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Guillermo del Toro says his future was set the first time he saw 'Frankenstein'

Del Toro's new movie, Nightmare Alley, is a film noir starring Bradley Cooper as a murderer who joins a traveling carnival, first as part of the crew, and then as part of a clairvoyant act. The Oscar-winning Mexican director talks about researching psychics, his feelings about mortality, and why he relates to Frankenstein's monster. Del Toro also directed The Shape of Water, the Hellboy movies and Pan's Labyrinth.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Guillermo del Toro directed and co-wrote the new film "Nightmare Alley," a film noir set in the world of carnies and grifters. It's now playing in theaters and will be available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max starting tomorrow, February 1. "Nightmare Alley" was named one of the 10 best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute. Del Toro is also known for his two "Hellboy" films, "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Shape Of Water," which won four Oscars, including best picture and best director.

"Nightmare Alley" was adapted from a bleak 1946 novel. The novel was adapted into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power. The new movie begins in 1939 as America was coming out of the Depression and World War II was beginning. Bradley Cooper plays a man who just killed the person we later learn was his father, buried him under the wooden floor and set the house on fire, walking out as flames begin to surround him. He takes a bus, gets off at the end of the line and follows a small man down the street to the carnival, where that man is one of the exhibits - Major Mosquito, the tiniest man on record. Cooper becomes part of this traveling carnival, where folks don't care who you are or what you've done.

He starts as part of the crew then becomes part of the grift as the assistant to a clairvoyant who can read minds and commune with people's deceased loved ones with the help of a secret code and other acts of deception. But that's small-time. People pay a quarter or 50 cents or maybe a dollar. Eventually, Cooper learns the act, passes himself off as a spiritualist and mentalist and becomes the headliner at top nightclubs for big money, conning wealthy industrialists, doctors and lawyers. But this is film noir, so things don't go well. The film is rich with questions about carny con games, religion and psychology and the way that the lines between them can blur.

Let's start with a clip from early in the film. Willem Dafoe plays the owner of the carnival who's also the barker. Here he is inviting people into the tent where the geek is, the geek who bites the heads off chickens and feeds on their blood.


WILLEM DAFOE: (As Clem Hoatley) I must ask you, however, to remember that this exhibit is being presented solely in the interest of science and education. Where did it come from? Is it a beast? Or is it a man? Come on in. Come on in, and find out.


DAFOE: (As Clem Hoatley) This creature has been examined by the foremost scientists of both Europe and the Americas - and pronounce a man, unequivocally a man.


DAFOE: (As Clem Hoatley) He can go for weeks with neither food or drink and live entirely on the atmosphere, but you're in luck because tonight, we're going to feed him one last time. Peach? There will be a slight additional charge for this attraction, but it's not a dollar, not 50 cent, but a quarter. One-fourth of a dollar and you will see him feed, suckle on the blood of reptiles and birds like a babe feeding on its mother's milk.


GROSS: Guillermo del Toro, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I just love this movie. It is so good. Thank you for coming to our show. Before we talk more about geeks and their place in carnivals, describe some of the sideshow acts in the carnival in your film.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Yeah, we have mainly what we call the 10-in-one, which was 10 attractions under one roof, which is where the geek act would mostly exist because they tried to hide it. It was sort of illegal at the end of the '30s in most states. And it was only in the low-rung carnivals that you would still find a geek for a few more years. And we focus on that. We have the exhibits of unborn oddities. We have - off camera, we have a talking chicken. We have a contortionist, sword swallowers, Jojo the Dogboy, exotic dancers from the far Orient and so on and so forth - the Major Mosquito and Bruno the strongest man on Earth, Zeena the fortune teller who can read your mind and tell you what is to come (laughter).

GROSS: So the geek was the lowest of the low in the sideshows. You know, the whole idea of taking a man who is addicted to opium or alcohol and who got that way fighting in the war, and then exploiting him by giving him what he needs to stay addicted and then withholding it so that he stays in order to get more of the opium or the alcohol - it is so cruel. It is so - it's - you think of it as being so horrible to be a geek and, you know, bite the neck off chickens. But it's maybe even more horrible to be exploited in such a way by a fellow human being. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in geeks and what kind of got you about - 'cause the whole idea of a geek is so central to the novel and to your movie.

