For Guillermo del Toro, it's an honor to be nominated, but the real win is attending the Oscar Nominees Luncheon. "Every time you are fortunate and hardworking enough to get a nomination, you get to be there," he grins, reclining in the L.A. office he affectionately calls Bleak House. "I've been there four times, and the four times is extremely moving. That's the high point."
The filmmaker, who was previously in attendance as a nominee for Pan's Labyrinth in 2007, for The Shape of Water in 2018, and for Nightmare Alley last year, was back again for the 95th Oscars luncheon, as a Best Animated Feature Film nominee with Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, a darkly poignant reimagining of the classic fable, co-directed with pioneering stop-motion animator Mark Gustafson.
"You are there," del Toro says of the luncheon, "and you have this feeling of being part of, like, a carnival community. You see the trapeze artists, the fire eaters, the lion tamers, whatever you want, and they're all there in one room with you." As for who del Toro is in this analogy? "I'd love to be part of the freak show."
"I think if you talk to a stop-motion lover, which I've been all of my life, we love animation in a different way than somebody that likes animation in a painterly way," he ruminates. "We like the physicality of the puppets. We like the toy-like beauty of a set that has been hand carved, and painted, and lit by real light. There is something of a miniaturist [in us]. And, at the same time, we are the most outsider community in the animation community."
The movie has been a lifetime in the making for del Toro, whose mother, Guadalupe, took him to see Disney's Pinocchio as a young boy and long championed her director son to helm a version of his own. Del Toro spent his childhood shooting stop-motion films with a Super 8 camera his father owned, before launching a company in Mexico specializing in effects makeup and stop-motion. His directorial debut would have been an animated film, had outside forces not intervened. (Del Toro instead segued into live-action and went on to win two Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director, with 2017's The Shape of Water.) Decades later, he has returned to his first love.
Based on illustrator Gris Grimly's 2002 take on Carlo Collodi's 19th-century novel, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is set in 1930s Italy, amidst the rise of fascism, as the humble woodworker Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) loses one son to The Great War and gains another in the marionette he carves from a tree stump. As told by del Toro, Pinocchio is brought to life by a Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), runs away to join the circus, is conscripted into Mussolini's army, and is swallowed by a monstrous dogfish. All the while, he keeps dying and is sent to the underworld where he communes with Death herself (also Swinton).
"It's really an acknowledgement of the hard work that everybody on the team put in, because it is a team effort. It takes hundreds of people to make these movies," Gustafson says of the nomination. "The award is really for this whole crew. They really poured themselves into it, and I think you can see that in the film. I know it's a cliché, but it was truly a labor of love. It really was."
In conversations with del Toro and Gustafson, the directors reflect on the journey of reanimating Pinocchio and why the wooden puppet without strings still resonates with del Toro 50 years later.
A.frame: Guillermo, I know you've had a lifelong relationship with Pinocchio. What is it about this story or Pinocchio as a character that resonated with you then and continues to resonate with you all these years later?
Del Toro: I saw Pinocchio and Frankenstein very close to each other. I saw Pinocchio in a theater with my mom, and a few weeks later, Frankenstein was on the TV. Every Sunday in Mexico, they would show Universal movies on TV. And they melded in my head. And they both felt biographical because, as a kid, I felt the world was a very scary place and that I didn't quite fit the model that my father would've liked me to be. The kind of boy my dad wanted me to be. Where other boys were outgoing, and ferocious, and they played football, and they were forces of nature, I was quiet. I was interested in reading. I was interested in watching. I was a very young hypochondriac, and I felt Pinocchio and the creature of Frankenstein both felt really close to me. They felt very autobiographical, and they fused in my head at a very early age.
Mark, what is your relationship to both the original novel and to the 1940 Disney film?
Gustafson: Well, I had never read the novel until I realized I was going to work on this project. I didn't see the Disney version until I was in my 20s. My parents controlled the media that I consumed very carefully and, for whatever reason, Pinocchio fell outside that window of what they thought was appropriate. But I knew so much about Pinocchio because it's in pop culture, so you're sorting through what Collodi was doing and what everybody else has done with this story over time. The central theme — this notion that, if you behave, if you're a good boy, then you will become a real boy — that didn't seem that compelling to me. So, when I talked to Guillermo for the first time and realized what he was thinking about in terms of really flipping that on its ear, then it became interesting to me — this notion that there is value in disobedience. There's value in questioning the system.
This story has been told in 2D animation and in CGI, and there have been a number of live-action adaptations. What were you able to achieve in Pinocchio that you only could in stop-motion?
Del Toro: First of all, we do a beautiful, meta thing, which is everybody in the movie thinks they're not puppets, but they're puppets. And the one that is a real puppet doesn't behave like a puppet. So, that is, in and of itself, worth it. And from a visual standpoint, Pinocchio needs to feel of a piece with the rest of the world, and stop-motion makes everything belong together. It's almost like a reverse uncanny valley. If Pinocchio feels different than the humans around him, the whole movie collapses. If it's a puppet or a CG Pinocchio or an animatronic or a kid in makeup, it's very hard to fuse with the world.
