Oscar-winning writer and director Guillermo del Toro took to Twitter in November 2018 to outline 17 as-yet-unproduced scripts he's penned over the years. The standout for horror fans was del Toro's long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness, a film the director calls his "landmark" movie.
But despite del Toro's ambitions, bringing a big-budget Lovecraft film into the world has been no easy task. As del Toro himself put it:
A lot of people think of directors like Caesar sitting on a chaise lounge [with] somebody feeding them grapes, and you say, "I would like to do Mountains of Madness now." And it's not. You're a blue-collar guy working your way, putting numbers in front of studios, putting [together] stars, packages, whatever, and you have your stuff to move.
The story behind this seemingly cursed production has all the dramatic ups and downs of a Hollywood film, revealing just how hard filmmakers have to hustle to get their dream projects made.
The Source Material Is A Classic Antarctic Horror Tale
H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness first appeared in 1936 as a serialized novella published in Astounding Stories. It tells the story of an Antarctic expedition that discovers a strange kingdom of monsters below the icy surface, shaking up the explorers' very understanding of human civilization and the development of the world. The novella features several figures, places, and objects recurrent in Lovecraft's work, including the monster race of shoggoths, the Old Ones, Miskatonic University, and the Necronomicon.
While a relatively obscure work at the time of its publication - Lovecraft was a mostly unsuccessful figure during his life - the story has since become one of the writer's most recognizable works. Author and critic Lucy A. Snyder calls At the Mountains of Madness "one of H.P. Lovecraft's most influential novels" and notes it is "an encyclopedia of the histories of many of the Lovecraftian monsters."
Because most of Lovecraft's work has entered into the public domain, the entire At the Mountains of Madness novella is available to read for free online.
Del Toro's Been Working On The Film Adaptation Almost His Entire Life
Del Toro said his journey toward making a film adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness began when he was 11 years old, after he read Lovecraft's short story "The Outsider" and became obsessed with the author.
When del Toro met James Cameron in 1991, the Terminator director asked him about his pet project. Del Toro answered immediately: At the Mountains of Madness. He began working on concept art for a film adaptation of Lovecraft's novella around 1993 and completed a screenplay draft by 1998.
He and his former teacher/frequent collaborator Matthew Robbins wrote a new draft of the script in 2006, but del Toro shelved the project because he felt visual effects technology wasn't yet up to the task of realizing his vision.
'Avatar' Inspired Del Toro To Pursue 'Mountains' AgainPhoto: Avatar/20th Century Fox
After admiring the groundbreaking, world-building visual effects of Cameron's Avatar, del Toro believed it was possible to finally produce At the Mountains of Madness and partnered with Cameron to pitch the project to Universal. Del Toro acknowledged the task was challenging:
It's very difficult for a studio to take the step of doing an R-rated tentpole movie with a tough ending and no love story, set in period, from a writer, Lovecraft, who has a readership as big as any bestseller but cannot be quantified because his works are in the public domain.
Del Toro also said his objective was convincing the studio that his film wouldn't be a horror film, but more like another Avatar. "Studios look backward. Filmmakers look forward," he explained.
Several Of Del Toro's Concept Sketches Are Available To View
As soon as Cameron came on board as producer, del Toro began creating more concept art for Mountains. Cameron said of del Toro's preproduction work: "The design work is phenomenal, both the three-dimensional and two-dimensional design work, the physical maquettes, the CG test scenes; the artwork is phenomenal. The fans certainly won't want for a visual feast with this film."
Several of del Toro's sketches (as well as drawings from his previous films) appeared as part of a now-defunct Film.com article and eventually made their way onto Imgur, where they've remained available. Del Toro's designs reveal his phantasmagoric vision for the film - and that he had actor David Paymer in mind for a role. One image shows a humanoid figure twisted and gnarled into a monstrous form.
Del Toro also stated his goal was to show the monsters without really showing them, to stay true to Lovecraft's writing. The author had a knack for describing creatures with just enough detail that the reader could do the legwork of imagining them into existence.
Other concept art for the film, including a 3D model of the story's infamous albino penguins, appeared in a 2016 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called At Home With Monsters. Del Toro also released his many of his sketches in a book titled Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions.