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Guillermo del Toro on Strong Women, ‘Punk’ Gothic Novels and Crimson Peak’s Haunted House

18 minute read

Director Guillermo del Toro began the San Diego Comic-Con panel for his upcoming film Crimson Peak not by touting his stunning cast—Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska—but by declaring that he had decided to make a film that empowered women. “There is a secret gender war,” del Toro told a 6,000-strong audience to cheers, promising that he would “liberate” the gender roles in his 1900s gothic romance.

Later on the patio of a nearby hotel, eyes hidden behind red-tinted sunglasses, del Toro spoke about how the women in his life, especially his daughters, inspired him to create strong female characters in films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and the upcoming Crimson Peak.

The filmmaker spoke with TIME about the women of his films, the secret details hidden in the haunted mansion he built from scratch for Crimson Peak and the crime film he hopes to create someday.

You started out the panel talking about how you wanted to create a movie where the women were more empowered.

It’s in fact a period in America—it’s 1901—America is on the brink of pure modernity. There is a lively discussion about science. Buffalo, N.Y., where the movie takes place, is the most electrified city in the world. There’s a true battle for women’s rights. Edith is a character that wants to be a writer, wants to be taken seriously as a writer, refuses to be in love, and falls in love in a very different way.

The whole point for me with the love story is not to make the typical romance where everything everything ends in marriage and that marriage is the ultimate blessing. In the movie, actually, marriage is the gateway to a very painful discovery and horror. At the same time, it’s a time when some characters start really falling in love without romantic assumptions. It’s a really nice story twist.

Usually you end these movies with a girl getting carried away by a man into safety. This movie assumes that you can still like characters that are very, very dark, and I think Edith becomes a more powerful character in the journey of the movie.

Also Lucille, who is the character Jessica [Chastain] interprets, is a very different point of view of what it is to be female at that point. She’s more 19th century. She’s more possessive and subservient and at the same time, darker about love. It’s sort of these two points of view not only metaphorically but physically confronting each other.

In gothic romance novels that were written in that time period, marriage was often the only route out for a woman and therefore their only source of power. So how do you create a story where these women have real agency but that’s still true to that time period?

It confronts the revolution happening at that time. The house is like a crypt where all the ghosts of the past basically are festering. They represent the past in many ways. They drown the characters and burden them with guilt. I think that in order to move on these characters have to go through a sort of trip of loss and pain. Hitchcock did it beautifully often, and I admire that. Characters have to go through a very painful journey to discover themselves.

Did any of his films serve as inspiration?

I actually tried to keep the movie rooted more into the novels I love: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, short stories like The Fall of the House of Usher, Northanger Abbey, Secret Garden. All those are tinged by this gothic romance spirit.

You built a functioning house from scratch for this film. In many of those novels you mentioned—certainly Wuthering Heights—the house or the setting plays such a substantial role. It almost comes alive itself. Was that part of the inspiration for having the house play such a central role?

Yes, but we do not give the house sentient quality. That’s the difference, I think, between a haunted house movie and a gothic romance—essentially in a haunted house movie, the house is in itself a sentient entity. It has a moral position.

The house in Crimson Peak is just basically a killing jar for butterflies: It has no intention to suffocate the butterfly, but it will. It doesn’t enjoy life, but it’s not an evil place. It’s just a place where sorrow and loss and pain and many, many dark things have happened. But it doesn’t have that evil quality of the house Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or the house in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. It doesn’t have that sentient quality.

How long did it take to put the entire set together?

It was easily six months. We designed it over six months and then building it we needed to bring a structural expert because we were building a three-story mansion with a working elevator. It was really crazy. We had to have staircases that could support the weight of a hundred plus crew going up and down every day. We made it functional. As a fat man, I resented going to the attic, but I had to.

It’s unfortunate that you had to tear it down.

It is. It’s the set I have loved the most ever that I’ve built. I wish that I could live in that house.

Even after all the things that happened in that house in the movie?

Of course because they never happened. I made them up.

You spoke about giving women power they don’t usually have in the genre. Were there other tropes from the genre that you wanted to play with in the film?

I follow a lot of them. If you think of Jacques Tourner’s I Walked With a Zombie, that’s basically Jane Eyre. And Jane Eyre or Rebecca follow sort of the same pattern. There is this woman who is so neutral that sometimes in Rebecca she has no name. And that woman falls in love with a dark, brooding man with a past. And then she follows him to a building in which a dark figure of authority starts opposing her and a secret from the past emerges. All these things were followed, but with a twist.

The two elements that are always buried deep inside are sexuality and violence, and I made them a little more overt in the movie. Most of the nudity in the movie is Tom Hiddleston, but there is a sexual element, and there are very brutal, little moments of violence.

