Born Oct. 9, 1964 in Guadalajara, Mexico, del Toro was struck by the horror genre at a very young age - he remembered being terrified at age two by the "Mutant" episode from the original sci-fi/horror series "The Outer Limits" (ABC, 1963-65). After seeing green ants on the walls and monsters in the closet, del Toro made a pact to devote his life to the monsters, but only if they would let him into the bedroom without harm. Apparently the monsters agreed to the terms and del Toro spent his formative years making monster movies with a Super-8 camera, action figures and a bottle of ketchup. He graduated to 16 and 35mm shorts, eventually attending Dick Smith's Advanced Makeup Course, where he learned the ins and outs of special effects makeup. Del Toro spent a better part of the 1980s and early 1990s working as a special effects makeup artist, though he did get an early jump in filmmaking by producing "Dona Herlinda Y Su Hijo/Dona Herlinda and Her Son" (1984). Del Toro broke away from Smith and formed his own company, the now-defunct Necropia, in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, del Toro directed numerous episodes of Mexican television programs, including the horror anthology "Hora Marcada" (1986). Del Toro also taught film workshops and co-founded Film Studies Center and the Mexican Film Festival, both of which resided in his home city of Guadalajara. It was during this period, however, that del Toro began thinking about his first feature film.
Del Toro began shooting Cronos (1994) in February of 1992 in his native Mexico. A highly original telling of the classic vampire tale, "Cronos" swept Mexico's Ariel Awards with nine wins, including one for Best Picture. Mexico also made "Cronos" their official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1993 Academy Awards. The film also made the festival rounds, winning the critic's prize at Cannes while being shown at Sundance and the San Francisco International Film Festival. But most significantly, "Cronos" marked the first collaboration between del Toro and actor Ron Perlman, an alliance that would prove fruitful in later movies. As was typically the case with successful independent filmmakers, del Toro had a chance to direct his first Hollywood movie. The result was Mimic (1997), another foray into the horror genre that turned out to be much different than what del Toro originally wanted. Starring Mira Sorvino as one of two scientists - the other played by Jeremy Northam - who genetically engineer cockroaches, only to have the experiments come back to haunt them with a vengeance, the movie left del Toro unhappy because of constant studio pressures. But it was a learning experience; one that would assist the director in Hollywood confrontations to come. Meanwhile, in 1997, del Toro's father was kidnapped by criminals looking to make bank on the ransom. Del Toro and his brothers negotiated his release, which occurred 72 days after his capture. Unwilling to expose his family to such an enterprise, del Toro involuntarily left Mexico to take up residence in Los Angeles.
Del Toro returned to independent filmmaking when he directed the critically acclaimed period piece The Devil's Backbone (2001), an ambitious take on the fabled ghost story. Set during the last days of the Spanish Civil War, the film told a mournful tale of ghosts haunting a school shelter for orphans and abandoned children. Hailed for its ominous mood and fine performances, the film reconfirmed del Toro's artistic prowess. Confident in his ability to take on Hollywood again, del Toro jumped back into the lion's den with the vampire action-thriller Blade II (2002), starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson and Ron Perlman. Del Toro had more control over the final product, which resulted in a better movie, happier filmmaker and more box office dollars. Del Toro reunited with Perlman to make Hellboy (2004), another in a wave of comic book adaptations churned out by Hollywood. As a longtime fan of the Dark Horse comic book series written and illustrated by Mike Mignola, Del Toro waged war with studio executives once again, mainly over his choice to cast as the title character. The director insisted on Perlman from the very beginning, while the studio predictably demanded a more bankable name. Del Toro managed to get his way and Perlman was cast to star as a spawn of Hell who is raised from the flaming depths by Nazis at the end of World War II, only to be captured and reared by the benevolent Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt). Although the comic book was often short on story and the movie occasionally followed suit, del Toro delivered on mood and character, with many scenes looking like Mignola's comic book panels come to life, while his decision to cast Perlman proved to be wise one. With the success of "Hellboy," del Toro managed to separate himself from his fellow directors-in-arms to become a truly international filmmaker.
Touching upon the time and place covered in "The Devil's Backbone," del Toro directed the powerful and haunting Pan's Labyrinth (2006), a stark fantasy set during post-civil war Spain about a lonely young girl (Ivana Baquero) who escapes her violent surroundings and her ruthless, authoritarian step father (Sergi López) by creating a fairy tale world filled with fantastic creatures. Summoned by an ancient faun, the girl learns she is a princess and sets about solving a series of tasks where she must come to terms with the fascism and violence of the outside world, as well as the equally disturbing underworld of her own creation. As he had done since his days in television, del Toro turned to fellow directors and best friends Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu for artistic guidance and support. All three had a banner year in 2006 - Cuaron's "Children of Men" and González Iñárritu's "Babel" were more often than not mentioned in the same breath as "Pan's Labyrinth" in an effort to underscore the importance of their influence on filmmaking. Meanwhile, "Pan's Labyrinth" earned six Academy Award nods, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film.
Going back to the well, del Toro returned to direct the sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Stepping into a producer's role, he helped bring Iñárritu's Spanish-language drama Biutiful (2010) to the screen and was the executive producer on the animated hit Puss In Boots (2011). Meanwhile, he was slated to direct the highly anticipated "Lord of the Rings" prequel, "The Hobbit" (2012-13), for producer Peter Jackson and spent two years developing the project with him. But in 2010, del Toro announced that he was departing the project due to the financial woes of MGM. He remained on the project as one of the co-writers, while Jackson took hold of the directing reigns. Del Toro continued to produce, shepherding Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011), a remake of a 1983 USA Network television movie. The update starred Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce as a newly married couple who move into an old manor with his neglected daughter (Bailee Madison), only to discover strange and murderous little creatures lurking in a basement furnace.
By Shawn Dwyer
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