Del Toro “wanted to create a really classical lush lavish gothic romance,” he said, in the vein of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” “It hasn’t been done in a while, there are always female-centric movies that have very strong protagonists… Many times in some of these movies the girl ends up a damsel in distress. I wanted to create a tale that’s a classical straight gothic romance but certain twists are a little more gender liberated, a little more about being yourself. I’m conscious about this with two daughters, we live in a world with a secret gender war. As storytellers it’s our duty to take these great genres and retell them.”
The filmmaker provided the actors with dense character biographies, with 10-15 pages of their life stories, with star signs, dates of birth and secrets he didn’t want them to tell each other, said Hiddleston: “Guillermo has an enormous imagination, and getting to live inside it with all this detail and rigor and precision was a huge pleasure.” The film is all about the secrets we carry, he said. “Every character in this film is either weighed down or liberated by what’s happened in the past. The house itself is the past and witness to what happened, it saw and heard everything. There’s an exciting tension on the film, every character is struggling to create their own destiny, that’s fun.”
Before shooting, del Toro enjoys the discovery process of sitting down at a table with his actors and discussing their biographies, what they like and don’t like. “You then come out of the meetings supercharged,” he said. He also adds their input to the audiovisuals: set design, dialogue and staging. “Lucile’s bedroom, for example, came out of these discussions, every little piece in there tells you something about her. I write these movies on paper but they get written on film. Every part was tailored to the actor doing it.
“I liked Lucile’s bedroom, every corner was filled with something, it’s all spoilers,” said Chastain, who plays the Mrs. Danvers-like sister of handsome Thomas Sharpe, who brings home an innocent young bride who has no idea what she’s getting into. Chastain loved Lucile: “She breaks my heart. She’s fiercely loyal. And she acts out of love. It’s her way to give and receive love.”
While Chastain and Hiddleston are familiar with vampires and horror tropes, Mia Wasikowska was “new to the genre and the concept of horror,” she said. “Guillermo gave me a copy of ‘Frankenstein,’ it was an education in why it’s important and how we learn about ourselves through our fears. It was great to have Guillermo as a guide to this new world.”
Del Toro wanted the movie to not only be “scary,” but “gorgeous,” he said.” Of my three favorite movies I’ve done, this is the most beautiful movie I have made.”
That’s partly because the director insisted on building the massive four-story gothic mansion, including an elegantly detailed period bathroom and bedrooms packed with character details.
“The great hall I found just jaw-dropping,” said Hiddleston, who replaced the originally cast Benedict Cumberbatch. “The Sharpe’s house in Cumberland, in the North of England, was built on a soundstage in Toronto. It was breathtaking, three to four stories with a working elevator. If you trod on floorboards, the clay under the house would seep across the floor. It was the most extraordinary set I’ve sever seen. I was sad when they had to tear it down.”
The last act of the film “is an emotional rollercoaster,” said Hiddleston. “It exists at a very intense pitch. And we all had to hold hands and battle through, it can take it out of you some days… Most actors are fascinated by extremity, by what happens when people are tested by physical, psychological or emotional challenges they have to overcome. I personally find the last 45 minutes of the film headlong and thrilling, there’s twist after twist and you don’t know where it’s going to go!”
Bring it on! Here’s the panel video.