Skip to main content

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

If you have ever seen a Guillermo del Toro film, then you have seen the streets of Toronto.

The Mexican filmmaker has a long history with the city, having shot his English-language debut Mimic here in 1996, then returning in 2012 for Pacific Rim. Ever since, Del Toro has lived here part-time, formed close bonds with local collaborators, and used the city as the backdrop for everything from his FX vampire series The Strain to his Oscar-winning triumph The Shape of Water. (It was quite a trip when, during that film’s 2017 TIFF premiere at the Elgin Theatre, the audience watched scenes shot inside the very same cinema that they were seated in.)

Now, Del Toro is back with Nightmare Alley, a deeply dark slice of noir that focuses on 1930s carnival worker Stan (Bradley Cooper), who yearns for a high-society life through whatever means possible. The thriller, which also features regular Del Toro players Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman, is both peak Toronto and exactly the opposite. There are loads of landmarks – the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in the city’s east end is a character unto itself – but also locations pulled from what feels like a parallel Toronto universe, disguised with all manner of digital trickery.

Ahead of Nightmare Alley’s Dec. 17 release, and the day after TIFF hosted the film’s world premiere, Del Toro spoke with The Globe and Mail about location, location, location.

Writer-director and producer Guillermo Del Toro, left, and writer Kim Morgan attend the premiere of Nightmare Alley in New York on Dec. 1.Evan Agostini/The Associated Press

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

[Laughs] At this point, I’ve made Toronto very much a home, and I think that by this point my shorthand with the city and the crews and TIFF is very natural and second-nature for me.

Watching Nightmare Alley as a Torontonian, I’m trying to play spot-the-landmark. But everything is well-disguised.

Some of the stuff that we did changes everything. Some locations, we flipped the film. Left is right, right is left. In other circumstances, we replaced the skies, erased 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’s City Hall in one background.

Is there a risk in shooting here repeatedly, that you’re overusing locations?

Toronto is a city that has been shot and shot and shot. When we scout and go to 1 Adelaide, everybody has been there. Everybody! The Drake Hotel, we helped to flip that. The [R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant] was my first location in Toronto when I shot Mimic. It’s great to come back 30 years later and shoot it again.

With much more control this time than that infamously micromanaged production.

I remember the plant was the first shot in Mimic. I thought, “This is a great image! Surely this will have the studio back off!” It did the opposite. They were like, “Are you shooting an art movie or a horror film?” I hope both!

Nightmare Alley is another high-low bundle of genre. Audiences who aren’t familiar with William Lindsay Gresham’s novel or Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film might expect horror. But this bleeds through genre walls.

What we wanted to do was look at the literature of noir, which was being birthed as part of the awakening of American realism. It’s happening in this post-Hemingway, brutal, rhythmic, percussive prose that was getting the chance to shape the American dream. And the foundational pastoral myths of America were clashing brutally with the urban reality of modernity. They didn’t know there was a genre at the time! So we’re trying to honour that. To us, the birth of noir is the birth of the American tragedy. The birth of this inexorable pull toward the darkness and the tragic ending, which makes it very modern.

At last night’s premiere, Bradley Cooper said he viewed the ending as a happy one.

It is a release. The big difference is, without spoiling it, is that there’s this feeling that Stan can finally go, “phew.” The tragedy with Bradley’s character is that his lies accumulate, but they never shield him. The truth shields him. It makes him bulletproof. This is an essential part of noir. The very Hamlet thing of seeing the character go, “To be or not to be?” To make the decision. This is not the gods against man like Greek tragedy. This is man’s decisions against man. Which is what makes it a two-fisted American myth. The impulses that get the American dream fulfilled are the same impulses that get the American nightmare awakened.

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

What we did is we wrote a fresco, a mural that was full of characters. A mural of the period and the story. And that would’ve resulted in a cut that was three hours and 30 minutes. Little by little as we were shooting, we saw this was a character study of Stan. So we needed to aim more precisely. We narrowed the composition of the mural little by little. It was great because the first part of editing is six months, and we made certain choices. Take six here, take three there. When we came back to the material after finishing shooting, we went, nope, go back to take two. Toss out take six. We found the unadorned and brutal approach. The movie cannot be beautiful and grand. It has to be beautiful or grand to retain the grittiness of noir.

Fascinating, but I’m getting the wrap-up signal, so I’m going to have to leave it at that, from Toronto.

Say hi to Ed’s Real Scoop for me!

Nightmare Alley opens in theatres Dec. 17

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.