Gorber's Epic Guillermo del Toro Interview, Part 4: On "Foreign Films" and the Nature of the Remake

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

Scheduled to last a mere 15 minutes, the famously loquacious and erudite filmmaker spent 90 minutes at our roundtable discussion. In this, the fourth of our five part series, he talked about his role of language in shaping the reception of a film and what he thinks about so-called "remakes."

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5

Please Note: There may be spoilers below for Mama and other works.

I'm going to ask a really complicated question.

Please.  Not about Frenzy! [laughs]

I'm fascinated by films like MAMA because I think in some ways, while financially they wouldn't do as well, I think critically they would do better if they were in Spanish.

It's funny, when we started, I wanted the movie [to be] in Spanish. And I said to Andy, let's do it in Spain.

Andy wanted it in English.  I gave him the choice. I said, "Look, we have two models. We have the model where we don't get the money, but you can do whatever the fuck you want, or the second one, where we go into a system. I'm going be your safeguard, but you're still going to encounter a system of approvals and 20 times more people are involved in every step. You get notes, you get all these things."

He said, "I want the second experience. The first experience I've had on my commercials, I've had on my short films." He definitely chose.  All I can do as a producer is follow the director's choices, you know?

You're obviously bilingual, so when you see a Spanish film, it's just a film to you. For us, a North American audience, there's a certain cachet about it being "different" or "foreign." I think PAN'S LABYRINTH, independent of its subject matter, by being Spanish, by being a subtitled film, played extremely different from something which you said was equally personal like some of your bigger, more bombastic genre films.

Well, it happens the other way. For example, in Europe, the American films have that fascination in reverse.  I don't disagree. I always say that Danny DeVito's War of the Roses, if it was in French, in France it would be considered a masterpiece. 

Or if COSMOPOLIS was subtitled like HOLY MOTORS

In Czech!

I didn't happen to love COSMOPOLIS, but Cronenberg is someone who I think would have even more cachet in America if he was "foreign."

You know why? I think that the moment you have the subtitles you start appreciating the nuance in the genres in a different way. 

Let me put it this way: When you see Alain Delon in a crime thriller [ie., Melville's Le Samourï], you can shoot exactly the same moment with Matt Damon in English, and you're assuming it's an American movie, and you appreciate the nuance differently. 

When it's Alain Delon you pay attention to every inflection on the genre: Oh, they didn't do this, oh they did that, and all the choices that are different. They flesh out because you're already accepting you're seeing a literally foreign experience.

...Starting with the decision not to do in the lingua franca of "talkie" cinema, English

Correct. By the same token, if Pan's Labyrinth, exactly the same actors, exactly the same story, was in English, meaning, it was one of these Euro trash movies that end up, you know -- It's a story about the survivor of a Czech family but it's done with x actor and x actress that do TV movies, whatever, it acquires a completely different weight.

You know, it's an English actor playing the Nazi, it's completely different.

I think in the meta level of cinema, it's not only postmodern this or that, we as an audience have a relationship with nuance like that. A foreign film is a foreign film, and you are more open [with Mama] to Andy choosing to go all the way to grabbing the closet and then closing the door. Which is the opposite of [expectation] - normally she would open it and there would be nothing behind it. He goes, "no!" Or you pay attention to the shot where she is fighting with the blanket, which is a static shot. You go, "that's a European choice," but now if it's in English, you may not pay attention to all that. It's just a horror movie.

I adore THE DEPARTED, and as much as I like the original INFERNAL AFFAIRS, I think that Scorsese just absolutely elevated that story to a greater level. Yes, it won best picture, yes it got acclaim, but there's still many people that I think prefer the Hong Kong version in part because of exactly what you're talking about, that whole notion that when it's subtitled you're watching different things as a genre film.

Well, they are different, completely different movies many ways, with the same anecdotes. When people complain about remakes and this and that and you go, if you really know your history of cinema, it's always been like that.. 

I'd just point to a certain Falcon from Malta.

Yeah! I always quote the fact that Gaslight [1944], the fabulous movie with Ingrid Bergman, was a remake of a movie that had been done four years ago! It was a reboot, so to speak.

I always say that's exclusive to the world of movies that we can be that snarky, because in reality, if every time a motherfucker puts Macbeth or Hamlet on the stage and had it called a remake, then there would be derision. 

