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"Making of" Classic Cinema Filmmakers

Book Interview: Guillermo Del Toro — The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work

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Publisher: Quarto Press

Release Date: November 09, 2021

A Conversation with Ian Nathan

Ian Nathan’s wonderful “Iconic Filmmakers” series is continued with this lovely coffee table-style book about the work of Guillermo Del Toro. Those who have already discovered this wonderful series of coffee table books know that they can expect a “complete and intimate study of the life and work of one of modern cinema’s most truly unique directors, whose distinct aesthetic and imagination are unmatched in contemporary film” as Nathan “charts the progression of a career that has produced some of contemporary cinema’s most revered scenes and idiosyncratic characters. This detailed examination looks at how the strands of Del Toro’s career have woven together to create one of modern cinema’s most ground-breaking bodies of work.” The book is an excellent blend of career biography, production information, and analysis that attempts to delve into the director’s psyche. “The book starts by examining his beginnings in Mexico, the creative but isolated child surrounded by ornate Catholicism and monster magazines, filming stop motion battles between his toys on a Super-8 film camera” before following him through film school and eventually into the productions of some of cinemas most unique films.  The book is illustrated with rich and alluring production photographs, and thematic illustrations that enhance Nathan’s text. There is even an eight-page “gatefold section” that offers a career timeline.

The books author, Ian Nathan, lives and works in London as one of the UK’s best-known film writers. He is the author of nine previous books — including Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-earth, Alien VaultTerminator Vault, and the other books in his “Iconic Filmmakers” series (which includes volumes on Tim Burton, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson). He is the former editor and executive editor of Empire, the world’s biggest movie magazine, where he remains a contributing editor. He also regularly contributes to The TimesThe IndependentThe Mail on SundayCahiers Du Cinema, and the Discovering Film documentary series on Sky Arts. Needless to say, we are honored to have an opportunity to discuss this new volume with the author.

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CL: First of all, I would just like to thank you for sitting down to answer a few questions about this excellent series of volumes about contemporary “Iconic Filmmakers.” Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first begin your career as a writer?

IN: This is a long story. The key moment really came as a student, when I was given the entertainment desk on the university newspaper. I had always loved film, almost to an obsessive level, but the chance to express my opinion about what I had seen was transformative – it was a real road to Damascus event, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Then a montage: local newspapers, freelance writing, getting into magazines, joining the staff of Empire (Europe’s biggest film magazine), rising within the ranks to editor. And then, years later, books…

CL: I’m curious as to who you would choose as your favorite filmmaker of all time. Who has made the biggest impression on you as a cinephile?

IN: This is so hard. I’m married to the sheer variety that cinema offers, but I’ll cheat and pick two (out of the multitudes). Billy Wilder managed to squeeze such darkness into his comedies and such life into his dramas. The Apartment is a masterpiece. And the films of the Coen brothers endlessly intrigue me. Every time I return to the likes of Miller’s Crossing or Barton Fink or Fargo, they offer something new.

CL: If the world was burning and you had a chance to save one single film, which film would you rescue from destruction?

IN: One film? Out of all of them? You are cruel. But the world is burning, so I’m going to grab Blade Runner. It has haunted me since the day I saw it in the cinema, aged 12, and I couldn’t imagine not returning to its dystopian embrace.

CL: How was the “Iconic Filmmakers” series was born, and how do you choose which filmmakers to cover for the series?

IN: Well, I had written a couple of books for the publisher, and we got into a discussion about potential books on directors. At that stage, it was picking a director I might want to write about and what might be appealing to a potential readership. Out of that came Tim Burton, and the series was underway. Each choice comes via a mix of things: my passion, a director with a cult following, and a fitting visual palate so the book will look good. (I always joke that you should be able to hang an “esque” on the end of their names: Burtonesque or Tarantinoesque.) Market forces come into play. It is always a discussion with the publisher about what might sell. If the chosen subject has a forthcoming project, so much the better.

CL:  How do the volumes in this series differ from similar books that focus on a particular filmmaker’s work?

IN: Well, the “Iconic” element of the title is important. As I mentioned, the director has to have a personality that inspires a following. It isn’t simply about successful directors. It’s about those who have reshaped the world of film, who have the capacity to surprise us, while having a very distinctive style, ready to be deciphered. You know when you’re watching a film by Quentin Tarantino, the Coens, or Wes Anderson.

CL:  Do you have a favorite out of the books that you have written so far — particularly out of those in the series?

IN: You’re asking me to choose between my children. In terms of the series, each has brought its own pleasures and challenges. It’s never easy to sum up the work of iconic directors. Out of them all, both the Wes Anderson and the Del Toro books feel like I have cracked something of the mystery. Outside of the Iconic Filmmakers series, I’m very proud of a book I wrote on Ridley Scott, plus a more recent tome, The Coppolas: A Movie Dynasty.

