SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Searchlight’s Nightmare Alley.
EXCLUSIVE: The difference in stumping for awards in years past, compared to now — when a Covid encore with the catchy Omicron variant sent everyone back to their homes — is evident when Nightmare Alley star Bradley Cooper, director Guillermo del Toro and producer J. Miles Dale materialize on a Zoom call. It becomes clear they haven’t seen each other in person for a while.
“There he is, El Capitan,” Cooper says to del Toro; Dale tells Cooper they have to talk about Alvin Williams, the Toronto Raptors player-turned-TV commentator who was Cooper’s high school friend back in Philadelphia. “I’m driving in, listening to the local sports radio here and [Williams] is talking about this guy Brad, his high school buddy who helped him study, and then it dawns on me he’s talking about you, and I’m like, dang.” Says del Toro: “Did they say anything about me?” And Cooper: “Or Nightmare Alley?” Dale says, “No, they cut him off after 20 minutes, when he was about to get into it. They f*cked us,” Dale joked.
Just another example of how difficult it has been for their stylish adult noir remake to get a foothold in the marketplace (it grossed $9.3 million worldwide up against the only Omicron blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home) at a time when the adult demo wanted no part of leaving home to sit in a movie theater. Still, Searchlight allowed the director to make a black-and-white version called Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light. Now, they are using that version to get more cinephiles and the industry crowd to see the film adapted from the William Lindsay Gresham novel previously turned into the 1947 Tyrone Power film about a carnival grifter who gets his comeuppance. Being changeable allowed the filmmakers to survive a half-year Covid shutdown, so why stop now?
After selling out limited runs in New York and Los Angeles (some of which included Q&As with Cooper and del Toro), Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light will broaden its specialty theatrical run this Friday to Austin, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. By month’s end, it will expand to 50-75 runs in markets across the U.S. Cooper, del Toro and Dale made time for Deadline to discuss their efforts to get a worthy film seen, the challenges of making and releasing noir during a pandemic and trying to get a foothold in this fractured awards season.
DEADLINE: Well, it sounds like you can’t catch a break on Toronto radio. I saw Nightmare Alley in its Lincoln Center premiere and loved the look of the color version…
DEL TORO: And that’s that version.
DEADLINE: You said the film was lit for black and white. Why and when did you make the decision to generate this alternative version?
COOPER: Tell your little secret, Guillermo. Tell your dirty secret…
DEL TORO: I’ll get to it. This all came with the pandemic actually. We had decided early that the way we were going to light it with a three-point system with classic studio light. That much we have, the way we were going to lens it, lower the ceilings, blah, blah. But then during the pandemic, one fateful day, I thought, this would look really good in black and white, and it was one of the Lilith scenes [femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter is played by Cate Blanchett]. I looked at it on my computer and I was actually blown away by what it did to Cate. But that was it. I didn’t think anything would come out of it. Then months and months passed, locked in that apartment in Toronto, and I kept thinking we are directing in greens, reds, and goldens, which give us mid-tones, but I thought it was impossible. But when we came back and started shooting the carnival [scenes], I started thinking and viewing the dailies on gray scale, but again I didn’t think anything would come out of it.
Then one day when we had finished shooting, I said to Bradley, can I show you something else?
COOPER: It was in my kitchen in L.A.
DEL TORO: And he got excited. Of course, we couldn’t make the release in black and white, but starting then I said, what will we need?
DEADLINE: What’s the biggest difference?
DEL TORO: It just looks beautiful, and the carnival is enhanced considerably, in terms of how gritty and how mysterious it looks. Then the next conversation, which was an interesting one, was with the studio because The Shape of Water was also one that I wanted to release in black and white…
DEL TORO: On Nightmare Alley, we had such a solid black-and-white image, and then the colors on top. Of course, it was the way to go, originally. Then I thought when we release it like this until a little later. At that moment they said, maybe. And maybe, to a director, means yes.
DEADLINE: What was the scene?
