The latest film by Guillermo del Toro is Crimson Peak. It’s a very intimate story writ large, with all of the grandeur and impact of gothic romantic literature and classic Hollywood cinema, all filtered through del Toro’s own, inimitable sensibilities.
I spoke with del Toro about the film, its ties to its forebears, the games of musical chairs in the casting and, to some extent, writing of the film. We also chatted about his future work too, including Pacific Rim 2‘s recurring characters and a possible new cast member. Here’s how our chat went down. Crimson Peak features a lot of ‘elemental elements’. What was the thinking behind this?
You know, there’s a lot of signature moments in gothic romance that are linked to these kind of things. Some of the gothic romance elements are even more extreme. I always say that in gothic romance, geography is destiny. The moors are linked to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, they define who he is. In Great Expectations the moors, again, define who Pip is. Stories like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and many more end with a conflagration, with fire consuming the buildings. I think the elemental thing is fairy tale like, and I wanted to include that. I wanted to tell this Henry Jamesian story about the modern and the past, about America and England. It’s a movie I’ve been ruminating on for eight years, so there’s a lot of layers. During those eight years, as you collaborated with different writers, what were you looking for them to bring to it?
There’s only been three of us. Matthew [Robbins] and I originated it, we wrote it right after Pan’s Labyrinth and I was supposedly going to do it as my follow-up but we didn’t have the support, financially, to do it R-rated. I knew that I wanted to make it R-rated but also make it a throwback to Hollywood opulent technicolour, in a way. We didn’t find the proper support while we did four drafts, and then it lay dormant. It was in stasis until Legendary reactivated it. Then I called Lucinda Coxon to do one pass on the screenplay, one draft. After that it was basically just me, for two years, doing rewrites for the actors, for the sets, for production and so forth. Why Lucinda?
Originally I thought that Lucinda had a good sense of the perverse, you know? She seemed to be very connected to Victorian perversity through her miniseries The Crimson Petal And The White. I had a good time, but it was just one draft.
One of the things I always wonder about films with a strong ensemble core like this, is how it isn’t just a question of casting Tom on the one hand and Jessica on the other, or Tom over here and Mia over there. The chemistry is all-important.
It’s like furnishing a room. I always tell my wife “If you want to furnish a room, you start by buying a key piece of the furnishings, and then that’s your anchor. Then you decorate around that.” So the first, solid, unmovable piece of the cast was Jessica, and then I felt, okay, with Jessica there’s only one or two ways I can go with Thomas. Tom Hiddleston struck me as a really good balance to Jessica’s strengths. Then Mia struck me as a really good counterpart. She has a very different, much more quiet, deeply centred strength to Jessica. Jessica has a neurotic strength, but Mia would bring a stillness and depth to her part. You furnish around the first item, the anchor of the casting.
And that was the order? Jessica to Tom to Mia?
There was a sort of musical chairs. We started with Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Stone and Jessica. The first anchor was Benedict. Then Benedict and Emma fell away and Jessica stayed, so she became the anchor and I went around her. When this happens on a film, and I don’t mean just in this case, but when you have a film in your head and some of the elements that were seemingly fixed then fall away, does that original version of the film still linger in your imagination? Do you wonder ‘What if?’ Does it cause you frustration?
No. Honestly. I’ve been at this for 20 years and I’ve learned that this happens with everything on the film: a location, a member of the crew, a member of the cast. Constantly you need to deal with this sort of thing. In the middle of production the producer is going to come in and say “You know that key location we liked? We lost it.”
For example, in Pan’s Labyrinth we had elaborate war scenes in the middle of the movie but a month before we started shooting the forest guards came to us and said “We don’t want any squibs, we don’t want any explosions, we don’t want any salvo.” For a war movie. They said “If you have one explosion, we will evict you.” We had to deal with that. The casting thing is the most relatively inoffensive [of such problems] as I always rewrite, the final three, four rewrites of the script, with the cast. You’re going to sit down and do what I call ‘table work,’ sitting down and discussing the characters, having informal rehearsals, and then you rewrite. It’s never, in my opinion, that big a deal. Why Dan Lauststen as your cinematographer this time? And can you remember some of the key pointers you came up with to control the look?
