Mike Fleming

He’s a geek god when he walks the halls of Comic-Con. But Guillermo del Toro just told me he feels the phalanx of print and web media at the festival gave short shrift to the reaction of footage that he, producer Mark Johnson and director Troy Nixey presented for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. On Friday, they showed the Comic-Con crowd a chilling eight-minute prologue (think Marathon Man) and a trailer that gave a glimpse of the creatures that haunt a family in the remake of the classic 1973 telepic. It was his second Comic-Con panel, after he announced he’d scared up a writing and producing gig for the movie version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

Haunted Mansion must have had them thinking, well that’s the big movie for this guy, but I’m telling you the most successful panel I was on was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, where we had a house at full capacity, with 6000 asses levitated by both pieces of footage,” del Toro told me. The remake—which stars Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce—shapes up as a potential sleeper when Disney releases in January. That’s a satisfying outcome for del Toro after a twisty road which began because he was such a fan of the original, made during a golden age of horror offerings from ABC that included Trilogy of Terror and Bad Ronald. Del Toro set it up with Bob and Harvey Weinstein at Miramax after he directed Mimic, and then left it there because he didn’t want to make another film with them. He held his breath as the brothers almost recaptured the film when they got close to buying Miramax. He sounds quite happy to be free of them.

“I knew after Mimic I didn’t want to direct it and go through that same experience again, and I’d heard that Bob developed it every which way, with six or seven writers, with creatures that ranged from flying monkeys to gigantic monsters,” del Toro said. “What I wanted was to make a great atmospheric horror film, one that depends on shadows and whispers and subtle movement in the dark. When I heard that Bob and Harvey had separated from Disney, my first call was to see if the property remained in the Disney catalog. I jumped at it.”

The plot was altered to make a young girl the central figure (an adult woman was stalked by the creatures in the telepic) and this brought the movie too close to Pan’s Labyrinth for del Toro to direct. He chose protege Nixey, wrote the script with Matthew Robbins and was heavily involved as producer.  That included the decision to leave out the most shocking content to get a PG-13, which wasn’t good enough for the MPAA.

“By agreement, we shot a movie with no sex, no gore or profanity, because we thought it was the way to avoid ‘R’,” del Toro said. “The MPAA came back and said, it didn’t matter, that it would be rated ‘R’ anyway, for `pervasive scariness,’ which in a way is fantastic to hear.” That official validation might factor in the marketing campaign.

Del Toro said he’s close to nailing down his next directing assignment. And he Chuck Hogan are finishing the final installment of the novel horror trilogy that began with The Strain. Though the first was scary and cinematic and not surprisingly has offers, they will not entertain movie or TV offers until the books are all done.  Del Toro’s separately begun writing short stories and hopes to publish an anthology when he’s got enough of them.

“Chuck and I agreed we needed to think about these exclusively as books,” del Toro said. “When you permeate the process with the knowledge that you’re going to do a movie, and in my case maybe direct it, you have motivations to put scenes in or write things in certain ways. I find the writing of fiction to be creatively liberating, and we’ve gotten strong inquiries but we’re going to avoid all of that until we’ve finished the third book.”

Del Toro wrote the first two books while he was in New Zealand, co-writing and planning to direct the two installments of The Hobbit. The dust has settled since he decided to step off, but he has no regrets and feels he paid a high price to get as far as he did. He strained his relationships with Universal—the studio gave him a huge deal, bought pricey projects like H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and gave del Toro the run of its classic monster library—and at Disney, where he created Disney Double Dare You, a company to generate scary animated films. That whole Disney deal completely cratered (I’ve heard he’s talking about animation projects with DreamWorks, but del Toro said it won’t be the same thing). Del Toro’s slowly  repairing his Universal relationship as he reactivates those projects.

“I feel absolutely at peace, happy and in charge of my own life again,” he told me. “I think the most heavy thing I felt was not being in charge. What I vowed is, I will keep a producing role in everything I do, from now on, down to the more mundane controls of when, how much, to dictating something as delicate as time line. “

By the time del Toro left, he said not only were both Hobbit scripts done, the entire first film was completely designed, and more than half of the second. But no sign of a green light, something that doesn’t seem to have changed even though Peter Jackson is ready to direct.

“Everybody in New Zealand, people on the street, were so nice, it was paradise, but life was going by,” he said. “Some of those big deals I’d made, with Disney and Universal, I had to dance really fast to be able to get a period of grace to shoot those Hobbit movies, and then be able to make those deals active again. That period came and went, and we were not shooting. That Disney Double Dare You deal is gone.  I am developing a relationship with DreamWorks that’s still to be defined, but it’s not as it was going to be at Disney. Disney was a beautiful opportunity, but with the timing and the delays and everything, I couldn’t activate it.

“Leaving was the hardest decision, but the only one I could make,” he said. “The timing, and the distance put me in a corner that I could not get out of. It built up for awhile. When I say there were many delays and complications, I include the fact there were really three studios, the availability of actors. I feel the proof is in the pudding. Was it two months ago I left? There have been no new developments. That really is confirmation of the fact that these movies definitely aren’t rushing into production. And that’s the last thing I’m going to say about The Hobbit.”