How Bradley Cooper and Guillermo del Toro Bonded Over Dark Times and ‘Nightmare Alley’

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Bradley Cooper and his “Nightmare Alley” director Guillermo del Toro got together Sunday for one of a series of Tribeca Talks. In a virtual conversation originally scheduled to be held live, the actor and director mostly talked about the film noir thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulpy 1946 novel, digging into a creative endeavor that both men said changed how they will make movies forever.

For one thing, back on March 10, 2020, the director and his star conferred and agreed that they needed to shut down “Nightmare Alley” — immediately. “We were both concerned,” said del Toro. “Stopping was not mandatory back then, but we both felt if we don’t stop now and someone gets sick — we said, ‘we gotta stop.’ Nobody was expecting it. Everybody went to lunch and came back six months later.”

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In that time, del Toro edited the one-third of the movie, and realized the changes he needed to make when the time came to complete the film. “Where were we?” was the mantra as the team returned to literally shoot the other side of a scene. The movie, in which Cooper stars as a young carny entwined in the demimonde of 1940s American show business opposite Cate Blanchett as a cunning psychiatrist, finally wrapped in December of 2020. It will release a year later via Searchlight Pictures on December 3.

Del Toro returns to the screen after 2017’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” while Cooper is back in the actor’s chair after his directorial debut “A Star is Born,” leading a sprawling cast that includes Blanchett, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Paul Anderson, Holt McCallany, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, and Tim Blake Nelson.

“We have been making ‘Nightmare Alley’ for the last two and a half years,” said Cooper. “It was a unique experience, going through the pandemic, taking six months off and revisiting it. We not only become lifelong friends, but it was an artistic experience.” During the break, both men felt that what happened to the world during COVID changed their approach to the material.

When del Toro first met Cooper at his house, he “never imagined it would be as deep as it became,” he said. “We started talking script and then this started mirroring our thoughts about life and the way we viewed the world. We entered strange, darker times that led to ‘Nightmare Alley’ for me, and [changed the] way I view the world.”

Del Toro said he and his star “connected also as storytellers, bringing everything we have,” he said. “A director is an actor and an actor is a director. There is no separation of the craft…that took awhile for me to get used to. I normally create and guide these little Fabergé eggs of movies, obsessively detailed. All of a sudden we were on an adventure. I will never shoot a movie the same way.”

Both the director and actor pursue truth as they shoot. “Curiosity and integrity are the two things, they are very bonded,” said del Toro. “We’re like truffle hunters, smelling for that, looking for certain truth, not verisimilitude or realism but truth which is a higher form of telling a story. How we get to it is only through curiosity. When we have collaborators, the main reward is a point of view that you can literally bounce off, or get bounced off, and seek for the truth…I found it a blessing at age 56 in this movie to find the marvel of complicity and curiosity. ‘Is this all we can do with that scene, with that shot?’ You keep seeking.”

“Nightmare Alley” started shooting out of order, and from the start, rewriting was going on all the time. “We shot the second half before the first half,” said Cooper. “We didn’t want to do it that way. Things happened to us, with sets and other actors’ availability and water, the snow and all that. I was the cause. I had moved to New York and said, ‘I can’t do it right now. Let me get settled.'”

“It was a blessing,” said del Toro. “I believe wholeheartedly life gives you what you need, not what you want. You have a window to look at everything. It was incredible. We got to see these characters, when [Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle] was full of himself and arrogant and certain and seeking. We were able to go back six months in between all this and were able to analyze and see not only that character but what we needed to rewrite to be able to go back to a set. If your pores are open, the movie finds you. Each movie tells you what it needs.”

Cooper agreed: “This movie needed that rigor. Thank god we had that time. As simple a story is, it demanded all our concentration and focus, all that time. I don’t think we realized how much it demanded of us at the beginning. That was the discovery. There is arrogance. You think you can do it, then, ‘how is this possible?'”

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