How Guillermo del Toro turned Toronto into his very own Nightmare Alley

Bradley Cooper in a scene from Nightmare Alley.Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studios

If you’ve ever seen a Guillermo del Toro movie, you’ve seen the streets of Toronto.

The Mexican filmmaker has a long history with the city and made his English-language debut Imitate Here in 1996, then returned for 2012 Pacific Rim. Since then, Del Toro has lived here part-time, forged close relationships with local staff, and used the city as the backdrop for everything from his FX Vampire series The variety to his Oscar-winning triumph The shape of the water. (It was quite a journey when, during that film’s 2017 TIFF premiere at the Elgin Theater, audiences saw scenes shot in the same theater as they were in.)

Now Del Toro is back with Nightmare Alley, a deep dark piece of noir focused on the 1930s carnival worker, Stan (Bradley Cooper), who by all means longs for a high society life. Also starring regular Del Toro players Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman, the thriller is both the pinnacle of Toronto and quite the opposite. There are many sights – the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant in the east of the city is a character of its own – but also places that come from a seemingly parallel Toronto universe that is disguised with all sorts of digital tricks.

In front Nightmare Alley‘s release on December 17, and the day after TIFF hosted the film’s world premiere, Del Toro spoke to The Globe and Mail about place, place, place.

Screenwriter and producer Guillermo Del Toro (left) and writer Kim Morgan attend the premiere of Nightmare Alley in New York on December 1st.Evan Agostini / The Associated Press

I went to the TIFF premiere of the film last night and Cameron Bailey mentioned the noir series you’re programming. Your connections to the city are close …

[Laughs] At that point, I made Toronto a home, and I think my acronym for City and Crews and TIFF is very natural and secondary to me at this point.

Watch out Nightmare Alley As a Toronto native, I try to play Spot-the-Landmark. But everything is well camouflaged.

Some of what we’ve done changes everything. In some places we turned the film over. Left is right, right is left. In different circumstances we have replaced the sky, obliterated the horizons. We went to locations and added architecture, full buildings right in the background. We shot on the side of the [Don Valley Parkway] and added the entirety of the Buffalo bus station. The right side is a real building, the left side is completely digital. We added Buffalo City Hall in a background.

Is there a risk that you will keep filming here, that you will overuse the locations?

Toronto is a city that was shot and shot and shot. When we scout and leave for 1 Adelaide everyone was there. All! The Drake Hotel, we helped turn this around. the [R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant] was my first location in Toronto when I was shooting Imitate. It’s great to come back 30 years later and shoot it all over again.

This time with a lot more control than that infamous micro-managed production.

I remember the plant was the first shot Imitate. I thought, “This is a great picture! The studio will surely withdraw that! ”It did the opposite. They said, “Are you making an art film or a horror film?” I hope both!

Nightmare Alley is another high-low bundle of genres. Viewers unfamiliar with William Lindsay Gresham’s novel or Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film might expect horror. But that bleeds through genre walls.

We wanted to look at the noir literature that was born as part of the awakening of American realism. It happens in this brutal, rhythmic, percussive prose after Hemingway that got the chance to shape the American dream. And America’s basic pastoral myths brutally clashed with the urban reality of modernity. You didn’t do it knows There was a genre back then! We try to respect that. For us, the birth of noir is the birth of American tragedy. The birth of this unstoppable pull towards darkness and the tragic ending that makes it very modern.

At the premiere last night, Bradley Cooper said he considered the ending happy.

It is a release. The big difference is, without spoiling it, that there is this feeling that Stan can finally say “poof”. The tragedy of Bradley’s character is that his lies pile up but never protect him. The truth shields him. That makes him bulletproof. This is an integral part of noir. The Hamlet thing about the character saying, “To be or not to be?” To make the decision. These are not the gods against man like the Greek tragedy. These are the decisions of man against man. Which makes it an American two-fisted myth. The impulses that make the American dream come true are the same impulses that awaken the American nightmare.

The film had a six-month break in production due to the pandemic. How did you use the time in between?

We wrote a fresco, a mural full of characters. A mural of time and history. And that would have been an average of three hours and 30 minutes. As we were filming, we gradually saw that this was a character study by Stan. So we had to aim more precisely. We have gradually narrowed the composition of the mural. It was great because the first part of the process took six months and we made certain decisions. Take six here, take three there. When we got back on the footage after we finished filming we went, no, go back to take two. Throw out, take six. We found the straightforward and brutal approach. The film cannot be beautiful and great. It has to be nice or great to keep the graininess of the noir.

Fascinating, but I get the final signal so I’ll have to leave it at that, from Toronto.

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Nightmare Alley opens in theaters on December 17th

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