A Conversation with Screenwriter Matthew Robbins

After spending his junior year in Paris watching movies with Johns Hopkins roommate Walter Murch and graduate film school at USC, Matthew Robbins began his long and distinguished career in screenwriting and directing with contributions to George Lucas’s first feature, THX1138, followed in rapid succession by Sugarland Express with Steven Spielberg, Corvette Summer, The Bingo Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings, Dragonslayer, and batteries not included—a still timely tale of alien gadgets from outer space who put the kibosh on urban gentrification.

In the 1990s, mentoring an up-and-coming young Guadalajaran through a film program in that city led Robbins to a rich collaboration with the director Guillermo del Toro that so far has produced Mimic, the remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and Crimson Peak, which was released last month on DVD, and today on Netflix.

From his home in west Marin County Robbins spoke with me about Crimson Peak, the Gothic romance, and a trunkful of movie scripts he and del Toro have yet to make.

—Victoria Nelson


VICTORIA NELSON:  After twenty years of working together, you know Guillermo del Toro very well. What do you feel are the qualities you bring to this relationship that Guillermo doesn’t, and what are the qualities he brings to it that you don’t?

MATTHEW ROBBINS: Guillermo is a master director, a multitalented leader who has a tremendous empathetic way with his actors and command of the camera. His staging is inventive and he’s also fascinated with design and style—he’s got the whole package for leading a big orchestra every day. He also has the gift of having obsessions, which is very useful for a film director. Guillermo’s obsessions [insects, mechanical devices, ghosts, the Gothic, many more] are well enough known that I don’t really have to mention them.

On my side of the fence, it’s always the same thing no matter what genre I’m working in. I try to identify what the movie is about. Is there a theme working in all this detail and set decoration and atmosphere and genre? Is there something nourishing enough in there to merit two hours?

The other area in which I’m very invested is the creation of characters. Do the characters have enough meat on their bones to merit development and hold our interest as people? That’s the foundation of our partnership: I’m always the one who harps on those things; Guillermo’s eyes start to sparkle when he begins to see how he’s going to shoot it and direct it and cut it. We’ve worked on many screenplays, and maybe eight or ten are in his trunk, I’m not sure. He treasures them all and can probably tick them off, not only rapidly but in order; he’s got an amazing memory.

VN: When Guillermo has talked about character, he’s said that in a fairy tale you want the villain to be a real villain, and that’s exactly how it pans out in Pan’s Labyrinth, where the stepfather doesn’t have a single redeeming quality. It’s different in Crimson Peak: Thomas Sharpe is briefly broken out of his incestuous spell [with his sister Lucille] and is able to have sex with his bride and actually feel love for her. That transforms his personality, even though it’s not in time to save him. What I appreciated the most in Crimson Peak is Lucille’s  speech near the end, when she says: We were trying to protect ourselves from a monster and our love turned us into monsters. That adds a three dimensionality to the classic melodramatic characters they are.

MR: That was in the DNA of the movie from the very beginning. Its most complex elements are the feelings we have about what turns out to be a very sad story. You don’t sympathize with the villains, but you empathize with what happened to bring them to such a pass. The movie’s heart is on its sleeve because Guillermo’s feelings are so overt for the genre and for these people.

It’s interesting to hear from some of the critics—especially for a movie that was released at Halloween—that it took so long to get to the last ten minutes where everyone’s running around with knives whacking each other. Guillermo had been worrying for a long time that everyone involved in promoting the movie be aware it wasn’t generic good guys and bad guys and creatures popping out of the closet and a lot of blood and guts. He’s got a lot of deep feeling about that. He’s a very sophisticated author and this was an opportunity for him to make what he describes as his first adult English language film.

VN: In interviews del Toro has emphasized that Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance, a different genre than the kind of horror of the last ten or fifteen years we’ve been trained to respond to, where every five minutes there has to be another scary thing happening. What I as a Gothic scholar noticed was the sources you and he have cited elsewhere, Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Jane Eyre was actually the first true Gothic romance. In the original [18th-century] Gothic novels by Hugh Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, and all the women novelists after them— it’s a great touch that Edith is an aspiring Gothic writer, that’s right in the demographic—the heroine is menaced by an older man, a male patriarch Devil figure and in the end, if all went well, she would escape with the young man. Brontë’s Jane Eyre turned all that on its head because for the first time the young girl mates with the man who seems like the Devil, until she domesticates him. By the end of Jane Eyre Rochester’s blind and helpless, very much the damsel in distress that Alan becomes at the end of Crimson Peak. What happens with Edith is very much in that vein, with the addition of the warrior woman trope of the twenty-first century, where she and Lucille engage in hand to hand combat.

