On Thursday, Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn appeared in Comic-Con's Hall H for a FilmDistrict panel to promote their upcoming projects Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Drive. What somehow ensued was not a typical marketing-heavy meditation on what thrills and chills the audience should shell out cash for, but a remarkably fun, intelligent and insightful conversation about each filmmaker's artistic preoccupations, ambitions, and even fears. Rather than whittling down their comments into convenient sound bites, here's a near-complete transcript of their biggest conversations. Enjoy, and try not to be impressed.
Discussing the process of putting together the panel, and talking about each other's film:
Del Toro: I wanted to meet this insane motherfucker. I'm a huge, huge admirer of him. I love the way he shoots, I love the way he thinks, I'm intrigued every time I see a movie of his. No one ever mashes up movies, and I would love to talk to him on stage.
Refn: I love Guillermo as well.
Del Toro: His work is a combination of the cerebral and the emotional in a way that is unique, frankly. It's like a high-wire act.
Refn: What's interesting in terms of what's happening in cinema is that genre filmmaking, where Guillermo is very much a forerunner, it has taken the toll of progressive cinema. In the ‘60s, progressive cinema was very political in terms of how it was made and thought out, and now progressive cinema has really become the new genre films. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a great example of mixing poetry and cinema and commercialism, which essentially is what great filmmaking is.
On the casting process:
Refn: The cast has always been the most crucial thing of anything in terms of filmmaking, even back in the silent days when it was all about the looks. It still is (laughs). But casting is the most crucial thing, and it's the one major thing you're sick to figure out in terms of who would be right and who do they want and who do you want. So it's like playing Russian roulette, but I'm sure Guillermo would agree that once the casting is in place, it's like sex—it doesn't get any better. Because then you know it's going to be okay. It is like sex! Because even when it's bad, it's still good. [But] directing is really easy, guys. It's just inspiring everybody else to give their best, and then you put your name on it. And so your job with actors is to help them and support them and sometimes leave them alone. But essentially everything comes down to casting.
Del Toro: The best director is the one that chooses his actor correctly.
Refn, talking about the importance of the environment in both his storytelling and his directing:
Refn: Very much when you make films, if you don't shoot on studios or facilities where you can recreate things, I come from not having a lot of money to make movies, so the surroundings becomes a character within your films. Valhalla Rising, I shot in Scotland in places where they usually wouldn't take people because I was obsessed with nature, and nature was almost like the main character. And in Drive, I don't drive a car; I've tried to get a license eight times, but I failed. And I don't live in America, I live in Copenhagen, so I don't really know LA in any way. But I loved and I knew the romanticism of LA because through films I knew what LA was like. So Ryan would drive me around to all of the places where Drive would take place, and once I knew where the book would play out, I figured out what I could afford to shoot where, and all of that. And the idea was to use the backdrop of Los Angeles as much as possible but without shooting the Los Angeles that you had seen so many times before.
I shoot everything with wide angle lenses and one of the reasons I do that is because it gives you depth. So whenever you have a person in front of you, I'm also interested in what's behind them. Because the eye sees depth, and the more depth you see, the more engulfing it becomes looking at an image. You could almost say a still photograph you remember, but a tracking shot you admire and go with, but it's the stillness that imprints on our brains. So locations I think are one of the most important things when you walk around and set up.
Del Toro: I fabricate everything. There's not a single real thing in Pan's Labyrinth, because ultimately I'm very specific about [those details]. Context is everything in a fable, because every story has already been told. So the only variations I find are the voice of the storyteller and the context in which it's told.
On finding a thematic throughline for Drive and trying to protect creativity in Hollywood:
Refn: A few years ago I started to read Grimm's fairy tales to my youngest daughter, and they're very short, which is great. I'm a 90-minute believer in film; at least I can't concentrate any longer. And fairy tales are three to four pages, and what was interesting is that they are all archetypes. They all have a hero which is represented in all cultures; so [Drive] was like doing a fairy tale in Los Angeles, with the romanticism and belief of a fairy tale—like, how can I make something where everybody is an archetype? And Ryan is the knight, and Carey would be the princess who needed to be saved, and Ron was the dragon, and Albert Brooks was the evil king, and Bryan Cranston was the helper of the knight. They were all kind of archetypes in that environment.
