Guillermo del Toro and Jane Campion Talk ‘The Power of the Dog,’ ‘Nightmare Alley’ and Learning to Love Netflix

Photographs by Sophy Holland

Jane Campion would like to apologize. “I didn’t get back to you that weekend because I got sick,” she says. “I got food poisoning.” Campion isn’t talking to her publicist or a manager. Nor is she addressing one of the dozens of Netflix handlers who have been by her side continuously since last September as she’s flown all over the world — unveiling her latest opus, “The Power of the Dog,” at film festivals and to Oscar voters.

No, the person who Campion ghosted over email is … Guillermo del Toro. Since the two of them are about to talk about their latest movies — just days after del Toro has put the final touches on a big-budget remake of the noir thriller “Nightmare Alley,” based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and hours ahead of the film’s New York premiere — this could get awkward. But fortunately, the Oscar-winning director is not the least bit offended.

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Sophy Holland for Variety

“I want to get food poisoning too,” del Toro quips while patting his belly. “It’s the only way I can lose weight.”

Not even the most meal-conscious cinephile could resist what Campion and del Toro have cooked up over their careers. After Campion took a decade-long break from film work — a list of credits that includes “The Piano,” “The Portrait of a Lady” and “In the Cut” — so she could focus on the TV series “Top of the Lake,” she’s returned with a vengeance. “The Power of the Dog,” the story of two brothers (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) and the woman (Kirsten Dunst) who comes between them, is ostensibly a Western, but it’s more interested in depicting a portrait of corrosive masculinity and repression. And del Toro, having swept the Oscars with 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” could find himself at the podium again with “Nightmare Alley,” a noirish tale of a carnival huckster (Bradley Cooper) whose relentless pursuit of wealth — and women (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) — ends in tragedy.

Like “The Power of the Dog,” “Nightmare Alley” transcends its genre to expose the rotting core at the heart of the American dream. The two longtime mutual admirers are meeting to discuss their films for the benefit of Variety’s Directors on Directors issue, which is being filmed for posterity (an element that Campion, who hates to be photographed, is none too thrilled about).

“I wish we could just have our talk without all the cameras,” she confesses to del Toro. ”That would be much more fun.”

Despite her nerves, Campion warms up quickly around the ebullient del Toro, talking about everything from the rise of streaming services to Jungian dream analysis. All of it culminates with del Toro inviting her to the world premiere of “Nightmare Alley” in New York that night. But she has her own “Power of the Dog” screening to attend at the same time, a reminder of the grueling demands of Oscar campaigning.

Guillermo del Toro: Much has been made about streaming and what it’s doing to this or that. I would love to hear what you think about it.

Jane Campion: Today is the day that our film, “The Power of the Dog,” goes onto the streaming giant Netflix in 190 countries. It’s such a strange thing, because it’s an event that happens in everybody’s house without me being even aware of it. It’s very ungraspable, so I’m really grateful for being able to also go to the film festivals — and be amongst the audiences, to experience their experience. I make films as my gift to the world. You want to watch them unwrap it.

del Toro: It’s a lonely profession, director. You are the one that turns on the light to open the bar, and you’re the one cleaning the vomit at the end of the day. So — you like to see the customer somewhere!

Campion: But going back to the delivery services: As a user of them, I’m like a whore. I’m a greedy little thing. I’ll look at something on my iPad. But I don’t watch movies on my phone.

del Toro: Of course not.

Campion: That’s the limit. If it’s a special filmmaker, I’ll go to a movie theater.

del Toro: The theatrical experience, which is beautiful and moving, I hope it’ll never go away. It will wane and rise. And at the same time, I must say, in my personal story, many of my projects I would’ve never been able to shoot I’ve been able to have financed because of [streaming services].

I can have a crazy idea, like saying, “I want to do ‘Pinocchio’ during the rise of Mussolini, in stop-motion.”

Campion: Stop-motion?! You mean like puppets?

del Toro: Yeah. And I’m doing it because it was greenlit by Netflix [which will release the film in late 2022].

Campion: I’m 67 now, but when I look back on my life or I look at life, I remember moments, peaks of waves, that have cemented themselves in my brain. And some of those are in cinemas. And when I remember these moments that were, for me, extremely powerful, I remember where I was sitting in the cinema. I remember even what I had on. And it’s all a part of how the memory works to encase that moment for me. And I’m afraid that if we watch everything at home on our TVs, they don’t have any particularity. They just melt into each other.

del Toro: The big difference for me is we control the TV. Cinema is in charge of us. We submit.

Campion: Which is nice. You have to submit. I also would like to second what you are saying. This film would not have been made if Netflix hadn’t stepped up and said, “We will take this risk.” I’m told a lot that I’m working in the Western genre, and it stops me short because it’s true, but it’s not true. And I really wanted to speak to you about your understanding of genre because it’s very sophisticated and complex and you use it powerfully. Like you own it.

del Toro: People kept saying “Nightmare Alley” is noir. And I said, well, it’s noir only in these aspects. Like, for example, noir to me is a philosophy of disappointment, dissolution and existentialism. That is entirely most of the time in the hands of the characters — they must make a choice. It’s a very moral genre.