Another great, longstanding convention of the Gothic is the Gothic house or castle, which always burns down or blows up whether it’s Carrie’s high school gymnasium or Thornfield Hall. In Guillermo’s The Devil’s Backbone, the bomb in the courtyard of the monastery never explodes, and here Allerdale Hall stays intact if still a little leaky. You and he have managed to do that reversal of expectations right through Crimson Peak—six or seven times, by my count. Viewers think Carter Cushing’s razor will be used to kill him and it isn’t. The evil-looking ghosts are actually positive figures who come to warn her. I myself was waiting for Thomas to fall into his infernal clay-extracting machine and get chewed up; that’s another pistol put in the beginning that never quite shoots.

MR:  We never thought of that. We had many, many endings, but that’s not a bad idea.

VN: Were you consciously aware that you were reversing a lot of these genre expectations?

MR: Not really. The choreography of the razor, the water washing the floor, that’s pure Guillermo. With the machine, Guillermo in his typical way hired someone to design and fabricate it, and it makes a certain sense on its own. The way the model and the machine are featured in the film, the reality had not sunk in for me so that the way of interacting with it you described had not occurred to me. The point of the ending as it now stands is the terrible mix of love and destruction, that Thomas dies at the hands of the incestuous beloved sister—we had so many endings, but this is the ending that makes the most sense.

VN: Speaking of Gothic houses, what about the two totally contrasting houses and places—Buffalo and what I assume was the Peak District in Derbyshire?

MR: The idea is pretty plain. America is dynamic, industrious, teeming with activity, and the color scheme was designed to enhance that so that the shock, the atmospheric shock, of the change would be as extreme as possible. It’s one of the great, great achievements of the production, that extraordinary design.


VN: Now in Mimic, which you two cowrote, I’ve always thought the underworld of the New York subways was pretty anal. In Pan’s Labyrinth the underworld was very uterine, and del Toro explicitly mentions that, even though its resident male figures are either evil or at best ambiguous, like the Faun. My association with Crimson Peak, when I first heard the title, was—and believe me, I don’t go looking for this kind of stuff—menstruation. Here we have this blood oozing out of the ground, it’s a matriarchy of mother-daughter evil, you go down into the basement, the underworld, and here are these circular vats of blood-looking liquid! So I have to say I think the underworld in Crimson Peak is vaginal. What do you say to that?

MR [Laughs]: Take it up with Mr. del Toro! When he was designing the movie, he was very focused on the color palette of the movie being devoid of red until you see Lucille with her garnet ring and her red dress. As for the vaginal/menstrual female element, I take no responsibility whatsoever!

VN: When you were conceiving and writing it, did you have those vats of clay in mind?

MR: No, when I was writing it I had in mind the iron ore that leeches up through the snow.

VN: Ferrous oxide?

MR: Yes, and there were old Roman mines in Cumbria, so it all tied together. Guillermo really wanted the house to be a dying beast, a bleeding dying beast bound in the clay. It’s not in the movie nearly as much as it used to be, but the idea of the walls oozing and running, a slow drip, was in earlier versions. Edith even talks about it in one of the kitchen scenes—this oozing, we must do something about it. It’s barely touched on now, but it used to be a more overt element.

VN: Most of the colors inside the house are blueish or very bleached out as a contrast to the red. I was thinking of the great theme of Bluebeard’s castle in that famous fairytale, but this is the flipover female version. You could say it’s Redbeard’s Castle. Those little touches, such as Lucille’s drawer where she keeps five little braided hair souvenirs from the women she’s murdered. A lock of hair is something a mother does for a child. Was that part of your original conception as you were working through or was that another visual that was added?

MR: I think it was in a draft that she had those mementos, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. This was written seven years ago and was acquired by Universal right away, but Guillermo went to New Zealand and was engaged for two years in the writing and production of The Hobbit. When he had to withdraw from the movie because there was no green light forthcoming, he came back and almost immediately went into production with At the Mountains of Madness, the long-lamented adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft novel. He worked nine months on that and they canceled it—they had their reasons but I won’t get into it—and he was able to take his entire team, his whole art department and production team, and put it onto Pacific Rim because he’d been consulting on that.

The upshot of all this was that years and years went by after I completed my many, many, many, many drafts of Crimson Peak. Then Guillermo formed a very wonderful relationship with Legendary Pictures and Thomas Tull, the founder. They were exposed to Guillermo’s brilliance and wanted desperately to make another picture with him. He showed them several of our screenplays and they chose Crimson Peak.

VN: I always imagine there’s a special kind of limbo for all these movies that were written and never got produced. For you in this collaboration it would be At the Mountains of Madness and also Pinocchio. I wonder if you could say a word about both of these projects. Do you think possibly, at some time, At the Mountains of Madness might go into production?

