Guillermo del Toro is a fantastic storyteller, evidenced not only by this beautiful film, but also in the way he shares his thoughts on the director’s commentary. If you loved Pan’s Labyrinth, I highly recommend watching the DVD extras, which has a wealth of interesting information. This alternately heartbreaking and hopeful Academy Award winning film was made with so much thought and detail and love, there is no doubt it was, for del Toro, like birthing a child. The director clearly has a longing to recall and share some of the universal thoughts and feelings of childhood; his explanations of particulars (like the chalk appearing in Vidal’s quarters) that prove the magic is real is enough to make even a cynic like me believe.
1. Guillermo del Toro begins his commentary by saying that the film almost destroyed … nearly killed him. He lost 40 pounds during the process. The film’s origin was a story of a pregnant woman who arrived to a mansion in Spain; her husband worked for the mansion owner, restoring the home. The woman fell in love with a faun in a labyrinth—they made love—and he asked for the blood of her firstborn in order to open the gate and let her enter the magical kingdom to be with him. The ending was this woman sacrificing her son to go with the love of her life, the faun. Eventually, del Toro realized it was more interesting to talk about the magic through the girls’ eyes.
2. The film is intended to be a companion piece to The Devil’s Backbone; in the five years between the two films the world changed completely (after September 11th) and so, everything del Toro had to say about brutality and innocence, childhood and war changed dramatically. The Devil’s Backbone was set in 1939—he wanted to do a film set exactly five years later— so he chose 1944 Spain. The time period would mirror how much the world had changed then and how much the world had changed today. The director felt if the ghost story in Devil’s Backbone was made to illuminate the microcosms of the Spanish Civil War, then this movie should be about choice and disobedience, which are themes he felt were as urgent in the world today as they were in 1944.
3. Del Toro said the opening image of blood going back into Ofelia’s body and the writing of the first 10 minutes of the film was “the hardest thing,” he was stuck (on the beginning) for months and months. When he saw the image of the blood going back to her nose, he understood the rest of the movie; it was not about a girl dying, but about a girl who was giving birth to herself the way she wanted to be.
The film’s opening also went through many, many changes. The director realized if the movie was going to be two stories intersected, then along with the beautiful fairy tale prologue in the narration, the audience should see images of a destructed Spanish city torn by the war—as a contrast to the fairy tale narrative—so the stories would start to juxtapose from the very beginning. He wanted to show how the material world scoffs at the girl’s interest in the fantasy world, starting with her mother. Del Toro believes that children have a perfect personality and then we (adults) ruin it with our “intelligent decisions to educate them; someone in the 19th century said that it was our duty to deal with children as if they were the ambassadors of a higher culture and not like we want to educate them, but like we want to learn from them.”
4. The moment of Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) arrival at her stepfather’s home is almost a direct mirror of Devil’s Backbone, when the young boy arrives at the orphanage. Del Toro wanted the two movies to be similar, he constructed them to have a circular opening and closing type of structure, with a narration; a child arriving to a new building with an adult, then having the child be visited the first night by a magical or fantastic creature and having to solve the mystery that the creature would pose that night. The director spoke of the similarities between the films’ two antagonists and the two protagonists. In Devil’s Backbone, the children—one writes and one draws pictures; Ofelia is sort of a combination of those two characters. The fascist in Devil’s Backbone is a “proto-fascist,” who is not intellectual enough or political enough to really be called a fascist. But Captain Vidal (Sergi López) is a full-fledged fascist. Del Toro also wanted to blend the films by them each occurring in a single building. He feels the essence of the Spanish Civil War is seen by displaying it as a household war, a war that occurs within the walls of a building and between members of a family, so to speak.
5. Vidal’s watch is the only memory he has of his father—it presses him to be a great, famous man and it also oppresses him. Del Toro felt it important that the Captain is obsessed with details, for him the rebels are just a concept and little pinpoints that he has to look at on a map with a magnifying glass. Vidal is so obsessed with the little things, how shiny his boots are how well his watch runs, how neatly he pinpoints the strategy on the maps, that he loses perspective of the larger stuff. He loses perspective of life and people. When Vidal meets Ofelia, it is with a direct quote from Dickens’ David Copperfield (the first time Copperfield meets his stepfather, the stepfather tells David, “That’s the wrong hand”). Pan’s Labyrinth is peppered with references to other fantasy movies and to novels (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Oscar Wilde, etc.).
