Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Back in April I was lucky enough to have my very own day on the set of Guillermo del Toro's gothic romance ghost story Crimson Peak, thanks to the good folks at Legendary and Universal. Besides the exclusivity of the information you get to pass along, the real benefit of getting to do a set visit solo is access. I spent almost the entire day sitting next to Guillermo, so I got an unimpeded look at his process as director, how he worked with the actors, how he communicated with his DP and script supervisor... in short, I actually got to see him do his job.
How movies come together fascinates me and always has. Many of my colleagues are bored by set visits and I totally understand, but I don't agree. Even the most dull downtime captivates me because even that vibe is something that plays into that particular scene being shot. Movies are a magic trick and getting to see behind the curtain doesn't ruin the trick for me at all. Quite the opposite, actually. It makes me appreciate the trick even more.
Guillermo and I go back about 16 years. He used to live in Austin and when he did he lived about 5 minutes from my house. Post-Mimic I'd go over to his place with Harry and hang out, watch movies and talk about random geek shit. Since he moved to LA I only really see him at events, so it was good catching up a little bit on this visit.
I bring this up because when I sat down to interview Guillermo during the lunch break on that particular day of shooting we quickly turn to regular movie geek bullshitting instead of an on-point conversation about Crimson Peak. I know I prefer reading interviews that are conversational, so I hope many of you guys do, too, or else this'll be super boring for you.
Still, we do get a bunch of Crimson Peak in there, including talk about the look of the world, how he's filming the ghosts in the story and how this film relates to his Spanish films. We also talk a lot about some of the more technical nature of his directing style, which is really interesting. Then we go way off the rails and talk about Blu-Rays, Steven Spielberg, Ken Russell and other random stuff.
The full set visit and more 1:1 interviews are still to come (I expect many a jealous fangirl email once I describe the circumstances of my Tom Hiddleston interview... I'll just say he has the nicest-smelling trailer I've ever been in), but I have permission to share this chat well in advance of the embargo lift on the whole enchilada.
So, without any further ado, let's start the chat!
Quint: From what I understand, your shooting schedule is a bit shorter than you're used to. What I've seen you do today still looks very cinematic, which is something that is often sacrificed for a quicker shoot. You know, handheld Paul Greengrass-y shots instead of more measured, deliberately framed shots, but that doesn't seem to be the case with Crimson Peak so far.
Guillermo del Toro: You can always do two cameras in certain light situations, but on a movie like this where you're lighting from one single source, like a window... there's a contrast in the light. You have cross lighting, a little halo light... you can not do two cameras. Rarely you can and when you can it's only longer lens or shorter lens.
On the big movies it's easy to bring a cinematic look. This is not a tiny movie, but it is pretty small for what we are trying to do. We are building giant sets, we have a lot of on-camera effects, visual effects and blah-blah-blah.
On the last few movies, when it is not a dialogue scene I'll sort of edit right there on the set, both in my head and on the storyboards. The result is that you have a cut the next day that is very close to a fine cut. Not final, but fine. You're never go through assembly, you're up to date and you can show it to the actors. The result is you do little pieces (quickly) and then you go onto masters and that gives you that cinematic look.
Quint: I also like a fluid camera as well. It seems more common now for people to either go super crazy with the handheld or simply lock off the camera. That middle ground is where the look of cinema that hooked me as a kid is. Dolly shots, deliberate pans and tilts, etc. Today with shooting schedules shrinking the feeling I have on most set visits is the director is trying to make the day more than craft a shot. The camera is crucial to film language. A slow dolly shot in an otherwise normal scene suddenly brings a tension to the moment.
Guillermo del Toro: I had to talk to Mia (Wasikowska) and explain to her why I needed four shots to have her turn one corner. They are small shots, but they are sort of sexy shots: a dolly pushing in, gibbing off, meeting her, she leaves, I pick her up on the reverse, blah blah blah. It feels woven. That started for me in 1997 with Mimic where I started practicing that out of pure survival! Then I liked it and did it on The Devil's Backbone. The editor used to say “Can you leave a second before you say cut because you're too tight!” But that's a good discipline to have because it allows you to move fast and not sacrifice the look of the movie.
