After years of attempts, Guillermo del Toro finally made it to the Tribeca Film Festival this year. The beloved filmmaker’s most recent film, The Shape of Water, earned him an Oscar for Best Director. But though del Toro is also a producer and co-writer of this summer’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film, his talk with host Alec Baldwin on Thursday night was not pegged to any one specific project. Instead, the two discussed del Toro’s career and his overall approach to filmmaking, with various references to different movies he’s worked on.
Over the course of the talk, del Toro dealt out several nuggets of directorial wisdom. Here were five of the best.
‘To direct is to have hostage negotiations with reality’
Del Toro is a man with plans. As he explained during the talk, he writes his movies for specific actors. He does all his own storyboards, and likes to show up to set before anyone else to scout out different shots and angles. But no amount of preparation is enough for all the contingencies of making movies.
“Some people think directing is about control, but I think it’s about the wisdom of identifying opportunity in crisis,” del Toro explained.
As an example, del Toro referenced one of the climactic scenes in The Shape of Water, when Michael Shannon’s character is aggressively torturing Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy. Weather conditions wreaked havoc on that day of shooting, with powerful winds blowing sand everywhere even as freezing rain poured down from the sky. Nevertheless, they prevailed and got what they needed — just in the nick of time, too.
“We finished right when the sun was rising. I love that. That’s the sport. That’s why we play,” del Toro said. “The day I say, ‘I have an extra day,’ something’s wrong. You have to not have enough. Real art and real freedom exist only with boundaries, because that’s structure. And without structure, you’d go mad.”
‘You need to create the feeling that you have enough’
Even though del Toro said the key to directing is to never have more time or resources than you know what to do with, he also said that the director’s job is to make his collaborators feel like they have enough time. After all, some actors only need a few takes to nail a scene, while some need several to try out different approaches.
“This is a rule that I can impart here and now to anyone interested in directing,” del Toro said. “Your job is, no matter what you have (half a day to shoot a really important scene, whatever it is), you need to create the feeling among your cast and crew that that is enough, that is plenty, that is great. You’re gonna take this moment, and it’s yours, but there’s no hurry. Sure, you have to get out of there at 3 p.m., and it’s already 1:30, but still.”
‘The relationship with each actor is unique’
The majority of Baldwin’s and del Toro’s filmmaking experiences come from opposite sides of the camera. At one point, del Toro even described acting and directing as “the two loneliest positions on a set.” Because of that, del Toro said that he’s learned that his relationship with each actor is unique, depending on their needs and preferences.
“I write a biography of each character, 8-10 pages for the actor: What their character eats, drinks, listens to, likes, and dislikes,” del Toro said. “And then I give them a ‘secret’ that they cannot share with the rest of the cast, so ‘you and I are the only ones who know this secret.’ Some actors take it, some actors don’t. For example, Richard Jenkins on The Shape of Water said ‘this is great, but I’m not gonna use it. I don’t know what I’m gonna do from one take to the next. I want to be there, I don’t want to think about it.'”
‘You learn directing every day from everything’
Del Toro is not just a well-known cinephile; he also has an insatiable appetite for art of all kinds. So his directing advice involves not just learning from cinema, but from painting, video games, and even life itself.
“I’ve developed video games, I’ve commanded animated series. You learn from everything,” del Toro said. “Learning how to direct the attention of a player in a video game gives you so many more verbs and solutions that you don’t get elsewhere. We are basically spies that are socially inept. We are spies looking at how humans behave — what they do, what they don’t do, because that’s where drama comes from. You can learn it at a light stop, watching someone put on their makeup or eating a sandwich while changing the dial. You have to always be aware that nothing is alien to your craft. When people say they get bored in line or waiting at the counter and they want to be a director, you shouldn’t be bored. You should always be watching.”
‘Make the movies that need you’
As a kid, Del Toro taught himself English partly by reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. The seed of the idea that would eventually become The Shape of Water was born when a young del Toro, watching Creature From the Black Lagoon, saw poetry in the titular monster swimming underneath Julie Adams’ submerged legs. So Baldwin ended the conversation by asking del Toro if he would ever consider doing a remake of a classic monster movie. Del Toro’s response was that a straight remake probably wouldn’t be weird enough for him, the guy who directed both “a fascist fairy tale set against the backdrop of the civil war in Spain” (that would be Pan’s Labyrinth) and “a Douglas Sirk-style sexual film about the Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
“I don’t think I can do a regular movie. I don’t think I can,” del Toro said. “Every movie I’ve done, even the most commercially viable ones, have some weirdness in them. I always try to do things that should not be done. I do think this: When you’re on a set and you have absorbed 100 years of cinema, which you can, your first instinct is tradition. You have to stop yourself and say ‘okay, that’s the way it would normally happen in a movie. What can we do that is different?’ And the older you get, the more you want to go different. So I don’t know if they would trust me with any legacy monsters.”
Stay tune for more Tribeca Film Festival 2019 coverage from EW.