Guillermo Del Toro was dejected. “Mimic” had been his shot in Hollywood, and it hadn’t worked. While making the story of carnivorous bugs lurking through New York’s subway system, he’d made too many concessions to the producers. What resulted was a film that failed to evoke his pride or make any money in the theaters.
He thought his career as a director was over, until fellow director Pedro Almodovar called Del Toro up and told him he would love to produce his next movie. That became “The Devil’s Backbone,” an emotionally-brave ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. It would one day count his “Pan’s Labyrinth” as a spiritual equal. Both are reflections of faith in the supernatural when humans become the real horror.
Yet Del Toro’s career is oddly full of disappointment and lost projects. The horror maestro has directed “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” and “Pacific Rim,” but his career is much like one of his movies. It rarely goes where you expect; however, there’s a faith that the next project will come anyway. The twists and turns of it are fascinating, and speak to his momentum as a creator. Rarely does something fall through where Del Toro doesn’t have another exciting project on its heels.
Here are the unseen worlds of Del Toro, the projects that never were, the imaginings that sparked once in the dark before being lost to it:
This film still makes noise from time to time, but there’s no real news since it was put on hold in 2013. Started in 2008, it’s a shame, since the initial promotional still and design concepts came out looking rich and deeply autumnal. It’s a Pinocchio made for Halloween. In true Del Toro fashion, Pinocchio himself looked somehow cute and endearing while also evoking a human skeleton and victim of over-aggressive acupuncture.
Audiences eventually enjoyed the three films made from “The Hobbit,” but they were directed by Peter Jackson, not Del Toro. Initially, it was Del Toro’s playground. Many of his design choices survived into Jackson’s telling, but between 2008 and 2010, rights holder MGM was facing $3.7 billion in debt. It held onto two of its most valuable properties in case the company was sold: James Bond and the upcoming “Hobbit” trilogy. This is also why it took Bond so long to get from “Quantum of Solace” to “Skyfall.” As long as these projects weren’t already underway, MGM retained more value.
As for Jackson’s films, Del Toro told IndieWire that he hasn’t seen them. “It’s almost like watching footage of your ex-wife on the beach. Why would you? If it’s good, it’s bad; if it’s bad, it’s worse.” (Please note that Del Toro is still married to his first and only wife, Lorenza Newton, whom he wedded in 1986.) Delay on “The Hobbit” meant that Del Toro sat in stir for three years. Finally, he’d had enough. He left to make his dream project:
No, the above trailer isn’t a mistake. See, James Cameron was producing Del Toro’s dream project. Tom Cruise would star. Based on the most classic H.P. Lovecraft horror story, studios became increasingly uncomfortable with the project. Del Toro wrote on his website: “The studio is very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it’s impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe.” It went from Warner Bros. to Universal, before coming to a head because Del Toro insisted on an R-rated film and Universal wanted it PG-13.
Del Toro went to Fox, the project’s third studio, before finally, in April 2012, posting that he had to abandon the film for the time being. He had just seen Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” and felt someone else had beaten him to much of the story and many of the same themes he wanted to address. Del Toro even wrote that some of the scenes were too similar to the ones he was planning. After spending five years on the last two projects, you can hardly blame him for wanting to go play with $200 million worth of giant robots in “Pacific Rim.”
Del Toro’s also stepped into the world of video games, and the above teaser is as much of his first try as the public will ever see. He referred to “Insane” as his attempt to create “the Citizen Kane of video games.” Instead, developer THQ canceled it in 2012 so they could revert the rights back to Del Toro before filing bankruptcy. Little is known about what it would have entailed, except that it would have been full of difficult choices about morality and what is, or isn’t, real to the story’s world.
The 777-page novel recounts a fictionalized version of the last years of Charles Dickens’ life, during which the Victorian author encounters a gothic apparition called only Drood. Narrated by friend and author Wilkie Collins, the story’s reality becomes fragmented as Collins becomes hooked on opium. With a rich period backdrop, an otherworldly figure demented in appearance, and plenty of references to cannibalism, the adaptation has remained “in development” for seven years.
Stephen Sommers’ attempt starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale was a disaster. It failed on nearly every front, becoming a B-movie mishmash. Del Toro wanted to go back to the source, to “Dracula” itself, in order to devise a new horror adventure about the history of the vampire hunter across late-19th-century Europe. It disappeared before it even took shape, as Universal decided to forego Del Toro and instead pursue 2014’s “Dracula Untold,” a film so bad it actually made Sommers’ “Van Helsing” appear reasonable by comparison.
Screw Superman. Forget Batman. That’s what Del Toro told DC Comics and Warner Bros. The pair wanted to match Marvel and Disney’s “Avengers” multi-franchise with their own, and Del Toro wasn’t interested in competing directly by using DC’s famed, but well-worn, Justice League characters. Instead, he told them to go with Justice League Dark. Del Toro’s universe would feature John Constantine recruiting Swamp Thing, Zatanna, Etrigan the Demon, Deadman, and Spectre as a team. In 2012, DC and Warner Bros. had already chosen Zack Snyder and his “Man of Steel” concept instead, and Del Toro tried to work his own pitch into Snyder’s take on the film universe.
