Guillermo del Toro on Making a Classic Gothic Romance with Crimson Peak

By  · Published on October 8th, 2015

Universal Pictures

We don’t see many movies like Crimson Peak nowadays. Not only because it’s not a sequel or a found-footage horror movie, but because it’s an R-rated period piece with an old-fashioned sensibility. The film doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares or gore, but more so on its themes, characters, and magnificent production design. For good reason, co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro calls it one of the three films he’s most proud of – the other two being Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Crimson Peak is much bigger in scale than those two Spanish films, which is why it took the director nine years to make it.

Set in the late 19th century, aspiring horror writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) meets the acquaintance of an irresistible Englishman, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After the two fall in love, Sharpe brings his new love to Cumbria to live with him and his ice-cold sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith soon realizes the three are not alone in their crumbling mansion, an elaborate set del Toro was saddened to see destroyed. Both the Sharpe’s home and its inhabitants harbor secrets.

Del Toro knew from the start he had a battle to fight to get his personal ghost story made, but he didn’t ever let that deter him. “It was extremely difficult,” he says. “I knew I wanted the movie to look like $100 million, but I knew it would need to be made for around $50 million. We were told we could get around $30–35 million, but I needed that extra $10–15 million to make it pop. The second thing that got in my way was the R-rating. I always knew the sex and violence needed to be pushed. Not gratuitously, but the gothic romances in the 19th Century and 1800s were really, really violent and sexy for its time. I needed to update it, so I needed the R-rating. I thought it was going to be impossible, but we needed to squeeze every bit out of that budget.”

The director has a healthy relationship with Legendary Pictures, the production company behind his last film, Pacific Rim. Movies like Crimson Peak used to be the norm, but that’s no longer the case. “These movies used to be done in Hollywood as grand productions, on a grand-scale with grand actors,” del Toro explains. “There was Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Dragonwyck with Vincent Price, which was on a beautiful scale and scope. Then they devolved into a B-movie territory, and they kind of died after Hammer. It’s been at least 30 years since I saw one, so I thought it’d be good to update it with a little more violence, a little more sex, and a little more gender politics.”

Crimson Peak is influenced more by literary works than films. Del Toro frequently mentions Edgar Allan Poe as a storytelling template, but in terms of filmmaking, he wanted to paint on a big canvas, with elegant but sweeping camera movements. “I was studying the The Innocents directed by Jack Clayton, because the camera style I wanted on Crimson Peak was… I didn’t want the camera to feel nimble,” del Toro insists. “I wanted the camera to feel big, like it was on a crane, with a retro feeling. My cinematographer, Dan Lausten (Silent Hill), and I were talking about doing technicolor on-camera. Normally when you do a period piece, they want the sepia or saturated look or that sort charcoal blue. Here, I wanted a super-saturated movie, which really had that lush aspect to it.”

Most period pieces are devoid of color, and Clint Eastwood’s almost qualify as black and white movies because their aesthetics are so drained of life. Del Toro wanted the sets, costumes, and shot choices to reflect the mental state of his characters, so the film is full of bold colors. The smallest of details help tell the filmmaker’s story.

In one scene, Edith and Lucille discuss butterflies and moths – which becomes a key visual metaphor in Crimson Peak. “The wardrobe Lucille wears is very tight, like a cocoon,” the director says. “When she finally reveals herself, she wears a a very butterfly-like gown, which opens like the wings of a moth when she runs down the stairs at one point. There are butterflies hidden in the wallpaper, in the floor pattern, in the costumes, and in the furniture. We made the furniture and props in two sizes, to make Edith look smaller when she’s scared. I made a lot of the windows round, so you can feel the house watching you. We did many, many more things like that. We had spikes that looked like pins that pin butterflies on the ceiling. The elevator is exactly the shape of the killing jar of the butterflies. There’s a lot. There’s an exhaustive amount of eye protein, not eye candy.”

Crimson Peak opens in theaters October 16th.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.