July 8, 2008

Action and Soul Collide in ‘Hellboy II’

LOS ANGELES -- When Guillermo del Toro stares at the monsters under his bed, they stare back into him.

"I'm interested in monsters because, much like archangels and angels, they represent a portion of the human soul," says the Mexican writer/director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which arrives Friday.

Del Toro has become a sought-after director for his distinctive creatures and otherworldly parables that use the realms of fantasy to explore fundamental human issues such as love, alienation, weakness and, of course, fear.

He landed one of Hollywood's hottest jobs: directing The Hobbit, a prequel to the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy expected by 2011.

Del Toro is known for making two kinds of movies. Artful, gothic Spanish-language tales, including the Oscar-nominated Pan's Labyrinth and the eerie Devil's Backbone. And colorful English-language popcorn movies such as Mimic, Blade II and 2004's original Hellboy.

The sequel fuses the two -- a rock-'em, sock-'em action-comedy with a measure of depth. The allegory about love and loneliness is told through a giant devil, played by Ron Perlman (The Name of the Rose), who protects the world by fighting off supernatural evildoers while wishing he could stop fighting with his human girlfriend.

"Guillermo's creatures are more human than the true humans," says Perlman, who worked with del Toro on Blade II as well as 1993's Cronos, the director's first movie. "The fairies and the monsters have a humanity that is much more the stuff we should aspire to."

Hellboy fights for humanity and wants to be a part of it -- so much so that he shaves his horns down to nubs. But he often loathes himself as much as the public fears him. He wonders if he has more in common with beasts, ghouls and phantoms.

"In adult movies, R-rated movies, monsters can signify many different things," says del Toro. "But in the (PG-13) Hellboy mythology, they symbolize our imperfections and how we can embrace them. If we were more eager and willing to accept otherness, things would be better between people."

Quoting Hellboy's sidekick, Abe Sapien, a psychic, blue-skinned fish-man, he adds, "'All we freaks have is each other.' That's the story of our lives."

With his husky frame and soft, raspy voice, the 43-year-old resembles a kind of cheerful, Spanish-accented Godfather.

For a master of monsters, he tends to find joy instead of terror in them. He talks of sharing spooky stories with daughters Mariana, 12, and Marisa, 7, while drawing assorted critters with them, and has fond boyhood memories of clutching his father, just as frightened, during 1979's Alien.

His religious grandmother instilled a passion for both the supernatural and separating right from wrong. "It was a lot of Catholic scare about sin and hell. 'You're going to be in purgatory if you're not careful, and blah, blah, blah ... Maybe even if you are careful!'" he says with a laugh.

Unease can be triggered by even his own fans. During a recent fan screening of Hellboy II, del Toro is full of both anxiety and eagerness. For the first reel, he frets with the projectionist over perfecting sound levels, and when the loud rumbling of a later action scene suddenly goes quiet, he pricks up his ears to detect audience response.

The original Hellboy, based on a cult-favorite comic by artist Mike Mignola, earned a healthy but not spectacular $60million, then developed a strong following on DVD. After the Oscar foreign-language nomination for Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro fought for a sequel, and he has plans for a third if this one is successful.

"I'm eager to explore themes that lend themselves easily to metaphor," he says. "The fantastic is the only tool we have nowadays to explain spirituality to a generation that refuses to believe in dogma or religion. Superhero movies create a kind of mythology. Creature movies, horror movies, create at least a belief in something beyond."

Annalee Newitz, editor of the sci-fi blog, says del Toro is popular because in an age of fear, he practices the opposite of xenophobia.

"It's xenophilia," she says. "His creatures seem really different from us and really scary, but they might not be really scary. They just look different and act weird, but they could also be our friends or actually be cooler than us."

That description certainly fits the landscape of The Hobbit, which del Toro will dig into after Hellboy. The story, to be produced by Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson, is about how Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins, first discovered the all-powerful ring and encountered the gruesome Gollum and Smaug the dragon, whom del Toro sees as a powerful symbol of greed and pride.

"If I didn't feel it jibe with the universe I'm in, I would do something else. I have a pretty good record of turning things down. No reason to break that now," he says.

Del Toro says he will meet with Jackson soon to hammer out the movie from the original novel, and then they'll determine whether there is enough background material in the Lord of the Rings books to create a second movie, which would bridge The Hobbit with the other films.

Del Toro will write the first film's screenplay. Jackson, his filmmaking partner-wife, Fran Walsh, and their writing partner, Philippa Boyens, will work on the second. Then they plan to switch and rewrite each other.

Asked what he will do differently from Jackson as a director, del Toro says: "Everything."

"It will be the same landscape but painted by another painter. Then the second movie will evolve into a perfect blending with the trilogy."

Del Toro compares the character of Bilbo to the young girl in Pan's Labyrinth: Both are innocents trying to maintain their ideals against unspeakable evil.

"Bilbo represents a generation of English young men who went to World War I and saw their souls in danger, if not lost," he says of the novel J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in 1937.

"That is a very important theme that I'm attracted to ... a character with an unerring ethical sense, thrown out into a world full of pride and greed and madness, and makes it there and back. The ethics and the fate and the character will be tested. At the end of the day, there will be a tragic sense of loss, but there will be the survival of that temperament and belief."

And why does that interest him?

Del Toro pauses a long time before answering. "People tend to think that big things only happen to big people," he says, finally. "That 11-year-old girl is powerless. That 12-year-old kid is a nincompoop. The great quests, the great decisions only happen to great people. I think that is not true. The small decisions we make every day define who we are and define the world around us. ... I'm interested in the essential importance of the small decision. ... You can be a cashier at a 7-11, or you can be the person at the Kentucky Fried Chicken counter. But I bet to you there is a decision every day in your life where you affect somebody else. I bet that is true."

Del Toro has other projects he is interested in after that, including a Frankenstein movie.

"Frankenstein is ultimately a very existential creature, thrown into the world by an uncaring creator. It voices the essential plea of mankind asking God, 'Why am I here? What is my purpose?' Beyond any religion, it's a question mankind has voiced forever." His version would be an original tale using the character after he has been created. "I would love to do (the origin), but that is not a movie, that is a miniseries," del Toro says.

He also has written a screenplay based on a story by monster writer H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, about explorers who find ancient ruins in Antarctica full of monstrous life.

Then there's an original story, Saturn and the End of Days, which del Toro describes as "a chronicle of the end of the world from the eyes of a 7-year-old. It has many things that are magical and terrible in it. It's the rapture."

He says he told his older daughter the outline recently as a bedtime story. "I told her the whole movie, and she loved it. Unfortunately, I was crying at the end," he says. "I couldn't help it. But the ones that make me cry are pretty good."<>