Guillermo del Toro Reflects On "Nightmare Alley"
Guillermo del Toro (l) and Bradley Cooper on the set of "Nightmare Alley" (photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
Film took on new dimensions during pandemic-induced lensing shutdown; Tamara Deverell discusses production design

About half of Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures) had been shot when director Guillermo del Toro decided to shut down production as the global COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Though he wasn’t yet mandated to halt filming, del Toro didn’t want to risk the health and well-being of his filmmaking family.

But the nightmare pandemic, paradoxically, gave a new life to Nightmare Alley. What turned out to be a six-month shutdown was hardly downtime. Rather del Toro and his compatriots used the stretch to edit, ponder, rewrite and reflect on the film, reinvigorate it--and in a sense themselves--in varied ways, yielding a final product that arguably was better than if lensing had gone uninterrupted and there was no pandemic hanging over the proceedings.

Producer-director del Toro--who also co-wrote the film with Kim Morgan, adapting the novel by William Lindsay Gresham--said that the material that had been shot, which was most of the second half of the film, carried “much nutritional value” that spurred on new ideas and nuances for the characters, particularly protagonist Stanton Carlisle (portrayed by Bradley Cooper, who also served as a producer on the film). 

Among the discoveries, shared del Toro, was that “a bigger variant” was needed between the Stanton depicted in the first and second halves of the film. A certain innocence and more of a “youthful exuberance” would be needed in the first half in order to better translate into the character who became “the hardened, completely fabricated persona of Stan in the second half.” Towards that end, additional scenes were written for the first half of the film in which Stanton connected with such characters as Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette). Physical and subtler touches were also realized during the six-month production layoff. For one, Cooper lost 15 pounds to prepare for his portrayal of Stanton in the first half of the film. Cooper also crafted a natural accent for Stanton which he reverted to when he was alone, contrasted from his voice when he interacts with high society. During the six-months between the cessation and resumption of filming, del Toro said there was much illumination cast on “where we needed to start to make his (Stanton’s) journey” so that it dovetailed properly with the ending, the fateful last three minutes of the film.

At the very outset of the film we are introduced to Stanton as he sets fire, literally, to his past. Down on his luck, the nomadic character stumbles across a traveling carnival where he gets an education that he uses to his advantage. He connects with clairvoyant Zeena and her washed-up mentalist husband Pete. The latter teaches Stanton a soothsaying act that plays on probabilities of human behavior, giving carnival-goers the illusion that they can get a glimpse of their future as well as bring context to their past. Pete seems to realize, though, that the act can go too far and stops short of exploiting it to the fullest. Stanton has no such moral reservations and sees the underpinnings of the act as a ticket to success, ultimately deploying it to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s’ New York society. Stanton becomes a hot act in the big city, running a con on the privileged, affluent and powerful. Accompanying Stanton to NYC is the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) who’s fallen in love with him. But her love can’t keep him from running his biggest con, preying on a predatory tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the help of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) whose ultimate motives remain a mystery.

Extending beyond story details and honing various aspects of Nightmare Alley, the six-month filming layoff also hastened personal reflection with del Toro noting that the experience “made me realize in a very existential way how lucky and how blessed we are to be telling stories for a living.” 

Juxtaposing this particular story with the reality of the day proved memorable personally and professionally. While the film entails a reckoning for Stanton, a character who climbed to the top without regard for others, del Toro and his compatriots were guided during the pandemic by love and concern for cast and crew, placing their safety above all other considerations. When production restarted on the carnival set, stringent protocols were adhered to, COVID testing was rigorous, color-coded masks were deployed, out-of-towners were quarantined for two weeks, and assorted other precautions were taken. But beyond all that, del Toro felt a kinship among cast and crew with everyone creatively invested in the film. “Making movies is like a carnival. We’re all a bunch of strange misfits coming together very much in solidarity to finish and deliver a spectacle,” observed del Toro, adding that the core producers--himself, Cooper and J. Miles Dale--returned to actual production “with safety in mind but without fear.” The return to filmmaking wasn’t in response to fear but rather “love of our craft,” making it for del Toro “one of the most moving work experiences I’ve had.”

Relative to love of craft, del Toro affirmed that he tries to infuse that craft with a sense of purpose, noting that he strives for “eye protein” rather than “eye candy.” He explained, “Eye protein gives you story and character,” noting that his modus operandi is to prepare biographies of the characters, sharing them with his talent ensemble in, for example, the art and wardrobe departments so that through their crafts they “know how to help me tell the stories of the characters.”

