Guillermo del Toro’s Mature Approach to Filmmaking With ‘Nightmare Alley’: ‘I Wanted a Dark Jewel’

Nightmare Alley
Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Fox

Searchlight’s “Nightmare Alley” has four well-deserved Oscar nominations: production design, Tamara Deverell, Shane Vieau; costume design, Luis Sequeira; cinematography, Dan Laustsen; and best picture.

And while filmmaking greats including Martin Scorsese have praised “Alley,” some audiences were caught off-guard because it isn’t what they expected from Guillermo del Toro, who is director, co-writer and one of the three Oscar-nominated producers.

“It’s the first film of a different period in my life,” del Toro tells Variety, marking a new style and outlook. The film is also physically beautiful. “I wanted a dark jewel, a dark splendor. If you have a movie that talks so brutally about the human spirit, you’re weakening the material if you make it hard to look at.”

Praising his nominated colleagues, del Toro says, “It is so moving to me” to look at the details and creativity of their work. “Most of their job was to work as a single unit, not little fiefdoms, and the role of director is like a general or conductor. You get the best people available and no discipline works without the other.”

“For those who have the chance, see it in black-and-white on the bigscreen; it’s a different movie in different ways,” he says. “It adds grit in a way that color can’t do. You see the crafts, the textures, the shapes, the beauty of the cinematography in a different way.”

Fantasy has been key in del Toro’s past films including “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and best-picture Oscar winner “The Shape of Water.” But, here, he says, “As opposed to flights of fancy, I was trying to find those truths in a world that was recognizable.” He has wanted to film this for decades, after reading the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Grisham. But del Toro’s approach is different than it would have been in the 1990s.

“You want everything to feel organic, not like a directorial decision. That’s a different search than I had before. I always arrive with everything pre-planned. I was reasonably flexible with this movie, but I had never made an entire film by listening, finding what the movie needed that day. It’s a position you only find as you get older. When you’re younger, you want to talk; when you’re older, you want to listen.”

He sums up, “I don’t think I’ll approach material in the same way in the future.”

“Nightmare Alley” begins in 1939 when a drifter (Bradley Cooper) joins a sideshow, then becomes a nightclub mindreader. Nearly every character lives a life of deception.

“It reflects exactly the sense of anxiety I feel as a citizen, how everything is on the brink of the precipice,” says del Toro. “It’s a movie about a character who lies and lies because he’s so afraid of losing everything — this apocalyptic feeling we have of fearing each other, of sensing that the world is about to end.”

It was a challenge “to make a movie about truth when the entire universe is saying truth doesn’t matter anymore, but it does.”

In an appreciation written for the L.A. Times, Scorsese says this movie is a warning bell for all of us. And del Toro grins, “For Marty, Francis Coppola and William Friedkin to talk about their love for the film — for a film buff from Guadalajara, that’s it, man!”

“I’ve always been a student of the classics. The way I approached this movie, I felt like trying something where the camera called less attention to itself,” he says. “I wanted a neo-classical approach that fused something I loved about the classics, but made it modern, now.”

Reminded that some audiences were surprised, he laughs, “I set out to surprise myself.” He adds, “It’s scary to make a movie that falls or lands in the last scene of the movie.”

That finale features amazing work by Cooper, who is one of three producers, along with J. Miles Dale and del Toro. “This is a movie about one character; that’s hard to sustain for the actor and director,” says del Toro. “That was daunting.”

“I wanted splendor in this movie, in a scope that felt like cinema. Everybody talks about ‘cinema’ now as in ‘what’s the medium in which you watch a movie.’ I don’t agree. The stature of cinema is ideas, splendor and scope. If the idea is small, it doesn’t matter if you watch it in a movie theater. If the film language is ‘a master, then closeup, another closeup, and a medium shot’ — it doesn’t matter where you’re watching it; it’s of a certain scope,” del Toro says.

“But if you see somebody working in an audiovisual and compelling way, whether you watch it on a 20-inch screen or a giant screen — the ambition is in the notion. I wanted to do this in that way, and that’s scary. The movie I envisioned in my 30s, when I read the novel the first time, was more akin to things I’ve done. I would have tweaked it more towards the Tod Browning of it all. I actually made a vow to make this a character portrait of a human. Kim Morgan (his cowriter and his wife) and I said ‘You may have seen him be monstrous, but we hope that by the end of the movie, you still recognize him as a human.’”

Aside from del Toro altering his style, fans may have been thrown off by the word “noir,” which is often used to describe the novel and the 1947 film. There are elements of noir in “Nightmare Alley,” but it’s a far cry from “The Maltese Falcon” or “Chinatown.”

But del Toro sees a connection with Old Hollywood. Though the main characters are not likable, they are always fascinating.

“Most people don’t talk about how involving it is,” he says. “It’s almost a throwback to a different era — the way the movie takes its time and involves you. I wanted to make an impression on the people who connect with it.”