Señor Del Toro is a very special filmmaker. The self-described traveling Mexican lives out of a suitcase from film set to film set, from life experience to life experience. He is simultaneously a Hollywood studio system misfit and Hollywood studio system darling. After directing his short Doña Lupe in 1986, Del Toro was never far from a movie set. His film career catapulted with his first feature film with (1993). He has continued to develop his unique voice and entertaining global audiences since. In 2018 he won both an Oscar and Golden Globe Award for his amphibious film The Shape Of Water. Nobody will ever look at fish men in the same way again.
Creative Screenwriting Magazine caught up with him as he paused for breath on the week of the release of Scary Stories. As if he wasn’t juggling enough film and TV projects, he also has five projects currently in pre and post-production. Some may argue that Guillermo Del Toro is cinematic lightning in a bottle.
Ultimately, Del Toro is a storyteller like all of us. We asked him what specific elements of a story attract him. “A theme and characters need to seem evident early on. In this case, [Scary Stories] I thought I could use the idea of “telling stories” as a tool to address that the things we tell others and ourselves are the things that we end up believing about others and our own lives. This came together when I thought about the “Book of crossroads” that I created in Pan’s Labyrinth, a book that writes itself to reveal the owner’s destiny. I thought I could play that idea differently here.”
There isn’t a specific story type that Guillermo is exclusively aligned with, although fantasy and science fiction films feature heavily in his resume. He stated that every project “has to feel like a film that needs to be made, and nobody else has done, or would do if I didn’t tackle it.” If it feels that a project could be handled by other directors, he’s more likely to pass.
He has previously dabbled in the horror genre with movies like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010). A few years later, Scary Stories caught his eye. It was the visceral nature of the visuals in the books that initially made him consider the book trilogy as a potential movie.
“I was hooked by Stephen Gammell’s illustrations but I loved, loved, loved the way writer Alvin Schwartz preserves the very difficult, very complex art of “campfire simplicity” the stories demanded. These stories need a setup, a great tease in developing the horror and a good punchline to end them,” he elaborated.
Despite, the horror genre not comprising the bulk of Guillermo’s body of work, he considers horror stories to be vital to humanity “to enable us to better understand ourselves.“
“They [horror movies] complete the portrait of the cosmos. They are part of what makes us aware of the darker side of nature and the human soul. And to tell these stories help you safely confront that darkness. As it happens, also with fairy tales, horror tales can celebrate the freedom and anarchy of the human spirit or be repressive and pro-institution,” he opined. There is more to horror than simply blood and jolts.
Del Toro wrote a draft of the screenplay for Scary Stories before outsourcing the screenwriting duties to the unlikely writing team of brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman who are best known for the kids’ animation series Trollhunters: The Tales Of Arcadia. They are currently working on the Star Trek Animation Series for Nickelodeon. We asked Guillermo why they were the perfect fit to write Scary Stories.
“I worked with them very closely in Trollhunters. I would argue praise and admire them every time we had a story session. I love their sense of character and their innate intuition towards kids as complex entities. They have also a unique voice, very good-natured, and full of warmth and able to celebrate the intense and wonderful bond that friendship is for kids at a certain age.”
It wasn’t a simple matter of handing Kevin and Dan Hageman his draft of the Scary Stories screenplay and left them to it for a few weeks. The filmmaker took great care to translate his cinematic vision to them. Guillermo Del Toro described his “first story document” as a bible of sorts. The handbook that every person on the project can refer to. “This is the document that becomes the covenant for the entire team.“
Guillermo quotes the adage that makes every ordinary screenplay great. “Writing is rewriting, is it not? To write the first draft is like looking at an assembly as a director. A screenplay is most of the time an ungainly document.”
There were certain evolutions in the story. “The element of timeshifting in the third act came in the subsequent drafts. And the shape of the opening as a “night in the life” of a town came also from the critiquing of that first draft,” he said.
“We also abandoned elements that proved logistically impossible. We had an elevated freeway looming over the town that worked as a metaphor of the town phasing out of time and becoming a relic. Thematic elements that were superfluous were also cut.“
Del Toro worked closely with Kevin and Dan Hageman to tackle the story issues in Scary Stories. “I work very closely with the screenwriters when I produce although I mostly write or co-write what I direct. Engineering problems of the structure are the first to be solved and I normally can find those easy to fix. The main element in a story (and the most difficult one) is flow. The story needs to pull you in, the stakes need to grow along with your affection for the characters.“
The filmmaker is acutely aware of the time and effort it takes to produce a film. Many emerging screenwriters feel there are short cuts to success. Regrettably, there is no substitute for putting in the effort. Guillermo spoke of some misconceptions less experienced screenwriters have about entering the industry. “They mostly occur when people value textbooks over the need for experience. You can have a book that tells you the basics, but there is no substitution for experience.”
“I have written or co-written about 28 screenplays and over half of them were not produced but gave me a lot of practice. The smart thing to do is to write your first few screenplays as “practice” or “samples” of your skill and not think that you will “break-in” on the first try.“
Screenwriters also need patience, grit, and persistence to build a screenwriting career. He advises screenwriters “to always bring themselves, 100% into every project. I remember in 1985 I got two screenplays commissioned in Mexico and I gave them my all. They were never produced, never even considered for production, but I felt they were a matter of life-or-death. I wrote them as well as I could. I did Cronos about half a decade later.”
On an esotoeric level, Guillermo Del Toro was asked if there were any defining moments in his life that shaped the types of stories he wanted to tell. Quite philosophically he mused, “I think we spend most of our years trying to resolve our first ten.” He considers all his films autobiographical.