When Guillermo del Toro was a
little boy growing up in Mexico, he and his brother watched a 1973
TV movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – which scared
the bejesus out of the young boy. The movie, which has become a bit
of a cult favorite, is about a woman (Kim Darby) moving into a new
home with her husband, only to find that the basement was occupied
by thousands of homunculi – vengeful little demonic fairies that
haunted and attacked the woman.
The film had a huge effect on the
young boy, and years later, del Toro has become a respected
filmmaker known for exploring the same dark corners in life. Films
like Hellboy and particularly his childhood nightmare
Pan’s Labyrinth somewhat sprang from the same pool of
imagination as the TV movie which kept little Guillermo rapt all
those years ago.
When he first started making a
name for himself, del Toro wrote a screenplay updating the film he
had loved so much as a child. Due to studio politics and a takeover
of the company that he sold the screenplay to, the project was put
on the shelf for a decade or so. Finally del Toro was able to
regain control of his screenplay and immediately set about finally
getting his dream project to the screen. Though he was very
hands-on and involved in the project, he decided not to direct it,
though, handing those reigns to graphic novelist Troy Nixey.
Actress Katie Holmes grew up in
Toledo, OH and was a bit too young to see Don’t Be Afraid of the
Dark when it was first on TV. (She was actually born five years
after the film aired.) Still, even though she was not overly
familiar with the original she jumped at the chance to star in the
remake as an opportunity to work with the talented filmmaker.
The actress (and wife of superstar
Tom Cruise) has put together an impressive body of work over the
years. She first became a star on the TV series Dawson’s Creek.
Since then, she has put together a varied and quirky filmography
which includes the like of Batman Begins, The Ice Storm, Wonder
Boys, Pieces of April, Phone Booth and Thank You For Smoking.
In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,
Holmes plays Kim, the young girlfriend of Alex (Guy Pearce).
Kim and Alex make a living renovating old homes and they have all
their money invested in the old Blackwood Manor, a huge castle with
a dark past. When Alex’s 9-year old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison)
comes to stay with them, she is drawn to voices in the basement. At
first she thinks they are kindly creatures, but soon they show
themselves to be evil fairies. Kim is having trouble connecting
with her future daughter-in-law, but when she realizes the girl is
in trouble she fights valiantly to save her from the little
creatures who want Sally.
A couple of weeks before the film
was due to open, we were invited to be one of a select group of
press outlets to speak with Holmes and del Toro about the making of
Warning: there are some spoilers
revealed towards the end of the interview. We will tell you before
they come, but if you haven’t seen the movie and do not want
important plot points revealed, please stop reading when the story
when we tell you.
I understand this film was a
remake of a TV movie from the 70s that wasn’t very good….
Guillermo del Toro: Well, I
wouldn’t say that. I actually think it was very, very good
in 1973. It had sort of a cult status through the years. It was
really one of the scariest TV movies ever made. People seeing it
now, out of context, can say that it has aged. But back in the day
it was really, really scary for many reasons, including the fact
that it happened to people in our times. It was not the story of
Victorian characters going into a gothic castle. It was suburban.
It happened to people that had jobs. That had to commute. So that
was very, very fresh back then. It made such an impression on me
that I sought the rights in the 90s. I got the rights and wrote
this movie with Matthew Robbins thirteen years ago. It’s not the
same. It has some of the same plot devices, but it’s an entirely
the original, the character being spooked was a grown woman, but
here you have made it a little girl. Why do you feel that works
Guillermo del Toro: First
of all, because the function of the character was truly that no one
believed her. The tragedy in the ’73 movie is that it was Kim Darby
as an adult and she really was almost morbidly submissive. She was
passive and she was really almost like a battered character. I
didn’t like [that]. I wanted to create a movie that had very strong
female roles – for both the leads. It was a story where the male
character was kind of useless. The male character was so
self-absorbed that only the adult woman started to listen to the
child. I thought it was interesting, as the character of Kim says,
“It doesn’t matter if it’s real; it’s real to her” and starts
listening to the kid. That’s the big twist. The original was
definitely just a horror movie straight on and we’re trying to make
it have a really dark fairytale element into it.
