Guillermo Del Toro On Monsters, Mimic And The Rules Of Abuse

Posted by November 3, 2011 Comment

At this very moment, Guillermo Del Toro is up to his neck in giant monsters and Mech suits on the set of Pacific Rim, his epic, pan-dimensional Kaiju battle movie. I was very lucky, then, to grab any time at all to chat with him, let alone fifteen or twenty minutes.

We talked largely about Mimic – his undervalued giant bug thriller, which is now available in the UK and US on Blu-ray in a “Director’s Cut” – but more besides.

So, here is some of what Guillermo told me:

Revisiting Mimic

It was actually almost cleansing to go back and visit Mimic. I was doing the colour timing and I was surprised how much I liked the movie, visually. There’s huge chunks of it that look beautiful, as though it had been shot this year. The blacks are not to my satisfaction but that negative, we’re talking about some very old stock with a little bit of grain. I was very emotional… saying “Oh my God, this is a very beautiful movie” and it’s much closer to what it could have been.

Every bit of footage that was restored was already an improvement. It’s very hard to describe how the movie changes but it’s a better version of the movie than was released. I hope the third act of the movie is as well realised as possible, but we never shot the [intended] last 20 minutes.

But I loved showing how the characters were, and the pacing is now a lot more deliberate and it is not about generating false scares, is much more grounded. The restored footage was [originally] removed for cheap, second unit scares, but now there is very little that remains of the second unit and I’m very relieved about that.

We reinserted ten or twelve minutes, but it’s only about seven to ten minutes longer in the running time because we removed lots of second unit.  The new material is almost exclusively on the thematic and tonal level and now the movie is more coherent.

Giant Bugs

A great monster is taking something that feels like it could exist in nature, based on certain cues of nature, and then distorted and blown-up so it becomes mythic or totemic. Insects are perfect creatures for this because they are already designed like alien creatures or the creatures of our nightmares.

I still believe that it [being cockraoches] is such a leap for the audience to take, unlike ants or praying mantises or many other insects. Cockroaches are inherently not taken seriously. People find them repulsive and shocking, but they don’t find them imposing. They are very, very humble, almost a punchline kind of an insect. I still would have liked to have bark beetles as the creatures. This would have made it more creepy to me. What I said, though, is we’re going to have to make the best giant cockroach movie, and now, in this new version, it’s an even better giant cockroach movie.

Mimic’s Cast of Characters

I loved to cast Jeremy Northam, with the glasses, not looking like an American hero, and the original idea was to cast Andre Braugher or cast John Turturro. I wanted people who were not your typical American, 1990s action heroes. Jeremy was a great ally and I loved working with him but my ideal casting would have been even more off-centre than that.

Mira Sorvino was a great partner in making her character not an action heroine, not almost a superhero, but she was a regular person facing a terrible circumstance. Those character ideas are still very much in my mind right now as I work [on new projects].

God Wants Us To Be Extinct

A theme that went away in Mimic, and while it is restored a little in this cut, it went away some in the script stage, is that wanted to say it’s not the creatures, it’s not science, but it’s God that wants us to be extinct and that it’s the turn of a new species. That’s a very scary idea.

I’m still drawn to the idea of sacrifice and revenge, I’m still drawn to playing with the idea that insects are God’s favourite creatures, and I find the arrogance of science really off-putting.

If The Lessons Of Mimic Could Be Taught In A Class…

It would be a simple remedial class. I’d teach them the rules of abuse – if it feels wrong, it is wrong. Learn to say no. Filmic abuse is no different than any other kind of abuse. You still have to learn to stand your ground.

I don’t know if “better” is an adjective I would use but I’m more experienced now,  and I think I hold my ground much better. I think I know a little better, instinctively, who is an ally and who is not. If I could do it again, the movie would get closer to the movie that was written in the first place.

Straight Horror

Mimic is the only time I did a straight horror movie. In Devil’s Backbone, Cronos or even Blade, I tried stuff that was sort of different, but Mimic was trying to be a horror movie that was suspenseful. I like trying to scare people, and I think the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth is pretty scary, and At The Mountains of Madness would be straight horror, it would be scary, but in my other films, the monsters are sympathetic.

Getting Away With It

We got an incredible rave review [of Mimic] by Siskel and Ebert that was incredibly flattering and Ebert’s words were healing to me. One thing that became very clear doing this cut was how much we originally got away with. We certainly got away with a lot more than you’d expect from a first studio movie. The Catholic subtext, the dark cinematography, the rotting textures, the religious symbols, many, many ideas that were brave and survived in the theatrical cut. I’m amazed how much that young filmmaker was able to get away with.

Changing Geometria

[The short film] Geometria, you could say, was my pending assignment.  I never had the money but I had wanted to make it in Italian and subtitle it. And it had never been transferred properly, the sound was never designed to the point that I liked it, the music was never to my liking. It was very cathartic to be able to finish that short and Mimic in the same year. Mimic was the only feature I felt needed a better cut, and I hope the fans appreciate it and the people like it.

The finished version of Geometria is available on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray of Del Toro’s debut film, Cronos.

Mimic is available in the UK and US now.