“Monsters are to this day true family to me.”
Guillermo Del Toro
Guillermo Del Toro embraces the grotesque in his films. In the cinematic worlds he creates, monsters guide, protect, and comfort humans, blurring the line between the monstrous and the humane. Del Toro identifies with monsters as outsiders and regards them as worthy of reverence: “I was lost when they found me, the monsters. They, too, were outcasts of this absurd world that demanded impossible perfection and gave nothing back…. Monsters are to this day true family to me.”
Del Toro was impacted at an early age by repeated exposure to death, and he has vivid memories of seeing corpses in the street, in morgues, and in church catacombs. He was raised by his grandmother, a strict Catholic, who disapproved of his love for fantasy and horror, and even arranged an exorcism in an attempt to “cure” him. The director recounts that the first movie he saw in a theater was William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights; he has said that the film’s “gothic spirit” touched him, and this spirit continues to animate his films.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Del Toro studied at the University of Guadalajara and began making short films with his father’s Super 8 camera. He was heavily influenced by the work of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel, and began honing his eye by making short films that include Doña Lupe (1986) and Geometria (1987). Makeup and special effects, which feature heavily in this early work, are used to help convey a sense of the monstrous on screen. Del Toro studied special effects and makeup under the tutelage of Dick Smith, and went on to found his own Guadalajara-based special effects company, Necropia.
His debut feature-length film, Cronos (1993), a Mexican Spanish-language vampire film, garnered attention in Hollywood and allowed Del Toro to direct commercial features with larger budgets, such as Mimic (2000), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2003), Pacific Rim (2013), and Nightmare Alley (2021). Del Toro’s best known films are Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017); the latter won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. The theme of fathers and sons—and the fraught and symbiotic dynamic between childhood and parenthood—is a recurring theme in his films.
In addition to his work as a director, Del Toro has worked in many different aspects of filmmaking: as producer, screenwriter, illustrator, editor, special effects coordinator, boom operator, production assistant, and consultant. This dexterity and first-hand familiarity with the various components of filmmaking is unique for a contemporary director. “My belief is that in order to command, you need to learn to be able to obey,” Del Toro has said, “otherwise as a director you are just a little dictator, living in a separate reality.” This philosophy might help explain Del Toro’s reputation as a generous director, and the loyalty of the collaborators that help shape his vision, including cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, producer Javier Jimenez, artist Mike Mignola, and actors Doug Jones and Ron Perlman.
Guillermo Del Toro remains a much in-demand director, and continues to create work that moves, scares, and makes us see the world differently and find beauty in the monstrous. “I am still most at peace when I am with the oddities, the lost ones,” he has said. “I have devoted my life to preaching their simple gospel: there is another world, a more giving and encompassing world, where the arrogance of angels does not weigh so heavily upon our souls and where reason sleeps and we thrive—as the patron saints of imperfection.”
Kyla Gordon, Research Assistant, Department of Film, 2022