In those books, sexual and violent moments often manifest in these strange, metaphorical ways.

You’re absolutely right, and even the most overtly sexual books, like The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis, they sublimate a lot of the stuff. And I think you cannot do this genre in the present times, a new tale, and not address those elements in a frontal way.

I feel that we live in a world [where] people need to know the source of anxiety and the sense of sexual tension or the source of evil and sense of violent acts. You need to show them. It cannot be as obscure and oblique. There’s a famous engraving from the 1800s of women reading The Monk and giggling and sort of getting titillated in a Victorian house.

It’s not arbitrary that I do it. Gothic has an element of shock to the point where Lord Byron once said something that would have been perfectly at home in a William Castle interview. He said, “When everything else fails, shock them.” And this is Lord Byron, so I go, “I will listen, sir.”

Didn’t Lord Byron also keep a bear as a pet while at Cambridge? He was the master of shock and awe.

That’s the thing that people keep forgetting: when the gothic romance novels first came out, they were pretty punk. They were very highly charged. They were sort of improper. They were bold and overt. For lack of a better analogy, they were like the Sex Pistols of that era.

In an interview, you said that you sent Jessica Chastain the script assuming that she was going to take the protagonist role, but she decided to take the antagonist role and you were happy about that. Why?

I was actually almost sure she would not go for the antagonist. Secretly I was hoping she would. I honestly was shocked when she wrote and said she had no interest in playing the main character. All she wanted was Lucille. She made it very clear.

I was happy because the other thing gothic romance needs is a really great set of villains. Villains, by the way, don’t have to be mustache twirling. They need to be human. You need to understand them at the end. If we did our job right in Crimson Peak, it’s not about the shock and the gore. It’s about at the end of the tail, falling in love with the bad guys in a way. They have a very tragic story. She was perfect for that.

She brings great intelligence to a character. The thing that I feel is essential in a great actress and actor is intelligence. Sadly, a hard bargain is driven for actresses. Most of them are judged solely on beauty. I think being beautiful is as hard as being ugly. It’s sort of a superficial way of valuing yourself. And yes, Jessica can be beautiful, but the power of her as an actress is the incredible intelligence she brings to the characters, and the incredible love for them—no matter how damaged the character, no matter how twisted the actions, she understands them and loves them.

You spoke in the panel about how having your daughters helped you decide to make a film with these strong female characters with actual substance, not just good looks. Have you always felt that imperative or did having your daughters change your view?

I’ve always loved writing strong female characters. In Devil’s Backbone, there’s some really powerful female characters. I find that I just gravitate there. Even my short films had that as a kid. But I only used to do it in my European movies.

Then Pan’s Labyrinth was basically a movie that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I didn’t have daughters because I understood first the power that they have but also to see them being forced into a role at a certain age for society to approve. They have to be feminine, silent, this and that. I wanted to make a story about a girl at that exact point that discovers that she actually is much more than that. She’s a princess in another world, and she refuses to submit to a guy who doesn’t understand the world that way.

And I feel that after that, in Pacific Rim, Mako was as important for me as Raleigh. In fact, the reason I made Pacific Rim was the character of Mako. Some people say, “Oh she doesn’t get many lines.” Neither does Charlie Hunnam. I decided early on in writing the movie that the two heroes would be shut-ins. They would not talk much, but then they would start talking to each other. But they both have, in my opinion, the same balance of power. And then comes Crimson Peak.

I just feel much more comfortable when I write a female character who is strong. I almost feel like as a storyteller I have to do it because the females in my life are so strong. I wouldn’t be representing what my life is.

You’ve dealt a lot with monsters and ghosts. Why do you think we are so addicted to being scared?

The more civilized we are, the more we crave certain emotions that we have abnormally shut out of our lives. A mammal in the wilderness experiences the thrill of the hunt, procreation, killing, territorial battles. But us—a territorial battle can be road rage. Real fear, physical fear, socially we can experience in a roller coaster or in a movie. It’s a social distortion, but at the same time storytelling has always been about transmitting one emotion: making people laugh, making people cry, making people shiver.

So it’s one of the primal duties of storytelling to scare the audience. I think when people sat around a fire in a cave, they were talking about a mammoth that they hunted—that’s an action movie. They’d be talking about a saber tooth tiger that chased them—that’s a scary movie. They’d be talking about a burning tree where they thought they saw the face of a demon—that’s a horror movie.

Is part of that duty to resolve things at the end and reassure people that it’s going to be okay?

In a way, but I think in horror, many times that resolution does not have to be optimistic. I can think of many movies where that resolution is ambiguous, including The Shining or Damien. They escape with their lives, but evil continues. The hotel goes unburned. The anti-Christ is now in the hands of the American president. It doesn’t have to be happy. It just has to be powerful. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but I think it’s a nice ending in Crimson Peak.

