On The Set of CRIMSON PEAK With Guillermo del Toro

Devin takes a tour of the decaying mansion at the heart of Legendary/Universal's new gothic romance/haunted house movie.

I have here 22 pages of a Guillermo del Toro interview on the set of Universal/Legendary’s Crimson Peak. That’s what you get when you talk to Guillermo - he is open, eloquent and completely loquacious. What I’ve decided to do with these 22 pages is to break down the best quotes (and the ones I can share - Universal is being very particular with protecting the film’s gothic twists and turns) into digestible chunks for you. And this is just the Guillermo stuff - in the coming months I'll have interviews with the rest of the cast. But we have time: Crimson Peak isn't coming out until October of 2015.

First, some scene-setting. If you were to wake up in the middle of the main set for Crimson Peak you would believe you had been spirited away to a decaying mansion. Nestled inside a giant soundstage in Toronto - the same stages where del Toro shot Pacific Rim - the Crimson Peak house is a complete work, with staircases and functional elevators, an enormous library and a kitchen that recalls the look of Devil’s Backbone. Upstairs, nestled off hallways covered in peeling paint and cobwebs, are lived-in bedrooms and secret chambers. One hall gives the unsettling feeling of walking into a giant, befanged mouth. Others are claustrophobic and twisting, seemingly set out with nightmare geography.

But it’s just a set, and by the time you are reading this, it will be gone, rendered down to its component parts. That bums Guillermo out.

In two weeks, this building will be gone forever. It's a fucking shame.

He won’t be leaving the entire house behind; Guillermo has a habit of pitching in his own money to make props so he can take them home.

There's a machine that I hope I can buy. I pre-bought a bunch of expensive props. I pay 50% of the props and then I keep it. When a prop is, how do you say, controversial with the studio, if it's too expensive, I go, 'I'll pay half, and I'll keep it.' And that's how the castle was built. In reality, when they auction them, they auction them for very little.

There are a lot of props for Guillermo to buy. This set is totally handmade, a necessity to capture the look and feel he wanted.

This thing was written in 06. When we wrote it in 06 the first reaction was, there was an intention of doing this as a smaller movie on a found building. And I really wanted the house to be a character. And I knew, I said, I'll produce that one, but if I direct it, I need to build a house. We sort of, the idea of the house was in the script. But the evolution of the design was six months into it. It's very different from what the screenplay described. We have an operating elevator in the house that goes through the three stories. No green screen. The house is all complete. I didn't want to use digital. I wanted the movie to feel hand made. Like, you could love the dresses, the props … to make it a handmade film. That influenced the decision to have everything pre-planned and carved.

Everything in the house is made for the house. We didn't salvage anything from existing buildings.

Normally a period movie has a lot of problems with the graphics. They look modern made. I wanted everything to feel authentic. We have a newspaper from a murder that's done in the style of the lurid newspapers of the 1800s, with an engraved feeling. It has the exact feeling of that Jack the Ripper spread. And the painting in the library that you're going to see is a painting we commissioned seven months before the movie started.

There are a lot of period movies where they say, 'This is a portrait of Lady Whatever.' And it's done in like a 1950s or 60s style. I wanted it to feel like a real Sargent or a Whistler. An old portrait. This guy, if you want that style, it takes six or seven months.

As he leads us through the house, showing us each dilapidated room like an EC Comics realtor, Guillermo tells us about the importance of a big set - and the strange geography of it.

It's a huge set. But I wanted it to feel even bigger than it is. I wanted it to feel more like a $50 million movie, I wanted it to feel even more gigantic. And what we did is, if you notice this area is so small, this area's bigger, so it already draws a "Wow." And the library is bigger than that area by about 25%.

And then the corridors, if you run all that length, are bigger than the library. You have the impression that the house is much bigger than it really is. It's a big set, but the telescoping of the sets [makes it look bigger].

As we went upstairs the house rotted around us, each floor getting successively more rundown and uglier. That’s on purpose.

The house decays. We needed to have the house feel a little bit like an organism. There's a line I already cut in the editing room where it says it lays down like an animal and it goes slowly mad. The house in the screenplay and in the movie has certain features that make it seem like a living organism. So, it's decaying. It's sitting in the middle of a field, rotting.

We knew that the top needed to be sort of the most weathered part of the house. The bottom and the areas where you received visitors are live and slightly more kept. But the top is the head. The people in the movie are insane. So the head is all rotted away.

This is not Downton Abbey. This is … I don't like what I call "class porn," where everybody's all gooey over, "If only the aristocracy was still in charge, life would be so civilized." Fuck that. It's not true. It was never true. And this is the opposite. This is a movie about a very incredibly decadent trait of the aristocracy, rotting away in a mansion on a hill. It's anti-class porn in a way.

The next big question for Guillermo is just what kind of a movie is Crimson Peak? We had seen the official synopsis:

Legendary Pictures’ CRIMSON PEAK, a co-production with Universal Pictures, is a haunting gothic horror story directed by the master of dark fairy tales, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy series, Pacific Rim), written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins and starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam.  In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider.  Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.

It seems like GdT has two modes - big, blockbustery all-ages films in English (Hellboy, Pacific Rim) and smaller, adult-oriented films in Spanish (Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth). Is Crimson Peak a big blockbustery haunted house movie, or is it something more like those grown-up, spooky meditations?

It's the first adult movie I do in English. You know, because even with the R rating, I can hardly call Blade an adult film. It's the first time I've tried to marry the Pan's Labyrinth and Devil's Backbone sensibilities with a larger cast and larger budget.