CL: How does Guillermo Del Toro stand apart from his contemporaries, and what are the qualities that define him as an artist?

IN: Wow, you could say I’ve written an entire book on this very subject! I’ll try and boil it down. What I love about his work is that he has become a hugely successful Hollywood filmmaker without ever relinquishing his Mexican heart. In fact, that passion and exoticism is what has allowed him to thrive. He is tuned to a more primal part of storytelling — the myths and legends on which the world turn. Fairy-tales are his medium, and he understands how they convey great meaning about the human heart. No one has used fantasy quite as he has done. While he has only made one film on home soil, he still draws deep on the Mexican mix of religion and mysticism. He is also one of the last great physical filmmakers, building sets and props and mechanical creatures to maintain that tactile richness to his creations.

CL: Do you have a favorite Del Toro film?

IN: It’s interesting. Before I begin these books, I write out my order of preference for the films of the director in question. Then once I’ve finished, I do it again to see if the order has changed. And it always does. Hellboy and Cronos moved up in my estimation, but my favourites remained the same. Depending on how I’m feeling it’s either Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone. I think Del Toro might agree.

CL: Were there any unique challenges to covering the career of Guillermo Del Toro that you didn’t face when writing about other artists?

IN: The biggest challenge was sifting through the sheer volume of material that Del Toro presents to the movie archeologist. He is an extraordinary voice on his own work – like a living biography, which is thrilling. Indeed, he has discussed his films in such depth, noting the many references, that the book could have been three times the length. I say it in the book, he could have been a great critic. Interviewing him is like standing in a waterfall, but that can feel overwhelming at times. Wrestling the story into shape was tough.

CL: The book discusses a number of “unborn films” — or projects that Del Toro was forced to abandon. Which of these films would you most like to see receive a future greenlight?

IN: I know that most would opt for the curiosity of what Del Toro’s Hobbit films might have been like or the icy magnitude of his beloved Lovecraft adaptation At the Mountains of Madness, but I would choose The Left Hand of Darkness. This was Del Toro’s Mexican spin on The Count of Monte Cristo — a  hugely important book to him — that in his hands would have been transformed into a gothic Western. I’ve read the script, and while there are bizarre and wonderful steampunk elements, it stays true to the roots of its genre. And being set in the country of his birth, it would have been both epic and personal.

CL:  Do you believe that the director’s approach to creature design is different from other filmmakers? What sets his creations apart from those found in other films?

IN: I do, very much so. Given his process of storytelling begins with design, sketching out his creatures and annotating them in his fabulous, leather-bound notebooks (themselves a trove of del Toro lore), there is something highly individual about the look and feel of his creatures. They are rarely there simply to frighten us (though often they do). They possess a physicality — he avoids CGI if possible — and embody the themes of his stories. You can tell his heart is with the beasts, maybe he sees himself in them. The aquatic man of The Shape of Water is his leading man! It is the humans who are more often the true monsters.

CL: Which of the director’s iconic monsters is your personal favorite?

IN: Wow, there are so many: the insects in Mimic, the great kaiju of Pacific Rim, half the cast of Hellboy. Since you’ve cornered me, I will opt for a creature that has so much presence, he’s truly unforgettable. The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth leans toward the terrifying, with his eyeballs on the plate in front of him, ready to be inserted into the palms of his hands, but del Toro also saw him as a vision of the rich and corrupt in Spain doing nothing as the masses starve. Note how he lords it over the feast, and we cross cut with the dinner table of the wealthy locals and the fascist captain.

CL: The Pale Man is my personal favorite as well. Can readers expect future volumes in the series?

IN: They certainly can. I’m not permitted to reveal too much at this stage, suffice to say that I am well underway on the next book in the series. The director in question presents very different challenges to previous subjects. I’ll give you a single word: “cerebral.” It’s always interesting how much the personality and films of the individual shapes the book in question. This book will look and feel very different to previous entries, but, boy, will it be gorgeous. Let the guessing game commence.

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"Making of" Classic Cinema

Book Review: Dark City — The Lost World of Film Noir (Revised and Expanded Edition)

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Publisher: Running Press

Release Date: July 20, 2021

“When I did this book I thought it’d be a fun one-off project. I was so burned out on exploitation films after Grindhouse that I just wanted to write about movies I actually liked.” —Eddie Muller

The “Grindhouse” mentioned in the above quote refers to Muller’s “Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of Adults Only Cinema.” That particular book is just another in a long line of texts penned by Muller, but it is fairly safe to say that the author found his niche with this book as he has gone on to write a number of other books about the genre and is often referred to as the “Czar of Noir.” Disciples of Turner Classic Movies will also recognize both his name and visage as the host of Noir Alley, and he also founded the ‘Film Noir Foundation’ in an effort to restore and preserve lost Noir classics.

