Two years ago, few outside of fanboyland knew who Guillermo del Toro was. Film geeks name-dropped him as one of the "Three Amigos," a triad of up-and-coming Mexican-born buddies that includes Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro Gonzàlez Inàrritu (Babel). But del Toro was probably the nerdiest of the three—the pasty indoor kid behind Hellboy who doodled in his notebook and painted pewter dragons while his pals made "important" films with Clive Owen and Brad Pitt.
That changed with Pan's Labyrinth, his grimly vivid coming-of-age fable set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Nominated for six Oscars and winning three (including Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction), Labyrinth instantly elevated the talented schlock-meister from geek totem to critically beloved prophet. He was handpicked by Peter Jackson to helm the two-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings and took on a slew of projects that will keep him in the spotlight for years. His plate is now piled high with a Frankenstein adaptation, revisionist Dickens, loyalist Vonnegut, and more. Suddenly, we're looking down the barrel of the Del Toro Decade.
But don't worry: While he's poised to succeed Spielberg and Lucas atop Blockbuster Mountain, the 44-year-old kid from Guadalajara is still a talented schlock-meister. Who but a committed nerd would carve out time between making Hellboy II and developing The Hobbit (with executive producers Jackson and Fran Walsh, as well as scribe Philippa Boyens) to cowrite splattery vampire novels? (The Strain, a sort of modern reply to Bram Stoker's original Dracula and the first volume in an epic bloodsucker trilogy, is due out June 2.) Del Toro is tight-lipped about his three-year Hobbit odyssey—the screenplay isn't finished, and casting has yet to be announced formally. But he's more than ready to hold forth on vampires, his creative process, and the future of movies. Hint: They'll be more than just films—and you, dear reader, will be in them. If you dare.
Wired: You're pretty busy these days. What made you want to write vampire-themed horror novels?
Guillermo del Toro: I originally wrote a very long outline for a TV series I wanted to do called The Strain. And then the network president at Fox said to me, "We do want something with vampires—but could you make it a comedy?" Obviously, I responded, "No thank you" and "Can I have my outline back?"
Wired: So you turned a TV show into a novel, which you cowrote with best-selling crime author Chuck Hogan. Why a collaboration?
del Toro: I've written short stories in Spanish and English. I've written screenplays. But I'm not good at forensic novels. I'm not good at hazmat language and that CSI-style precision. When Stoker wrote Dracula, it was very modern, a CSI sort of novel. I wanted to give The Strain a procedural feel, where everything seems real.
Wired: But "real" for you is so ... unreal. You set The Strain in New York. In the past, your depictions of the city, from Mimic to Blade II to Hellboy, have had a fabulous aspect.
del Toro: It comes from my first trip to New York as a child. I was walking around Central Park, and I saw one of these expensive apartment buildings. At the top was a Gothic tower, and I said to my mother, "A vampire lives there." I wasn't being metaphorical. Then we went into the subway and—wow! For a guy from Guadalajara, the subway is mythical. The underground of the city is like what's underground in people. Beneath the surface, it's boiling with monsters.
Wired: With Pan's Labyrinth, you proved you can indulge your love of monsters and seek artistic credibility at the same time. Do you still get push-back from an industry that believes the science fiction/fantasy genre and "serious filmmaking" don't mix?
del Toro: People think because you love genre you don't know anything else. It's condescending. If the emotion is provoked and the goals are achieved, what does it matter? Is Thomas Pynchon a more worthy read than Stephen King? It depends on the afternoon. And I love Kurt Vonnegut. He threads the profane and irreverent with the profound and soul-searing.
Wired: Is that what attracted you to Slaughterhouse-Five?
del Toro: Of course. Enormous truths can be revealed with a sense of humor and whimsy. With Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, which is a less well-known film, I was trying the same thing, in a way. And with my first feature, the vampire fable Cronos, too. I tried to take genre premises and explore them obliquely, where the fantastic is either tangential or illuminates reality in a different way.
Wired: The movies you've booked will keep you busy for another decade or more. They will also make you the dominant fantasist for this period, which promises profound tech-driven upheavals in both content and distribution. What will we see?
del Toro: In the next 10 years, we're going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform "story engine." The Model T of this new platform is the PS3. The moment you connect creative output with a public story engine, a narrative can continue over a period of months or years. It's going to rewrite the rules of fiction.
Wired: It sounds like you're talking about an entirely new form of storytelling.
del Toro: Think about the way oral tradition became written word—how what we know about Achilles was written many, many years after it made its way around the world with different names and different types of heroes. That can happen when you allow content to keep propagating itself through different kinds of platforms and engines—when you permit it to be retold with a promiscuous form of mythology. You see it when people create their own avatars in games and transfigure their game worlds.
Wired: How is that interactivity going to change Hollywood—and the way directors like you make movies?
del Toro: [Legendary B-movie producer] Samuel Arkoff once told me there are only 10 great stories. That's where the engine and promiscuity come in. Hollywood thinks art is like Latin in the Middle Ages—only a few should know it, only a few should speak it. I don't think so.
Wired: So how will the public story engine tell those same 10 stories differently?
del Toro: We are used to thinking of stories in a linear way—act one, act two, act three. We're still on the Aristotelian model. What the digital approach allows you to do is take a tangential and nonlinear model and use it to expand the world. For example: If you're following Leo Bloom from Ulysses on a certain day and he crosses a street, you can abandon him and follow someone else.
Wired: You're describing a model that's more like a videogame. Is the merger of movies and games the first step?
del Toro: Unfortunately, I've found in my videogame experience that the big companies are just as conservative as the studios. I was disappointed with the first Hellboy game. I'm very impressed with the sandbox of Grand Theft Auto. You can get lost in that world. But we're using it just to shoot people and run over old ladies. We could be doing so much more.
Wired: But these nonlinear, hybrid storytelling forms involve gaming tech, which could trap them in a geek ghetto. What's going to bring down that wall?
del Toro: Go back a couple of decades to the birth of the graphic novel—I think we can pinpoint the big bang to Will Eisner's A Contract With God. Today, we have very worthy people doing literary comics. I think the same thing will happen on the Internet-gaming side. In the next 10 years, there will be an earthshaking Citizen Kane of games.
Wired: Are you going to create it?
del Toro: I'll be trying to make it. But I won't be trying until after The Hobbit.
Wired: Seems like you're pulling an Obama on us: doing everything at once. That's an interesting strategy.
del Toro: Look, the fact that I have a simulacrum of a career is a wonder. To paraphrase John Lennon, a career is what happens when you're making other plans.