We make films that we want to make, and I was nervous about coming to Los Angeles to make a movie, because where I come from in Europe, if anybody has an opinion, I don't really care. So I was really nervous because I'd heard all the horror stories, especially from European filmmakers, what it's like working in Los Angeles and in a bigger system. And I ended up have a great experience, by the way I was able to make the film I wanted to make, miraculously. But the advice that Alejandro Jodorowsky, the great master of El Topo and Holy Mountain, gave me before I came over last year, was just smile and nod. If anybody talks to you, just smile and nod. And I did that for quite a while, and thank God they smiled back. But were you ever nervous coming to Los Angeles and setting up shop here?
Del Toro: My whole life and the way I've done the movies I've done has been a series of accidents that were completely unplanned, except for a couple of times. Mimic happened because I owed so much money from Cronos, and I was working to write something that was unique in America, but I didn't write the movie. And after the massacre of the production of that movie, I learned the one word that is common to most languages is "no." If they touch you in a place that feels wrong, you say "no." And it was an incredibly valuable lesson; because it's like you make movies with your friends, you need every good will you can muster, and it's very precarious. And from then on it's never been as bad as that first experience, and then the only two times I've made really commercial decisions was when they wanted me to shoot Blade II before I made The Devil's Backbone, and I said, "no fucking way - I'm going to shoot this movie first, and then I'm going to do your movie." And if I'm important for you, you'll wait for me, and if not, god bless. And the second was with Pan's Labyrinth. But it's an adventure that's worth having.
Refn: But it's almost like you can see that Hollywood was created by European filmmakers coming to Hollywood and making films as far back as to the ‘20s, so it's almost like a natural evolution. And you can have the best of both worlds, because getting films made in Los Angeles in the system and distributed the way it does, is if you want to make a movie and you want people to see it, that's your route to really go.
Del Toro: Thank God for people like Bob Berney. He has a gigantic ball sack. He needs a cart to carry it, and Jeanne, his wife is there carrying it—
Refn: She's carrying it alright.
Del Toro: She probably has an equal-sized ball sack. But these are guys that take risks. They distributed Pan's Labyrinth and they're distributing these two movies, and I really think that when people say how brave a filmmaker is, how brave are the people who really put it in front of an audience? They don't go for the safe choices.
Refn: Which is very important because the chief enemy of creativity is safety. It's like Picasso used to say that the chief enemy is good taste, and "good taste" has a vast definition, but being safe is always dangerous. Competition breeds creativity, and in a way, creativity is the most capitalistic thinking tank, because it has no rules, it has no regulations. It's all about ideas. And that's why you get hooked on it because this sheer idea of creation is the ultimate high.
On why each of them focuses on what he does, or in Refn's case, doesn't:
Refn: I always try not to make the same movie again. So I always try to put myself behind obstacles, and I think it comes maybe from insecurity, really, of saying, oh my God, if I make the same movie, then maybe I have no talent—I'm just a hack. So it's out of desperation, almost, but I try to think of situations where like if you take the Pusher trilogy, I mean, one thing's for sure—the world doesn't need any more gangster movies. But if you make them about people in a criminal environment, it becomes stories about people that are caught in system they can't get out of. And then I owed a lot of money, and people, believe me, owing a lot of money is sometimes great energy for going out and doing something and getting something done. When it comes to Bronson, who wants to see a prison movie? I certainly didn't but I had an idea that if I made a prison movie like an opera, about a man wanting to become famous, you can do that. And then on Valhalla Rising, I hated Vikings and I hated Viking movies, but I thought it could be interesting to make a Viking movie as a science-fiction film, and use the surroundings as the landscape of another planet. And with Drive it was very much like a fairy tale idea but if I could use a lot of European, electronic ‘80s score, it would give it this strange feeling to it. So you always try to combine obstacles, and through that comes some interesting form.
Del Toro: Ultimately, the movie is incredibly thrilling and titillating, and you have that raw emotional nerve that a b- or exploitation thriller has, but the approach to it is obliquely European, serene, deliberate, and I think it's a fantastic combination.