6. The way the insect was filmed, everything—including a close-up—was because del Toro wanted to emphasize with the camera how significant the insect was. The insect is very often favored by the camera; it was important that this creature was the guide to take the girl into the labyrinth the first time. Del Toro highlighted in both Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that the first discovery of the ghost and the labyrinth was done in daylight. This shows the fantastic in a mundane context; the director feels that one of the things that makes the fantastic tangible is to make it mundane; treat it like any subject.
7. Storytelling without words is what interests Del Toro the most, he “hates words.” The first few days of filming he worked with Cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hellboy) on a shooting technique, where the camera is always drifting and moving very subtly. The camera moves very deliberately, with sounds all around; of the scene with Ofelia and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) in bed, del Toro says with surround sound you can hear all sorts of things around them. He learned the importance of immersive sound design from video games which, the director said, when really well designed for a surround sound system have “a very beautiful, immersive quality that makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of the atmosphere and the action.” Del Toro wanted to capture the intimacy of “a kid at night in bed with your mother, chatting—the sort of thing one misses as an adult ” and then the first transition into fantasy using a horizontal wipe (as the girl lays her head on her mother’s belly).
8. The first fantasy introduces the new color palate of warm, golden reds and scarlet tones, being integrated into the colder, real world palette. The color palette is meant to reflect the fact that the two worlds are completely opposite; fantasy scenes are warm, rounded, uterine and reality is rust, grey, blues, cold greens and straight lines. Fantasy scenes have more playful, active camera moves than the fascist’s world. Filters were also used (green gel) for the blue-hued, nighttime pit (where Ofelia meets with the faun), which magnifies greens in blue elements. The pit scene has lot of moss to give it a sense of magic. Greens are accentuated there because it colors the scene of the underworld, which is a mix of reality and fantasy. Certain objects are mirrored in both worlds, a key, a knife and a dining room table. Trees echo the faun and fallopian tubes and magical pollen is present every time a magical creature is near in the daytime world.
The design of the pit and fantasy world is done around circles and curves, meant to feel very Celtic, with simple praises and elaborate patterns. Del Toro mentioned that “While most people link Celtic with Ireland or the UK, it actually came through the North of Spain first.” The director showed fairies being carnivores; he wanted ambiguity in fairies and fauns so the audience would wonder if they’re good or bad. Del Toro explained, “It’s very important that they’re never fully good or bad. The faun in classical mythology is neither—it represents nature.” (Only in America is the film called Pan’s Labyrinth, originally, it is The Faun’s Labyrinth). The director didn’t want the girl to have a safe choice, the important thing is how she goes about the tests, not whether she accomplishes them. At the labyrinth entrance, an inscription reads “In your hands (In your decisions), lies your destiny.”
9. The first act of violence was based on an oral account of a post war occurrence in a grocery store, where a fascist came in and a citizen inside didn’t take off his hat; the fascist proceded to smash his face with the butt of a pistol and then took his groceries and left. Del Toro wanted to put that story into the film. The detail of the bottle comes from a personal experience where del Toro and a friend got into a street brawl, del Toro was being beaten with a chain while his friend was being beaten with a bottle. The only thing the director noticed as it was going on, was that the bottle didn’t break. The scene is done with the action becoming more and more and more intense, then releasing to a quiet moment—to show that the death of these two guys is inconsequential; Vidal just shot and killed them and the crickets are chirping, the train is moving in the distance and it’s not a big deal. According to del Toro, violence and the death of civilians in Civil War Spain (and post war) was completely inconsequential. He thought it was important to show (an example) that out of the approximately 500,000 people that died in the Spanish Civil War, approximately 250,000 of them were either summarily executed or killed in cold blood, without battle engagements.
