Guillermo del Toro’s greatest treasure growing up was an old Victorian piece of furniture. It was both a bookshelf and a desk, and it seemed to him as though it materialized straight out of a Gothic romance. Importantly, it came with a key so he could lock away his collection of books and toys, writing implements and drawing books in its drawers.
At his desk, among his brood of monsters, del Toro planned out elaborate passageways where he imagined his family could hide from robbers. He even dreamed up a rain room, where he could write to the pitter-patter of a constant downpour. He wrote with his objects by his side—one of the earliest, a plush werewolf he sewed together himself. As far back as del Toro can remember, he’s collected oddities from the realms of science fiction, horror and fantasy. His passion for the outlandish would eventually bleed onto the page and screen, familiar to moviegoers who have experienced the chill of seeing the pale man stuff eyeballs into the palms of his hands in Pan's Labyrinth or the gaggle of monsters face off in the Hellboy franchise.
Today, his rain room exists, as do his secret passageways, and of course, his ever growing collection of monsters in del Toro’s two Southern California private homes, called Bleak House I and II.
For years, del Toro has been giving friends tours of his houses. Step behind a French poster of Mad Max to go to Victorian-themed room filled with automatons. Pick the right bookshelf, and it leads to a library of books of fairy tales and mythology. The real-life rain room is where del Toro writes most of his scripts. (To create the effect of a 24/7 downpour in the room, he put acrylic resin on the windows to make them appear frosted and runs a theatrical rain projection. Just a few minutes in the room, he says, and the California sun becomes a distant memory.) While del Toro uses his homes to research and write, he also enjoys sitting down with a life-size mannequin of horror star Linda Blair to watch television or reading alongside a seated replica of Edgar Allan Poe.
But now, the director has decided to share some of his favorite objects with the public at LACMA’s Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, on view through November 27. In his first museum retrospective, del Toro is displaying more than 500 objects from his collection. A version of del Toro’s Rain Room has also been rigged to go on display, and to further set the mood, the show has been soundscaped by Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
With this monster menagerie, del Toro says he hopes to fuse high art with pop art—60 objects from LACMA's own collection will be interspersed throughout At Home with Monsters —as well as share his passion for living around images and characters. He speaks with Smithsonian.com about the show and his enduring fascination for the creatures that go bump in the night.
I've read that you’ve kept everything you’ve ever collected. Do you remember the first object that made its way into your collection?
The curious thing is I’ve never seen myself as a collector. These things became treasures, but not a material type. They became spiritual relics; they have the same value as a relic for me. Even as a kid, I didn't want number one of a comic book issue; I didn't care if it was a trade paperback or an original issue on a comic; I didn't want my toys in boxes. I just wanted to live with these characters, and to share my life rather promiscuously with these characters.
By the time I learned to speak, learned to draw, and learned to write, I was already in love with monsters. I started with monster fantasy illustration because when I was born in '64 there were two or three programs on TV that were fantastic. “Twilight Zone,” “One Step Beyond”—they were all on the air and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. I was really taken by these programs. The monsters in the fantasy ones; the sort of sinister atmosphere on the black-and-white television set at home. That essential nugget of a human being is still with me right now.
I still don't collect for value for rarity or for any notion that is perceived other than the love I have for the object. It can be a $70,000 bronze statue or it can be a $2 vinyl toy. If I am attracted to them, and I see beauty in them, I'll buy them. That's my only condition as a collector—can I live with this object or this painting? Or will my life be a little better for having it? I collect them all in that case.
You sound so attached to these items. Will it be hard to be without them while they're on display?
Originally this exhibition was being requested in Paris, in New York, Barcelona, Mexico, blah, blah, blah. We were packing the other day—we were packing the collection, and I asked LACMA to make it clear that we're not going to travel any more than the three museums we agreed to because it was like saying goodbye to a family member. It really felt very, very, very weird.
What do you do to find these artifacts? Auctions? Online?
I rarely go to auctions because I'm not a fan of auctions in principle. I think they're driven by collector value. They're driven by very mercenary-perceived values and numbers. Most of the time, I know people who have it and I have talked to them and told them if you're ever in a tight spot, I'm your guy. So I've become sort of the ATM of a lot of strange people.
When did you realize you would need one house, let alone two for all the possessions you've acquired?
Originally it was in a very, very packed up, very tight second story in my home in Mexico. Then I built another room. Then we moved to Texas and I took the entire second floor of the house. Then we moved to California, and I packed it over four rooms in the house. And then, finally, I felt that it was time to get my own place away from the family so I didn't have to impose my monsters or inflict my monsters on the rest of the family. So we expanded to one house and now there's two houses.
