’ll never know how they really feel, what story they truly want to tell. Then it comes back, and I either love it or hate it. You can always undo changes later.”
This trust applies to his onset collaborations as well. While he loves to theorize about the art of his craft, he’s also the first to sound the alarm: there’s a big difference between obsessing about craft and being a tyrant. Time constraints are the director’s burden to bear.
“No matter how little time you have, how far behind you are, you need to create the feeling on set, for both the cast and the crew, that what they’re doing is enough. That it’s plenty, that they’re doing great, that there’s no hurry. No pressure.” He spread his palms wide: it’s common sense. “You won’t get good performances, you won’t get good technical support if you don’t let your collaborators take their time.”
Call it trust, call it empathy, call it faith in humanity-- In many ways, this far-too-rare attitude shapes the core of Del Toro’s being. What makes him such a treat to work with is that this Teddy Bear-of-a-director is able to see our flaws—without letting them spoil his faith in our strengths.
“We live in a world that sees a dichotomy between black or white—and yet we all exist somewhere in between. The Media tells us to be perfect in so many ways, but we have the right to be polychrome! At 10 am, I’m a motherfucker, at 12 pm I’m a saint.” By owning up to his own flaws, he encourages us to do the same … and then strive to improve.
Prepare for the Worst
As the crowd listened eagerly, Del Toro shared past mistakes—as both a cautionary tale to noobs, and a reminder to himself. For example, back when he was making his first feature, Cronos—the story of a human granddaughter and her vampire grandfather—he learned a hard truth about filmmaking.
“I learned a horrible, horrible lesson early on,” the director recalled, still visibly shaken. He described a favorite scene from the Cronos script that he was about to shoot—after eight years of development—when things went south. Due to unforeseeable circumstances, the scene had to be scrapped. Del Toro shook his head mournfully. “You never forget when you have to kill your darlings. And sometimes it’s not even your choice.”
Painful, yes. But this was a teachable moment for the first-time filmmaker. “I learned on Cronos that making a film is orchestrating an accident,” he asserted. “You only get one chance at really getting it, then you move on.” This goes beyond being uber-prepped for your shoot. You have to be emotionally prepared for loss and not let that affect your momentum. And that’s just what Del Toro did: although he clearly still kicks himself for that early mistake, he moved on—and Cronos became the cult hit that launched his career.
Since then, as Del Toro tells it, he has reshot only one scene during his entire career. He did shoot some additional scenes for Pacific Rim, a mega-studio production where he used his own money just to “get it right.” But in general, rather than waste his budget correcting mistakes on set, he prefers to prepare meticulously.
“I prepare so much,” he attested, a mix of pride and chagrin. “You know that dream people have where they show up to work in their underwear? I dream that I come to set and something goes wrong and we’re not ready to shoot. That fear makes me prepare really, really well.”
What does ‘really well’ mean? Del Toro shows up on set one-and-a-half hours before anyone else gets there, just to look at all the possible angles. “It pissed me off when, at the end of a shoot day, I noticed set photographers getting better angles than me. I was like no way,” he laughed. “As director, you should be the guy who turns on the light when you get to set, and turns it off when everybody else has left.”
Obsess About Character
Be it Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon or Ron Perlman, Del Toro writes specifically for actors—so specifically that, if he doesn’t get his top choice, the project gets sidelined. “Fifty percent of directing is casting,” Del Toro insisted. “The way I cast is the eyes. I ask myself, ‘Is there is life, experience, intelligence, cruelty, compassion in those eyes?’ That, you get in the first meeting. Film is a symphony of eyes—the essence of the character exists there.”
Then, once he has the eyes he wants, he gives them a backstory. “I write eight-to-ten page biographies of each character to give to the actors. What the character eats, drinks, listens to, watches, likes...“
Alec Baldwin broke in, nodding eagerly. “Actors really do want to be directed!” They both laughed as if it should be obvious. “We want clarity! Tell us exactly what you want us to do.”
Del Toro chuckled. “I also give them a secret they can’t share with the rest of the cast. Some actors take it, some actors don’t. Richard Jenkins told me flat out: ‘This is great, but I don’t wanna use it.’” He flashed a sheepish grin. “You can’t control everything—but you can try.”
Most recently, Del Toro has been developing characters for an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley, set to star Leonardo DiCaprio…and a dark reimagining of an animated Pinocchio. Once again, he is deep in the details.
“Yesterday I spent part of my afternoon in antique shops buying the things to put in a character’s suitcase for my next project. I do that for months.” As he described the suitcase contents, his passion was palpable—but this wasn’t about shaving cream. It was about vision. “Great art is a complete universe that you want to live in. And the person who creates it has to be obsessive.”
Set Your Own Boundaries
Del Toro may be obsessive, but he also likes limits. “If you don’t have structure, you’ll go mad.” His eyes flashed behind his circular glasses. “You have to not have enough. The day when I think I have an extra day, I know something’s wrong. Artistic freedom only exists within boundaries.”
He paused, gears turning in his brain like a scene from Hellboy, and then found his message: “To direct is a hostage negotiation with reality.” This is an especially poignant comparison considering Del Toro’s own history with his father’s kidnapping in 1997. He clearly knows how to move on from past pain … and deal with life matter-of-factly. “You can be Kubrick, Hitchcock, or Scorsese— It doesn’t matter. The sun still rises at 6:30 for every director. Some people think of directing as control, but you can’t control reality. I think directing is the wisdom of identifying the opportunity within the crisis.”
Del Toro’s advice was eloquent and supremely simple. The crowd erupted in applause; he waved it down. He still had more to say.
“It is your duty as a director to always irresponsibly exceed the scope and the budget. If you have enough time and enough money, you’re fucking up.” He pointed at his belly, then his head: “I may be fat there, but not fat up here. My brain is like a six-pack.”
As Del Toro’s reputation has grown, his creative freedom has increased—but he still controls all his efforts with care. He admits that when he was younger, he’d often come to the most baroque conclusion possible. But now, he strives for simplicity. Limits. Moments that tell us the truth about life.
He turned from Baldwin to stare out at the crowd, distilling years of experience into a single thought. “All my movies are about loving someone no matter what. All of them.”