Needless to say, the man knows his subject, but what is especially interesting about Dark City is the book’s unique style which will be quite recognizable to anyone familiar with the genre. The book is a tour through a great many of the genre’s best films with a few biological pit stops along the way to inform readers about the actors and filmmakers responsible for those films. (It’s worth mentioning that many of these individuals lived lives that read almost like a synopsis for some of these films, and this fact isn’t lost on Muller.) This “revised and expanded edition” of the book includes new chapters and a “fresh collection of restored photographs” that are certain to thrill cinephiles who adore the genre, and one wonders if it is even possible to be a cinephiles without also having an appreciation for noir since it is one of the most cinematic of all genres. Those looking for classic films that may have escaped their radar could do worse than Dark City for viewing inspiration, and those familiar with the films discussed are likely to enhance their appreciation of these classics.

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"Making of" Classic Cinema

Book Review: Alright, Alright, Alright – The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’

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Publisher: Harper

Release Date: November 17, 2020

Melissa Maerz’s Alright, Alright, Alright – The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ is what it claims to be. The text reads a lot like a transcript from the interview portion of a comprehensive “behind the scenes” documentary of the film in a lot of ways. Each chapter is given an extremely brief introduction to orient the reader before presenting a well-organized array of interview snippets (or quotations) that tell the story of the film’s creation. However, the information gleaned from this approach is largely anecdotal and concentrates on the individual experiences of making the film. It certainly isn’t a comprehensive account of the film’s creation. There is more about the interpersonal relationships than there is about the filmmaking itself, and this is probably the book’s primary weakness. Luckily, it is an extremely enjoyable read if you happen to be a fan of Linklater’s sophomore effort, and the book does offer a fair assortment of viewpoints so that the anecdotes relayed aren’t too one sided. Recommended.

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"Making of"

Book Review: The Secrets of Tenet – Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War

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Publisher: Insight Editions

Release Date: September 15, 2020

It must be said that The Secrets of Tenet – Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War took me by surprise. Most books of this sort tend to offer a somewhat superficial glimpse at a films production while relying on an excess of photographs to pad the sparse information provided. At best, one can call these attractive coffee table books “collector’s items,” but they are all gloss without any substance.

At first glance, James Mottram’s examination of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet seems as if it might follow this same pattern. After all, the book offers an incredibly rich assortment of photographs and is only 156 pages long. However, there is actually a rather interesting textual examination of the film’s production, and the “behind the scenes” photographs are hardly superfluous. They offer a revelatory look at the process and will certainly please Nolan’s many devotees. It’s a pleasure to scroll through the book’s pages.

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Those fortunate enough to own Mottram’s earlier examination of The Making of Dunkirk will have some idea as to what they can expect with this volume. It earns an easy recommendation for fans of the film and for anyone who admires Nolan’s work.

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"Making of" Directing Filmmakers

Book Review: My Best Friend’s Birthday – The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film

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Publisher: BearManor Media

Release Date: October 06, 2019

My Best Friend’s Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film is a book that few expected. The film discussed wasn’t even completed, and most books on the director relegate this abandoned effort to a mere footnote. Andrew J. Rausch hopes to remedy this unfortunate tendency amongst Tarantino scholars. The writer interviewed a great many of those who worked on the project—including Tarantino himself—and presents these textual interview snippets in an order that traces how each of these people came together, other early film projects they worked on, and how they ended up making (or trying to make) a black-and-white screwball comedy. The final section of the book is a breakdown of the film as it would have been if it had been completed. He also makes the argument that My Best Friend’s Birthday is something far more meaningful than a curiosity. After all, the film’s production was a formative experience in Tarantino’s life. It helped shape his voice and prepared him for bigger and better projects. If the book has a weakness, it is that the “oral history” nature of the text results in a book that is sometimes slightly repetitive. However, one imagines that scholars and fans will be thrilled to have this information available to them as it offers a relatively detailed account of a part of Tarantino’s history that has been largely reduced to mere trivia until now.

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"Making of" Classic Cinema Production Design

Book Review: Joe Alves – Designing ‘Jaws’

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Publisher: Titan Books

Release Date: December 03, 2019

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is one of the most enduring movies ever made. It has thrilled generations of audiences worldwide, and it is no wonder why there have been several books devoted to telling the story of the film’s production. On the surface, it may seem that another book on the subject is superfluous, but Dennis Prince’s beautiful new coffee table book zeros in on the enormous contributions of Joe Alves (the film’s production designer). Included are Joes’ stunning pre-production illustrations; handwritten location and production notes; on-set photographs; blueprints of the shark’s design and first-time publication of his complete catalogue of storyboards used to chart the heart-stopping action. Designing Jaws proves that there is still quite a bit more to learn about the film’s creation, and it adds to one’s appreciation of the film. Scholars will reference the book and fans will treasure it.

