For a long time—decades, really—Guillermo del Toro thought his stop-motion Pinocchio movie would never get made. The studios didn’t understand his ambition to adapt the classic tale into a version where the wood boy would have to die multiple times, and del Toro gets it. “I understand how an executive’s head would explode,” he tells Vanity Fair. For years, he carried around this story, hoping to find a home for it. And it wasn’t until Netflix agreed to back the project that it finally came to fruition, resulting in a magical and emotional story, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson. The film has won a slew of awards this season, and recently landed an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
Fighting an uphill battle is nothing new for the Oscar-winning Mexican director, as he tells Little Gold Men this week. He’s had to do the same for many of his films, like Pan’s Labyrinth, and even Best Picture winner The Shape of Water. Time after time, del Toro proves that he can push the boundaries of filmmaking, whether in live-action or animation, often with a little help from his longtime collaborators (and friends like James Cameron). Listen below and read on to find out why del Toro will continue his fight for animation to be taken seriously as a medium for adults, how his bond with Cameron has grown over the years, and what other movies he admired from this past year.
Vanity Fair**: You’ve had a special bond with the story of** Pinocchio since childhood. How did that come about?
Guillermo Del Toro: It was the second or third movie I saw with my mother and a little later came Frankenstein. For some reason, I connected those two characters as a kid. Both of them have parents that create them and don’t give them the tools to figure out the world, so I identified a lot. It felt very autobiographical for me.
Pinocchio and Frankenstein both addressed being adrift in the world as an anomaly. I didn’t feel like a regular boy in Mexico. All the other boys were interested in football and climbing trees and getting into fights and, and I was interested in reading and watching movies. I was very introverted. If you can believe it, I was introverted and thin [Laughs]. I trained myself to banish one, and I naturally evolved into the other.
There were quite a few years when the film was kind of stuck in development hell, and it was difficult to find a studio to back it. What kind of things were you being told when you were being told no?
Well, the things that make a movie worth seeing are the things that make it difficult to get greenlit. I was having a meeting the other day for the next stop-motion film that I want to do, which is very giant, and they were saying, “but this is not what traditional stop motion does.” And I go, “that’s why I’m doing it.” It’s perfect for stop motion, but I have to prove it. It was the same thing with Pan’s Labyrinth, with Devil’s Backbone of The Shape of Water.
And to be completely honest, in the pitch meetings, I kept saying, “this is not a kid’s movie, but kids can watch it.” I wanted to be extra clear, which made it extra easy for them to pass because animation is kept on the children’s table, at least in Western animation.
I would think where you’re at in your career, everyone should be saying yes to you because you prove that you can do these things even if they do seem difficult. But it sounds like with animation, it’s a little harder to get people to think outside the box?
It is. I don’t think it’ll ever get easy. I think that we need to keep pushing things that are not normally done. Sometimes you fail or you don’t reach an audience for whatever circumstances. It can be the movie itself, marketing, a pandemic, whatever. And then people retract very rapidly and say, “well, this movie or that movie didn’t work.” But when you succeed with propositions like this, it is a miracle of great beauty. I mean, the fact that those movies that I mentioned succeeded and reached an audience in the capacity and size they did is beautiful. What I find is that my biggest hurdle after making them is marketing them. If they are marketed for what they are, an audience gets curious. If they get disguised as something else that is more accessible and more common, they don’t. Unfortunately for me, as a filmmaker, sometimes I have a hand in the marketing, sometimes they don’t give me that space.