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Katie Holmes and Guillermo del Toro Are Not Afraid of the Dark

Katie Holmes and Guillermo del Toro

Are Not Afraid of the Dark

By Jay S. Jacobs

When Guillermo del Toro was a little boy growing up in Mexico, he and his brother watched a 1973 TV movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – which scared the bejesus out of the young boy. The movie, which has become a bit of a cult favorite, is about a woman (Kim Darby) moving into a new home with her husband, only to find that the basement was occupied by thousands of homunculi – vengeful little demonic fairies that haunted and attacked the woman.

The film had a huge effect on the young boy, and years later, del Toro has become a respected filmmaker known for exploring the same dark corners in life. Films like Hellboy and particularly his childhood nightmare Pan’s Labyrinth somewhat sprang from the same pool of imagination as the TV movie which kept little Guillermo rapt all those years ago.

When he first started making a name for himself, del Toro wrote a screenplay updating the film he had loved so much as a child. Due to studio politics and a takeover of the company that he sold the screenplay to, the project was put on the shelf for a decade or so. Finally del Toro was able to regain control of his screenplay and immediately set about finally getting his dream project to the screen. Though he was very hands-on and involved in the project, he decided not to direct it, though, handing those reigns to graphic novelist Troy Nixey.

Actress Katie Holmes grew up in Toledo, OH and was a bit too young to see Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark when it was first on TV. (She was actually born five years after the film aired.) Still, even though she was not overly familiar with the original she jumped at the chance to star in the remake as an opportunity to work with the talented filmmaker.

The actress (and wife of superstar Tom Cruise) has put together an impressive body of work over the years. She first became a star on the TV series Dawson’s Creek. Since then, she has put together a varied and quirky filmography which includes the like of Batman Begins, The Ice Storm, Wonder Boys, Pieces of April, Phone Booth, and Thank You for Smoking.

In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Holmes plays Kim, the young girlfriend of Alex (Guy Pearce). Kim and Alex make a living renovating old homes and they have all their money invested in the old Blackwood Manor, a huge castle with a dark past. When Alex’s 9-year old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) comes to stay with them, she is drawn to voices in the basement. At first she thinks they are kindly creatures, but soon they show themselves to be evil fairies. Kim is having trouble connecting with her future daughter-in-law, but when she realizes the girl is in trouble, she fights valiantly to save her from the little creatures who want Sally.

A couple of weeks before the film was due to open, we were invited to be one of a select group of press outlets to speak with Holmes and del Toro about the making of the film.

Warning: there are some spoilers revealed towards the end of the interview. We will tell you before they come, but if you haven’t seen the movie and do not want important plot points revealed, please stop reading the story when we tell you.

I understand this film was a remake of a TV movie from the 70s that wasn’t very good….

Guillermo del Toro: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I actually think it was very, very good in 1973. It had sort of a cult status through the years. It was really one of the scariest TV movies ever made. People seeing it now, out of context, can say that it has aged. But back in the day it was really, really scary for many reasons, including the fact that it happened to people in our times. It was not the story of Victorian characters going into a gothic castle. It was suburban. It happened to people that had jobs. That had to commute. So that was very, very fresh back then. It made such an impression on me that I sought the rights in the 90s. I got the rights and wrote this movie with Matthew Robbins thirteen years ago. It’s not the same. It has some of the same plot devices, but it’s an entirely new story.

In the original, the character being spooked was a grown woman, but here you have made it a little girl. Why do you feel that works better?

Guillermo del Toro: First of all, because the function of the character was truly that no one believed her. The tragedy in the ’73 movie is that it was Kim Darby as an adult, and she really was almost morbidly submissive. She was passive and she was really almost like a battered character. I didn’t like [that]. I wanted to create a movie that had very strong female roles – for both the leads. It was a story where the male character was kind of useless. The male character was so self-absorbed that only the adult woman started to listen to the child. I thought it was interesting, as the character of Kim says, “It doesn’t matter if it’s real; it’s real to her” and starts listening to the kid. That’s the big twist. The original was definitely just a horror movie straight on and we’re trying to make it have a really dark fairytale element into it.