I'm a monster guy, a creature guy, so the first thing I love are the creatures. I love Universal monsters, I love kaigu monsters, I love freaks, I love everything that is deformed. Because that is beautiful for me. You can see I cultivate my body shape through that principle. But I think everything that is aberrant is something we need to cherish, because we live in a society that makes such a fucking point to enshrine battles that are impossible. Perfection is impossible; imperfection is a goal we can all aspire to and achieve, and I think monsters represent that beautifully. When we live in a castrated society that tells you that you don't have to sweat, you have to look good, you have to be thin, you have to be smiley, you have to be charming, fuck you! Monsters are a living, breathing fuck you, and horror movies one of the first duties of a horror movie is to be a fuck you. So I admire that a lot. I love the unsafe choices, and I think it's a genre that allows you to make incredibly lyrical, powerful images that are unsettling and unsafe, and I like that.
And finally, the single-best anecdote ever about a director and actor agreeing to work on a project together:
Refn: This film actually got made because Ryan wanted to make it. He was given the director control of it like when Steve McQueen brought Peter Yates from England or Lee Marvin did with Point Blank, he brought John Boorman to come from England to come and make that film with him. I was in LA trying to kill Harrison Ford in a movie, and it was turning out the way I thought Hollywood was going to be, because it went into that development hell which I hear so much about.
Del Toro: Fucking horrible.
Refn: I postponed my own film that I was going to do because I was broke, and I went to Hollywood to make some money. And I got a call asking if Ryan Gosling wanted to meet up would I do that, and I was like, sure. I'd never met him, but I had a very high fever I got when I flew in, and my wife only allowed me to stay four days in America. I had a terrible, terrible fever, but I said I'll go have dinner with him, so I took these American drugs to take the flu down, so I was high as a kite. Literally I couldn't remember anything. So I went to Ryan's restaurant in LA and I had a stiff neck so I couldn't look at him, so I sat down and I couldn't move so I was like Frankenstein—and we tried to have a conversation. It was like a blind date—very awkward—because you sit down with an actor and you're really supposed to get it going and you go make the movie together and you come up with some cool idea. That's what Hollywood is about, having meetings about doing stuff. So I couldn't really move, and Ryan would talk, and I would go "mm hmm," and it was a bit like a blind date realizing that nobody was going to get fucked tonight. There was simply no connection between us because I was so out of it, I was so stoned that I couldn't remember half of what I was saying and I would react too slowly. Ryan would be like, who the fuck is this stupid European guy? So halfway through this dinner I said, could you please take me home, and Ryan was like, "what?" And I said, I don't drive. He goes, "you can't get a cab?" And I was so out of it that just the idea of having to get up and get a cab, I was like, "uhhh." So he was like, "sure, I'll drive you." So we had to go to Santa Monica and it was quite a long ride, and you know that awkward silence when you're dropping the girl off because you know you're not getting any action? You go home and watch porn? We were sitting in the car and it was pure silence between us, and Ryan turns on the radio, and it was soft rock. And on this station, REO Speedwagon starts singing, "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore," and I start to cry. I start to cry, and tears are falling down my cheeks, and Ryan's driving the car thinking how the fuck do I get him out of my car? And then I start singing the song. It's like foreplay, and I'm really getting into it, and I slap my knee and for the first time I turn to Ryan in the car and I look at him. I scream in his face because the music is so loud, and I say, "I got it! I got it." He says, "what?" I say, "I know what Drive is. Its about a man who drives around at night listening to pop music, and that's his emotional relief." And he said, "we're doing it." That was a great encounter between us that led to a very passionate and strange relationship that will go on for, well, we're doing Only God Forgives after Christmas, and then we're doing the remake of Logan's Run. By the way, which I may call Guillermo to help me on to help with a few tricks.
Del Toro: I can play Logan. I'm available.
Refn: So beyond that it was a great partnership. I did the crying, he did the laughing. Carey came on, Ron [Perlman], Albert [Brooks], and they laughed, I cried. I'm very emotional, as you can see. And it was terrific working with him. So he was a great alter ego.