Oscar-Winning Production Designer Eugenio Caballero on “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Roma” and More

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Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Courtesy of Picturehouse.

Few people in the film industry are as responsible for me choking back tears as Mexican production designer Eugenio Caballero. He won the Oscar in 2007 for Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and was nominated again this year for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” Both of these pictures rank among the greatest ever made, and that is in no small part due to the vividly realized worlds that Caballero crafted, whether it’s the fantasy life young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) utilizes to escape the bleak reality inhabited by her monstrous stepfather, Vidal (Sergi López), in Del Toro’s film, or the turbulent vision of Mexico as navigated by an indigenous maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), which sprung directly from Cuarón’s memories.

With the 13th anniversary of “Pan’s Labyrinth”’s U.S. premiere arriving on December 18th, I thought it would be an ideal time to publish the following conversation I had with Caballero this past October, when he was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival. In addition to the two aforementioned masterpieces, we also discussed his collaborations with such visionary directors as J.A. Bayona, Baz Luhrmann and Jim Jarmusch.

Would you say that serving as an assistant set decorator on Baz Luhrmann’s audacious 1996 adaptation “Romeo + Juliet” was a formative experience in how it required you to meld the Shakespearean text with a modern setting, where the swords become guns?

Absolutely, it was formative in many ways. First of all, I had started out doing very small films in Mexico. That was all we had to work on back then, and of course, things have changed a lot lately. So this job was a chance for me to witness a bigger and riskier production. There were a lot of risks taken by Baz, and that was a very interesting thing to see. It was also very important for me to see how he and Catherine Martin, the production designer, worked together. They had a very unusual way of approaching the creation of spaces, and it was very good to see their process. The other thing that I learned is that you can really be wild with the worlds you are creating.

It was a very difficult film to shoot, so the whole experience was really like a quick university program for me. It was a big school, and I was working with set decorator Brigitte Broch, who is my mentor. She was very bright and clear about how to transmit an idea, and that skill is very valuable for me right now while working on bigger projects. She knew how to ensure that the important part of her ideas were realized even after 500 people had worked with them. What ultimately ends up on the screen should have the spirit of what you imagined when you are basically at a desk, reading a script. How you go about making that happen is a very interesting process.

How were you able to fuse the stark reality of the Spanish Civil War with the fantastical qualities of Lewis Carroll in “Pan’s Labyrinth”?

When Guillermo told me about this film, he had everything in his head, but the script was not written yet. So we met in Cannes, and he said, “I want you to make this.” In two hours, he basically told me the whole story, and after he left, I thought, ‘How am I gonna do this?’ I was not especially knowledgable about the Spanish Civil War, and my previous involvement with fantasy was very minimal. So I stopped everything in order to study and research as much as I could, so that I would get to a point where I was feeling comfortable with the subject. That methodology of work for me is important, but it was easier because I had Guillermo. He has a very clear vision of things in terms of what story he wants to tell, how he wants to provoke feeling in the audience, and the way he sees his own characters as well.

We talked a lot about that, and then we created this world that had very strict rules in order to work. You may have noticed that the fantasy world is all curves, and that there isn’t a straight line to be found anywhere. Even though it may appear scary at times, in the end, it’s meant to reflect the womb of a mother. Everything is so organic there, whereas the real world is way scarier and more aggressive. We built things bigger than they would normally be sized in order to portray the perspective of Ofelia, causing her to appear dwarfed by her surroundings. It was a fun film to make, but also very difficult because nobody really believed in it. People kept asking, “What is this about?” But in the end, it came together. Collaborating with Guillermo is one of those amazing privileges in life that you don’t take for granted.

It was a privilege having him at Ebertfest for “Crimson Peak” in 2016, where he stuck around to chat with every audience member who wanted to meet him.

He’s a very generous guy. I am always thankful with him just because he could’ve chosen any designer in the world to make “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but he decided to go with a young guy who had no experience in fantasy. He saw that I could do it.

The lair inhabited by the Pale Man is in itself one of the great spaces in cinema, with its roaring fireplace that appears simultaneously inviting and foreboding.

