Hollywood 2021: Del Toro (Nightmare Alley) and Campion (The Power of the Dog)

Jane Campion and Guillermo del Toro are two of world cinema’s most talented filmmakers.  Their new films, The Power of the Dog and Nightmare Alley, respectively, are highlights of this (and any other?) movie year.

Jane Campion took a decade-long break from film work so she could focus on the TV series “Top of the Lake.”  Her list of credits includes the 1993 Oscar winning The Piano, “The Portrait of a Lady” and “In the Cut.” She’s now returned big time–to the big screen, where she really belons

The Power of the Dog the story of two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) and the woman (Kirsten Dunst) who comes between them, is nominally a Western, but it actually dissects relevant issues, such as corrosive masculinity and repression.

Guillermo del Toro, having swept the Oscars with 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” could find himself at the podium again with “Nightmare Alley,” a noirish tale of a carnival huckster (Bradley Cooper) whose relentless pursuit of wealth and women (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) ends in personal fall and tragedy.

Like “The Power of the Dog,” “Nightmare Alley” transcends its genre to expose the rotting core of the American dream.


Jane Campion: Today is the day that our film, The Power of the Dog, goes onto the streaming giant Netflix in 190 countries. It’s strange, because it’s an event that happens in everybody’s house without me being even aware of it. It’s very ungraspable, so I’m really grateful for being able to also go to the film festivals — and be amongst the audiences, to experience their experience. I make films as my gift to the world. You want to watch them unwrap it.

del Toro: It’s a lonely profession being a director. You are the one that turns on the light to open the bar, and you’re the one cleaning the vomit at the end of the day. So you like to see the customer somewhere!

Campion: As a user of the delivery services, I’m like a whore. I’m a greedy little thing. I’ll look at something on my iPad. But I don’t watch movies on my phone. That’s the limit. If it’s a special filmmaker, I’ll go to a movie theater.

del Toro: The theatrical experience, which is beautiful and moving, I hope it’ll never go away. It will wane and rise. At the same time, I must say, in my personal story, many of my projects I would’ve never been able to shoot. I’ve been able to have financed because of streaming services.

I have a crazy idea, I want to do ‘Pinocchio’ during the rise of Mussolini, in stop-motion. And I’m doing it because it was greenlit by Netflix, which will release the film in late 2022.

Indelible Moments

Campion: I’m 67 now, but when I look back on my life or at my life, I remember moments, peaks of waves, that have cemented themselves in my brain. And some of those are in cinemas. And when I remember these moments that were extremely powerful, I remember where I was sitting in the cinema. I remember even what I had on. And it’s all a part of how the memory works to encase that moment for me. I’m afraid that if we watch everything at home on our TVs, they don’t have any particularity, they just melt into each other.

del Toro: The big difference for me is that we control the TV, whereas cinema is in charge of us, we submit to it.

Campion: You have to submit. I also would like to second what you are saying. This film would not have been made if Netflix hadn’t stepped up and said, “We will take this risk.” I’m told a lot that I’m working in the Western genre, and it stops me short because it’s true but it’s also not true.  I really wanted to speak to you about your understanding of genre because it’s very sophisticated and complex and you use it powerfully, like you own it.

del Toro: People kept saying Nightmare Alley is noir. And I said, well, it’s noir only in these aspects. Noir to me is a philosophy of disappointment, dissolution and existentialism. That is entirely most of the time in the hands of the characters — they must make a choice. Noir is a very moral genre.

Campion: The detail in your film is so incredibly rich. It’s a feast, really. I feel like I don’t prepare to the level you do. I’m still terrified when I get onto the set.  I’ve fricking tried to prepare, I’ve tried to do everything, and I just still don’t feel I know what to do at all. I’m driving there with my assistant, and I’m saying, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve forgotten how to film.” And he said, “Jane, we’re going to do the same thing we always do. We’re going to put the camera up. We’re going to put some people in front of it, and we’re going to shoot it.” And I went “Oh, OK. You’re right.” And as soon as that camera gets up, I suddenly become activated.

