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A Book That Breathes

Guillermo del Toro’s new film, The Shape of Water, is earning rave reviews and awards on the festival circuit, but those of us in the “wide release” market will have to wait until December for our first look at the Mexican director’s romantic creature-feature. If you’re hungry for more of the richly imagined worlds for which del Toro is famous, 2015’s Crimson Peak offers sustenance to even the most ravenous of viewers. A generous storyteller, del Toro’s work is always steeped in tradition while maintaining a trademark originality. “Guillermo works a lot like a chef in a kitchen,” recalls Crimson Peak’s special makeup effects artist, David Marti. “He takes this from here, this from there, and makes his own thing.” For those who like to see how the sausage gets made, Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness by Mark Salisbury offers delicious insights into the making of the film, and more than a few glimpses of how del Toro invests himself in every note of it.

“It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with a ghost in it.”

Gothic romance is a neglected genre, rarely visited and often misunderstood. Since the turn of the century, only a few films truly fall into the category (Cary Fukunaga’s 2007 adaptation of Jane Eyre is a notable standout) but del Toro is second to none in his understanding and deep appreciation of its form and possibility. Crimson Peak walks the same path as Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious, Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck, and Clayton’s The Innocents, but del Toro says his movie’s influences are based more in books and paintings than films. Salisbury’s book acts as a sort of syllabus, touching on authors like Poe and Austen, DuMaurier and Dickens, a sumptuous reading list for genre enthusiasts, as well as paintings by Sir John Everett Millais and Edward Hopper that informed the looks of characters and sets. Frustratingly, these paintings are not reproduced in the book itself, so it’s recommended to read this book with Google close at hand.

The book itself feels heavy with color. Printed in silver ink on black paper, with deep yellows, shocking reds, and ethereal blues, The Art of Darkness shows the same reverence for design as del Toro’s film. It’s a beautiful, weighty book and comes with a number of charming features; character biographies are inserted into the book on removable pamphlets (though remove them with care as they do not always reattach securely); pages unfold to reveal blueprints of sets and details of architectural flourishes; a poster is tucked in a pocket in the back cover. Stills from the film are presented alongside concept art, photographs of exquisitely detailed maquettes (try to tell the difference between the preliminary model and the finished set) and portraits of the characters, posed and on set during filming. It is an exceptionally pretty book.

Del Toro himself comments on the difference between eye candy and “eye protein,” saying “the latter actually nourishes the storytelling values of a film.” If Crimson Peak is the meal, then The Art of Darkness is the recipe book. Peppered with interviews from del Toro, costume designer Kate Hawley, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, sound designer Randy Thom, and several members of the special effects and makeup departments, insights come thick and fast as the book takes us through the history, the psychology, and the looks of each major character; Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunham), Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), as well as the film’s haunted mansion, Allerdale Hall, and the ghosts that reside therein.

No one benefits more from this additional illumination than Jessica Chastain’s character, Lucille Sharpe. With (arguably) the most tragic backstory, it’s fascinating to dive beneath the surface of this frighteningly twisted character. “I’m confused,” recalls Chastain, “because everyone says villains are the most fun to play… With Lucille, everything comes from her pain and her absolute loneliness.” Chastain endured some real pain to play Lucille, having prosthetic scars applied to her back every day of filming (even on days they wouldn’t be seen), but had to stop this process when an allergic reaction to the makeup threatened the development of real scars. When the marks on Lucille’s back are revealed towards the end of the film they complete the picture of her horrific upbringing, but The Art of Darkness points to something subtler; a small, barely visible scar on Lucille’s upper lip, hiding in plain sight. Reader, I gasped (Real talk: the photographs of Chastain in this book are jaw-dropping). Eagle-eyed viewers may have picked up on this detail, but to my poor eyes it spoke to a quiet underlying sadness in Lucille. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins gave the character more than a few bombastic wounds, but this tiny scar that she sees whenever she looks in the mirror, that lives with her in her loneliness, speaks louder and tells more.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a filmmaker who speaks as charmingly about his characters as Guillermo del Toro, but his creative team gives him a run for his money. Edith is compared to “a droplet of gold,” while Thomas and Lucille are “ink-black shadows.” The ghosts are described as “crushed by the weight of time,” while the ceilings of the grand house are “a meal.” It’s a rich, earthy passion that permeates the interviews in this book; each department comes across as utterly paramount in their contributions, and it would be a challenge to pick one that dedicated themselves more than the others. Wonderful to see is del Toro’s personal, hands-on contribution to every one of these departments; the co-writer & director sketched character designs in his famous notebooks, recorded foley work (including ghostly moans heard in the film, and crunching pork rinds to simulate the sound of bones), and saved the production money by placing chickens in an outdoor market scene instead of pigs, which are apparently more expensive to film. Who knew?1

The interviews portray the swagger and shrewdness of professionals at the top of their fields, but none more so than del Toro. His passion runs deep and it shows in every sentence.

When it comes to page-count coverage, Lucille Sharpe is rivalled only by the massive set for Allerdale Hall, the titular “Crimson Peak.” Built in one piece on a massive Toronto soundstage, the sumptuously designed set is detailed to the nth degree, complete with hidden messages and furniture built to different scales to highlight characters’ power or frailty. Allerdale Hall is referred to as “a house that breathes,” and the same can be said of both the film and this book. Crimson Peak, along with The Art of Darkness, and much like the Allerdale Hall set, contains massive stories. The closer you look, the more generous the detail. Looking at the book now, I know it contains secrets.

  1. The answer is, of course, Guillermo del Toro knew.