Guillermo del Toro has always been great at morphing genres into his own deliciously baroque stew, and, with “Crimson Peak,” he magnificently turns the Gothic romance and haunted ghost story on their heads in classical fashion. For cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who last worked with del Toro on “The Mimic,” it was a refreshing return to a brightly-colored palette after a string of desaturated movies (including “Brotherhood of the Wolf”).
More of a twisted love triangle between Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain than supernatural horror, del Toro and Laustsen focused on contrasts to highlight good and evil, innocence and corruption, love and hate.
“Guillermo’s approach was to do something very colorful and very dramatic and go old-fashioned,” recalled Laustsen. “And I’m very much into this deep, deep shadowing but you still see the set, the wardrobe and the actors. And we went back to the cold steel blue of ‘Mimic’ for the nighttime and matching that with the very warm amber of the faces. So for me, it was just trying to walk into a new door I hadn’t been in for a long time because I’ve been shooting desaturated.”
Laustsen used Arri Alexa using Master Prime lenses, shooting wide open and taking advantage of flickering candlelight for romance as well as chills. Of course, they used an assortment of cranes, dollies and Steadicams, yet there’s not a single hand-held shot as part of del Toro’s throwback strategy for inhabiting spaces. “It’s a very dark movie but you see what you need to see,” added Laustsen.
For an early ballroom dance sequence between the waltzing Wasikowska and Hiddleston, the set was low but they wanted to shoot 360, so they put small Kino Flo lights up on the chandeliers to control the direction of the lights when moving the camera. “I think that scene has a very nice feeling and it’s a little bit backlit,” Laustsen suggested. “We had some light on the ground but most of the light came from this rig in the ceiling. Again, we have steel blue on the rainy windows to give it [added drama].”
During a grisly murder scene in a steamy bathroom, they went for a warm look and used steam and silhouette to obscure the killer. Yet they still got some blue in the backlighting during the setup to stay away from a monochromatic look.
However, the centerpiece of the movie occurs in the ancestral home of Hiddleston and Chastain: the crumbling Allerdale Hall, which was a large set built at Pinewood Toronto Studios. “We wanted steel blue on walls and windows, even in the daytime, and the house was breathing with fireplaces,” Laustsen continued.
When Wasikowska sits and reads letters in front of the large window and is shaken by the discovery of Hiddelston’s treachery, it was important to contrast the difference between the warm and cold light. Thus, the steel blue moonlight offsets the candlelit warmth on her face. “We’re using the shadows and you’re feeling the reflections of the house. She’s not alone but alone in her soul. And, of course, then she’s running through the house and going out the front door and there’s a big storm out there. There’s no moonlight but, again, steel blue atmospheric light.”
Finally, there’s the creepy Crimson Peak look that evokes Poe or Bava, with red clay oozing up from the mine below and staining the house and snow.
“We talked a lot about the innocence of the snow and then, of course, this feeling of the blood coming out of the snow as dramatic counterpoint,” Laustsen suggested. “You could say that the red was just coming from the clay mine or from the blood [of the victims]. It’s all a matter of which way you want to see it.”