DEL TORO: Yes, and I think that the geek, at a symbolic level, represents so many things. And the fact is we geek ourselves constantly in life. You know, there is always ways into which we fool ourselves into a reward system. It can be it professionally or in love or this and that. And we are exploited by others.

The moment for the movie is now even if it's set in - as a period piece because I believe that these are moments in which we allow ourselves to be exhibited or exhibit other people with great cruelty for very, very shallow recompenses that become addictive. And it can be politically, or it can be spiritually, or it can be social media. It can be so many ways in which this notion is still alive in an oblique manner - not only that; the sort of flimsy barrier between truth and lies and how we can be fooled by somebody telling us a lie we want to hear, which is so urgent right now.

GROSS: You've made movies about creatures. And I'm thinking specifically here of "The Shape Of Water," in which the creature, which is a river creature - he's mistreated by humans. He's used for cruel experiments. But he's really, like, a god - like, a river god. So the humans exploit the creature in that film. In this film, humans turn a human being into a creature for money, just for money.

DEL TORO: The principle of cruelty in both fables or both parables, it's still the same in a way. The results are not. And the grift that Stan does is ultimately small, but he uses it to give hope to the hopeless. I remember, Terry, when my father was kidnapped in 1998, one of the first warnings that came with that from the negotiator of the kidnapping - he said, beware of the psychics. They're going to show up really early. And no sooner had I hung up the phone than I went to see my mother, and there were two psychics sitting in the living room telling her they knew and they could lead us to where my father was because they could sense him. And this made an indelible impression. And that cruelty, which I saw firsthand, also is part of the spirit in this movie.

GROSS: This is when you were still living in Mexico, right?

DEL TORO: Yes, before I moved. And we try to find comfort in belief systems that we know are not entirely true, but we deposit all the remnants of our faith and wide-eyed innocence into them, only to be disappointed. And I think this movie has an ending that is quite shattering but, at the same time, is very human. It's an ending that we build the entire movie for. The movie is like a slow ramp, inexorable, as all tragedy is, towards an ending that I think will live in the memory of people watching the movie.

GROSS: And we will not say what that is (laughter). So your father was kidnapped and held, I think, for, like, a million dollars ransom.

DEL TORO: Yeah. For two days, yes.

GROSS: So when the psychic showed up to talk to your mother, what did they tell her? Do you know?

DEL TORO: You know, they were there very shortly because I kicked them out (laughter). But what they were saying is that they could sense my father, that he was trying to communicate with her. And the speech was almost identical to what they - what Stan says in the movie.

GROSS: Stan is the Bradley Cooper character.

DEL TORO: Yeah, the Bradley Cooper character, who plays the con of being a psychic. And the first thing they hooked on was, he loves you so very, very much, and he's trying to reach you, and he knows that you can save him. They use the same hooks. And that was evident to me. But my mother for a moment was harboring hope.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, of course your father loved your mother, and of course, that's what she'd want to hear. I mean, so - and even if she doubted that he loved her, if the psychics told her that he loved her, she'd really want to hear that, and that would make her feel good. So that's how they kind of reel you in - like, tell you what you believe already or what you want to hear and do it in a kind of more - in a generalized enough way so that it fits nearly everybody.

DEL TORO: Well, yeah. And Stanton says that there are certain devices that come with the psychic craft, and all of them were accurately researched for the movie. She says, how do you get them? - Lilith asked. And Stanton says, health, wealth, love. You know, you find what they need the most or what they fear the most and hug them through that. And the other principle that operates Pete - David Strathairn - says, everybody's desperate to tell you who they are, to be seen, which is, sadly or not, a reality of our species. We are all desperate to be seen or to be heard, and we communicate constantly through our clothing, our physical language, our inflections. And a skillful psychic will be able to read all the signs. And we break down in the movie quite accurately and minutely how these grifts take place.

GROSS: And I think most of us feel like in some way we're in touch with the dead people who we love. They appear in our dreams, and that feels like a visitation. We talk to them in our minds. And, you know, they don't respond - but makes us feel better to kind of feel like we're conversing with them. So you just need to take it one step further to say, yeah, and they're trying to reach out to you, too.

