In comparing two experiences, the making of Mimic and the kidnapping of his father in Mexico, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has noted that the former was the more wretched tribulation. In spite of—or perhaps because of—this hardship, Mimic is arguably the most important film in the developing filmography of one of the most vital genre filmmakers working today.

Released in 1997, Mimic is set in Manhattan, where a deadly disease spread by cockroaches is threatening the children of New York City. Entomologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) genetically engineers a designer cockroach dubbed the Judas Breed that can kill the disease-causing cockroaches. The Judas Breed is engineered to be sterile, to ensure the strain will die off when it’s completed its task. Things take a Frankenstein-like turn when the mutant bugs keep breeding and then evolve into something quite sinister and deadly: an oversized insect whose carapace can mimic the form of a human face and its wings the silhouette of a gaunt human figure.

Del Toro’s first Hollywood movie, Mimic was not initially supposed to be his second feature film. The filmmaker tried to get several projects off the ground after his debut feature Cronos (1993). He attempted to start The Devil’s Backbone, but he couldn’t get it made. He developed a project for Francis Ford Coppola called The Left Hand of Darkness, a gothic western adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo set in 1800s Mexico. He also began development on a film called Mephisto’s Bridge, based on the novel Spanky by Christopher Fowler, and on an adaptation of the novel The List of Seven with author Mark Frost.

None of those projects came to fruition, and in 1994 Del Toro met with Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, and they had a proposal for him. The Weinsteins had loved Cronos, which almost led to Miramax buying the film. They said Miramax was developing an anthology called Light Years to be produced by Michael Phillips, the producer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Del Toro could pick any story and that would become part of the anthology. Initially Del Toro considered developing a George R.R. Martin story called Sand Kings, about a man who becomes a god to a race of insects who he then mistreats and tortures. The Weinsteins could not get the rights to that story (which went on to be made into an Outer Limits episode) and asked what Del Toro would like to do instead. The filmmaker responded that if they could find something with insects, he would be happy.

Del Toro thought of a story by George Wolheim called Mimic, which was in the list of stories under consideration for the anthology. The tale concerned a man in an overcoat who turned out to be an insect that was breeding his young in his apartment. Del Toro met with writer and filmmaker Matthew Robbins, who wrote a film that Del Toro admired, Dragonslayer (1981). Del Toro proposed that Robbins and he work together on developing Mimic.

Del Toro had convinced Miramax to hire producer Stuart Cornfeld, who had produced David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and was a supporter of the cinema of the bizarre. Cornfeld arranged for Matthew Robbins to be hired by Miramax, and Robbins created a short screenplay for Mimic. This screenplay was so strong that Cornfeld pushed for it to be developed into a feature.

In developing the story further, Del Toro asked Robbins to study natural history books, as he wanted the insects to be plausible biological entities. The first problem of biology Del Toro wanted to tackle was how they evolved to become so large. In the screenplay the reason the insects evolve to their greater size is to develop lungs, which is perfectly logical according to biology.

Most of the design work on the creature was done by Tyruben Ellingson with additional refinement by Rob Bottin, whose prosthetic effects work on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is legendary. During the designing phase, experts at UCLA and USC were consulted, as were biology texts. The bugs have no extraneous or fantastical parts: all the bodily details are based on real insect features. The anatomy of two species, mantids and cockroaches, were the main influences on the features of the Judas Breed insects.

The giant bugs are brought to life mainly by animatronics and puppetry. Part of what sells the creatures is the detail and complexity of their mouthparts. The heads of the bugs contained dozens of radio controlled servos to move the various parts. The details that went into the design of the insect in the script and in the realization of the insect for the film were all firmly based in biological science.

In the original script, the disease-causing insects were bark beetles that nested in Central Park. As the story is in New York City, producer Michael Phillips felt these insects should be changed from beetles to cockroaches. A horrified Del Toro said that if they made that change the film would be forever known as “the giant cockroach movie.” He lost that battle and felt condemned to the aspiration of making the best giant cockroach movie of all time. In the development of Mimic there were many more future battles for Del Toro to lose.

Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro.

Del Toro felt that the original screenplay was undermined by several rewrites. After the first screenplay was completed the producers asked Del Toro to look for a rewrite partner. He chose John Sayles, the legendary independent filmmaker who was also well known in Hollywood for doing (usually uncredited) script rewrites. Sayles’ draft, a revision of the completed screenplay, was Del Toro’s favourite version of the Mimic script. The studio did not like the Sayles script, however, as they wanted to further explain the creatures, which Del Toro felt would rob them of their magic. But again he lost that battle and elucidations of the giant insects made it into the screenplay.

After Sayles’ run at the script came Stephen Soderbergh’s turn. Soderbergh wrote “a truly deranged draft” (Del Toro’s words) that the director loved. The dialogue in Soderbergh’s draft was the element that Del Toro especially admired, but the director felt that overall this script was not the template he wanted for this movie. In the finished film, only one piece remains of the Soderbergh draft: the priest being dragged through a grate at the beginning of the film. Other writers came after Sayles and Soderbergh, including Matthew Greenberg. The end result was a screenplay that Del Toro felt had drifted from the original vision and towards banality.

However diluted the screenplay became, visually Mimic is a pure shot of Del Toro’s fluid visual style, which was forged during the troubled shoot. The opening image of the film, a gorgeous shot of a hospital interior with glowing, ghostlike gossamer draped over hospital beds, was the first thing Del Toro shot and it immediately got him in trouble. Some of the producers hated the image, opining that it did not look like a real hospital (which is surely the point). The producers claimed he was making an art film out of a B-movie bug picture, to which Del Toro said he thought they were one and the same. This hinted that Del Toro’s mission to make a sumptuously beautiful horror picture was a losing proposition from the beginning. The producers thought Del Toro was going for too slow a rhythm and too fancy a look for the film. As the production progressed, the ordeal for Del Toro got worse.

Del Toro only survived the excruciating experience of making Mimic by adopting a stoic, Zen-like approach to all the studio silliness. For instance, well into the design of the insects and with functioning animatronics already made, Del Toro got an annoyed phone call from the studio complaining that the creatures looked like bugs and couldn’t he make them more like aliens? Can you make their teeth bigger? Can you make their hair crazy? This was the filmmaker’s world during the making of this movie and it led to frequent screaming matches on set between Del Toro and studio executives or producers.

However, as the screenplay got away from him and the troubles with the studio continued, Del Toro realized that after he began making the film the images he was capturing were exactly the images he wanted. This is the importance of Mimic in Del Toro’s filmography: it solidified for the filmmaker the power of deliberately designed and arranged visual elements such as lighting, set design, colour, and camera movement to create a unique graphical language that enriches the dramaturgy of the movie.

While most of Cronos has a static camera, with Mimic Del Toro began to develop a far more fluid style, partly in response to the producers’ pressure to move the camera to keep the audience entertained. Del Toro did not want to move the camera for movement’s sake, so he thought about how and why to do camera movement, developing what he called “counter movement”, which is the camera moving lithely from one angle to another. The use of this pushed Del Toro to carefully design camera movements in advance. Birthed in the most trying of circumstances on Mimic, counter movement became a central part of Del Toro’s cinematic style and can be seen in all his subsequent films beginning with his next one, the masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Though the screenplay was ultimately not his, Mimic is infused throughout with the gothic visual poetry of Del Toro as an artist.

In Mimic one of the most interesting and vibrant elements of this style is the lighting, which uses blue and amber light to create a colour coding. The colour amber was used in two ways. First, as the colour of the insects, referencing the colour of their egg sacs. And secondly, especially in circles of illuminated amber cloth at the beginning of the film, to suggest that the humans were insects trapped in amber symbolizing that they are becoming extinct. The human world is represented by the colour blue, and after the midpoint of the film there is an ongoing visual clash between blues and ambers, representing the conflict between human and insect. Darkness is also employed to great effect. Large areas of black are frequently used, with the eyes and part of the face the only aspects of an actor that are visible.

