gUillermo Del Toro used to describe Hollywood as “the land of the slow no”. It was a place where a director could die waiting for a project to be greenlit. “The natural state of a film is to be undone,” he says on Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “I have about twenty scenarios that I carry around and that nobody wants to do and that’s good: it’s the nature of the job. It’s a miracle when you make anything.
Nevertheless, Del Toro has established himself as the first fantastic filmmaker of this century, more inventive than the current Tim Burton and less pompous than Peter Jackson (with whom he co-wrote the Hobbit trilogy). From the haunting adult fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth and the voluptuously garish antics of Hellboy to his love affair between beauty and fish The Shape of Water, which won four Oscars, he’s the master of gooey phantasmagoria. .
Waking up the morning after the Oscars in March 2018, Del Toro found himself in an industry newly receptive to his ideas, even if it wasn’t quite the Land of the Fast Yes. “There are still parameters,” says the 57-year-old. “But I’m able to get things made that would otherwise go through a more torturous process.” These include his stop-motion animated Pinocchio, set in Mussolini’s Italy, which will premiere on Netflix later this year. Before that, there’s Nightmare Alley, a macabre noir thriller that’s the first of his films to lack fantasy elements. “Every time I make a film, I always say that the worst monster is a human,” he smiles. “I decided to continue, but without the safety net of fantasy or flights.”
Adapted from the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham – although not a remake of the 1947 film version starring Tyrone Power – Nightmare Alley follows the devious Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who flees the scene of a murder and hides at a carnival. There he meets his sleazy staff: clairvoyant Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), entertainer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), who “drives” lethal levels of electricity, and grizzled barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), responsible for “the Geek” (Paul Anderson), who lives in a cage and bites off the heads of live chickens.
A self-proclaimed carnival obsessed, Del Toro drew much of the film’s rich details – including a woman posing as an arachnid-human hybrid – from memories of growing up in Mexico. “The Spider Woman act is the one I saw when I was four or five,” he says. “I have a picture of me and my brother on a little horse cart the day we saw it. I was very small and the impression it made on me was so strong. I remember exactly what she said, “Oh, woe to me, I was turned into this for disobeying my parents! I knew it wasn’t a real spider, but the picture was so disturbing. And the lady seemed so bored. The carnival in the movie isn’t magical but at least it’s honest to be dishonest. That’s the advantage I see over the city. The people in the city pretend to be honorable.
It is in the city – Buffalo, New York, to be precise, but a core of corruption as symbolic as any black metropolis – that Stanton’s skills make him a superstar on the mentalism circuit. It’s here, too, that he encounters characters darker than anything carnival can puke, including Cate Blanchett’s psychoanalyst femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter.
Del Toro has had more than his share of bruises and setbacks in the film industry, from an early run-in with the Weinstein brothers, who slaughtered his giant 1997 bug horror Mimic, to when Universal suddenly unplugged his epic adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s monster festival At the Mountains of Madness. Is the city depicted in Nightmare Alley analogous to his experiences in Hollywood?
“It’s analogous to most human endeavors,” he says. “Our capacity to be brutal with each other is infinite, unwarranted and gratuitous. And it seems to come naturally. I think we are paradoxical beings: we are the best that has happened to this planet and the worst. There is no reason to deny a side. We are capable of absolutely beautiful and absolutely brutal acts of love. We do not exist in a single space.
It makes him think back to childhood. “I saw real corpses when I was young,” he recalls. “People who have been shot or had accidents. You have an idea of how heavy things are. It’s definitely not a rosy life growing up in Mexico. There’s this famously touristic but very real dichotomy for me as a Mexican, where the notion of life and death as impending doom is merged into one concept.
As a Mexican, he also had to deal with an American administration that made no secret of its hostility towards people like him. Just over a year after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Del Toro began his Oscars acceptance speech with four key words – “I am an immigrant” – then claimed that “the greatest thing our art, and our industry, is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue to do so when the world tells us to deepen them”.
It was an inspiring speech worthy of an uplifting film: in The Shape of Water, four strangers (a mute servant, her African-American colleague, her gay neighbor and the amphibious creature she falls in love with) triumph over a Fascist American colonel in cold wartime Baltimore, just as the Francoist general is defeated in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War are faced with the end of Del Toro’s allegorical horror, The Devil’s Backbone.
But Nightmare Alley is not a film born of hope or healing. Although it is set in the 1940s, it is unmistakably a product of our times. “One hundred percent,” agrees Del Toro, who describes it as the story of “the rise and rise of a liar” who “aims for what he thinks is success, and is therefore perpetually hungry.” How Trumpian.
“We are in a very divided moment,” he says. “As a storyteller, I’m reactive, so I didn’t feel the need to do an engaging love story right now.” That said, a love story did emerge from the production. The director’s 20-year marriage to Lorenza Newton, mother of his two daughters, had already broken up by the time he began collaborating on the screenplay with Kim Morgan, film critic and ex-wife of Canadian director Guy Maddin. The co-writers got married last spring.
No trace of romance survives in the film. “These are very dark times,” Del Toro says. “For an audience, my films form a filmography. But for me, it’s a biography. In exchange for two hours, I give you three years of my life. Make it just two and a half hours in the case of Nightmare Alley – an awfully long time to spend in the company of a greedy and deceitful protagonist who only manages to figure himself out in the last few minutes.
“It’s no surprise where Stanton ends up,” says Del Toro. “But it’s How? ‘Or’ What it ends there. You don’t look at the story of Jesus and encourage him not to be crucified. You don’t look at Oedipus and bet he won’t sleep with his mother. The inexorable fate will arrive because the character is immutable. That’s the power and the difficulty of a film like this.
Industry lore states that you can usually drop a zero on the raw if your hero isn’t changed or redeemed. Add to that pandemic-era audiences’ reluctance to fully embrace cinema and it’s perhaps no surprise that Nightmare Alley struggled at the US box office. The film, budgeted at $60 million, fetched less than $3 million in its opening weekend, which Forbes magazine says is “below even ‘Covid normal’ $5 million.” for films like King Richard, The Last Duel and Last Night in Soho.A Searchlight spokesperson admitted that “the numbers were a little more modest than we had anticipated.”
Whatever the image’s commercial fate, Del Toro’s determination to distort or withhold familiar black pleasures is to be admired. “Black was born in a time of disillusionment in America,” he says. “I wanted to get into that existential quality and stay away from Venetian blinds, rotating fans and a detective in a gabardine mac walking down a wet street.” It’s also a movie that puts the focus squarely on behavior. “Fate is the sum of your choices. There is no punishment, no tarot, no bad luck in what happens to Stanton. We made a very clear happy ending in the middle of the story where he gets the girl back and he leaves the carnival for a better life. I even make a nice crane shot, like the end of a movie. And then two years later, he does a great number in a luxury cabaret, lives in a chic hotel with room service, and that’s not enough. He is still unhappy.
It is therefore advisable for anyone who is reluctant to face the bitter pill of the second half to rush to the exit after this crane blow. “Yeah,” he said, warming to the thought. “Audiences not interested in a punch are strongly urged not to stay.”
Nightmare Alley is in UKcinemas of January the 21st.