Hellboy’s first adventures were published by Dark Horse Comics in 1994. Guillermo del Toro’s debut as a feature film director came a year earlier with the critically acclaimed horror film Cronos, starring Ron Perlman as the thug in search of an immortality device. As del Toro’s work gained international attention, he kept his eye on Mignola’s creation as a possible future project. “I had always been a Mike Mignola fan,” the director offers. “I fell in love with the brooding, Gothic, atmospheric work he was doing. When I was shooting Mimic in 1997, the best part of the day was going to the comic book shop to look for more Hellboy issues. By then, I thought it was taking a direction that made sense for a movie.”
Del Toro admits he envisioned a filmed version of Hellboy just the way that Mignola wrote him in his comics: “a blue-collar guy—a plumber or an electrician—who comes in with a box of tools and says, ‘Where is the leak?’ and goes at fixing the leak. But he is a very jaded, reluctant investigator; his method of investigation is to beat the crap out of a monster.”
The filmmaker’s interest in turning the demon into a film star surprised the pragmatic Mignola, who thought the tales of his antiheroes would forever stay on the page. “I never in a billion years believed Hellboy would be a movie, and when it was discussed, I said, ‘Sure, good luck.’ But when I met Guillermo, I knew right away that if anyone was going to do it, I sure as hell hoped it would be him. We agreed right away that Hellboy had to be Ron Perlman.”
In a world of caped heroes who sport chiseled good looks and profess all-American values, audiences found it refreshing to have a good guy look so, well, bad. Provides producer Mike Richardson, “Hellboy is not your traditional superhero. This is a character who has horns and a tail and looks like the devil; he shaves his horns off to try and look as human as possible. He’s a blue-collar hero who just wants to be one of us.”
During the five years of development before Hellboy was greenlit, the creative team behind the project kept its focus. “In this period, a number of offers to make Hellboy came in,” recalls blockbuster producer Lawrence Gordon, “but it was about five years before Guillermo had the commercial track record for us to get the movie made in the way he imagined it. His artistic credibility and success in the films he created during that time—The Devil’s Backbone and Blade II—clinched that.”
The first film, starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones and Jeffrey Tambor as members of the elite B.P.R.D. was produced by Revolution Studios with Dark Horse Entertainment, Lawrence Gordon Productions and Starlite Films. It was met with solid commercial success and acheived $100 million at the global box office, as well as finding an enormous audience through DVD sales.
With impressive figures for the action-thriller and del Toro’s growing international acclaim from the adult fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro had the pull to get the second chapter in Hellboy’s continuing adventures greenlit. Changes in the film business, however, would bring the Hellboy sequel to a new studio. “Because Revolution closed shop, we were able to bring the sequel back to Universal where, many years before, we had originally started developing Hellboy,” says producer Lloyd Levin. “The possibility of making the sequel at Universal was a thrill for us because we always loved the idea that Hellboy could be part of the great legacy of Universal Monsters.” (Notably, every Sunday as a child, del Toro would watch two Universal Monster movies, from Frankenstein to Creature From the Black Lagoon, at his hometown theater).
This time, del Toro wanted to tell Red’s (Liz’s nickname for Hellboy) developing story on a grander scale, including many more practical creatures that inhabited the universe Mignola had created. The man producer Gordon says “eats, sleeps and breathes film,” admits he aspired to bring Hellboy to both the dark corners of the fairy-tale world and out in the open to a blissfully ignorant public. As before, he designed at least half of his imagined goblins, trolls and creatures of the night to be played by actors in elaborately designed prosthetic makeup. Puppeteers would enhance the range of their movements with radio-controlled animatronics.
“Mignola’s universe demands a strong physical component to the creatures,” says del Toro. Especially when that world also includes creatures who have sprung from del Toro’s imagination: such as Prince Nuada’s faithful henchman, the troll Wink; the enigmatic, winged Angel of Death; and an array of other goblins, chamberlains and nasties.
As del Toro drafted the sequel’s screenplay, he knew he again needed to infuse CGI to step in when practical effects were not possible. Double Negative Visual Effects came on board to execute his vision of the merciless robotic Golden Army that King Balor, the one-armed ruler of Bethmoora, had created a millennium ago, as well as the unstoppable Elemental creature and other fantasy effects.
For Hellboy II, del Toro and Mignola also wanted more layers to the story than they were able to achieve in Hellboy, as they didn’t have to worry about the origin story that the first film well covered. “Mythology and folklore have always been present in the ‘Hellboy’ comics, and we didn’t go there in the first film,” Mignola notes. “So instead of Rasputin, Nazis, mad scientists and H.P. Lovecraft-type stuff, we went for the supernatural.”
After working out the storyline with Mignola, del Toro spent two-and-a-half years writing the screenplay for Hellboy II: The Golden Army. He ignored the usual sequel conventions, as the background story had been clearly established in the first film and focused the script on the throughline of a dark fairy tale in which the world of magical creatures who have lived underneath humans for centuries finally have enough and start a rebellion. It was time for Hellboy to make a choice: which side of the war is he on?
“There was no need to recap or re-explain who everyone is,” del Toro provides. “We just get on with it. It’s a completely new story, a dark, poignant fairy tale. You can take the most dire, melodramatic arc and plug it into a movie, but as long as you’re acting it with monsters, it already has another meaning. The beauty of these stories is that, in an unrecognizable universe, you have very recognizable human emotions.”
Saving the world is a hell of a job, but Hellboy is ready; it’s what he was born to do. Help comes to Red with an assortment of fellow freaks, ensconced in a high-tech bunker at the B.P.R.D.’s New Jersey headquarters. Officially, the organization doesn’t exist, but a few stunned civilians have glimpsed the burly red gunslinger and his otherwordly cohorts in action. And like it or not, it’s time Hellboy met the public.
When last we met, Hellboy had saved humanity from a centuries-old mad monk who was hell-bent on raining destruction upon Earth. Now, he’s about to face a prince who’s been biding his time until he can lead the creatures of the dark to take back what used to be theirs. On the personal front, Hellboy is having an even tougher time at home. He and Liz have been together for about a year, and the honeymoon is decidedly over.
With the script in place, the filmmakers would begin the search for the monsters and freaks who fit naturally into Hellboy’s universe. Fortunately, it took little more than a phone call to get the close-knit original cast back in their B.P.R.D. uniforms.