The production design by Carol Spier, a frequent collaborator with David Cronenberg, is another key element in the visual success of the film. Perhaps her greatest work in Mimic is the set for the abandoned subway platform and train where the main characters take shelter towards the climax. They become trapped in the ramshackle train car like roaches in a roach motel, a neat human/animal reversal worthy of the phone booth moment in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

Which leads to a key idea in Mimic that humanity’s position as god’s favourite creature is starting to be usurped by the insects. This is hinted at in an early scene where Susan and Peter (Jeremy Northam) are sitting in a museum discussing having a baby in a shot that has fossils forming the backdrop. Humans are history. Similarly, a scene in a rundown church in Chinatown, which hides beneath it a sweatshop, reinforces the concept of the sacred position of humankind being subverted. A later scene with an autistic boy walking in the dark through this abandoned church, with discarded, useless holy figures wrapped in plastic littering the floor, further emphasizes the point that the sacred order is being undermined.

After about an hour into the running time, the film moves underground, visually emphasizing the idea that humans and mutated insect are changing places in the natural order. In the tunnels beneath the city there are humans who scavenge, parasite-like, on garbage while the bugs live in orderly nests. Roles are being flipped.

At the midpoint of the film Susan is kidnapped from a shadowed subway platform by a Judas Breed insect in a spooky sequence that is one of Mimic’s highlights. The creature appears as a human-shaped shadow, then as a human mimic, and finally the carapace splits apart and the insect is revealed. The light is a mixture of blue/whites and blacks, which disguises the lower resolution digital effects. It’s a show stopping moment in the film, and one that has deep echoes of classic horror. This sequence also showcases some of the film’s CGI imagery; Mimic is an early CGI effects film, coming shortly after Jurassic Park (1993). There are only about 75 CGI effects shot in the film, but this was significant for the era.

A second major theme in the film is human arrogance. The story plays with the Frankenstein idea of science-spawned creatures coming back to destroy their creators. To Del Toro, the arrogance of science is unreasonable and the mutated Judas Breed bugs, seven feet tall with lungs, are a big middle finger to this arrogance. When the characters are trapped underground in the domain of the insects they are consistently humbled by their inability to survive in this environment.

Choice is what saves the human characters in the film’s climax. Leonard (Charles S. Dutton) chooses to sacrifice himself for the group. Peter realizes he has to stay outside of the dumb waiter/elevator to save Susan and the boy and so he chooses to remain and operate the elevator’s cable. Susan chooses to run directly at an oncoming subway train with the insect in pursuit. For Del Toro what makes us human is our capacity to sacrifice for our fellows. It’s an idea he has explored in many of his films since, such as Hellboy II (2008) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Mira Sorvino as entomologist Susan Tyler.

Lead actress Mira Sorvino turned out to be an important ally in getting Del Toro through the experience of making Mimic. She fought hard to keep the director on the movie, and her friendship helped Del Toro win many of the visual and formal battles (after he lost the screenplay related struggles). The initially released version of Mimic featured much footage shot by second units, one of which was directed by Robert Rodriguez. A restored “Director’s Cut” has been released on blu ray disc that strips out almost all the second unit scenes, leaving Del Toro’s visuals. This version allows a full appreciation of Mimic as a key film in Del Toro’s filmography.

Del Toro has said that making Mimic was one of the most important experiences of his life. Mimic defined the ethos of filmmaking for him because it was so difficult. The film pushed the director to develop a unique, personal visual style. It also helped forge a personal dictum for him: out of your defects your virtues will be born. Like the titular creatures, Mimic forced Del Toro to evolve into something different. And superior.