Gustafson: With stop-motion, you can create a whole world that's very homogenous. You just accept it because you can design it so thoroughly. Once people settle into it, you can introduce an element like Pinocchio, who is supposed to be the aberration. We designed him to be different than the rest of the world in some ways, and yet he still fits into that world. You don't see him as such an oddity that your brain is having to say, 'Well, why is this in this?' He's weird, but it all kind of works together.
Del Toro: The other thing is the love that I felt for the Gris Grimly design. When I first saw it in and around 2004, I thought it would be enhanced by making it a tactile, carved-feeling piece of three-dimensional sculpture. Because with stop-motion, even when you're a little kid, you have the clear sense that these are miniatures. You don't think they're full size, and there's something extremely moving about that. One of the things we are trying to do with the movie is to show a new generation of kids that this animation can be handmade. Because there's a generation of people that like the parables and stories that you can tell in animation, but they think of a computer. And they think, 'Oh, this is something expensive that I cannot access.' The great thing about stop-motion is, you as a kid, if you love it, you can practice it the next day with your toys.
Is there an aspect of your Pinocchio that is exactly as you always imagined it from those earliest days?
Del Toro: The earliest thing was, can we make it about disobedience and can we make that be seen as a virtue? Can we make it about the only true love is the true love that doesn't want to change you? That you can be loved exactly for who you are. Those two things landed really well. Exactly as I thought.
Gustafson: Pinocchio goes through the whole story kind of completely naked and exposed. And I think it makes people uncomfortable when somebody just asks why and they seem to have nothing to hide. We purposely didn't give him clothes for that reason. He's also unfinished. He was carved by a guy who was drunk at the time, so he's deeply imperfect in terms of the way he looks. But it doesn't seem to bother him. He's accepted himself. Now, the world has to accept him.
And the flip side, what most changed or evolved through the process?
Del Toro: Other stuff like the political part of it — the fact that it was going to take place during the rise of Mussolini and approximating the rule of fascism in Italy — that evolved when I did The Devil's Backbone and evolved after I did Pan's Labyrinth. All that moved. But the original impulse of disobedience and being loved as you are and making it a father and son story where Geppetto learned more than Pinocchio, those things landed.
What did you learn making this movie that you feel will be invaluable to you going forward? Guillermo, I know you've committed to continuing on in the world of stop-motion with The Buried Giant.
Del Toro: The final line, 'What happens, happens. And then, we're gone,' when I wrote that line, I knew that I was able to sort of distill a very adult, humbling acceptance of the universe's will. I think is a beautiful line. That was a big growth. And I think collaborating on the screenplay with Pat McHale was really, really fun, and collaborating on the direction with Mark, those things really, really prepare you for a period of your craft in which you learn the value of listening and looking rather than demanding and talking. Those are real great things that you move towards in the last part of your career. I know, if I'm lucky, I'm on the last quarter of my career, because the culture will pass way past you and, all of a sudden, your voice is not relevant then. That's great.
But I think, ideally, on the last part of your career, you learn to listen and you learn to look through your collaborator's eyes. I think this movie did that with hundreds of people. I was very, very happy encouraging everybody to make this movie a self-portrait. I wanted the ownership of this film to belong to every animator, to belong to every designer, to belong to everyone, so everybody that you asked, they will say 'my movie.'
You have such an empathetic, curious approach to filmmaking that I can't imagine your voice not being relevant. I don't see you as a filmmaker time will pass by.
Del Toro: Well, the thing is I am aware of one thing. I've never really quite belonged in any ledger of filmmakers. I'm not the super blockbuster guy. I'm not the purely arthouse guy. I'm not the purely genre guy. So, I'll last a little longer. But I think it is really the function of a storyteller at one point to be a facilitator for the next generation, and I'm very, very interested in that. I love producing, I love discussing film with young filmmakers and cinephiles, and I think it really is a very compelling thing for me to dedicate more time to that.
Your mother was a big champion of you doing Pinocchio, and she sadly passed away right before the premiere. How did she react when you did finally tell her you were making the movie? And was she able to see any of what you were doing over the years?
Del Toro: She did. My mother was in her 80s, and whoever went to visit her, you needed to be very, very careful. So, for the last two and a half years, we spoke mostly on Zoom. She loved the designs. She loved the drawings. Through the years, she gave me many, many wooden Pinocchios, because she always said, 'That's the one. That's the one you should be doing.' And then, when I was finally doing it, she said, 'It's going to come out precious.' She had the word precious. She said, 'That's going to be precious.' And I know I don't hold a Catholic view of the world, but I have the complete belief that we remain, that we linger. Whether it is emotional, sentimental or spiritual, I have no idea. And I do feel she has seen the movie and she's happy about it existing.
By John Boone