It's time to get your freak on

 

The extraordinary imagination of fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro bursts back on to the big screen next week with the return of his manic monster-hero Hellboy. But after monsters, what makes him most passionate, he tells Donald Clarke, is the freedom to make his movies his own way

NO OTHER film-maker has done as good a job of bringing the arthouse and the grindhouse together as Guillermo del Toro. When I first met the great man, some four years ago, I suggested that he might be the foremost director of horror films in the world today.

At that stage del Toro had just finished his dazzling, spooky, hilarious adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic-book Hellboy. In the interim, he directed Pan's Labyrinth, an unclassifiable fantasy set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war, and received some of the most ecstatic reviews of the decade. That film picked up three technical Oscars and, had it not been for a late surge by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, it would have walked away with the gong for Best Foreign Language Film.

"I tell people about the Oscars and they don't believe me when I say I was absolutely happy for that guy," he says of von Donnersmarck. "You know, I really loved his film. Life gives you what you need, and maybe he needed it a bit more."

I suppose he has a point. Born 43 years ago in Mexico, Guillermo del Toro first attracted attention with his creepily beautiful vampire movie Cronos(1993). That film revealed a number of the tendencies he was to exercise further in subsequent classics such as The Devil's Backboneand Hellboy: a fascination with intricate, spidery creatures; a need to find humour in catastrophe; an inclination towards exploring shadier corners. By the time Pan's Labyrinthleft cinemas, del Toro had officially escaped the horror niche and become one of the world's most universally respected directors.

He could, one imagines, have directed anything he wanted. Other film-makers might have unearthed some big, fat "long-cherished project" that they had hitherto found impossible to finance. Del Toro chose to make Hellboy II. The brilliant new film, which sends the paranormal detective to creepier parts of Brooklyn and Co Antrim (really), revisits many of del Toro's favourite themes, but it's hard to escape the assumption that this is a less personal project than Pan's Labyrinth.

"Up to a point," he says. "I am not an ingenue. I know that with the Hollywood films come long memos. Freedom is not total freedom in Hollywood. I know I have less freedom than I would when making Pan's Labyrinthor The Devil's Backbone. I have no illusions about that. But what is important is that I approach the film-making with the same attitude. I do it out of love."

From another director, this could be interpreted as so much flannel. But talk to del Toro for five minutes and you will come to appreciate his determination to realise unique visions. A large man with a chuckling voice, he is perhaps the friendliest film director I have ever met, but there is no mistaking the steel that lurks behind the flab.

"There are some compromises I have made in this film. It's true. But they were compromises that came from financial problems, and they were compromises I agreed to. That's an important distinction.

"Look, the producer and I deferred some of our payments on this film, so that we could accomplish what we wanted. And we are not getting much recompense for it. Whatever happens, we are not going to make much money on those deals. But we wanted the film to have this much scope."

He goes on to explain that, had he and the producer not put up some of their own money, then they would have had to ditch one significant character. You can't imagine hacks such as Michael Bay or Brett Ratner making that sort of gamble. "It is a gamble, but, you know, if you lose then you lose only money. There are more important things."

It doesn't sound as if del Toro is much of a businessman.

"Oh, I am a piece-of-shit businessman," he howls. "I am the worst businessman that ever lived. I think that as long as you can sustain a decent living, that's all you should ask. The rest are perks. The freedom to do movies is the biggest asset in my life. Fortunately, I have a family that is happy living an ordinary, middle-class lifestyle. We have an ancient Chrysler. The only things I splurge on are books, comics and music."

Hellboy IIamplifies and embellishes the themes of the first film. Once again, we follow the titular hero, a demon employed by a federal agency concerned with the paranormal, as he seeks to stop less amiable fiends taking over the world. "I have tried to resurrect the universe of the first film," he says. "But I have allowed myself freedom to expand it. The movie does allow the character to be looser. There are more crazy monsters. It is much more free, artistically mad and more baroque. I guess it is more European."

