After winning the 2017 Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Shape Of Water, Guillermo del Toro decided to make things difficult for himself. His next project would be a long, challenging adaptation of a brutal noir novel that took four years to complete. Luckily, Nightmare Alley was worth the effort. It’s a hard-edged, brooding period piece that feels nothing like his other films, but might also be his masterpiece.
How proud are you of Nightmare Alley now that it’s finally finished?
“Without a doubt this is the movie I’m the proudest of. I abandoned a certain sense of pageantry and whimsy, and I went for a more sober, older approach to the material in a way that I’m really happy with. Finding a change of register at age 57 was just so exciting for me.”
It’s your first film without fantasy elements in it – why?
“On a personal level I have never been happier, but as a citizen of the planet I’ve never been more anxious. There’s a sense of doom in the air, and a very disorienting blur between truth and lies. It can be ecological, personal or social, but there is just a very end of days feel to everything at the moment.”
And yet the biggest trend in Hollywood is still for superhero movies…
“Well, every decade or two the audience changes. In the ’70s, the audience was mostly composed of adults, and then it became a lot younger in the ’80s. That audience matures and changes but right now is probably the most difficult moment in history to make a film for adults. But that doesn’t mean that’s it’s going to be that way. Nothing is permanent.”
The level of detail in the film is incredible. Where did you start on the design?
“There is a very private moment for me on every film where I start out working with just one designer. In this case, it was Guy Davis, who is one of my closest collaborators. We start out on what we call ‘the submarine’, which is a very intensive few months of doodling and designing, before we even hire the heads of departments to come in and make it all come to life.”
How long does that process take?
“Probably about nine months, which is an enormous amount of time. But I believe fully that the most sacred space of my craft is the image and audio design. In the 30 years of my career I have always shot my movies the way I want them to look and feel, because in my opinion 80 per cent of a movie is experienced in a non-verbal way, whether you know it or not. The camera moves, the light, the colour… it’s not eye candy, it’s ‘eye protein’. Nothing is done just for decoration.”
You’re a great collector, was there anything from the film that you held on to as a souvenir?
“What would you guess?”
The tarot cards?
“The tarot cards, yeah! But also Pete’s book and the pickled baby. And the lie detector. I bought Stanton’s radio myself, and I bought Stanton’s bag. But I really needed to leave with that baby. It’s in my living room now.
How much changed for you after your Oscar wins for The Shape Of Water?
“After you win an Oscar you can work within a certain limit… I cannot go and say I want to do a $200million dollar version of Nightmare Alley, but I can make it for $60million, and I can make it with a certain cast. I don’t think it would have happened before Shape. In most cases the parts were all written for the cast we got [and they might not have been interested before…]”
Talking of the cast, Bradley Cooper is incredible in the film…
“There were many times that I felt I was just watching the movie instead of making it, and it’s because of Bradley. He has the gift of making everything completely real, emotionally, and that can be difficult with scenes full of despair and relief or, you know, a scene where he tastes alcohol for the first time, which I found astonishing to watch.”
I read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes right before seeing Nightmare Alley and noticed a lot of similarities – was that book an influence on you?
“[Laughs] Well yeah, I’ve been wanting to make that book since I was a teenager. Bradbury just has an understanding of childhood, in such a complex and compelling way. Something Wicked This Way Comes has been looming over me and everything I do for my whole life. It’s in the friendship between the two kids in The Devil’s Backbone. It’s there in the menacing universe of Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Would you ever want to adapt the book directly?
“I don’t know. It’s hard for me to talk about making movies that belong to a studio library, right, because I don’t control the property. I’ve been trying to do certain movies or other, and I sometimes get them and sometimes I don’t.”
Have those battles gotten any easier since The Shape Of Water?
“Not necessarily. Look, the thing you have to understand is that in many ways I try to remain on the outside looking in. I don’t ever want to do take the easy option. I mean, to go from Pan’s Labyrinth or from Shape to a big [Hollywood] gig would have been like a vacation for me… I would have enjoyed the toys! But I go to movies that I’m the most daunted by. Which is why I went to Nightmare Alley. I don’t like having it easy. I like having it vital.”
What are those next battles going to be?
“Well I don’t know if I’ll ever make them but I love The Count Of Monte Cristo, At The Mountains Of Madness and Frankenstein. I have over 20 screenplays unproduced but of all those, it’s all about those three. If I could make them, I think it would be a perfect life.”
Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ is in cinemas now