devil's backbone

In Sequence

The Devil’s Backbone editor Luis De La Madrid reveals that, unlike a majority of film productions, Backbone was filmed in sequence: “First of all, the most important thing was that the movie was filmed [in sequence], with respect for continuity. Guillermo laid out the whole movie. The choreography of the characters within the camera got very elaborate, and that creates a significant amount of work for me.”

The editor goes on to say that the in sequence filming created a wealth of material to work with – too much material, in fact. As a result, some trimming needed to be done: “When we made the first cut, I had to compress the movie a bit because otherwise it would’ve easily lasted up to two and a half hours.”

The final cut runs 107 minutes.

No Film Without Images

Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro has amassed an acclaimed career shooting films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and TV shows Hannibal, Narcos, and more. Navarro has worked with del Toro five times: Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and of course, The Devil’s Backbone.

In an interview in The Devil’s Backbone book, the cinematographer discusses his process, along with his philosophy of cinematography as a whole: “Here is my take on cinematography: there is no film without images, correct? If you can’t see it through the lens, it doesn’t exist in the movie. If you respect that the camera will tell the story, then the camera now has a role [in the story]…So what I’m calling the exercising of film language is really allowing the cinematography to be the storyteller. Cinematography is a language like any other, with its own grammar and rules. Being fluent in that language requires a strong understanding of cinematography as part of the storytelling process. It’s not just people saying things while the camera registers what they say.”

For his part, del Toro has his own unique interpretation of cinematography. To del Toro, it goes beyond shooting a film – it also encompasses the various elements that go into the overall look of the film as a whole, including costuming and set design: “I think cinematography is not a single discipline…cinematography is set design, wardrobe design, and staging…So when somebody says, ‘That cinematography is great,’ that person is saying, ‘Great set design, great wardrobe design, great staging, great cinematography.’ And by the same token, when they say, ‘What a great production designer,’ they’re saying, ‘Great cinematography,’ etc. These disciplines are inseparable.”

Devil's Backbone del toro

The Voice and Soul of the Movie

Some film critics may roll their eyes (and plug their ears) at certain film soundtracks. It seems there’s a school of thought regarding movie music that thinks a score should be undetectable; something in the background; something non-manipulative. But here’s the thing: film, as an art form, can’t help but be manipulative. That’s what it does best; that’s its power.

As a filmmaker and a film viewer, del Toro is averse to the concept of “invisible” soundtracks. “You come out of a Krzysztof Kieslowski film with Zbigniew Preisner’s score in your head,” he says. “You come out of a [Frederico] Fellini movie with Nino Rota going like a merry-go-round in your head. You come out of Sergio Leone’s Westerns whistling Ennio Morricone. So this idea that a score should be invisible is bullshit. You come out of Jaws going ‘da-da-da-da,’ out of Star Wars, so forth.”

To del Toro, music is an essential key to a film. He calls it “the voice and soul of the movie,” and adds: “I can speak of surface, actors can speak of emotion, but the ultimate varnish of a film is when the music comes in and it feels of a piece by providing you with an insight to the emotions of the film. As if it was an entity.”

Think About Your Saddest Memory

The bulk of the cast of The Devil’s Backbone is made up of child actors, which can understandably create a tricky situation on a film set. In a matter-of-fact manner, Guillermo del Toro discusses his process for how he directed the Backbone child actors. One thing the filmmaker does is insist that the parents of the child actors do not rehearse lines with their kids. He’d rather the children’s performance be found more naturally, and seem less reheased; less like a kid in a TV commercial.

Del Toro also wrote out biographies for his young actors to serve as “homework”: “What I do with the kids is, in pre-production I create a bio for the character, and I give it to them. I also gave bios to [the adult actors]: ‘Here’s your bio from birth to the end of your most recent birthday.’…[Then I ask] ‘What do you have in common with this character?’ That’s the first homework we do with the actors. ‘What do you like and identify with in him?’”

For big emotional moments, del Toro gave his young actors this advice: “You don’t have to tell me what it is, but think about your saddest memory. What are you saddest about in your life….And then when we are shooting a scene where the character is sad, he goes there.”

“Let’s Kill Him!”

While del Toro’s experience with the young actors working on Devil’s Backbone was mostly successful, he did have problems with one unnamed actor that the filmmaker labels “a pain in the ass.”

The young actor was such a problem that del Toro decided to kill his character off in the film. During an emotional scene in the film that reduced del Toro and his crew to tears, the young actor was supposed to be laying perfectly still in the background of the shot, having been killed in an explosion. And then problems arose:

“[W]e’re all weeping, everybody, the cameraman is weeping, the script girl is weeping, I’m weeping, and we say, “That’s it! Print!” and then the script girl says, “I think there’s movement in the background.” “What? Can we go back and rewind?” and this dead kid, like a George Romero zombie, gets up and looks at the camera!”

The kid that sat up like a zombie was, of course, the kid del Toro had been having trouble with:

“I go up to this kid, who we are killing because he was a pain in the ass! He was in other scenes and he always ruined the scenes, so I said, ‘Let’s kill him!’ So he dies in the explosion and fucked up the last fucking scene he had! I go up to him and say, “Why the fuck did you do that?” and he said, “Because I feel my character wouldn’t die! He would be injured!”

Continue Reading The Devil’s Backbone Book >>

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