Guillermo del Toro says his new book, Cabinet of Curiosities, is his own “It Gets Better” advertisement.
Designed for handsome display on a coffee table, the tome is actually a thick and detailed look into the work and mind of the Mexican filmmaker. Cabinet of Curiosities boasts long interviews; photos from Bleak House, his personal collection (see No. 4); and excerpts from his prized notebooks that show the many ideas, influences, aborted plans, and recycled dreams that have gone into each of the nine major motion pictures that del Toro’s directed over his 20-year career.
“I wanted to be candid,” he told BuzzFeed, “but I wanted to be candid in a way that it can be useful for someone that was the way I was as a kid, where you feel that you’re a freak and you feel that you are never gonna fit somewhere. And then to see another freak that is functional is actually a relief.”
Of course, given that the collection is a sort of gothic wonderland — not unlike the magical book in his Oscar-nominated classic, Pan’s Labyrinth — del Toro noted with a laugh, “It gets better to the point that you can be a freak with a house full of monsters. I don’t know if it gets better, really, but it goes there.”
Cabinet of Curiosities also serves as a sort of guide for aspiring filmmakers, providing them with insight into how a master of both genre and storytelling works. In the interest of public knowledge — and brevity — del Toro shared with BuzzFeed what he thinks are the five most important keys to making a great movie.
1. The story has to dig deep into who you are.
“I think the main sign of a good story for you is that it has to hurt. It has to dig deep into who you are … I jokingly say that Hellboy is autobiographical, but it is. The way I think about myself, and the way I think about my story with my wife, everything is in there, and Pan’s Labyrinth was incredibly personal, to the point where I showed it to my wife and she turned to me after seeing the movie complete and she said, ‘You felt that bad?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I felt that bad.’ Devil’s Backbone, the same thing. If you think about movies in terms of career or money or what is selling or what do they want, you’re making a huge mistake.”
2. Learn from the past and put a twist on it.
“The worst thing you can do it to think that you’re inventing a new song. It doesn’t happen. It’s already been done. So the only thing you can do is give it your own twist. And the more you know that came before, the more you can know about what will come after. Think for a moment about Lord of the Rings. If Peter Jackson had not been a fan of Hammer films, the texture of the movies wouldn’t be what it is. If he was only obsessed with fantasy and historical drama, some of the edge of Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be there, but that doesn’t mean it looks like a Hammer film.”
3. Remember, you’re better at being you than anyone else.
“Look at [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola as an artist. You can see Jack Kirby, you can see a bunch of influences, but Mike is Mike. What I think Hitchcock said was — I’m paraphrasing here — but, ‘Specificity plus repetition equals style.’ Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu said this to me, and it’s not flattery or criticism, it’s just a fact: ‘You’re better at being you than anyone else.’ It sounds like a fucking self help book, but it’s true.
I’m a big student of Hitchcock. I wrote a book on him when I was 23. I studied every film. I give master classes. I still can’t figure out the very essential things that make a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film. I can tell you about them, but I cannot reproduce them or make them happen. It is like when you’re young and you read somebody like Ray Bradbury like I did, you think you can copy it like this (snaps). You can use certain adjectives, whatever you want, use all those beautiful metaphors, but they don’t come out right. They don’t work.
One of my best friends in life is Alfonso Cuarón. I saw Gravity on an early cut. I read the screenplay. I know how he did it. I saw the animatics. I saw the movie in different stages. I still don’t know how he came up with the first idea. I cannot reproduce that. That’s his and his alone.”
4. Work. A lot.
“A lot of people think that you sit down and you write the great American novel in the first try. Nope.
My two daughters are very artistic, and they were having a conversation two days ago, and they were saying how much of what they write, they don’t like. And my older daughter said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got to write through the crap to get to the good stuff.’ And I love that she came to that conclusion because it’s true.
There are two types of writers. There are the writers that get up every day and say, ‘I’m going to write for two hours, and then I’m going to go to work at Kinkos, where I have a job.’ And I was that guy. I had a real job while I managed to make a feature. So in the morning, I would write for two hours and then go to the bank and work in real estate. For that type of writer, it’s so precious those two hours that you do.
The other type of writer is, most of the time you say, ‘I’m gonna take Saturday and Sunday.’ And you end up surfing the web for 80% of your time; 10% of the time you write something what you hate; and then you don’t come back the next day. You come back a week later. You have to do it every day. Whether you do it in a notebook or a computer, you have to put your thoughts on paper.
I have so many things that I’ve written; the book is consigned to a few of the projects, but I have written or co-written 22 screenplays, and I’ve done only nine movies. So that means there are 13 projects that are un-produced. Some of them, like Mountains of Madness, have hundreds of pieces of art.”
5. Don’t worry about selling out. Worry about buying in.
“I think that in the past, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, after the existentialists and beatniks and hippie movements, the big deal was, Don’t sell out. We live in a society that by virtue of the speed we communicate and sell, everything sells. The danger is buying in; that your concern becomes success, rather than fulfillment. They’re two different beasts, and my feeling is that you should seek fulfillment. You should not measure your worth in how much you have or how popular you are, but how happy you are with what you do.”
In the case of the Marvel movies [Ed note: del Toro was offered to direct several high-profile Marvel films, likeThor], it was specifically because I didn’t want to lose my notebook. I was thinking, ‘Do I do Pan’s Labyrinth or do I do [Marvel]?’ And I was thinking, ‘If I do one more big movie and I postpone Pan’s, I’m going to get to like the money and the car picking me up in the morning and the first class tickets, all that stuff, and then I’m not going to make Pan’s Labyrinth ever,’ and I didn’t want to do that.
I was [happy that I didn’t win an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth]. Pan’s Labyrinth was becoming such a landmark for me, and I wanted a little bit of freedom. I said, ‘If it wins, it’s going to become the thing I have to keep trying to do again.’ And I really was relieved. It’s a perfect metaphor. At the end of the night, I said to my wife, ‘My shoes are too tight. My feet hurt.’ And the great relief of that night was removing my shoes and walking in my socks to the car. So in a way, winning can become a shoe that’s too tight and you may not want it.
I think I’ve seen success become very disorienting; the world is full of stories of first filmmakers who didn’t do a second film, because they [were worried about failing] because their first film was such a success. I had the blessing of doing my first movie and then doing Mimic, so there was no doubt that I could fail.”