Campion: The detail in your film, my friend, is so incredibly rich. It’s a feast, really. I feel like I don’t prepare to the level you do. I’m still terrified when I get onto the set. You know? Like I’ve fricking tried to prepare, I’ve tried to do everything, and I just still don’t feel I know what to do at all. I’m driving there with my assistant, and I’m saying, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve forgotten how to film.” And he said, “Jane, we’re going to do the same thing we always do. We’re going to put the camera up. We’re going to put some people in front of it, and we’re going to shoot it.” And I went “Oh, OK. You’re right.” And as soon as that camera gets up, I suddenly become activated.

The worlds you create are so delicious. I want to live in them basically. Is your house like that?

del Toro: My house is exactly like an exploded view of my brain.

Campion: I read that you’ve got a room where you just want rain all the time. Is that for real?

del Toro: Yes, I’ll show you the next time you’re in Los Angeles. There’s something I want to say — I’ve always been fascinated by how your portraiture of men is so acute. Every time I see your movies, I’m very affected by it. I find it precise, but compassionate and brutal at the same time. Meaning, it’s unsparing. But in this one, the composition of Benedict’s character, Phil, I could not imagine before seeing the movie him doing that part. But you did. How did you choose him?

Campion: The calculation that I made was that Benedict is an amazing actor. And he’s a very charismatic man and intelligent, and he had the hunger. I just didn’t want to be disappointed with someone who was going to just walk in on the day and not have done the research. I needed someone hungry. We had to do some psychic work together, something that went further than normal. I asked around and found out about this woman called Kim Gillingham, who does dream work, and she’s trained by Sandra Seacat and Marion Woodman, the really amazing Canadian Jungian therapist.

del Toro: My three favorite words: Canadian Jungian therapist. I’m in. And ice cream.

Campion: I’m in with that too. I really felt that we had to build him from the psyche up, and I also needed to be open to the depths of the story. Like, I was sort of sitting on the edge of this amazing novel by Thomas Savage and thinking, “Oh, my God, how am I going to get inside it?” And we did it through our dreams.

del Toro: What do you mean by that?

Campion: I had the dreams; I wrote them down. I met with Kim, and she sort of got me to lie down, put on soothey music and everything. And then she started with the script to facilitate almost a discussion between myself as Phil and Jane the director. One of the first questions she says is, “Jane, you are Phil now. So as Phil, what would you want to tell Jane about what she needs to know to tell your story?” And immediately I said, “Well, that bitch has got to get real. She’s got to take off that little white scientific coat of hers. And get dirty. Just get in the dirt because that’s the truth.” I was so harsh. I was so tough to Jane the director. Have you ever done anything like that?

del Toro: Well, I do it through my biographies. I write biographies of the characters that are most of the time useless after seven days of shooting. But I go into the most detail I can, when I can: astrological sign, what they eat, what they don’t eat, what they like, what they don’t like. And sometimes they’re useful for the actors. Sometimes the actor starts on it, and we move away. But I find that most of the time, I like thinking that I’m writing a part of myself. Whatever we do is self-portraiture in a strange way. But what I find fascinating about the work is you do that to internalize the character. Like, there is no possibility that Benedict’s footsteps were accidental; the way he had like a metronome of masculinity when he walked onto the steps, the way he carried himself. It’s a funny character because he’s very direct and truthful because he’s suffocating something that he cannot reveal.

Campion: Phil would be a frightening guy to be around, because he could turn on you and he could speak truth to you. On the other hand, there’s a poetic harshness to him that I kind of love. That’s a very, very exciting element when people are not afraid to say what the fuck they want.

del Toro: When we look at people truthfully, they’re windows. When we look at them lying, they’re mirrors. And what we hate about ourselves is what is reflected.

Campion: I’m sitting here with you, the man who’s the expert on emotional monsters. And I have a lot of love for monsters. In “Nightmare Alley,” I noticed that the father issues were brought up frequently. Is that something you wanted to explore?

del Toro: My dad passed away after “Shape of Water,” but it is not about my father. My dad and I got along really well, but it is the shadow of that: How do you explore it? Every time we do a movie, I’m thinking how much can I be truthful about myself? And Bradley Cooper’s character is someone who decides to lie and be a populist, and he never has enough in the movie. And that was what intrigued me. When people ask me what it’s about, I say that “Nightmare Alley” is about the American dream. Because the flip side of that is a nightmare for most people. One of the myths I fear the most is the idea of success. It’s such torture.

Campion: So you’ve been tortured a lot lately. We’re going to continue this, right?

del Toro: Over coffee in the rain room.

Variety Directors on Directors presented by MGM Studios and United Artists Releasing