Guillermo del Toro swears his Nightmare Alley is not a remake of the 1947 film of the same name. Yes, he is a fan of the original film, which stars Tyrone Power as boisterous con artist Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper’s version of this character is played a little more, let’s say, fraught), but del Toro isn’t out to remake a film, but, instead, to give a more accurate adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. Though, it’s interesting that del Toro, just coming off a Best Picture Oscar win for The Shape of Water, thought the chances of getting this movie made were very low.
In Nightmare Alley, Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, best described as “a man with a past.” With few prospects, Stanton finds himself working at a local carnival where he meets Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and the two start a clever act involving word manipulation and secret codes which creates the illusion of mind reading and magic. The act becomes such a hit that the two leave the carnival and travel ballrooms, entertaining high society folk. But, for Stanton, the line starts to blur when he meets Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and the act takes a darker turn toward true deception and preying upon heartbreak and faith.
Ahead, del Toro tells us why, being in the post-Oscar position to make almost anything he wanted to, why Nightmare Alley was what he went to bat for. And explains his new partnership with Netflix and expands on why his long-gestating At the Mountains of Madness may become a reality.
I watched the original right before I saw yours. I kept thinking, oh I see why he wanted to make this movie. Does that make sense?
It does to a point, I read the novel first.
Oh, I see…
And then saw the movie. I don’t think either movie can encompass the novel, but the novel certainly presented aspects of psychosexual, mystery, magic, weirdness that were really interesting that were not tackled in the first version for many reasons. Including the fact that there was censorship. It was done during the code. So they really circumvented a lot of stuff that was pretty brutal in a good way.
Well, something they do in the original that I found really interesting, It’s rare for a movie from that era where it’s so clear two characters just had sex. Because they go into a truck together and Stanton comes out whistling.
Yeah. That’s it. No, [co-writer] Kim Morgan and I said, look, if we try to occupy that space, then it’s a remake. If we don’t, then it’s another patient of the novel. And we certainly made the deal to not go back and revisit the 1947 movie. Let’s use the novel and very, very pointedly, which is really interesting, let’s use William Lindsay Gresham’s biography and what he was seeking also, as a human being, as the basis for what we’re doing. Because Gresham, when he was well, he left a little scribbled note that says, “I am Stan.”
And really, if you look at Gresham, you find out that he was a seeker, like The Fool, the Tarot card. And he was looking for truth in Catholicism, and psychoanalysis, in the Tarot. He was a folk singer. He was in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. He became a communist. He was a guy that was looking for a system to which he could belong, which is basically also what Stan is secretly looking for. But he’s also looking for the truth about himself, which is what Gresham was looking for. The movie is, by the rights, from him. He gets a lot of money and his life unravels rather fast.
He died in the same room he wrote the book. Do I have that right?
He goes back to the hotel in New York and commits suicide because he had throat cancer, yes, but also because he basically had lost so much in life at that point. His kids and his ex-wife were living now with CS Lewis. And he found, probably an answer, or a version of the truth, that led to that. And I thought it was very interesting to articulate Stanton through the search for himself. When Lilith says, “What do they want?” The marks. And Stan says, “To be found out like everybody else.” And that’s what he wants. And he’s found out in the last two minutes of the movie. After lying to everyone, he finally gets the truth.
You mention how, obviously, you just don’t want to remake the movie from ’47 and base it more on the book. Was there ever a thought of setting it in contemporary times?
No, I refused.
Oh, so someone brought that up to you and you said absolutely not?
No, no, no. I would refuse. I didn’t because no one suggested it, but I’ve had it in the past in other things, and I made it very clear in the proposal we’re setting it in the moment where the world is also going mad. The beginning of World War II and so forth. And look, the other thing that is interesting in this is we wrote it thinking it’s going to be very hard for this movie to happen. We’re going to just write the ideal screenplay that we want.
When was this? Because it feels like after The Shape of Water you could do anything you want?
No. The reality is that, look, there are two things that are very important in this movie: The ending, which, basically, the whole movie is a prologue to that ending. And the other one is the scope, which means it has to be a reasonably big movie, because we really wanted to have a telescopic, incredibly detailed reality. And in the way we photographed it, dressed the characters, decorated the sets, designed the sets, mounted the camera and all that. So we went at it and, surprise, everybody seemed to come on board to the project.
Right, but, I mean, you just won an Oscar. People seem to love these kinds of movies. I’m wondering why, in your mind, it was going to be so hard to get made? Like, “Here’s what studios might not like.”
Well, remember one thing. You’ve seen the movie.
Which, I had the benefit of, in ways, because I’m the director. I see the movie.
You have it in your head.
I see the movie. But the studios don’t see the movie. Once you see them you go, “Oh, it’s this.” I remember clearly with The Shape of Water, it could only be made for $19.5 million. If we went any bigger than that, it made no sense in such a, seemingly on paper, bizarre story. And then when you see it and you feel the energy, of course it makes sense that it exists. And the same was true with Nightmare Alley. It’s a very adult, no pyrotechnics, no big action. It’s a very intimate, almost like a character portrait.
So I heard what you said on Eric Vespe and Scott Wampler’s Kingcast podcast about At the Mountains of Madness may be getting made at Netflix.
I knew you had that deal for the anthology series, Cabinet of Curiosities, at Netflix. And then you mentioned your pitching At the Mountains of Madness. Do you have a deal to make movies there, too? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m doing Pinocchio right now with them.
I mean, is it kind of the Fincher deal where it’s going to be making a bunch of different things?
One would hope so, yes. I’m pitching my next project there, for sure. And I think my experience with them for the last, almost, a decade with Troll Hunters, the Troll Hunters series and the universe we created was splendid, creatively and in every sense, we felt free and supported. So yeah.
I know there was that time period where it seemed like everything you wanted to do didn’t work out. And now I feel like the stuff you’ve been talking about forever might finally going to happen.
Well, I tell you. Nothing is that easy. I know once you make them and they make sense. Mountains of Madness, which makes perfect sense to me, it’s very hard for it to make sense to other people. Because even in the smaller form it’s still a pretty big horror movie. And big horror movies, tent-pole horror, if you would, is something that rarely occurs. It happens in The Exorcist, it happened in The Shining, but it also happens in The Thing. And now and then you get it, but it’s a rarity.
Well, I’m glad you got to make this movie. I think people will appreciate it.
I thank you for that. And that has been my hope. And I believe that there is a beautiful place for a new resurgence of noir, because it is the most cinematic, lush, glorious genre. And other than horror, it has been my love all my life, both in the novels and in the filming genre. I love them equally.
‘Nightmare Alley’ opens in theaters this week. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.