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The Devil’s Backbone

We meet Guillermo del Toro, who directed the Horror classic Cronos and the big bug movie Mimic, as he returns to lyrical Horror with The Devil’s Backbone

Del Toro's The Devilís Backbone

Director Guillermo del Toro
A Shivers interview by Alan Jones

Selected from Shivers #93
Del Toro's film reviewed in issue

The most popular movie at Fright Fest 2001 was Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s beautifully shot, neo-classical ghost story The Devil’s Backbone/L’Espinazo del Diablo. Set against a Spanish Civil War backdrop and centred on a solitary desert orphanage for boys where a past tragedy comes back to haunt the shell-shocked inmates, the film was produced by kitsch king Pedro Almodovar and stars Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega and Fernando Tielve.

I caught up with del Toro five days before the film was premièred at FrightFest. He did so want to introduce it on stage at the Prince Charles cinema in London’s Leicester Square. But he had urgent editing commitments on Blade 2, the sequel to New Line Cinema’s vampire action hit he had just completed shooting in Prague, that really couldn’t be delayed. He was definitely with us in spirit though as I read out his specially prepared statement to the enraptured audience.

Stately psychodrama

I absolutely adore del Toro. He’s a larger than life, cuddly, bear of a man. A director who’s also a fan, he exudes so much love for the genre it’s contagious. Interviewing him is a total joy. Plus he makes brilliant movies. Who could ever forget the superb Cronos or his wonderful Mimic? The Devil’s Backbone is something else again, a stately psychodrama crackling with tension and taking its main atmospheric inspirations from classic Anglo-Saxon literature, like M R James and Algernon Blackwood, and given a unique Latin spin. It was a film de Toro literally had to make for his own sanity, as he explains.

“After Mimic we went into pre-production on Mephisto’s Bridge [his adaptation of the Chris Fowler novel Spanky]. We got as far as casting, but then it all collapsed because the star we wanted, Rupert Everett, proved to be less than reliable. Then I decided to resurrect The List of Seven, based on Mark Frost’s best-seller about the young Arthur Conan Doyle investigating a satanic cult. I went after Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh who both ended up starring in Wild Wild West instead...”

Then, after a horrendous family incident where his father was kidnapped in Mexico – “He spent 72 days being held prisoner and I lost 18 months trying to find out who was responsible” – del Toro started adapting the cult comic book Hellboy, relating the adventures of a paranormal investigator who finds out he’s a demon, for Universal. He grimaced as he recalled, “Universal told me they would back it instantly if I cast The Rock [The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns] in the lead role. When I argued I needed an actor not a wrestler we parted ways. Why is it that when Hollywood adapts a comic book for the screen they seem to be adapting a manual for retards?

"By this time I’d had enough of all the delays. So I decided to make a movie for myself and started setting up The Devil’s Backbone in Spain with my own company Tequila Gang and Pedro Almodovar’s El Deseo SA. Then I got sent the screenplay for Blade 2 which I adored. New Line wanted it to go immediately but I said if they wanted me they had to shoot after The Devil’s Backbone. I was sick of Hollywood politics by that point and I wanted to direct my personal movie first that I’d had on the backburner for 16 years. Doing that would give me room and breathing space to realize I did have a career away from the Hollywood studio system. I was stubborn, but it paid off, and I regained my independence.”

Everything you see in The Devil’s Backbone is based on del Toro’s own childhood experiences. “All of them, honestly. The knife fight, the rescuing of someone who was your enemy who then becomes your friend, the crush Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has on the kitchen maid, his night excursions for water echo the ones I used to make down the long corridors in my grandmother’s house and I even heard a ghost in exactly the same way it’s presented in the movie. When I was 11, I heard the ghost of my uncle sigh after he died in the room where he used to live. That’s why the spectre is referred to as ‘ the one who sighs’...”

Shiver #93, Halloween coverSee Shivers #93 for the full version of our Guillermo del Toro interview. To order Shivers or subscribe, go to VI DIRECT

Photo © Optimum Releasing
Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2001. Not for reproduction