DEL TORO: Yes. It takes only the smallest alibi to make that lie believable. And some of it - there are generalizations that are called black rainbow. And that's when you throw the net at both sides. For example, you say, you are quite naive, but at the same time, you're very, very shrewd about who you trust. Or they tell you, you are very friendly, but ultimately you don't reveal yourself to everyone. And these are generalizations that fit all sizes. And that's what they are called - black rainbow - because they encompass every color.

And about the dead, all you need is to know one or two things to make it seem like they are connecting. And we are narrative animals, Terry. So we love a good story. We want our lives to have a beginning, a middle and a fitful ending. And unfortunately, life has a little madness to its narrative structure. But we like order. We want to organize things in tales. And the fact that there is a life after this is something we are absolutely seduced by.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His new film, which he co-wrote with Kim Morgan, is "Nightmare Alley." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His 2017 film "The Shape of Water" won four Oscars, including best picture and best director. His new film "Nightmare Alley" begins in 1939 in the world of a traveling carnival that's part freak show, part con game. Bradley Cooper stars as a newcomer who begins as part of the crew, becomes a fake clairvoyant and takes the act to the top nightclubs, making big money and getting into big trouble.

Did you go to any spiritualists - you know, clairvoyants, fortunetellers - as research for the movie just to get a feel for it directly?

DEL TORO: Well, having lived in Mexico so long, I have actually experienced that firsthand in other situations other than the kidnapping. And my mother moved in the circles that read the tarot and believe in magic, and I was exposed to that from an early age. But what we did as research, we went to a famous mentalist in England, Aaron Brown, who is an incredible practitioner of the craft more so than ever because he reveals that it's all tricks on the beginning of the show. And he says, you will nevertheless experience these emotions, and you have to remember that this is all a trick. I use no allies in the audience, you know? I'm going to do it straight. You know it's a con, but you're going to get hooked. And he proceeds to do the show, and he's amazing. And we talked to Teller from Penn & Teller fame.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

DEL TORO: And we had - and he did talk, by the way (laughter). And we talked to our magic consultant Mike Close, who was - who is an adviser to many magicians in the world. And I myself am a lifelong student of prestidigitation, mentalism and so forth.

GROSS: You've practiced mentalism, or you've just studied it?

DEL TORO: No, I know the principles. I know the principles, and I know all the tricks and the basic principles. There are about 10 principles, but there are infinite variations of them. I used to perform very modest magic in social circumstances. But Alfonso Cuaron is such a tough audience that he destroyed my self-confidence (laughter).

GROSS: Did you go to Mexican carnivals when you were growing up?

DEL TORO: Yes, I did. And in fact, the act that appears in the movie that is the spider woman is an act I saw when I was about 6 years old. And her speech, which was indelibly etched on my brain, is exactly the speech that is in the movie. She said, woe be me that I took this form for disobeying my parents (laughter) and beware of the lost and greed and this and that. And I was horrified and so shocked as a kid that it stayed in my mind until this movie.

GROSS: So I want to get back to the mentalist in the movie, the mind reader. Apparently, there was a code of, like, words that substituted for other words so that the assistant out in the audience could say things that were really code for here's what the answer should be, or here's what...


GROSS: ...The person is holding in their hand, or here's what they have in their handbag. So was there really a code like that?


GROSS: Yeah.

DEL TORO: There is many codes, incredibly difficult. It takes a long time to learn them. But if I was to simplify it, you substitute the word for a number and that number leads you to another word. So it's like learning three languages in one. Or you can do - the cheapest version of it is to use intonation and the code words. For example, we have one of those very, very cheap versions of the code in one of the questions in the cabaret when he says, I see initials, and he's blindfolded. And she says, could you kindly name them? It means C and K - could you kindly name them?

GROSS: Oh. I say - I didn't catch that in the movie. Yeah, that's very...

DEL TORO: Yeah. That is very fast. That's fast code to react fast. And then you substitute words. You can say, Master Stanton, that is one object, and if you say, could you please, that's another object, to give you a simple version of the code.

GROSS: So in the movie, Stan, Bradley Cooper's character, makes the comparison between religion and the grift of this kind of mind reading. He says folks are always crazy to have their fortunes told. You cheer them up and give him something to wish and hope for. That's all the preacher does every Sunday - not much different being a fortune teller and a preacher. And that's in the novel, too. Were you attracted to that, the idea of the fake fortune teller and the preacher having a certain similarity? I mean, I know your grandmother was very religious. You even - in the last time we spoke, you compared her to the mother in the movie "Carrie," who is just, like, a fanatic.