Even through parts of 2015, he kept actively working with DC and Warner Bros. on the project, making adjustments to keep it in tune with the extended universe Zack Snyder was creating. More recently, Del Toro’s finally become unattached from the project. Audiences will never know just how darkly Del Toro could have delved into comic lore.
Charlie Kaufman has written “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich.” He was to write an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal work of humanistic science-fiction for Del Toro. It’s the story of an unreliable narrator traveling through time and suffering heartbreak and disconnection. Where the project went or what happened to it, no one knows. It could still one day pop into our time as a ready-to-film screenplay. Until then, it remains a conjecture, one even Del Toro told Entertainment Weekly was a “remote” possibility. Still, the combination of Vonnegut’s work with Kaufman’s sensibilities and Del Toro’s passion for the strange boggles the mind with possibility.
Never more than an idea, Del Toro’s suggestion to Disney for the expanded “Star Wars” universe was unique. Make an intergalactic “Scarface” he told them. Follow the giant slug-like Jabba’s ascension through the ranks of his crime family from young slug to kingpin. There would be intrigue, murder, action, and slimy politics. Del Toro even met with Lucasfilm’s Chief Creative Officer John Knoll about it, but a treatment was never even commissioned. Perhaps it’s too far outside Disney’s direction for “Star Wars,” but imagine for a moment Del Toro playing with the seedier side of the “Star Wars” universe. Now imagine just how viscerally he’d realize the life and times of a Hutt.
Del Toro was collaborating on the reboot of the “Silent Hill” franchise, one of the most anticipated and sadly unrealized video games in the medium’s history. Working with something of a creative doppelganger in Hideo Kojima, the two wanted to evoke true panic in players. They wanted players to take the experience of the game into the night with them, once the console was turned off. They wanted the questioning of reality within the game to still creep up players’ spines as they went to bed. It seems like a tall order, yet the demo they released remains one of the most starkly-terrifying and deeply-unnerving experiences in gaming.
Unfortunately, publisher Konami resented the goose that laid the golden egg, and engaged in a bitter and petty fight with Kojima over the placement of his name in Kojima’s own development studio and the “Metal Gear Solid” franchise. Konami burned every bridge, wanting Kojima’s endeavors to be known as Konami’s endeavors. They made aggressive moves to realize this and Kojima did what any creative with leverage does. He let Konami burn their own future down and took his considerable talents elsewhere. This meant that Konami took “Silent Hills” with it, and the game that many analysts were predicting would break sales records simply disappeared.
The first “Pacific Rim” was a beautiful metaphor for dealing with loss wrapped in scuffed giant robot battles with neon mega-monster designs. Del Toro called it “comfort food.” The second was initially greenlit before more recently being taken off the studio schedule entirely. It may still happen down the road, but signs aren’t exactly good. It’s 50-50 that the studio just lets it fizzle out entirely. The original made money, but not necessarily enough to take up summer tentpole time.
Actor Ron Perlman hates the costume and make-up required to realize the Hellboy character. He says he never wants to get into it again and undergo the hours-long daily process. Yet, he pesters Guillermo Del Toro every chance he gets: “When are we going to do Hellboy 3?” The capstone to the trilogy would focus on how Hellboy fulfills his destiny by bringing about the destruction of Earth, and Perlman’s determination speaks to how Del Toro saved the actor’s career.
As Perlman writes in “Cabinet of Curiosities,” his career was over when Del Toro sent him a handwritten letter and script to glance over. Del Toro was a fan of a strange indie career Perlman thought no one had ever noticed. The two met for lunch, Perlman agreed to do it, and soon after Perlman flew to Mexico City. Only then did it occur to Perlman that the English script he’d read for “Cronos” would be shot in Spanish.
“You do realize I don’t speak Spanish,” Perlman asked Del Toro.
The filmmaker responded, “Let’s go eat!”
Perlman stayed up all night, trying to master the Spanish of two monologues so he could impress Del Toro the next day. When he recited them, Del Toro told Perlman he sounded like an idiot. “What are we going to do?” Perlman asked. “We start shooting tomorrow!”
“Let’s go eat!” Del Toro told him.
Many of Del Toro’s creative accomplices recount similar stories. Just as Almodovar once gave Del Toro another chance, so has Del Toro included creative wanderers and those who felt different from what the studio system wanted. Thus, “Hellboy 3” is left with a cast and crew champing at the bit to film it, and no studio left that wants to back it.
Del Toro told the New York Comic-Con in 2008 about a project that wouldn’t happen for many years, and may never happen. A young child named Saturn witnesses the Apocalypse as he runs his daily errands back and forth from the supermarket. He has no control, but “You go back and forth and nothing big happens except the entire world is being sucked into a vortex of fire.”
Perhaps there’s no better metaphor for the parts of Del Toro’s career that have failed to take off. He keeps going back and forth and acting like nothing big happens as his projects disappear to the whims of the studio system. Whole worlds disappear. Yet he keeps running those errands, doing the small things that make new worlds appear from nothing but his imagination and passion. Del Toro may not need to make “Saturn and the End of Days” after all. He lives it.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s worlds, it doesn’t matter when something fails. It matters that you did it well. Let’s go eat.