Crimson Peak is “the darkest of fairytales,” says filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who brings to the screen a masterful and imaginative Gothic romance. The classic recipe includes a character on a journey to adulthood. “You can find it in Alice in Wonderland or in The Snow Queen, in works by Oscar Wilde or Hans Christian Andersen.” The story involves finding independence; the rite of passage takes the character on a “journey through darkness… through geographical space, across the oceans, into the underworld.”
“Crimson Peak is my attempt to harken back to a classic, old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production in the Gothic romance genre,” says the master of terror, Guillermo del Toro.
“For a while, in the Golden Era of cinema, movies like Dragonwyck, Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations were produced but then decayed into oblivion in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. In fact, it’s been about 30 years since someone has made a Gothic romance on this scale, and I am proud to welcome it back.”
“This is a genre that was important at the end of the 18th century as a romantic reaction to the Age of Reason. It marries things that are seemingly dissimilar: heightened melodrama layered with a lot of darkness and the Gothic atmosphere of a dark fairy tale that is both creepy and eerie. It combines these elements to produce a unique flavour.
“Crimson Peak is designed to be gorgeous and beautiful, not only as eye candy but as eye protein. The movie tells you the story of who the characters are through their surroundings and the sets, which are also a reflection of their inner psychology. As well, the thematic elements of Crimson Peak come alive through the gorgeous wardrobe. Truly, the painterly beauty of this film makes it one of my favourites I’ve ever created. ”
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Humans are the real horror
Following the success of several action-packed, English-language blockbusters including Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013), del Toro explains the premise of his latest effort in five simple words: “Humans are the real horror.”
More akin to the writer/director’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001), a spine-chilling, period love story veiled in horror, and the triple-Oscar-winning Spanish language masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Crimson Peak explores the haunting theme that love is indeed a tender trap. Just as the events of his latter production could be questioned by audiences as the product of a young girl’s limitless fantasy, Crimson Peak plays with our perceptions of what is truth and what is fiction. As Edith is a burgeoning writer with a vivid imagination, could the terrifying events all be springing forth from her mind?
Crimson Peak is in step with the explorations of del Toro’s acclaimed Spanish-language productions, ones that gained the Mexican filmmaker international recognition. To that end, producer Callum Greene—who last partnered with del Toro on Pacific Rim—aptly refers to his new work as del Toro’s “first English-language Spanish film.”
Reflecting upon this project’s influences, del Toro shares: “Crimson Peak is the ghost-story equivalent of Pan’s Labyrinth. It has the combination of several genres, and the fact that we are packing the punch of a traditional ghost story with the class and beauty of a classic.”
For his most powerful and provocative film to date, del Toro wrote the screenplay with longtime fellow scribe Matthew Robbins (Mimic, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) – Robbins crafted the screenplays for The Sugerland Express, Dragonslayer, and other screenplays written with del Toro include The Count of Monte Cristo for American Zoetrope, The Coffin and Wind in the Willows for Sony. Robbins wrote the screenplay for Pinocchio based on his collaboration of the story with del Toro, their stop-motion puppet interpretation of the Collodi classic for the Henson Company.
As they crafted their screenplay, del Toro and Robbins drew inspiration from such deeply cherished novels as Jane Austen’s Wuthering Heights, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck, all of which conceal horror in their spines.
Del Toro reflects: “In a Gothic romance you get a great love story, you get supernatural elements, you get really spooky scenes…all those things combined make a beautiful, gorgeous-looking movie.”
For del Toro, material exploring this genre can have ghosts and crumbling castles and “it can have the trappings of a horror film” but intricately seeded is a classical love story in which a central “virginal character who is discovering a secret, a treasure, a dark past…emerges somewhat transformed.” And in spite of the dark turns the love story takes, the budding romance between Thomas and Edith has a lyrical quality. Still, if love is a form of madness, all of the key players in their story fall victim to it.