Quint: When you say you shot that way on Mimic out of survival, was that because you wanted to shoot in a way that could only really cut together that way?
Guillermo del Toro: That was my thinking back then. Little did I know it could still be cut any other way! (laughs) My thinking was I would leave behind the A, the B, the C, but I'm going to omit the F, the G, the H, so they can only do it that way. But the reality is that Hollywood was a different machine then. I got a lot of positives, funnily enough, from doing Mimic. I was really happy with some scenes in the movie and I still am. The general look, too. My DP here is Dan Lausten, who I shot Mimic with, precisely because I think Mimic is good looking. The production design, the cinematography, the colors, the clothing... we did all that right. The story is where we went amiss with. A lot.
Quint: I like Mimic. I haven't seen the new cut. I bought the blu-ray, but haven't gotten to put it on yet.
Guillermo del Toro: (The cut) is slightly different, but different enough that I like it. I don't like the other cut. I like this one. And I did the color timing on the Blu-Ray myself and I'm very happy with how the movie looks.
Quint: What about the look of Crimson Peak? What's your approach on this film?
Guillermo del Toro: We're trying some nice stuff with the colors. Right now what you're seeing is America. America is almost muted. Then we go to the old world and the dynamic of colors is very different. There's a little more Hammer Film or Italian film dynamic.
I'm trying stuff in this one that I haven't tried before, certainly not in English. Whether it works or not, you don't find out until the end. You can never tell. You're cooking. When you're cooking you're tasting and you say, “Let's do this, let's do that.” There will always be someone that likes the flavor, but I really think Crimson stands the chance to do something with gothic romance that I have always wanted to do.
Quint: It's not something you have to worry about the audience being tired of! You're not going to be the fourth gothic romance horror movie to come out next year!
Guillermo del Toro: No. And even in the ghost story realm I'm going for something different. It has more connection with Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth than any other movie I've done. Hopefully they'll inform each other. What we're trying is very stylized. We're not trying to find a reality, we're trying to create one. Visually and tonally it's its own thing.
Quint: You mentioned that you have in-camera effects.
Guillermo del Toro: Yeah.
Quint: I know you don't want to spoil anything so far out, but can you talk a little about the effects stuff you're doing?
Guillermo del Toro: We want the ghosts to be on camera. That was one of the things I really wanted to do. There is the ghost that is a processed ghost, it is translucent and it can be really, really spooky. For example, one that haunted me as a kid was the Librarian in Ghostbusters. Then there is the non-translucent ghost, the solid ghost, like in Jack Clayton's The Innocents. They are physically there. That's really creepy for me.
(For Crimson Peak) I wanted them to be there, to be physical entities, so we went with makeup effects with a little bit of digital enhancement. I like them being there, giving the actors something to react to.
Quint: So no see-through ghosts at all.
Guillermo del Toro: None at all. I really felt it was a better way to go. It also ties to the story, to what the movie talks about, the origin of the ghost. They're very different from other ghosts. Hopefully people will agree.
Quint: I loved the effect of the Santi ghost in Devil's Backbone.
Guillermo del Toro: Santi had that translucency because back then it was new. Mind you, we are talking about the infancy of digital effects, especially in Europe. 1997 on Mimic we had 75 shots. Devil's Backbone has as much, but there was no way we could really track that skeleton perfectly. I actually think the digital effects, except for the blood, as time goes by is the one part of Devil's Backbone I wouldn't do that way if I made it today. It wouldn't look like that. We were using partical effects to give it layers and the reality is that back then the (digital) effects simply were not that advanced.
I love that movie, especially the Blu-Ray edition that we redesigned. (DP Guillermo) Navarro and I spent weeks on that. Normally you're rushed, but when you're dealing with Criterion you have the time. I think the movie looks better now than it did on the release prints because the windowing and the DI (digital intermediate) we couldn't do in the prints. We were able to correct things that were intrinsically wrong in the negative. We had a problem in the lab that turned one of the scenes very magenta... it's still a little magenta in the Blu-Ray, but we were able to correct it 85% whereas in the physical and digital prints we were not able to correct it that much.
