For four days in February, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro was in Buffalo to shoot scenes for his much-anticipated film noir “Nightmare Alley.”
The movie, a loose remake of a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, stars Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara, who were both in Buffalo filming, along with a star-studded cast including Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins, Ron Pearlman, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe.
Though his time here was limited, del Toro took part in a press conference at Buffalo’s City Hall, a 1932 art deco structure that was one of the locations that drew him to Buffalo. “It’s a jewel,” he said. “A perfectly preserved beautiful art deco jewel.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by Buffalo. I was very interested in the architecture and historical significance of Buffalo,” said del Toro, who found Buffalo’s abundance of 1930s and ‘40s architecture perfect for his period noir that is set in the 1940s.
The press conference was held on the first day of shooting. The day before, crew members were in Niagara Square outside City Hall dumping trucks of snow and laying down “snow blankets” to create the illusion of snow for a winter scene. Yes – even Buffalo has days without snow.
But Buffalonians could have saved them time by telling the crew about our lake-effect snow that the very next day brought enough snow that it covered all of their hard work and created the winter scene the filmmakers wanted.
When asked if he was surprised he had to bring in fake snow, del Toro said “Yes, it was like bringing tacos to Mexico. I didn’t really expect that.”
That sense of humor was abundant throughout the press conference as del Toro talked about his love for Buffalo from its architecture to comic book stores. Before the press conference, del Toro had already visited one comic book store and left with a box of goodies. He said he is eager to visit more stores and praised Buffalo’s culture of “small cinema clubs, bookstores, independent movement in music and comics and film. I really think it’s a city that is revitalizing and rediscovering itself,” he said.
Finding the right location
As del Toro was scouting locations for “Nightmare Alley” across North America (Toronto was used as the primary location), he explained how Buffalo fulfilled the multiple challenges he faced.
“I wanted to find a city that was really interesting to visit for an audience and that was a city that they weren’t overtly familiar with. When you look at period films, it’s always New York or Los Angeles – two or three cities in the entirety of America revisited for their significant historical or architectural terms,” del Toro said.
In his search, he often found the right type of period architecture, but it would be surrounded by newer buildings, leaving “big gaps of beauty and architectural integrity.”
“Most of the cities in America you cannot turn your camera 45 degrees because you’ll have something ruining the illusion that we need to create and the integrity of the architectural preservation of the city. It is both thematically and visually very important to me to set it here (Buffalo).”
Two of his previous films have had a Buffalo connection. The Gothic ghost story “Crimson Peak” was “set” in Buffalo (though filmed in Canada) in the late 1800s before moving on to England. Del Toro’s Oscar winning film “The Shape of Water” used vintage pieces supplied by local collector Michael Meriso and his CooCooU27 including the dining room set used in the apartment of Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), the movie’s female lead.
In his reading and research on Buffalo since “Crimson Peak,” he said has has been “taken by how many times American history is made in this city and how thriving it was in many ways in different periods and how it is now for me a city that is resurging and rediscovering itself, and an absolutely amazing architectural point of view.”
[Read: The del Toro exhibit: Monsters, outsiders and death … oh my]
When asked if he would return to make more projects in Buffalo, del Toro said “definitely.”
“The great thing about it is, unprompted, I’ve always been fascinated by the city,” del Toro said about Buffalo. “And the thing that you must enjoy because it is true, is the reputation of the city as a place where you can shoot and there is a depth of talent and a depth of crew and a quality. Filmmakers – we talk to each other like high school but much heavier people – we know each other, we talk about it and this city has a pristine reputation.”
“It is true that every day that I’m here, I fall more and more in love with it.”
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This is the plot description released by the studio, Searchlight (formerly Fox Searchlight).
“In ‘Nightmare Alley,’ an ambitious young carny (Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is. The carnival cast includes carnival worker Molly (Mara), head barker Clem (Dafoe), and Ron Perlman as Bruno the Strongman. Richard Jenkins is part of the high society crowd as wealthy industrialist Ezra Grindle.”