DEL TORO: One of the first encounters, when [Cooper’s character Stanton Carlisle] says [to Blanchett] how are we going to do this, lady? The doctor is lighting the cigarette, because it’s perfectly lit on the three point when she has a black bar across her face on the top of the head. It’s lit…I mean she looks.
COOPER: And we had The Maltese Falcon lighter.
DEL TORO: The Maltese Falcon lighter, and I just thought, oh, my God, this is Lauren Bacall, this is Barbara Stanwyck. She had that other layer.
DEADLINE: So what’s your dirty little secret?
DEL TORO: Well, I’m getting to it. From that moment on, I thought, this would be a different experience. I think there’s only one thing that we had already showed that, which was, taking out of the color red and how Stanton stops having that color in his life, in the city. The rest I thought would play interestingly different in black and white.
DEADLINE: So when you take out the color red, what does it do?
DEL TORO: Well, narratively for me, Molly [Rooney Mara] becomes the holder of life, in the carnival. He loses that, and the journey becomes a darker one, one that is grittier. It feels more like we are in that time, you know. It’s an interesting change. I used to say every week we should do this in black and white. And then he would call me, black and white, no question. And then color, no question. And we started calling the two versions Betty and Veronica because Archie could never make up his mind.
DEADLINE: So describe that black and white conversation with Searchlight. The film was pricey by their standards, and it’s a challenging time for a theatrical release of an adult film in any color. Is that the dirty little secret Bradley mentioned?
DEL TORO: It was introduced with a cookie. We were on it daily, and we were talking about the movie. We took the movie as a collective effort. Every inch of our will and intelligence to take the movie from 3:30 to 2:19. At the moment we had this conversation, the movie was 2:45, and we were talking [with Searchlight execs] at Factors Deli in L.A., and I said well, there’s one more thing I wanted to talk to you about, guys. I said this may give you a clue. Can I have a black and white cookie? That’s how we approached the subject. Of course, we were not expecting the full release to be [black and white], and we knew going in we couldn’t have predicted the variant and how brutal it was going to be. But we were all already very aware of where we were going. They thought that it was an interesting experiment, but we would stay with the color release.
DEADLINE: What must it be like to make a movie for adults in this moment? You had to stop shooting for half a year when Covid first shut down the business. Then you return and shoot the first half of the movie. And then Omicron hits and mature audiences don’t want to leave the house, which is reflected in the box office. Crystalize the impact of having Covid hover like a spirit over Nightmare Alley.
DEL TORO: I feel that we have an audience also coinciding with a movie [Spider-Man] that is very youth-oriented, which meant they were just not going to a theater or a multiplex [except for the] one that was packed to go to the other movie. What that does is something that in perspective fits on a worldwide crisis. It’s a plague, it’s a pandemic. So, in order of importance, that is going to be more urgent and more real and more permanent in what it could do to our life.
The only thing I can say is, there is a hell of a lot in the last couple of years that people want just to get a story. They want to make it a permanent thing or a trend that is here to stay. I think that this thing, when we link the main trend of the variants and the vaccination catches up, etcetera, let’s see what happens.
COOPER: In thinking about this movie and what we were trying to explore with this film, everything that has happened to us globally, the themes are worth exploring. [For me it is] always look, do I want to watch this movie? Films have changed my life. I crossed the tracks to another route because of films that have impacted me. So, it’s a pretty profound way to tell a story, still to this day. Guillermo asked us all to come and have a no bullshit exploration of humanity. How did we get to where we are today? How are we all living in this morally relativistic world and what does that look like when there is no higher power, really?
Stanton is the archetype for where we are. He’s warned, early. No man can outrun God, Stan, and he’s like okay, yes, sir. Thank you. I don’t know what you’re talking about but thank you. I’ll go upstairs and practice on what I think I can do to control stuff. All of these things that we were trying to explore in a real way I think is absolutely relevant to the movie-going audience today. If someone said to me, do you want to watch two hours of Guillermo del Toro exploring why and how and where we are today as a culture, particularly the construct of man? I’m all in. That’s what we were trying to do. I think because of that it certainly bonded us for the rest of our lives, no question. Because we were really trying to do something with this film.
