For production designer Tamara Deverell, working on Nightmare Alley was like breathing life into “two different films” at once. “One day you’d be a carny,” she says, “and the next day you’d be a high society, art deco museum maven.”
Guillermo del Toro’s film based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham centers on Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious carny who boasts a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words, watching as he hooks up with the psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is. It opens at a stunningly designed, traveling carnival in 1939, before segueing to Buffalo, where Stan and his paramour Molly (Rooney Mara) put on clairvoyant acts for the wealthy elite.
Prior to production, Deverell conducted “a whole mess” of period research, specific to the film’s opposing worlds, while exploring references from a diverse set of artistic mediums. “There was a lot of back-and-forth with Guillermo, referring to not just other films, but other paintings, specifically—Edward Hopper color palettes and Andrew Wyeth composition and the Danish painter Hammershøi. So, I was looking at a lot of that,” Deverell tells producer J. Miles Dale in the latest edition of Deadline’s video series, The Process. “Knowing how Guillermo likes to work, I developed early color palettes. My process is to do these style sheets, where I try and put in some research, put in some early drawings, get a sense of a direction that he wanted to pursue.”
Deverell first worked with Del Toro as the art director on his 1997 film Mimic, coming into Dale’s orbit as the production designer of the 2003 holiday film Blizzard from director LeVar Burton, which he produced. All three artists would subsequently go on to work together not only on Nightmare Alley, but also on four seasons FX’s The Strain, and the upcoming Netflix series Cabinet of Curiosities.
When Deverell first met Del Toro more than 25 years ago, her impression was that he was “a real gentleman”, but also a “no bulls**” kind of person. “He was very affable and the crew really liked working with him, and then I was struck by how super smart he was, and that was just the cusp of it,” she says. “He’s a walking encyclopedia, and he brings so much to the table with his well-rounded knowledge of just about everything.”
“I’ve often said, Guillermo knows seemingly everything about everything that you’re going to want to know, and he can describe it that way,” adds Dale, “so he really is kind of catnip to anybody in the design department, whether it’s art direction or costumes or visual effects…because he can get so granular, in terms of describing what he needs and what he wants and with those references.”
From Deverell’s perspective, there’s “no end to the shorthand” she’s established with the filmmaker since they began working together, and the astonishing creative work that can result from it. “He is a man who knows what he wants visually and understand space, and you don’t get that a lot. He’s an artist. He draws. He comes from creature design; he comes from a design in general,” she says. “He knows colors, he understands shapes. He gets the ideas of repeated forms and all those things that designers drool over and try and sell directors, you don’t have to sell that with Guillermo. It’s just a given.”
In his years working with Del Toro, which also encompass Best Picture winner The Shape of Water and other projects, Dale has found a similar shorthand with the director, finding that his work has then become about “making sure that we execute properly, that it’s the right people, that communication is in a good place,” and that Del Toro’s expectations are managed, given his own notion that the director’s vision “will always exceed” both schedule and budget. “I can see around corners with him a little better because I’ve seen it before, and now I know what to expect. I know what the priorities will be. I know how to be an advance man for him in terms of adjusting expectations, both with the studio and with some department heads,” says the producer. “So, I’m just grateful to be able to work with a partner who…is respectful and a little bit self-deprecating…My biggest fear is always just failing his vision, and I think that that’s the same with everybody, just trying to keep up because it’s all there in his head and it’s just for us to draw it out of him.”
Deverell recently won her first Art Directors Guild Award for her work on Nightmare Alley, and is considered the frontrunner to win this year’s Oscar for Production Design, in her first time out. Dale shares Nightmare Alley’s Best Picture nomination with Del Toro and Bradley Cooper, with the film also in the mix in the categories of Best Costume Design and Cinematography.
In conversation with Dale on The Process, Deverell offers a deep dive into the creation of the Searchlight pic’s key sets, including the “total labor of love” that was the carnival, the factory and estate inhabited by Richard Jenkins’ villainous Ezra Grindle, and Dr. Ritter’s office, which has become the set most commonly singled out by admirers of the film. She also delves into inspiring location scouts in Buffalo—”the crown jewel of art deco architecture in the United States”—the film’s visual motifs of circles and alleys, and the “emotional ups and downs” that came when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down production, as well as her art school experience, her first time working on set, cutting her teeth under esteemed Canadian production designers François Séguin and Carol Spier, her experience art directing 2000’s X-Men alongside Paul Austerberry while caring for two small children, her move from art directing into production design, her love of “period” and “historic” material including Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, and more.
Miles speaks for his part to the “producer med school” he was forced to go through to bring the film back from the pandemic shutdown, why he’s glad Nightmare Alley‘s carnival was built outside of a studio, his hunger for projects that “mean something” and test his abilities, his hope to “not have to do anything ordinary again” after such extraordinary collaborations with Del Toro and his collaborators, and more.
Searchlight Pictures released Nightmare Alley in theaters on December 17, with a black-and-white version of the film debuting in Los Angeles in limited release on January 14. The film penned by Del Toro and Kim Morgan also stars Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson and more.
Check out Dale’s chat with Deverell above.
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