My collaboration with Dan on Mimic was very, very pleasant. I remember that in the middle of all of the studio turmoil, we had a very happy set. I was very impressed by our partnership, by how convivial it was, and also creatively. Dan’s sense of light is very sophisticated and beautiful. He was my first choice on this, and so I went to him and showed him the colour palette of the movie, whatever designs we already had for the house and the wardrobe.
I always do a first pass on the set when I do windows with the production designer. I say “Give me a chimney here, a fireplace here, a big window over here,” thinking about how I’m going to light the sets. Guillermo Navaroo used to say “Whenever you’re planning the set, think of me, because I’m not going to be there.” I’ve been doing that for 20 years, thinking of the DP, which walls are going to move to admit my crane, and so on.
For this set, I think Dan brought a couple of examples from his work and said “I’d like to do this kind of light.” It was a single source light, which gives the movie a very beautiful period feeling. I told him that I wanted a movie that was very colour saturated, not the normal desaturated look. I wanted it to be Mario Bava-style super saturated colours. Dan said “We can give it a period feeling by lighting through the windows just like a big, big single source of keylight, then do little bounces and modelling lights to shape the scene.” That gives us a beautiful look that is very painterly.
Your already very popular tweet about Maisie Williams was interesting, but the thing that struck me the hardest was that you said “if” about Pacific Rim 2. I don’t want to hear “if,” I want to hear “when.”
I know, my friend. Me too, but it’s above my pay grade at this point. I turned the screenplay, I turned the budget, and now it’s their decision to make it. I hope we do. I think the screenplay is more interesting for me than even the first. It has a lot of strange complexities and now that we know the characters I can enjoy myself with Newt and Gottlieb and Herc and Raleigh. It would be quite the playground. If you ask me right now, I’m optimistic. I’m not pessimistic. I guess those two letters were a bigger qualifier than I would have liked. And you weren’t just being flattering to Maisie here? There’s a specific role in the screenplay that you think she would be ideal for?
Oh yes, of course. That was the purpose of the meeting. It was not a general meeting, it was because I think that there’s a part that would be perfect for her. I think this is a very strong actress, with an incredible centre that I admire. Any actor I admire and enjoy working with – Sergi López as the bad guy in Pan’s Labyrinth, or the little girl who played young Mako in Pacific Rim, it makes no difference – I like actors with a very strong centre. They have power, and Maisie has really great power. Would you allow her to keep her own accent?
Of course. I would like to preserve her exactly the way she is, if she likes the part and everything goes well. The same way that I worked with Idris Elba on the first one and he said “Which accent should I do?” and I said “North London is fine.” I like it. I like a North London accent on the leader of the free world. Is there something more definite, something that’s not an “if”? Are you definitely doing the Amazon version of A Killing On Carnival Row? Is there something else that’s definite?
You know, every project that you write about or read about, it goes through years of hard work. We write a screenplay, we design, then you submit those and the budget and it’s out of your hands. For example, if you asked me which movie I would have killed to have done, right now I would have killed to do Pacific Rim. I would have killed to do Beauty And The Beast at Warners, which went away. I would have killed to do The Witches at Warners that went away. God knows there are many, many of them. All I can do is diligently do the screenplay, diligently do the design work, deliver a budget and then await a decision. At the very least I think there are many more sequels to your book here with designs for these films we never got to see. The worst case scenario could be sharing your visions for the films that way.
I hope so. I’m having a lot of fun on Twitter, tweeting about books. If I do a second book I’d do a section where I recommend 150 books that I would recommend and why. It would take a lot more characters than 140. You’ve immediately delivered so much value on Twitter. I hope you can not get bored and keep doing it.
It is my intention. I do it very diligently every morning. I wake up early and I do it, and it is my intention to do it every day until they kick me out.
Guillermo del Toro, thank you very much.
Crimson Peak is released in the UK and US on October 16th.
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