DEADLINE: Bradley, the film opens with your character burning down his past, literally. The house he great up in, he lights it on fire, with his father in it. He poisons his carnival alcoholic mentor [David Strathairn] with wood alcohol and then becomes wealthy using his methods to exploit wealthy people and betrays his wife by be with this psychologist who aids his scams. In your mind, was Stanton a sociopath?
COOPER: That’s a great question. Obviously, the movie belongs to you and all the moviegoers, but my view? He is he is not a sociopath, at all. There is regret. There is empathy. There is self-loathing, all the traits that are current with all of humanity. That was the goal. If you’re looking at the macro it’s like what does patriarchy do to the male person? We encompass that in a story of a boy with his family, and the little piecemeal things that we learn that is not in the first movie, his relationship to his mother and his father. He was not loved.
He observed a relationship that was turbulent. He saw his father was not somebody he could look up to. He saw his father being taken down by a substance he used to medicate himself. [Stanton] was never loved. There’s trauma in his childhood, and as we were progressing as a culture we learn more and more just how much our childhood trauma impacts us as we grow older. So, we meet this guy who has no compass, because there’s no foundation as to what is love, what is meaningful, what is real intimacy. He’s flailing the whole movie to find meaning. He doesn’t have the skillset. He was not taught. There’s this hope. Willem Dafoe says, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done. We will accept you. This will be your home. It’s in red and then Molly’s the only thing that lasts from that, but then it all just goes away because he’s squandered his opportunity. He has to be in this home and he squanders that because he doesn’t know where he is or who he is. Lilith [Blanchett] says to him that he just wants to be found out and taken care of. So, when Tim Blake Nelson at the end of the movie says, I’ve got you. Here’s a drink. You are a geek. There is a relief there. I mean Guillermo, Miles, and I talked about it, that in a way it’s a happy ending. Really. Until the last eight frames and then he stares into the abyss of what it means to be found out, as a geek.
DEL TORO: To me, the difference between that narcissism and sociopathic is, you have a guy that has a crack across his heart. Everything that you pour in it is going to pour out, and he tries to substitute it with things that assuage that. Recognition, admiration, alcohol. Whatever any of us is addicted to. When we talk about this guy and, why is he like that? Why are we all, in many ways, like that in everyday life? Why do we want little things that just are sugar rushes of personality? To me, the guy is incredibly moving and I can’t help but feel for him. And as part of that tragedy, it is inexorable that he cannot outrun himself.
DALE: We talked about that a lot, and we shot it in two different ways. Buffalo, two years later, he’s got everything he wants.
DEADLINE: This after he leaves the carnival and with his somewhat reluctant wife begins to exploit the wealthy by tricking them into thinking he can mind read and communicate with their lost loved ones…
DALE: He just brought the house down. Mic drop, spook show, and destroyed this woman [Blanchett] who tried to get him. What’s his attitude like backstage? He’s like, I think we should maybe use that in the show next time. He’s bored. He still knows that it’s not fulfilled because he doesn’t know what he wants. That was a major decision we made. We spent a lot of time thinking about that, because this guy is lost. He’s lost the whole movie until the last scene.
DEL TORO: Mike, consider this, he has a happy ending in the middle of the movie. He got everything he wanted in the beginning of the movie. The girl, the book [the blueprint for the acts of deception], the show. He leaves [the carnival] and, bam! He’s empty again. And the revelation is the power. He likes those rushes, being admired. We know he has been using this power to talk about watches and wallets and names, all inoffensive stuff. And when he takes her [Blanchett] down, there’s a whole new horizon now for him.
DEADLINE: What flaw in his character left him so vulnerable to that character, Dr. Lilith? You would think he would be on his guard. After all, he shamed her during that very public show, and then she becomes the supplier of secrets of powerful people who divulged things in therapy sessions with her. Why did she become, as Guillermo describes it, his sugar rush?
