Nightmare Alley represented a new kind of challenge for Dan Laustsen. Though the cinematographer's working relationship with Guillermo del Toro goes back 25 years, each film together offers a learning lesson; Nightmare Alley's was one in precision.
"We wanted to do this noir color movie, but we wanted to light it like it was black and white," Laustsen says in an interview with A.frame. "So, single source lighting, very rough lights."
Nightmare Alley, starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins and more, centers on a charming and ambitious carnival worker with a mysterious past (Cooper), who takes big risks to get rich in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Certain scenes required soft lighting and others went "much more art noir," which required extreme precision, Laustsen explains. "The actors have to be exactly in the correct place. And that was, of course, a big challenge for everybody; for the actors, for the camera crew, for the lighting crew. And you cannot do that -- such precise things -- if the director doesn't want to do it. Because it's not easy to do that. And it takes a lot of time. You have to be very precise about everything."
Laustsen's precision paid off with his second Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design. Laustsen was previously nominated for Best Cinematography for another collaboration with del Toro, the 2017 romantic fantasy drama The Shape of Water, which went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
"He's a master in filmmaking," Laustsen raves of del Toro, who he says "always has a million ideas going on."
Del Toro first mentioned his plan for Nightmare Alley while he and Laustsen were in production on The Shape of Water. While the movie is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro warned the cinematographer not to watch the 1947 film adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding. "We're not going that way," del Toro told Laustsen.
A trust has developed between the director and the cinematographer, who, in addition to Nightmare Alley and The Shape of Water, have also worked together on the 1997 sci-fi horror film Mimic and the 2015 gothic romantic horror film Crimson Peak.
"We just had an idea of how we wanted to do it," he recalls of Nightmare Alley. "[Del Toro] is just that kind of director that really, for him, there's only one way. And that's the best way. Of course, it's amazing for everybody, because then everybody's going the same direction and there's no details that are too small. Everything is so precisely prepped, so it's really fantastic to work together."
As for his Oscar nomination, Laustsen says it's especially rewarding to be acknowledged for a project that he is so proud of. He was too nervous to watch the nominations ceremony himself, but heard the welcome news from his children -- then a flurry of congratulatory messages followed.
"There's a million ways to [tell the story]," Laustsen says of how cinematography has evolved over the years. "Nothing is right and wrong. It's not like you're running 100 meters and who is running fastest? It's about taste. And that's the thing when you're getting nominated; it's your fellow cinematographers that like your work... The nomination is fantastic."
Reporting by Elisa Osegueda