The first act of violence is the most violent. From this point on, the violence gets more and more simple until the final death occurs in single shots, in almost throwaway moments.
10. The director’s favorite magical part of the film is when Ofelia is reading and the insect turns into a fairy. Using the drawing (in Ofelia’s book) as a reference, “the transformation is done in objective way, with no fuss…very simple.” The fairy design was thought up during Hellboy, which featured pickled, jarred fairies.
11. Del Toro designed the faun’s leg system, of which he is very proud. He said that DDT Efectos Especiales laughed at him, because they didn’t think it would work. The faun legs are connected to the legs of the actor—the actor puppeteers them with his own legs. The giant puppet frog was supposed to move around and del Toro disagreed with DDT about how the frog would move—it was too heavy and would look small on a large set. The director was again correct and they had to shoot in the gallery of roots instead of a huge set that had been built; the frog looks bigger in a small set. Half of the frog footage is CG and half puppets, then they were blended. The vomit shot was done and redone more times than any other movie scene del Toro has done.
12. The faun (Doug Jones) is much older in the beginning of the film, he gets younger and younger as the story progresses. He is almost blind when first seen, with white hair; he’s messy and dirty and more spastic, with a different voice. At the end of the film, the faun is young (Jones’ first day of filming).
13. The first day of shooting with Sergi López (Vidal), the character is shaving. López got frustrated with the very exact instructions del Toro gave him to do everything, the director’s instructions were quite specific, (e.g. “three puffs of smoke then walk over here”). Del Toro knew how he wanted the camera to shoot (with vertical wipes) and the actor wasn’t used to working that way. But, del Toro said that by end of filming, López was the most precise actor of the bunch. The director emphasized it was important to use the vertical wipes (moving left to right), because the film is two stories that seem completely separate. As the movie progresses, the two world starts to intertwine and eventually they will lead to a single outcome.
The director wanted to do one unflinching, single shot of how unstoppable Captain Vidal is (sewing up his own mouth); he’s the big bad wolf. This defines the character and who he is going to become. And in order for Ofelia to be truly afraid, to say “No” to the faun, Vidal has to be terrifying.
At Vidal’s end, he is the most human he has ever been (mirroring a Devil’s Bone character). Del Toro said he liked the way Vidal’s eye rolled back as he died. The director used to volunteer in a mental institution and he would walk through the morgue to a cemetery to have lunch. He once saw a man who had been shot in the face, with his eye rolled back, like Captain Vidal.
14. Of the bath scene, the director points out the circles that are related to the girl (everything else is straight and square and lines).
Ofelia reads from the “Book of Crossroads.” Del Toro wanted to create crossroads for every character in the film. (He did a similar scene in Cronos, that also involved a green dress). Ofelia sees the moon birthmark on her shoulder, so she knows she is a princess, in fact. The director says, “You are who you think you are, as long as it comes from a genuine place in your heart. It doesn’t matter what you have in the material world, you can always believe in your true essence.” This is something he tried to get across in Hellboy too; Hellboy knows that he his a person, human, even though everyone is telling him he’s a monster and a freak. Del Toro believes Ofelia becomes immortal, saying “Only if you dare to die would you reach immortality.”
Ofelia’s mother says she doesn’t believe in fairy tales but she believes in the Republic. To del Toro, organized politics and religion are much more fairy tales than anything else—they’re fantasy. “I don’t believe in borders or geography, in religion making us different. I believe in spiritual conceits making us equal, not different.”
15. In the dinner party scene, we see the dining table and chimney and all the squares and straight lines that will be echoed in the Pale Man sequence (with monster sitting at the head of the table).
Del Toro felt it was important to notice the banquet in this time of 1944, when most people were boiling roots and “literally making almost stone soup for dinner—nobody had food.” But the Captain is hoarding food and medicine to make rebels come to him—using this banquet to host these people—he sees himself almost as a overlord with his subjects. The Captain really believes he is doing everything for the good of the community, even though he is a sociopath. At the feast, Carmen’s speaks of Ofelia’s father, a tailor (chosen because cobblers and tailors used to pass on fairy tales, according to del Toro). The director wanted to make it appear that it’s possible Vidal had the father taken out so he could date Carmen. Del Toro said he loves loose ends like that, threads for the audience to speculate over and discuss.
