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Posts Tagged ‘Kim Morgan’

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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