This will seem a weird
question, but did you feel a presence in this house? Did you feel a
haunting while you were there shooting?
Katie Holmes: No. We used
the outside of a house, and then the inside was a set. The grounds
of the outside of the house – where we did exterior locations – it
didn’t feel like something was going to come out and grab you. But
it was inspiring, because it really did feel like a fairytale, but
also you could believe that something creepy could happen. I never
got the sense that there was a ghost or anything lurking, it was
just like, wow, this is the perfect place for this kind of movie.
It was beautiful.
What about your character?
Guillermo was just talking about having strong female roles here.
What was your reaction to Kim? She seems to be frustrated with her
relationship with the little girl at first, but then she becomes a
Katie Holmes: That’s what I
really loved about her. It was thrilling to work with Guillermo. I
was very excited, especially… one of my favorite scenes is at the
end of the movie when Kim gets hurt and she wakes up and realizes
that Sally is in danger. You see her use up all of her strength to
do what she has to do. I think that’s very real. I like being the
strong female characters – somebody who doesn’t run away screaming
when she is scared, but confronts the monsters, so I really enjoyed
interesting, because Kim begins the movie fearful she is going to be
the unloved stepmother, but she becomes more of a parent to Sally
than her actual parents.
Katie Holmes: Right. I
love the relationship between Kim and Sally. I love the bonding
that occurs. It’s really about two human beings that recognize
something of themselves in each other. That shared relationship
that turns into something very special and powerful. Kim has to
learn not only to listen, but how to bring this little girl into her
life and make her feel safe. And then to do the ultimate act of
Guillermo del Toro: The
curious thing is it has to be very clear that what was attractive to
me was that she already had a mother who by the description and
little interactions is a terrible mother. But what they find is
each other. They find each other not as mother and daughter, which
is the role Kim was afraid of entering into because we hint at her
having a terrible childhood too. They find each other as women, as
two women that completely have to make each other strong because the
guy around which all their lives circles around is frankly an
absent-minded, self-centered little prick. (laughs)
When you were young, what used
to scare you in the dark – if anything? Did you go back to that
place when making the movie?
Guillermo del Toro: I have
many times, lucid dreams, so I used to see things in the dark in a
dream where I dreamt I was in the space I was. so it seemed real.
So, I was very afraid of the dark as a child. And because my
brothers and I saw the [original] movie together we made it a point
to scare each other by saying “Sally,” and then they would run
away. Neither of us was named Sally (laughs); but that
didn’t make it any less scary. But no, I was very afraid as a
Katie Holmes: What I was
afraid of as a child? I am the youngest of five, so my brothers and
sisters and I would try to scare each other, too. Hide and jump out
and things like that.
You were the youngest right?
Katie Holmes: Yes.
So they could really get to
Katie Holmes: And I could
really get to them because I was so small. (laughs) So just
things like that.
mentioned you got inspiration for the creatures in a book…
Guillermo del Toro: Yes,
it’s many, many. It’s not one book. The studies of folklore in
Judeo-Christian mythology say that when God and the Devil waged
battle the fairy folk declared themselves neutral. They didn’t care
which one won, and therefore they were cast down to live under the
earth. In traditional folklore, they are not necessarily considered
beneficial. They are considered creatures that can bring great
gifts and goods, or they can be absolutely terrible. Kidnap babies,
kidnap people. They can kidnap an eight year old and return them
fifteen years later the same age with the parents aged. Remember
Rip Van Winkle that disappeared for many years? They are known to
really be very tricky, very morally illusive characters.
They also managed to figure out
electricity and garage door openers…
Guillermo del Toro: Well,
what they do is they knew very basic electricity, they just fry
themselves. That was in the original movie and I adored it because
it shows they are so smart. They are tacticians. In order to bring
down a six-foot-tall guy, they use the wires. They use a little
hook to turn off the light. They know he’s using that little box to
operate the car door and they hide it. I think what is very scary
about these little things is not only that they are unstoppable and
determined, but they’re smart. They’re not just little rats. They
communicate. They talk. They are quite evil. That was very
important to me.
