Guillermo del Toro on ‘Nightmare Alley’ Cinematography

The camera is always moving alley of nightmares—following Stan (bradley cooper), a man fleeing a brutal past, in the darkest recesses of where he stumbled. Adapted from the 1946 novel, the film embraces the cold, stark images and characterizations of classic noir, its cinematic language determined by the narrative’s brutal and comprehensive journey.

The film, nominated for Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the Critics Choice Awards, is the latest collaboration between director Guillermo del Toro and director of photography Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, The shape of water). It also marks the continuation of their joint work: more risks taken, a more precise and delicate stylistic conception. Indeed, it’s the only movie in recent memory, if ever, to have both a color and a black-and-white version in theaters at the same time. (The latter, released more recently, is subtitled Vision in darkness and light.) But as Del Toro and Laustsen reveal in our chat, about six crucial shots of alley of nightmares, such duality is central to the film’s cinematic uniqueness – and, perhaps, timelessness.

The cabin

bradley cooper

Del Toro turns to his artistic inspirations upon seeing this shot, which is from alley of nightmaresis a calm and haunting prologue. “I consulted all the American realists like [Edward] Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton for the sky and the landscapes and all that”, explains the director. “In this case, it’s Andrew Wyeth Christina’s world sort of – a man burning his past and leaving, to try to start over.

The image captures just that. “We searched for so many hours for this shot,” Laustsen cracks. They needed the right position of the sun, the right slope of the hill, that eerie feeling of openness. Additionally, much of this finale is changed from where they settled: the sunny skies have been digitally replaced with the “more painterly skies” that Del Toro presents throughout the film, and the bright green grass turned autumnal in post. It was important that Stan be brought firmly into the middle of the film. “We were shooting this after talking about lighting our main character much less than normal – very deliberately, we kept him in the shadows most of the time,” says Del Toro. “It’s very painterly, but it comes right after a really brutal moment when he drags a corpse into a hole in the ground.”

This footage was captured on a fully extended Technocrane, with Del Toro and Laustsen dragging it as Cooper descends the hill, watching him pass. And the element you might think is most obviously digitized – the burning cabin – is real. “Everyone talks like the house is artificial, but it’s a real house,” Laustsen says. “We burned it!”

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