Welcome To Bleak House

by Curtis Tsui

Curtis TsuiCurtis has been with the Criterion Collection for almost (gulp) 14 years. He’s also forever self-educating himself in new subjects, with Arduino and Processing being the new points of curiosity. And he’s gotten pretty good at archery, so watch out.




CRONOS Criterion DVD

CRONOS Criterion DVD

I’ve been fortunate – blessed, really – to have produced Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone for the Criterion Collection. I say blessed because working with G. is an eye-opening experience, not just in relation to the film at hand, as I learned so much about both movies, but also in relation to literature, visual art (high, low, and gleefully sewer-level), music, science… the things that keep the human mind curious and engaged and life worth savoring. It’s easy to fall into ruts – complacency with one’s day-to-day existence, phoning everything in – but one minute with Guillermo and his myriad passions and interests (not to mention his hilariously exuberant potty mouth) is a much-needed, inspirational kick in the ass. I find that my experiences with him and my memories of them have been key in making me feel that it’s never acceptable to rest on one’s laurels.

Perhaps the best representation of Guillermo’s ever-absorbing mind is his infamous Bleak House. And making the “Welcome to Bleak House” video tour for the Cronos DVD and blu-ray is also the best illustrative example, from my time with him, of how remarkable he is as a director. I say director because even if I received the top credit at the end of the supplement as producer, make no mistake: that featurette came out the way it did because of Guillermo’s vision and guidance.

Let me back up a bit by saying this. At the time, Guillermo was knee-deep in the Shire for The Hobbit, and simply carving out time within his schedule (not to mention in the States since he was primarily in New Zealand) initially seemed like it’d be damned near impossible. However, even if he was all the way around the globe, he’d always respond to my queries within 24 hours or less, and he never treated the remastering of his debut film like a second-class citizen. How he does it, physically and mentally, I don’t know, but he was engaged through the entire process. (The same holds true for The Devil’s Backbone, which was going on during the tail end of all of his demanding Pacific Rim post-production.)

So even as taxing as all of this must’ve been on him, when the precious time was made for me and I arrived at Bleak House to shoot, Guillermo was on point from the moment I arrived and onwards. It’s no secret that G. admires and knows a great deal about Hitchcock, but what was fascinating to see was that he directed the whole shoot in a Hitchockian way, by cutting in the camera.

Pop in your Cronos blu-ray or DVD and take a look at the supplement. (And if you don’t have it, what the fuck are you doing reading this? Buy it already.) Now look at it carefully. Guillermo guides us through each room, talking about each space and relevant obsessions, all while insert shots of neat doo-dads and artwork are edited in to illustrate. However, if you take out those cutaways, you would – amazingly – still have a complete, narratively-solid, fully-functional supplement.

Guillermo at BLEAK HOUSE

Before we rolled, each “room tour” was carefully mapped out between Guillermo and cameraman Roger De Giacomi, so they’d know where they’d start, what G. would be indicating and discussing, the points of the room they’d cross, and where’d they’d exit. So when it was time for “action,” the space and Guillermo’s discussion of it would be covered in one long, continuous take. Sure, I’d make suggestions about topics that I’d like addressed or little statements that could be made, but it was all Guillermo. Then, when we filmed in the next location, it’d go down in the exact same fashion. So basically you could take the “out” point of one room tour, connect it to the “in” point of the subsequent walk-through in the adjoining space, and link each unbroken master shot that way until we terminate in the screening room with G’s farewell. By the end of the shoot, each vertebrae within the spine of the piece was already ready to be joined. I mean, it was phenomenal to behold. Pure genius.

But mind you, this didn’t happen instantaneously. If Guillermo wasn’t happy with a take, or we wanted to incorporate some new facet of information, we’d reshoot. We were lucky that by the time Guillermo started heading upstairs to guide that section of the house that we were away from windows because at that point it was pitch black outside, a total contrast to the sunlight you see streaming in during the beginning of the tour!  What is it that Einstein said, “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work”? I’d shift those numbers a good bit for Guillermo, but “Welcome to Bleak House” was pure proof that, yes, he’s Talented and Knows What The Fuck He’s Doing, but also that he has an incomparable work ethic.

And the best thing is that he doesn’t lord over you with any of this. There wasn’t a single moment where he was ever disparaging, rude or patronizing to me during the production of either release. Even if he disagreed with me, he did so with respect and he heard out every point that I made. It’s a downer when you love somebody’s work but don’t love the person behind it, but Guillermo’s like Totoro (albeit Totoro with a penchant for profanity): you can’t help but think he’s the best.

To this day, “Welcome to Bleak House” remains one of my favorite supplements that I produced, not just because of its content but also because of the way it was executed and the full experience behind it. If I have any regrets it’s that, in the name of professionalism and getting the job done, I didn’t let myself geek out enough when I was there. Why didn’t I take a pic with poor Ivan Klimatovich in the hallway? Or a selfie while holding Hellboy’s Samaritan? Kroenen’s blades? Ah well. Life is full of regrets. But working with Guillermo definitely isn’t one of them.

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