Guillermo del Toro reflects on The Devil's Backbone in foreword to new book
While Guillermo del Toro’s latest film Shape of Water continues to dazzle audiences at film festivals, the director is also returning to one of his early works.
Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone premiered to warm critical reception in 2001, and the film serves as the subject for a behind-the-scenes book from film critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams. The Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy director calls the film his most personal, and grants the authors in-depth interviews on the shooting process and his unique approach to filmmaking.
Del Toro also wrote the book’s foreword, which EW can exclusively debut along with the cover art, below.
The Devil’s Backbone hits shelves Nov. 28.
Foreword to The Devil’s Backbone by Guillermo del Toro
Regret is a ghost—a road not taken, a reckless moment, a missed opportunity. In this manner, we are all haunted.
In the early 1990s, after doing Cronos, I found myself in a bit of a limbo.
It was a limbo I am now quite familiar with. I don’t belong in any safe film category: too weird for full-on summer fare, too in love with pop culture for the art house world, and too esoteric for hardcore fandom. The fact is, every premise I am attracted to has an inherent risk of failure. I often find myself wondering why I cannot choose an easier path. But I guess I cannot. It’s in my nature. I am one with my vices and I believe that, well regarded, our vices render our virtues.
The Devil’s Backbone was, originally, a horror tale set against the Mexican revolution. The film authorities in charge viewed it with great displeasure, as they did Cronos, and the shelfful of national and international awards the latter title had garnered was not helpful at all. We were denied any official funding or support.
A few years after Cronos’ debut at Cannes, as I was at the tail end of the festival tour, I felt no closer to getting a film made. Ever. Again. The promise of a career in film was fading fast, and regret, with all its ghosts, was settling in.
Then Pedro Almodóvar saved me.
How did he do it? Where did it happen? You’ll have to read on . . .
That story and many more are chronicled in the book you have in your hands. It consigns, in great detail, the making of what really felt like my first film after the frustrations or inexperience of Cronos and Mimic.
Making The Devil’s Backbone, I finally felt in command of my visual style, my narrative rhythm, and was able to work in a profound manner with my cast and crew to craft a beautiful genre-masher: a Gothic tale set against the backdrop of the greatest ghost engine of all—war.
The second greatest ghost engine is, in my opinion, memory. With this in mind I started trying to make a movie that would join these two strands and make one thing clear: The ghost is not the scariest thing in the tale. It is human cruelty.
The visual and narrative rules I set out to meet were a bit crazy—I wanted to combine the look of a Western with the flair of a horror film and the austerity of a war chronicle. I wanted to make the personalities of the children in the tale as real as possible. I wanted to avoid the notions of innocence and embrace purity and solidarity.
I was able to put together one of the finest casts I’ve ever assembled, and we all set out to meet a visual ambition that far exceeded our budget (three–four million Euros). This ambition/budget imbalance has been a constant in my quarter-of-a-century career.
This tale of orphans coming together against the deficient, perverse, and brutal world of adults remains one of my top three films. I have tried to be as candid as possible in the interview that constitutes the backbone of this book. I tried to keep the truth unadorned and unvarnished by nostalgia.
The Devil’s Backbone, however, was also one of the most pleasant shoots I’ve ever had. Protected by the Almodóvar brothers and their production company, El Deseo S.A., I was free to create and was given total control.
I needed this. I needed it so much. After going through a nightmarish shoot on Mimic, I felt that Hollywood filmmaking was not to be.
I was entering this new process full of fear and worry.
And then, it all changed.
I remember discussing the notion of “final cut” with Pedro early in the process and seeing him grow genuinely confused. “I need to have final cut, of course,” I said. “What is a final cut?” he asked me. “Well,” I tried to explain, “the final cut means that the final edit decision globally and in any scene rests with me.” His eyes widened and he looked around confused, “But, of course, the decision is yours!” he said. “You’re the director!”
And that started me off on a joyful, enraptured creative experience.
The movie healed all my wounds—made me whole again. I am as grateful as I’ve ever been to Pedro. In fact, I’ve since produced and “godfathered” many first films in order to pay it forward, trying to thank the universe for giving me this film.
And then, lest I forget, The Devil’s Backbone bore a companion piece you may like to get familiar with—it’s called Pan’s Labyrinth. They are “mirrored movies,” which reveal symmetries and reflections if you ever watch them together . . . and I love them both with equal passion.
So, a film about ghosts cleared all ghosts from my past. A film about loss gave me life again. A story of orphans gave me a filmmaking family.
Disguised as a Gothic tale, The Devil’s Backbone hides a beating heart and a story about loss and the phantoms of regret. It is a worthy “boy’s adventure” and a small fable full of melancholy.
This film is full of love and worthy of love.
I do hope you’ll agree.
—GUILLERMO DEL TORO
Toronto, Summer 2017