Some of that sensibility is sexual. There’s an erotic undercurrent that goes through Crimson Peak, and when asked if this was his most sexual film, del Toro laughed.

Well, the bar is very low there. It's fun. I’m kind of like a little sheepish, but, you know? I go, ‘Excuse me? Would you please?’ I'm not like a fish in the water, you know? I’m more like, ‘Yeah man! Get it on!’ I don’t know how to not sound like a dirty old man. But it's fun. I mean, because I think this is the only movie where that aspect is explored in any form is Devil’s Backbone when the hump happens between the caretaker and the lady, the head mistress. I really think this is a little different. It’s not by any means a Nymphomaniac with ghosts. There’s very tame content for anyone’s standards, but for me, it’s a big deal.

But that sexuality goes hand in hand with the kind of gothic romance he’s been dying to make for years.

The family [in the film] has a very recurring relationship with guilt and religion and sex, and other Victorian things.

It's landing literally in my wheelhouse. It flows incredibly easy. I have, for those that know me a little better or have visited Bleak House [his crazy home filled with memorabilia and hidden passageways], I'm a Victorian nut about gothic romance. I haven't had a chance to do that at all. So it's in the same way that I was and am a robot fan and I hadn't done that. It's really pretty cool to fulfill the things you wanted to do.

When I tackle things like PacRim or mecha or when I tackle a vampire movie, I'm very, very aware of the tenets of the genre.  And then it's up to me to both hit them and try to do them in a way that is not the normal way.

The reason I was attracted to this thing is that, when one story ends, the other one flows, you know? Like, you have, I think, a really good love story and when that ebbs, the ghost story kicks in, and then the complete psycho story picks up, you know? So my hope is, I don’t want to do a straight gothic romance. I want to do it hardcore, which is different. But I don’t want to do it exactly the way it has been done. I want to bring different stuff. 

And he’s bringing some violence along with him. Crimson Peak is being shot with an R rating in mind.

There's some strong moments. There's a couple of strong moments that are very, very graphic, but they are done just to punctuate, you know? I remember when I showed Pan’s Labyrinth in the beginning, somebody said to me, ‘You know, the movie would make much more money without the bottles scene.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but it wouldn’t be the same movie,’ so this is punctuated a little like that. Like, there are about three or four moments that’ll have you go, ‘Ooh! That’s nice. That’s brutally nice.’

On Crimson Peak del Toro is trying something new with his cast. He’s working with the actors to create the backstory for their characters, but he’s asking them not to share their backstories with each other. That means some actors have secret motivations in scenes that their co-stars will not know about or understand.

I give each of them biographies and I ask them to keep them secret from each other. I give them a 10-page biography that says everything from what they like to eat to what sign they are and what day they were born — all the story of the characters up to the point of the movie. Then I ask them, sometimes I say don't share it, sometimes I say they can share part of it, but each biography has a thing that is their secret — and that one they shouldn't share with each other. "This is your secret. Don't share with the others." They know certain things about them but I don't give everybody's biography to everybody.

The only guy that wrote his own biography was Charlie [Hunnam] because by the time I said, 'I'm going to send you the biography next week,' he said he already did it. He said I've been doing McMichael for the last four months. He was asking for very precise things. The only thing that didn't pass muster is that he wanted to smoke a pipe. He brought it for the wardrobe test and I went, 'No.' But he tried. He tried.

Of course any talk about the cast leads to a looming question: that of Benedict Cumberbatch. Tom Hiddleston took over the role of Sir Thomas Sharpe, current patriarch of this declining family. We had to ask how the transition from Cumberbatch to Hiddleston went.

It's pretty public that Benedict was there. He came out [to set]. Then when I sent the screenplay to Jessica [Chastain], I didn't send it with any part in mind, but everyone was assuming she was going to read Edith [the heroine]. And then she read the part and said she wanted to play Lucille [Sharpe, Thomas’ sister], which is the antagonist. I thought, smart girl! It's a surprise. And then Emma [Watson] was in, Emma was out. Then Mia [Wasikowska] was the first choice after Emma. It's been a blessing man. It's like going out to take a spin on a Porsche.

Tom came within 72 hours of Benedict leaving. Benedict called me, Tom was my next choice, and we handed him the screenplay. I think he read it overnight, at least it felt like that for me. I had just sent it and he called back to say all the right things about the script. I needed people that could embrace the very perverse nature and the very humane. It's a very dark but at the same time very human movie. It's really beautiful but it's full of really disturbing stuff.

You need to recalibrate. But if you recalibrate and you say this is my first choice next, then it's great. The transition was so smooth. If we had gone six months without somebody … but it was literally within hours of somebody falling out, somebody else had read it that we wanted. It was really, really great. But then you have to rewrite for the actors. Once I gave them the biographies, we had a table work session where we read the screenplay, talked about the biography, listen to him read the part, come back, rewrite, send it back, get their voice in, and you rewrite it for them. We all went to London to see Tom in his play and then work in London with him and Jessica, to rehearse and work on what we had learned from the biographies.

Charlie was on from the beginning, from Pacific Rim, I told him.

Walking around the set you are totally transported, so much so that walking over to craft services can be kind of disorienting - you’ve teleported from a Victorian ruin to a modern soundstage in seconds. It’s amazing watching Guillermo on that set, sitting in the dining room, reflecting the ambience even in his sweatshirt and tousled hair. He’s clearly at home.

Oh, I love everything creepy, so I love the house. I love it. I mean, I really, really would like to live here. I would like to, but that's different. I’m twisted. I showed my wife a brutal fucking scene and I go, ‘Isn’t it nice?’ She said, ‘Nice?’ So it’s different for me. I love the house.