MR: It’s unclear if either of them will ever see the light of day. Before the advent of zombies and vampires on TV, that was my definition of zombies: all those scripts in Guillermo’s trunk that have not been made. Yet every once in a while something will happen, one of them will be encouraged to rise up and stagger around the room for a few weeks before it falls back into the box and the lid slams shut. They’re all actually alive; he really does have a remarkable memory for detail, far better than mine. The difference with Crimson Peak, this picture we’d written six, seven years before, was that it came back to life and was reanimated successfully.

Tom Cruise was going to be the star of At the Mountains of Madness, and James Cameron was going to produce. It really would have been one of the most exciting things in Guillermo’s full body of work, because he did as much with that as he did with Crimson Peak, with further design opportunity with the creatures…

VN: The tunnels under the South Pole, and all those murals, and the shoggoths and the Elder Ones—

MR: The city under the ice! It is my dearest hope that someday we’ll get the resources to make that picture.

VN: Can you say a few words, without giving away the show, about what your approach to that novella was?

MR: Yes, that’s where I really felt the heavy lifting on that adaptation, and I say this with all due fondness for the book. One of my favorite stories is that At the Mountains of Madness has no story and no characters. It’s very hard to tell people that, especially if you’re not familiar with Lovecraft, but we had to bring the characters to life so that you could feel something. Otherwise it’s just silly.

And the danger with Lovecraft always is this pomposity. That overripe style that creeps up on you is very hard to describe to people who don’t actually enter into his pages. It’s a little bit like the Gothic romance, where if you choose you can sit back, fold your arms, and not yield to its charms. To make the characters interesting, and then put a shape to the drama so that there’s an increasing sense of dread and suspense that actually accelerates toward the ending—we wrestled with that for quite a while, but I think it’s very gripping.

VN: What did you use as the actual engine of suspense? Of course, there’s the very layered discovery of [the South Pole] region, and this city under the ground—

MR: It had elements of a procedural. They begin to put together the clues, the architectural clues and the murals, as to what must have happened there.

VN:  What is the city, why was it abandoned? That’s the clincher: oh my God, we humans are descended from the amoebas the Elder Ones brought?

MR: The idea was to see if you couldn’t bring people to the dizzying edge of the precipice, where you’re looking down into this absolutely shocking and enormous origin story of all life on earth. To make that—dare I say—plausible while you’re watching. The conceit is so extravagant that it really doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny in the light of day, but you’re talking theater and it really could be an unforgettable, disorienting theatrical experience. That was the design.


VN: I also wanted to ask you about Pinocchio. It seems like everyone’s announcing they’re doing a live action Pinocchio or an animated Pinocchio, and so I’m just curious what your take on Pinocchio would have been, will be, in the script that you came up with.

MR: The idea of our screenplay was a celebration of Pinocchio’s anarchy. The public knows the story mostly from the Disney version. The goal of that movie was for him to become a real boy, and a real boy is neat and goes to school and spells his words correctly and does his sums. Collodi, writing at the end of the 19th century at the time of Garibaldi, was worried about the Italian people and whether or not Italy would be a real country, just like whether Pinocchio would be a real boy. Guillermo had a very instinctive reaction against that and he explicitly wanted to celebrate the anarchy, and the extravagance, and the selfishness, and the ecstasy of the id released by this piece of wood and just let the boy run free! So in our screenplay Pinocchio never does become a boy. This was the biggest change. We also put in many episodes of the book that never saw the light in of day in all the versions made and certainly not the Disney film.

It then became a question, in our screenplay, of where do you go with this character? One of the discoveries we made was that the primary relationship was Geppetto and Pinocchio. And so we used the boy’s transgressions to separate them, and we had the father figure, Geppetto, looking for him. He comes upon the devastation left by his boy, the chaos that Pinocchio sows when he perpetrates his childish tricks. Geppetto thinks: What have I done, unleashing this creature on the world? That’s how dark it gets.

VN:  What you’re telling me about Pinocchio is really poignant. Here’s a character we expect wants to become human as the crowning goal of his existence—we know that outsider who wants to be normal and accepted, from teenage movies on. But here’s an outsider who doesn’t have that yearning; he’s rebelling against all of it. That’s another very interesting reversal of expectations.

MR: In our story Geppetto is a widower who had a wife and child, the child’s clothes are still up in the attic, and Pinocchio is already up in the attic throwing the clothes around and putting on the dead boy’s outfit. Right from the start there’s assumptions, frayed nerve endings, undigested grief, so the relationship is unstable from the very beginning. There’s a very complex and I hope highly emotional spine running through the story, and the climax is a very powerful set of scenes with high adventure inside the fish—it’s not a whale—and a father-son understanding that’s the end of the film, where they learn to live each other on a new basis. That is the emotional track of our Pinocchio.