The worlds you create are so delicious. I want to live in them basically.

del Toro: My house is exactly like an exploded view of my brain.

Campion: I read that you’ve got a room where you just want rain all the time.

del Toro: I’ll show you the next time you’re in Los Angeles.

I’ve always been fascinated by how your portraiture of men is so acute. Every time I see your movies, I’m very affected by it. I find it precise, but compassionate and brutal at the same time. Meaning, it’s unsparing. But in this one, the composition of Benedict’s character, Phil, I could not imagine before seeing the movie him doing that part. But you did.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Campion: The calculation I made was that Benedict is an amazing actor. He’s a very charismatic and intelligent, and he had the hunger. I just didn’t want to be disappointed with someone who was going to just walk in on the day and not have done the research. I needed someone hungry. We had to do some psychic work together, something that went further than normal. I asked around and found out about this woman called Kim Gillingham, who does dream work, and she’s trained by Sandra Seacat and Marion Woodman, the amazing Canadian Jungian therapist.

Jungian Dreams

del Toro: My three favorite words: Canadian Jungian therapist. I’m in. And ice cream.

Campion: I really felt that we had to build him from the psyche up, and I also needed to be open to the depths of the story. I was sort of sitting on the edge of this amazing novel by Thomas Savage and thinking, “Oh, my God, how am I going to get inside it?” And we did it through our dreams.

Campion: I had the dreams; and I wrote them down. I met with Kim, and she sort of got me to lie down, put on soothing music. And then she started with the script to facilitate almost a discussion between myself as Phil and Jane the director. One of the first questions she says is, “Jane, you are Phil now. So as Phil, what would you want to tell Jane about what she needs to know to tell your story?” Immediately I said, “Well, that bitch has got to get real. She’s got to take off that little white scientific coat of hers, and get dirty. Just get in the dirt because that’s the truth.” I was so harsh, so tough to Jane the director. Have you ever done anything like that?

del Toro:  I do it through my biographies. I write biographies of the characters that are most of the time useless after 7 days of shooting. But I go into the most detail when I can: astrological sign, what they eat, what they don’t eat, what they like, what they don’t like. Sometimes they’re useful for the actors. Sometimes the actor starts on it, and we move away. But most of the time, I like thinking that I’m writing a part of myself. Whatever we do is self-portraiture in a strange way.

Internalizing the Character

What I find fascinating about the work is you do that to internalize the character. There is no possibility that Benedict’s footsteps were accidental; the way he had like a metronome of masculinity when he walked onto the steps, the way he carried himself. It’s a funny character because he’s very direct and truthful because he’s suffocating something that he cannot reveal.

Campion: Phil would be a frightening guy to be around, because he could turn on you and he could speak truth to you. On the other hand, there’s poetic harshness to him that I love. It’s a very exciting element when people are not afraid to say what the fuck they want.

Windows Vs. Mirrors

del Toro: When we look at people truthfully, they’re windows. When we look at them lying, they’re mirrors. And what we hate about ourselves is what is reflected.

Father Issues

Campion: You are the man who’s the expert on emotional monsters. I have a lot of love for monsters. In “Nightmare Alley,” I noticed that the father issues were brought up frequently. Is that something you wanted to explore?

del Toro: My dad passed away after Shape of Water, but it is not about my father. My dad and I got along well, but it is the shadow of that: How do you explore it? Every time we do a movie, I’m thinking how much can I be truthful about myself?

Flip Side of the American Dream

Bradley Cooper’s character is a man who decides to lie and be a populist, and he never has enough in the movie. That was what intrigued me. When people ask me what it’s about, I say Nightmare Alley is about the American dream. Because the flip side of that is a nightmare for most people. One of the myths I fear the most is the idea of success, it’s such torture.