Two iconic H.P. Lovecraft tales are getting the small-screen treatment with Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The Netflix horror anthology features adaptations of both « Pickman’s Model » from The Vigil director Keith Thomas and « Dreams in the Witch House » from Lords of Dogtown’s Catherine Hardwicke.
« Pickman’s Model » revolves around Will Thurber, an art student with a talented eye for others’ works who becomes enthralled by the grotesque paintings of his peer, Richard Pickman. However, as years progress and the two drift apart, Thurber begins to learn of a dark secret behind his old friend’s art that could destroy his life. As with any good Lovecraft tale, the episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities skillfully mixes a gripping psychological thriller with the terrifying nature of the unknown.
Leading up to its premiere, Screen Rant spoke exclusively with director Keith Thomas to discuss Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, his installment « Pickman’s Model, » what about Lovecraft’s source material attracted him to the project, and more.
Keith Thomas on Cabinet of Curiosities
Screen Rant: Cabinet of Curiosities, what a wonderful collection of horror, I’m going to call them mini-movies at this point.
Keith Thomas: They definitely felt like that, yeah.
I was reading that Guillermo del Toro had handpicked all of the filmmakers involved with this. How did it come about for you to be a part of this one?
Keith Thomas: It was just that phone call, really, Guillermo got in touch with me and told me that he had liked my film, The Vigil. He asked me to do an episode, and of course, it was like a dream come true, where it was humbling. I said, « Yes, » right away, and he said, « Okay, let me send you the episode that I think I want you to do. » He sent me the script for « Pickman’s Model, » I was in Canada already at the time, was in Toronto already filming something.
We started going back and forth on it, and the wonderful thing with Guillermo is, as I’m sure every director who’s part of this will talk about, that he kind of gave us free rein to make it our own, and each episode has that feel, you know, different camera packages, different post-production stuff, just different feels and different moods. A lot of that was Guillermo letting us have free rein, but also guiding and giving us his masterclass in directing.
I believe this is based on a Lovecraft short story, were you familiar with the source material prior to coming on for the episode?
Keith Thomas: Yeah, I read it as a kid, so I kind of I knew it in and out. It’s a short story, and by that, it’s actually really short, it’s, I think, less than 10 pages. So, the question was, « How do you expand that? How do you make that something that’s a full episode? » I was really pleased with the script when I first got it that Lee Patterson wrote expanding this story. But yeah, it was one I was familiar with, it’s been adapted before back in the ’70s with Night Gallery, so it’s fun to do my take on that.
What was your biggest goal in bringing this short story to life, especially in comparison to the prior adaptation?
Keith Thomas: For me, it was kind of bringing in my own ideas about it. It’s about art, and about the art and darkness and the things underneath the paintings you see, back here’s one of the Pickman paintings. So, for me, it was kind of like, « How do I explore some ideas that I had about art, » one of them being art as viral or infectious, kind of like an early 1900s Videodrome. Like, « How can I do something with that? »
That was one idea that came from the artwork, and the other thing was this concept that we lay out in the episode, and particularly Ben Barnes’ character, about how if you’re always trying to find the beauty in the world, and the light in the world, and you ignore the darkness, then you’re probably in for a very rude awakening and a fall. At the same time, if you’re obsessed with the decay and the decrepitude and depravity of the world, and all the dark, you’ll lose your mind and your soul, so those were the ideas that we’re really playing with it.
I love that Videodrome reference. Speaking of Ben, this whole special was perfectly cast, but Ben and Crispin are the key to really selling this episode. How challenging was it for you to find the perfect two people to play these characters?
Keith Thomas: Yeah, the key, I think, in terms of casting [was to cast] them opposite each other, and that have that dynamic. I think it’s easy to think crazy, insane artist and think Crispin. [Laughs] It comes with the territory, in some ways, but for Crispin’s role, for Pickman, I really wanted somebody who understood art and understood the making of it and these ideas underneath, and Crispin really got that, and he has a lot of experience making his own films, and doing his own stuff. He just has this personality that is both very magnetic and very strange, in terms of his performance.
So, it was thinking of that, and then thinking of Thurber and how we set them apart with Ben. He just really deeply understood this character, and where this character was coming from, in terms of how he wants to live his life, how he wants to view the world, what he wants to believe in, and how Pickman, Crispin’s character, challenges all of that. It was great working with both of them, we spent a lot of time talking characters and stuff, Ben and I would hang out on the weekends and just go over our dialogue and the lines and kind of what we’re looking for, and they just threw themselves in it fully.
