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'Bleak House': A tour inside Guillermo del Toro's creative man cave

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The director behind "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy" owns a house filled with artifacts he has collected throughout his life, many of which will be on display at LACMA.

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is not a hoarder. Yes, he has a two-story house filled with more than 10,000 items — artworks, sculptures, artifacts, books, movies — collected over a lifetime, but he insists he's not collecting for collecting's sake.

This is a religious place for me. See, to me, everything that surrounds us is not a collection, it's relics. It's relics or it's talismans. Whatever you want to call them, they have a spiritual hold of who I am essentially. 

“Bleak House” is the name of del Toro’s creative man cave, which is located in the suburbs of Los Angeles. But to be clear, it's not his family home. It's more of a library for research and writing, and to feed his imagination. And he no doubt used his imagination in the creation of the home. There’s even a room with a simulated rainstorm outside the window.

Concept design from Guillermo del Toro's FX show "The Strain."
James Kim/KPCC
Concept design from Guillermo del Toro's FX show "The Strain."

The filmmaker who made his mark with the 1993 movie, "Cronos," and who 23 years later is a fixture in film and television, uses "Bleak House" as a retreat. But now he's making some of it available to the public.

A new exhibit is being mounted at LACMA called “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters,” with items from “Bleak House,” that will open to the public on Aug. 1.

The Frame recently got a private tour of the actual “Bleak House” with Guillermo del Toro as items were in the process of being moved to LACMA.  As they walked through the house, the filmmaker told The Frame host John Horn about the meaning and inspiration behind his objects, and reflected on what drives him to collect.


The entrance to "Bleak House."
Josh White/
The entrance to "Bleak House."

We were living in a three-bedroom house and I magically had occupied four spaces. So it came to a point where the collection was much bigger than the family life. I was hanging up a picture, a really creepy painting by Richard Corben. My wife says, "That's too close to the kitchen, the kids are gonna be freaked out." And inside of me something cracked and I said, "I'm gonna get my own place." 


The sign in the first floor hallway of "Bleak House" reads "If I were you I'd turn back now."
James Kim/KPCC
The sign in the first floor hallway of "Bleak House" reads "If I were you I'd turn back now."

The house is organized in 13 libraries, so each room has a different library. It's a research area for me. This one opens and you're into a room that is the haunted mansion, but is all about mythology, folklore, fairytales and myths.

This is a room that's behind a secret bookcase that swings like a door and is filled with flickering candles. There are gargoyles on the ceiling. 

The haunted mansion gargoyles, yeah.

It almost feels like we're back in the Disney ride.

Yes, that is the idea. And the painting that hangs there is the original Marc Davispainting of Medusa that was created for the [Haunted Mansion] ride. I have the original. 

Do you remember when you first went on the ride?

Yeah! Opening year. It was 1969 that I went. 

You were how old?


You remember that visit?

Oh, I remember the first time I was at a Disneyland ride. I was three. It was imprinting like a chicken coming out of the egg. I said, This is the place for me.

What is great is, I saw the sign because we went every year. I saw the signs that said, Coming Soon: Haunted Mansion. I was waiting like for an opening of a blockbuster. 

A couch piled with books and a demonic doll.
James Kim/KPCC
A couch piled with books and a demonic doll.

Michael Jackson built "Pirates of the Caribbean" at his Neverland Ranch, but that was for entertainment. This is for creative inspiration, right? You're trying to recreate the feel and the experience of being surrounded by artifacts?

Yes. This is a religious place for me. See, to me, everything that surrounds us is not a collection, it's relics. It's relics or it's talismans. Whatever you want to call them, they have a spiritual hold of who I am, essentially. That's why the room next to this is dedicated to art. You have Bosch, Dali, Edward Hopper, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, next to rubber monsters. It's an exploded view of my brain, this house.


A life-size mannequin of Koo-Koo the Bird Girl from the 1932 film "Freaks."
James Kim/KPCC
A life-size mannequin of Koo-Koo the Bird Girl from the 1932 film "Freaks."

Normally, this room has a couple of "Freaks" from the Tod Browning movie. It has a lonely one right now, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, life-sized, done by Thomas Kuebler. Normally, Johnny Eck is in there and Hands is in there.

Is this from the original 1932 movie?

Yes. This is a replica obviously. This room is all the art books, photography books. And, again, I am the caretaker, like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." I've been here forever. I assembled the book shelves. I clean, I dust, I organize.

No one else is allowed in here to clean?

No. There used to be someone that came in and I used to find the hand of a figure lying at its feet. A broken finger, a broken horn, whatever. I said, No, not anymore. What works here is that you ask me to look for a book. You say, Where do you keep this artist? I'll tell you, Here it is. So I have to do it myself. 

There are stacks and stacks of books and artifacts. It's not a mess, but you can tell us where everything is? It's in your mind?

Oh yes. It's essential for me. Right now, the house has been plundered for the LACMA exhibit, but the house is truly an installation, if you would. It is not a hoarder house. It's not a house where things are out of order. They have an order. They have a reason.

What is important is that it speaks intimately to me. It doesn't matter that it's a rubber doll, a Pez dispenser or a $50,000 painting. It is just that everything in the house speaks to me at some level that is very intimate. I became a zealot, not a collector. I'm religious about these things.