Shot by Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF--a Best Cinematography Oscar nominee for del Toro’s The Shape of Water--Nightmare Alley has been described as noir color, bringing film noir sensibilities to a modern thriller as opposed to trying to create a 1940s period piece though that is the era in which the story is set. Yet while the color release has been lauded, del Toro also pushed for and got studio approval for a limited engagement of a black-and-white version of the film. That idea emerged from the pandemic-induced production shutdown when del Toro saw that the material shot up to that point--classically lit with deep blacks and colors carrying translatable tones--carried promise as a black-and-white presentation. When lensing resumed, del Toro started doing the dailies in black and white, noting that the weight of the film shifted. Color, he observed, tended to favor the city and environments like Dr. Ritter’s office, underscoring their beauty and seductive power. But in the alternate black-and-white version, the carnival setting takes on added dimensions, full of nuances, menaces and greed--helping to make the film in those respects more of an allegory than the color movie. Black and white seems to heighten the psychological journey and nightmare, said del Toro, who stressed that one version isn’t better than the other. They’re just different but both worthwhile. He’s grateful that Searchlight has given him the opportunity to present both versions to audiences.

As for the biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on Nightmare Alley, del Toro shared that for the movie, “We had to forsake whimsy in favor of a more mature, more calibrated, more elegant style visually and narratively.” With Nightmare Alley he felt a “fusion with the actors,” noting that “the movie spoke to me every morning in a different way more than any other movie.” This led del Toro to recall a Steven Spielberg observation that movie credits should note that a film wasn’t just directed by so-and-so but by the movie itself. This means, continued del Toro, that “the movie dictates itself if you are humble enough and aware enough to listen. This movie (Nightmare Alley) definitely required me to listen more intently than any other movie I’ve done.”

Underscoring that del Toro has long been a good listener over the years are four Academy Award nominations, including wins for Best Picture and Director in 2018 for The Shape of Water. His other two Oscar nods came for Best Original Screenplay for The Shape of Water, and in 2007 for Best Original Screenplay for Pan’s Labyrinth.

Tamara Deverell
The craft artisans on Nightmare Alley have done well relative to the short and long of things this awards season. The film gained inclusion on the Oscars shortlist for makeup & hairstyling, and on the BAFTA longlist for cinematography, costume design, original score and production design.

The latter recognition--in addition to an Art Directors Guild Award nomination earlier this week--went to production designer Tamara Deverell who has a track record with del Toro, having served as art director on his film Mimic and production designer on the TV series The Strain. And at press time she was wrapping a Netflix anthology series, Cabinet of Curiosities, which del Toro created and is exec producing. Sharing the BAFTA longlist acknowledgment and Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nomination with Deverell are supervising art director Brandt Gordon and set decorator Shane Vieau, whom she collaborated with for the first time on Nightmare Alley. Gordon and Vieau, though, have ongoing working relationships with del Toro; Gordon on the feature Crimson Peak and the anthology series Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, and Vieau on The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak.

Deverell credited del Toro with connecting her with Gordon and Vieau. She described Brandt as a wonderful pro who brought in his “crazy melange of amazing people” to mesh with her team members, including graphic designers and illustrators, to take on Nightmare Alley. As for Vieau, Deverell said, “I never want to work with anyone else again. He’s phenomenal,” citing his attention to detail, fabrics, colors, even the aging of the canvas tents in the carnival.

While Deverell noted that del Toro primarily communicates with her in the language of imagery, referencing the paintings of artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Henri Matisse and others to help define the look and feel of a set, the overriding consideration in creating these environments is to help to define characters, whether it’s the art deco office of Dr. Ritter fraught with secret panels--containing audio tapes, a safe, medical records--reflecting her own psyche and motivations which remain hidden for much of the movie, or Pete who hangs out under a carnival stage, nestled in a nook containing memorabilia that tells much about him and his current lot in life.

But perhaps most interesting to Deverell is that Stanton, the main character in Nightmare Alley, has no environment to call his own. “He’s a homeless guy moving through everyone else’s spaces,” assessed Deverell, adding that she and del Toro often had Stan in circular settings, trapped almost subconsciously like a caged animal.

Observing that Stanton “needed to be in a negative space illuminated by three father figures and three women,” del Toro shared that the audience is always discovering the environments behind Stanton. The camera is really following Stan into each of the environments, including the psychiatrist’s office, the carnival and Grindel’s garden. “We follow him. We (viewers) are part of that discovery,” related del Toro who characterized Stanton as “hollow.” He’s become a person who’s good at reading people because he’s been hurt in his youth, cracked open and trying to stay ahead of people who have--or maybe are out to--hurt him. Over time that has made him a hollow person, ruthless with no love within him.

Deverell was entrusted by del Toro to create these environments--tellingly occupied by Stanton--which spanned NYC’s high society art deco settings as well as the logistical challenge of conjuring up a carnival with complicated set work designed to serve as exteriors and interiors. Among the carnival world environs were a geek pit, and a funhouse with a purgatory and hell theme.

Still with numerous settings to create, Deverell said that her experience on Nightmare Alley got her to “slow down.” Part of that was rooted in her extensive TV experience where you have to think fast on your feet. By contrast she had the luxury of some additional time to get to the high creative bar set by del Toro for Nightmare Alley. While time is critical, Deverell noted that perhaps even more crucial is the team that surrounds you and a progressive approach based on collaboration which is fostered by del Toro and Laustsen. Deverell said that del Toro “pushes us all--and you go there because we all want to achieve that level of excellence.”

This is the ninth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.

MySHOOT Company Profiles