‘Pan’s Labyrinth’: A Richly Imagined, Dreamlike Voyage of Self-Discovery and Character Formation


By Sven Mikulec

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world today, and he has held that position in our minds and hearts since we saw the little masterpiece called El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone). The 2001 gothic horror film was set in Spain, in 1939, and the picture, which del Toro allegedly considers his most personal film ever, is an exceptionally crafty and compelling portrayal of that specific dark period of European and world history. Five years after this critical success, del Toro once again decided to go back to Spain, this time setting the story in 1944, and introducing the characters of a ruthless, psychopathic fascist military figure and a little girl who deals with the horrors of both the real and the fantastic world that engulf her everyday life. What del Toro made with El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) is an utterly terrifying and terrifically captivating blend of myth and realism, fantasy and reality, everyday-like and uncanny.

Wonderfully designed, rich in colors and tones, providing a unique atmosphere that’s not only difficult to shake off after watching the film, but that also immerses you so fully into the picture you yourself become lost in the labyrinth in question, El laberinto del fauno is a voyage of introspection, a journey of self-discovery, a fairy tale like no other, with reversed tropes and imaginative playfulness evident in its structure and characterizations, but also a sort of an unbelievable bildungsroman—a formative story of a little girl’s character development, symbolizing the importance of the individual’s liberty and obligation to trust their heart and instincts, to find their own voice and make their own choices, especially at a time when there are vocal individuals leading regimes intent on taking away these freedoms and profiting from their subordinates’ weak will and moral flexibility.

Del Toro’s picture pastes together two seemingly incompatible worlds and remains equally devoted to them both until the very end. Written by del Toro himself, shot by master cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Desperado, Jackie Brown, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hellboy), El laberinto del fauno is easily one of the most accomplished and memorable movies of the decade. It was so important to del Toro that the film is made that he lost 40 pounds when making it, dealing with the stress and pressure deriving from lack of time and money, forcing him to invest his own money in the production and give up on his director and producer’s salaries. All the hard work paid off, as the film is one of the ultimate favorite of film critics and millions of inspired audience members around the globe. However you choose to interpret it, the experience of watching it remains equally rewarding. In fact, the very fact numerous interpretations are legitimate only adds to the charm and efficiency of this bizarre materialization of a unique vision and unparalleled style.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Guillermo del Toro’s screenplay for El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) [PDF-in English, PDF-in Spanish]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Guillermo del Toro loves creating intricate visual puzzles. In Pan’s Labyrinth he combines a child’s magical fantasy world and the chilling reality of Fascist Spain. He explains how he put the pieces together. —What Makes Del Toro Tick?


by Rob Feld, DGA Quarterly

Guillermo del Toro has combined his love of strange creatures, ghosts and Gothic horror stories with a deep literary sensibility to create genre films uniquely his own. In movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim, monsters are not just scary—they’re soulful.

What makes a creature come alive for you?
The first thing you have to resolve is the silhouette. Once the silhouette captures the gait and personality of the character, then you define color. Then you define the details. The mistake a lot of people do is they start with the details. A lot of people say, ‘I want a creature with five wings and huge tentacles and teeth,’ and they start accumulating. And I think a great creature is never done by accumulation but by doing each element very, very carefully.

How did that work in Pan’s Labyrinth?
If you watch the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth—which I think is perhaps the best creature I’ve done—you see his environment. The Pale Man is color-coded in flesh tones and deep, deep red. And everything around him is color-coded in red. Every piece of food on the table is red. The checkered flooring is red, the walls are red. The shapes are round and sort of rhyme with him; we sculpted the table and chair so they would feel of a piece with him. When you enter, you’re not entering a set with a creature, you’re entering a world. So when you decide about the eyes, you say, eyes or no eyes? What shape of eyes? What color of eyes? Is the absence of eyes going to be more expressive than if it has eyes? How many? Is it symmetric or asymmetric? Because you have to question everything.

Open YouTube video—Making of

You’ve talked about the difference between eye protein versus eye candy; what distinction were you making there?
Eye candy is something that you eat visually, but is superfluous to the storytelling: it looks good but it doesn’t tell the story. Eye protein is beautiful and technically complex, but it tells the story. A Hitchcock complex camera move is eye protein. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is eye protein—an incredibly complex, technical exercise, but essentially the form is the story. It’s like the way I designed the link between the fantasy world and the idea of returning to the womb in Pan’s Labyrinth. The appearance of a movie can be ciphered with more complexity through image and design. Audio-visually, film can be either more insidious or deeper than the genre it belongs to. You can make a profound movie while making a very entertaining movie. On the surface, Pan’s Labyrinth has all the trappings of a classic fairy tale, but in a way, it deconstructs the fairy tale. It is ciphering the fable audio-visually as much as it’s doing it through the screenplay, which is only one layer of the storytelling.

