Dread Central caught up Saturday with Benicio Del Toro, producer and star of The Wolfman (opening February 12th via Universal Pictures), during a press junket for the flick at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, CA, to chat with him about the film as well as his long-standing enthusiasm for the genre, the film’s storied production, his love affair with monster model kits, and more.
Polite, thoughtful, and witty, Del Toro told us, “I’m a big fan of horror movies as far back as I can remember. The Universal horror movies were the first films I knew the titles of [as well as] the names of the actors in those films.”
Too young to have experienced the theatrical heyday of Universal’s monster stable – the original The Wolfman, directed by George Waggner from a script by Curt Siodmak was released in 1941 – Del Toro became acquainted with the films in a much more intimate way: first seeing them in the flickering light of a home projector.
“When I saw The Wolfman or Dracula or The Bride of Frankenstein, it was before VHS or DVD,” said the actor, “and there were these Super 8 films that started [circulating]. I grew up watching those films when I was four, five, six, or seven years old. It was [due to] my cousins.”
The genre additionally manifested itself in print for Del Toro, who recalls issues of the granddaddy of all horror magazines, Famous Monsters of Filmland, being in his home, which in turn yielded his ardor for the monster model kits often featured in the ad sections of that mag.
“You could get a model of like Frankenstein or King Kong, and you could glue it together and paint it,” said Del Toro. “They were really cool toys made by Aurora, a company based in Illinois, and some of them were really gory, but I was on the tail end of it. Some of these kits they didn’t make anymore while I was growing up. My cousin had The Bride of Frankenstein [kit], which was the cool one to have, and I would have dreams about this model toy because he had it and I didn’t have it.”
The artistry required to create such iconic imagery remained with Del Toro, urging him into the field of acting, and while he’s possibly best known for his dramatic turn in the 2000 film Traffic – for which he received an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role – his love of the genre hasn’t diminished.
“I don’t know if I’d be here without that Oscar, to be honest with you,” riffed Del Toro, who is a collector of Wolfman memorabilia. “There’s something about it that gives you stripes, where you feel you can dare to walk into a studio like Universal and say, ‘Hey guys, how about we do a new The Wolf Man?’”
Which is precisely what he and manager/producer Rick Yorn did in March, 2006.
“We proposed the idea to Universal of a remake of the original The Wolf Man movie with the intention of paying homage to those Universal classic horror movies,” said Del Toro. “By paying homage I mean by staying close to the story and to also have the makeup be faithful – to have the actor in the makeup be a big part of the movie. They liked the idea and [screenwriter] Kevin Andrew Walker and [FX artist] Rick Baker came on, and we were moving.”
With the fanbase abuzz following the release of The Wolfman’s initial trailer in front of last year’s Inglourious Basterds, Dread asked the actor and producer his thoughts on the production’s approach to realizing the character of The Wolfman.
“I think that CGI can enhance a picture,” said Del Toro. “I think it enhanced this one. The transformation with CGI helps. But [as far as the practical makeup] it’s Rick Baker, and I don’t think the studio had any problem with that. The thing with those [classic Universal] horror movies, the makeup artist in a lot of them was a guy named Jack Pierce, and part of the attraction of those monsters was not only were they scary, but they were cool. I mean Frankenstein’s monster was a cool makeup. Boris Karloff was fantastic in the makeup, but the makeup was also cool, and that’s something I think Rick Baker understands more than anyone. When we had meetings about The Wolfman [during development], we were both really on the same page.”
As for Del Toro’s physical transformation into the titular creature [a process which took hours for each application given Baker’s attention to detail], the star was enthusiastic with a desire to closely emulate the makeup worn by Lon Chaney, Jr., in the original film.
“With Rick Baker what you do is you turn into a canvas: you let him paint all over your face,” said Del Toro of the FX artist, whose previous wolf work includes the classic An American Werewolf in London. “The only problem is taking it off. It takes about two hours, and you could say it’s painful.” Humorously Del Toro expounded, “I stopped liking Rick Baker during the process of taking it off, but the next time he came around to put it on, I’d fall in love with him again. It was a love-hate relationship.”
In regard to the thematic elements of Kevin Andrew Walker’s scripted update of The Wolfman [with a rewrite by David Self] as it pertains to the lead’s narrative conflict, “Making my character [of Lawrence Talbot] into an actor in the movie is kind of subtle, but he’s doing Hamlet,” said Del Toro.
In the 2010 update of The Wolfman, having initially fled to America in an attempt to recover from his mother’s violent demise, which he witnessed as a child, Talbot returns home decades later to the Victorian hamlet of Blackmoor, England, upon learning of his brother’s violent death.
“Hamlet, in the play, is on a journey of revenge to take down his uncle who killed his father,” explained Del Toro of the Shakespearean play, “so Andrew Kevin Walker made Lawrence Talbot an actor who goes home and tries to investigate what happened to his brother, and he’s got to do a journey similar to Hamlet – to break the chain. So, that’s the idea.”
Regarding the complications the production experienced in bringing The Wolfman redux from script to screen, “At the beginning of this film we had a different director,” said Del Toro. “It was going to be Mark Romanek, but at some point during pre-production he stepped out, and we had no director, and the movie was already rolling.”
As for how this shaped the tone of the film, Del Toro told us, “The character of Lawrence Talbot – when I working with Romanek – was a little bit darker. He was more of a reluctant hero. When Joe Johnston came in [as our director] that angle that we had with with Romanek started to change a little bit. I think it was Johnston’s idea to basically keep Talbot more on the side of being a noble character, and I thought that was a good idea, especially for these movies because there are always so many levels that you don’t want to get too confused. It’s a fantasy movie, and you don’t want to turn it into just a drama. So when Joe came in, we started working in that direction – and he was willing to explore things and was very collaborative with all of the actors – it worked out. I enjoyed working with him. He was ballsy enough to jump in and take the helm of this picture that was already moving , and we are very grateful for him doing that.”
Stay tuned to Dread Central in the coming days for conversations with The Wolfman stars Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving as well as with the film’s director Joe Johnston and FX man Rick Baker.
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