Dissecting a key scene from ”Pan’s Labyrinth”
Most people, at some point in life, have cut themselves while shaving. We know the awful sting a slip of the razor can inflict. But a nick is nothing compared to what happens to the villainous Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, the critically hailed, multiple-Oscar-nominated Spanish-language fairy tale-slash-political parable.
(WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD, SO BAIL OUT NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM AND WANT TO SAVE ALL SURPRISES.)
A proud, vain, insufferably smug fascist dedicated to murdering rebels in Franco’s Spain circa 1944, Captain Vidal (played by Sergi Lopez) winds up having his left cheek slashed open with a knife by one of his own household staff. Then, in possibly the most squirm-inducing, photo-realistic visual-effects shot of 2006, the wounded captain, looking as maniacal Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Batman but without the white pancake makeup, slowly assesses the damage in his shaving mirror. (Ironic? Totally.) He opens his mouth wide, and we see — gulp — that the gash is so deep, his whole cheek spreads apart, like a horrible, fleshy hinge. Vidal then takes a needle and thread, jams the needle into the lower and upper edges of the wound, and starts sewing his own cheek back together. The first stitch of the awful repair job unfolds in a single, unbroken close-up that lasts nearly 48 seconds (an icky eternity in screen time). Then, with the wound bandaged, the Captain takes a big swig of alcohol, and — D’oh! The liquor seeps through the gash and blooms into a big, hocking, red-and-yellow stain on the white bandage. As audiences have been saying for months, Eeeeeeeuuuuuwwww!
How did writer-director Guillermo del Toro and a team of makeup and computer-graphics alchemists dream up this groan-inducing showstopper? How’d they make it so convincing? We caught up with del Toro for a chat about realistic and fantastical violence, literary precedents, and why the filmmaker was happy to see Capt. Vidal get the perfect comeuppance.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When and how did the image of Captain Vidal sewing up his own cheek come to you?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: I think they call it a ”Birmingham smile” in the U.K., when they cut you like that. It’s a gang punishment, usually. When I was a kid, my parents had a sort of encyclopedia of youth literature. The classics that are good for you. And I read The Three Musketeers and Tom Sawyer and all that. But there was also a volume that contained The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo. In that, they grab the main character and they do this disfigurement to him. They carve a smile on this boy’s face. It was the basis that Bill Finger, co-creator of the Batman comic-book mythology, used to create the Joker. I’m not sure that my parents knew that that was included in their ”classics of youth” encyclopedia.
So you’ve had that carved-smile scenario floating around in your head since childhood.
The idea was one that I explored to a certain degree in earlier films, especially in The Devil’s Backbone, where the character of the fascist essentially is very concerned with his appearance and not so concerned with his inner monstrosity. As that movie progresses, he is disfigured more and more. In Pan’s Labyrinth, I wanted Captain Vidal to look as monstrous from the outside as he is inside by the end of the movie. Also, to show how relentless and unstoppable the guy is, I wanted to show him perform his own surgery, alone. He’s the sort of a guy that would not let anyone see him wince.
Did you figure out how to stage the trick only after you wrote the screenplay?
I have a technical background both in screenplay writing and in special-effects makeup. I had my own effects company for about a decade in Mexico. So every time I’m writing an effect in a script, I already know 90 percent [of] how it’s going to be done technically.
I’m guessing this shot involved an actual physical piece of makeup on the actor’s cheek that the needle digs into. Is that right?
Yes. The part of the wound he sews up is a very delicate piece of prosthetics. I felt it should be gelatin or silicone, because that gives you the most realistic skin flexibility and translucency. The prosthetic had a ridge in it deep enough so that the needle could go through it, and the actor could pull it through the top. I very much wanted to show that first needle puncture, and to have that long black thread going through the skin. It meant that Sergi Lopez had to put the needle very, very close to his own skin under the makeup.
But before Vidal starts sewing, he stretches his mouth and cheek wide open. That would be physically impossible for the actor to do, unless he was actually injured! So that portion of the shot must have involved CG, yes?