DEL TORO: Lilith reads him, early on. She knows that he needs: a mother and a lover and a figure that she is going to become for him. He thinks he’s in charge but she is in charge, from early on. What do you think, Bradley?
COOPER: I think you’re always going to find somebody better than you in this game. So he won the fourth set but there was a fifth set to be played, and he didn’t even know it. He comes into this thing feeling like he knows her skillset, at the Copa. Takes her down and, he is like, oh, I can use something else. Then he walks her to her office and it’s elaborate and womb-like. And she does the same thing he does and as Guillermo says, she starts to provide these little moments of what she knows he needs. She really gets him in that session, where she gets him to open up and talk about his mother. You see this release in the way she touches his head. Then he goes too far, then he clams up again, but she’s already gotten him. She has tapped into what we all are looking for is someone to see us, take care of us. She’s taking care of him. She’s very maternal. He’s in a crib and she’s a mother, petting her child’s head. So, the hope is that we see that, oh, there’s this taste of this anima, the mother in Lilith, even much more than even a sexual thing. That we see that that’s ultimately what he wants, what we all want, to be taken care of. Because she taps into that with him then she owns him in a way that he’ll never see.
DEL TORO: And the nursing. When she nurses him with a kiss that has the alcohol, that is such a great moment, intimate and terrible at the same time. He is projecting on her. You’re no good. You know how I know? Because I’m no good either. There are all these exchanges and she is in control, as it becomes apparent. I find it really beautiful to see him blindly walking to that trap.
COOPER: If you have no moral foundation, everything is relative. So, there’s nothing for him to bounce off of because he’s got no foundation anyway. He’s going up that elevator [after the Copa show], saying [to his wife], you and I can make a really big dent in this town. He’s like, here’s just another thing that I can maybe grab on to, and he’s rehearsing it in the elevator. He has no moral foundation. He doesn’t know who he is.
DEADLINE: He is making it up as he goes along?
COOPER: When he kills his dad, he does it passively. He doesn’t actively kill his father.
DEL TORO: Which was one of the first things when we were talking about the script. Originally, he used a pillow and, Bradley said, I think it’s much more powerful and more Stanton if he just sits and watches.
DEADLINE: As his father freezes to death, before Stanton burns the house to the ground…
COOPER: He’s draping himself in the blanket, watching and sitting there and he looks like a king. It’s like the child becomes the king, taking over the throne of the father, but he doesn’t know anything.
DEADLINE: You all three produced this, but Miles, you had to make it possible for them to continue with the Covid stoppage and other forms of adversity. What was the biggest challenge in producing this?
DALE: The biggest challenge is the journey itself, to get where we want to go and find out in the course of making the film, what it wanted to be. We shut down for six months when we were six weeks into shooting. We had shot most of the second half of the film. You take the blessings that the universe gives you, and it gave us some time to make the movie better in many ways, in terms of prep time and also being able to look at the second half and cut it and see how that could inform the first half of the movie. It would be easy to say that trying to put 200 extras out during a pandemic without vaccines, when people were terrified for their lives, was the biggest challenge. But in fact it was really more of like the macro of it and saying how do we get every little bit of what we need to be in this movie as it’s kind of telling us what it wants to be? What you may or may not know is Rooney had a baby while we stopped. That scene, where they go into the bus station in Buffalo, she had a baby going through that doorway. So, so many things that we had to kind of deal with logistically, but also, people were anxious and we had to make them feel safe and still make it a creative, collaborative set. So, these are not things that they teach you in producer school, but we react and Bradley and Guillermo and I were all pretty tight in terms of the objectives and being able to pivot with those kinds of things. I think in a way being able to stop like that made the movie better.
COOPER: The key was to keep exploring and not let it short-change the goal, which was to never stop thinking, never stop questioning. If there’s a better way to do it, let’s do that. Those demand a lot of pivots, and we pivoted a lot. I just was sort of in awe of how Miles and the whole team was able to accommodate the exploration of this film, given the pandemic and all the things and all the other actors and the crew. Everybody did this for the love of the game, period. It’s raining the first half of the movie and it’s snowing the second half, you know what I mean? It was not an easy place.
