“Guillermo’s Got a Wonderfully Unhealthy Obsession with Insects”: Screenwriter Matthew Robbins on Crimson Peak
If screenwriter Matthew Robbins had penned the pivotal moments of his movie life, he might not have come up with anything better than the reality.
Robbins fell in love with movies in Paris while studying abroad alongside his college roommate, future editing legend Walter Murch. After writing Steven Spielberg’s debut theatrical feature (The Sugarland Express) and directing the fondly remembered 1980s fantasy films Dragonslayer and *batteries not included, Robbins found himself in Guadalajara, Mexico as part of a program to mentor aspiring filmmakers. He was assigned a 29-year-old with a fondness for insects and ghost stories named Guillermo del Toro.
More than two decades and ten screenplays later, the pair are still collaborators. Their latest screenwriting partnership is Crimson Peak, an opulent Gothic romance-cum-ghost story evoking Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Hammer, crafted with the principles of Hitchcock. Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film stars Mia Wasikowska as an aspiring writer who leaves behind the bustling industrial hub of Buffalo when she’s swept off her feet by title-rich but cash-poor British aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). The newlyweds relocate to Sharpe’s decaying ancestral home atop a red clay mine, where all manner of things go bump in the night, including Sharpe’s suspiciously overprotective sister (Jessica Chastain).
Robbins talked with Filmmaker about his fateful time in Paris, his working methods with del Toro, and crossing paths with François Truffaut.
Filmmaker: Tell me about this year you spent studying abroad in Paris with Walter Murch.
Robbins: Walter and I were undergraduate roommates at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and we persuaded our advisors to let us do a year at the Sorbonne in Paris. I was studying romance languages, with an emphasis on 19th and 20th Century French literature. We did the work and got the credit, but instead of going to class we often went to the movies. (laughs)
Filmmaker: This would’ve been around 1964, which is the tail end of the French New Wave explosion. What was the film scene in Paris like at that time?
Robbins: What was exciting to us was that everybody was interested in movies and talking about movies. The Cinémathèque (Française), which was in those days headed by the very famous Henri Langlois, used to have guests come in, frequently from the United States, to talk about their films. It really became our first taste of film school. We were self-educating ourselves at the Cinémathèque. We really caught the film bug in a serious way over there. In fact, when we came back to Johns Hopkins, we asked that they create a film studies program and they did it. We met once or twice a week our senior year and we published a little film magazine. (Walter and I) finished up (our undergraduate studies) and then both of us applied to (film school) at USC. All of that took root back in Paris.
Filmmaker: An aspiring screenwriter now has access to all these screenwriting guru books, published screenplays, and software like Final Draft. When you started at USC, what resources did you have?
Robbins: In those days I had no idea what a screenplay was. I was just in love with movies and the idea that you could do it as a living had barely occurred to me even when I arrived at USC. My family was rather academically oriented and if anything I think they assumed I would wind up teaching about film or film history. But the idea of becoming a professional and working at making movies, especially in Hollywood, was not on my radar at all.
My first exposure to screenwriting was at USC with a teacher named Irwin Blacker. He had been a working professional in Hollywood and he talked about screenwriting in a way that actually began to make it have a reality for me. We had to write four- or five- page scenes and he would read them aloud and we would critique (each others’ work). That’s my earliest exposure to the idea of screenwriting.
Filmmaker: When you started directing your own scripts in the 1980s, did your approach to screenwriting change? Did it make you more practical or force you to think about the logistics of scenes?
Robbins: No, I wasn’t smart enough to think logistically or pragmatically. I’m still not. (laughs) It’s much more of a chemical reaction when I get something I get excited about and the practicalities of shooting it don’t really enter into my mind. Even if the film is set on another planet or a mile underneath the ice of Antarctica like At the Mountains of Madness, I really don’t think about those things. I’m thinking about whether or not there’s enough of a catalyst in the premise to propel you through two hours of story.
Filmmaker: Your first screenwriting credit with Guillermo del Toro came back in 1997 on Mimic. How did you first meet?
Robbins: I was invited through the Sundance Institute to (participate) in a mentoring program where professionals work one-on-one with emerging writers. Then I was invited to go to Mexico, to Guadalajara, where a similar workshop was being established based on the Sundance model. They would get half-a-dozen working screenwriters to spend a week with young writer/directors from all over Central and South America. I was assigned this oddball 29-year-old character named Guillermo del Toro. We spent that week together and we basically never stopped talking. He had a whole bunch of ideas he wanted to develop and I just thought he was very interesting and exciting. And we’ve never been out of touch, 22 years later.
Filmmaker: Were there certain films or genres you bonded over?
Robbins: We both have an interest in horror and in fantasy. He was a huge fan of Dragonslayer. He knew that movie very, very well. He’s interested in all movie genres and so am I. I just love movies. So we had plenty to talk about. He has a wonderful sense of humor and we became very, very close friends.
Filmmaker: What are the specifics of your collaboration process?
Robbins: We spend a lot of time together in the early stages and we just talk and talk and talk. We take the greater part of that time making a blueprint of the movie. Before I start writing any pages and certainly before I write any dialogue, I like to create a roadmap to the movie. There’s software that I use for it now, but I used to use pushpins and 3×5 cards of various colors and then look at the whole thing and change it over and over. That process takes weeks.
That is the heavy lifting where Guillermo and I, more often than not, sit down together and work. Once we’re content that we have a pretty solid schematic of the movie and we know where we’re headed, I usually take it and go off on my own and very quickly burn through a first pass of the pages. Then Guillermo will take it and he’ll do his pass and we’ll send it back and forth and make revisions until finally we’re content that we’ve got something like a first draft. Then it’s ready to be shown to whoever it needs to be shown to. In the case of Crimson Peak it was originally going to be a Universal film, and they bought it from us. But eventually, because of the very wonderful relationship between Guillermo and Thomas Tull at Legendary Pictures, they took over the film and saw to getting it made.
Filmmaker: For Crimson Peak, what was the acorn? Did you start with a vision of the house? Or a specific character?
Robbins: The kernel of Crimson Peak that we got excited about was Guillermo’s notion that the protagonist could form a strange alliance with the very creatures that were initially so frightening. Then we invented the characters and the circumstances under which all of that could be put into motion.
The intention of this movie, from a dramatic point of view, was to see if we could create a movie in which not only are your expectations about a ghost story violated, but also where the real monsters, as Guillermo has pointed out, are the humans. And yet, by the end of the movie, as horrifying as they are, you can still feel something for them. The real complexity of this movie — if it has any, and I hope it does — is that the characters have enough of a tragic circumstance behind what they do that even though you can’t sympathize with them, you can empathize with them.
Filmmaker: During those early stages do you talk about a film’s potential visual style and references for that style?
Robbins: We certainly are both pretty conversant in some of the classics of the Gothic romance, most particularly Rebecca, The Innocents, and The Spiral Staircase. With regard to the look of the film, I’m certainly aware of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but it’s Guillermo who has an intense relationship with the visual style of those filmmakers. He is a superb designer and he has always had an interest in creating the haunted house of his dreams and he finally did it in Crimson Peak.
Filmmaker: I believe it’s a screenwriting faux pas to suggest shots in the screenplay, but since your work with Guillermo is intended to be directed by him, do you ever specify camera cues?
Robbins: Nobody calls shots anymore. It’s completely gone. Yet I try to find a way within the prose and the description of what’s happening to indicate what the focus is to whoever is reading the script. There are ways, without saying crane shot or medium shot or cut to close-up, within the prose to suggest what the shot should be or even what the lighting should be like. I think part of the pleasure is making the movie in your head while you are writing it.
Filmmaker: What is your research process like for a period piece such as Crimson Peak, particularly regarding the dialogue?
