Between his modest comic book hits Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, imaginative Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro made a film that was darker and more in Spanish: Pan's Labyrinth, a horror-tinged fairy tale set in 1944 Spain, under fascist rule. Like many of del Toro's films, it's a political allegory as well as a gothic fantasy. The heady mix of whimsy and violence wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but it won enough fans to make $83.25 million worldwide and receive six Oscar nominations (it won three). Here are some details to help you separate fantasy from reality the next time you take a walk in El Laberinto del Fauno.
1. IT'S A COMPANION PIECE TO THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE.
Del Toro intended Pan's Labyrinth to be a thematic complement to The Devil's Backbone, his 2001 film set in Spain in 1939. The movies have a lot of similarities in their structure and setup, but del Toro says on the Pan's Labyrinth DVD commentary that the events of September 11, 2001—which occurred five months after The Devil's Backbone opened in Spain, and two months before it opened in the U.S.—changed his perspective. "The world changed," del Toro said. "Everything I had to say about brutality and innocence changed."
2. IT HAS A CHARLES DICKENS REFERENCE.
When Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives at Captain Vidal's house, goes to shake his hand, and is gruffly told, "It's the other hand," that's a near-quotation from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, when the young lad of the title meets his mother's soon-to-be-husband. Davey's stepfather turns out to be a cruel man, too, just like Captain Vidal (Sergi López).
3. DUE TO A DROUGHT, THERE ARE VERY FEW ACTUAL FLAMES OR SPARKS IN THE MOVIE.
The region of Segovia, Spain was experiencing its worst drought in 30 years when del Toro filmed his movie there, so his team had to get creative. For the shootout in the forest about 70 minutes into the movie, they put fake moss on everything to hide the brownness, and didn't use squibs (explosive blood packs) or gunfire because of the increased fire risk. In fact del Toro said that, except for the exploding truck in another scene, the film uses almost no real flames, sparks, or fires. Those elements were added digitally in post-production.
4. IT CEMENTED DEL TORO'S HATRED OF HORSES.
The director is fond of all manner of strange, terrifying monsters, but real live horses? He hates 'em. "They are absolutely nasty motherf*ckers," he says on the DVD commentary. His antipathy toward our equine friends predated Pan's Labyrinth, but the particular horses he worked with here—ill-tempered and difficult, apparently—intensified those feelings. "I never liked horses," he says, "but after this, I hate them."
5. THE FAUN'S IMAGE IS INCORPORATED INTO THE ARCHITECTURE.
If you look closely at the banister in the Captain's mansion, you'll see the Faun's head in the design. It's a subtle reinforcement of the idea that the fantasy world is bleeding into the real one.
6. IT MADE STEPHEN KING SQUIRM.
Del Toro reports that he had the pleasure of sitting next to the esteemed horror novelist at a screening in New England, and that King squirmed mightily during the Pale Man scene. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life," del Toro said.
7. IT REFLECTS DEL TORO'S NEGATIVE FEELINGS TOWARD THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
Del Toro told an interviewer that he was appalled by the Catholic church's complicity with fascism during the Spanish Civil War. He said the priest's comment at the banquet table, regarding the dead rebels—"God has already saved their souls; what happens to their bodies, well, it hardly matters to him"—was taken from a real speech that a priest used to give to rebel prisoners in the fascist camps. Furthermore, "the Pale Man represents the church for me," Del Toro said. "He represents fascism and the church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them."
8. THERE'S A CORRECT ANSWER TO THE QUESTION OF WHETHER IT'S REAL OR ALL IN OFELIA'S HEAD.
Del Toro has reiterated many times that while a story can mean different things to different people, "objectively, the way I structured it, there are clues that tell you ... that it's real." Specifically: the flower blooming on the dead tree at the end; the chalk ending up on Vidal's desk (as there's no way it could have gotten there); and Ofelia's escape through a dead end of the labyrinth.
9. THE PLOT WAS ORIGINALLY EVEN DARKER.
In del Toro's first conception of the story, it was about a married pregnant woman who meets the Faun in the labyrinth, falls in love with him, and lets him sacrifice her baby on faith that she, the baby, and the Faun will all be together in the afterlife and the labyrinth will thrive again. "It was a shocking tale," Del Toro said.
10. THE SHAPES AND COLORS ARE THEMATICALLY RELEVANT.
Del Toro points out in the DVD commentary that scenes with Ofelia tend to have circles and curves and use warm colors, while scenes with Vidal and the war have more straight lines and use cold colors. Over the course of the film, the two opposites gradually intrude on one another.
11. THAT VICIOUS BOTTLE ATTACK COMES FROM AN INCIDENT IN DEL TORO'S LIFE.
Del Toro and a friend were once in a fight during which his friend was beaten in the face with a bottle, and the detail that stuck in the director's memory was that the bottle didn't break. That scene is also based on a real occurrence in Spain, when a fascist smashed a citizen's face with the butt of a pistol and took his groceries, all because the man didn't take off his hat.
12. DOUG JONES LEARNED SPANISH TO PLAY THE FAUN.
The Indiana-born actor, best known for working under heavy prosthetics and makeup, had worked with del Toro on Hellboy and Mimic and was the director's first choice to play the Faun and the Pale Man. The only problem: Jones didn't speak Spanish. Del Toro said they could dub his voice, but Jones wanted to give a full performance. Then del Toro said he could learn his Spanish lines phonetically, but Jones thought that would be harder to memorize than the actual words. Fortunately, he had five hours in the makeup chair every day, giving him plenty of time to practice. And then? Turns out it still wasn't good enough. Del Toro replaced Jones's voice with that of a Spanish theater actor, who was able to make his delivery match Jones's facial expressions and lip movements.
13. NEVER MIND THE (ENGLISH) TITLE, THAT ISN'T PAN.
The faun is a mythological creature, half man and half goat, who represents nature (it's where the word "fauna" comes from) and is neutral toward humans. Pan is a specific Greek god, also goat-like, who's generally depicted as mischievous, harmful, and overly sexual—not a creature you'd be comfortable seeing earn the trust of a little girl. In Spanish, the film is called El Laberinto del Fauno, which translates to The Faun's Labyrinth. "Pan" was used for English-speaking audiences because that figure is more familiar than the faun, but you'll notice he's never called Pan in the film itself. "If he was Pan, the girl would be in deep sh*t," del Toro told one interviewer.
14. DEL TORO WROTE THE ENGLISH SUBTITLES HIMSELF.
After being disappointed by the way the translators handled The Devil's Backbone ("subtitles for the thinking impaired"), the Mexican filmmaker, who speaks fluent English, did the job himself for Pan's Labyrinth. "I took about a month with a friend and an assistant working on them, measuring them, so that it doesn't feel like you're watching a subtitled film," he said.
DVD features and commentary