TORONTO – On movie set visits, occasionally journalists won't get the chance to talk to directors at all.
Sometimes the directors are artistes, too far down the cinematic rabbit hole to engage in casual chit-chat with the fourth estate. Sometimes the directors merely glorified puppets, but the producers are happy to put themselves forward instead. And sometimes the directors are friendly, smart and well-adjusted, but making movies is such complicated work that they can't spare more than two minutes for a smile-and-wave, lest the production between to teeter like an ill-formed game of Mouse Trap.
Guillermo del Toro plays by his own rules.
It's mid-March on the Toronto set of Legendary/Universal”s “Crimson Peak” and del Toro is literally lifting the roof off of his production to let a small group of reporters see the inner-workings of his Victorian haunted house drama.
Actually, over the course of a lengthy day on set, del Toro will both literally and figuratively lift the roof, as the “Hellboy” and “Pacific Rim” director dedicates his full lunch hour to taking us through the multi-level, free-standing house that has been constructed on a stage at Toronto Pinewood, leading us from room to room, pointing out the absurdly specific details in a set he says he wanted to feel like “a living organism.”
And the Sharpe Mansion is a glorious set, a worthy companion to Manderlay and Dragonwyck and other enigmatic Gothic destinations, residences that are are much characters as their residents.
With del Toro, of course, it's no coincidence. The guy knows his references and when I ask how much “Rebecca” is in the DNA of “Crimson Peak,” he's excited.
“You know 'Rebecca,' 'Jane Eyre,' I mean they're all cousins. 'Rebecca' is 'Jane Eyre.' 'Jane Eyre' is 'Dragonwyck' is 'Jane Eyre.' You can mix and match gothic romance, and you're always going to find the innocent heroine going to a crumbling mansion where a dark, brooding, mysterious guy turns or not turns out to be the holder of a secret, blah, blah, blah,” de Toro says.
He continues, “When I tackle things like 'Pac Rim' or Mecha or when I tackle a vampire movie, I'm very, very aware of the tenets of the genre. And then it's up to me to both hit them and try to do them in a way that is not the normal way. But it is related to all that gothic romance du Maurier, Bronte, all those… That lineage that extends pretty, pretty deep, all the way to at the end of the 1700s. You know? So, it's a pretty deep lineage. Ann Radcliffe, 'The Castle of Otranto,' you can keep going really well into… 'Uncle Silas,' by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. That's my favorite gothic romance.”
I'll be saving del Toro's tour of Sharpe Manor for a later story timed closer to the October 2015 release of “Crimson Peak.” That is, after all, a figurative raising of the roof.
Before that tour, as I said, del Toro is literally raising the roof on an intricately carved reproduction of the mansion, a model that was constructed with Oscar-nominated production designer Thomas E. Sanders and designed to showcase all of the malleability of the set. It's full of removable pieces (include the roof) that let del Toro demonstrate the flexible positionings for camera placements and lighting tricks, designed to show how an already mammoth set can be manipulated to appear even larger. It's the best dollhouse in the world and del Toro is, as ever, a big kid playing with his toys.
“It's a huge set,” del Toro says. “But I wanted it to feel even bigger than it is. You know I want it feel more like a $50-something million movie. I want to make it feel even more gigantic.”
“Crimson Peak” was a project del Toro wrote a while back with Matthew Robbins and, over the years, the production went through many permutations, something that often happens with the busy “”Hellboy” auteur.
“”[T]his thing was written in '06. So, when we wrote it in '06… there was the intention of doing it as a smaller movie on a found building. You know?
And I really wanted for the house to be a character,” del Toro recalls “And I said 'I'll produce that one, but if I direct it, I need to build a house.' The idea of the house was what was in the script, but the evolution of the design was really six months into it. And it's very different from what the screenplay described. You need to negotiate. We have an operating elevator in the house that goes through the three stories for real. There's no green screen”
He continues, “The house is physically all complete. For me it always feels a little digital when you have an extension if you're not careful. And I wanted the movie to feel handmade, like, you could love the dresses, love the props, to make it handmade film — not the Monty Python — and that influenced the decision to have everything preplanned and carved. And everything in the house is made for the house. We didn't salvage anything from existing buildings.”
Before you start thinking that “Crimson Peak” is a film driven by sets and production logistics, del Toro has a description that I'm pretty sure will excite more than a few fans.
“It's the first adult movie I do in English. You know? Because even with the R-rating, I can hardly call 'Blade' an adult film,” he laughs. “It's the first time that I tried to marry the sort of 'Pan's Labyrinth,' 'Devil's Backbone' sensibilities with a larger cast, larger budget.”
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Following the Gothic framework, “Crimson Peak” focuses on American proto-feminist Edith (Mia Wasikowska's Edith), who falls for a British nobleman (Tom Hiddleston) with a shrouded past, an eerie sister (Jessica Chastain) and the ramshackle family manse that is, as we've established, like a living organism. There are plenty of high-toned accents and tight corsets, but del Toro wants to make something clear.
