With sprawling spectacles like Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak to his credit, Guillermo del Toro is basically regarded as a god at Comic-Con. So it's only fitting that he'd unleash his latest marvel, Trollhunters, in the midst of New York Comic-Con, where the pilot played before an elated audience. But ahead of the delicious debut, del Toro, executive producers Marc Guggenheim and Rodrigo Blaas, and the series' stars Kelsey Grammer, Ron Perlman, Steven Yeun, Charlie Saxton spoke to Screen Rant in a string of roundtable interviews about the origins and expectations of this compelling new cartoon show.
"You guys know the story," declared Steve Yeun, who voices the bullying high schooler Steve, "It's a sleepy town that is invaded by an underground world of trolls. It falls upon one kid named Jim to take the mantle up of protecting people from trolls."
"It's Goonies meets Monster Squad meets Gremlins with trolls!" exclaimed Charlie Saxton, who plays Toby D, "the best friend to the Trollhunter, Jim Lake Jr. He's the loyal confidante. He's Chunk from The Goonies. He's Horace from The Monster Squad. He's a little bit of Sandy Lyle from Along Came Polly. He's your #1 go-to best bud for when things are darkest."
A lot of '80s references were dropped in regards to the modern-set series, with del Toro himself citing Amblin ambitions in the way Trollhunters would balance fantasy elements with suburban family life. "It's a series that is very linked to what I was as a kid," del Toro confessed with a grin. "Jim and Toby are two sides of my personality. I was certainly physically a dead-ringer for Toby when I was a kid. So we made him have my hairstyle and my rotund pantsize," he laughed with a toss of his curly locks.
When we first heard about del Toro's Trollhunters, it was a movie pitch smartly snatched up by DreamWorks. But in our interview, the imaginative filmmaker was quick to set the record straight. This was not a would-be movie that's been transformed into a series, quite the opposite actually.
"I pitched it as a series, the same day I pitched The Strain at Fox, to the same executive," del Toro chuckled. "I pitched it as an Amblin 1980s series with a scope of fantasy and mythology that was unrivaled on TV." But the budget such a project would demand made Fox demure, so del Toro took it to DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who encouraged the big-thinking director to reconsider the project as a film, because at the time the studio wasn't producing television. "So I pitched it as a feature," del Toro went on, "and (Katzenberg) said, 'Maybe you can fit it into two features.' And we started going that route, then in the middle of development on the features, Jeffrey said, 'We're now doing TV!'"
"(With that change) the canvas became so much larger," producer Mark Guggenheim explained of the shift from film to a television. "I'm a big believer in that a project tells you what it wants to be. And this was telling us all the way that it wanted to be a series. What was wonderful about it is, we took all the feature trappings with us to television: the design, the production value, the voice cast. It looks like a movie. It's cast like a movie. It's telling a sophisticated story like a movie. It's just in a longer form than a movie would afford us."
"One of the things that happened with developing the feature," said Trollhunters co-director Rodrigo Blaas, "And this happens I think with probably every Guillermo del Toro mythology--is that his worlds are really expansive. You start digging, and you start unraveling so much richness that you want to show. So one of the things we were always trying to do is compress a lot of mythology into the script of one movie. And then when we went to (it being) a TV show, it was like, 'Oh, you're free to do whatever you want.' So everything unraveled into bringing all that. Actually, it’s the best version we can do, as a TV show."
A veteran of Pixar, Blaas has been hugely instrumental in Trollhunters' development and execution, working alongside del Toro at every turn. "It’s been a great collaborative effort too," Saxton explained of the directing duo. "That's the thing about working with Guillermo and Rodrigo. They're so grounded in morals and the human condition, and they also have the wildest imaginations. And having those contrasts really allows them to be like, 'You know what? Just do something else. You know what? What do you want to do? What do you think works?' You can almost do no wrong. So it's been a really fulfilling experience. "
Yeun concurred that the encouragement to improv helped bring his bully to life. "He's not your typically bully though," Saxton defended, adding, "He's not your typical 80s bully, who slams you into lockers and that's it: he's the asshole." But there's far nastier baddies to be found underground.
Longtime recurring collaborator Ron Perlman re-teamed with his Hellboy helmer to lend his signature growl to a big bad troll named Bular. "I'm a bad guy," Perlman said with a friendly grumble. "I'm a guy with an attitude, Bular. I got a lot of reasons to be angry, and I got a lot of things I'm fighting for. And I'm not taking crap from anybody. At least that's the plan!"
Bumping heads with Bular is Blinky, a many-limbed, many-eyed troll voiced by Kelsey Grammer. "(Blinky) is the Dumbledore of this piece," the Frasier star mused. "Or the Sean Connery in Highlander. He trains Jim how to fight, how to survive this obligation that's come upon him from finding the amulet. Basically, I help him to save both our worlds, troll and humankind alike."
An admirer of del Toro's earlier animated effort, The Book of Life, Grammer confessed he was easy to get on board. But from the earliest script samples, the esteemed performer was in awe of the melting pot of mythology the visionary director was bringing together. "It's kind of hodgepodge of every old myth you've ever heard of!" He enthused. "Merlin's in it, and the world of trolls. It sounds a little like Middle Earth. It had C.S. Lewis kind of stuff in it. It's wonderful." Grammer ntoed, "Guillermo always says he loves his monsters. That's the thing about him. He loves his monsters more than people…I think he's pulling from every possible place, even if it's a vague recollection and planting it in here. It's a collection of probably every mythic idea you've ever heard."
And Netflix never balked at the big ideas. "Their involvement has always been towards pushing us to the best version of this," Guggenheim noted. "I think a lot of times when you're doing something for network, you're fighting the network to make it what you're seeing in your head. What was wonderful about Netflix is, they were always encouraging us to go toward more. 'Make this more than what you're promising in the pilot.' As opposed to trying to reign us in, they were always encouraging us to branch out. "
"This all sprung from Guillermo del Toro's brain," Guggenheim proclaimed of Trollhunters, "So it's got this feel like a Guillermo del Toro project. I think you look at it visually, and you go, 'Oh, I see Guillermo's artistic and directorial voice in this.' But at the same time, it really is appropriate for all ages. Which I think is because we undercut a lot of what is scary with a lot of humor and a lot of heart. It's not frightening for the sake of being frightening. It's creepy and interesting and weird. It's more weird than scary."
Keeping things warm and kid-friendly was crucial, according to del Toro. "Book of Life has the same spirit as this series," he explained. "We wanted something that was humanistic, nice. Complications and complexities come in the story. But it's not a shady series. I don't see it as being post-modern or 'wink wink' or ironic. It's completely heartfelt and for kids. If I was ten or eleven or younger, I would be watching this."
As giddy as the cast and crew were ahead of the pilot's NYCC premiere, Perlman was the most ardent. "Every time I get a call from the man," the charismatic star said of del Toro, "I know I'm going to have an amazing time doing it. And this part of it, where we're introducing it to the world, is going to be a thing of joy. And he's provided me with the greatest moments I've ever had as an actor. It's just pure, all good."
Trollhunters premieres on Netflix December 23, 2016.