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Posts Tagged ‘Guillermo del Toro’

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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”As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.”
—Michael Dirda on the novel Nightmare Alley
Washington Post book review

”When you stop hoping, you’re in a bad way.”
The Great Stanton in Nightmare Alley

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! I’m going to try a little experiment with the book Nightmare Alley. I’ve listened to the audio version of the book and watched the 1947 film version starring Tyrone Powers. But before I see the 2021 Guillermo Del Toro-directed version (or read the script he wrote with Kim Morgan), I’m going to see how I’d break the story. Which probably will be a hybrid between the 1946 book written by William Lindsay Gresham and the 1947 movie written by Jules Furthman. (Furthman wrote over 100 produced screenplays and received an Oscar nomination for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, was a credited writer on The Big Sleep (starring Bogart and Bacall), and was also co-screenwriter on a Tarantino favorite, Rio Bravo.)

But first, let’s back up before the book existed. Before movies, television, and programs streaming on the internet, people were entertained by vaudeville acts, carnivals, circuses, and local fairs. In the 1800s, P.T. Barnum became quite wealthy for a period showing unusual acts, sideshows, and curiosities. (He didn’t start the circus acts until later in his life.) Some of his tactics were uncouth and unethical. But spend a short time on the internet, and you’ll see that even in our sophisticated times little has changed. Human nature is human nature. (For a long time, the attractions featured people with abnormalities: Siamese twins and the elephant man.)

In the early to mid-20th century, there were also things called spook shows. These featured seers or spiritualists who advertised they could reach the spirit world. This manifested itself in the appearance of people and objects levitating, performing hypnotisms, and with seances trying to communicate with the dead. They were popular for decades. (And they appear to be popular again. An article two days ago in USA Today is about a 26-year-old guy who claims to get messages from the dead through his five senses. He also has a Netflix series and is said to have ”amassed a waiting list of more than 300,000 people seeking readings.”)

But those along with traveling ”sideshows” and “freak shows” have mainly faded from American and European culture. But Gresham was fascinated by stories he’d heard of the transient carnival life and even wrote a non-fiction book on the subject titled Monster Midway: An uninhibited look at the glittering world of the carny life (1953).

Grisham’s book used that backdrop to create a stew of syncretism, mixing spiritualism, the occult, Christianity, Tibetan mysticism with good old-fashioned fast-talking showmanship.

Nightmare Alley centers on telling the story of Stanton (Stan) Carlisle. An ambitious 21-year-old young man who’s hit a rough patch around The Great Depression of the 1930s. He talks his way into an entry-level position in a lower rung carnival. In the first chapter he sees a freaky man/beast bite the head off a live chicken. It sets the tone of the story. When he asks the man who hired him how he got somebody to do that job, he’s told, ”In the carney, you ask no questions, you get no lies.”

In the next few chapters, Stan meets the cast of characters in working the carnival: Bruno the muscle man, the electric chair woman, the world’s smallest man, and Zeena the mindreader. Zeena is an older woman who is loyal to her alcoholic husband because he taught her the mindreading business. Stan wants to learn from her so he can move up ladder, but she guards her secrets. But after her husband dies after accidentally drinking from the wrong bottle—poisonous wood alcohol. Stan and Zenna team up to keep her act going. She needs him. (Think Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler.) Stan learns “the code” to being a mindreader. Which boils down to a combination of common sense (“I think you’re having trouble in a relationship with someone close to you,” “You have financial concerns”), and reading signs such as the condition of people’s shoes and hands, and snagging some inside information via trickery.

After Stan learns all he can from Zeena, he runs off with the cute young woman Molly from the carnival. He’s ready to be a mindreader rock star in a more profitable area and needs Molly as his assistant. I won’t go into the full details here, but the book basically has Stan succeed but then bite off a little more than he can chew. You could say it’s a zero to hero, then hero to less than zero story. The book also goes deeper into Stan’s backstory (some mommy and daddy issues) and a more convoluted ending than can fit into a two-hour movie. (But it will be interesting what elements del Toro keeps, ignores, or changes from the book and original film.)