“I don't like what I call class porn,” he says. “Where everybody's all–you know all gooey over if only the aristocracy was still in charge, life would be so civilized. F*** that. It's not true. It was never true. And this is the opposite. This is if the aristocracy was still in charge, this–I mean it's a movie about a very American trait on Edith, on the character, and a very incredibly decadent trait of the aristocracy rotting away in a mansion on a hill. You know? I mean it's Miss Haversham in 'Great Expectations' or it's whatever you want. But it is the anti-class porn in a way.”
Oh and “Crimson Peak” also features ghosts. Or does it? There certainly are supernatural elements, but this is another place where del Toro is both aware of the genre context and quick to offer clarification.
Of the recent successful supernatural horror films — “The Conjuring,” et al — del Toro says, “I think that most of the movies — most of those movies are circulating in the same area, which is a very, very rich and worthy area, which is either found-footage or Middle America, middle class — Homes invaded blah blah. They also have a slant that it's impossible for me to take, which is a religious slant. I can't subscribe under any religion and go, 'Look, if you do this, the ghost will go away.' I mean it's not going away. I am a fat anarchist. So, I won't subscribe to, 'Look, if you're good, they'll go away.' Or those things, I don't believe in. And it's done with a very, very I would say profound reverence for the Gothic romance and the gothic all the way to its literary roots. It's a completely different piece. You know? It's not about–it's the same, vampires, ghosts, robots, whatever it is, you know there's frequencies in which you can move kinda from one end of the spectrum to the other. So, this one is its own little beast.”
On the day we're on-set, Wasikowska's Edith is in a state of panic, repeatedly running and throwing out the door of the Sharpe abode, exposing herself to the snowy elements in a thin nightie. The door of the house is like a gaping maw, regurgitating and devouring Edith over and over again. It's easy to see the influences del Toro describes to Mario Bava and to Hammer horror films.
The shot is done from many different angles and in many variations, but it's also done swiftly. “Crimson Peak” is set for a 68 day shoot, hardly a Sundance indie schedule, but a mere fleeting blink compared to the 100-day shoot for “Pacific Rim” or the 135 schedule for the first “Hellboy.”
It's one of the accommodations del Toro has made in order to make “Crimson Peak” his own way.
“You know once you say, 'This is an R' or 'I want it to be an R' or shoot it like an R… You know? If by some miracle of miracles we get something else, God bless. But to say, 'I want to shoot it with the freedom,' then the studio comes back and says, 'Then you have to make it for a budget.' And your deal is not your deal. They're going to have to take a cut… and you go 'Fine. No problem,'” he says.
Del Toro continues, “[L]ook, to get all the freedom and all the money is, A) Rare, and B) Not desirable. I think that it leads to a bad mess. You become 'Fritzcarraldo.' ''I'm going to get this boat over there!' You know? It's really crazy. I think part of making movies is dealing with restrictions of freedom or restrictions of budget. And I'd rather deal with restrictions of budget. You know what I'm saying? It's better to feel free within any budget.”
At the same time that “Crimson Peak” is shooting, Toronto is also home to production on FX's “The Strain,” based on del Toro and Chuck Hogan's trio of vampire novels. I visited “The Strain” and “Crimson Peak” in the same frenzied week and the “Strain” stars were still buzzing about the times that del Toro, who wrote and directed their pilot, would drop by production at two or three in morning, or telling stories of the weekends del Toro would show up to shoot second unit.
In his first TV series, del Toro has found an unlikely palate cleanser.
“It's actually exactly that,” del Toro laughs. “It's like I'm still supervising the effects shots on 'The Strain' every day to this day. Like it's Mr.X, so it's not that difficult. You know? But I asked Carlton [Cuse] to stay involved in the color correcting on the episodes and the effects. And I react to the dailies. I watch the dailies every day. But it's so much fun, first because it's somebody else's problem. I look at the dailies, and I go, 'Hmm. They should have covered from here. Yeah. Oh, they covered from here.' I react to the cut. I talk to Carlton. I have so far shot a couple of times Saturday unit where I go and shoot additional pieces for them. If the director's not available, I go in and shoot that or go with the second unit director and walk the set with him in the morning. I go as far as to put blood on–there's a scene where there's a bunch of bloody handprints. It's mine, my hand. I walk the scene and all that. And it's like literally you take a vacation for a few hours every day. You go like, 'Whew.' it's literally like an exhalation. It doesn't make it more complicated. It makes it more fun. Then you go back to what you're doing. You know? And you see it differently.”
Guillermo del Toro has a different sense of “vacation” than most people.
You may also wonder if he's sleeping. At all.
“Very little.” he admits. “Four hours? You know? The other day I slept eight. And I like it. I understand it now. I go, 'That's why people do that!' It was really good.”
Hope this whets your appetite a bit for “Crimson Peak.”
As we get closer to the October 16, 2015 release date, I'll have more from the set, including del Toro's guided tour of the Sharpe Manor, plus on-set interviews with Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam, plus Jessica Chastain, who played the piano for us in her trailer as her three-legged dog ran around excitedly.