Guillermo Del Toro On ‘Pinocchio’ And How His First Attempt At A Stop-Motion Film Was Sabotaged – Contenders L.A.

Director Guillermo del Toro is known for the intense originality of his work, on vivid display in Oscar-winning films from Pan’s Labyrinth to The Shape of Water. For his latest, the Netflix animated film Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, he again set a high bar for himself.

“We believe that we should be bold, we should be crazy,” he said during an appearance at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles awards-season event. “We should try things that have never been done, push the art.”

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Del Toro co-directed the film with Mark Gustafson, the stop-motion animator making his feature directorial debut. It’s a reimagining of the classic tale of woodcarver Gepetto, who carves the boy Pinocchio out of a tree. Gustafson said he responded to the script written by del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the 19th century original by Carlo Collodi.

“It was the unique take that he and Patrick, his co-writer, had on the story,” Gustafson explained. “They came at it with the notion of what is important about being disobedient as opposed to obedience. In the standard story, Pinocchio has to be a good boy and learn these lessons, and then he becomes a real boy. And they were saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, how do you learn to be yourself? How do you learn to be real? You learn by questioning.’ And that seemed like a really interesting idea to me and a reason to tell this story again in a completely different way.”

To get a sense of it, check out a clip from the film, which hits select theaters and Netflix on December 9:

For the score, del Toro worked with Alexandre Desplat, the French composer who earned one of his two Oscars for del Toro’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water.

“To me they’re both live-action movies. It’s strange. I feel the same emotion when I watch Pinocchio when I watch The Shape of Water,” Desplat said. “Guillermo’s world, some people say it’s dark. It’s not dark, it’s just deep. There’s this depth, there’s soul… So then for a composer, there are so many options to explore because it’s not just a one-dimensional type of character or a one-dimensional story.”

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Del Toro and Gustafson employed a laborious mechanical stop-motion animation process that involved attaching puppets to a rig and moving them a fraction for every frame, 24 frames a second, over the course of a nearly two-hour movie. Del Toro’s earliest experience in cinema came in animation in his native Guadalajara, Mexico. 

“I started with animation before live action. I was teaching animation in high school at 17 to kids 15 and 14,” he said, recounting a story of his aborted first effort at making a film. “I started a company that did for 10 years special effects and stop motion, and I was supposed to start with a stop-motion movie before Cronos [his 1993 feature debut].

“Between my then-girlfriend and my brother, we built over a hundred puppets with clay. I did the armatures, we did the sculpting, the design, we built a few sets and we started the first day of photography — I was animating the puppet. We left for dinner and we got burglarized. And the burglars, frustrated for not finding anything of value, crushed every single puppet and pooped and peed all over the floor, which was the signal [for me] to go to live action. And I said, live action it is.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, then, marks a return to his first cinematic love, but it took a while to come to fruition.

“After Pan’s Labyrinth, we started talking about Pinocchio around 2004 and we were already being happily rejected in 2008 by every major studio,” he joked. “Everybody passed, but it took about 15, 16 years to make the movie to get it done.”

Pinocchio features the vocal talents of Gregory Mann as Pinocchio and David Bradley as Gepetto, as well as Ewan McGregor (Sebastian J. Cricket), Cate Blanchett (Spazzatura), Tilda Swinton (Wood Sprite/Death), John Turturro (Dottore) and Christoph Waltz (Count Volpe) among others.

Del Toro during the panel also made it clear his movie isn’t just for children, issuing a lighthearted manifesto from the Contenders stage at the DGA Theater.

“We believe that animation is not a goddamn genre for kids, it is a medium that is perfect for art and spirituality,” he declared. “We also believe that animators are actors. They’re cast and should be credited right up front next to the cast. And we did that. And we believe that between action and cut they are in command.” 

Check back Monday for the panel video.

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