How Guillermo del Toro mixed the old and the new to create the most visually striking film of 2021

The unfathomable and dark depths of human depravity lie at the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s work Alley of nightmares, a memorable and visually striking neo-noir adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name.

Set between the late 1930s and early 1940s, this big-screen translation traces the rise and fall of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a two-bit con artist who goes from the bustle of bosses. from the carnival to the hustle and bustle of the upscale Buffalo class from the Depression Era. Stan winds through an Art Deco maze of easy salaries and gullible brands, until he finds himself drowned in the rising waters of his own pride.

***WARNING! The following contains slight spoilers! ***

Gresham’s book was famous for being adapted into the 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power as Carlisle, although del Toro felt he could give the source material a modern makeover by avoiding the overused tropes of the kind black.

“When people talk about black, people immediately think of a cliché,” the Oscar-winning writer / director explained in a recent video for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (see below). “An advertisement for a perfume, Venetian blinds, a voiceover, a detective in an overcoat in a wet street, a fan in slow motion, a woman smoking in the dark.”

Guillermo said roughly: ‘If you’ve seen the [original] movie, don’t see it again because we’re not doing a remake of that movie. We’re doing our own version, ”said costume designer Luis Sequeira. Forbes Entertainment on Zoom. “He was quite categorical on certain style notes which he was not very satisfied with. [with regards] to the original. So we kind of put that aside.

As such, del Toro asked his talented production team – many of whom have worked with him before – to avoid these platitudes when designing the film’s overall look. “Basically the film isn’t dark, so it was like ‘How do we get that feeling?’,” Sequeira continues. “It was about creating so much texture in the choices, so that even though there was color, it still gave you all of those black qualities.”

“We have deliberately tried not to look at the dark,” echoes production designer Tamara Deverell. “I remember having a conversation with Guillermo at the very beginning and we briefly talked about making the film in black and white. This kind of comes and goes quickly. It’s a film noir in terms of subject matter, but we don’t necessarily want that look. We kind of ditched that film noir idea without saying it. “

Of course, there are a few nods to the filmmaking methods of the Golden Age, especially in Dan Lausten’s cinematography, which makes excellent use of light, shadow, and smoke to transmit a swirling vortex of unease and moral decay.

The smoke is heavily used in the first half of the film, which takes place during a seedy traveling carnival where Stan learns the mentalist tricks of the trade from Peter Krumbein (David Strathairn) and his tarot card-reading wife, Zeena (Toni Collette).

While Alley of nightmares isn’t an exercise in the usual del Toro genres (horror, sci-fi, and supernatural), its funhouse-style setting still evokes the director’s keen sense of the macabre – whether it’s a dead child – born with a ghoulish third eye floating in a jar of murky liquid or the resident carnival “geek”, a drugged vagabond ready to do just about anything for the next high. The real monsters, according to del Toro, are the ones we make of ourselves. That’s a pretty apt message, considering the film is set in the run-up to WWII.

“We wanted to use a lot of smoke in the background, so you have that third dimensional feeling – like something is going on,” Lausten reveals. “It’s not like you think it’s weird, but the first time you see the carnival you have a lot of smoke in the background and it just makes you a little nervous onscreen I think. It’s not something where you’re like, “Oh, it’s gonna be a horror movie,” because it’s not a horror movie. But he [offers] the suspense.”

As for the carnival itself, the various tents, banners and attractions were quite practical. “We had the tents built by a company that has been doing it since the 1890s,” says Deverell. “It’s a family business in the Midwest called Armbruster. We asked them to make our tents and now they make all kinds of vintage tents so they really helped help us with uniquely shaped tents because we had to customize each one of them … actually they came and showed us the tent poles because we have the whole scene in the movie where the tent poles come out and the whole thing is… how to secure them in a periodic way.

Costume-wise, Sequeira wanted to tell a story of “rags to rags to riches” through the collection of outfits Stan wears throughout the film. “It came from the choice of fabrics, the fit, the carnival being a little loose and saggy and hiding his physique and as he became more self-sufficient within the carnival – sort of learning what was the power – the cut got a little closer to the body.

He adds, “We really got into very different time periods and so it was about making it real. Both for the background and for all the actors, it was to create these clothes, to age them. We made 90 percent of the clothes and aged them so that [the actors] felt they weren’t wearing costumes. Like they can feel their character and everything has a story. “

When the going in Buffalo in the second half of the run, the cinematographer decided to use “a lot more direct light and a really nice light” for characters like Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a beautiful, cunning and potentially deadly one. psychiatrist that Stan brings into the fold of his mentalism.

“We wanted the shadows to be much sharper, but the lights should be sharper,” says Lausten. “There will only be very specific lighting on the actor. So it’s a bit old fashioned, but doing it in a modern way because the camera moves so much and the light moves with the camera. this idea about the first time you see it, you don’t want to see it, but you want to feel that there is something special out there sitting in the corner … I wanted to turn on Cate [in a] very hollywood [way]. Like a movie star, like a diva. I think it works so well.

“In town, it was really about polishing and everything was very rushed and very clean,” says Sequeira. “While we weren’t doing black, I had to understand the value of light and how the costumes were going to perform in those light levels and often very low light levels. There had to be reflective qualities in some of the choices.

Buffalo sets lean heavily on the Art Deco aesthetic that defined much of American architecture during the Great Depression. Deverell and del Toro examined real-world Art Deco landmarks such as the Eastern Columbia Building in Los Angeles and the Weil-Worgelt Study at the Brooklyn Museum. Then it was just a matter of matching each location to a specific character.

“Words matter and Guillermo, as a writer, wrote long, descriptive passages for each character that weren’t related to what’s going on in the story,” says Deverell. “I tend to like working with the characters a lot, so I thought of the characters and every ensemble a lot like a character study almost.”

Lilith’s office, for example, was based on the Weil-Worgelt study, which has “that kind of different, very chic look,” says the production designer. “For Lilith, I didn’t want it to be just made of metal, glass and brass and bronze plates. Lilith’s office was very focused on her character as an educated and sophisticated woman in a position of power, controlling the man and controlling herself and very strict in a way.

Manufacturing on Alley of nightmares started in January 2020 before coming to a complete halt two months later in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. The cast and crew simply left the set and only returned six months later, in September. “Most of the big sets had been done by this point, so it left me with a despair that we would never finish the movie and I had put so much work into it,” Deverell admits. “It was my dominant feeling.”

Lausten describes the closure as a “painful” experience.

“We came back and we had discussions about ‘should we take back what we did or should we just start over? “We actually kept everything that we shot before… Of course, matching the lighting and all that stuff with something that we shot six months earlier was a bit of a challenge,” continues -he. “But it worked really well. But I think the downtime was painful, sitting alone here in Copenhagen, and no one knew what it was going to be like. The whole world has been closed and it looks like we are going back now. “

Co-written by del Toro and Kim Morgan, Alley of nightmares now playing in theaters everywhere. The film opened last weekend to nearly $ 3 million at the domestic box office.

Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Mark Povinelli, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr. and Tim Blake Nelson co-star.

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