Your films contain such intricate and fully realized worlds. How do you go about staging your vision?
I follow a principle that I got from studying theatrical design: each set has to make one statement. If you go to the pit and the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, the whole statement of that set is the circular pit with one monolith in the center. If you go to the Pale Man, the statement is the chimney and the table. Sometimes the point of a set is complexity, but each set has to have a hero angle and make the statement quickly. You know what that set is about. The office of the Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth is about the gears behind him; he’s trapped in the watch. What’s the point of the central patio in The Devil’s Backbone? The bomb. What’s the point in Hellboy’s room? Cats and TVs. A set needs to be readable quickly and make one storytelling point.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the audience sees the Pale Man approaching the girl before she sees it, rather than doing a shocking reveal from her perspective. You don’t seem to go in for startle scares.
As a producer I do, but as a director I don’t. What I know is this: I love and studied genre films like crazy. I’ve dedicated my life to the study of the fantastic, but I don’t totally fit into any genre. Looking at an action film like Pacific Rim, I don’t think any other big action movie would have a birth scene of a giant monster getting strangled by its own umbilical cord; it’s the little idiosyncrasies that make it ill-fitting. So when I do horror, I’m interested in the look of a horror film, not the trappings of one. The thing that concerns me most is a sense of loss. I have that in me, and it’s in what I do. To a degree it’s in Pacific Rim, but the two best two movies in terms of that are Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone. They embody that feeling; a loss of innocence, a loss of essence.

You keep extensive notebooks (excerpts of which were recently published in a book) which show your ideas germinating over time. What thought do you give to choosing your next project?
I think that I give myself license to do what I want at the same time that I do what I can. People think a director plans the career, that you are like Blofeld caressing a cat in a secret location saying, ‘Where should I take my career?’ Any member of the DGA can tell you that doesn’t happen. A career is what happens to you while you are making other plans. You do what you can, but you do what you want. That’s the definition of a career.

You made choices like doing Pan’s Labyrinth instead of…
A big Marvel movie, right.

And that could have made you very comfortable and given you many options down the road.
Yes. What is surprising is that, in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a huge movement against selling out. Now, everybody’s eager to sell. So the only thing that we have to preserve in an equal, sacred manner, is not buying in. If you buy in, your success is measured by how much money you made or how popular your movie is. But you need to define success by the degree of fulfillment. I started writing for Universal Studios in 1993. In all those 20 years, I have never, ever, read the trades. If you threatened to bomb my house, I couldn’t tell you who the three hot execs are right now. When I was growing up, we founded a cinema club that became the Guadalajara Film Festival, and we would create programs to show the films of Max Ophüls or Preston Sturges. I was the projectionist, the ticket seller, and the moderator. It was about film. You could have a fluent discussion about the merits of Harold Lloyd. What worries me, and is very dangerous, is that more and more I see websites concerned only with the business. Really, is the most interesting thing the box office and not the movie itself? —Guillermo del Toro, Beauty and the Beasts


Design for Mill’s Interior: Vidal’s Office and Labyrinth Ruins. All images in this page © Carlos Zaragoza or their respective copyright owner.


Raúl Monge’s storyboards for Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno.


“For a program featured on both our just-released edition of the film and our new box set Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, German children’s author Cornelia Funke (the Inkheart trilogy) sat down with the director for a wide-ranging conversation about his fascination with myths and fairy tales. He explains that while his films build on a rich tradition of fantasy and horror, they do not directly reference genre pioneers such as author Arthur Machen and illustrator Edmund Dulac, as some viewers have claimed. In the following excerpt, the director discusses how he transforms his artistic influences through his own free-flowing, organic creative process.” —The Criterion Collection


Guillermo del Toro begins his commentary by saying that the film almost destroyed… nearly killed him. He lost 40 pounds during the process. The film’s origin was a story of a pregnant woman who arrived to a mansion in Spain; her husband worked for the mansion owner, restoring the home. The woman fell in love with a faun in a labyrinth—they made love—and he asked for the blood of her firstborn in order to open the gate and let her enter the magical kingdom to be with him. The ending was this woman sacrificing her son to go with the love of her life, the faun. Eventually, del Toro realized it was more interesting to talk about the magic through the girls’ eyes. —20 Facts About Pan’s Labyrinth That Might Make You Believe in Magic

Open YouTube video—Commentary


The process of bringing the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth to life (source).


Evan Puschak’s excellent video essay—Pan’s Labyrinth: Disobedient Fairy Tale.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno. Photographed by Teresa Isasi © Picturehouse. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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