16. The legend that the civil guard captain reads is printed on the containers of bread; this comes from a war reality—propaganda with bread was handed out (to send a message to rebels that they should give up).
17. When Ofelia is looking at the book, as the red spreads across the pages echoing fallopian tubes/the fauns horns, the soundtrack grows into a musical montage inspired by one of del Toro’s favorite bands, Pink Floyd. The director say it is reminiscent of the prologue to Is There Anybody Out There? The magic book predicts the upcoming miscarriage and the color palette begins to subtly and slowly change.
18. Del Toro explained that writing the movie was extremely difficult because it took a long time to sort the tasks and elements in the film. There is a magical element in every other scene, almost like a checkerboard, patterned very carefully. Every two scenes you get a magical and reality scene and it got more complicated as the two elements started merging. Financing on the film fell through several times, but del Toro wanted to do the movie so much, he called friend and Producer, Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) to let Cuarón know he was putting in $100,000 of his own money so they could go on. Cuarón offered to put in $50,000 of that himself and both del Toro and Cuarón gave up their producers’ salaries (del Toro also gave up his director’s salary).
Casting went against the grain of the Spanish actors’ usual fare. Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) was normally a “sex bomb actress.” López had done dark, charming characters in foreign films, but in Spain he was known for comedy and melodrama. Ariadna Gil was usually cast as an independent, fully fledged woman. An important Spanish producer told del Toro he didn’t understand how to cast these actors because del Toro was Mexican, that the director was miscasting them all. The producer said the actors’ careers would be over and del Toro said, “Screw you. I can cast them how I like.” Del Toro said that he heard (second-hand) that the producer had apologized after seeing the film and its success.
The scene where Mercedes is surrounded by soldiers on horseback was the first shot. Del Toro said horses are “nasty, psychopathic animals,” he “hates them” (and cows).
The director said it was a good thing they shot it right away because after he saw how they acted in that first scene (one of the actors almost had his chest crushed by a horse), he would never have put Mercedes in front of the horses again.
19. The violence of the real world appears fully-shaped in the Pale Man, which echoes Vidal’s dining room and the facelessness of fascism. Del Toro originally designed the Pale Man like an old man who lost a lot of weight. Later he had the face removed and put his eyes on a platter, which was as del Toro had once seen a statue of St. Lucy—with her eyes on a platter and blood pouring out of her sockets. The director wanted a “church-like and a concentration camp feeling, with shoes piled up in corner; this perverse creature has a lot of food in front of it, but only eats children—innocents.” The three doors Ofelia must pick from are an element in many fairy tales (threes). The director feels it is important that disobedience has different outcomes. Ofelia disobeys and picks the right door with the dagger, then she disobeys (because she’s hungry) and eating the grapes gets her in trouble. Del Toro, “But no matter what, she follows herself, at the end of the movie, she learns to trust herself. No matter what dangers she went through, she still doesn’t distrust her nature and her instincts. She chooses herself and remains true to herself.”
Several artists have influenced del Toro, especially Goya. The shot of the Pale Man eating the fairies is taken directly from the artist’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
Del Toro said he “had the privilege” of watching the Pale Man chase scene, sitting next to Stephen King and it remains “the best screening experience ever,” watching King squirm. The director described it as “the best thing that ever happened to him in his life.”
20. For the scene when the rebels come down the mountain, they had only 20 minutes of sun to film. A digital head had to be subbed in for the doctor because as he walked by, the actor (Álex Angulo) looked directly at camera and they had no time to reshoot.
The fighting in woods was supposed to be against a large, green palette, but the area was in the middle of a drought, so a lot of fake moss, grass etc. was used. Every blank or spark from bullets hitting trees was digital because they weren’t permitted to use any blanks. All these digital effects made budget go way up.
Sadly, Cindy Davis is no princess.