In 2004, director Guillermo del Toro brought Mike Mignola's Hellboy to the big screen, starring Ron Perlman as a gruff, reluctant, occult crime fighter who just happens to be a giant, red harbinger of the apocalypse. A fantastically imagined (if midsize) commercial hit, the movie was the lead punch in a one-two combo — the other being 2006's Pan's Labyrinth — that landed Del Toro the plum assignment of following in Peter Jackson's footsteps with a movie adaptation of The Hobbit. In advance of this week's Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Del Toro spoke with Vulture about returning to the franchise, and the difference between climbing Mount Everest and driving on the freeway.
This film has much more of a fantastical feel than the first Hellboy. Did that have anything to do with the success of Pan's Labyrinth?
The funny thing is that there's both accidentally Mignola-esque stuff and purposefully as well, because Mike and I did come up with the basic story line, and I think that's the direction he's taking the comics, by coincidence. When I told him some of my ideas, he said, "That's exactly what we're plotting already." There are moments in the film, like when The Golden Army opens, that are completely chiaroscuro, backlit by the fire. If you freeze-framed, it would be a Mignola panel.
What can you tell us about the Troll Market sequence, which has the potential to set adolescent imaginations on fire like the Cantina sequence in the original Star Wars?
Well, the idea was that we'd move the camera around like we were in any other location — a shopping mall, a bazaar in the Far East. We would not do the thing that is done so often in this type of movie, which is where you do a close-up of each monster that you spent some money on and give each a little vignette. We said we're going to keep them in the background as if we have wandered into a real place. You’re saying, yes, there is a twenty-foot monster lurking in the background, but you’re never going to see it again. We had some things designed that we called Striders — they're like headless elephants and we spent about $100,000 modeling them — and they are only seen in the opening shots. I said that's the whole point. It's like a first date with a girl — you leave a big tip on the table and that's really impressive. They go, "Hmmmm … a 40 percent tip, he's a nice guy!" It's in the detail, you know?
Hellboy II invests pretty heartily in two love stories — an arc of blossoming love, but also one about genuine domestic difficulties. How important were those for you to the film, especially given that they're a big departure from the source material?
The two Hellboy movies for me are semi-autobiographical. I do put a lot of details in from my life, which my wife recognizes, including the moment where Hellboy gets asked, "Do you need everyone to love you, or am I enough?" I think the way Hellboy has evolved, and the way in which he is an irresponsible knucklehead but adorable, is a source of empathy for me. There's a great moment in the film that I have gone through, which is when he's asked, "Why are you with me?" and he just [stammers]. That's a very male idea of conversation. I love that he's unable to verbalize things, and it takes a spear in the heart for him to say, "Wait, I understand!"
When you're plotting the look of your movies, what's your thinking with respect to which effects will be practical, and which will rely to some degree on CGI?
I think films should be handmade. I have this notion that is perhaps the same thing that leads me to keep the props from my films, because I love that they are tangible things. We say that an audience doesn't care whether it's real or CGI, but they do. The average eye of the regular Joe is trained by thousands of hours of TV and visual effects; there's media hitting you all the time. So your eyes know. Sometimes my daughters, who are pretty savvy at the ages of 7 and 12, look at my movies and say, "That monster is computer-generated." And I say, "Nope, it's real." So it's nice that they are confounded. If I am fooling a 12-year-old eye, which plays more video games and watches more TV than just about anyone, then I am happy.
How would your time commitment on the two Hobbit films affect the possibility of a Hellboy III?
I would love to do it. There was a gap of four years between the first and second Hellboy, and provided that Ron takes his medicine and vitamins and can stay healthy enough, we can have a Hellboy III. The thing is, every time you take one movie, you are postponing others — like another of the smaller movies I'm trying to write, called Saturn and the End of Days, which is the apocalypse seen from the point-of-view of a 10-year-old boy. Every day you drive on the freeway, you're not climbing Mount Everest. —Brent Simon