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Guillermo del Toro says his future was set the first time he saw 'Frankenstein'

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, shown here in 2018, has been fascinated with monsters since he was a child.
Refugio Ruiz
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, shown here in 2018, has been fascinated with monsters since he was a child.

This story contains a graphic description of a hospital scene that may bother some readers.

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro remembers being absolutely transfixed the first time he saw the 1931 film Frankenstein.

As a child who didn't quite fit ina self described "hypochondriac ...[who] was constantly concerned with the notion of dying" — del Toro says seeing Boris Karloff's depiction of Mary Shelley's monster was like being "struck by a lightning bolt of fever."

"This monster crossing the threshold, this anomaly seemed to embody everything that I thought was 'wrong' with me, in a beautiful way," he says. "It was like a patron saint being discovered for me."

Del Toro remained fascinated with monsters — and with movies. He's known for his two Hellboy films, as well as for Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

His latest, Nightmare Alley, is a film noir starring Bradley Cooper as a murderer who joins a traveling carnival, first as part of the crew, and then as part of a clairvoyant act. The film, which del Toro directed and co-wrote with Kim Morgan, shows how insecurity and the desire to believe make people more susceptible to con games.

Though Nightmare Alley is set in the 1930s, del Toro says the themes it addresses about truth and exploitation are as relevant as ever.

"I believe that [there] are moments in which we allow ourselves to be exhibited or [to] exhibit other people with great cruelty for very, very shallow recompenses that become addictive," he says. "Not only that, the sort of flimsy barrier between truth and lies and how we can be fooled by somebody telling us a lie we want to hear — [this] is so urgent right now."

Interview highlights

On the different sideshow acts featured in Nightmare Alley, including the "geek" who bit the heads off chickens

We have mainly what we call the "10 in one," which was 10 attractions under one roof, which is where the geek act would mostly exist, because they tried to hide it. It was sort of illegal at the end of the '30s in most states, and it was only in the low rung carnivals that you would still find a geek for a few more years, and we focus on that. We have the exhibits of unborn [babies] and oddities. Off-camera we have a talking chicken, we have a contortionist, sword swallowers, ... the dog boy, exotic dancers from the far Orient and so on and so forth. The Major Mosquito and Bruno, the strongest man on Earth, Zeena, the fortune teller who can read your mind and tell you what is to come.

On his fascination with psychics and mentalists

Having lived in Mexico for so long, I have actually experienced [this fascination] firsthand ... My mother moved in circles that read the tarot and believed in magic, and I was exposed to that from an early age. But what we did as research, we went to a famous mentalist in England, Derren Brown, who is an incredible practitioner of the craft, more so than ever because he reveals his own tricks at the beginning of the show. And he says, "You will nevertheless experience these emotions, and you have to remember that this is all a trick. I use no allies in the audience and I'm going to do it straight. It's a con, but you're going to get hooked." And he proceeds to do the show, and he's amazing. ... I used to perform very modest magic and social circumstances, but [filmmaker] Alfonso Cuarón is such a tough audience that he destroyed my self-confidence.

On some of the principles he learned through his research with psychics

There are certain devices that come with the psychic craft. ... You find what [people] need the most or what they fear the most and hook them through that.

There are certain devices that come with the psychic craft. ... You find what [people] need the most or what they fear the most and hook them through that. And the other principle is .... "Everybody's desperate to tell you who they are to be seen," which is, sadly or not, a reality of our species. We are all desperate to be seen or to be heard, and we communicate constantly through our clothing, our physical language, our inflections. And a skillful psychic will be able to read all the signs. We break down in the movie quite accurately and minutely how these grifts take place. ...

There are generalizations that are called Black Rainbow, and that is when you throw the net [to] both sides. For example, you say, "You are quite naïve, but at the same time, you're very, very shrewd about who you trust." Or ... "You are very friendly, but ultimately you don't reveal yourself to everyone." And these are generalizations that fit all sizes, and that's what they are called Black Rainbow, because they encompass every color.

On the impact of seeing a pile of dead infants and fetuses at a Mexico hospital when he was young – which informed the image of preserved fetuses in Nightmare Alley

It was in the civilian hospital is what it's called in Mexico, and it is a complex that has a hospital, a morgue and a mental hospital. And I saw that and I instantly was hit by a wave of despair and hopelessness. And all of my life, up until then, I had thought about a very humanistic, anthropomorphized God, and I thought, "There's not such a thing. Whatever the plans of the universe are, are somewhat indifferent to those small things," and I cannot verbalize it beyond that. But it was an existential bullet wound that never closed. [It] was just a symbol of the essential, inexorable cruelty that exists in the universe. Whether we accept it or not, or classify it as one thing or another, it is part of existing and still, to this day, it haunts me.

Guillermo del Toro's <em>Nightmare Alley </em>features Bradley Cooper as a carnival worker.
Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studios
20th Century Studios
Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley features Bradley Cooper as a carnival worker.

On why his favorite childhood characters are Pinocchio and Frankenstein's monster

They are both characters that are born into a world and then sort of abandoned to their fate to figure it out. They're very Miltonian in a very different way. I think Pinocchio and Frankenstein both go through that painful learning curve. I find it moving in Pinocchio, the idea that he has no notion of not being "a real boy," and that he is a real boy by the act of existing and being in this world. I try to explore that in the movie I'm making now. I'm making the stop-motion version of Pinocchio, but it's set during the rise of Mussolini in fascist Italy in which most people act like a puppet except the puppet. I think that it will be a very different version from the classic ones. But I think it's one that suits me and my preoccupations and my recurring questions very, very much perfectly.

On feeling comforted by the fact that life is finite

I was a very old man when I was 7, and I think I'm 7 now that I'm 57. I can take life and death in the same notion and I'm at peace with both.

Look, I'm 57, so I've come to one or two truths. One of them is [that] choice is negation. When you choose something, you're negating every other possibility, so you have to be at peace with that. You're not skateboarding if you're reading, you're not reading if you're sleeping, you're not taking a shower if you're walking. So every choice, it comes with something that exists for you but negates every other possibility. You cannot be everything at all times. So I'm very much at peace with that. Whatever your limited time and knowledge of this world is in your lifespan, that's it. That was your share. And then you live it. What happens happens, and then you're gone. That's something comforting for me rather than anxiety generating for me. The fact that we're finite is very soothing, but that's because I'm Mexican, perhaps. We do understand that – that we're all in the same train and they punch our ticket when we come in and the destination and the real north of life is that you're here only for a short time. That's beautiful for me. ... I was a very old man when I was 7, and I think I'm 7 now that I'm 57. I can take life and death in the same notion and I'm at peace with both, and I celebrate our existence no matter how painful and imperfect it is.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Clare Lombardo adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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