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‘Hellboy’ was a tough sell in Hollywood

Director Del Toro tried to get the film made for six years; he insisted on using Ron Perlman as his leading man.
/ Source: The Associated Press

This is Hellboy: a 6-foot-5 strongman with an oversized stone hand, whippy tail, shaved horns and skin the color of a red M&M.

He’s a demon summoned from the netherworld by Nazis in the 1940s in a failed bid to cause the end of the world — but rescued and raised by American paranormal researchers who taught him to be one of the good guys.

Sound weird? It is. Maybe too weird for Hollywood, which tried — and failed — to alternately turn it into a crimson version of “The Hulk” or a demonic version of “Lassie” while attempting to cram The Rock down director Guillermo del Toro’s throat.

No love for the red demon“An executive said to me, ‘What about a regular actor who gets angry and turns into Hellboy?”’ said del Toro, wrinkling his face in disgust. “I go, ‘That’s ... not ... very good.

“Then they would say, ‘What if you call him Hellboy and he comes from Hell and all that, but he looks like a guy?’ Then they would suggest things like, ‘Can he have a Hellmobile?’ ‘Can he have a dog? A pet dog that comes from hell and is red?’

“It’s funny when you say it,” del Toro said in his Encino, Calif., office while the film was being edited. “But it’s not funny when it happens.”

Hellboy has no problem surviving a battle with a gargantuan monster tentacle, but he nearly didn’t make it through the pummeling of bad ideas del Toro faced as he shopped his vision of the story from studio to studio.

After a six-year effort, the movie debuts in theaters Friday.

“I always was thinking, ‘The movie’s never going to be made. Don’t get your hopes up,”’ said Mike Mignola, the comic book artist who created the character in 1993.

“It got to be a very bumpy road at some points,” added del Toro, the 39-year-old Mexican filmmaker whose previous credits include “Mimic,” “Blade II” and the Spanish-language “The Devil’s Backbone.”

“It went through every permutation. I had studios where I would start a meeting, and they would say, ‘You’re not making him red are you?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, he’s red.’ ‘You’re not doing the tail are you?’ ‘Yes, I’m doing the tail.’ ‘You’re not doing the horns? ‘Yes, I’m doing the horns.”’

Leading man: Ron Perlman?
Here was fear underlying those questions: What good is a movie star like The Rock, Nicolas Cage or Vin Diesel if he’s obscured under the heavy makeup and prosthetics necessary to recreate the comic-book version of Hellboy?

That didn’t matter to del Toro. He didn’t want a movie star. He wanted a particular actor who is famous for not having a famous face — Ron Perlman.

“Hellboy is the guy that walks in with his box of tools and says, ‘Where’s the leak?’ He’s a working stiff. He’s a plumber, the guy who says, ‘I’m here to fix your monster problem,”’ del Toro said.

He figured, who better for the part than a working-class actor?

“What Ron has, what Ron brought to it that was so important is that Joe Average, working stiff thing,” Mignola said. “He already had the attitude of the character, a guy who never really got the red-carpet treatment.”

Del Toro and Perlman had worked together on del Toro’s first feature, the 1993 horror thriller “Cronos,” and he chose the actor to play a boorish vampire villain in 2002’s “Blade II.”

Perlman is the towering, long-jawed character actor who played the subterranean romantic Vincent in the TV series “Beauty and the Beast,” the drooling hunchback in “The Name of the Rose” and a semi-simian caveman in “Quest for Fire.”

So many of his high-profile roles required masks that mainstream fame has eluded the actor despite more than 20 years of movie and TV work.

But that lack of bankability became a liability for “Hellboy.”

“And at one point he said to me, ‘It’s OK if you do it with someone else. I understand. If you cannot get it financed with me, fine,”’ del Toro recalled.

Perlman said, “I just saw his desire to have me as the character holding back the project...I told him, ‘It was enough for me to know how hard you tried. Just make the movie and I’ll come on opening night and cheer for you.”’

Del Toro persevered. His certainty that Perlman was the right actor, buoyed by Mignola’s support for the choice, placed him at a crossroads.

Doing the studio two-stepYears ago, del Toro had caved in to studio pressure to change elements of his first Hollywood film, “Mimic,” and regretted that debacle ever since. He said he liked the idea of “Hellboy” too much to start it with regrets.

“I learned on ‘Mimic’ that if I make mistakes, I want to do my own. I’d rather make my mistakes than someone else’s. With ‘Hellboy’ it was very much a case of, if I lost that battle then I might as well give up the project.”

His travels brought him to Revolution Studios, which founder Joe Roth and his partners liked to describe as “filmmaker friendly,” a rare studio that would take a risk on a directors with an unusual project.

“He pitched it with all this passion, and we wanted to be in business with him,” said Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios. “We believed in his vision, saw what he did before, and he laid this whole thing out for us. We took it hook, line and sinker.”

That meant Perlman was locked in as the star — an enormous victory for a little-known actor.

“This is such a personal vindication for me,” the actor said.

Del Toro’s struggle to give him the part added extra significance. “Getting into the accouterments that one has to put on to become him (a four-part latex mask, body muscle suit.) was like a ceremonial adornment, like a samurai,” Perlman said.

How did del Toro ultimately get his way?

“The thing I told studios again and again, and this is something that demonstrates how Hollywood thinks, I said to them, ‘If I told you Hellboy was a $30 million (computer-animated) character, you guys would be happy. But if I tell you this is the right actor, you’re not.’ What an obscene contradiction.”

After finding open minds at Revolution, it helped that his price was right: he estimated a budget at about $60 million — still a huge amount, but nothing compared to the gargantuan price tags for “Spider-Man” and “X2: X-Men United.”

“The key to this project was finding Revolution — and saying we’ll do it for $60 million,” del Toro said. “I mean, $60 million these days is ‘Mona Lisa Smile.’ It buys you an intimate movie with a star.”

For Revolution, it remains a gamble. The “Hellboy” title is not as famous as “Spider-Man” or “X-Men.” But if it’s a hit, Revolution will have picked up a long-running franchise for a relatively cheap price.

“Don’t tell Guillermo this, but if the picture had cost more, we would have made it,” Sherak said. “How much more? I don’t know. But it was a bargain in today’s world.”

Now it’s wait-and-see time regarding sequels.

“Is this it? I hope so,” Sherak said. “But I’m going to let the movie tell us that.”

Perlman approaches the question with typical “Hellboy” pragmatism: “You got to get through the first one before you start worrying about the second one.”