Guillermo del Toro's rain room at "Bleak House."
Josh White/
Guillermo del Toro's rain room at "Bleak House."

Who had the first rain room? 

Disney had the first rain room — the Tiki Room — that's where mine came from. Mine is in the occult library. 

So this is all dedicated to the occult. We have Frankenstein sitting in a barber's chair sipping a cup of tea. Where does this Frankenstein come from? 

That was done by an amazing artist, Mike Hill, who has the same amount of crush on Frankenstein as I do. For me, Frankenstein is a religious icon, you know? It's almost a martyr to the sins of being weird [laughs], and I identified with him as a young guy.  

You know, Boris [Karloff] has that physique that is almost biblical. So, for me, Frankenstein is a hagiography. I remember being a Catholic boy and reading "Lives of the Saints." It's the same as the Universal monsters for me. All the basic big ones — Phantom, The Gill-man, The Wolfman — they are saints' inventory in my religion. 

A life-size Frankenstein sitting on a barber's chair sipping tea.
James Kim/KPCC
A life-size Frankenstein sitting on a barber's chair sipping tea.

There's a window here where there's a projection of rain. Or is that real rain? 

No! I designed it and I built it! This is where I write, on this huge sofa. As any good fat guy, I'm an expert on comfy chairs and sofas. 

So when you're writing and you come in here and you sit on this couch and you're surrounded by monsters, and the rain and thunder, is it a different process for you than if you were in a Starbucks? 

Completely, I mean everything around me does inspire me. I try to color-coordinate things and I try to make things rhyme. I go to a different room if I need a different energy. The great thing is I don't like Googling. If I have a doubt, I like to go to a shelf and grab a book and consult it. If you Google you're gonna get the exact information, but if you open a book you can get lost a hundred pages in. You have a piece of information that is aleatory that you like. 

You say that every room has a particular energy, what's the energy in this room? 

Well, the reason I made the rain is not just to be cute. I love writing in the rain and L.A. — rain doesn't happen [laughs.] It's not exactly a commodity that you can trade on when you need it. So it's sort of a melancholic room. My movies are nothing if not melancholic, you know? They are movies about loss, even the blockbusters. 


Guillermo del Toro's film collection.
James Kim/KPCC
Guillermo del Toro's film collection.

I remember the first time I visited you at your original "Bleak House," you had thousands of DVDs. Where did those go now that everything is online? 

I have 7,000 DVDs and Blu-rays, I have about 2,000 LaserDiscs, I have about 50 VHS tapes, and I have one Betamax. 

[Laughs] You're the last man with a Betamax. So these are all the DVDs. So if the movie thing doesn't work, you can open your own video store? 

Well, what is great is these are the latest editions. If a better addition comes up, I buy it. I keep it here and the other house has the older edition. 

There is a range of movies here that is beyond comprehension. There's TV shows, there's lots of great movies... 

It's international, I do it by country. We go from Italy, Spain, Mexico, Eastern Bloc, and then we go into drama. Drama goes into war and adventure. Then that goes into Western and noir, then we go into silent [films]. I don't know why. Then we go chronologically into comedy with the earliest comedies all the way to the end, and then we go into TV. 

A "Hellboy" action figure.
James Kim/KPCC
A "Hellboy" action figure.

But if objects speak to you creatively, if books speak to you creatively, if sounds speak to you creatively, do movies as well? Do you ever find yourself watching an old movie and getting inspired that way? 

What happens is I have to move these from one house to another. When I do that, I take the movies that I want to watch [at] the other house. I have a projection room here, but the other house has a more comfortable sitting area. So movies speak to me almost like a menu at a restaurant. I just watch what I feel like having. 


Why do you feel so compelled to collect? 

Basically, the house is a library of images, and a library of sounds, and a library of ideas. 

It's not objects to me. When you consult a library, you go to a book by Faulkner. When you consult a video library, you go to an episode of "Frasier" or you go to a particular movie by François Truffaut, whatever you want. But it's a library, it's not a collection. It's a working space. 

Art on the walls of "Bleak House."
James Kim/KPCC
Art on the walls of "Bleak House."

It's fair to say that most of your movies are about loss?  

That's why I collect. 

And that's why you're attracted to telling these stories. 

Yeah, I was frozen in the sands of loss when I was a kid. I don't know exactly why. I've been in therapy for about 12 years, but when you're afraid of loss you accumulate, which can be a factor for my weight or my collection. 

You're giving up a lot of your collection to LACMA for a couple of months. What does it feel like to see this stuff come out of your house? 



It was pretty brutal. Like here, on the left, there used to be one frame of "Gertie the Dinosaur," [directed by] Winsor McCay, the first animated film. Every time I come up I see the art and it's like a journey through ideas. So now I'm going through a journey of empty rooms. 

There used to be a giant head, like seven feet tall, of Dick Smith, the famous makeup artist who was my mentor. And now it's just this empty space. So it feels weird, but at the same time my goal is, after I croak, I would love for this house to stay put and have people come and write here, like a residency program. So I'm going to have to share my toys at one point. 

LACMA's exhibit, "Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters,"opens on Aug. 1.  

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