Editors notice: Deadline’s Read the Screenplay sequence debuts and celebrates the scripts of movies that might be elements on this 12 months’s film awards race.
“I wanted to render a classic story in a very alive and contemporary way – I wanted people to feel they are watching a story pertinent to our world,” says Nightmare Alley director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, whose penchant for stylishly crafted horror tales took a flip for the decidedly noir along with his newest movie.
Del Toro and his writing associate Kim Morgan, an achieved movie journalist and essayist, turned to creator William Lindsay Gresham’s fatalistic 1946 novel – now broadly considered a basic of the hard-boiled, doom-suffused noir style and the premise for the equally admired 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power. Gresham’s story follows the ascent of rough-hewn carnival roustabout Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) right into a profitable, polished café society mentalist, and his descent into downward spiral when he can’t resist turning his viewers’s perception in his non-existent non secular skills right into a high-stakes confidence recreation.
The opening backdrop of the postwar carnival and the notorious geek reveals that served because the period’s most illicit attraction – and which Gresham had diligently studied since childhood – supplied a pure segue from del Toro’s horror roots to a narrative involved with all-too-human weaknesses, a cautionary fable with an inevitable conclusion.
“The carnival is an incredibly close-knit, hermetic society,” he says. “It’s a place where people keep their secrets, and many are escaping a life of crime or a past they had to leave behind. And yet, they form a strong society. It’s almost like a microcosm of the world. Everybody’s there to swindle everybody. But at the same time, they know they need each other, and they protect one another.”
In broadening the story and characters, del Toro was intrigued by flipping the normal noir trope of the femme fatale and as an alternative centered on a person who threatens to deliver all the ladies round him to darkish ends. “Thematically, I’m very interested in exploring the genre from a different point of view, he says. “Instead of a femme fatale, I have three very strong female figures and an homme fatale.”
“Stanton is a broken man who has learned to lie to get the reactions he wants from people,” says Del Toro. “He is always trying not to show his real self. He is a mercurial character, who transforms according to circumstances.” As he shifts guises to serve his more and more outsized ambitions, Stanton poses completely different harmful challenges for Zeena (Toni Collette), the adulterous carnival fortune teller whose borrowed methods gas his rise; Lilith (Cate Blanchett), the excessive society psychoanalyst he contends with – and ultimately colludes with – whereas duping rich marks; and Molly (Rooney Mara), his carny sweetheart and assistant who sense the approaching sense of doom that surrounds them each.
“We went after every detail – I wanted Molly to be symbolized by a deer, so she wears a little deer pendant throughout,” says del Toro. “We then have a deer in the room of the hotel, on the headboard of the bed. We referenced everything back to her.”
“We were interested in highlighting this idea that people – then and now – have used spirituality to prey on innocent people,” says del Toro. “When an audience is invested in the story of a person’s rise, their greatest fear is the fall and that fall can be very emotionally strong.”
Click beneath to learn the script for the movie from Searchlight Pictures, which launched it in theaters December 17.