Twenty-four years ago, Guillermo del Toro and Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen teamed up for the Oscar-winning director’s first American feature, Mimic. Since then, the two have collaborated on three more films. Their latest, the noir crime drama Nightmare Alley, debuts in theaters Dec. 17.
Based on the 1946 novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley takes us to 1940s Buffalo, New York, where grifter Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself in psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter’s (Cate Blanchett) orbit, planning a big con. The film’s lavish, stylized look is partly the result of Dan and Guillermo’s similar philosophies on lighting, camera movement, and how a movie should look and feel. “You don’t get that so often,” Dan says.
“We like single-source lighting, not too much fill light, just deep black shadows and trying to paint with light as much as we can—and using the camera as a painting tool as well,” Dan says. That approach has carried on from Mimic all the way through to Nightmare Alley, nearly 25 years later.
According to Dan, Guillermo arrives at each project with concept drawings for most scenes, or sets, giving the cinematographer a series of guidelines to work with. “And then, of course, you talk about it, you’re filling it in. What about doing that instead of that? [Guillermo] is very open, but he’s very precise at the same time.”
For Nightmare Alley, the two referenced several landscape paintings as well as the original concept drawings to pinpoint ideas about lighting, shooting, and what cameras and lenses to use. And then there were test shoots to figure out what did, and didn’t, work. For example, they scrapped the original idea of shooting in the old-fashioned 4:3 square format in favor of American widescreen. “It’s a very slow, very intense process of getting into how the movie should look,” Dan says.
On this set, those conversations often revolved around contrast, a staple of film noir. As Guillermo notes, “We wanted to have the characters live in the shadows so, oftentimes, our star, Bradley Cooper, is completely immersed in a bucket of shadows and you don’t see his face.” They also decided to lower the ceilings on certain sets to create classically composed images where “the camera is always roaming like a curious child.”
And while conversations about light and shadow are integral to the final look and feel of Guillermo’s films, Dan emphasizes the collaborative nature across departments. “He just wants to bring everybody together,” Dan says. “We talk a lot about color palette together because how you’re going to light a scene is very important for the costumes. If you’re lighting the scene with blue light, it’s just going to look different than if you light it with warm light. All those discussions are important and we’re doing them very much together.”
Lighting became a particularly valuable tool on Nightmare Alley as a way to divide worlds. “The carnival, for example, should be a much softer light compared to when we’re coming into the Buffalo world, where Lilith looks more like a very powerful diva queen,” Dan says. “All the light on her is very specific. Of course, it’s a little tricky to do that because, if she or the camera is not hitting exactly the marks, it doesn’t work. It’s a very technical but powerful way to work.”
But, for the sake of character development, it’s crucial. The effect, Dan hopes, gives off a sense of who Lilith is through lighting and camera angles. “That’s the beauty of painting with the light and writing with the camera.” And by using a bit of old-fashioned Hollywood lighting, the audience, in so few words, begins to understand the unique power dynamic between Lilith and Stan.
By contrast, on The Shape of Water, Guillermo’s 2017 Best Picture-winning film, Dan took a more nuanced approach, one that follows the transformation of Sally Hawkins’ character from a meek factory worker to something of a princess. “As the story moves along and she’s falling in love with the fishman, she’s taking the situation in her own hands,” Dan says. What begins as a green-gray look on Sally’s skin becomes stronger as the love story processes. “I don’t think a lot of people see that, but I think the people feel it,” Dan says. “That’s the power of lighting.”
“I think lighting is the most powerful part of the toolbox because there’s no wrong or right. It’s a matter of taste.” –Dan Laustsen
Nightmare Alley has proven to be an opportunity for Dan to reach into that toolbox and experiment with a whole new genre, using color, shadow and the shape of light to tell a story. Over 40 years into a career that he once considered impossible—Dan entered film school without ever having looked into a film camera—he appreciates the freedom, and sense of collaboration, that comes with the job. “What I like about it is there are no rules,” Dan says. “You can do whatever you like, as long as it works for you or for the director or for the story. It’s not like blue is better than red. It’s just a matter of how you want to tell the story.”