Well, that’s wonderful to hear, that’s always what you want from a collaborative experience. What was it like finding the look of this episode? I love the style, especially that one sequence of Ben nearly stabbing himself in the face as the shadows are setting such a haunting visual style. What was it like finding that look for it?
Keith Thomas: Yeah, I worked closely with Colin, the DP, and Tamara, the production designer. We wanted different feelings for the different times in which things are taking place, which also meant a different kind of look, in terms of color grading and the way those things felt. But for me, I always wanted to play with this idea that it’s possible that what Thurber is experiencing is in his head, so I wanted it to be somewhat subjective with what we’re seeing. One of the big pieces of that was the paintings.
I never really wanted to see them in full, so in that sequence where Ben is almost cutting his head, the painting that we’re seeing little glimpses of, it’s actually several different paintings, and they’re being manipulated constantly, and we’re playing around a lot with it so that the audience really doesn’t know what it is. We’re just getting bits and pieces of that we know is awful, whatever it is, but I wanted it to be very subjective for Ben, that we’re in his head, and at the same time, be able to cut out of that moment and reveal that he’s just kind of losing it.
Near the end, I kept asking myself, « I wonder if this is any of this actually happening? » But that’s also the nature of a Lovecraft story, right?
Keith Thomas: Right, you’re always kind of questioning, and it’s that whole idea of how much of what you’re seeing and experiencing is real. And if it is real, like, « Oh, no, this is terrible. »
Speaking of Lovecraft, you can’t have a story of his without some kind of elder being in there of some sort, and the creatures that are in this are horrifying to look at, in a great way. How did those designs come about, was that from the source material or was that you?
Keith Thomas: It was quite a mix, so in the original Lovecraft short story, The Ghoul, is described as canine-like, and when we first started working on this project, Guillermo, because he loves his monsters, was very involved in the development and look of The Ghoul. He had said it early on, he’s like, « Keith, please, if there’s one thing you let me do, can I please design The Ghoul? » What am I gonna say, like, « No, Guillermo, you don’t know anything about ghouls, you can’t design this. » So, he had kind of sent me his ideas, and we went back and forth, but I loved them.
I loved what he was doing, and the best part for me is I really like to have a handshake between the practical and digital. In particular, I like having something on set that the actors can interact with, while at the same time having VFX involved early so that we can see where they’re going to be enhancing or tweaking. So, with The Ghoul, in particular, that was this amazing puppet that was on the set, and was moving around and doing all its things. The hair is all real, and its mouth and eyes, and Guillermo is very involved in it. He loves getting into the guts of these things, so the servos that are controlling the eyes, and the mouth, and the tongue, it’s Guillermo, Guillermo is in there helping to build these things.
So, it was really fun to be able to have that on set, each of these, The Witch, all these things real in camera, and then afterwards be able to play with the digital tools that enhance and kind of give us extra atmospheric pieces to these things.
Practical is the best way to sell anything, especially in horror. I love Guillermo’s opening monologues for every episode, but I love that he also has little statues of you all. When did you first learn that was gonna happen, and what was your first reaction when you heard he was making little statues of everybody?
Keith Thomas: It was in post-production, and it was fairly far along. I believe the score had been delivered, and a lot of the effects. I’m trying to remember how he told me, what it honestly was, they told me that I had a surprise in the mail, and sure enough, this box came with the little figurine, and then after that, I was able to see the opening sequence and see Guillermo pull it out of his pocket and put it down.
It was a lot of fun, it’s very flattering and funny, and it’s just one of Guillermo’s things, again, it’s just the pride and the amount of involvement he has. The guy doesn’t sleep, he’s just so involved in these things, and at the same time, he’s truly trusting us, the directors, to kind of deliver on these projects. It was a beautiful gesture that he made these things, these little chess piece people that appear in the intro.
About Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities
In CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, acclaimed Academy Award-winning filmmaker and creator, executive producer and co-showrunner Guillermo del Toro has curated a collection of unprecedented and genre-defining stories meant to challenge our traditional notions of horror. From macabre to magical, gothic to grotesque or classically creepy, these eight equally sophisticated and sinister tales (including two original stories by del Toro) are brought to life by a team of writers and directors personally chosen by del Toro.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is created and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro; executive produced by Academy Award winner J. Miles Dale (The Shape of Water; Sex/Life), who also serves as co-showrunner; and executive produced by Gary Ungar. Regina Corrado serves as co-executive producer. Del Toro also serves as host.
Check out our other Cabinet of Curiosities interviews here:
Ana Lily Amirpour Vincenzo Natali Crispin Glover Ben Barnes