It’s an all-too familiar story: internationally-acclaimed director hot off the success of their debut film courted by Hollywood with the promise of success, only to end up getting chewed up and spit out by the system. It’s happened to the best of them. Including Guillermo Del Toro with his studio directorial debut MIMIC which released 20 years ago.
Having gained much acclaim for his first feature, CRONOS, Del Toro was approached by The Weinstein Brothers to contribute a segment for a planned sci-fi anthology film. When that project was scrapped, MIMIC was bumped up to feature status. Written in collaboration with Matthew Robbins and loosely based on the short story by Donald A. Wollheim, MIMIC takes us just ever-so-slightly into the future. A new plague has come, borne on the back of the common cockroach and laying waste to Manhattan’s child population. In an effort to stop it at the source, scientists led by entomologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino, still fresh off her Oscar win for MIGHTY APHRODITE) create a new hybrid insect – The Judas Breed, spliced together from mantis and termite DNA to infiltrate, assimilate into, and destroy the cockroach population with a secreted poison. The Judas Breed are custom built for this job along with a built in “one generation” expiration date. But, as with all best-laid plans of mice and men, nature’s had other ideas in mind. The Judas bugs survive and grow, blending themselves into the city to get closer to their next prey: us.
MIMIC had all the elements in place: a solid cast, a great “there are things man should not tamper with” premise, and a hot new visionary in Del Toro at the helm. Alas, the film opened to middling reviews and a final box-office haul that nearly undid his Hollywood aspirations before he even got out of the gate. And, in hindsight, it seems downright odd that there was a time where he would ever be labelled “mediocre” (let’s be honest – the man’s work is too grandiose and operatic to warrant that label). In the end, MIMIC is a serviceable B-movie creature feature with a little more smarts and art under the hood than most of its cinematic brethren. There was a restored director’s cut issued in 2011 which brought the film closer to his intended narrative pace and vision. But even without the additional footage, with all the studio interference and changes mandated by The Weinstein Brothers, there’s enough on view in MIMIC’s original cut that’s worth talking about. Specifically, the first traces of the themes and motifs that would thread through his movies like celluloid DNA.
MIMIC was the first film Del Toro would shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It wouldn’t be the last, either. PACIFIC RIM, CRIMSON PEAK and his recently-wrapped THE SHAPE OF WATER were all filmed in Canada’s largest city. Toronto has long stood in for any of America’s larger metropoli, but Del Toro also makes a point of filming there because… well, he just likes it so much, as he stated in an interview with The Toronto Star:
“I love the city, I love the (film) crews first of all. I love the people and then I love the city…I think it’s the most livable city. The food is amazing, the cultural life is amazing, the urban life is amazing and what is great is it’s a city, a proper city. It’s not a big town or a wannabe. I love this city.”LOVE (FOR) BUGS: As an amateur etymologist, Del Toro’s affinity for insects runs through all his works. Whether overtly ( the fairies in both PAN’S LABYRINTH and HELLBOY II) to the less-obvious ( the hive-mind social structure of BLADE II’s Reapers and THE STRAIN’s Strigoi), his fascination with insects made MIMIC a custom-fit for his sensibilities. When talking about The Judas Breed (and the experience of filming MIMIC) in the book, GUILLERMO DEL TORO: CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, Guillermo shows reverence and appreciation for both the fictional and real insect kingdom .“The insects in Mimic were all organic, but mankind needed glasses, artificial limbs. The mimics are the perfect ones, not us…I do happen to believe that insects, as far as form and function, are the most perfect—albeit soulless—creatures of creation.”
Burton and Depp. Scorsese and DeNiro. Hitchcock and Stewart. When an actor and director click, collaboration becomes a recurring thing such is the case with Del Toro and actor Doug Jones. Jones has appeared in several GDT films, often in multiple roles. But it all started here with his appearance as one of the film’s insect “Long Johns (“Long John Number 2”, to be precise).