It's not an anecdote business, we're not in the business of telling anecdotes or storylines. We're in the business of so much more. The same exact storyline can produce a completely different movie in the hands of a different director.

I find it irritating.

It's completely understandable that the first point of contact with a movie is story and plot and characters, I agree, no doubt about it. But movies sometimes stay for the other things that you didn't notice -- the character, the world, the colours, the design, the design sensibility, the tone, other things that you don't notice on the first viewing. That is what makes movies movies, and not a written thing that is immutable. Whoever reads a book, the text is not going to change, at the end of the day. But watching a movie, a different director means a different thing. Even in music - for me, a symphony conducted by X or by Y, they sound completely different. It's not that it reinvents the work, but it certainly makes you appreciate it in a different way. 

That being said, what do you watch and think I really want to do this film for myself?

Movies? I was really envious of Let the Right One In. I mean, I watched that movie and I was just like, "Fuck!" I called him to say I saw it, I gave them a quote and I told him, I said, "Dude, motherfucker, I hate you,!" I mean, like, I would kill for that, you know.

Then there's Shaun of the Dead. I don't want to redo it, but Edgar Wright has such an incredible filmic vocabulary that it creates envy, and I'm, like, "Fuck!"

For me it always goes back to this -  I was in high school, reading Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN. It's the first work I ever read that I thought, wow, this is me, like if I was in this position, it's what I'd write. I could never write HAMLET, but if I was in a position, this fits with my sensibility...

This is the best version of me.

I'm wondering if there's film that, even classic films that you think like this...

Phantom of the Paradise.

Sure. Which is why I think you're crazy!

[Laughs] Or obviously for me The Curse of the Werewolf [1961]. It's funny because that movie is based on an incredible novel called "The Werewolf of Paris," which is amazing, completely different from the movie. It's basically an S&M relationship between a werewolf and a girl that likes to be eaten.

It's an amazingly destructive romance, and when I read the novel, I read it after seeing the movie, which is my favourite werewolf in the history of cinema.  I have him, in the big house, life-size, in silicone, in the man cave, and this movie I would like to have done. 

I would have loved to have worked with Oliver Reed! Fucking Ken Russell! [I look at] The Devils [1971] and [Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film] Don't Look Now and I go, holy fuck!

Funny enough, I always wanted to do a noir. One of my biggest libraries contains [noir writers like] James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Sax Rhomer, Cornell Woolrich... I wanted to do a crime movie, and then I saw Reservoir Dogs and I said, "Oh fuck it, it's taken."

I literally was thinking, there's a lot of the dialogue like the Bonanza conversation from Barry Levinson's Diner, in Reservoir Dogs in a way. It's a meta-absorption of the "Barry Levinson's inconsequential conversation" - [Levinson] is the first one that really did it in cinema. 

I always wanted to show those sort of non glamorous sides of the noir, like what Hitchcock does with the assassination of Gromek in Torn Curtain, the fact that, when you get into a fist fight, it's messy and pathetic. There's two guys fighting and grabbing, your belly pops out and it's sad. I wanted to sort of do assassinations like that, and then Reservoir Dogs comes in and I go, "oh, that's the best version of that."

But one day I would love to do a noir.

I think that at this point [I'd do it in colour]. Chinatown and L.A. Confidential are certainly "California noir."  One of my favourite movies you saw [at BNAT], Nightmare Alley [1947]! Nightmare Alley is a fucking masterpiece. Crazy, and the fucking ending is like, "What? No fucking way!"

It's interesting you mention Levinson, as for me he absolutely fits in with a sort of not-so-secret history of Hollywood. The guy is still very much underappreciated. Because from DINER you get RESERVOIR DOGS, while from HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS you get the aesthetic of Von Trier's BREAKING THE WAVES

The Natural is fucking amazing! Tin Men... I mean, he was in a state of grace for "X" period, you know, and he's still solid. 

I liked the biography of Kavorkian he did with Pacino, it was pretty good. It had great moments in it. He's a great filmmaker. Avalon? Mind-boggling.  Him and Randy Newman -- Holy fucking shit.

Click here for Part 5
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  • hutch

    I can assure you that I like 'Infernal Affair' more because it's a better film. Not because I'm impressed with subtitles.

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