Guillermo del Toro Honored With Career Tribute at MoMA Film Benefit – The Hollywood Reporter
Guillermo del Toro’s three decades of creative work was honored and celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art’s 15th annual Film Benefit on Thursday in New York.
During an evening that featured in-person and video messages from Alejandro Iñárritu, Jessica Chastain, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Ewan McGregor, MoMA’s Chief Curator of Film Rajendra Roy and more friends and collaborators alongside a set from Grammy-winning artist H.E.R., the Oscar-winning director delivered a powerful and sentimental opus on his creative vision and love of storytelling.
Highlighting that this was a full-circle moment after bringing Cronos to MoMA 30 years ago, the Pan’s Labyrinth director spoke to the personal impact of movies on him, the beauty of art as mystery and his own style. “One of the purposes of art is to interpret what we know,” he said. “But also, there is a form of art that then occupies itself for the impossible … This is the land of parable, fable — two of the oldest forms of narrative. These are the ones I have chosen. And this is the vernacular I love.”
Del Toro went on to explain why his work so frequently touches on monstrosity, an exploration of the literal and metaphorical, in which creatures “are not afraid to wear their imperfections as a badge of honor.”
“I think that the only way you can be loved is if you’re loved for who you are,” the director said, taking a moment to address his own emotions. “This is why I love monsters and this is why film has saved my life so many times. Because these convictions and these images exist in a land beyond words, in a plane that can only be touched by sound and image. I have followed the beckoning of things I cannot name, and I have aspired to dreams and ideas to which I have been faithful, and I have abandoned reason to birth monsters. I’m in disobedience with reality to find truth.”
The director also spoke to the power of film, art and fantasy not just to connect people, but to serve as a light “during very, very dark times” that “actually allows us to grasp ideas and concepts that we could not embrace or encompass in any other way.”
“The prelude to totalitarian dictatorship is always preceded by a few signs: the rejection of science, the rejection of art as elitism, the enjoyment of popular art as the only dignified thing to pursue and ultimately the embrace of folk wisdom that creates hatred and division and makes us believe that we are separate and that we are not together in this. That’s why normalcy and monsters are intrinsically political notions,” he said.
“We are in a journey to find the impossible and I believe in the power of art to heal us and make us whole,” he later added. “I believe that in times of darkness like now, we seek each other, we find each other, only through this because art is a common spirit that we all share.”
Beyond the helmer’s emotional speech, the evening was a celebration by his fellow artists of del Toro’s personal kindness, creative meticultiousness and his distinctive love for exploring monstrosity onscreen. That included speeches from Crimson Peak actress Chastain, Nightmare Alley and Cabinet of Curiosities star Tim Blake Nelson, Shape of Water actor Richard Jenkins, and Pinocchio voice actors Finn Wolfhard and Gregory Mann.
On the event’s carpet, Chastain acknowledged del Toro as a fellow artist who cares about social themes and representation in creative storytelling. But she also celebrated his working spirit. “Guillermo is someone that when you show up at work, and you’re there until 4 in the morning, and everyone’s exhausted, he’s like, ‘Let’s shoot again!’ He’s so excited to be there,” she said.
During the event, she elaborated on working into the early morning with the director on the gothic horror-romance, and how — during a scene involving an angry confrontation between her and Crimson Peak co-star Mia Wasikowska’s character — del Toro was able to pull the kind of performance out of her that the scene required, to his delight.
“He told me to fill myself up with as much loathing and hatred as possible and just see what happens. So I close my eyes and I pictured him giving me that note until 4 a.m.,” she said. “He calls action. Bam. I slammed the skillet on a table — eggs go flying into people’s faces and hair. I get right up into Mia’s face and I scream the like Tom Hanks in Castaway screaming for Wilson.”
“On cut, I’m trying to cool myself down. I’m still a little bit in the scene. I see Guillermo running over to me and he, in the sweetest voice and the happiest smile, yells with a child-like glee, ‘You made my balls crawl up into my body!’” the actress recalled, to crowd laughter. “Best compliment I’ve ever gotten because I knew if I could scare him so much that his testicles grew tiny arms and legs and were like, ‘I’m outta here,’ and then crawled inside of his body, I must have gotten the Guillermo del Toro seal of approval.”
While onstage with Wolfhard, Mann also celebrated del Toro’s energetic spirit and shared how the creative had never treated him differently because he was a younger performer. “Since the first day that I had the honor of working with Guillermo, he’s only ever treated me like an equal, not a little boy, because he himself has an infectious child-like enthusiasm and passion for whatever he does,” the Pinocchio star said. “Guillermo is so full of ideas, and he has such a clear vision and it brings out the best in everyone around him.”
Unlike Chastain and Mann, Neslon and Jenkins met del Toro later in life, both telling THR on the event’s carpet that the director had sought them out for a specific role. For Jenkins, who called the director “open” to his actors and “meticioulous” in everything he does, the Shape of Water helmer “never makes a movie just to make a movie. It’s always about something. That’s why he’s an artist.”
Jenkins attempted to unpack del Toro’s creative aesthetic while discussing an early experience on set filming the 2018 best picture winner. After visiting the soundstage where his character’s library was erected, Jenkins said he asked the director where the books and paintings had come from. “It was all his stuff. All of it. So the conclusion that I came to is everything was authentic, but nothing was real,” he said. “This was a piece of art that he had crafted to fit in this world of The Shape of Water.”
Acknowledging that he “certainly would have worked with Guillermo earlier,” Nelson likened the Hellboy director to other greats he’s collaborated with, including the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg. Calling him a “four quadrant” creative, the actor recognized del Toro’s ability to work with performers like theater directors and his ability to “manage the enormous technical challenges of a movie.”
“Plus, Guillermo has an uninhibited connection to his subconscious, so the images he puts on screen and the scenarios that he writes, are ones you’ve never seen before, that you never could have imagined, and that come from the recesses of this incredible mind without any editing,” he continued. “And because of his technical prowess, he’s able to realize it.”
During his onstage remarks, Nelson elaborated on this while speaking to his time with del Toro on Nightmare Alley in a speech that seemingly captured the entire room’s understanding of the director’s personal and creative power.
“I took intimate direction from him, not really understanding how it ramified until I saw Nightmare Alley at its premiere, and understood how as with every actor in the film, he had me making sense in a cruel world without my ever feeling that my character was cruel,” Nelson explained. “Inside of this astonishing man who brings such terror, frailty, anguish, and hope to the screen is perhaps the most optimistically generous lover of life I’ve ever encountered. To work with him, to break bread with him, to listen to him, to be heard by him, simply makes you better because you always depart knowing how profoundly lucky you are to be alive.”
Chanel, which has supported the event since 2011, served as the evening’s leading sponsor, continuing its longtime patronage and preservation of art, cinema and the medium’s most talented and audacious voices. The annual event, which has honored Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, Tim Burton and Baz Luhrmann in past years, supports film preservation and more specifically MoMA’s Department of Film, founded in 1935 and which cares for 30,000 films and 1.5 million film stills while doubling as one of the strongest international film collections.
For Into the Woods and Power Book III: Raising Kanan actress Patina Miller, del Toro was the perfect choice for an event honoring distinctive voices in film and the preservation of those voices.
“He’s a visionary in what he’s been able to do for the medium and the fact that MoMA’s celebrating him and taken steps to preserve all of these iconic films the way that they have, it means that as the generations continue to go on, they’ll still be able to go back and see his body of work that people keep talking about,” she told THR.