Recently, we sat down to speak once again with Dan Laustsen, the Danish cinematographer nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work in Nightmare Alley. Previously, Joey spoke to Laustsen here, but we’re delighted to present a follow-up conversation after his second Oscar nod. His career as an award-winning cinematographer in both the United States and Denmark spans over four decades. Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a neo-noir film based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsey Gresham about a psychic conman named Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). The neo-noir has been nominated for several other Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Production Design. In 2018, Laustsen earned his first nomination for an Academy Award for his cinematography in another del Toro film, The Shape of Water.
Laustsen first worked with del Tor in 1997 during Mimic’s shoot. I asked the cinematographer how his collaboration style with Guillermo del Toro transformed over the years. They have collaborated on four films from the late 1990s to the present day: Mimic, Crimson Peak, Shape of Water, and Nightmare Alley. Laustsen said, “In the beginning, we didn’t know each other at all. I was doing my second American film, and he (del Toro) was doing his first. He asked me to do Mimic, and I saw his first film Cronos. I was very impressed by that. I was very thrilled to start to work with him.”
Guillermo bonded with Laustsen because he is a visual director. All these years working together has vastly improved their collaborations. Laustsen and del Toro know a lot about each other. They can work closely together to get precisely what the story needs. Laustsen ended his thought by talking about how he feels about working with del Toro, “I think he’s a master of cinema. So, for me, it is fantastic.”
B & W AND COLOR VERSIONS
In December 2021, the neo-noir film was initially released in color, but a month later, a black and white version titled Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light was screened in limited release. Laustsen spoke about how he and del Toro talked about how Nightmare Alley should be shot in color but lit like a black and white film. He said, “We used sync source lighting, contrast lighting, and made sure the highlights were high enough. That way, we could create a black and white version if we wanted to do that.” Still, Laustsen had no idea del Toro planned to create a black and white version.
Laustsen gave some examples of the type of lighting he used in Nightmare Alley. He couldn’t use classic noir lighting because it’s designed for black and white films. However, Laustsen tried to get as close to those techniques as possible. Laustsen explained, “There was a lot of sync lighting, exact lighting. There was Classic Hollywood lighting but done for color.”
During interviews, del Toro has spoken about how circles are a motif in Nightmare Alley. I asked Laustsen how the circle motifs influenced his cinematography style. He talked about how masterful production designer Tamara Deverell spoke to him about the circle motifs in the set pieces. He explained, “When Brad (referring to Bradley Cooper) is going into surgery (Dr. Lilith Ritter’s office), we follow him; we do that a lot, follow him behind, you know, a lot of the times we are pushing behind Bradley or other actors. So that was, of course, something we talked about, you know, how we could make Cate’s (referring to Cate Blanchett, who plays Lilith) office long and narrow. And we see ceilings, but we have this feeling about going into tunnels all the time. Tamara, Guillermo, and I had the idea to push behind actors to push into hallways, tunnels, and stuff like that.”
I went on to ask Laustsen if he came up with different looks for the main characters, for example, Stan Carlisle or Dr. Lilith Ritter, while shooting. He shared, “As I said in the beginning when we were shooting at the carnival, there was simpler lighting set up, you know, a singular, like softer lights, a little bit more naturalistic. When we came into the bustle of the city, we got more stylized.” Laustsen spoke about how with Cate Blanchett, they used intense noir lighting that covered everything in shadows. He wanted Lilith to look like a movie star.
Laustsen spoke about what it was like shooting during COVID times. The Nightmare Alley shoot had to go on an extended hiatus because of the pandemic. Months later, they returned to finish shooting fifty-five percent of the film. Laustsen explained, “When we shut down, everybody thought we were going to come back in two weeks, you know? I was like should I stay? Should I go back to Copenhagen? And then suddenly you realize you are. This is a pandemic. You must go home. And when we came back, everything had changed because we had to wear masks and face shields and keep six feet apart. Everybody had to spread out. We (referring to him and del Toro) could no longer share the same monitor. We had to be at two different monitors.” Laustsen feels the production did a good job even with all the new regulations. However, he missed the close bond of the crew because they were forced to social distance.
ALEXA65 & GOOD LUCK
We finished the interview by asking Laustsen why he shot Nightmare Alley with an Alexa65 instead of a film camera. He stated, “We had that discussion, Guillermo, and me, many years ago when we started to shoot Crimson Peak. Should we stay in the digital world? Or should we go back to film?” Laustsen and del Toro thought they should stay with the Alexa65 because it works well for a neo-noir. He further explained, “It was just the whole thing about the workflow. Alexa 65 is a big camera sensor meaning the depth of field is small, which feels much more correct for this kind of movie.”
Laustsen was an absolute joy to interview and a master at his craft. Everybody should check out Nightmare Alley to see his gorgeous cinematography in action. Awards Radar wishes Dan Laustsen good luck with his Academy Award nomination!