They are organized around research libraries. So I have 13 libraries in the two houses. I have a horror-fantasy library; a history library; a supernatural and the occult library; I have a literature library; then there's children's stories, myths, Victoriana, crime. Each of those libraries has a reading room, a research area, so instead of Googling something, I go to the library. I have library carts that go between the two houses, and I go to my writing desk, and I work.
What made you finally decide to share your treasures with the public?
I always have given tours of the two houses. I often give one or two tours every week when I'm in L.A. Those tours are normally done for friends. Suddenly one day I was giving the tour to some people at LACMA. They invited me back to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibition. When we were going to the Stanley Kubrick exhibition, it was mentioned, 'Well, we could exhibit some of your props and some of your favorite paintings.'
The reason I liked the idea is that we mixed it with the collection of the museum. So we could have an Ensor painting next to a Moebius acrylic painting. We could mix the high brow and the low brow so to speak or the pop and the sacred. Because basically, it's an exhibition about the passion of living surrounded by images and characters.
You’ve spoken about how all art is political, as well as spiritual. How does this play into that idea?
I think every act is political, whatever we're doing. There's nothing more political than pleasure. When you just say, look this is who I am, and you may like it, you may not. You may think I'm wrong, but I can enjoy equally the highest spectrum of sanctioned art or more outsider forms of it. I don't have to qualify it; you may. That's political in and of itself.
I think it was Picasso who said, 'Good taste is the enemy of art.' [Ed.: The actual quote, according to Goodreads, is “Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”] I would agree, but what I think is important is that you have to be able to articulate your taste. Unbridled, unreasoned, unorganized bad taste—or good taste—is really offensive to me.
It's impossible for someone to sit down and tell me there are only great Renoirs or only great Modiglianis. That's not true. There are good Renoirs and good Modiglianis, and there are terrible Modiglianis and terrible Renoirs. It's impossible for me to say you know, Bernie Wrightson is a master, period. No, you need to create a range for that discussion. I think in creating that range, you articulate your view of art, and therefore you articulate your view of the world because what we love defines who we are.
What are you hoping to articulate through your view of the world in the collection?
First of all, my love of monsters is absolutely, how do I say, disarmingly real. It's a spiritual call for me. It's a vocation. So the work I'm doing here is evangelical. I'm praising the gospel of monstrosity because monsters have always been an incredibly important component of art. You have always had people creating the stained-glass windows; you always have people carving gargoyles.
It's an intrinsic part of our storytelling narrative and artistic endeavor and spiritual means and I think that is the key that I try to articulate—not only with this exhibition but in my movies. I can take this really simple genre, and I can try to treat it visually as if I were doing Macbeth or Henry IV. I try to give a visual sumptuousness to sometimes very looked-down-upon subjects.
I heard that the Bleak House has a room where it rains all day. How did you come up with that idea?
When I was a kid, a lot of times, I would sleep on a little mattress by the side of my grandmother's bed on the floor. I would hold her hand, and I would talk myself to sleep by telling her where we could put a secret passage in the house. I would draw little maps where I said, if you would allow me to create a fake wall here, we could hide from burglars and it's a safety room.
I also made plans to make a rain room because it's very inspiring [to write in.] In California, rain is a very valuable commodity. I was inspired by the first time I went to the Tiki Room when I was a kid in Disneyland. It was sunny outside, and all of a sudden, inside it started to rain. To me at age 3 or 4, it was the most amazing experience.
I actually showed my rain room to the Imagineers at Disneyland. They visited Bleak House and they said your solution is pretty good. Then they told me the solution to the Tiki room is something I had never imagined. But my solution was I designed and I assembled and I painted the window a fake window with theatrical rain projections and some acrylic resin that I dropped in the windows to look like they were frosted by raindrops and I put a surround sound in the room with a storm so the effect is very beautiful and that's where I write most of my scripts. I find it incredibly soothing. After three or four minutes, I forget that it's a projection.
Speaking of Disney, I heard you're still working on your Haunted Mansion script.
Are there any objects on display inspired by or inspiring you for it?
There is actually a key piece from the Haunted Mansion. There is an original painting by Marc Davis that was one of the two key Imagineer. He made a painting of Medusa that appears in the gallery of portraits in Disney's Haunted Mansion.
Are there any specific objects that you think you'll miss the most that will be going to this exhibition?
All of them. There are life size figures of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe. They live with me. Linda Blair watches TV with me. So I'm going to miss them because the house felt really, really empty when they packed it. Originally I had agreed to have the exhibition tour, and again, when they packed it, I said, 'No, I can't. I can't. I simply can't."
Are there any artifacts in the Bleak House that scare you?
No, nothing. Nothing scares me in the Bleak House.