What we did was put a piece of elastic bluescreen fabric in-between the edges of the fake wound, and under the wound. So as Vidal stretched open his mouth, the bluescreen fabric showed.
And then computer artists had to ”paint out” the blue area and replace it, frame by frame, with what looks like the inside of his mouth showing between the gap in his cheek, yes?
Yes. So when he opens his mouth, you think there’s nothing there. It’s extremely disturbing.
I spoke to the CG artists at Café FX in Santa Maria, California, who did the open-cheek work. They said that to make the inside edges of the cut flesh look an unsettling texture, they actually photographed and then visually ”sampled” bits of a piece of steak, and grafted those pixels in there with CG so it would like kind of raw and pulpy. Incredible.
I also think it’s very creepy the way the character uses his razor to snip the thread. We made that little noise of the razor against the thread very audible.
It’s ironic that Vidal uses the same mirror we see him using to shave his whiskers earlier in the movie.
I actually made that exact point on the DVD commentary. It’s the same mirror and the same blade that used to make him, if you want, beautiful, and now it shows him as ugly. In my mind, it echoes the evil stepmother in Snow White, asking the mirror, Who’s the fairest one of all? Mirrors are fairy-tale elements, and I thought it would be very nice for this mirror to tell him, You’re not the fairest of them all any more.
It’s the grossest moment in a very violent film, where people are tortured, shot, beaten in the face. Most of those moments are sudden. This one is extremely drawn out.
In my mind, the cheek scene is the only moment in the movie where the violence is actually larger than life. It’s over the top. The rest of the violence I wanted to make unpleasant but photorealistic, very down to earth. Brutal, but almost documentary.
Is it poetic justice that such a vain character gets disfigured?
I hate this captain, and I wanted to see him suffer. It’s beautiful that a guy who believes he can control everything meets an end that is absolutely out of his control.
What made you follow the needle-and-thread bit with another shot of Vidal downing the alcohol and then bleeding through his cheek, which really freaks out audiences?
Because it defines him. You and I, if we accidentally forgot about a wound in our mouth and took a swig of alcohol, we would spit it out, scream, yell God damn it, run around, and of course not touch the stuff again. But this guy is so macho, so unstoppable, so into this strange sadomasochism, that he goes for another one. That effect was very neat. What we did was we put a very translucent, narrow little tube over his ear, down his cheek, and behind the gauze that covers the wound. We then pumped through it a mixture of alcohol, and we had a little bit of powdered blood hidden in the gauze. When the alcohol touched the powdered blood, it made this mess that was both yellow and red, which is for some reason extremely disgusting.
And then the Café FX team had to digitally ”paint out” the tube using CG, frame by frame?
Yes, we erased the tube in post-production.
How do people at screenings react to this sequence?
I love that there’s everything from a lot of ”aaaaws” and ”ooohs” to some horrified chuckles and clapping. It was amazing watching that moment both at the Cannes Film Festival and at Lincoln Center [the New York Film Festival], and hearing people react as loudly as if they were in a 42nd-street movie theater back in the old days.
What was it like for the actor, Sergi Lopez, doing that shot on-set?
Sergi’s not a very technical actor. He’s very visceral, very impulsive. That was, I think, our second or third day of shooting. And I’m extremely fastidious about cameras and actors. I want them to correlate. I plan the camera movements way in advance, and I come to the actor and I beg him or her to understand that this is a choreography and a dance between the camera and the performer. And Sergi was telling me, Why do you need me to do exactly this and that at certain moments? I kept showing him [the takes] in the monitor, but all he saw of course was a patch of blue. When he saw the final image, he said, Now I understand.
Okay, readers — time for you to weigh in on this bit of movie magic. Is this the greatest gashed-face scene of all time? Who scared you most in Pan’s Labyrinth, the real-life monster Captain Vidal, or the fantasy creatures, the faun and the Pale Man? For sheer gruesomeness, does Vidal’s injury beat out, say, the makeup job they did on Jack Nicholson as the Joker? Is it more awful than Nicholson getting his nose slit in Chinatown? What about the 1928 silent-movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Laughs? (Alas, probably unknown to most viewers.) Sharpen your wits, and let’s have it.