DEL TORO: And in fact, she got grifted out of her property...

GROSS: No, really?

DEL TORO: ...By a religious organization. Yes, she signed a living will in which she gave them all her possessions and said, you know, they would promise to wait until she died, but they dispatch her to a home rather quickly. I think that the interesting thing about this speech, which is paraphrased in the movie by Bradley Cooper, and it's that he is basically trying to justify his actions by invoking a larger grift. Obviously, the larger grifts in life come hand in hand with some forms of organized religion or political parties and so forth.

But I think the movie tries to also explore the most intimate consequences of the grift when you are finally found out because I think everybody gets found out. And that sacred and horrible moment in which you see yourself for who you are is so important in the movie. And we knew that the what and how he sees himself would be easy to guess as a piece of dramaturgy, our screenwriting. But the exact reaction of Stan when he sees who he is is one of the most moving pieces of acting I've ever seen. Bradley's reaction to that final revelation goes from complete loss to elation to relief to despair in a very short space. And it's very beautiful to behold.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His new film is "Nightmare Alley." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His 2017 film "The Shape Of Water" won four Oscars, including best picture and best director. His new film, "Nightmare Alley," begins in 1939 in the world of a traveling carnival that's part freak show, part con game. Bradley Cooper stars as a newcomer who begins as part of the crew, becomes a fake clairvoyant and takes the act to the top nightclubs, making big money and getting into big trouble.

So before I ask you the next question, I just want to mention that some listeners might find the next little chapter upsetting. So just a little disclaimer about that. Getting back to the carnival in this movie, there's a display of newborn babies and fetuses kind of preserved in - I guess it was formaldehyde in big glass jars. And Willem Dafoe, the barker, describes these as babies gone wrong somehow in the maternal womb, not for - they're not for living. They died in childbirth or even inside the mother. And there's one of these babies on exhibit in this glass jar who seems to have a third eye. And it looks like there was maybe an autopsy that was done because the baby seems to be stitched up.

And I know the last time we spoke, which was after your film "Pan's Labyrinth," you talked about how for a while you worked next door to a mortuary. And one day in that mortuary, you saw a pile of dead infants and fetuses. What impact did it have on you to see this literal pile of babies who were corpses in the morgue? And why was there a pile of them?

DEL TORO: It was - you know, it was in the - civilian hospital is what it's called in Mexico. And there was the - it is a complex that has a hospital, a morgue and a mental hospital. And I saw that, and I instantly was hit by a wave of despair and hopelessness. And all of my life up until then, I had thought about a very humanistic, very anthropomorphized God. And I thought, there's not such a thing. Whatever the plans of the universe are are somewhat indifferent to the small things. And I cannot verbalize it beyond that. But it was an existential bullet wound that never closed. I - it's just a symbol of the essential, inexorable cruelty that exists in the universe. Whether we accept it or not or classify it as one thing or another, it's part of existing. And it still to this day - it haunts me.

GROSS: And in film noir, the main character, who's usually trying to - he's usually, like, down on his luck and is trying to, like, get some money or, you know, get some luck. He often or she often feels like the game is rigged. But in the carnival, like, the carnies are the people who rigged the game.

DEL TORO: Exactly. I think the fascinating thing about carnival life is it's a very hidebound society, almost like the church or a secret order of the highest level. In fact, for many, many years, carnies would not accept anyone else into their society. It would take great effort for you to join a carnival. And there were famously resting towns they had in Florida where they didn't welcome any visitors. You know, and all the carnies would live in that Florida town or another. And I think the great thing is that they can identify the essence of a carny really quick. And that's why Willem Dafoe says it doesn't matter what you've done or where you come from. You can stay here - to Stanton. And Stanton is given the opportunity to find a happy ending many times in the movie.

In fact, there's a very pointed transition in the middle of the movie that is a beautiful crane as they leave the carnival. And he got the book, and he got the girl he loves, apparently. And he is going for, quote, unquote, "the world and everything in it." And then you're caught in a beautiful ellipsis. And two years later, he's completely unhappy and bored. And this is the essence of the book - that he will never have enough because he has a hole in his heart, which Pete very eloquently describes.