This will seem a weird question, but did you feel a presence in this house? Did you feel a haunting while you were there shooting?

Katie Holmes: No. We used the outside of a house, and then the inside was a set. The grounds of the outside of the house – where we did exterior locations – it didn’t feel like something was going to come out and grab you. But it was inspiring, because it really did feel like a fairytale, but also you could believe that something creepy could happen. I never got the sense that there was a ghost or anything lurking, it was just like, wow, this is the perfect place for this kind of movie. It was beautiful.

What about your character? Guillermo was just talking about having strong female roles here. What was your reaction to Kim? She seems to be frustrated with her relationship with the little girl at first, but then she becomes a fierce protector.

Katie Holmes: That’s what I really loved about her. It was thrilling to work with Guillermo. I was very excited, especially… one of my favorite scenes is at the end of the movie when Kim gets hurt and she wakes up and realizes that Sally is in danger. You see her use up all of her strength to do what she has to do. I think that’s very real. I like being the strong female characters – somebody who doesn’t run away screaming when she is scared, but confronts the monsters, so I really enjoyed it.

It’s interesting, because Kim begins the movie fearful, she is going to be the unloved stepmother, but she becomes more of a parent to Sally than her actual parents.

Katie Holmes: Right. I love the relationship between Kim and Sally. I love the bonding that occurs. It’s really about two human beings that recognize something of themselves in each other. That shared relationship that turns into something very special and powerful. Kim has to learn not only to listen, but how to bring this little girl into her life and make her feel safe. And then to do the ultimate act of generosity.

Guillermo del Toro: The curious thing is it has to be very clear that what was attractive to me was that she already had a mother who by the description and little interactions is a terrible mother. But what they find is each other. They find each other not as mother and daughter, which is the role Kim was afraid of entering into because we hint at her having a terrible childhood too. They find each other as women, as two women that completely have to make each other strong because the guy around which all their lives circles around is frankly an absent-minded, self-centered little prick. (laughs)

When you were young, what used to scare you in the dark – if anything? Did you go back to that place when making the movie?

Guillermo del Toro: I have many times, lucid dreams, so I used to see things in the dark in a dream where I dreamt I was in the space I was. so, it seemed real. So, I was very afraid of the dark as a child. And because my brothers and I saw the [original] movie together we made it a point to scare each other by saying “Sally,” and then they would run away. Neither of us was named Sally (laughs); but that didn’t make it any less scary. But no, I was very afraid as a child.

Katie Holmes: What I was afraid of as a child? I am the youngest of five, so my brothers and sisters and I would try to scare each other, too. Hide and jump out and things like that.

You were the youngest right?

Katie Holmes: Yes.

So, they could really get to you…

Katie Holmes: And I could really get to them because I was so small. (laughs) So just things like that.

You mentioned you got inspiration for the creatures in a book…

Guillermo del Toro: Yes, it’s many, many. It’s not one book. The studies of folklore in Judeo-Christian mythology say that when God and the Devil waged battle the fairy folk declared themselves neutral. They didn’t care which one won, and therefore they were cast down to live under the earth. In traditional folklore, they are not necessarily considered beneficial. They are considered creatures that can bring great gifts and goods, or they can be absolutely terrible. Kidnap babies, kidnap people. They can kidnap an eight year old and return them fifteen years later the same age with the parents aged. Remember Rip Van Winkle that disappeared for many years? They are known to really be very tricky, very morally illusive characters.

They also managed to figure out electricity and garage door openers…

Guillermo del Toro: Well, what they do is they knew very basic electricity, they just fry themselves. That was in the original movie, and I adored it because it shows they are so smart. They are tacticians. In order to bring down a six-foot-tall guy, they use the wires. They use a little hook to turn off the light. They know he’s using that little box to operate the car door and they hide it. I think what is very scary about these little things is not only that they are unstoppable and determined, but they’re smart. They’re not just little rats. They communicate. They talk. They are quite evil. That was very important to me.