One of del Toro’s favourite Gothic romance novels is a lesser-known read Uncle Silas by 19th-century author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, which encompasses all the wickedness, horror and emotion of the genre. “This movie is extremely close to ‘Uncle Silas’ in my heart,” he states.
In keeping with personalizing his tale, del Toro filled his story with many of his signature elements. Some, such as the moths and the butterflies, were inspired by his childhood fascinations and the fact that they come to represent Lucille and Edith. Others have become staples in his storytelling: the notion of choice, the nature of love, mechanical toys made of gears and wind-up mechanisms, the protagonist’s closeness to her father, and an underground lair or cave-like setting that is used to hide deep secrets or emotions.
What attracts del Toro to bring terror into his work is “using ghosts to eliminate human antidotes, to illuminate the story in a human way.” He took the classic Gothic romance and infused it further with his imaginative approach by building a unique haunted mansion that became the mortar of the mystery. Here, fear lives within the walls.
This mixture of psychological and physical horror greatly appealed to Legendary, with whom del Toro has had a relationship since early discussions on Pacific Rim. The studio felt his latest work would dovetail with its mission to create credible, mythic universes. Legendary’s Thomas Tull and Jon Jashni would join del Toro and Greene to produce Crimson Peak.
For Legendary CEO Jashni Tull, the opportunity to work with del Toro once again was one he eagerly approached. He offers: “Regardless of the genre, Guillermo brings a level of intelligence and sophistication to every one of his films. When he described to us what he hoped to accomplish with Crimson Peak, we could fully envision the journey he was taking us on. That said, the result of that vision far surpassed even our wildest dreams.”
Jashni has long been moved by how del Toro is able to communicate to global audiences through his themes. “Whether it is creating a Spanish-language classic with Pan’s Labyrinth or, say, speaking to Chinese audiences through Pacific Rim, Guillermo understands the language of film,” he says. “Moviegoers feel the passion he has for his characters and stories, and they respond to his work on a deeply personal level.”
For executive producer Jillian Share, it was the story’s juxtaposition of the end of the Victorian era with the dawn of a new century that offered such narrative possibilities. “Guillermo sets these events in such exquisite period settings, while simultaneously exploring a very contemporary theme of women finding their place and their voice in this world,” she notes. “And although their motives are quite different, Lucille is just as brilliant and determined as Edith; they’re both headstrong and forward thinkers.”
Director and writer Guillermo del Toro explains how he brought the Gothic back to the big screen and why ‘horror’ isn’t quite the right way to describe it.
Working with the actors
As Lady Sharpe is shrouded in mystery to the audience, del Toro provided Jessica Chastain with an in-depth character biography, which Chastain used in preparing herself. Having del Toro craft the character gave the performer and the director a shared history. She says: “When I made choices on set, he saw why I was making the choice because he knows Lucille’s history.”
They shared an understanding of the character’s actions and influences, and Lucille’s greatest motivation was love. Says Chastain: “Hate and anger come from love; every emotion has its equal parts magnified. Guillermo creates that balance so you never feel like you’re playing an empty emotion. You never feel like you’re just in a ghost story. You feel like you’re telling a story about real people.”
Mia Wasikowska recalls the director referencing Frankenstein in the early stages of filming: “Fear is how we learn about who we are.” Just as he did for Chastain as Lucille, del Toro crafted an eight-page biography for Wasikowska. She offers: “It was incredibly in-depth. There were things about her Edith’s upbringing, her relationship to her parents and different smells that she liked.”
Tom Hiddleston was seduced by the sophistication of the writing and admits that he loved the “moral ambiguity” of his character. In addition, Hiddleston was thrilled at the opportunity to work alongside his longtime friend Chastain. And considering that he had previously worked with Wasikowska on Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, the performer felt the project would be a great fit.