Guillermo has very appropriately seen the film as a stop-motion puppet movie. He wants to do it the way they did The Fantastic Mr. Fox, frame to frame. This movie went down many storyboards and they made maquettes of Geppetto and Pinocchio, and an absolutely stunning design. The illustrations from Collodi’s books were the visual wellspring for the design, and the vision came from artists generating illustrations of various locations and characters—beautiful, beautiful work, but too costly for something that wasn’t a happy-happy story, one that had a reputation of being fun, with music, Jiminy Cricket. It’s hard to get out from under the shadows, no, the sunlight, of that. Various attempts were made to put it in a pipeline and to get the costs down, but I’m pessimistic about the film ever seeing the light of day. Producers are scared off not by dark material as much as the cost of generating it.

VN: It seems as if making a puppet show of a story about a puppet who becomes “human” adds another layer to it, because then all the human characters are puppets, and that is a kind of funny wonderful commentary of its own. Was that part of your thinking?

MR: Yes, sure, he’s getting on that trope. One of the most ambitious elements in our adaptation was the set. We created an imaginary Italy that vaguely resembles something prior to the First World War, a fictional universe populated by a fascist atmosphere, a working black shirt presence, where the adults who he meets on the road are militarists: “You should be a soldier, young man!”—or in the church he goes to, Pinocchio looks at the carved wooden Christ. He’s absolutely fascinated by it, climbs up on the cross: Why are there nails in his hands? And the hypocrisy of the priests and the authority figures as he goes through this world, a landscape full of barbed wire and artillery and biplanes. It’s a very great leap of the imagination to take the story and push its elements into the 1920s with that atmosphere of turmoil.

VN: Your Pinocchio could be a prototype for a little Sacco or Vanzetti, a real Italian anarchist in America.

MR: He’s a little Sacco and Vanzetti, yes! Except he’s much too crazy and much too susceptible to his hedonistic impulses. He loves to eat, he loves to do everything—it’s a celebration of those appetites.

VN: That doesn’t sound dark as much as the anarchy of 1930s cartoons, the Krazy Kat characters. That wild and crazy stuff is something adults and children could really savor.

MR: I have very vivid memories as a child reading stories like Pinocchio and being thrilled but afraid at the same time when they go into mischief. Mischief is irresistible, but there’s always the expectation of punishment and you don’t know what form it will take and how bad it will be. When Guillermo and I are writing, there’s an overlap of our sensibilities—that idea of how afraid you can be of the dark, Guillermo’s belief in ghosts, all that came from his childhood—and the atmosphere of this Pinocchio, the thrills and chills of this childhood transgression, is something I remember vividly.

VN: I can’t remember the original, are there ghosts in your Pinocchio?

MR: There’s the cat and the fox who hang him. We kept that from the book. It’s not easy to watch. Some of the scenes where Pinocchio turns into an ass are really nightmarish.

VN: That’s actually a very ancient Roman motif. There’s a famous tale called The Golden Ass of Apuleius, by a writer in late Antiquity, about this young carouser called Lucius who is turned into a donkey by a spell.

MR: Shakespeare was fond of that, too.

VN: I think he got it from The Golden Ass. It’s not until Lucius is initiated into the cult of the goddess Isis that he’s turned back into a human, but I think Collodi’s blue fairy is also a vestige of that ancient myth—seeking the woman goddess or whatever to finally gain redemption… What are your next projects?

MR: I’ve written something else for Guillermo, but I can’t discuss it because it’s top, top secret, so much so that I haven’t even told my own children.

VN: You’d have to kill them if you told them?

MR: Yes, sorry. Bang! I have a film I wrote alone that I’d like to direct. It’s called Storm Track, and it’s set in 1933, the bootleg era, Prohibition, in Texas. A guy from Brooklyn has a truckful of whiskey he’s selling as he works his way north and a ten year old boy, a strange kid who never speaks, stows away in his truck. The kid’s traveling to Leavenworth in Kansas where his father is about to be hanged for murder. The fantastical part of the film is that the child affects the weather around him when he’s upset. The boy is hoping to blow the prison down by producing a storm, and the man is trying to figure out how to profit from his gifts.

VN:  What a wonderful story.

MR: It’s full of Americana. Dustbowls, speakeasies, people with handcarts on the road. I cooked it up on a bicycle ride on the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, where I live for six months every year. My next goal is to step back into directing and make that movie come to life.

More Reads

An Interview with Rachel Rabbit White

Erin Taylor

An Interview with Tao Lin

David Fishkind

“We hope to hook a big fish, but we don’t know what we might find.”