Thursday afternoon Hall H was treated to a rare and unique experience: a thoughtful, in-depth discussion of the filmmaking process. While promoting the films Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Drive, directors Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn offered a master-class study of the opportunities they enjoy and challenges they face as they undertake new projects. As such, the least interesting subjects they discussed were the particulars of their respective movies. Meanwhile, their observations about past experiences, current preoccupations and future plans made for an almost historic experience at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con.
1. Del Toro and Refn share an affinity for taking genre ideas and elevating them to artistic conceits.
“His work is a combination of the cerebral and the emotional in a way that is unique, frankly,” Del Toro said of Refn. “It’s like a high-wire act.” Refn responded, “What’s interesting in terms of what’s happening in cinema is that genre filmmaking, where Guillermo is very much a forerunner, it has taken the toll of progressive cinema. In the ‘60s, progressive cinema was very political in terms of how it was made and thought out, and now progressive cinema has really become the new genre films. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a great example of mixing poetry and cinema and commercialism, which essentially is what great filmmaking is. “
2. There’s a reason that Refn focuses intensely on the casting process.
“It’s like sex,” Refn said unexpectedly. “Because once the casting is in place, then you know it’s going to be okay. It is like sex! Because even when it’s bad, it’s still good.” He also said that the process does much of the work when time comes for him to start directing the film. “The cast has always been the most crucial thing of anything in terms of filmmaking, even back in the silent days when it was all about the looks. It still is,” he said, laughing. “It’s the one major thing you’re sick to figure out in terms of who would be right and who do they want and who do you want. So it’s like playing Russian roulette, but directing is really easy, guys. It’s just inspiring everybody else to give their best, and then you put your name on it. And so your job with actors is to help them and support them and sometimes leave them alone. But essentially everything comes down to casting.” Del Toro echoed his sentiments. “The best director is the one that chooses his actor correctly.”
3. Both filmmakers prioritize the look and design of their movies, but tackle that part of their films from different points of view.
Refn said, “I come from not having a lot of money to make movies, so the surroundings becomes a character within your films. Valhalla Rising, I shot in Scotland in places where they usually wouldn’t take people because I was obsessed with nature, and nature was almost like the main character. And in Drive, I loved and I knew the romanticism of LA because through films I knew what LA was like. So Ryan would drive me around to all of the places where Drive would take place, and once I knew where the book would play out, I figured out what I could afford to shoot where, and all of that. And the idea was to use the backdrop of Los Angeles as much as possible but without shooting the Los Angeles that you had seen so many times before.”
“I fabricate everything,” Del Toro countered. “There’s not a single real thing in Pan’s Labyrinth, because ultimately I’m very specific about [those details]. Context is everything in a fable, because every story has already been told. So the only variations I find are the voice of the storyteller and the context in which it’s told.”
4. Happenstance has been as important a part of their careers as making deliberate choices. And hearing “no” is as important as hearing “yes.”
“My whole life and the way I’ve done the movies I’ve done has been a series of accidents that were complete unplanned, except for a couple of times,” Del Toro revealed. “Mimic happened because I owed so much money from Cronos, and I was working to write something that was unique in America, but I didn’t write the movie. And after the massacre of the production of that movie, I learned the one word that is common to most languages is “no.” If they touch you in a place that feels wrong, you say “no.” And it was an incredibly valuable lesson; because it’s like you make movies with your friends, you need every good will you can muster, and it’s very precarious. And from then on it’s never been as bad as that first experience. It’s an adventure that’s worth having.
Refn said he was intimidated by Hollywood’s reputation, but received some valuable advice that buoyed his enthusiasm and balanced his expectations. “I was nervous about coming to Los Angeles to make a movie, because I’d heard all the horror stories, especially from European filmmakers, what it’s like working in Los Angeles and in a bigger system. And I ended up have a great experience, by the way I was able to make the film I wanted to make, miraculously. But the advice that Alejandro Jodorowsky, the great master of El Topo and Holy Mountain, gave me before I cam over last year, was just smile and nod. If anybody talks to you, just smile and nod. And I did that for quite a while, and thank God they smiled back.
5. The thing that drives Refn is the fear of obsolescence and irrelevance.
“I always try not to make the same movie again,” he explained when asked how he chooses such an eclectic slate of projects. “So I always try to put myself behind obstacles, and I think it comes maybe from insecurity, really, of saying, oh my God, if I make the same movie, then maybe I have no talent – I’m just a hack. So it’s out of desperation, almost, but I try to think of situations where like if you take the Pusher trilogy, I mean, one thing’s for sure – the world doesn’t need any more gangster movies. But if you make them about people in a criminal environment, it becomes stories about people that are caught in system they can’t get out of. And then I owed a lot of money, and people, believe me, owing a lot of money is sometimes great energy for going out and doing something and getting something done. When it comes to Bronson, who wants to see a prison movie? I certainly didn’t but I had an idea that if I made a prison movie like an opera, about a man wanting to become famous, you can do that. And then on Valhalla Rising, I hated Vikings and I hated Viking movies, but I thought it could be interesting to make a Viking movie as a science-fiction film, and use the surroundings as the landscape of another planet. And with Drive it was very much like a fairy tale idea but if I could use a lot of European, electronic ‘80s score, it would give it this strange feeling to it. So you always try to combine obstacles, and through that comes some interesting form.”
6. Del Toro gets his motivation from an abiding love for “everything that is aberrant.”
“The first thing I love are the creatures,” Del Toro explained. “I love Universal monsters, I love kaigu monsters, I love freaks, I love everything that is deformed. Because that is beautiful for me. You can see I cultivate my body shape through that principle. But I think everything that is aberrant is something we need to cherish, because we live in a society that makes such a fucking point to enshrine battles that are impossible. Perfection is impossible; imperfection is a goal we can all aspire to and achieve, and I think monsters represent that beautifully. When we live in a castrated society that tells you that you don’t have to sweat, you have to look good, you have to be thin, you have to be smiley, you have to be charming, fuck you! Monsters are a living, breathing fuck you, and horror movies one of the first duties of a horror movie is to be a fuck you. So I admire that a lot. I love the unsafe choices, and I think it’s a genre that allows you to make incredibly lyrical, powerful images that are unsettling and unsafe, and I like that.”
7. Neither man takes for granted the risks their distributors take in agreeing to make their movies, since they know they need to take risks in order to create something substantial.
Del Toro said of the Film District head, “Thank God for people like Bob Berney. He has a gigantic ball sack. He needs a cart to carry it. These are guys that take risks. They distributed Pan’s Labyrinth and they’re distributing these two movies, and I really think that when people say how brave a filmmaker is, how brave are the people who really put it in front of an audience? They don’t go for the safe choices.
Refn agreed. “Which is very important because the chief enemy of creativity is safety,” he insisted. “It’s like Picasso used to say that the chief enemy is good taste, and ‘good taste’ has a vast definition, but being safe is always dangerous. Competition breeds creativity, and in a way, creativity is the most capitalistic thinking tank, because it has no rules, it has no regulations. It’s all about ideas. And that’s why you get hooked on it because this sheer idea of creation is the ultimate high.”