MIKE MIGNOLA is best known as the award-winning creator/writer/artist of Hellboy…now celebrating it’s 20th Anniversary! He was also visual consultant to director Guillermo del Toro on both Hellboy and Hellboy 2:The Golden Army films. He also co-authored (with Christopher Golden) 2 novels BALTIMORE, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire and Joe Golem and the Drowning City. Mignola lives in southern California with his wife, daughter, and cat.
Interview by Gary Deocampo
Gary: What was your first introduction to Guillermo del Toro’s work?
Mike Mignola: You know,probably the first movie I saw was MIMIC.I think that I had heard about CRONOS…but, I’m pretty that I didn’t see CRONOS until after I had seen MIMIC.
G: So,have you seen all his films ?
MM: I have,other than the weird student stuff,I have seen them all.
G: Out of all the work of his that you’ve seen ,which is your favorite?
MM: PAN’S LABYRINTH. I love DEVIL’S BACKBONE…but probably, PAN’S LABYRINTH
G: What is it about PAN’S LABYRINTH did you like?
MM: It was kinda everything that he did, it’s probably the best he’s ever done…it’s beautiful,it’s heart-breakingly sad…there’s a lot of great actor stuff, the design was all beautiful, but the people stuff is so good…and the focus of the story is strong. Sometime in the bigger pictures, you kinda get swallowed up in a parade of cool bits. I think in both DEVILS’ BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH you keep a really tight focus on the story. It’s the story…they are wonderful little tight stories, beautiful, dreamlike visuals. But the visuals really support the story, but sometimes I think on some of the bigger pictures it’s the visuals that seem to be coming first. I think it was the perfect combination.
G: How did you meet Guillermo del Toro?
MM: Dark Horse comics contacted me and said the delToro wanted to do HELLBOY. I think Dark Horse had optioned HELLBOY six months earlier and it had been floating around and GdT had found out that DH had Hellboy in development and was out there. I think that it was at Universal Studios at the time and GdT came to DH and said “I’m the guy to make this movie”. We had breakfast in Portland and we hit it off right away. It’s was actually really funny…Mike Richardson,the publisher of DH, he was there at the breakfast and he left us alone. I could tell how nervous he was about leaving me with del Toro alone. We had breakfast at Powell’s (the best used bookstore in America). He left us alone and almost immediately del Toro said, “We gotta fuck with him”. So we hung out at Powell’s and went back to my apartment around the corner and del Toro coached me through a phone call to Mike Richardson and I said “I can’t do this.” and he said “No,no,I’ll talk you through this”. So I called Mike Richardson and started yelling at him, I remember saying ” Do you know what kind of movie this guy wanted to make? What the hell were you thinking putting me in a room with THIS guy, are you fucking kidding me?” Richardson’s like “Oh,oh,oh where is he?” I said ” he gone, he’s gone, he’s at the fucking airport,I cannot believe you’d put me together with THIS guy and the shit he was gonna do…and then of course I let Richardson off the hook but I think it took Mike years to recover from that phone call,del Toro had an awfully good time.
G :What’s it like to work for him?
MM: That’s a big question…I gotta say ,we had so much fun, especially in the early days. We had a blast on BLADE II. Scouting locations with him for the first time ever in Prague. His first time ever in Prague. Del Toro: “Magnus,We have to go to Prague on Monday.They have Kafka Puppets”. Yeah, we’re gonna scout locations, but I think the primary reason for us going was to look for Kafka Puppets.
There was a church somewhere in Prague…The legend was, that there was someone who had wanted to rob the poor box and the statue of Virgin Mary had yanked the guys arm off. There’s a church somewhere in Prague that had the guy’s arm hanging from a chain. So,when we weren’t looking for Kafka puppets, we were looking for the church that a had human arm hanging from it. So that was a lot of fun. Working for him is interesting…On one hand he and I see eye to eye on stuff conceptually, but when it comes to actual design, I’m a “less is more” guy and he’s “more is not enough” guy. So I would design something and somebody would just laugh at it and other times he would take the basic idea I had and give it to one of the other guys, like Francisco(Ruiz Velazco) or Ty Ellingson, he’d turn my design over to them and they would add a million spinning parts. The joke was always, if you needed something pop out and wheels spin and steam to squirt out of it…then he’ll like it…and my stuff would be…a log.
G: So that was your Hellboy I experience, how about Hellboy II?
MM: Again ,that’s a design thing. The first Hellboy movie, there’s more of me in there. I made more of a stamp on that…but by the second movie that was more of a del Toro thing. I came up with a beginning rough idea of things but mostly the finished designed stuff was a million miles away from what I did. There’s nothing like the experience I had doing the first Hellboy movie. We had to solve all the problems. How do you make a Hellboy movie? How do you make Ron Perlman look like Hellboy? How does that hand work? How does the makeup work? What’s his coat gonna look like? So, by the second movie all those questions had been answered. And the second movie, it was del Toro’s Hellboy. The first movie it was still Mike Mignola’s Hellboy being translated by del Toro. The second movie from the word “Go”, we had come up with the story together, actually we started out trying to adapt one of the comics…but it didn’t work because Hellboy had already turned that corner from my comic so much, into his world. So we were plotting the sequel to the movie, not going back to the comics. The original story was much more Mignola-ish and the story became so much more a del Toro thing. It didn’t have The Golden Army. It was much more this old silent German movie, big gothic, devil figure unfurling …it was The Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia. We had that scene in there. He called up one day and said “We’re gonna call it Hellboy and The Golden Army” and I said, “What the hell is the Golden Army?” He said ‘Well I took out the giant and put in The Golden Army” and I said ” Oh, Really?” Which is fine, it’s his thing to do as he pleases. Design wise he was so into his things that most of what I did didn’t even come near to what he wanted. Also at the time PAN’S LABYRINTH had just come out, so as we were in pre-production, he was all over the country or the world promoting PAN’S LABYRINTH. A lot of the time in the production office he wasn’t there. Which made it a little bit awkward for me because I was in the position where everyone is looking at me,”Tell us what to do?” and I would say,”I can’t tell you what to do, cuz it’s his thing”. It wasn’t a terrible experience, it wasn’t that exciting thing that the first one was.