Here’s the entire 1947 movie on YouTube:

The 1947 movie and the book start on the same track, but it seems like the movie only has time to cover about 65% of the novel. That’s not uncommon, plus the book deals with themes and issues that movies made during the Hays Code era (1934-1968) generally avoided. Both the 1947 movie, and the novel stand on their own. I’m reasonably sure that del Toro’s version will not be concerned about the Hays Code when Hollywood censoring itself.

But the bones of Nightmare Alley make a good story. Thematic cousins are Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, that premiered on Broadway in 1949, A Place in the Sun (1951), and Elmer Gantry (1960). And it’s not hard to draw parallels to more recent TV shows: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. Nor is it hard to draw parallels to stories of the distant past from Shakespeare to Greek mythology—like Icarus flying too close to the sun with wax wings. And it fits the film noir genre popular is the 1930s through the 1950s well. Nothing new under the sun, folks. It’s way too late for a spoiler alert—but rarely do these men missing the exit stories have happy endings.

Del Toro has said this is a movie that he wanted to make early in his career, but he didn’t have the clout to pull off. So fresh off a best picture Oscar for The Shape of Water (2017)— a modern carnival-like tale that in del Toro’s own words was about, “a woman getting funky with a fish”— he had the clout to finally make Nightmare Alley. Or at least his vision of Nightmare Alley. Anytime you condence an almost 300 page book into a feature film there are aspects that will be lost. About all I know about del Toro’s version is that it is visually stunning and he was more interested in making it a character study rather than a morality tale.

But just as an exercise, here is how I’d breakdown the story after listening to the audio book and watching the 1947 movie:

Act 1

Introduce Stanton as an ambitious, prickly yet likable 21-year-old man. (Closer to Tom Cruise in Rain Man than the mid-40s Bradley Cooper that del Toro cast). Someone looking for adventure beyond what his small town can offer. He talks his way into an entry-level job in a traveling carnival. The opening sequence is crucial. When he asks the guy who hired him how he got a person to be the geek (the man/beast who bites the head off a live chicken), he’s told you don’t want to find out. But, at the end of the film, Stan will find out.

At first, the world of the carnival is fun and exciting. New people, new towns. The thrill of seeing an audience entertained. Stan has found his tribe. And he hustles to learn every aspect of the carnival business: setting the stage, setting up lights, working with low budget special effects, and using music and sound effect to move an audience—all on no budget. But he soon tires of the grind and the low pay. The bad hotels, bad food, and bad people. But he sees Zeena and her mind-reading skills as the older woman who has the secrets he can learn to move up in the ranks. And learn a thing or two about sex. Zeena is loyal to her alcoholic husband, but only to a point. When her husband is no longer reliable to be her assistant, Stan fills in that role. Then fills in as her lover. Stan is accidentally (but we’re not sure) involved in what leads to the husband’s death—the drinking of poisonous wood alcohol. Once Stan learns how tp play the mindreading game, he has ambitions to keep climbing. He starts a relationship with Molly, a beautiful young woman working in the carnival. When that relationship is exposed, it hurts a lot of people. Stan is even physically beaten by the strongman in the carnival who saw himself as Molly’s protector. Stan and Molly decide to flee the carnival life together. As Stan assesses the situation, he realizes that this could all work out for good.

Act 2

Stan and Molly are now a dynamic duo in a more refined Chicago setting. This is no carnival; they are a big headline act. More like something you’d find in Las Vegas today. Stan wears a tux as the mentalist known as ”The Great Stanton” for his accurate psychic readings. Molly wears a beautiful gown as his assistant. The audience is full of wealthy Chicago movers and shakers. Stan is quite the dashing entertainer, and the audience is buying whatever he’s selling. His carnival training is paying off. Stan and Molly are living the big life. Nice 5-start hotel suites and fine dining. But Stan also has the attention of an investigator who lets him know if he breaks any laws, he’s going to get arrested.

Dr. Lilith Ritter, a sophisticated psychiatrist, contacts him after seeing his show. She is not a believer in act, but is intrigued that some of her clients are enamored with him. Stan has trouble sleeping and night and agrees to meet with her regularly. He tells her things that he’s never told anyone, including his involvement in the death of Zeena’s husband in handing him the wrong bottle of alcohol. They develop a bond leading us to wonder who is conning who.

