INTERVIEW | Guillermo Del Toro, Part I: Videogames, Transmedia and Here’s His E-mail
Guillermo Del Toro’s name adorns posters for the horror remake “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which opens this week, but the director has a lot more on his mind aside from how to scare people. For “Dark,” Del Toro co-wrote the Troy Nixey-directed adaptation, served as a producer and also lent his name as a presenter of the project. That multihyphenate approach reflects Del Toro’s vision of storytelling as a practice that can take many forms.
Although he’s currently in Toronto shooting the big budget sci-fi epic “Pacific Rim,” he’s also overseeing a number of projects that extend beyond the world of conventional cinema. In this first part of a two-part interview, Del Toro spoke with us about why videogames and transmedia figure into his career almost as much as movies. Stayed tuned for the second part of the interview later this week.
In addition to your various film projects, you’re also developing a videogame project called “Insane.” How does that fit into the other things you do with your time?
I’ve been working on it for almost a year. I put a lot of work into it. It takes up a large part of my day. Sometimes, for days in a row or weeks in a row, I’m involved in working on this. I’m trying to learn everything I can about different media, because I’m a firm believer in transmedia. I think it’s a mistake to assume that since I know how to make movies, I know how to make videogames. However, I approach this videogame from the point of view of a very immersed gamer. I essentially grew up with videogames. I had the first videogame ever, the “Pong” game, and I’ve owned every console known to man since then. So I approach it as a medium that seems similar to film in some ways, but it’s actually very different. It has its own rules of language and storytelling. In this case, it’s not a passive audience. They’re far more active. I must say, in the past year, I’ve learned a lot working on “Insane,” which is good for me as a filmmaker. To me, videogames are a huge component of genre filmmaking in the future. You will always have Jim Jarmusch and Terrence Malick—there will always be quirkier independent films, but for the next big step for genre storytelling, videogames will be a major component.
A lot of people think videogames are cinematic, but that can have many meanings. Some games are cinematic in the atmospheric sense, while in other cases the comparison has more to do with an internal connection to the events in the narrative. With that in mind, what sort of experience are you going for with “Insane”?
We talked a lot about different versions of the game. We’re trying to do things that have not been done before, both in the gameplay and the devices that we use. We’re creating stuff that, at least for now—knock on wood—hasn’t been done before. We’re trying to make it as immersive as possible.
You mean a large sandbox?
A very large sandbox, and the sense of freedom you get when you wander around a seemingly unlimited world. At the same time, we want to tell a story. I think “Bioshock” is fantastic at that. Ultimately, we want to create a really affecting story. And we’re not going to do things that annoy me as a gamer. I don’t like long, interstitial cinematic interludes in games. I actually jump out of the game, I skip them. When I’m playing a game, I don’t want to watch a movie. I want the story to emerge from the gameplay. This is no different from when I tackle writing a novel, as I have been doing with Chuck Hogan for our “Strain” trilogy. I’m being mindful to make it cinematic without writing it like a screenplay.
You mentioned your affinity for transmedia. Last year, you launched a transmedia studio called Mirada. What have you been doing with it so far?
We’ve had a very interesting first few months. We’re a very curious company. We got involved in a huge multimedia installation celebration for IBM’s 100th anniversary called the THINK Exhibit [opening at Lincoln Center in September]. Using all the resources of our company, we created a special shooting rig that [Del Toro’s cinematographer] Guillermo Navaro designed called the Medusa. It’s a four-camera rig that shoots panoramic images that are almost life-size. It was fulfilling, exactly what we want to do. We did commercials, video clips, all the regular stuff, but we’re also developing a viral for [Del Toro’s next feature] “Pacific Rim,” and a teaser trailer for it internally to show the studio what it would look like.
It’s been a really interesting year. When we talk about transmedia, I think it’s incredibly important that one of the words that’s sacred for what we do at Mirada is “storytelling.” The word “transmedia” is very fancy, but what it means is that we’re at the edge of a new era for storytelling, one that I am convinced will be multiplatform. It will be a delivery-driven experience. You can have an audience participate in the way a story evolves. It’s really important as a storyteller to know how to write a novel or a comic. People think about them as if they need to be similar. They fixate on those similarities. For example, they say, “comic books are storyboards.” Absolutely not. They are not. I think it’s a mistake to talk like that. It negates everything that is unique about storytelling in that medium. I cannot qualify my work, but I know that I am a storyteller. I can only qualify the passion I bring to it, and that’s why I’m involved in transmedia.
But transmedia is often discussed as a marketing tool rather than as a storytelling strategy. Corporations use it to reinforce their brands.
But, you see, that’s a curious thing. If you follow the research of Henry Jenkins, he understands that transmedia can only exist in a world of creation. It’s not just about the arc of a story with characters. It’s the creation of a world. Three of the most powerful, world-creating companies of the past century were DC Comics, Marvel Comics and Disney. In a way, one of the earlier examples of transmedia creators is Walt Disney. He was a futurist in that sense. It’s only now that DC and Marvel studios are catching up with their movies. They ultimately serve as transmedia engines. Transmedia can only exist with the existence of the great multimedia conglomerates: The Time Warners, the NBC Universals. It can only be done like that. Disney did it because he was pioneer in movies, radio, comics, arts, all of that. But he was a singular character. Transmedia now reflects the general sort of socioeconomic state of the world as we know it.
Jenkins writes that “The Matrix” trilogy was an elaborate transmedia property because it made more sense to people who consumed every aspect of it, including the animated shorts, the comics and the videogame along with the actual movies. That was over a decade ago. In your estimation as someone developing ways to tell transmedia stories now, how have things changed?
Here’s the difference: Before, all those things would be viewed by the studio as ancillary productions—meaning, they would do a comic or a web experience supporting the movie. Now, with transmedia, each of those is a piece of the puzzle. It really creates a world, a mythology. Whether “The Matrix” was successful or not I’m not commenting on, but it could be as complex and as elaborate as a system of beliefs. I do hope that artists working on a smaller, more intimate scale use transmedia. It’s like what Nick Cave does: He can do a performance, make movies, write a piece of music or a short story and he’s equally good at all of that. I would love to live in a filmmaker’s world 24/7. I could watch a David Lynch movie, follow his cartoons, listen to a radio play, all of that, if it’s complementing his world.
In a similar sense, you allow your fans to participate in your world by frequently giving out your email address at public events. What benefit do you get this form of direct interaction?
I’m a fan and I want to hear from other fans. I get hundreds of e-mails. I try to answer all of them. I do answer most of them. I’m very disciplined in the way I spend my 24 hours each day. I can do more in my day than most people because I’m willing to compartmentalize my time. That includes spending an hour or two answering letters to that public e-mail address, which is Abe_Sapien@hotmail.com. The only thing I don’t do is read literary material. I won’t read a screenplay because, legally, I’m not allowed to do that. But other than that: Once, I received a link from a fan who had done a short film. I saw the short and gave him my two cents. I did that yesterday for another short. I wrote to someone this morning who wanted to know some details about some of my movies. I really enjoy this interaction most of the time. Some of them get violent. (laughs) But most of the time they’re perfectly civilized fans.