G:You worked on THE HOBBIT a little and went to New Zealand, how was that experience?
MM:I didn’t do much. When he first asked me to work on THE HOBBIT, he wanted me to come work on it for a year. I said, “What is there for me to do?
Because you’re gonna have John Howe and Alan Lee , the principal designers for THE LORD OF THE RINGS ,you’re gonna have them on THE HOBBIT …already they’ve laid all the ground work for THE HOBBIT in LOTR..what is left for me to do?”… he said “Goblins! Nobody has done the goblins” and I’m like…”Ooo,I’ll go to NZ to design goblins.” Shit, when I got there he had ten thousand designs for the goblins. He had enough stuff on goblins that you could’ve made a forty hour movie just about the goblins. So I ended up designing dwarf architecture for ten days…which is not my strong suit…straight lines? AND, John Howe and Alan Lee had already done it in LOTR. I had a good time…I appreciate that he wanted me involved…i’m just not the right guy for the job.
G: So talking about the whole studio pre-production experience,what was it like working with Ty (Ellingson) ,Wayne Barlowe etc.,
MM: Ty and I hit it off right away. We had worked on BLADE 2 and I had learned so much from him. I had never done this kinda of stuff and I had never shared an office, ever. We had a blast. And they reteamed us in the exact same office dynamic on Hellboy. It was great . I missed having that on HBII. I had my own office and it was just dreary, sitting in my own office. You felt like a boss and not one of the working guys. Not solving any problems. I was kinda chewing at stuff, kind of working, but it didn’t have the same energy as sharing an office. Also on BLADEII the production team was just Ty, Wayne, Me and Tim Bradstreet, so there was four guys designing a whole movie, super fast…there was this energy similar to HELLBOY. The production team was Wayne, Me, Ty and Simeon Wilkens, doing storyboards…so again Hellboy was a really small production department. Ty and me were bouncing stuff back and forth all the time. That was exciting. I had never done it before and I had a great time doing it.
G: So with news of a new movie being produced, would you be willing to come back and design some stuff for GdT?
MM: Yeah, If there’s something that I felt that I could do or if I felt that there was something that he wanted me to do…I’d feel leery getting handed dwarf architecture again and considering the dwarf architecture I did…I don’t think that there is any danger of him ask me to do dwarf architecture. Yeah, I’ve got my job, especially now. I have a clear goal about getting a certain number of issues done and out of the way. You know what he’s like? If he asked me to, I’d drop whatever I was doing to work with him. I can’t imagine doing a gigantic chuck of time on something but to work with him is fun.
G: Now that you mentioned Hellboy ,Congratulation on the 20th Anniversary! Now that you are in a world where Hellboy is in Hell, Do you see a definite end to it all or can you play in hell for a while?
MM: I can play around in hell forever! and I suspect I will, in one way or another I will. The weird thing that happened, that I didn’t expect to have happen, is the original idea was that I was gonna do the first couple issues as one big story and I was gonna ramble around and do whatever the hell I wanted, but I realized that there were a bunch of things that Hellboy had to do and certain things that need to happen and certain hoops he needs to jump through. So,instead of saying that I’ll get to it eventually,I kinda condensed all that stuff into twenty issues of comics. About four trade paperbacks, one of which is out already. So, three more of them to get us through all the hoops I need Hellboy to jump through and then I can just play. Then he I can just roam around and have his odd, weird little stories. I just want him to get his big job out of the way. That’s my five year plan. By the twenty fifth anniversary I should have wrapped up all that big story, then it’s playtime.
MM: I love those books! Scott Dunbier of IDW asked and I said “Yes”. It was pretty much that simple. I’ve known Scott for a million years. When I did the Hellboy story THE CORPSE and thought “Shit,I think it’s unpublishable”, I had this complete crisis of confidence, Scott and I went out to lunch, I showed him the book and he was the one who said that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. So Scott has a huge place in the history of Hellboy. He was the first guy who recognized that Hellboy was gonna work. I owe him forever for that. It felt right for him to be the guy to pull that thing together. He also was the one who thought that it was a good idea to include THE CORPSE in there even though it’s a HELLBOY IN HELL story. Unfortunately, over the years I had either sold or given away a lot of those pages…which brings it back to del Toro, because I knew del Toro had two of the pages because I used them to bribe him to take things out of the first Hellboy screenplay. I didn’t realize that he had four pages which is really nice because we had to find these pages and he turned out he had four of the pages. There are two scenes that I bribed him to take out of the screenplay…One was where Hellboy was going to appear in a giant crib, I didn’t trust him that much. Del Toro said “trust me, it’ll work”. I said “here’s two pages of THE CORPSE , make that go away” - and then he reminded me that he was going to have Abe Sapien eat a rotten egg and his whole mouth was gonna come out of his face kinda like the Alien and I said “don’t do that…here’s two more pages, make sure you don’t ever do anything like that”. What threw me was that he loves that character so much and how beautiful it is, that as soon as that character’s mouth just extends out, like an insect …he’s not as pretty as he was a second ago. That does define del Toro right there. It’s really beautiful until it has to eat something, then shit unfolds and you’re like “WHOA ,what am I lookin’ at?”
DTC would like to thank Christine and Mike Mignola for being so generous with their time.