Every fantasy sequence was based in the idea that it mirrors a set in the real world. That fireplace mirrors the one that you see behind Vidal as he talks with his comrades at the dining table, so that was the starting point for the Pale Man room. We knew that we didn’t want any straight lines, so all of it had to be kind of curved and somehow appealing. We went back to the Romanesque period, which is a very specific period in Spanish architecture, and we eventually came to a point where we had a set that we were feeling good about. Then Guillermo came in and said, “Let’s try to have the walls red.”

It was a strange choice that went against my own code, which is that even if you are designing a strange shape, if it is supposed to be made of stone, then it has to look like stone. So it was very unusual for me to have this red, organic texture used for the walls, because it was not related to any materials that I could build with in terms of reality. But Guillermo encouraged me to think of the space as an internal part of Ofelia’s mother—perhaps her uterus—that the girl desires to return to, and that completely changed the whole thing. We ended up creating these red, almost fleshy surroundings for the lair.

Was your meticulous recreation of Mexico City circa early 1970’s in “Roma” fueled by your research of the period or your effort to replicate Cuarón’s childhood memories?

It was basically a mix of both. Alfonso did not share the script with anyone, so the only way of knowing what we were shooting and what the sets would look like was by speaking with him. We had really long chats about his childhood, about my own childhood, about what he remembered. He was very specific about certain props, and during my research, I went into my personal family archives as well. We were looking at family portraits, but rather than studying the people in the foreground, we were paying attention to all those things that were there in the house that are normally hard to see, since photographs published on the internet, for example, are already filtered. People put them there because they are nice pictures, but the worst pictures are the ones that are more valuable for me.

The details you normally keep out of frame are more indicative of what life was like when the picture was taken. So the reality that Alfonso and I built for the film was the sum total of little details. Our starting point was the opposite of what normally happens when designing a film. Normally you think of a set, and then you basically do the broad strokes. After that is in place, then you go about planning the details up to the moment that you’re shooting. But here, the film was built in an opposite way. We started with the details. We had small props chosen even before sets were constructed. Once the spaces were built, we already had layers of details to fill them with, and those details were probably part of what connected with people.

It’s astonishing how the sets work on both a micro and macro level, such as when chaos erupts outside the window of a store, which we peer through along with the characters.

Since the script was not open to anyone, there were a lot of times where we had to rely on our intuition. It forced me to design sets in ways that gave Alfonso the biggest number of options for where to place the camera. I wanted to present him with as many alternatives as possible, and we ended up building huge sets. The streets were built from scratch, particularly the two big avenues. The avenue that Cleo crosses in order to attend the cinema was a full build on the backlot, and that was because we needed a really specific recreation of the time period.

In the Oscar press room, I told Alfonso [at the 2:33 mark in the video embedded above] that “Roma” is like a spiritual companion piece to “Children of Men” in how it grapples with the challenge of bringing new life into a chaotic world.

We talked about themes more than any action, so part of Alfonso’s reason for not sharing the script was to make our discussion about themes all the more crucial. We talked about that sense of loneliness that you can feel, even when you are surrounded by people. We talked about the contrast of Mexico City with the modern world, and how that dichotomy between slums and wealthier communities can still be found everywhere today. We talked about our childhoods a lot too, and many other themes, so it was a lovely process. It was very different from the previous films that I’ve done.   

I was struck by how the scene where Cleo awaits her absent boyfriend while seated in the movie theater was framed and designed in a way that was similar to her childbirth scene later in the film.

Yes, there were certain connections that we were trying to visualize, and though we planned out a lot beforehand, we were also aiming to create a certain type of mood. Alfonso and I were extremely connected. It’s like how you’ll have two people or a group of individuals on a soccer team who are focused on achieving the same thing. There are things that you haven’t trained or planned for that will come up in the moment when you’re playing, and that’s what happened to us. We planned a lot of things, we talked about a lot of things, and we were synced, I would say, in a deep way, so that when we were shooting, we were really aware of how we could create those very concrete moments.

As in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” there is maternal symbolism in the design of “Roma,” particularly in its use of water, which you previously worked with on a significant scale in J.A. Bayona’s fact-based 2012 thriller, “The Impossible.”

