Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) brings to the big screen a remake of the 1973 made-for-TV film that frightened him when he was younger. Co-writer and producer del Toro's version of the horror film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark updates the story a bit and adds a child, Sally (Bailee Madison), as the family member dangerous creatures torment, rather than an adult woman (played by Kim Darby in original movie). This switch to a younger victim ups the anxiety level, as the adults involved would rather believe Sally's acting out after being forced to move into an old mansion under renovation with her dad (played by Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) rather than admit to themselves there is in fact something sinister going on in the old house.
Teaming up to talk about the film with a group of journalists in LA, del Toro and Holmes explained the appeal of the film, the changes made to the story, and working with Bailee Madison as the young girl being terrorized by evil creatures.
Why did you decide to remake this? Why did you change the character played by Kim Darby in the original to a little girl?
Guillermo del Toro: "You know what is funny? I read a review this morning and I don’t think the person writing it had seen the original. They were saying ‘reprising the role of a very young Kim Darby,’ and I said, 'No, Kim Darby was a married old woman in the original.'"
"She was almost pathologically passive in the original movie. She was powerless, and I thought when I saw it that her character was exasperatingly passive for me. I remember the movie fondly; I loved it and it was the scariest movie I saw a kid and all that, but I always had some ideas that I thought were in the movie and when we finally watched - we got a VHS in the late '80s - and a lot of the things I adored the most were not in the movie. There were things that we had invented!. I was like, 'Where's that shot?,' and it was not there. I saw it young enough that we had made up a lot of stuff. I really thought, 'Well, we can completely change the story, base it on the same anecdote but make it a fairy tale gone wrong. The original was completely different on that. Make it about a character that is powerless, rather than by her limitations, is powerless by her age because people don’t believe her. I thought the character could be a girl. I think the movie is quite different. It's almost a re-telling of the story, of the original."
How was it stepping into this world, the world where fantasy in a horrific way can become reality? How do you surrender to that?
Katie Holmes: "I was so excited to become a part of this. I’m a huge fan of Guillermo. I love the worlds he creates. I wish I could think that way. When I read the script, I was terrified just reading it and I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be amazing.' It was a real pleasure to work on it. What I learned is what an extremely hard-working person Guillermo is and how smart he is with his scripts with structure and pacing and everything, and the discipline that that takes in order to really communicate these incredible visions that are unique to him and we are all so fortunate to see. Thank god he thinks the way he does and creates the way he does. So, it was a real pleasure."
What was it about the role that really appealed to you when you read it? Was there something that really hit home?
Katie Holmes: "Well, I loved the characters and I loved Kim, in particular, because she was strong and not a victim. She made a decision to listen to Sally and to take part in her life, despite what her boyfriend thought, and to really go beyond social graces of ‘it’s not my place, it’s not my place’ into ‘I don’t care, I’m going to help this person.' Then, going to the extreme and really becoming a mother at the end, you could say."
Guillermo, why do you think we love our monsters?
Guillermo del Toro: "I really think it’s the essential part of the imagination of a human being. I always say that the moment we started to understand the universe through fable, in the earliest moment, we started to talk about angels and demons at the same time. You needed to explain the birth of the sun and the death of the sun, and the birth of the moon and all that - if the universe is dual: night and day, cold and hot, or mythology when we articulated it, it needed the duality. I think one is as powerful as the other, in terms of myth."
"I always say there is the same compulsion if not more in the carving of a gargoyle and in the carving of a saint in the same cathedral. They are part of the same cosmology, so I think we need them. I think what happens is that people sometimes say fantasies is a childish concern. Most of these people are frankly people that if you interrogate them deeply, they believe in stupid things that are accepted socially like geography, politics and sexual politics. How is that not childish fantasy? You have a piece of paper that says that France ends here and Spain starts here. Who said that? Only because it’s social acceptable they think it’s mature to accept it. I think fantasy is rebellion - always. Fantasies are rebellious, malleable nature and conformists normally reject fantasy. We love them because they are, in a way, the freest part of our spirit is inhabited by monsters. I believe that."
There are similarities between Pan's Labyrinth and this movie, in terms of the main characters. What would you say the similar themes are and how did you depart from that in this movie?
Guillermo del Toro: "I think thematically they are completely different. In terms of mechanisms, the first half of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has a very classic mechanism that is true of Pan’s Labyrinth and is true of Devil’s Backbone or is true of The Orphanage. It is one of the classic mechanics is the arrival to the new place and the new place is inhabited by something. That is time honored and will continue into the 21st century because as a staple, it’s a very strong foundation to build. They are completely different because in this movie it is essentially a battle at the end and in Pans Labyrinth it is a transition into another world."
"The movies have one thing in common - the male character is not a positive role. It really is more of a world where females must find each other and support each other to survive in a world that has really silly rules forced by the male character in a way, either by his fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth or by his self-absorption in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I thought it was interesting to make the father more childish than the girl. The character of Guy [Pearce], he behaves like a brat, much more than the character of Bailee [Madison] ever does."
Where do you think a lot of your creativity comes from? Is it from dreams or is it from the natural world?