Cynically, I think that’s often just filmmakers leaving room for a sequel.

Some people do that. When we did a small movie with a first time director that I like a lot called Mama, the ending was very bittersweet and very sad. And then they were talking about Mama 2, and I said I’m not interested because the ending is great. It made a lot of money, and I’m sure they would like one. But I had no interest.

I assume it’s different when you approached Pacific Rim.

Oh, yeah. Listen, I made the first one as a self-contained movie. But I had so much fun in that movie, and it’s one of my all-time best experiences making a movie, that I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re coming back.

What was so interesting about Pacific Rim to me was that it was so successful internationally, partially because it had this really diverse cast. It continues to puzzle me after that film’s success why more big blockbuster films don’t take a similar tact to appeal to a more diverse, more international audience that want to see themselves onscreen too.

What is funny is that there were three rules I had when I talked to Legendary about making Pacific Rim. I said I will not have a single country saving the world. I will not do that. I want every race I can cram in there saving the world. I don’t want it to be a jingoistic movie where it’s hooray, flag waving for one country saving the world. It’s the world saving the world. I wanted every gender, every race represented in that.

The second thing I wanted to do was to not have the movie be about a glorious triumph of the military power. I want to make it about the resistance. I want to make it about the time they were losing. Find them fighting at their lowest, not at their most powerful where they deploy the big weapons. It’s actually a bunch of cowboys in the last stand going for one last fight. And nobody believes in them.

The last rule, I said, was I don’t want the end of the movie to be a montage around the world celebrating the triumph. I want these guys to end triumphing, but the media didn’t know. Nobody was watching on TV sets. Nobody was cheering. That’s not me. I think there’s something underneath all that that feels like propaganda. I believe the last time we celebrated something on that scale was the end of a war—when World War II ended. Most of the time, the big marches and the big popular surges that we have experiences as a culture are against war.

There was something beautiful for me in that super genre speech that Idris Elba says, “We are canceling the apocalypse.” There is something pulpy but not propagandistic. I love pulp. I don’t like propaganda.

That’s a good distinction.

There is. Any decision like that has to be weighed against your own spirit. To create the character of Mako Mori for the purpose of having her do a shower scene or wear really skimpy shorts—if you don’t have to scrub yourself clean that night, if you don’t feel a little dirty about doing a movie where you’re really celebrating the act of war, then you’re a different person than me.

Look, when you study fairy tales, you discover the fairy tales were divided early on into two branches. One was anarchic and insane and iconoclast. The ones that are just crazy. And then there were the ones that were pro-institution. They were done for kids to obey their parents. They were cautionary tales: if you wander in the woods when your parents told you not to go…

And there are horror films like that. If you have sex, if you smoke pot, if you go out at night, a maniac is going to come and kill you. And then there are horror films that are just anarchic like Evil Dead. So I do think that you have to, as a storyteller, feel comfortable answering for my movies in the way I intended them. People may read them differently.

You’re not interested in those moral tales.

Let me tell you: Crimson Peak is a scary movie. But I could instantly make it much scarier if I appealed to a Judeo-Christian sense of evil and good. If I call demons. If I imbue things with the a structure where there’s an exorcism or call a priest. Instantly, you are much more effective because you appeal to a part of the audience who thinks you’re speaking about absolute bigger truths. That is super scary.

I think it’s not that hard. A few times it’s been done beautifully. But it’s not what I’m interested in.

I have seen the fantastic genre as my vocation since I was a kid. I always intended to use it to create movies that were beautiful that people could relate to not as a thing done in a horror genre that was carelessly done. My heroes were James Whale, Terence Fisher, people that found some pride and promise in the craft.

How did that manifest when you were a kid?

When I decided to be a film director, I knew there were only two genres I was attracted to: the fantastic, horror, blah, blah, blah and crime. I wanted to do crime movies. There are pro-structure crime novels where the police are a good institution. Then you have people like Raymond Chandler, like James Hedley Chase, James M. Cane, who is really anarchic.

As a kid I said I want to make beautiful monsters. My grandma used to not like that I would draw these things, but I would say, “Grandma they are beautiful. They’re beautiful. I love my monsters.” And I do. I love my monsters. If you see my movies, there is a very gleeful, 10-year-old gaze upon the monsters. I love them. They have saved my life many times.

So can we expect a crime movie in the future?

I would love that. When I was very young I did a short that sort of started that. Then I saw Reservoir Dogs in ’92 or ’91, and I thought this guy is amazing. He’s doing everything I would have ever hoped to do and would have never probably done. But now enough time has passed. I hope to do a crime movie one day.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com