A version of this “Nightmare Alley” story first appeared in the Under-the-Line issue of award-winning magazine TheWrap.
Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley”, like the 1946 novel on which it is based and an earlier 1947 film adaptation, tells a story divided into two parts. The first half focuses on a traveling carnival in the late 1930s and the second moves to the aristocratic and refined – though no less chilling – elite of Buffalo, New York, in 1941. Visually, from the marquee tent Down to the smallest detail of a silver gun with a marble grip, the film is a jaw-dropping feast for the eyes.
That largely goes to production designer Tamara Deverell, whose collaboration with del Toro dates back to 1997’s “Mimic,” the Mexican director’s first American film. She was too busy working on “The Strain,” the FX series co-created by del Toro, to work on her 2017 Oscar winner “The Shape of Water,” but received a special thank you in the credits for that film.
“We don’t talk much, Guillermo and I,” Tamara Deverell explained with a smile. “I mean, we speak, but we speak a visual language. I knew he was entering a different realm as a filmmaker here, where it was a lot of themes that he was interested in, but it wasn’t a monster movie. The real monsters are men.
For the carnival stages, which were built on land outside Toronto, Deverell and del Toro watched films such as Todd Browning’s outrageous 1932 “Freaks” and the noir 1946 “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, an influence on the farmhouse bungalow where hobo Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is drawn into the carny world.
“But we were more interested in the paintings,” Deverell said. “Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, Henri Matisse, Picasso’s Blue Period. They all influenced our color tones and compositions.
In fact, it was in a museum that Deverell first found inspiration for the film’s most dazzling production design: a lacquered elongated desk belonging to psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), whom Stan meets in Buffalo. .
“At the Brooklyn Museum in New York, you can see The Weil-Wargolt Study,” Deverell said, “which is a piece that was designed by a Parisian architect for a house in Manhattan in the late 1920s. It’s a beautiful study, made of olive wood veneers, somewhat different from typical art deco. And every time I saw it, I thought, “Someday I want to build this as a set.”
Del Toro was thrilled with the idea. “I showed pictures of the room to Guillermo and he said, ‘This is Lilith,'” Deverell recalled. And her enthusiasm encouraged the designer to dig even deeper, weaving subliminal Jungian images into the wooden panels of the walls: “I wanted something that would be a sort of Rorschach imprint of Lilith’s personality.
Deverell continued, “The office was a very complicated construction in a technical sense, because there are all these hidden doors, knobs, keys, locks and fittings, all of which function to tell the story. The cabinet doors are all curved because, God knows, Guillermo likes his curves and his arcs in the sets. And the more we designed it, the bigger it got, so Cate could move through space like a dancer.
And it’s also a place that can be read as a deeply ironic meaning behind the film’s title: “Dr. Lilith’s office is an alley,” said producer J. Miles Dale, who won an Oscar for ” The shape of water”. “A lot of things are back alleys in this movie. And in the office, everything is hidden. Her safe is behind a door, the recording equipment is behind a door. Lilith has secrets, to put it mildly.
And for all the ingenious props on display in the carnival half of the film, from tarot cards to disturbing pickle jars, Deverell cited an object later in the film as her favorite prop she’s worked with in her career.
“The lie detector, which [concept artist] Guy Davis illustrated and then we wrote,” she said. “It was an intense and beautiful prop, made of natural wood and those intricate spools and needles. We were working on it the day production stopped for COVID and it worked again five months later when we resumed. It was pretty intense. It blew my mind to see it finished.
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