Quint: It's amazing to me what kind of restoration can be done with this new technology. Have you seen the new Jaws restoration they did for the Blu-Ray?
Guillermo del Toro: No. I have it! I haven't seen it, though.
Quint: I went in skeptical because I got burned on the first Jaws DVD release. They remixed the audio and it just sounded weird and canned. The transfer was okay, but not great. I was hopeful, but skeptical when I saw the 4k DCP at Cannes and I was blown away. I saw small details I've never seen before and I've seen that movie in every format, from the best looking IB tech 35mm print to the crummy VHS. Even though I collect 35mm, that Blu-Ray took Jaws off the check list of titles to own that way because that transfer is like having the best possible 35mm print of the movie I can play any time I want.
Guillermo del Toro: I particularly like Blu-Ray and black and white. I really adore those releases, like the Hitchcocks and the Criterions. Eyes Without A Face!
Quint: I love that Criterion doesn't try to eliminate film grain. Their 12 Angry Men release is one of the noisiest transfers I've ever seen, but I'm so happy that they cleaned up the image while leaving the film noise. A properly restored and lovingly handled restoration on Blu-Ray is a wonderful thing. Look at the Alien and Aliens Blus. I've seen fresh, newly struck prints of both of those titles before and they didn't look as good as that transfer.
Guillermo del Toro: You have tools that great on the remastering of a Blu-Ray that you didn't have back when you were working with a chemical point system on the prints, which I loved and adored when I went through. But I think now you can polish this and polish that to the point of perfection. For me, it's a great advantage.
Quint: You can go wrong in trying to clean up an image... There's clarity and then there's that weird plastic soap opera feel, which I think a lot of people mistake for clarity.
Guillermo del Toro: I really think there's a softness to the look of the things I like. More definition doesn't necessarily mean better... for me. But then again I'm 49. (laughs)
Quint: I'm curious what you think when you see the Jaws Blu. I find my favorite transfers in this format aren't the sharpest, but the ones that look the most filmic, like I'm watching the best 35mm print of a particular title.
Guillermo del Toro: That I love. I've seen some amazing Blu-Rays. The movie I'm awaiting a release on Blu-Ray more than any other is Ken Russell's The Devils. My favorite Ken Russells are ones that are not on Blu-Ray! One that is not even on a regular DVD release is Savage Messiah. That, The Devils and Women in Love are the three best Ken Russells for me.
There are so few Ken Russell's The Devils fans in the world and we email each other! But I'm waiting for that. Derek Jarman's production design is amazing.
Quint: There's quite a big fan base for The Devils, actually. I wouldn't be surprised if someone like Criterion picked it up. Maybe even Scream Factory. They're doing great work right now, really treating genre with respect.
Guillermo del Toro: Look, genre speaks to one or two generations in a very powerful way. One is the generation that is adult enough to articulate about it when they see it. But if it hits you at the right age, there's a younger generation that is ten or eleven or eight when they are exposed to a genre movie that is not taken on its own worth when it is released, and then ten years later you're loving a Blu-Ray.
That's the great thing about home video and browsing and physically owning to me. When you are downloading I do believe you give less opportunity to things you haven't seen.
Quint: Streaming services, I think, let more people try out new and different things. But it's a different kind of movie-watching. When I give something a try on Netflix I generally will only give it 5 or 6 minutes to grab me before I go back and watch something else. That wasn't the case when I'd rent stuff in my youth. You go through all that trouble to go to the store, find something, bring it back home...
Guillermo del Toro: That comes with age! Each generation reads film a little different. I see movies now from the 1990s that have aged brutally and then I see something like The French Connection that hasn't aged. It has a style, sure, but it's as vibrant as when I saw it as a kid.
