Why Guillermo del Toro Doesn’t Shoot Widescreen: ‘I Don’t Like Nice Paintings, I Like Nice Frames’

The “Nightmare Alley” filmmaker explains his visual trademark to TheWrap

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Guillermo del Toro has directed 11 movies. These movies take place in Victorian England and 1960s America and the distant future, set among the sewers of modern-day New York and in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. His latest, “Nightmare Alley” (opening Friday) stars Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, and takes place in the seedy traveling carnivals of the 1940s. And no matter how different these movies are, they share one thing in common: they are all tall. Which is to say, del Toro has never directed a movie that is truly widescreen; instead, he favors a boxier 1.85:1 aspect ratio. And “Nightmare Alley” is no different.

When TheWrap spoke to del Toro about his new film, we had to ask: will he ever shoot a movie in widescreen? “I don’t [want to]. I’ve never been tempted,” del Toro said. Although he almost immediately added a caveat. “I would do it if I did a Western. I would do it if I did ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ because it’s about the landscape,” del Toro said, referring to his fabled H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, which at one point was set to be produced by James Cameron and star Tom Cruise. Universal ultimately balked at it being very expensive and rated R.

Another idea that intrigues del Toro: switching between formats in a single film. “I would do it in a movie with a variable format, meaning you are 1:85 here on one scene, you’re going to go 2:35 on the next scene,” del Toro said. “I would love to do a movie that has a variable format, but for me, 1:85 I know how to compose. I know the composition in that format so well”

And looking back on del Toro’s filmography, it’s easy to see why he prefers the format; his films are full of sequences that fill as much of the frame’s height as its width. The giant kaiju and jaegers from “Pacific Rim,” the decrepit mansion at the heart of “Crimson Peak,” the unexploded bomb in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard in “The Devil’s Backbones” and the underwater sequences of “The Shape of Water” – all of these scenes benefit not only from the extra space but from del Toro’s innate ability to design specifically for that frame.

As it turns out, del Toro is thinking of the 1.85 frame from the conception stage.

“One of the first things I say to the production design department is I give them all the work we did conceptualizing ideas, and then I say, ‘It’s 1:85. Show me the master shot always in 1:85,’” del Toro said. “I forbid any concept in vertical composition, because a lot of concept artists come in with this beautiful vertical painting. And I go, ‘That’s a cheat,’ or they do a widescreen [and] I say, ‘Give me exactly 1:85, show me the hero angle. And don’t deviate from that.’ I don’t like nice paintings, I like nice frames. We contain all the sets within 1:85”

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When we suggested that he could just shoot open matte, like some filmmakers today do (especially with digital photography giving you so much information to play with in post), and just figure out the aspect ratio he wanted in post, del Toro shot down the idea. “Why? The fact is, if you see every set tells you something about a character, don’t you want to get that storytelling device right from the start rather than… I mean, this is not a decision you make later,” del Toro said.

He then used the example of “Nightmare Alley,” which has some of the most stunning production design of his career, including amazing sets at the carnival that are primally evocative. (The spook house, where a “geek” hides from Bradley Cooper is downright spectacular.)

“Some of the sets were built with very low ceilings, six and a half feet right above the head of a character so that they could be included in the 1:85. And imagine if you are hesitant about the format, you don’t know what you’re doing. You cannot decide that later,” del Toro said.

Still, the thought of a Guillermo del Toro movie, streaked with lens flares or with that outstanding warping that you get from anamorphic lenses (seen to an extreme degree in Steven Soderbergh’s recent “No Sudden Move”), would be such a thrill.

“You never know. I think if I do an epic – ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ ‘Monte Cristo,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ those, of course I’ll use that format. Not the whole movie though,” he said, referring to two of his long-gestating projects – “The Left Hand of Darkness,” an adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo” set in Mexico, and an adaptation of “Frankenstein” that draws inspiration from Bernie Wrightson’s illustrations.

Still, del Toro joked, it wouldn’t be 100% widescreen.

“Somebody would open a door in a dark room and come out in 1:85,” he said.