I love to work with water. It’s something that I think a lot of people avoid just because it’s problematic, but I love problems, as long as they can produce strong results. Water has a lot of strength in a visual sense, and a lot of symbolism as well. All the water that you see in “Roma” was placed by us, even on the beach. Obviously you have the sea itself, but in the shot where Cleo walks out from under that primitive roof and moves toward the water in order to fetch the kids, she crosses a bank of water that reflects the light of the sun behind her, and that water was placed by us. It is an artificial thing, and the same is true of the pond that the kid crosses while wearing an astronaut costume. All of those things were placed by us just because water had a very important role in the memories of Alfonso. For “The Impossible,” we had to recreate a tsunami, so the use of water in that film had to be very powerful.

In order to create a labyrinth of wreckage wherein a battered family must journey to find one another following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, how did you go about researching the real disaster?

It was a painful research process. We shot all the water scenes in Alicante, and we had learned that there was some crazy guy in England who does nothing but study how waves are created. He came with us so that we could get his advice on how to create certain effects for the film. Then we experimented with the scale as well, so it was a very technical and beautiful playground for us to be in. But when we went to Thailand to recreate the landscape pre- and post-tsunami, it was five years after the disaster had occurred there, and we found very few signs of destruction. The citizens knew how to very quickly eliminate any ruins since they rely on tourists, so they basically took out everything, and we had to recreate those things with people who had survived the tsunami.

It was very painful to see them relive their experiences. At first, they didn’t know what we were doing, but that changed once they saw the set. I really respect and love that moment when a set is ready for use, because prior to that point, it is more of a construction site, so all you see are machines and crew members. But after you finish up construction, the set decoration people come, and you do the last touches by painting certain things. Then suddenly—boom—the set breathes, and that moment is potent when you are talking about corpses, about destruction, about things that people had lived through five years earlier. So I was humbled by the experience, I have to say.

Four years later, you reunited with Bayona to externalize the despair of a child in “A Monster Calls” in a way that doesn’t sanitize it. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it’s not a sugar-coated portrait of grief.

No it’s not, and that’s probably why it wasn’t seen that massively in the states, for example. But I love the film. I felt very proud of it. For me, I would say yes, it’s connected with “Pan’s Labyrinth,” even in terms of its subject and the themes that it touched upon. I tried to go in a different direction, but in the end, I probably explored certain things that I was also exploring in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and then I took it to another level. First of all, I was touched the moment that I read the book. It was about the idea of watching somebody you love fade away, which was very strong on an emotional level. Then there were paintings that had to be animated, which was a new challenge for me, since I hadn’t worked with animation before. It was my job to guide that part as well, while blending these two worlds—the imagination of the kid trying to survive the harshness of reality. It was a beautiful project to work on.

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(From left:) Eugenio Caballero, me and filmmaker Stephen Cone, who moderated Caballero’s master class at the Chicago International Film Festival in October.

Have you found yourself getting more in touch with your own childhood while making these films?

Yes, films like “Roma” and others that I’ve done connect you with your deepest fears as well as your nicest memories. During the “Roma” process, I recovered a lot of memories that I had long lost. I have to say that after I won the Oscar for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” everything that was offered to me was fantasy, so I stopped doing fantasy for nearly a decade. “A Monster Calls” was the first film I did in all those years that embraces fantasy as its subject matter, so obviously there were certain links with the artistic side of myself that I had placed in a box yet still wanted to eventually explore. I didn’t want to make just one type of movie, so I went on to do very different films after that, perhaps simply as a reaction to having all these superhero or fantasy pictures being offered. I went to do “The Limits of Control” with Jim Jarmusch, which is also very strange. I accept that it’s a strange film. [laughs]

What degree of freedom does Jarmusch give you when designing his work?

A lot. Actually, it was a very different process from the way he had done his films before. He had just thirty pages written for the whole movie, so it functioned as more of a guide. We went on a scouting trip with Christopher Doyle, who was the film’s director of photography, to all the locations where this story takes place. We went together to Savilla, to Alicante, to Madrid, to all these places, and meanwhile, we were living those experiences. Those things that we were observing informed Jim as he wrote the rest of the script. It was great because we were very integrated as a team when the shooting came. Some of the things that ended up on the screen were things that we had lived through together.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is available for purchase via the Criterion Collection, and the Criterion edition of “Roma” is slated for release on Tuesday, February 11th, 2020.

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