Can you talk about their design
and where their look came from? Did you know what you wanted them to
look like before filming began and did you relay that to your cast?
Guillermo del Toro: When
[director] Troy [Nixey] came aboard on the movie we agreed very
quickly. I said, “I really want to honor the design of the original
creatures. The original creatures now they seem really kind of
silly. They were like teddy bears with masks on and claws. The
idea… for some reason that made sense when I was a kid. [Sci-Fi
author H.P.] Lovecraft has a great story, “Dreams and the Witch
House,” that has a character that has the body of a rat and the face
of a man. We wanted to make them vermin-like and their bodies
twisted, bodies with hair. When we designed creatures we tried to
tell the story in how they are designed. We wanted their bones
twisted to show the lack of calcium and the lack of sunlight. We
created them to be like humanoid sort of vermin. That would
communicate immediately they were cave dwellers. They were really
resilient, nasty. When you see them you have no doubt that they are
very fierce little creatures. I think that’s the important thing;
design them with a concept of what they do in mind.
At one point you brought Chet
Zar and Keith Thompson – two of the designers – into your house to
work on the designs. That suggests you wanted to put them in a
place where the atmosphere of your fantasy man cave would sort of
seep into them in terms of designs that they were doing.
Guillermo del Toro: We came
in and Chet came up with good ideas. Keith came up with others. We
designed the creatures in three-and-a-half days – really quick
because we were linear. Troy did one design that was key. We went,
“Let’s run with that.” I think Chet was very useful for the face of
the fairies. Really at the end of the day it was a combination, but
the lead in the design of the creatures was without a doubt Troy.
what were you picturing while you were filming and what’s your
reaction having seen the creatures realized?
Katie Holmes: I often got
to sneak in… Guillermo said, “Come, look at the creatures.” I was
definitely allowed to see them. When we were filming, we were
looking at pieces of tape, but I knew what they looked like. What I
love about this movie – like I said before – is you have these two
female characters that are not running away from these creatures
screaming, but they are swatting them and picking them up and
Guillermo del Toro:
Katie Holmes: … Crushing
them. It’s kind of great. Especially picturing they were yucky
What about working with Bailee
Madison? They always say don’t work with kids or animals…
Katie Holmes: She is quite
something. She is an incredible actress. She is so poised. Age
really had nothing to do with it, because she was so prepared and
had so many ideas. She has already a great dedication to her
craft. She wants to do well. She wants to service the story.
Things have to make sense. It was fun. She’s smart.
Did Suri [Holmes’ young
daughter with husband Tom Cruise] come on the set and meet her?
Katie Holmes: Yeah. What I
love about making movies is everybody gets to know everybody’s
family. All of us got together, so it’s great to watch each others’
kids grow up. That’s one of the cool things about it. We’re always
in a very creative environment.
(SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING
HERE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE YET AND DO NOT WANT TO LEARN
ABOUT SOME PLOT TWISTS THAT HAPPEN TOWARDS THE END OF THE FILM.
YOU CAN ALWAYS COME BACK AND READ THIS AFTER YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM.)
How did you shoot that scene
where Katie was sucked in the shaft?
Guillermo del Toro: We
created a rubber cover for the ash pit because you cannot have her
hitting an iron ash pit full force. We were talking and like three
days before we shot it, I went to Katie and said “Can I break your
leg?” because I really wanted something that woke up the audience
and went “Ugh!” – in part because that shock makes the immediate
getting her in more surprising, because you’re still recuperating
from the breaking of the leg and then that comes. She did her own
stunts on wire, so she was pulled by a group of very burly
Australians (they laugh) through the wire into the pit.
Katie Holmes: That was a
very intense scene at the end of the movie. It was a
challenge to make sure that everything that needed to be seen and
heard was in that performance. Because there was a lot going on –
the cutting of the rope and then telling Sally to run and making
sure that was just the right timing and then thrusting back and
being pulled. A lot of times it takes a couple of takes just for
everybody to get comfortable. They want to know how much to pull.
It’s just kind of an organizational thing. But it was really fun.
