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The story of Nightmare Alley was practically begging for Guillermo del Toro to turn it into a movie. The man behind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water has crafted an adaptation of William Gresham’s novel for his next release, and it has been a long time in the making.
Together with Kim Morgan, del Toro scripted Gresham’s tale of the huckster Stanton Carlisle. "Stan" goes from being a simple conman to becoming a fake preacher, and he decides that his new mark is the industrialist Ezra Grindle. Along the way, he has a partnership with the psychiatrist Lilith Ritter. Bradley Cooper will play Stanton in the new film, with Richard Jenkins as Grindle and Cate Blanchett as Ritter. Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, and Rooney Mara will also star, as will frequent del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman.
According to a new book by Ian Nathan, Guillermo del Toro: The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, Perlman literally brought Gresham’s 1946 noir to del Toro in the first place. He gave him his first copy of it.
Apparently, Perlman handed del Toro Gresham's novel in 1992, while they filmed Cronos. “I thought it was very sexually charged, and really poignant about America,” Nathan's book quotes del Toro as saying.
Gresham’s tale had already received a movie adaptation in 1947, but del Toro and Morgan set to work on the new adaptation in 2017. Nathan goes on to write about how the tricks that the fictitious Stanton uses to fool his congregants are very similar to the tools and tricks of filmmaking itself, which del Toro himself is obviously a master of.
Another link to del Toro’s past was found in Gresham’s use of tarot in the novel; each chapter is structured around the 22 Major Arcana. Nathan details how del Toro’s mother always read the tarot, always had a deck on her, and would always read them to anyone who asked. Per Nathan, del Toro went on to frequently use the tarot to hone his own “storytelling intuition.”
The director's love of the 1932 movie Freaks also primed him to be in a perfect position for Nightmare Alley, and not even COVID-19 could stop it for long. Nathan quotes del Toro as saying, “We were literally in the middle of a great scene… we went to lunch and talked to the studio and when we came back we said, ‘Everybody leave your tools and leave now.’”
According to Nathan, del Toro once said of the tarot, “An unexpected turn is always one card away.” The ongoing pandemic was (and still is) one hell of an unexpected turn, but production eventually resumed. Not only did del Toro resume work on Nightmare Alley, he resumed work on a stop-motion version of Pinocchio, which will utilize tools that he used to great effect in the prologue of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Ron Perlman, it should be noted, starred as Hellboy himself in that movie.
Nathan’s book covers the entire career of Guillermo del Toro, and something in every one of his previous films points the way to the new movie, Nightmare Alley, coming Dec. 17. The tricks and methods of Stanton Carlisle are used to deceive, but the book makes it clear time and again that the tricks and methods of del Toro are used to enlighten and inspire. Obviously, he wants to scare you too.
Guillermo del Toro: The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work is available now.