Guillermo Del Toro used to describe Hollywood as “the Land of the Slow No”. Here was a place where a director could die waiting for a project to be greenlit. “The natural state of a movie is to be unmade,” he says over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “I have about 20 scripts that I lug around that no one wants to make and that’s fine: it’s the nature of the business. It’s a miracle when anything at all gets made.”
Nevertheless, Del Toro has established himself as this century’s leading fantasy film-maker, more inventive than latter-day Tim Burton and less bombastic than Peter Jackson (with whom he co-wrote the Hobbit trilogy). From the haunting adult fairytale Pan’s Labyrinth and the voluptuously garish Hellboy romps to his beauty-and-the-fish love story The Shape of Water, which won four Oscars, he is the master of the glutinous phantasmagoria.
Waking up the morning after the Academy Awards ceremony 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 be going through a more tortuous process otherwise.” These include his stop-motion animated Pinocchio, set in Mussolini’s Italy, which will premiere on Netflix later this year. Before that, there is Nightmare Alley, a ghoulish noir thriller that is the first of his films not to feature fantasy elements. “Every time I make a movie, I always say that the worst monster is a human,” he smiles. “I decided to continue that, but without the safety net of whimsy or flights of fancy.”
Adapted from the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham – though not a remake of the 1947 film version starring Tyrone Power – Nightmare Alley follows the shifty Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who flees the scene of a murder and hides out at a carnival. There he falls in with its shady personnel: clairvoyant Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), sideshow performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), who “conducts” lethal levels of electricity, and grizzled barker Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), responsible for “the Geek” (Paul Anderson), who lives in a cage and bites the heads off live chickens.
A self-professed carnival obsessive, Del Toro drew much of the film’s rich detail – including a woman posing as an arachnid-human hybrid – from memories of his childhood in Mexico. “The spider-woman act is one I saw when I was four or five,” he says. “I have a photograph of my brother and me on a little horse cart on the day we saw her. I was tiny, and the impression it made on me was so strong. I can remember exactly what she said: ‘Oh woe be me, I was turned into this for disobeying my parents!’ I knew it was not a real spider, but the image was so disturbing. And the lady seemed so bored. The carnival in the film is not magical but at least it’s honest about being dishonest. That is the advantage I see over the city. People in the city are pretending to be honourable.”
It is in the city – Buffalo, New York, to be precise, but as symbolic a nucleus of corruption as any noir metropolis – that Stanton’s grifting skills make him a superstar on the mentalism circuit. It is here also that he meets figures murkier than anything the carnival can throw up, including Cate Blanchett’s femme fatale psychoanalyst 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 butchered his 1997 giant-bug horror Mimic, to the time Universal pulled the plug suddenly on his epic adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s monster-fest At the Mountains of Madness. Is the city depicted in Nightmare Alley analogous to his experiences in Hollywood?
“It’s analogous to most human endeavours,” 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 very best that has happened to this planet and the very worst. There is no reason to deny one side. We are capable of absolutely beautiful loving acts and absolutely brutal ones. We don’t exist in a single space.”
This gets him thinking about childhood again. “I saw real corpses when I was young,” he recalls. “People who had been shot, or had accidents. You get a sense of how fraught things are. It’s certainly not a rosy life when you grow up in Mexico. There is that famous, touristic but very real dichotomy for me as a Mexican, where the notion of living and of death as an impending destiny is fused into a single concept.”
As a Mexican he has also had to contend with a US 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 Oscar acceptance speech with four vital words – “I am an immigrant” – then proceeded to argue that “the greatest thing our art does, and our industry does, is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper”.
It was an inspiring speech to suit an uplifting film: in The Shape of Water, four outsiders (a mute domestic, her African American colleague, her gay neighbour and the amphibious creature she falls in love with) triumph over a fascistic US colonel in cold war-era Baltimore, just as the Francoist general is vanquished in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the ghosts of the Spanish civil war confronted at the end of Del Toro’s allegorical horror The Devil’s Backbone.
But Nightmare Alley is not a movie born out of hope or healing. Despite being set in the 1940s, it is unmistakably a product of our times. “One hundred per cent,” 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 famished”. How Trumpian.
“We are in a very divided moment,” he says. “As a storyteller, I am reactive, so I didn’t feel I needed to make an engaging love story at this moment.” 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 script with Kim Morgan, film critic and former wife of the Canadian director Guy Maddin. The co-writers got hitched last spring.
No trace of romance survives in the film. “These are very bleak times,” Del Toro says. “For an audience, my movies form a filmography. But for me, it’s biography. In exchange for two hours, I give you three years of my life.” Make that two and a half hours in the case of Nightmare Alley – an awfully long time to spend in the company of a greedy, deceitful protagonist who fails to reach any understanding about himself until the final minutes.
“It’s not a surprise where Stanton ends up,” Del Toro explains. “But it’s how he ends up there. You don’t watch the history of Jesus and root for him not to get crucified. You don’t watch Oedipus and bet that he’s not going to bed his mother. The inexorable fate will happen because character is immutable. That’s the power and the difficulty of a movie like this.”
Industry lore decrees that you can generally knock a zero off the gross if your hero isn’t changed or redeemed. Add to this the reluctance of pandemic-era audiences to fully embrace cinema-going and it is perhaps no surprise that Nightmare Alley struggled at the US box office. The film, budgeted at $60m, took less than $3m in its opening weekend, which according to Forbes magazine is “below even the over/under $5m ‘Covid normal’ for the likes of King Richard, The Last Duel and Last Night in Soho.” A Searchlight spokesperson admitted that “the numbers were a bit more modest than we had predicted”.
Whatever the picture’s commercial fate, Del Toro’s determination to warp or withhold familiar noir pleasures is to be admired. “Noir was born at a time in America of disillusionment,” he says. “I wanted to go into that existential quality and to stay the fuck away from venetian blinds and rotating fans and a detective in a gabardine mac walking along a wet street.” It is also a film that places emphasis squarely on behaviour. “Destiny is the sum of your choices. There is no punishment or tarot or 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 and he’s leaving the carnival for a better life. I even do a beautiful crane shot, like the ending of a movie. And then two years later, he has a great act in a luxury cabaret, lives in a fancy hotel with room service, and it’s not enough. He’s still unhappy.”
Anyone reluctant to face the bitter pill of the second half, then, is advised to dash for the exit after that crane shot. “Yeah,” he says, warming to the idea. “Audiences not interested in a gut-punch are very much invited not to stay.”
Nightmare Alley is in UKcinemas from 21 January.