Can you talk about their design and where their look came from? Did you know what you wanted them to look like before filming began and did you relay that to your cast?

Guillermo del Toro: When [director] Troy [Nixey] came aboard on the movie we agreed very quickly. I said, “I really want to honor the design of the original creatures. The original creatures now they seem really kind of silly. They were like teddy bears with masks on and claws. The idea… for some reason that made sense when I was a kid. [Sci-Fi author H.P.] Lovecraft has a great story, “Dreams and the Witch House,” that has a character that has the body of a rat and the face of a man. We wanted to make them vermin-like and their bodies twisted, bodies with hair. When we designed creatures, we tried to tell the story in how they are designed. We wanted their bones twisted to show the lack of calcium and the lack of sunlight. We created them to be like humanoid sort of vermin. That would communicate immediately they were cave dwellers. They were really resilient, nasty. When you see them, you have no doubt that they are very fierce little creatures. I think that’s the important thing; design them with a concept of what they do in mind.

At one point you brought Chet Zar and Keith Thompson – two of the designers – into your house to work on the designs. That suggests you wanted to put them in a place where the atmosphere of your fantasy man cave would sort of seep into them in terms of designs that they were doing.

Guillermo del Toro: We came in and Chet came up with good ideas. Keith came up with others. We designed the creatures in three-and-a-half days – really quick because we were linear. Troy did one design that was key. We went, “Let’s run with that.” I think Chet was very useful for the face of the fairies. Really at the end of the day it was a combination, but the lead in the design of the creatures was without a doubt Troy.

Katie, what were you picturing while you were filming and what’s your reaction having seen the creatures realized?

Katie Holmes: I often got to sneak in… Guillermo said, “Come, look at the creatures.” I was definitely allowed to see them. When we were filming, we were looking at pieces of tape, but I knew what they looked like. What I love about this movie – like I said before – is you have these two female characters that are not running away from these creatures screaming, but they are swatting them, picking them up, and throwing them.

Guillermo del Toro: Crushing them…

Katie Holmes: … Crushing them. It’s kind of great. Especially picturing they were yucky looking.

What about working with Bailee Madison? They always say don’t work with kids or animals…

Katie Holmes: She is quite something. She is an incredible actress. She is so poised. Age really had nothing to do with it, because she was so prepared and had so many ideas. She has already a great dedication to her craft. She wants to do well. She wants to service the story. Things have to make sense. It was fun. She’s smart.

Did Suri [Holmes’ young daughter with husband Tom Cruise] come on the set and meet her?

Katie Holmes: Yeah. What I love about making movies is everybody gets to know everybody’s family. All of us got together, so it’s great to watch each others’ kids grow up. That’s one of the cool things about it. We’re always in a very creative environment.


How did you shoot that scene where Katie was sucked in the shaft?

Guillermo del Toro: We created a rubber cover for the ash pit because you cannot have her hitting an iron ash pit full force. We were talking and like three days before we shot it, I went to Katie and said “Can I break your leg?” because I really wanted something that woke up the audience and went “Ugh!” – in part because that shock makes the immediate getting her in more surprising, because you’re still recuperating from the breaking of the leg and then that comes. She did her own stunts on wire, so she was pulled by a group of very burly Australians (they laugh) through the wire into the pit.

Katie Holmes: That was a very intense scene at the end of the movie. It was a challenge to make sure that everything that needed to be seen and heard was in that performance. Because there was a lot going on – the cutting of the rope and then telling Sally to run and making sure that was just the right timing and then thrusting back and being pulled. A lot of times it takes a couple of takes just for everybody to get comfortable. They want to know how much to pull. It’s just kind of an organizational thing. But it was really fun. It was definitely an example of teamwork because there were a lot of elements.

Does a moment like that take more preparation than a quieter scene where you are having a conversation?