Guillermo del Toro: "No, my dreams are the most boring dreams on earth. I’ve had maybe four interesting dreams in my life, that’s about it. I talk about how I’m never bored anywhere. I can be alone in a place waiting for someone for three hours and I’m not bored because I’m making up stories. I’m waiting in a restaurant, I see a guy and I just think, 'What if all of a sudden I see blood on the floor and I notice he’s bleeding, and I notice he’s injured, and then I notice that he’s sweating, and I think what if someone’s coming through the door and he is waiting for someone to kill him?' I get all caught up in this thing. Then the guy gets up and of course he’s not bleeding and he’s not injured. I entertain myself. As a child I played a lot alone and you get to create a story."
What was the most challenging scenes you had to do? Did something sneak up on you and surprise you?
Katie Holmes: "A lot of times that happens when you think, 'Oh, yeah, yeah,' and then you're like, 'Oh, this is actually a lot bigger than I thought it was.' I think one of the most challenging scenes was one that was considered quite simple, and it was this one with Guy where my character is packing up and saying, ‘I’m just going to leave,’ and the dinner is going on downstairs. As an actor, it’s one of those things where you don’t want it to be very typical of the woman getting upset and packing a suitcase. You don’t want to perform it too melodramatic. It can be a fine line with the tone. I remember we were concerned about that and working on that so it fit nicely and not too over the top. That turned out to be actually pretty challenging."
Guillermo del Toro: "I think the part that we started talking earliest about was the last third of the movie because it’s one of the hardest things to map in terms of Guy's in the garage in the final big push when they say, 'We’re leaving,’ and still the movie goes on for about 20 minutes. So, you really have to pace it in a beautiful way that you feel everybody is moving toward leaving. The creatures are going against them, they are turning off the lights, they are roping Guy, they are tumbling Katie down the steps - it all has to be perfectly planned to feel like a sustained momentum and not a series of scenes randomly edited together. We started talking about that early, early, early on. I said, 'You know what?' I told Troy, 'I wonder if we should be shitting in our pants right now in the last third?' So we started pre-viz, we started laying it out on storyboards, almost pasting the storyboards. The last third of the movie is planned almost like a battle. You have Guy coming into the kitchen, you have the rope being caught – really everything is a really smart construction. I’m very proud of it, but it was the most challenging thing from a technical point of view and a narrative point of view.""It’s one of those things where you think, 'Oh, we are going to go scene by scene,’ but at age 46 and after shooting a few movies, some problems surprise you in a movie but some of them you see coming from the horizon and you say, ‘That guy’s a motherf--ker,’ and you're prepared for that, you know? That was one of the cases where I said, 'This is going to be big.'"
Have you gotten back to your notebooks and journals after putting them on hold for a little while?
Guillermo del Toro: "Yes, I’m going back. I’m actually restarting now. I don’t force it at all and I’ve caught myself drawing again in Canada, so I’m very happy about that. I drew the first pages in a year or two for the first time in a long time."
Is that going to be something for Pacific Rim?
Guillermo del Toro: "Yes, I was drawing something for Pacific Rim. Some of the movies I love the most I don’t have one page or a page and a half. It’s not the number of pages, I don’t memorialize the movie. It’s my very own personal process. Sometimes a year and a half and there are no notes and I carry it with me. But since The Hobbit I was sputtering. I couldn’t get back to it because I was so worried about the confidentiality of The Hobbit. I was upset like, 'What if I leave it behind and they find it and read something about the plot?!' Now that I have no confidentially problems I’m going back."
What can you tell us about Pacific Rim?
Guillermo del Toro: "I have a confidentiality issue! But what I can tell you is that it’s the biggest movie I’ve done for sure by far, by far. It’s perhaps the one movie where the main location of the movie making it is fun. I expect to enjoy the challenge, but I also expect to truly create set pieces, characters, and moments that are very unique and grand. They used to call the thing in the old days, the vaudevillian, it's 'an extravaganza of monsters'."
What about the pace? Can you go slow with that or does it by nature of a being a big movie have to move a little more?
Guillermo del Toro: "Movies are weird. You never have enough time. You’re never like, 'This is leisure.' You’re always under pressure, then deadlines disappear or not. But, you're always under pressure. But you need to do in a movie like this is that if you ever, ever feel you have time or you can take your time and you don't have to work as hard, you are in the wrong business."
What about the pace of the narrative?
Guillermo del Toro: "The pacing of this movie is constantly in movement. I think you can be contemplative. It’s more interesting to be contemplative in a big action scene, if you can, and be active in an intimate scene. I think we are going to have both with this movie."
Katie, when having a child in peril is at the center of the film, do you build a wall between your own personal feelings about the situation or do you tap into those emotions because they are so close to the surface anyway?
Katie Holmes: "I think that is one of the things that is very powerful about this film is that relationship and the revelation of those feelings and that strength that comes with being a parent of any wailing of a child, you just go on alert and you know the sound of your own child’s voice and cry immediately. No, I think being a mother myself only gave me more insight. I think when you’re a parent, you can’t really turn things on and off. You’re raw and it’s always there and available. Any child in peril means something different to me now that I am a mother."
Guillermo del Toro: "It is different, however, when the child in danger is a skilled diplomat like Bailee. Somebody poised and so composed as Bailee. In the big scene where they are dramatically going to the basement and the creatures are winning and they are frantically screaming at each other, we were all very shocked hearing Bailee scream. As a parent we were saying, 'What are we doing? We are monsters!’ Then we yell cut and Bailee turns to Katie and says, 'Are you okay? Do you need anything?,' and I go, 'She’s a great actress!' She really had us on the edge."
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Don't Be Afraid of the Dark hits theaters on August 26, 2011.