Hiddleston wanted his character to feel “hugely emotional and redemptive” for the audience to feel his emotional journey so that the film would unfold from a horror to a drama and a romance, undoubtedly del Toro’s own intent. As he did with Chastain and Wasikowska, del Toro provided Hiddleston with a character biography that gave the actor “authentic flavor” for the character he was playing. The director even shared some of Sharpe’s secrets, which he instructed the actor not to share with the other cast. In admiration, Hiddleston affectionately refers to del Toro as “a great Mexican bear,” noting his extraordinary passion having the capacity to “light a spark which goes around the entire crew. We’d follow him everywhere because he believes in it so deeply.”
As del Toro is known to tinker with his script until he achieves perfection, Greene recalls reading a version of the screenplay for the first time several years ago. The core of it remains the same, but the producer advises that “what changed was del Toro’s attention to the female characters.” In fact, on day 52 of principal photography, the filmmaker was still adding new pages to the script, minute corrections that evolved daily based on his interactions with the actors and their interactions with one another about the characters’ evolution. This custom tailoring of a project is the filmmaker’s modus operandi; he guides, he listens, he absorbs, “and by that trust, they give it back,” says Greene. “It’s a little-known fact, but Guillermo is a magician.”
Guillermo Del Toro
Guillermo Del Toro is among the most creative and visionary artists of his generation, whose distinctive style is showcased through his work as a filmmaker, screenwriter, producer and author. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, del Toro first gained worldwide recognition for the 1993 Mexican-American co-production Cronos, a supernatural horror film, which he directed from his own screenplay, after beginning his career working as a special effects makeup artist. He then directed and co-wrote the supernatural thriller The Devil’s Backbone.
In 2004, del Toro directed and co-wrote the action-adventure sci-fi thriller Hellboy, which starred Ron Perlman in the title role. Four years later, he wrote and directed the hit sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Del Toro earned international acclaim as the director, writer and producer of the 2006 fantasy drama Pan’s Labyrinth, in 2013, del Toro wrote and directed the epic sci-fi action-adventure Pacific Rim, and also created the Couch Gag for the 24th annual “Treehouse of Horror XXIV” Halloween episode of The Simpsons.
Del Toro executive produced the worldwide horror hit Mama, which starred Jessica Chastain. Among his other film credits, del Toro produced the supernatural thriller The Orphanage, he partnered with fellow Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu to produce Carlos Cuarón’s Rudo y Cursi and Biutiful, which was written and directed by Iñárritu. Other films he produced include The Book of Life (2014), Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), and The Witches (2020).
The Shape of Water (2017), won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.
Del Toro was the co-screenwriter, with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, of the three Hobbit films.
Del Toro has also turned his attention to publishing. With novelist Chuck Hogan, he co-authored the vampire-horror novel The Strain, which was published in June 2009 by William Morrow. They have since collaborated on The Fall and The Night Eternal, which make up The Strain Trilogy.
Del Toro and Hogan are also the creators of FX Networks’ hit series The Strain, based on the novels. Del Toro directed the opening episode of the first season and also serves as an executive producer on the series, which is about to air its final episode of the second season. Dark Horse Comics is currently issuing a graphic novel series adapted from the trilogy.
In 2013, Harper Design published “Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions,” a lavishly illustrated book containing notes, drawings and untold creatures from del Toro’s private journals and filmmaking diaries, with never-before-seen characters, art and ideas of things to come.
He created the animated series Trollhunters (2016–18), 3Below (2018–19), and Wizards (2020), the three instalments of the Tales of Arcadia trilogy, based on the 2015 novel he co-wrote with Daniel Kraus. Also with DreamWorks, he executive produced Puss in Boots (2011), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Rise of the Guardians (2012), and Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016).
His other films as director include Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Nightmare Alley (2021) and his upcoming stop-motion film Pinocchio (2022). As a producer or writer, he worked on the films The Orphanage (2007), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), The Hobbit film series (2012–14), Mama (2013),
©2015 Legendary Pictures.