the devil's backbone book

Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams have created a stunning, essential new book devoted to Guillermo del Toro‘s 2001 gothic horror movie The Devil’s Backbone. Through in-depth interviews with del Toro and the cast and crew of the film, the Devil’s Backbone book details both the making of one of del Toro’s best films, and del Toro’s insights into filmmaking as a whole.

In 1997, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro went Hollywood with the horror film Mimic. It didn’t go so well. del Toro had burst onto the scene with his haunting, unique, inventive twist on vampire mythology, Cronos. It made sense that Hollywood would come calling, but del Toro’s jump into the “mainstream” was fraught with production woes, meddling producers, and a finished product that left much to be desired. The filmmaker was down, but not out.

Del Toro would reclaim his artistic integrity (and peace of mind) with the Spanish language gothic melodrama The Devil’s Backbone. Released in 2001, it was a firm reminder that the budding genius many people had sensed watching Cronos was still alive and well, and that Mimic hadn’t sapped del Toro of his powers. The Devil’s Backbone would be the first of two films del Toro would set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, the second being Pan’s Labyrinth. It might be easy for some to think of Backbone as a test-run for Labyrinth, but that would be doing a disservice to the former. Instead, the film’s compliment each other, like mirror images. But Devil’s Backbone is still very much its own unique beast.

On its surface, The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story – the tale of a lonely boy who comes to an orphanage and finds a ghost. But there’s so much more going on here. Characters are never one-dimensional in a del Toro film – there are no real heroes or villains. Instead, there are just people, full of conflicts, and neurosis, and hopes, and dreams, and hatreds. These elements are all at play in the cast of characters that populate The Devil’s Backbone, and through them, del Toro weaves a haunting, hypnotic, heartbreaking tale.

In Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams’ wonderful new book, del Toro’s comeback film is explored from every angle – pre-production, production, and beyond. The film’s very soul is laid bare through a book-length interview with del Toro himself, interspersed with interviews from various members of the cast and crew. It is an all-encompassing look at a remarkable film, but it’s more than that. This book is like an entire journey through film school condensed into 160 pages. Del Toro doesn’t just talk about Backbone – he talks about the medium of film as a whole, and shares his thoughts on other filmmakers.

Anyone who has listened to one of del Toro’s Blu-ray commentary tracks knows how well-versed in the language of film he is, and here in the pages of The Devil’s Backbone is even more of his staggering knowledge and insight. It’s an utter treat, not just for del Toro fans but for film fans in general. I’ve combed through the pages of The Devil’s Backbone and assembled some wonderful revelations for you here. But these tidbits only scratch the surface. For the full experience, you really must get your hands on the book.

The Devil's Backbone book cover

An Antidote

Mimic should’ve signaled Guillermo del Toro’s big arrival in Hollywood. Instead, the film’s troubled production – which included meddling from producer Bob Weinstein at Miramax – and tepid reception was an overall crushing experience for the filmmaker.

“From the get-go, it was a bad experience,” del Toro says in The Devil’s Backbone book. “I was in post-production on it for two years, and coming out of that I honestly thought, Maybe I’m not made for this, because [Miramax cofounder] Bob Weinstein was very tough to survive.”

The filmmaker goes on to say that, at the time, the Weinsteins were considered “golden” in the industry, and that most people assumed the faults in Mimic must have sprung from del Toro as a filmmaker rather than Weinstein interference. “Eventually, over the years, more information emerged,” del toro says. “But at the time people said, ‘God knows what happened on Mimic.’”

After Mimic, del Toro found American film work hard to come by. He had pitched a proposal for what would become The Devil’s Backbone to the Mexican Institute of Film, but they rejected the idea because they thought it was “too big” of a movie. The eventual solution to del Toro’s problems arrived courtesy of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar.

Almodóvar, the director of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, All About My Mother, Talk to Her and many more, had met del Toro and expressed his fondness for del Toro’s first film. According to del Toro, Almodóvar said, “I liked your movie Cronos very much, and if you ever come to Spain my brother and I would like to produce a movie for you.” In 1997, del Toro “took a chance and wrote to Pedro and said, ‘Remember that conversation we had?’”

Almodóvar produced Devil’s Backbone, but gave del Toro completely control over the film, an experience del Toro says was “like an antidote to Mimic, which was five producers around me at all times.” Almodóvar also gave del Toro final cut – another condition that was denied to him on Mimic.

Compromise as an Art Form

The stories about the production of The Devil’s Backbone are what primarily make up Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams’ book, but there are frequent side-steps into the process of filmmaking as a whole. In these moments, del Toro’s knowledge of film and filmmaking shine brightest.

One key passage involves del Toro discussing the very nature of being a director, and how the job itself is perceived by film fans. “Since Erich von Stroheim or Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or D.W. Griffith, we’ve enthroned the idea of the autocrat: the director who controls everything,” del Toro says before pointing out that it’s simply not true. “The reality is that every director knows that it’s about saying, ‘Oh, this accident happened, and it’s better.’”

The filmmaker sums it up succinctly: “Directing is compromise as an art form.”

To further illustrate the point, del Toro turns to one of the most historically obsessive filmmakers in the history of the medium: Stanley Kubrick. Surely an auteur such as Kubrick was in control of everything, right? Not exactly. Del Toro talks about befriending Tom Cruise (the filmmaker wanted Cruise to star in his now-aborted At The Mountains of Madness adaptation) and proceeding to pick the actor’s brain about working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut: “I asked him, ‘Do you think [Kubrick] controlled everything? Or was he able to create opportunities for accidents?’ And [Cruise] said, ‘Absolutely, he left room for accidents. In fact, sometimes you had the feeling that he was waiting for that accident to present itself so he could recognize it.’”

Prep Work

Del Toro eloquently recalls almost every tiny detail about the production of The Devil’s Backbone, and that includes all the pre-production work. When it comes to designing a film, the filmmaker says he usually takes about six months of prep work:

“I take three months alone with a conceptual illustrator, and I figure out everything before we are joined by the production designer and wardrobe designer. I just do sketches with them. And then for three to five months more, I work with the whole team.”

Del Toro’s prep work on The Devil’s Backbone was slightly shorter than other films, because he had committed to making Blade II.

Chekhov’s Bomb

One of the most iconic pieces of imagery from The Devil’s Backbone is an unexploded bomb, sticking out of the ground in the courtyard of the orphanage. The bomb is a constant metaphorical reminder of the Spanish Civil War raging beyond the orphanage’s walls: “The bomb is omnipresent in the middle of the courtyard much like the war,” del Toro says. “It just says, ‘The war is here….’” The filmmaker goes on to say that he “wanted [the bomb] to be almost a mother figure to the kids. They planted flowers around it and put ribbons on it, like it’s a fertility goddess, a totemic figure. But I wanted it to look over them the whole time.”

Del Toro’s thoughtfulness about the bomb, which is omnipresent but not exactly a key element to the overall story, further illustrates just how much thought he pours into the construction of his films. The bomb is always there, and even when it’s not on screen, the audience is subliminally thinking about it. How could they not?

“If you have a bomb in your backyard, unexploded…basically it becomes the north of your entire geography,” del Toro says. “Whether you sleep close to or far from the bomb, or you cross the bomb to go to the well, it’s always there at the center…But even if you live with a bomb, it’s still a bomb. That’s the essence of a civil war. You live with a conflict and it can become matter-of-fact, everyday, but you’re still living with this bomb at home.”

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