GROSS: So your new movie, "Nightmare Alley," is adapted from a 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. And he's an interesting character himself in so many ways. Just first of all, I want to mention that when he and his wife divorced, she married C.S. Lewis, who wrote "The Chronicles Of Narnia." But the author William Lindsay Gresham - he was an alcoholic after he got cancer. He died by suicide in the hotel in New York where he wrote "Nightmare Alley."

But he was also a seeker. Like, he converted to Christianity. He tried yoga. He tried Dianetics, which was a creation of L. Ron Hubbard, who also created Scientology. Did you relate at all to the seeker in him? Did you ever think of yourself that way? Or did you just - or are you just a seeker within the arts? - because I know you're just, like, omnivorous when it comes to the arts.

DEL TORO: Yeah, I do relate to the quest. And he had in his pocket two cards that he had printed, one of which was very revelatory. He's had no money, no job, retired and so on and so forth. And the other one said something absolutely chilling. It said he'd rather die than face the truth. And we understood with that card that the novel and the movie were oblique autobiographies of his quest for an answer and that what we needed to do is cipher the answer at the end, that the ending, the big explosion, so to speak, was that final scene.

He was a very dedicated communist, as you said. He was in the Lincoln Brigade. He was a very devout investigator of Catholicism and its mysteries. In fact, him and Joy Davidman both were fans of C.S. Lewis. And after - even after she left him, he maintained a great admiration for C.S. Lewis. And, you know, I think he had a certain innocence, almost wide-eyed innocence in the belief of an answer. And at the same time, he had a very dark certainty that the answer was rather bleak, you know?

And the way he reacted to the money he made from the sales of the rights of the novel - he spent the money lavishly. He bought a big estate with horses. He rode these horses with bejeweled cowboy boots every morning, which I somewhat find very touching. And he said - he left a note that said - to an artist - and I'm misquoting him probably - wrote it to an artist. Success is like atmosphere change to a deep-sea fish. You explode upon contact, you know? And I think he didn't react - or he saw success very accurately as something that is harder to rebound from. And he basically spent the rest of his life trying to rebound from the success of "Nightmare Alley."

GROSS: Do you think it was more because nothing was making him happy? So where do you go after that when you have what you were looking for and you're still not happy?

DEL TORO: I think that when you have a hollow, nothing is enough, No. 1. No. 2 - he had ciphered himself almost entirely in "Nightmare Alley." He then wrote "Limbo Tower," which was good. He wrote a lot of short stories. He wrote a magnificent book called "Monster Midway" in which he investigates carnival life even further, and I recommend it thoroughly. He wrote a biography of Houdini. And he wrote a book on physical culture. So...


DEL TORO: He is a very, very eclectic seeker of truth in - to which I identify. I am curious about architecture and art and design and literature of fantasy, but I love great short story writers like Guy de Maupassant or Chekhov more for the stories than - even the plays. I love culture and knowledge and curiosity more than anything else.

GROSS: But those are very nonmaterialistic things. So if you're interested in the arts and in, like, reading more books and listening to more music and seeing more architecture, you can never really be filled up and think, well, I achieved what I wanted to achieve. And it's not bringing me happiness, so what's left? - 'cause there's always more. There's always another book to read. And, I mean, it's just - it's fulfilling in a way that you can't say, well, I've done that, so, like, what's next?

DEL TORO: Well, it's a very - look. I'm 57, so I've come to one or two truths. And one of them is choice is negation. When you choose something, you're negating every other possibility, so you have to be at peace with that. You know, you're not skateboarding if you're reading. You're not reading if you're sleeping. You're not taking a shower if you're walking, you know? Every choice - it comes with something that exists for you but negates every other possibility. You cannot be everything at all times.

So I'm very much at peace with that. And whatever your limited time and knowledge of this world is in your lifespan, that's it. That was your share, and then you live it. What happens happens, and then you're gone. And that is - there's something comforting for me rather than anxiety-generating. For me, the fact that we're finite is very soothing, but that's because I'm Mexican perhaps. We do understand that - that we're all in the same train. And they punch our ticket when we come in and the destination, and the real north of life is that you're here only for a short time. That's beautiful for me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His new film is called "Nightmare Alley." We will talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His 2017 film "The Shape Of Water" won four Oscars, including best picture and best director. His new film "Nightmare Alley" begins in 1939 in the world of a traveling carnival.

