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Guillermo del Toro’s Inspiration Machine

When the Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro was a boy growing up in Guadalajara, his mother bought him a Victorian-style writing desk. “I kept my comic books in the drawers, my books and horror action figures on the shelves, and my writing and drawing stuff on the desk,” Del Toro recalled in a 2016 profile. “I guess that was the first, smallest version of my collection.”

As the director began to find success as an adult with his beautifully imagined, macabre fantasies, like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Nightmare Alley, he was able to indulge his collecting instinct more seriously, amassing “a vast physical collection of strange and wonderful memorabilia.” Eventually, Del Toro’s objects became too much to manage.

As he explained in an NPR interview:

“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.'”

So Del Toro took the natural next step: he bought a second house in the same neighborhood. His plan was to use the new residence to organize and store his growing collection and provide a quiet place for him to work. As an homage to Charles Dickens, he called it Bleak House.

By 2016, Bleak House contained over 10,000 items, including artwork, sculptures, artifacts and movies. It also featured thirteen different reference libraries. Housed in a room dedicated to a haunted mansion theme, for example, are Del Toro’s books on mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. The screening room boasts over 7,000 DVDs. One space includes a simulated rain storm that pours outside a fake window. This latter location is one of Del Toro’s favorite places to write.

What interests me about this story is less its eccentricity than its pragmatism.  As Del Toro explained in a video tour of the house, he was inspired by the original research library built at Disney Studios, and in particular, its philosophy that “when you create a group of extraordinary artists, you should definitely feed their imagination with all sorts of images.”

Del Toro designed Bleak House to fuel the creativity on which his career depends. “It’s here to try to provoke a sort of a shock to the system,” he said, “and aid in circulation of the lifeblood of imagination, which is curiosity.”

Truly deep work — the type that redefines genres — is truly hard. In such efforts, our brain needs all the help it can get.


In other news: in the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I tackled thirteen questions in a row, including one on developing discipline and another on planning projects with unpredictable time demands. Are you listening to Deep Questions yet? If not, you should be!

12 thoughts on “Guillermo del Toro’s Inspiration Machine”

  1. The energy in that Bleak House must be very depressing, I wonder how a man can spend lots of time in such a place. I was recently watching a youtube video about how Hollywood makes actors call upon the spirits of the dead (who are actually demons) in order to take over them during a acting role such that they are able to mimic a dead person with high acuracy. An example of this would be when Denzel Washington played Malcolm X, he said that he “prayed to Malcolm’s spirit” which is evil in the eyes of the LORD GOD.

    This same video exposed that many writers of Hollywood movies actually draw inspiration from the spirit world (demons) for their scripts, they call upon the spirits and ask for guidance and these demons communicate with them informing them on what they should write.

    This video also exposed comic book writers who were doing the same thing. I do not mean to sound suspicious but I would not be surprised if something similar was happening in that Bleak House and with its owner – this is just based on how he has invested in that place, it is like he has given his life to it or something.

    Personally, I wouldn’t step into that Bleak House, I feel like all those evil looking shrines and all the horrific writing would pollute my mind and spirit just by being there without even looking at much.

    • Your spirit must be weak to begin with if it could be so easily corrupted by the monsters of another man’s imagination.
      Also, please stop getting your information from YouTube videos. Do you have any idea how easy it is to come up with the idea for a movie. You insult the great writers and directors of history and the effort that went into their works, by chalking it up to pacts with imaginary demons. Just because you’ll never be famous, and you can’t write for shit, doesn’t mean everyone who is and can is connected to the devil, maybe they just do some things better than you.
      Do you really believe we’d need help from demons to create something as simple as a story? Your bible is a story. When’s the last time you read it? Instead of watched YouTubers talk about crazy conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with the Bible nor with reality.
      People like you are dangerous and detrimental to those around you and I want you to change, thank you.

    • I would also like to say to the person posting this comment that they shouldn’t take Youtube videos as fact, and to accept the fact that people have different views about the concept of God and how we might know what such a being thinks.
      However, the replies are just as bad. Calling people morons, dumb, saying they “can’t write for shit” – do we really have to be so angry and insulting about this? You don’t need to be religious to live by your principles, but, do your own principles include angrily insulting people?
      If i were Cal Newport, i would delete both the comment and the replies – all of them are neither use nor ornament to anything.

    • What’s depressing to one person is invigorating to another. In my office I have a variety of animal skulls, bones, dried frog and rodent carcasses, a few jars of coyote scatt, owl pellets, and the like. To most people it’s creepy–my desk is in fact used as a landmark in the office, described as “the creepy desk”. This has nothing to do with summoning evil spirits; it’s technically a comparison collection (and it’s a collection; cataloguing the material is something I greatly enjoy), a vital tool for any paleontologist but particularly one working with Quaternary vertebrates. I’ve also got my compass, some maps, a hand lens, some rock hammers, and the like scattered around my office, because that’s where I store the tools of my vocation when not in use.

      If your job is to write horror stories or direct horror movies, having that stuff around is useful. It provides inspiration–either in and of itself, or as a reminder of the past of the field. I think this particular case goes overboard, but that’s mostly jealousy on my part. If I could afford it I’d have a museum myself, even if I had to sleep on a cot in the back room! And while I’d hate to live in such a place, that’s mere personal taste. Most would hate to live in a museum’s collection rooms, while I’d think it’s the nearest thing to Paradise this side of the grave. Differences in taste are to be expected and embraced.

      At the end of the day this is no different from a woodworker stocking his shop with the tools of his trade, or a sailor having nautical elements in his home. People enjoy being around those things related to their calling.

  2. Thanks for taking us into the Deep Work HQs of so many talented creatives and professionals, Cal.

    This is a great reminder of how people can create Eudemonia Machines… and a reminder to me that I need to personalize my workspace more!

    Guillermo’s inspiration machine wouldn’t work for me — but then again, my dream office wouldn’t work for him. (And my current office has too much sunlight for him!)

  3. I used a similar method to pass the bar exam to become a lawyer. I called it the Ted Kaczynski bar prep method because I disengaged from all distractions and noise from other struggling students to just study. I lived in a log cabin in the woods with only my law books and no television or cable. I had nothing else to do but study for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week with 1 hour of walking for exercise. I figured I would pass or go crazy like Ted. Fortunately, I passed.

  4. Slight comment hijack, but I had to revisit a 2019 Cal blog entry about the Arizona Cardinals and the revolutionary coach letting players attend meetings with cell phones. Now the coach is fired. . Score one more for analog, deep work, and focus.

  5. I absolutely LOVE both of the Hellboy films, not sure if GDT directed that second one, but that first one-man, the darkness of it cannot be downplayed as just a ‘horror flick’. It’s so beautiful and more of dark fantasy for me and for a creative director to literally surround and immerse themselves in elements of that for increasing imaginative fancy to share that unlimited potential that resides within us all with the world…is so generous. It takes a lot out of a person to seclude themselves from the ever temptation of constant connection to bring forth from the depths of the unbeaten path, the truly amazing-in ANY area. Great share!


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