It was definitely an example of teamwork, because there were a lot
Does a moment like that take
more preparation than a quieter scene where you are having a
Katie Holmes: It’s
definitely simpler in some ways to sit and talk for a scene, but
every scene is its own thing. There’s a lot that goes into
something that looks simple. There’s just as much that goes into
something that looks difficult. It’s hard to have to make it all
look effortless and to communicate that story.
Guillermo del Toro: But you
screamed really great. When the leg breaks, we were all frozen. We
were all, “What happened? Did we really do any damage?” It was
it more fun to make a horror movie than a serious one?
Katie Holmes: I think they
are all adventures. I’ve yet to work on something that was
laborious and horrible. Making movies is exciting. This was, in
particular, very fulfilling, because I got to work with Guillermo,
who is such a great filmmaker. You learn so much about story. Just
right now, hearing him say, “Well, we had to do the breaking of the
leg because the audience is going to feel this before she gets
sucked in…,” I was like: oh, is that why we did that? (laughs)
But it’s those rhythms… oh, okay. I’m learning how those things
help to really create an impact on an audience, so I loved it. It’s
fun. It’s a challenge to do a horror movie and then create
emotional tension within that.
Do you think that your
character actually believes that Sally sees creatures?
Katie Holmes: I think she
believes her at the point that she sees the drawing and the mural
and how that matches. That’s when she starts packing, saying let’s
get the hell out of here. Prior to that, I don’t think that she
believes that there is any value to Sally’s nightmares, except for
the fact that the girl needs someone to talk to.
What about when Jack Thompson’s
character in the hospital and he says “Get that girl out of the
house, now!” It seems like that may be the turning point.
Katie Holmes: Well,
that is one of them. All of these things add up. But you have to
remember, Alex and Kim are under a lot of pressure to have this
dinner party and they have a lot going on, so it’s one of those
things where everything is so heightened that I believe that these
characters would say, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” It’s hard to keep
up with what is being revealed. Only when it is the mural and that
hits you in the face, like: Oh, my God. Okay, I get it now and I’m
going to [save her].
Guillermo del Toro: Until
then, Jack Thompson’s character never says little creatures attacked
me. Actually, they say he must have fallen on his tools. It was an
accident, blah, blah, blah. The thing is, you try to graduate it so
the characters learn things to the point where they know. The girl
is the first one to find out. And she is the first to get the hell
out of the house. But she is eleven, so they bring her back. The
second one is Katie. She realizes that the face in the engravings
matches the drawings of the girl. At that moment, she goes party or
no party, we’re packing and we’re leaving. Then the library happens
and she has to get the girl in the car and now Alex is on board.
After that, there is a siege. The creatures strategize to keep them
in the house. So the evolution of how much the characters know was
mapped on the screen from the beginning.
ending has such an amazing nod to the audience that suggests if
there were a sequel someone might be back in a very different form.
Can you talk about that without giving anything away?
Katie Holmes: My role would
be in a sound stage, a sound booth.
Guillermo del Toro: That
came from one of the characters in the original had that ending in
’73. What is great is that even though we are in a horror movie
it’s very rare that a distributor and a studio would allow for what
happens in the last five minutes of the movie to happen. It’s a big
shock to the audience to see that. I think we were lucky enough to
be A) with the right studio and B) in a transition between one
studio and the other and we were able to keep all that. Normally
that takes the audience entirely by surprise when that happens.
I understand that you had this
with Harvey Weinstein and he wanted all these changes and you said
“I’m out of here.”
Guillermo del Toro: Yeah.
I left and then ten years later I got it back. That’s the thing. I
had just a meeting with Bob, not Harvey, with Bob, and we got the
notes back and I said farewell. Then ten years later when they left
Disney, I went “Did they by any chance leave behind that
screenplay?” What is great is the screenplay we shot is the draft
we abandoned before it was developed to the ground. They went
through many, many permutations. They had the creatures flying.
They impregnated women. They kidnapped them. They were six feet
tall. They were vampires. Every permutation I’ve heard is weird.
They went into completely different directions and we went back to
the way I wanted them to do it from the start.
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