A version of this story about Guillermo del Toro and “Nightmare Alley” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
It’s all about the ending. We won’t give away the details, but Guillermo del Toro’s stylish and ruthless “Nightmare Alley” comes down to one final scene in a cluttered carnival trailer between Tim Blake Nelson as a carny boss and Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a huckster mentalist with a dark past and an unquenchable drive for glory. For more than two hours, the film has followed Stan through lean times and flush times, through triumph and dirty dealings and disaster — and finally, it comes down to two men, one small room and a lingering closeup on a haunted face.
“It was indicated in the screenplay: ‘All artifice goes away and we stay on Stan’s face and see him remove every mask until he’s alone at the end,’” said del Toro, who co-wrote the adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 noir novel with Kim Morgan. “We knew the North Star of the movie was the ending, and everything that came before was prologue. For me, as a human being with some empathy, the last two minutes are vertiginous.”
And those last two minutes, he said, were the whole reason for the film, and the reason why he and Morgan figured it might be impossible to make. (Edmund Goulding’s 1947 version, with Tyrone Power, softened the final scene.) “We thought, ‘We are going to have to find a studio and a star that supports that ending.’ The ending is it — you don’t want anything to come after, and you don’t want to compromise it. And in these times, that is a big proposition.”
But Searchlight backed the film, no doubt encouraged by its experience with the director on 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” which won four Oscars, among them Best Director and Best Picture. Like almost all del Toro’s previous films, which included “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy” and “Crimson Peak,” his Oscar-winner included a fantastic supernatural creature, something conspicuously missing from “Nightmare Alley.” Bradley Cooper’s character may make a good living pretending to conjure up ghosts and traffic in the supernatural, but del Toro stayed away from that territory for the first time.
“The last few years, the horrors in real life have come at a really fast pace,” he said, laughing. “I always say that in my movies, the real monster is man. And it was about time to try it without any monsters, any creations or any fantastical elements. This is a movie that is constructed carefully — and the climax is not an explosion, not a big effect, not a big technical marvel. It’s the most beautiful narrative device: a closeup. For me, this was about removing a lot of the safety nets that come with fantasy.”
What he called “the horrors of real life” also helped draw him to the film noir genre in this time of isolation and division. “Noir, like horror, always comes in times of great anxiety,” he said. “If you watch the evolution of noir, from Robert Mitchum to Lee Marvin or Elliot Gould to the neo-noir in the ’80s and ’90s, each of those is almost like a time capsule of their time. And this is a movie permeated by the anxieties, the uncertainties and the dissolution of truth in 2021.”
That timeliness, he added, was one of the reasons why he was able to attract such a remarkable cast, many of them playing small roles. Tim Blake Nelson’s only scene is that final one; David Strathairn is mostly in the first half hour of the film, Richard Jenkins mostly in the last half hour; Cate Blanchett is nowhere to be seen until after the halfway mark.
“I think it’s a testament to the characters that William Lindsay Gresham crated that you can have somebody like Cate Blanchett agree to a movie where she shows up in the second half. But that’s because these characters embody such important symbols and values. Without Cate, there is no second half. Without Toni Collette and David Strathairn, there is no first half, no carnival. Without Richard Jenkins, there is no threat.”
And without Bradley Cooper… Well, del Toro doesn’t even want to think about that. “Not to be glib, but it’s all on Bradley,” he said. “I mean the partnership I had with this guy is the most absolutely immersive partnership I’ve ever had with an actor. Every day, we would discover Stan and he would become Stan and embody nothing but the truth. I tell you, that partnership changed my life. And it changed the way I shot the movie. I started to let the camera linger longer without moving or cutting.”
Choosing to make “Nightmare Alley,” del Toro added, is emblematic of the course he’s followed on a career that began with the low-budget Mexican horror film “Cronos” in 1993. “After the beautiful run that ‘The Shape of Water’ had, I had two choices,” he added. “I could do things that I was known to do, or I could risk doing something different. And the thing that has made me be at peace with myself over three decades of craft is something I always say: Choose the movie that needs you, not the movie you need.”
And why was “Nightmare Alley” the movie that needed him? “Because I don’t think anybody was clamoring to make a noir about the disintegration of truth right now,” he said. “You have to have certain tools as director to marshal an army of creative people into a very precisely designed audio-visual reality that serves and acts almost as a counterpoint to a narrative that is really dark and really difficult.
“It’s not an easy movie to do, and that’s why it’s a worthy movie to do.”