Robbins: Both of us read quite a bit of Edith Wharton and the Brontë sisters. You want to be careful not to put words into the mouths of the actors that are going to be difficult or strange to say, but you really want to find what we call the locutions of the era. You can do that just by going back and looking at what was written in that time. Edith Wharton was very appropriate because she wrote about upper middle class or high bourgeoisie life in New York in exactly that period. We actually named Mia’s character Edith for that very reason.
Filmmaker: How does the screenplay change once the actors are cast?
Robbins: By the time the actors were cast Guillermo was in preproduction in Toronto and he was responsible for the revisions that took place after he began rehearsing with them. All of those changes are Guillermo’s. He is very fond of writing biographies of each character. He invents backstories for each of the major characters — eight or ten pages of information about where they were born, how they were raised, what kind of relationship they had with their parents, where they went to school. All the details of a life that we never seen on screen. He gives those backstories to the actors and the actors are asked to internalize (the information) to understand how they have arrived at the point where the drama begins. In the case of Crimson Peak, there were certain things that the actors were told about their pasts, which they were not meant to share with the other actors. Secrets they didn’t want anyone to know and yet might affect how they behave in the story.
Filmmaker: Guillermo has been stressing that he views Crimson Peak as more Gothic romance than horror film. That fact, coupled with the old-fashioned techniques such as the iris transitions, lulled me into a false sense of security that is ruptured when, late in the first act, one the characters meets with an unexpectedly grisly end by way of bathroom sink.
Robbins: That scene, and the way it’s choreographed, shows Guillermo’s virtuoso staging and atmosphere. The implication when he’s shaving with the straight razor is that he’s going to have his throat cut, because that’s the coin of the realm in these types of movies. Then of course the straight razor has nothing to do with how he dies. We needed this scene to tell us in the first act that the stakes are going to be life and death.
Filmmaker: Before the story takes us from Buffalo, New York to the dilapidated mansion, there’s a scene in a park in which Jessica Chastain’s character delivers a monologue about black moths and butterflies. Talk about how that symbolism plays out with respect to the female leads.
Robbins: When you visit Guillermo and look at his notebooks, half of them consist of insects — drawings of praying mantises and cockroaches. Guillermo’s got a wonderfully unhealthy obsession with insects. When you look at the color scheme of the movie — how Edith is a beautiful butterfly in yellow and gold and Lucille (Chastain) is in black and maroon — it’s not exactly rocket science to understand what is happening with the parallel to the insect world.
Filmmaker: Very early in the film we learn that the siblings — though we don’t know specifics yet — have nefarious designs for Edith. Why did you and Guillermo decide to structure the film in a way that gives the audience much more information than the heroine?
Robbins: Both of us are Hitchcock fans — Guillermo even wrote a book about Hitchcock when he was a young man barely out of film school — and Hitchcock (believed) it was better that the audience knows something is brewing because that is how you generate suspense. I think that we made the same assumption, which is that you don’t have to have a tremendously active imagination when you meet a shabby pair of aristocrats like Lucille and Thomas to worry that something’s not right. It seemed to us there was no harm in the audience knowing that, yes indeed, something is not right.
Filmmaker: I read about that surprise vs. suspense theory of Hitchcock’s in the book-length interview Hitchcock did with François Truffaut, where he contrasts the surprise of a bomb exploding without warning to the suspense of showing the audience the bomb when the characters don’t know it exists. You spent some time with Truffaut while you were doing re-writes on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Can you a share a story from that experience?
Robbins: (Truffaut) had been on that movie for weeks by the time (my writing partner Hal Barwood and I) went down to Mobile, Alabama for the shoot. We were making changes and additions to that screenplay and (Truffaut) discovered that I was a French speaker. He was so grateful to have somebody on that set with whom he could converse. So I got to spend time with him. We talked about movies and his role and Steven (Spielberg). He was very impressed with Spielberg and Steven’s command of the medium and the fluidity of the camera style on that film. He had a trailer on the set where we used to hang out. He had a typewriter in there and he was writing his next film. That was one of the great experiences of my early days as a filmmaker.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.