DEL TORO: We did 15,000 Covid tests. The three of us organized the schedule for safety, but the thing is Bradley was completely at the center of one creative decision: no fear. We are in a pandemic but we’re making this movie and we have to just wear the masks, wear the shields, but not in the way we approach the material.
COOPER: Or else, what’s the point?
DEADLINE: Guillermo, Bradley was coming off his directing debut on A Star Is Born and became a real collaborator with you, and your screenwriting partner Kim Morgan. What change came out of this?
DEL TORO: The whole thing changed. The main thing is, we kept discovering and it changed the way I should…it made me a better filmmaker. Every day, one of the things was that I was really happy. Stanton is in the movie 99.9 percent of the time, and Bradley was on the set all the time. To give you an example, the scene where he listens to the geek in the cage at night because the geek, this great actor that nobody talks about.
COOPER: Paul Anderson.
DEL TORO: He captured that character so thoroughly that people just think, oh, yeah, the geek. He was in the cage and we were looking, and Bradley looked at him and said, what if I offer him a cigarette that same night? That was a discovery that made that moment one that mirrored compassion. It’s a color Stanton didn’t have. That was found there on the set that day. That’s the discovery. We would have this movie ask us questions as a team every day. We would start the day two hours earlier than anyone else, have a coffee, talk about how we were going to do this. And the ending, which was the north star of the movie, that became almost like, the best laid plans…We thought we would shoot it 20 times when we needed it and one morning, Miles shows up and tells us, we have hurricane winds coming in. The only thing we can shoot is the ending.
COOPER: [I] was already dressed for another scene, I remember that.
DEL TORO: The three of us look at each other and Bradley said, what can we lose? If it doesn’t work, we’ll do it again. And we went at the most important thing in the movie and nailed it on the first complete take. That’s the take that is in the movie. So, that’s how it changed. Everything was designed, visuals, rhythms, this and that. The discovery, the real meat, that happened every day.
DEADLINE: You have all been through past seasons with nightly voter screenings, endless awards shows, all to get a foothold for your film. How are you navigating this one?
DEL TORO: It’s very complicated and the answer resolves itself every day. Screenings that you used to be able to have with 150 people in a room, now you have with 100 people that RSVP, and then there’s a surge and now 50, or 20 show up. Look, all we can do is make a movie that we’re proud of and that is powerful to us, put it out in the world as best as you can. The rest resolves itself.
DEADLINE: Nobody knows when moviegoing will come back for these kinds of films. Bradley, you are directing and starring as Leonard Bernstein film Maestro for Netflix. Guillermo, you have also set up projects as the streamer. Temporary harbor in a storm, or is it the future for films like Nightmare Alley and West Side Story, films that a few years ago might have been big theatrical hits?
COOPER: As a person who’s trying to make a living, there’s two ways one has to look at it. I have to change the way I make money. I’ve always bet on myself. Meaning, take no money up front, make the movie, partner with the studio, and hope if it does well at the box office I will then make money. Those days are gone. So, that’s something to figure out.
That said, Netflix is making a movie that has a pretty sizable budget about classical music, marriage, and half of it’s in black and white. That’s kind of wonderful. They’re the only place that would make Maestro, this movie I’m going to start shooting in May. So, there are entities funding this type of storytelling that may not be what one could consider box office fodder, although I think actually because of the music and the story it is. I mean everybody told me not to make A Star is Born and American Sniper. I never saw The Godfather in a movie theater, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, The Elephant Man, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, any of those movies in a movie theater. And they all changed my life and made me want to be an actor. So, if you create content that is compelling and that gets you right between the eyes and into your soul, no matter how you’re going to watch it it’s going to hit you.
