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Cinematographer Dan Laustsen Explains the Murky Noir Aesthetic of ‘Nightmare Alley’

Also: why his partnership with Guillermo del Toro is a match made in film noir hell.
Dan Laustsen Nightmare Alley
Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on December 16th, 2021

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Dan Laustsen about shooting Nightmare Alley, the film noir he and Guillermo del Toro were destined to make.

Film noir ain’t an episode of The Office. White light doesn’t paste everything. There’s no requirement to comprehend every shape, every expression. Film noir is a mood, a murky, swampy filter applied to life. In its shadows is an impression of reality, and it looks horrendous. You shouldn’t know for sure what you’re seeing; you should only think you know.

Guillermo del Toro and Dan Laustsen met in the late 1990s, brought together by Dimension Films to collaborate on the former’s English-language debut, Mimic. The experience was equal parts glorious and dreadful. The filmmakers delighted in the muck, crafting a monster movie where audiences squinted and squirmed in their seats, trying to gaze around corners so they could actually lay their peepers on the creatures. The studio hated it. Mimic was too damn dark.

Fifteen years passed, and Laustsen never imagined he’d make another movie with del Toro. Then, while the cinematographer was in Prague shooting the Danish television series 1864, the director rang his office. He needed Laustsen’s dark lens for Crimson Peak, and once they were back at it, it was as if no time had passed at all. Laustsen has been del Toro’s go-to DP ever since, having collaborated their way into a Best Picture with The Shape of Water, and now crafting their first proper noir, Nightmare Alley.

Their new venture is a brutal descent, based on the 1946 novel of the same name (previously adapted in 1947). Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, a man who sets his house ablaze before wandering into the American wasteland. He encounters a band of carnival hucksters, picks up a few new tricks within their world, and decides to apply them to the city rubes who reside in Buffalo, New York. With the help of a psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett), he hopes to make a killing and gets more than he could ever imagine.

In Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro and Dan Laustsen get to finally plunge themselves into a wickedly nasty and inky black lighting aesthetic.

Guillermo del Toro and Dan Laustsen Embrace Darkness

When recollecting their first partnership on Mimic, Dan Laustsen becomes incredibly animated. For him, their creature feature was a blissful endeavor. The two clicked immediately, even if those hovering above them didn’t share the same point of view.

“We wanted to make this moody movie,” says Laustsen. “For both of us, it was difficult to get into the studio mode. He was a young kid, and I was young as well, but we just had the same feeling about how to shoot a movie. We have the same opinions about deep shadows, one single source lighting, and moving the camera. Don’t be afraid of the darkness.”

Facing resistance was challenging for Laustsen, but he mostly felt for his director. The two filmmakers were simpatico almost from day one. Laustsen felt they could overcome whatever hangups the men in suits manifested in pursuing what was best for the movie.

“It was pretty rough,” he continues. “The Weinsteins were really rough on Guillermo. Sometimes they thought it was too dark, but Guillermo and I loved it. For my money, he’s a master. He’s so precise, and that’s so much fun to be around. We’re telling the story exactly the way we should do it at the end of the day.”

Shooting the Two Nightmare Alleys

With Nightmare Alley, Dan Laustsen was ecstatic to try his hands at a real-deal film noir. And how the movie is split, between Bradley Cooper’s lost soul finding himself in the muddy morality of a depression-era carnival and his desperate but foolish climb through the New York elite, offered Laustsen an opportunity to concoct two movies in one.

“The story of Nightmare is amazing,” says Laustsen. “This unlikely story about a guy coming from nothing, going up to the top, and then coming back to nothing again. We talked a lot about how to split the carnival world from the Buffalo world. And we had the same discussion when we did Crimson Peak because we had the American side and the England side.”

However, Laustsen wanted to make an extreme dividing line in Nightmare Alley. There is a threshold at the halfway mark, and the audience should feel it when they cross over. They should shift in their seats as the film shifts around them. Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

“In Nightmare Alley,” he says, “we have this very clear feeling about the light. How it should be softer; you could even say it’s a little bit nicer, with fewer rough shadows in the carnival because it is a softer world. And then, when we went into the Buffalo world, we wanted to make a noir movie, a one-lighter movie. It should be rougher and more black-black, and the highlights should be brighter.”

Lighting Superstars, Not Actors

When filming in Buffalo, Dan Laustsen channeled his Hollywood golden age obsession. While he did not watch the original film or neurotically examine the classics, he did allow for them to bubble to the surface of his being. The best oldies are never too far away from recall. Those movies live in our blood.

“We want the stars to look like film stars,” says Laustsen. “Cooper should look like a superstar. We want him to present like a super powerful guy using these deep, deep shadows, and he’s coming into a big silhouette.”

Cate Blanchett’s psychiatrist acts as a gateway to her absurdly wealthy clientele. Her entrance in the film is part of that demarcation shockwave. Her frame and purpose have to be immediately recognizable to the audience.

“Cate Blanchett should look like a femme fatale,” he says. “She has to look so gorgeous, and of course, she looks gorgeous, so there was not a big deal to do that, but we didn’t want to go into soft lighting. We wanted to go direct, with old-fashioned ’40s lighting on her, especially on her.”

Nightmare Alley Left No Room for Improv

Replicating yesterday’s lighting style is not as easy as flicking a switch. In the ’40s, the camera was mostly stationary. But on The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro discovered a love affair with a swishing, swinging camera. This created some difficulty for Dan Laustsen then, and even more so on Nightmare Alley.

“That’s not easy,” says Laustsen. “Guillermo has this clear, clear idea about how he wants to design the lights and the shots. So, we are changing the lights all the time. Of course, that’s a challenge, as a cinematographer, because you have to come back to the same lighting set up again.”

A director’s precision, however, is a cinematographer’s greatest gift. There is no figuring it out on the day with del Toro. He’s got it all written down; every shot is planned and preciously considered. Once he and Laustsen were on the same page, the actual shooting process ratchets along quickly.

“That’s what I really love about Guillermo,” he says. “Nothing is, ‘Oh, by the way.’ Everything is designed down to the smallest piece of detail: the light and the camera movement and the costumes and the sets. We try to plan it as much as we can. And when it works, it’s fun.”

Laustsen is thrilled with his film noir del Toro collaboration. In many ways, it’s the movie they were trying to make with Mimic. A different genre, sure, but a similarly spooky, shadowing organism. Nightmare Alley is a movie you squint at, that you lean into. You’re dangling above oblivion, and you don’t want to fall into it, but you’re sure Bradley Cooper will tumble inside.

Nightmare Alley opens in theaters on December 17th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)