Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, ASC made history when he earned an Academy Award for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth earlier this year, as it was only the second time that a foreign-language film with English subtitles claimed top honors in the Best Cinematography competition. (The first was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Mandarin film that Peter Pau shot in 2000.) Navarro also won the Independent Spirit Award and the Golden Frog at the Camerimage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Lodz, Poland, along with various other honors from other festivals and groups.
Navarro’s history has a storybook quality: Born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico, it was a teacher who inspired Navarro to begin taking still pictures when he was just 13. Maybe it was destiny. Within a few years, Navarro was on his own, supporting himself as a freelance photographer. His interest in cinematography was sparked when his sister, Bertha Navarro, got him a job as still photographer on a film she produced in 1975.
Navarro invested in a 16mm ?clair camera and honed his craft and artistic instincts by directing and shooting documentaries. He moved to London during the late 1970s, hoping to work on narrative films. When he couldn’t get a work permit, Navarro followed his dream to Paris, where he shot documentaries and commercials. In 1982, he apprenticed with Ricardo Aronovich when the cinematographer was shooting Costa-Gavras’ Missing in Paris. Navarro describes that experience as his formal film school education.
Soon afterwards, Navarro heard that things were changing in Mexico. His contemporaries were making experimental films and Navarro decided that he had an obligation to go back and get involved. The shooter earned his first narrative cinematography credit for Alberto Cort?s’ Love Around the Corner in 1985, which led to a series of other Mexican films, including 1993’s Cronos, his first project with Guillermo del Toro. In addition to his other co-ventures with del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy), Navarro’s credits range from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown to Rob Minkoff’s Stuart Little and Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum.
Taking a break from shooting his latest project with del Toro, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army in Hungary, Navarro spoke with MM about his career so far and Pan’s Labyrinth in particular.
Bob Fisher (MM): When did Guillermo del Toro first mention Pan’s Labyrinth to you?
Guillermo Navarro (GN): He spoke about it in general while we were working on The Devil’s Backbone in 2001. That film was set in Spain in 1939, when Franco’s fascist forces were aided by the Nazis in a civil war against the government of the republic. Pan’s Labyrinth is also set in Spain about five years later, when Franco’s fascist government was battling the last rebels. It is kind of an adult fairy tale straight out of del Toro’s imagination. He has plans for another film in Spain about the end of the Franco era.
MM: Tell us about Pan’s Labyrinth from your perspective.
GN: The story revolves around Ofelia, an 11-year-old girl whose pregnant mother has married a brutal captain in Franco’s fascist army. It opens with the girl and her mother being driven to a rural area to live with her stepfather. They get to the cottage, where her mother is soon bedridden and her stepfather is busy hunting rebels in the mountains. Ofelia explores the countryside and discovers a labyrinth where she meets a creature that looks like a giant faun. The faun tells her that the labyrinth is a portal to another world where she is a long-lost princess. After that she meets various other animatronic and CG characters. The audience doesn’t know until far into the movie whether they are real or in her imagination.
MM: How did you plan a visual strategy with del Toro?
GN: Del Toro and I don’t have to look at other movies or pictures in books when we are planning a film. We come from the same country and culture, and we have been working together for 15 years. We have sort of grown together in how we think and express ourselves visually. We spoke about our ideas and drew a lot of pictures. The start-up was delayed for six to eight months because the original distributor was terrified by the ending, but Del Toro didn’t bend. He stuck with his story until he found financing. Once we started shooting, the movie took on a life of its own.
MM: How did you deal with differences between reality and fantasy?
GN: There is a visual language that ushers the audience from one world to the other. It’s as though the audience is walking in Ofelia’s shoes and seeing those worlds through her eyes. The fantasy world is warm, with deep crimson and golden hues. The real world has a cooler color palette with blue and green tones, with the exception of the rebel’s camp in the mountains, which is warmer. The camera is always searching, moving and revealing things in the fantasy world. It is more static in the real world.
MM: How were those different looks or environments created?
GN: It was a total collaboration. We had wonderful costumes by Lala Huete and settings created by production designer Eugenio Cabellero. There is a strong influence of Goya’s paintings in our use of light and darkness-there are dark interior scenes with single sources of light modeling faces. As the story progressed, we created bridges between the worlds of fantasy and reality. The different colors and camera movement in the real and fantasy worlds begin to blend.
MM: What was it like working with an 11-year-old?
GN: I was concerned at first because it was such a heavy story. I have done movies with kids before, and it was difficult to keep them focused. But the little girl (Ivana Baquero) is an incredible actress. She portrayed her character perfectly and quickly learned to hit her marks and find her light. That allowed us to do very complicated setups with her when we were dealing with empty spaces where creatures were inserted later via CG techniques.
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