A lot has happened to Guillermo del Toro since he first visited the world of Hellboy in the 2004 feature film. Not only did he score an international hit with Pan’s Labyrinth, which won three Oscars and was nominated for three more, but he’s been tapped to continue one of the biggest franchises of all time by directing two films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
So it’s a more confident del Toro who returned to the world of Mike Mignola’s comic books in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, opening July 11th. The director says the new film may bear more of his style than the first, but it still meshes well with the world created by Mignola, who co-wrote the film’s story with del Toro and served as co-executive producer.
“There are moments in the film — like the moment the Golden Army opens, that is completely chiaroscuro, back-lit by the fire — that if you freeze-framed it, that would be a Mignola frame,” says del Toro. “But the difference is there was a lot more freedom for me to — I would not say to appropriate — to just feel liberated to be myself.”
The new film continues seamlessly from the first, but doesn’t dwell on previous events or spend much time reminding the audience what happened — save for one image and a single sentence in the opening credits introducing Hellboy as someone who “loves candy and TV.” “I thought that defines the character. When you go see a movie called Hellboy, already there is an implicit, assumed sense of goofiness,” del Toro says. “I think Mike said he’s not the Hellknight or the Hellspawn or the Helllord, he’s the Hellboy.”
One of the most complicated sequences in the film is the Troll Market, which is particularly remarkable for being a real set with practical creatures rather than computer-generated imagery. The entire concept had a complete backstory that was intentionally never put on screen, while del Toro says he purposely shot the location as if it were a normal set like a shopping mall or outdoor bazaar.
“We would not do the thing that is done so often, where you do a close-up of each monster that you spend some money on, and you give them each a little vignette. We said we are going to keep them in the background, as if we had wandered into a real place and we’re just shooting a real place,” he says.
That led to some notes from the studio, concerned about the money spent on creatures that were only going to be seen for the briefest of moments. “They were saying, ‘Why don’t you shoot each creature? We spend a hundred thousand dollars on this creature and it’s just in the background,’” the director says. “We were fighting about the budget and each thing counted, and they said, ‘But this is only one shot!’ I said, ‘Yes! But you need it.’”
But shooting real sets provides huge benefits for actors. A set the size of the Golden Army set, which was the size of a stadium, is “an imprint that is going to inform the rest of your acting,” del Toro says.
Practical effects also are satisfying because they confound audiences and help evoke a sense of mystery in the filmmaking process. del Toro considers it a success when he can fool even the eye of his daughters, ages 7 and 12. “They look at the movies and they say, ‘Those monsters are computer generated,’ and I say, ‘Nope, it’s real.’ But what is nice is they are confounded, and I know if I’m fooling a 12-year-old eye, which as you know plays more video games than anyone and watches more TV, that’s fantastic.”
Which is not to say the film is free of CGI altogether. For example, the film’s finale features scenes shot in the Irish countryside that were far from idyllic. “It was shot next to a freeway,” del Toro says. “With the sea and the cliffs, we had the most horrible freeway with trucks passing, and what we did is we shot high definition plates in Ireland and we composited them together, and that’s invisible. If you know when to go digital and when not to go digital, you end up having the eye fooled. And I learned this by screwing up many times before.”
Hellboy II features romantic developments for both Hellboy in his relationship with Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, who falls in love with the fairy Princess Nuala. Del Toro says that the relationship material is based on his own life and he considers the two Hellboy films as “semi-autobiographical.” He cites as essential guy moments a scene in which Hellboy and Abe drown their sorrows over their troubles with women in a case of Tecate beer, and a line where Liz stumps Hellboy by asking him, “Do you need everyone to love you, or am I enough? And why are you with me?”
“I understand and I like that,” del Toro says. “I write the characters from exactly things I do know and are close to my heart.”
The sequel ventures more than the first film into mythology, which is an area of particular interest to the director. He says he researches the various rules and procedures of mythology that crossover from Pan’s Labyrinth to Hellboy and back again. But such ideas are flexible, and can be altered or added to at will. “The idea of the underworld and the world beneath, and the king and the war with humans and the creation of something to destroy — all that is somewhere floating in the epics and the sagas,” he says. “But for example, (the line in the film) ‘Trolls are afraid of canaries’ — I just came up with that.”
Moving on to The Hobbit, del Toro says of the two films planned, the first would be an adaptation of the book while at this point the second would be based on supplementary materials. “There is enough narrative abridgments in some of the pieces of the narrative and suggestions and appendix notes and this and that to guide and create something that will not infringe on anything else. But it’s too early for me to swear by it,” he says.
Despite the huge success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, del Toro says there is room to make the two Hobbit films something different and yet part of the overall story. “I see the whole, the five films — provided that we do everything right — as a symphony, and I believe that what I’m doing is an overture. Therefore, it can be a different color, have a different energy, and lead you into something that is already filmic legacy.”
While del Toro says he wants to do a third Hellboy movie, it will have to wait until The Hobbit is done. “Provided that Ron (Perlman) takes his medicine and he can stay healthy, we can have a Hellboy III on the other end. The thing is, every time you take on a movie, you are obviously postponing others,” he says. He’s also working on his own films, including one called Mountains of Madness and another he’s writing called Saturn and the End of Days, about the apocalypse as seen from the point of view of a 7-year-old boy. But such is the nature of the film business.
“With every day you’re driving on the freeway, you’re not climbing Mount Everest,” he says.