So I know that two of your favorite childhood characters were Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Do they have something in common that make you...


GROSS: ...Make them your favorites?

DEL TORO: Yes, they (laughter) - they are both (laughter) - it's that they are both characters that are born into a world and then sort of abandoned to their fate to figure it out (laughter), you know? They're very Miltonian in a very different way. I think Pinocchio and Frankenstein both go through that painful learning curve. And I find it moving, in Pinocchio, the idea that he has no notion of not being, quote, unquote, "a real boy," you know, and that he is a real boy by the act of existing and being in this world.

And I tried to explore that on the movie I'm making now. I'm making the stop-motion version of "Pinocchio." But it's set in the - during the rise of Mussolini in fascist Italy in which most people act like a puppet except the puppet. And I think that it will be a very different version from the classic ones. But I think it's one that suits me and my preoccupations and my recurring questions very much perfectly.

GROSS: What about Frankenstein?

DEL TORO: Frankenstein is the holy grail.


DEL TORO: It's something - I mean, I was quite literally reborn. I was St. Paul on the road to Damascus when I saw Boris Karloff cross that threshold in the Universal movie. I was transfixed by this image. I cannot - it's not an exaggeration. I was shocked by a lightning bolt of fervor as a child. I thought, that's me. That's me.

GROSS: Why did you identify with Frankenstein?

DEL TORO: Because I didn't quite fit in the way the adults were presenting the world to me. I didn't fit in their notions of what it was to be a child because I was a 17-year-old pessimist when I was 7, you know? I was a hypochondriac. I was constantly concerned with the notion of dying. I was a very old man when I was 7. And I think I'm 7 now that I'm 57. I can take life and death in the same notion. And I'm at peace with both. And I celebrate our existence no matter how painful and imperfect it is. So this monster crossing the threshold, this anomaly, seemed to embody everything that I thought was, quote, unquote, "wrong with me" in a beautiful way. It was like a patron saint being discovered for me.

GROSS: Frankenstein doesn't mean to harm people. But he doesn't know better, so he does - and then, of course, you know, like that little girl in the field.

DEL TORO: In the feature, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, in the movie. Yeah. He doesn't mean to hurt her. But he doesn't know how to treat a little girl. And so he inadvertently - does he kill her? I'm trying to remember. I think he kills her, right?

DEL TORO: He thinks she is a flower. He has no more flowers to throw. And he throws her in the lake or the river. And they shot it very near my home in Lake Malibu, I believe. And I went to the side a couple of times. And to me, what he is in the movies and what he is in the novels is very different in a way. Frankenstein, in the novel, which I worship and adore, gains the very same power to question his creator that you would have in John Milton, you know? He goes back and basically says, why did you created me? And if you created me, why did you make me so alone? These are questions that moved me very much at a very early age when I read the book. And I think they are essential questions that will remain with us for a long - as long as we're birthed and then die.

GROSS: So if you identified as a monster, as Frankenstein, did you think other people saw you that way?

DEL TORO: I don't know about that. I just thought that it was very anomalous. You know, it was curious because, for example, reading and trying to stay indoors was seen as unhealthy (laughter), to give you a brief example. Not partaking on the games of football or the vigorous hikes through the countryside, they were seen as not natural to what my condition of a happy child was. But in reality, I have the powers of observation that come with a certain texture of the soul. I think that we are born of a certain grade of glass or crystal. And we vibrate different than the universe. And the idea of normalcy - literally statistical normalcy - was very suffocating for me.

GROSS: It's time for another break. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His new film, which he co-wrote with Kim Morgan, is called "Nightmare Alley." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director Guillermo del Toro. His new film, "Nightmare Alley," begins in 1939 in the world of a traveling carnival.

The last time we spoke, you told me that you were exposed to a lot of violence as a child, that you saw basically everything in your daily life growing up in Guadalajara, in Mexico - not domestic violence, but you saw violence on the street. You told me you saw people shooting at each other on the streets. You saw accidents, people burning to death, stabbings, shootings. And I - and, you know, going back over that interview before talking to you today, I thought, my goodness, what did you see? How did you see all of that? Like, did you see somebody burning? You saw somebody...