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"Making of" Classic Cinema Filmmakers

Book Review: Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film (40th Anniversary Edition)

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Publisher: Quarto Press

Release Date: November 19, 2019

For 40 years, audiences have been simultaneously captivated and appalled as the spaceship Nostromo is invaded and its crew stalked by a terrifying parasitic creature. From the gore of the infant alien bursting from Kane’s chest to the mounting claustrophobia as Ripley discovers the monster has followed her into the escape shuttle, Alien is a chilling masterpiece. It is a film that deserves an excellent “Making of” text, but are two texts really necessary?

Quarto Press is giving Ian Nathan’s Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film a 40th Anniversary edition that falls on the heels of J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Alien—a larger and longer coffee table epic that this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed. However, there is something to be said for Ian Nathan’s original book, which manages to be just as gorgeous and engaging as Rinzler’s later work.

There is plenty of informational overlap, and both books contain some of the same production photographs. However, there are enough differences to recommend both texts to die-hard Alien fanatics. Both books trace the path of the film’s production “from embryonic concept to fully fledged box office phenomenon,” but there are differences in their delivery and a few nuggets of information that don’t cross over. What’s more, both books include a wealth of production photography, sketches, storyboards, and all sorts of pertinent visual documentation.

In fact, Nathan’s book adds icing to the cake by adding two compartments containing “ten meticulously reproduced artifacts—such as replications of storyboards, a detailed schematic of the Nostromo, early designs of O’Bannon’s face-hugger concept, and a promotional poster from Japan.” It’s a nice tactile bonus for fans to enjoy. What’s more, this 40th Anniversary edition has an added chapter that discusses “Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien saga with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.” Better yet, lends this text added legitimacy by providing the book’s forward.

In other words, each book is nice enough to warrant a special place on the cinephile’s bookshelf. Casual fans who prefer to only add one book to their collection may find the Rinzler text a bit more substantial, but don’t proceed under the illusion that you aren’t missing anything by not examining Nathan’s beautiful book.

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"Making of" Directing Filmmakers

Book Review: Quentin Tarantino — The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work

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Publisher: Quarto Press

Release Date: October 01, 2019

Those who have read Ian Nathan’s wonderful book about the Coen Brothers (The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmaker’s and Their Work) will know what to expect on this even better book about Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. One could call it a career biography as it is a nice fusion of scholarly analysis and “behind the scenes” information. Tarantino fans will want to have this on their shelves as it makes for terrific bedtime reading, and film scholars will be happy to have it as a resource (especially since there aren’t that many books about Quentin’s work). The book covers each of the director’s nine primary films—including Once Upon A Time In Hollywood—as well as those he wrote but didn’t direct (True Romance, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Natural Born Killers). Honestly, I am going to keep an eye out for any future books written by Ian Nathan.

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"Making of" Classic Cinema

Book Review: The Making of ‘Alien’

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Publisher: Titan Books

Release Date: July 23. 2019

Titan Books is marketing the book as “the definitive work on this masterpiece of popular cinema,” but it is difficult not to become skeptical about these so-called “making of” coffee table books. They are too often anemic in terms of actual information, and the often gorgeous production photography tends to feel like padding. This isn’t at all the case here as J.W. Rinzler’s text is surprisingly comprehensive. It covers each stage of the filmmaking process in rich detail, and the sometimes rare production photography is icing on a very enjoyable cake. It’s an essential book for fans of the film (although they are certain to already know at least some of the information presented here).

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"Making of"

Book Review: Rocketman – Inside the World of the Film

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Publisher: Carlton Books

Release Date: May 21, 2019

Elton John bestows his personal blessings upon this book by providing this book with a forward, but one feels that Rocketman: Inside the World of the Film may have limited appeal for casual fans of the film. Much like their earlier book about Bohemian Rhapsody, Carlton’s beautifully illustrated book about Rocketman is short on actual information. There are plenty of textual quotes and blurbs about the film’s production, but they aren’t terribly revelatory. It seems as if it has all been chosen from the film’s press book (and it probably was taken from the same promotional interviews). However, while Bohemian Rhapsody: The Inside Story claimed to be an all-access glimpse at the production of that film only to disappoint fans who were expecting this to be the case, Rocketman: Inside the World of the Film makes no such claim. In fact, the marketing materials describe the book quite admirably. It merely claims that this book “contains a wealth of amazing photographs from throughout the development and shooting of the movie as well as quotes and interviews from the cast and crew.” However, they may be stretching a point by claiming that it provides “a fascinating insight into how the film was made.” The production photographs are the meat and potatoes of this book. It’s a book for the die-hard fans of the film. It may also become a collectable as one doubts that this book tie-in will see many future printings, but those hoping for a comprehensive “making of” text are likely to be disappointed.

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