Whether it’s as PAN’S LABYRINTH’s The Faun or The Pale Man or HELLBOY’s Abe Sapien or his role in the upcoming THE SHAPE OF WATER, Jones has been an integral part of Del Toro’s world-building. There are many reasons that some actors and directors inevitably forma tag-team dynamic. Leave it to Del Toro, though, to put it as succinctly as only he can on Twitter:
The relationships between generations old and young often form the backbone of Del Toro’s movies, specifically an older paternal figure with a young child or grandchild. While this started right off the bat in CRONOS with the loving and unconditional love between Jesus Gris and his granddaughter, MIMIC continues that thematic thread with the old shoeshine man, Manny (Giancarlo Giannini) and his autistic son, Chui (Alexander Goodwin, below). When the boy is taken in by the LongJohns – attracted to him by his habitual spoon-playing, which ‘mimics’ their communicative clicks – Manny goes into the metaphorical bowels of hell (the sewers below New York) to rescue him. It’s a narrative that gives the story its heart and one that would continue to appear in subsequent films. From the father/child dynamics of Hellboy & Professor Broom (HELLBOY), Stacker Pentacost & Mako Mori (PACIFIC RIM) and Carter Cushing & his daughter, Edith (CRIMSON PEAK), the bond between elder and child is the lynchpin that holds his narratives together.
Every director has their trademark visual motif. Burton has his spin on German Expressionism. Wes Anderson’s work is defined by both his specific color palette and razor-sharp symmetry. For Del Toro, one such recurring visual signature is an aesthetic that can only be described as “beautiful decay”. It’s in MIMIC that we get to see Del Toro’s first swing at this blend of architectural deterioration and fairy tale-like surrealism. Where the film starts out in the standard urban environs of New York, it takes on a more decidedly artistic flair as our characters go deeper underground to face off against the Judas Breed. The walls are coated with mildew and rust. Machinery, long left to decay in the abandoned subway tunnels takes on the appearance of urban fossils, technology of a bygone era. This aesthetic has become a mainstay in his filmography – informing the design of both HELLBOY films and BLADE II, before reaching its pinnacle in CRIMSON PEAK’s opulently deteriorating Gothic estate – and it’s arguably here where viewers got their first taste of it.
Perhaps more importantly than all these ongoing aesthetic choices, it was Del Toro’s experience in making MIMIC that gave him one of the most important lessons a creator can learn: failure and the politics of studio filmmaking. Del Toro approached the project with loftier themes in mind, most specifically humanity’s failure as a species and its replacement by a species engineered for evolution but was hamstrung by producers and a studio who wanted the final product to be a little more ‘accessible’. In CABINET OF CURIOSITIES’ chapter on MIMIC, Del Toro tells of how the first shot in the film, an elaborate shot of a children’s ward, became a source of contention.
“It was the first day of shooting of MIMIC, and I thought it was a very beautiful, a very striking image. It was the first image that got me into deeper trouble because some of the producers hated that image from the start. They said ‘It doesn’t look like a real hospital. It looks like something off another planet. What are you doing? Are you making an art film out of a B-movie bug picture?’ And I said to them, ‘Well, I think they are one and the same. I think they are one and the same…it was a losing proposition from the get-go.”
They say the hardest lessons are the most important, and MIMIC was the hardest one yet for Del Toro. In the end, the film was taken out of his hands and recut by the studio for its theatrical release. And yes, the 2011 Director’s Cut does its part in salvaging the original vision for the story, but the experience itself left an indelible impression on him and galavanized him for the rest of his career. From here on in, clarity of vision would always supercede compromise, be it for love or money.
“This is a struggle you have as an artist. Hellboy, in HELLBOY II, when he shoots the elemental, he’s shooting it because he wants people to like him…and they boo him and throw stones at him. As an artist, I’ve gone through that. You say, ‘Okay, I’m going to do what people like.’ I go and make a commercial movie like MIMIC, and it’s a huge hurt in my life. Then when you go and do the hard choice, there’s a reward in there.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF:
INTERVIEW PASSAGES COURTESY OF:
The Toronto Star
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (HaperCollins Press, 2013)