DEL TORO: I concur. The thing that is fascinating for me is that here I am, carrying the story of Pinocchio for about 15 years, and the basics of that project are hard to explain to a studio this stop motion film about a story that I’m setting during the rise of Mussolini in Italy. That has a tinge of loss and melancholy. It was completely undoable for 15 years until I take it and pitch it to Ted Sarandos, who reacts to the material and says, go ahead and do it. There is a multitude of projects that are getting to be made and stories that are getting to be told because of this. I think that by the way the relationship between the audience and the material keeps changing with the medium and keeps changing with the way people’s watching habits change and that’s an evolution that no one can foresee. Then you throw in a once in a century event, the pandemic, and it’s extremely hard for me to know what is permanent or how it’s going to change. The basics of our craft, which is to tell stories that movie us first and move an audience second, are the same. The rest no one knows.
DALE: Bottom line, we’re going to have to take the movies to the people where they want to see them. If that’s on a streamer or it’s at home or it’s in a theater…look, after the pandemic I think we’re confident that a lot of people will come back to the theater because people like that communal experience. They like it with horror especially and genre and comedy, and some people want to be out there on the first weekend. But as content creators we know how hard it is to actually get a movie made. So, the more people that are ready to make the most diverse selection of stories, they give us the opportunity to get that material out there is probably a good thing that we need to embrace.
DEADLINE: Guillermo, you mention the backdrop of Pinocchio, and you have always looked at things like fascism and religion in your fantastical films. Was Nightmare Alley’s theme about using spirituality as a way to con innocent people a knock on current religion or politics?
DEL TORO: Well, the rise of populism is not just in one country. It’s everywhere, and you can see it in Europe and Latin America. The idea that we have now developed and curated a belief system in our personal lives just reaffirms our bias. Whatever we want to believe, we go to those sources to reaffirm what we believe. It’s almost tribalism that is happening at a very individual, very deep spiritual level. It sounds like an old time story, the mentalist or mentalists or spiritualists from that period, but it’s very much alive in electronic media. In the way that somebody can make you believe what you want to believe, the little it says. You don’t fool people, they fool themselves. This is exactly what happens every day with mankind.
I remember when my father was kidnapped and I was talking to the negotiator who was on his way to our home. He said, be careful because in the first week the mediums show up. I hung up the phone and I went to see my mother, and my mother said, ‘son, son, there are two people here that know where your father is.’ Of course, they were two mediums that then proceeded to do exactly what Stan did. Black rainbow, dark mirror, all the techniques, and my mother was crying and her hair was falling off her head from the stress.
DEADLINE: Since you brought up your dad’s kidnapping. We did an interview where Francis Coppola was sure he might lost his Napa Valley vineyard when he was heavily leveraged making Apocalypse. George Lucas, his protégé who became rich with Star Wars, told him he would buy the vineyard and sell it back for the same price with zero interest. What James Cameron did to provide money to free your father was more profound. In the face of these phonies trying to con money out of your mother, what was it to have that filmmaker make a big withdrawal from his bank to help solve the problem? Cameron seems like a helluva guy to have as your friend.
DEL TORO: He is. He’s one of my best friends. I consider him a brother and a guy that has been with me in the ups and the downs and vice versa with him. I’ve seen him burn the midnight oil on projects that time and again for whatever reason, nobody believes in. And he again and again proves them wrong. I tell you this, he paid for the negotiators. The ransom, we had to get ourselves, my brothers and I, but he offered. He offered. He said I’ll pay the ransom. I said, I can’t allow that. We have to find it ourselves. I cannot encompass it as a notion. But he paid for all the negotiators, the whole time of the 72 days of the kidnapping, which is an impossible ordeal to communicate.
That gave us a foundation. It almost rebalances the world. I don’t know without it most everybody else, I think 95 percent of the people that were supposed to be meaningful in our lives turned their back. He didn’t. So, it gave a footing that was very, very strong. Then of course the tale has many layers.
DEADLINE: Did you pay him back?
DEL TORO: Yes, immediately. That was the first thing we did when my father came out. I said we have to pay the full negotiator fee immediately.
COOPER: Guillermo, you know you still owe me five bucks, by the way.
DEL TORO: We were out of gas, man.