DEL TORO: Yeah. We were going to the cinema one night. And we saw a little car - a VW Beetle, I believe it was - crash against a tree. And the person driving it was unconscious. And the car immediately burst to flames. And the person inside we could not get to. And that was that occasion. I saw a shooting in the open fields between two ranchers that were having a dispute. I saw a horrible accident right at roadside when I was about 4, with many shocking images that affected me forever, and so on and so forth. I mean, it's just - it didn't happen all at once. It happened over the course of - I don't know - 30 years or so.

And a threat of violence, you know, would happen every now and then very casually. I remember the other types of violence, like the phone calls from the kidnapping or being exposed to, in 1968, the repression of the student revolt in Mexico City. You know, there is just this vibrating notion that life coexists with this violence that comes from living in Mexico. It doesn't need to be sensationalist. It's just sort of built into daily life.

GROSS: When you were young and saw all this violence around you, did you have a lot of nightmares?

DEL TORO: You know, I dreamt in very intense nightmares when I was a kid but not very often. I would have them. And they - many of them happened in a dream state which is called, I think, night terrors, which - I would live - I would think I was awake, and I was really asleep. And this is what leads to the visions of the alien abductions or what is called the old hag syndrome. There's a state in which you see a malignant entity in the room with you. That - I experienced that. And I think that the rest of the nightmares - I had a recurring nightmare which is very Stanton Carlisle, which is my father would leave on a train and somebody on the platform would say, that is the train of the dead. And your dad is going to be gone forever. And I ran after the train and boarded it. And I said, Dad, can I leave with you? And I would wake up. But this came over and over again.

GROSS: When you would have nightmares but think you were really awake, did you try to move but find yourself paralyzed?

DEL TORO: Yes - completely paralyzed, incapable of screaming or asking for help. But it was very curious. I remember clearly one in which I would see a sort of a goat the man behind the dresser, you know, not unlike the faun in "Pan's Labyrinth" but a little more sinister.

GROSS: Did you ever - I used to have dreams as a child where I was having a bad dream, and I dreamed that I woke up. But after dreaming I woke up, it was still a nightmare. And I thought, oh, this is really horrible. I've woken up, and it's still a nightmare. I'm never going to get out of this.

DEL TORO: Yes, that actually happened to me a few times. And a few times - you know, people dream that they fly. I've always dreamt that I existed underwater. I have an incredibly strange relationship with underwater. I am the happiest when I'm in water, and I dreamt about that. And sometimes I dreamt that I woke up, and I was underwater. And then I woke up, and I was in my room.

GROSS: That relationship with underwater - I'm thinking of "The Shape Of Water," where, you know, one of the main characters is a creature...


GROSS: ...Who lives underwater and is seen as a monster. But he's really a river god. Does that come out of that dream, in a way, and out of that relationship that you're describing with water?

DEL TORO: Yes. I wanted very much - when I was a kid, before I discovered that movies were actually made by people, I thought movies were things that happened, and somebody had recorded them in a matter of fact. But then I used to say I wanted to be a marine biologist. And I studied, and I still have quite a bit of knowledge about marine life. And, like every kid of my generation, I was fascinated by Jacques Cousteau, and I was addicted to his programs. And I have a relationship with the underwater and sea life that is very much almost the way you would relate to a fantastical world. I find it beautiful and merciless at the same time.

GROSS: Guillermo del Toro, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you for making this movie. And, you know, I wish you good health during this pandemic.

DEL TORO: Thank you.

GROSS: Guillermo del Toro directed and co-wrote the new film "Nightmare Alley." It's now playing in theaters and will be available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max beginning tomorrow, February 1. Let's close with the recording that ends the film - Hoagy Carmichael singing his own song, "Stardust."


HOAGY CARMICHAEL: (Singing) Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night dreaming of a song. The melody haunts my reverie. And I am once again with you when our love was new and each kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song. Beside the garden wall...

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be science journalist Florence Williams. When her husband divorced her, it affected her emotional and physical health. Her new book "Heartbreak" is about how scientists are investigating the biological pathways of this kind of pain and why heartbreak can actually affect your heart, digestive system, immune system and more. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.


CARMICHAEL: (Singing) In my heart, it will remain my stardust melody, the memory of love's refrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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