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Guillermo del Toro says making his 'Pinocchio' was healing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He begins life as a wooden puppet, his best and sometimes only friend, a mouthy cricket. And he has a disconcerting condition. His nose grows when he lies. But he's a lovable sort. And all he really wants is to be a real boy and to make his father proud. Of course, we're talking about "Pinocchio," Carlo Collodi's 19th-century fairy tale. But a new adaptation by Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro is like nothing you've seen before. That's because del Toro's stop motion animated film, set in 1930s Italy during Mussolini's fascist dictatorship, elevates the painful dilemmas at the heart of the enchanting story, surfacing difficult questions about love and loss and the purpose of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUILLERMO DEL TORO'S PINOCCHIO")

GREGORY MANN: (As Pinocchio) Good morning, Papa.

DAVID BRADLEY: (As Geppetto) What is this? What kind of sorcery?

MANN: (As Pinocchio) You wanted me to live. You asked for me to live.

BRADLEY: (As Geppetto) Who are you?

MANN: (As Pinocchio) My name is Pinocchio. I'm your son.

MARTIN: And Guillermo del Toro is with us now to tell us more about his latest and perhaps most personal film. Welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: No, my pleasure.

MARTIN: I've heard you say that "Pinocchio" has been sort of a passion project for you. Would you mind telling us what so struck you about it when you first saw it as a child?

DEL TORO: The very first time - it was the second or third movie I saw with my mother. And the first time I saw Walt Disney's "Pinocchio," I was both terrified and elated that somebody have captured how scary I thought childhood was. And that left a lasting impression because I felt that it was not a sanitized vision of childhood. But it left me with a lot of questions and with some thoughts about changing in order to please people into loving you. I didn't like that, even as a kid, and it stuck with me. And I wanted to make a very, very different version of "Pinocchio." So I started trying to make it when I was in my teens and then 20s and then 30s. And here we are.

MARTIN: Would you tell me a little bit more about that? As you've mentioned, there have been a lot of adaptations of "Pinocchio," maybe the most famous in the U.S. is the Disney animated version that came out in 1940. So why did you want to make another? Was there something missing for you from the other versions?

DEL TORO: Well, it's not another one. It's a completely - stands on its own. For me, there is Collodi's "Pinocchio," which reflects the time it was created in. There is Disney's "Pinocchio," which is a masterpiece that reflects the time it was made in. And this one, which I believe, even though it's set in the past, it reflects the present. It is a movie that really talks about disobedience as a virtue, disobedience with a conscience as a virtue, and the fact that you can actually be loved the way you are. And it's set in parallel stories of fathers and sons and against the backdrop of the darkest form of paternal structure, which is fascism, all of this rendered in breathtaking stop motion animation, technologically and artistically as advanced as you can get, but very tactile and artisanal and beautiful at the same time.

MARTIN: I mean, the film is lovely and funny, but there are points in it that are so deeply sad. I mean, honestly, the ideas are so profound about what it means to love, what it means to love as a parent, what it means to lose a child. I mean, it's - as I said, I'm like actually struggling to kind of hold on to myself while I'm talking to you about it.

DEL TORO: Yes.

MARTIN: And I...

DEL TORO: Same thing happens to me. I mean, it's a movie that is deeply personal. And it's a movie that tries to sum up - I'm 58. I've been a kid. I've been a parent. I have failed or been failed on both to some degree. I think that the movie talks very, very deeply with great eloquence about life and how precious and brief it is and how we can love each other exactly as we are and how we make the mistake of not appreciating our uniqueness. In the traditional story, "Pinocchio" learns to be a real boy and transforms. And in this one, you know, Pinocchio doesn't transform, and it's Geppetto that learns to be a real father. And I have the feeling every time I see the movie, every time we went through the screenplay, every time we saw the dailies, I would tear up. And I wanted to call my mother or my father or call my kids. It was very profound.

BRADLEY: So let me play a short clip that actually speaks to that. Here's a scene where, you know, Pinocchio is not the easiest, but here's a clip where Geppetto is talking about his sacrifices for him. And here it is. We'll just play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUILLERMO DEL TORO'S PINOCCHIO")

BRADLEY: (As Geppetto) Yeah. Now, look what you've turned me into. I made you to be like Carlo. Why can't you be more like Carlo?

MANN: (As Pinocchio) Because I'm not Carlo. I don't want to be like Carlo. Carlo is...

