How Guillermo del Toro Sold Netflix on a Twisted Version of ‘Pinocchio’

The character of Pinocchio has been popular since the 1883 book “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi – but for most people these days, the model for the little wooden marionette who wants to become a real boy was formed by Walt Disney’s 1940 film version. That Pinocchio, more likable than the one in the original novel, has survived as the Pinocchio through a bevy of subsequent films, from the 1965 Belgian-American “Pinocchio in Outer Space” to 21st century adaptations by Roberto Benigni, Matteo Garrone and Robert Zemeckis.

But the newest “Pinocchio,” which Netflix released only three months after Zemeckis’ film, comes from Guillermo del Toro, who pulled the character out of Disney’s world and put him squarely in del Toro’s land (a move that helped avoid any sticky copyright issues).

“The Disney movie Is a masterpiece, one of the great animated movies of all times,” said del Toro, whose version of the character is both brattier and more solemn. His way of becoming a real boy, for instance, is to embrace his mortality. “But we tried to define ourselves by what we wanted to be and not what we could not be or didn’t want to be. I think that everybody on the entire team agreed not to revisit in a negative way what we couldn’t do or shouldn’t do. We just got to what we wanted to do.”

But it was easier to come up with the model for this new, less obedient Pinocchio than it was to sway studio execs who remembered the Disney version to that vision. That’s what del Toro and his co-director Mark Gustafson found, anyway, when they tried to get funding for their $35 million, stop-motion film.

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“We were definitely on the launching pad and the countdown was happening a few times, and then somebody walked into the room and said no,” Gustafson said.

“We stayed like that for about seven years – in a very, very optimistic yellow light,” del Toro added. “But I think people were saying no for the right reasons – because we wanted to do something different. To me, that’s not bad news. It’s actually semi-good news.”

“We’re probably on the right track if everybody’s saying no,” Gustafson said.

And yet that right track doesn’t get the movie made. “Yeah,” del Toro conceded. “But it is like casting. You see 20 actors that are wrong and one that is right. That’s no different than any other part of the artistic endeavor. I mean, everybody passed on ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ except one company. But all you need is one. It is exactly like filming: You can have 18 bad takes and one good one. Same thing.”

The pitch that everybody turned down, they added, included a detailed bible with designs for the characters, an early version of the Pinocchio puppet and some 3-D studies. They would come into studio offices with boards showing the designs and laying out the story, and then del Toro would talk the executives through the story rather than leaving them a script to read.

“It was an exciting pitch,” Gustafson said. “And Guillermo was so good at pitching. I would have greenlit the movie several times.”

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“We pitched it to everybody, and we came close,” del Toro said. “That’s the tragedy. I call Hollywood ‘the land of the slow no.’ Because you feel that you’re close, you’re close, you’re close – and then they close your casket. You never get there, you know? We had at least two or three companies that looked like they were gonna say yes, and then they withdrew.”

Eventually, though, they worked their way through the more traditional studios and found their way to Netflix, where co-CEO Ted Sarandos was more receptive, as he often is to (relatively) expensive ideas from notable filmmakers.

“It always takes time,” del Toro said. “And with Ted in the pitch room, he said yes that day. It was a yes in the room. That is wonderful, and that is rare.”