The mind behind ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’


By Rania Richardson

Evil fairies, a bloodthirsty stepfather, fascist terrorists, and a secret underground empire make up the nightmarish world of 11-year-old Ofelia in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro (“Cronos,” “Hellboy”), the film is a masterful blend of history and fantasy, as it tells the story of a lonely girl in Franco’s Spain who is guided by magical creatures that only she can see.

This Spanish-language fairy tale for adults received praise from critics and audiences alike as the final film of the recent New York Film Festival, and is now racking up nominations for awards including one for January’s Golden Globes.

Its brainy and effusive Mexican director expounded on filmmaking and philosophy with a group of journalists over lunch at the Regency Hotel in October. Joining him was the preternaturally gifted Ivana Baquero, the young star of the film, accompanied by her father.

“I think that fantasy isn’t an escape, but a way to articulate the world,” del Toro said. “If Ofelia was escaping, she would escape to Disney World, with little birds chirping and telling her how beautiful she is.

“When fairy tales were first created,” he continued, “they were very disturbing and meant to represent the dire circumstances of the times — famine, plague, kids being orphaned, kids being abandoned.

“When I was a kid, my imagination was never benign. It helped me understand the world through fable, the good and the evil,” del Toro explained. Born in 1964 in Guadalajara, he was raised by his “very Catholic” grandmother. “I had a strange childhood, including seeing a faun coming out of the armoire,” he said without a trace of irony.

Pan, the faun in the film, directs Ofelia to save her baby brother and meet her true destiny as a princess in a magical kingdom. The instructions require wrestling a key from a giant, slime-covered toad and navigating around a child-eating ogre with eyeballs in his hands. To do this she must break free from the confines of her violent stepfather, played by Sergi López. As a captain in Franco’s army, his sole mission is to create a “clean new Spain,” by leading his henchmen in gunning down anyone who resists the new order.

“The movie is really about the responsibility of disobedience and the responsibility of choice, and how your choices affect who you are,” del Toro said. Since Ofelia refuses to obey either the magical creatures or her fascist stepfather, she forges her own destiny. “I think it’s a damn valuable lesson,” he added.

Del Toro mined similar territory in his earlier film, “The Devil’s Backbone,” commenting on the atrocities of Spain’s civil war through a combination of history and horror. “I believe in parables more than I believe in political speeches,” he said. “I think that parables have the ability to move you spiritually or emotionally and political speeches, that you don’t agree with, just make a little static on the wind. they’re argumentative, not emotional.”

Growing up in Mexico, del Toro viewed Spain as “the promised land,” and journeyed there in the 1980s. He met director Pedro Almodóvar in the swirl of hedonistic “La Movida” parties fueled by the country’s cultural and economic resurgence following Franco’s death. “Everyone was in favor of liberation. It was such a luminous time. I fell in love there,” he said, wistfully. “That is the kingdom that [Ofelia finds herself in] at the end of the movie.”

“I think it’s totally dazzling,” Baquero concurred regarding the culmination of her character’s journey into the magical kingdom. Poised and intelligent, the young actress cited Natalie Portman’s career as her inspiration, but added, “My biggest project for the moment is school.” Like her director, Baquero loves fantasies, mentioning “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland” as favorites.

Del Toro’s own youthful pastimes of collecting books of fairy tales and drawing monsters prepared him for a career in harnessing the imagination. He always keeps a journal on hand to write and sketch ideas. A peek into one volume reveals naïve and abundant illustrations — characters and sets, surrounded by writing, spilling out into the margins. “Before I shoot anything I start designing stuff for it in my little diary,” he said.

Prior to directing films, the highly visual director trained with Oscar-winning makeup and special effects artist Dick Smith and produced and directed television in Mexico. His 1993 homegrown film “Cronos” was followed by the Hollywood feature “Mimic.” Since then he has alternated between Spanish language specialty films and high budget Hollywood features. He is now in pre-production on “Hellboy 2.”