BRADLEY: (As Geppetto) Enough. You are such a burden.

MARTIN: I mean, honestly, how did you not break your heart every time you - every day making this this film? I just - I'm just trying to imagine what it was like.

DEL TORO: You know, that scene, particularly the scene that I stood very firm with my closest collaborators, a lot of people felt very shaken by this scene. And I said, this is the fugue (ph). This is the darkest point of their relationship. It's a story explicitly about imperfect fathers and imperfect sons. And I really think that everybody should know we waver and fail at that. And we understand there's still love between us. And in a very Mexican way, the film creates two spirits. One is a life giver and one is death. And both spirits really become the mentors and the shapers of Pinocchio. The cricket is pretty much a well-intentioned blowhard, a pompous, a little cricket that thinks, knows everything about life but learns humility. And that was the idea in the film. It is Geppetto and the cricket that ;earn from Pinocchio as opposed to the traditional way.

MARTIN: You mentioned that one of the ideas in this film is that the reward for being disobedient is being loved for who you are.

DEL TORO: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, that's a really powerful idea. Can you just say more about that?

DEL TORO: Yes. I'm a lapsed Catholic. I lapsed with the institution, not the beliefs. But I really - when I pondered, where is the seed (ph) of the soul? I think the seed of the human soul is on choice. And in that regard, disobedience is the beginning of self, when you don't accept an ideology as if it was an idea, because ideas come from self. And experience and spirit and ideologies are handed down as truth that you should just follow. And these are dangerous, very, very present things that we deal with. And I believe that the only lie Pinocchio should never embrace is to lie about who you are. And I do believe that if you hold steady to who you are and you follow the things you have learned through experience and spirit and listening and watching with love, you are rewarded by being a real boy, as the fable would have it, a real person, a real human being.

MARTIN: But I can't help but notice that you decided to set the story in fascist Italy.

DEL TORO: It was very important because we're talking about father and son stories. There are three or four father-son stories that parallel the journey of Pinocchio, including, obliquely, with very pointed images echoing the journey of Jesus and his father, you know, which had a rocky relationship somehow. And one of the echoes of this is to talk about the most corrosive form of paternalism, which is this strongman figure that fascism tends to present, and that attracts the stray souls. Pinocchio's tempted by the glamour and the pageantry of showbusiness and by the rigidity and sort of paternal structure of fascism. And he needs to navigate through that and reassert himself and reassert his capacity to say no.

MARTIN: Is this story for kids? I mean, one of the reasons I ask, though, is that, you know, if you really think about a lot of fairy tales, actually, some of them are quite brutal, if you think about it.

DEL TORO: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, "Beauty And The Beast" is, you know, she's held captive by the Beast. I mean, Cinderella, she's kept in these deplorable conditions. So I'm just curious about how you thought about that. I mean, is this story for kids?

DEL TORO: This is a question I got more often asked in the 15 years that was the journey to get this movie made. And my answer was simple. It is not sanitized for kids, but kids can watch it if their parents talk to them. Kids are now in a world that is incredibly complex and that poses incredibly complex questions, and we cannot childproof the outlets of the entire world. What we can do is discuss the the world. Fairy tales are a rehearsal stage for kids to understand the world and families to discuss it. The fairy tales were originally not for kids. They were folk tales that were told around the fire, mostly to adults. And they reflect that famine, pestilence, war that were going in the real world, and they apply them to journeys of the spirit. And "Pinocchio" is one of the great journeys of the spirit tales you will ever encounter.

MARTIN: You just mentioned something that I had forgotten about is what a long journey it was for you to get this film made. And how do you feel now that you have done so?

DEL TORO: You know, I have learned in 30 years of filmmaking that the natural state of a movie is to not get made. And I have written or co-written about 34 screenplays and made 12 movies. So I was patient with "Pinocchio." It occupied about half of my career to get it made. We were trying to produce it in the early 2000s, but we refused to do it without complete control. So, you know, I have learned that not making the movie for the right reason is almost as satisfying as making it for the right reasons.

MARTIN: That was Academy Award-winning film director Guillermo del Toro. His latest film, "Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio," is in theaters and can be seen on Netflix. Guillermo del Toro, thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations on both the journey and the arrival at the destination.

DEL TORO: Thank you very much. It's a movie that has been very healing to make and I hope is very healing to watch. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.