Katie Holmes: It’s definitely simpler in some ways to sit and talk for a scene, but every scene is its own thing. There’s a lot that goes into something that looks simple. There’s just as much that goes into something that looks difficult. It’s hard to have to make it all look effortless and to communicate that story.

Guillermo del Toro: But you screamed really great. When the leg breaks, we were all frozen. We were all, “What happened? Did we really do any damage?” It was just gigantic.

Is it more fun to make a horror movie than a serious one?

Katie Holmes: I think they are all adventures. I’ve yet to work on something that was laborious and horrible. Making movies is exciting. This was, in particular, very fulfilling, because I got to work with Guillermo, who is such a great filmmaker. You learn so much about story. Just right now, hearing him say, “Well, we had to do the breaking of the leg because the audience is going to feel this before she gets sucked in…,” I was like: oh, is that why we did that? (laughs) But it’s those rhythms… oh, okay. I’m learning how those things help to really create an impact on an audience, so I loved it. It’s fun. It’s a challenge to do a horror movie and then create emotional tension within that.

Do you think that your character actually believes that Sally sees creatures?

Katie Holmes: I think she believes her at the point that she sees the drawing and the mural and how that matches. That’s when she starts packing, saying let’s get the hell out of here. Prior to that, I don’t think that she believes that there is any value to Sally’s nightmares, except for the fact that the girl needs someone to talk to.

What about when Jack Thompson’s character in the hospital and he says, “Get that girl out of the house, now!” It seems like that may be the turning point.

Katie Holmes: Well, that is one of them. All of these things add up. But you have to remember, Alex and Kim are under a lot of pressure to have this dinner party and they have a lot going on, so it’s one of those things where everything is so heightened that I believe that these characters would say, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” It’s hard to keep up with what is being revealed. Only when it is the mural and that hits you in the face, like: Oh, my God. Okay, I get it now and I’m going to [save her].

Guillermo del Toro: Until then, Jack Thompson’s character never says little creatures attacked me. Actually, they say he must have fallen on his tools. It was an accident, blah, blah, blah. The thing is, you try to graduate it, so the characters learn things to the point where they know. The girl is the first one to find out. And she is the first to get the hell out of the house. But she is eleven, so they bring her back. The second one is Katie. She realizes that the face in the engravings matches the drawings of the girl. At that moment, she goes party or no party, we’re packing and we’re leaving. Then the library happens, and she has to get the girl in the car and now Alex is on board. After that, there is a siege. The creatures strategize to keep them in the house. So, the evolution of how much the characters know was mapped on the screen from the beginning.

The ending has such an amazing nod to the audience that suggests if there were a sequel someone might be back in a very different form. Can you talk about that without giving anything away?

Katie Holmes: My role would be in a sound stage, a sound booth.

Guillermo del Toro: That came from one of the characters in the original had that ending in ’73. What is great is that even though we are in a horror movie it’s very rare that a distributor and a studio would allow for what happens in the last five minutes of the movie to happen. It’s a big shock to the audience to see that. I think we were lucky enough to be A) with the right studio and B) in a transition between one studio and the other and we were able to keep all that. Normally that takes the audience entirely by surprise when that happens.

I understand that you had this with Harvey Weinstein, and he wanted all these changes and you said, “I’m out of here.”

Guillermo del Toro: Yeah. I left and then ten years later I got it back. That’s the thing. I had just a meeting with Bob, not Harvey, with Bob, and we got the notes back and I said farewell. Then ten years later when they left Disney, I went “Did they by any chance leave behind that screenplay?” What is great is the screenplay we shot is the draft we abandoned before it was developed to the ground. They went through many, many permutations. They had the creatures flying. They impregnated women. They kidnapped them. They were six feet tall. They were vampires. Every permutation I’ve heard is weird. They went into completely different directions and we went back to the way I wanted them to do it from the start.

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: August 26, 2011.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2011 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2011 Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2011 Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2011 Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2011 Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2011 Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

#7 © 2011 Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

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