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‘Nightmare Alley’ Cinematographer Says Black and White Re-Release Is ‘Another Movie’

Special re-release of Guillermo del Toro’s film noir opens in select Los Angeles theaters on Friday.

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Searchlight Pictures

For each of the films cinematographer Dan Laustsen has made with Guillermo del Toro, they’ve at some point wondered to themselves whether this is the one to do in black and white. Finally with “Nightmare Alley” they got their wish – sort of.

They considered it for Best Picture-winner “The Shape of Water,” for which Laustsen earned an Oscar nomination, and you can imagine how the Gothic horror of “Crimson Peak” might shimmer in black and white. “Nightmare Alley,” though, made a certain amount of sense given its 1940s noir setting and even that there’s a black and white “Nightmare Alley” from 1947 that already exists. But while the film did wind up being released in color, audiences and Laustsen and del Toro themselves are getting a chance to see what could’ve been.

Though “Nightmare Alley” was just released little over a month ago, the film is already being re-released in select theaters in Los Angeles in a special black and white cut called “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light.” Curious cinephiles can now see Bradley Cooper’s face shrouded in shadow and Cate Blanchett lit up like a classic femme fatale all on 35mm film stock.

“Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light” was printed on 35mm film at CPC London. CPC is the film lab behind the New Beverly Cinema's latest 35mm prints, bringing features including "In the Mood for Love", "The Sparks Brothers", and "Summer of Soul" to the big screen from stunning newly-made film prints. 

“It’s another look. It’s another movie,” Laustsen told TheWrap, singling out one moment where Blanchett in her office channels Old Hollywood perfectly. “In that scene she just looks amazing. She’s so beautiful, and she’s so powerful, and you can take her out of the movies shot in the ’40s.”

While “Nightmare Alley” wasn’t natively shot in black and white, the film was lit in such a way with certain values and “cross lighting” that it resembled a classic black and white noir, and when del Toro began watching dailies in black and white, he couldn’t look away.

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A still from a black and white version of “Nightmare Alley”/Searchlight Pictures

“I was fascinated by that. And then when we edited it, I started watching the whole second half in black and white. And I thought, maybe we can do it,” del Toro told TheWrap. “I showed it to everybody and then I kept saying, ‘Oh, my God, I wish I could do both releases.’”

But Laustsen explains that the new version audiences will watch in theaters was not merely converted to black and white at the push of a button. They worked again with the raw files, adjusting the film’s color palette and taking care with each frame to give it a wholly new look, even though it’s the same film.

“We art-directed it in the perfect color palette to get gray midtones. The gray in the black and white, you graduate it by using greens and reds and some golds — they all give you different degrees of gray,” del Toro explained. “And I thought, well, this looks really good. And it’s lit correctly. It’ll look exactly like it needed to look, but not like an artifact. It’s not a pastiche.”

“It’s getting very close to looking like you shot on black and white, but it’s never going to be the same,” Laustsen added. “It’s going to be a bit more gritty because the color version, I won’t say ‘nice,’ but we spent a lot of time doing those colors to mesh into each other. I don’t think you can compare those two movies.”

Laustsen recalled trying to capture Blanchett and taking note of how precise the film’s lighting was in order to convey her character’s power and strength, and it resembled the methods that Old Hollywood auteurs and DPs have used to masterful effect.

“The light has to be specific, they have to hit the light, and if you’re five centimeters to the right or to the left, you’re off,” he said. “For everybody, the actors, for me, for Guillermo, it was a challenge to have this idea about being so specific with the light, because when it works, it’s amazing.”

The black and white version of “Nightmare Alley” follows a trend of buzzy awards movies that have all made use of the cinematic format, including “C’mon C’mon,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “Belfast” and “Passing.” And while Laustsen loves the look they managed in this new version, he’s still partial to the color original of “Nightmare Alley.” But there may be a true black and white movie in his future before long.

“I’m very pleased about the black and white, but one day, I’d love to do a Guillermo del Toro black and white movie from the beginning. And then we will decide everything as they did in the old days,” he said.

“Nightmare Alley” in black and white will screen at several theaters in Los Angeles for a special limited run beginning Friday (find a full listing below). Del Toro will also be present in person for a screening of one of the black and white versions of his film at the Landmark’s Nuart Theatre on January 22.

See some more images from the “Vision in Darkness and Light” cut here.

  • The New Beverly Cinema on January 15 and 16
  • AMC The Grove from January 14 through 20
  • The Landmark from January 14 through 20
  • The Los Feliz Theater, American Cinematheque, from January 21 through 23 – N Vermont Ave, East Los Angeles
  • Nuart Theater from January 21 through 27
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