One particularly striking sequence finds Hellboy - played by Ron Perlman as Lee Marvin from hell - entering a "troll market" hidden beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Glancing at the multitude of imaginatively designed monsters, one can't help but think of del Toro's Mexican background. Large parts of the film look like bizarre re-imaginings of that country's Day of the Dead celebrations.

As it happens, del Toro has a complicated relationship with Mexico. The artistic establishment did not care for his early horror films, and his more recent successes have not quite made him a national hero either.

"I guess some people do love me," he laughs. "When you scale up the work, you scale up both the love and hate. I am still the same awkward fat fuck I have always been. I don't care what they think of me personally. But it's often harder for a country to accept its own film-makers than those from France or wherever. I suspect it's the same in Britain and Ireland. There is this notion that once I got successful, I flew the coop."

This is a particularly unfair accusation. In 1998, del Toro's father was kidnapped and, fearful of putting his family in danger, he has never felt able to return to his home country.

"That's right. We got my father back. But, to be honest, being exiled is soul-destroying in a way. It is the saddest thing that has ever happened to me. But it did happen to me. What are you going to do? Give up? You have to move on."

Quite so. Now resident in an only modestly smart quarter of Los Angeles, del Toro has made very good use of his time in exile. Even before Pan's Labyrinth, he had established a reputation as one of the few directors whose every move causes a ripple of excitement across cyberspace. There was, thus, mixed reaction to the recent news that he is to direct two films concerning the prehistory of Lord of the Rings. As you read this, del Toro is padding about New Zealand scouting locations for his adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit. When that picture is complete, he will deliver a sequel filling in the gaps between the two books.

No sane person should be in any doubt that del Toro is a worthy (indeed, superior) successor to Peter Jackson, but fans of the director do regret the fact that we will now have to wait another five years for a del Toro film that is neither a sequel nor a prequel. Why disappoint all those people eager for him to exercise the muscles that made Pan's Labyrinth?

"I would love to do it in a shorter time. But there are rewards doing these two films back-to-back. The second movie can be so rewarding because we can flesh out so much in that universe that is not even hinted at in the trilogy. If I didn't think there was a second movie, then I would be back doing my personal stuff in two years. I thought the idea of the second film was so compelling that I said: okay, half a decade of my life, let's go. But it is a chunk of life, all right."

Unsurprisingly, there is great chatter about del Toro's plans for the adaptation. Every actor under six feet tall has been named as a possible Bilbo Baggins, and many Tolkien enthusiasts have wondered how much of their hero's posthumously published musings will make it into the movies.

"Oh I have read all that," he laughs. "I have read that Jack Black is going to be in it. James McAvoy is going to be in it. They have named Daniel Radcliffe. Look, that's nothing but speculation. I can say that Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis will be returning. The rest is up in the air. I will be serving The HobbitI have read and will not betray the confidence Peter Jackson put in me to follow on from his vision."

So did they get the rights to draw from Tolkien's The Silmarillionor from any of the other subsidiary scribblings? How much of the second film will be original stories? "We will limit ourselves to the material we have the rights to," he says. "That's Lord of the Ringsand The Hobbitand the appendices. But, other than that, it will be original. I will be writing with the original writers: Peter, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. We four will be like The Beatles."

Del Toro is eager to emphasise how important it is to maintain the support of his wife and his two daughters. Fortunately, the gang all share his passion for fantasy. Indeed, if he is to be believed, his youngest daughter has a crush on Hellboy and would like to marry him. "Well, he's less of a hulking menace in this film," he says by way of explanation.

Notwithstanding the family's good humour, it's asking a lot of them to move to New Zealand for five years. It's a lovely country, but it's a long way from both Los Angeles and Mexico.

"What has been great for me is that we have made it clear to one another that we are a circus family. So we travel in a wagon and we go wherever the show takes us. We were not so sure about this before. But, recently, we have come to this conclusion.

"So, now, whenever we travel there is peace and beauty in the family."

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is released next Friday