Quint: Not to keep bringing everything back to the Jaws Blu-Ray, but that was the crazy thing about that transfer. It looked so modern, like someone shot a period film set in the '70s about a shark attacking a small town. I don't know why Universal doesn't push this print to 2000 screens over the summer. Make it an event. The movie holds up, it doesn't look “old,” I think they'd be surprised at just how popular that would be.
Guillermo del Toro: I would go. The way Spielberg used the camera, and still does to this day... I remember one of the first times I noticed the director was Duel. I was watching Duel and I was like, “Wow!” I saw it at a drive-in theater. I remember when the truck goes over the edge and it has that dinosaur roar... I remember catching all that at that age. The way he staged it, I remember thinking “Wow, how does he do that?” His filmmaking is classic and timeless.
Quint: Especially in that era. Even 1941, which is sloppy and overproduced, but I still love it. Everything from Duel and Sugarland Express through to about Temple of Doom has a particular edge, a hunger to it. That's not to say he doesn't have that skillset now... The rise of the Tripod in War of the Worlds is as masterfully staged as anything he did in the '70s and '80s.
Guillermo del Toro: And the entirety of Catch Me If You Can, if you ask me.
Quint: I love it, too.
Guillermo del Toro: For me Catch Me If You Can is a master class in brisk cinema. You watch that movie, it's a lesson in effortless, perfect staging. It's one of those movies that I watch at least 4 or 5 times a year. Not always from the beginning, but it grabs me and I'm there. I scouted one of the locations in Catch Me If You Can here in Canada, in Quebec. I wanted to shoot part of Crimson Peak there as just a geek saying I'm using the same plaza that Spielberg used. Unfortunately for Crimson Peak it was too expensive to move the crew in, so I had to give it up.
Quint: Have you ever thought about working with Spielberg on something?
Guillermo del Toro: You know, I've met him and we talked. We talked about Mountains of Madness at some point with Dreamworks, but you know... those things either happen or they do not happen. I would love to watch him stage one scene. Any scene.
Quint: You've never visited him on one of his sets?
Guillermo del Toro: No. Jeffrey Katzenberg has offered to barter me going for a day or two, but unfortunately I'm always working! I have very little down time.
Quint: I'll never forget the surreal feeling of meeting him on the set of War of the Worlds. I've spoken with him a few times since and it's not like the shine has worn off or anything, but there's something about seeing the director of your favorite movie at work, in his element...
Guillermo del Toro: He also knows everything about everything.
Quint: He's so easy to talk to because he's such a geek. He's one of us...
Guillermo del Toro: But that's a little bit like saying that Brad Pitt has two legs and the same anatomy that we do! (laughs)
Quint: True, but it took a huge amount of pressure off of me. The experience wasn't as intimidating as it could have and should have been because he was more interested in engaging in a movie geek conversation than a filmmaker/press guy conversation. I mean, the dude's an icon. Him, George Lucas and maybe Hitchcock... those guys were as famous as their movies...
Guillermo del Toro: That's rare. But beyond that, the batting average is so high. It's great to meet somebody that lives in your times that has that. It's not that he has three or four good movies. You can count them in the dozens.
Quint: Hey, I'm just saying... I recommend going to watch Steven Spielberg work.
Guillermo del Toro: I will, while I can. It would be a privilege. I grew up admiring clean staging and another guy that stages in a different way, but with equal precision, is Polanski. The staging is almost the polar opposite (from Spielberg), but amazing staging. The Coens have amazing staging. In the past, the guy I would have loved to have known is Schlesinger. The way he stages in Marathon Man... even towards the end of his days he did a little known version of Sweeney Todd with Ben Kingsley that is really, really, really incredibly well-staged. And sordid as fuck! I highly recommend people look for it. It smells of urine and dogshit. It's merciless.
That's the chat. Hope you guys enjoyed it even though it was mostly just him and me talking about random movie geek shit.
I'll have more 1:1 interviews and my full exclusive day set report hitting sometime between now and release (all the way in October, 2015). Hell of a window, sure, but it's good stuff, I promise!