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Humans, not monsters, 'drive the terrifying truths,' Guillermo del Toro says

The acclaimed Mexican director said his latest film, "Nightmare Alley," is not a horror movie. In noir, "you see the character forge the destiny with bad decisions.”
Image: Nightmare Alley
Ron Perlman, right, and Mark Povinelli in "Nightmare Alley." Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studios

He’s a master of fantasy and horror. Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro says that the dark truths carried by ordinary humans in his new movie will terrify viewers.

“Nightmare Alley” is a remake of the classic 1947 noir movie, which is based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham about a grifter-turned-mentalist who skillfully cons people by reading revealing details about them and then winning their trust with a few chosen words. 

On the surface, “Nightmare Alley” could resemble a rags-to-riches story. Stan Carlisle (played by Bradley Cooper) is both determined and ambitious to break out from the traveling carnival where he has crafted his showmanship to make it big with higher-paying clients in the city.

But the acclaimed Mexican director told NBC News in a video interview that the story is much more complicated. 

“I think the movie enunciates very clearly that everybody wants to be seen and found out,” del Toro said. “And that’s what Stan wants. Stan thinks he wants money. Stan thinks he wants power. Really, what he needs and what he gets is, he’s seen exactly for what he is. The whole movie is a problem for the last few minutes.” 

"A two-fisted American version of tragedy"

Viewers seeing “Nightmare Alley” for the first time could approach the story as a grim mystery. But unlike del Toro’s signature fantasy and horror movies, humans and not monsters drive the terrifying truths that unravel on the big screen. 

“One of the characteristics in noir is that you have to see the character forge their own destiny,” he said. “It’s not Greek tragedy where the destiny comes from the gods. In noir, which is a two-fisted American version of tragedy, you see the character forge the destiny with bad decisions.”

When del Toro compares "Nightmare Alley" to his earlier films like “The Shape of Water," which won multiple Academy Awards in 2018, including best picture, and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which also garnered multiple Oscars, del Toro said that fantasy and horror stories are like parables that tell larger truths about life.

“A monster, for example Godzilla, can represent the environment or an ecological truth,” he explained. “Frankenstein creates a monster that he abandons, you know, it’s the abandonment of a child by the father.” 

In order to tell a gripping human story about characters making “destiny-sized wrong decisions” in “Nightmare Alley,” del Toro had to rethink his directing style to avoid pushing beyond reality.

“I had to change the approach with the camera in a different way that allowed them to be there, real, and not try to dictate the style over the reality of the performance,” he said about directing Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe and other cast members. 

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in 'Nightmare Alley'.Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studios

Del Toro credits Austro-Hungarian director Otto Preminger with nurturing his passion for film noir with movies like “Laura,” “Fallen Angel” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” He also paid homage to Mexican filmmaker Roberto Gavaldón and his 1952 film “La Noche Avanza” (“Night Falls”), which features actor Pedro Armendáriz as a jai alai player who is a womanizer and becomes the target of revenge.

But what captivates del Toro most about “Nightmare Alley” is a familiar theme that runs through many of his movies — the story of outsiders who are trying to survive.

“To me, what is beautiful is to have the juxtaposition of two worlds. One is a world of imperfect people that know they are outcasts. And they are banding together in this sort of outcast family,” he said, referring to the characters in the traveling carnival. “And the other one is the world of good society and the city, which is apparently a world of refinement and civility and is really ruthless and horrible.”

What It Costs to Play a Character

Actor Ron Perlman, who has teamed up with del Toro in multiple films including “Cronos,” “Hellboy,” “Pacific Rim” and the upcoming “Pinocchio," said that he's used to living in between worlds like his character Bruno in “Nightmare Alley.” 

The actor was born to Jewish parents in Washington Heights and describes his childhood neighborhood as a “community inside of a community” that was cloistered from the “noise and excitement of Midtown Manhattan.” 

And this diverse experience, he said, has helped him get into the mindset of characters on screen that don’t always want to get along with others but have to do so out of necessity.

“Each time you commit to a character, you are signing up to reveal what it costs to be him. And, so each of the characters that I play, whether they be very arched, heartless criminals, or very heartfelt, sympathetic, beautiful creatures like Hellboy, they all are paying a price for their identity," Perlman said, "and for their emotional reaction to what it costs to be walking on this earth." 

For Bruno, who is a father-like figure to Stan’s love interest, Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara), Perlman came to terms with the cost of his character by answering deep questions. 

“My approach was, ‘What’s he doing in this place?’” he asked. “‘What is it like to be somewhat responsible for keeping this carnival afloat just so that he has a place he can hide from society?”

Perlman told NBC News that he had been watching the 1947 “Nightmare Alley” since he was a kid, and that he introduced del Toro to the movie in an early conversation about resisting the impulse to remake classic noirs.

“Nightmare Alley” was the only exception. 

“It is my No. 1 favorite noir," Perlman said. "It always has been. And he had never heard of it. So we screened it at my house, which is how Guillermo began the love affair."

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