Midpoint conflict: Molly yearns for something more than just the hustle, the con. For all their success and high living, they don’t appear to be getting ahead financially. They’re not building a life together. Molly’s mental fatigue has caused her to slip a few times in the code signaling endangering their whole act. She also is a little jealous of the Dr. Ritter, and the time Stan is spending with her. Molly wants to get married, own a house, and have kids. She questions Stan’s commitment to her. When she’s serious enough to threaten quitting, Stan proposes to her and says they’ll get married soon and have a big, long honeymoon in Europe.

But Stan hears the ticking clock on his business plan and decide he needs a big payday soon. That is where Dr. Ritter can help him. She gives him inside information on wealthy clients of hers, giving him an opportunity to do private and profitable readings. This works so well with one client that the woman gives Stan what he’d typically make in a year for comforting her on her dead daughter. She wants him to build his own place and be able to help other people. Stan feels invincible now and seduces Dr. Ritter. Or does she seduce him? Dr. Ritter agrees to keep his money in her safe—for a cut of his business. And gives him a lead on the richest guy in town.

Now all Stan has to do is tap into this guy for the big payoff that will allow him to retire from the racket. Dr. Ritter has the dark secret that has bothered the wealthy guy his entire adult life. Stan meets with the guy who is skeptical of him, but he’s not getting any younger and has questions he’d like answered before he dies. He wants evidence that Stan has special powers. Armed with a few secrets from Dr. Ritter, Stan gives him enough proof to satisfy him. The rich guy gives him a generous deposit to go deeper, but warns Stan that if there’s fraud involved, he’ll make sure Stan goes to prison. Molly disagrees with this new direction. Even Stan gets cold feet because it’s a sink or swim moment. Dr. Ritter tells him to man up. Finish the job.

ACT 3

Stan convinces the wealthy guy that he has communicated with his dead girlfriend from his college days. What the wealthy guy wants more than anything is to talk to her himself. To tell her he’s sorry for the whole situation. (She died after having an illegal abortion.) The guilt of his involvement still eats at him all these years later. All the financial success he’s had in life has not eased his pain. Stan tells him his vision of building a spiritual city, and the man is such a believer in Stan’s gifts that he gives him $150,000. Stan could flee town now and be comfortable for a long time. But he wants one more payday.

He convinces Molly to dress up and play the dead college student by promising her this is the last thing he’ll ask her to do. Stan uses every trick he learned at the carnival (plus a sedative to the rich guy supplied by Dr. Ritter) to trick the wealthy guy into actually seeing his college flame. He tells him that he cannot touch her until his spiritual city is built. But the rich guy gets carried away and gropes after Molly causing the illusion to be broken asMolly yells and pushes him away. Stan knocks out the already groggy rich guy and they flee.

Stan tells Molly to get the first train out of town. He tells her to meet up with the original carnival where they met and he will eventually meet her there. He then goes to Dr. Ritter and tells here what happens and asks for his money. She gives it to him. When he says that he’ll contact her when the coast is clear, she coldly responds that he has confused her professional work with a personal relationship. He’s confused, she’s not. He rips open the package of money to discovers not stacks of hundred dollar bills, but stacks of one dollar bills. He demands the rest of his money. She calmly tells him that since she has been seeing him he has struggled with delusions of grandeur. She has played the player—the old gypsy switch. When he tells her he could turn her in for her role. She says, “And who would believe you? Besides, I have a recording of you confessing to a murder.” He says, you planned this all along. She says, “My, you do have the gift of reading minds. But I do think you need to spend some time in a psychiatric hospital.” When he hears a distant siren he realizes it’s time to flee.

The next scene is some time in the future— we don’t know the timeframe—but Stan is almost unrecognizable. Unshaven, dirty and disheveled clothes, and riding on a boxcar of a freight train hobo style. He’s drunk or hungover and trying to hustle a fellow for a drink. The young man just laughs at him, and tells him he doesn’t drink. Plus he tells Stan that he only has 4 bits to his name. That’s ten shots of nickel whisky, so Stan tells him, “Something tells me you have a scar on your knee.” The young man says, “Sure I have scars on both knees. I have scars all over. I’m a working man, not a con man.” He’s not playing Stan’s game. When Stan gets angry, the man says, ”Now you’re talking. Speak what’s on your mind.” Stan rants on and it’s his first honest moment of the movie. He talks about the nightmare alley he’s heading down. His thoughts are interrupted when the train suddenly slows down for a frisk. Stan is too weak to flee. He tells the men with clubs and lanterns that he’s a traveling preacher and they decide it’s not even worth arresting him.

(Jodie Foster says she is drawn to stories about people in spiritual crisis, and Stan definitely hits that mark.)

In the final sequence Stan finally arrives in some small town at the carnival where he first got a job. No one recognizes him as he walks around because of his rough shape. He comes up on Molly doing a mindreading act, except she is now the headliner. He finds the boss who first hired him and says that he has the gift of doing cold readings and needs a job. The boss doesn’t even recognize him. Tells him he’s not hiring. In fact, he’s too busy to even look at the disheveled man. But Stan, says those magical words, “Please, I’ll do anything.” The boss looks and him eye to eye, and then recognizes him, “The Great Stanton.” He reaches for a bottle of whisky and asks Stan if he’d like a snort. Stan says that he gave up drinking, but he could use a snort. The boss said he let a good one get away—Molly got married six months ago. He holds up the bottle again and Stan knows that he’d like another shot. “The opening I have is not a great job, but it’ll keep you in coffee and cakes, and a shot now and then. Of course, it’s only temporary— just until we get a real geek.”

On Stan’s face is the recognition of how one becomes the man/beast geek who bites the heads off live chickens.

The End

The book ends does end with Stan being offered the part of the geek, cementing a nihilistic ending. The 1947 movie has that scene. But adds an additional scene where Stan has some sort of breakdown and gets chased by carnival workers. Molly sees Stan and calls out to him and he surrenders. She says she’ll take care of him. That ending reminds me of what writer/director Frank Darabont once said—that every film should have an uptick at the end, otherwise what’s the point. It’s a hint that he’ll get better. (Even the movie Seven has a slight uptick.) But after the things Stan’d done to Molly, I’m not rooting for them to get together. I have no problem with a somber—or at best ambiguous ending (will he take the geek job or not?). It makes it more of a cautionary tale. More Greek tragedy.

My next post will be after I see the del Toro version and read that script.

P.S. William Lindsay Gresham, the author of the Nightmare Alley novel, actually returned to the New York City hotel room where wrote much of that book a decade prior, and killed himself. He went down his own nightmare alley. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer who later became a Christian, then embraced Scientology, before ending up an atheist later in life. Upon his death, it was reported that a note or business card was found in his pocket that read “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” His first wife was was Joy Gresham who later married writer C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). The movie Shadowlands starring Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins is the story of Lewis and Gresham. And that is the rest of the story.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.” 
—Alfred Hitchcock

Nothing quite ushers in the holidays like the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m a big fan of The Criterion Channel and this month they are running 21 Hitchcock movies. While this includes some classics (Vertigo, Rope, Lifeboat) it also includes some of his lesser known silent film work (The Lodger, Downhill).

It’s easy to look at a masterpiece like North by Northwest (1959) and miss that Hitchcock was 60 when that film was released. Like everyone else had to learn to be a filmmaker. If you look back on his early 20s you begin to see how he evolved as a filmmaker. He loved watching movies as a kid, but being a filmmaker wasn’t on his radar. He studied engineering and through his skills as a draftsman, started doing some side work title design work and art directing on two reeler silent movies.

It was while working with the Famous Players—Lasky in London where he says he learned screenwriting from ”some middle-aged ladies.” Mix that with his appreciation of the silent films by Chaplin, Keaton, and D.W. Griffith and he was prepared to start directing himself. Perhaps the real take away for the young filmmaker/content creator today watching Hitchcock’s British-era films is to see how he engineered his shot selection. Working with film and lower budgets in his early days forced him to think though where he was going to place the camera for maximum impact.

Oscar-winning writer/ director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) was greatly influenced by Hitchcock and only started his featuring film directing career after a three year study of the films by the master of suspense. Here’s what he had to say about The Man Who Knew Too Much (which is also available on The Criterion Channel this month).

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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